Certitude – the Bane of Our Existence

It’s a shame that Gandhi, Buddha, and all their followers are in, or headed to, hell. So say many Christians. What do you believe? What do I believe? People who profess to be Christian indeed have a sacred calling. Scripture tells us so. If that’s true – what is it? Is it to announce the luck of the draw for members in an exclusive club with the secret handshake and a never to expire ticket to heaven, or to announce the bad news of condemnation and the hell-bound destiny of all those tough-luck-for-you-non-Christians? Over all my seventy-two years, I have probably accepted, without question, those beliefs more than I care to admit.

As feeble as it is, this post is my attempt to offer a different possibility of what Christianity means to me. Though it is different than what so many have come to embrace, it is actually what the first Christians believed about themselves as followers of Jesus. You may agree, or you may not. Either way, this is where I have landed after many years of struggling with and contemplating my ongoing journey of faith, anger, falls from grace, brokenness, and healing – sometimes all in one day! My very being has been squeezed through the wringer, patched together, taped up, and super-glued so often I look like Humpty Dumpty! 

This post has been difficult and challenging for me to write. It has developed through months of witnessing the continued dumpster fires of 2020. In particular, the ugliness, anger, hatred, and violence seem to have rendered many of us oblivious to the suffering of so many innocent people, children in particular. They have become collateral damage in this war – and it is a war – a spiritual war.

But what has endured through it all for me are the words of wisdom and encouragement of those I quote in this post. Those folks I consider to be outstanding voices and true examples of what it means to be a follower of a Holy, Magnificent, All-Loving God of every single messy one of us! Every one! You will see a lot of italics within the following quotes. They are all my doing! They have powerfully pierced my heart and uplifted my soul. They have given me new hope that the God I love, has always deeply loved me, even when I often lose sight of him. He has never changed. He is steady and immovable even when we try desperately to change him to suit our egocentric selves in moments of darkness and uncertainty.

I have been in that place more often than I can count. But I do not want to be stuck there again. I recognize that god-awful place where it seemed to be easier for me to default to taking sides and raising my own fist against those I disagree with than to follow in the footsteps of those I so admire: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and, of course, at the top of that list, the One we all should be emulating – Jesus. Even Gandhi loved Jesus and learned from his life. He loved the Sermon on the Mount! And yet, it’s very telling that he once remarked, “I like your Christ, but not your Christians.” Ouch!

Even today, people are dying for their faith while we rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic. Brilliant! Yeah us! Speaking the truth to power doesn’t often end well. But, in the immortal words of Saint Mother Theresa, “Do it anyway”.

Nothing in scripture tells us that Jesus, or any of his followers, would die for the belief of those Christians today who condemn non-Christians to hell or proclaim some sort of special status for themselves.

And if that’s not enough, here’s another stark and uncomfortable reminder for us comfy, cozy American Christians in our watered-down, lukewarm faith. You know, the belief that Jesus railed against? (Rev. 3:15-16). Whew…yeah, that one’s way too awkward! Let’s just skip over it. Surely, he didn’t mean it. He was probably just having a lousy day…maybe too much caffeine. (But, I digress.)

Jesus said abandon your possessions (Matt. 19:21) – we try to dicker, “Ummm, how about if I sell one mink coat or one car. No? Okay, this is killing me, but how about if I sell one condo and then donate a few dollars to charity? Will that get me a ticket to heaven? Come on, cut me some slack, Lord!”

Jesus said to abandon family and friends (Luke 14:25-27) – instead, we cling to them and turn our backs on those not like us.

Jesus said, abandon your very self (Matt. 16:24) – we might lay one bad habit down. But give up all our “stuff” – all our striving for power and influence – all our dreams of fame and fortune? No way!

There it is. We have just watered Jesus down and settled him into our comfort zone, rendering him mediocre – along with God. Hmmmm, sorta like us. But what have we lost in the process? I can easily imagine, but dread to think, that I could one day say the same thing as Tolstoy’s character Ivan Ilyich said on his deathbed, “What if my whole life has been wrong.”

Steven Weinberg reminds us that, “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

Why do we stay stuck in doctrines and dogmas? Because it’s safe. But, is that actually what God wants? Is that what Jesus and so many others died for?

It appears there are two options to consider: Would I march myself into martyrdom for a doctrine created long ago by a church seeking control of its people? Or would I commit to an unwavering faith in the God who makes no demands for allegiance, but simply and profoundly speaks within the depth of our hearts and calls us to love, to show compassion and care for others, no matter the cost? I want to be counted among the latter. Thanks.

From the book by Brennon Manning, “Holy Rascals”, “The God that can be branded is not the true God. Our job isn’t to dethrone the emperor, only to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Our task isn’t to banish the Great and Terrible Wizard, only to reveal that the Land of Oz is run by a small man with a large megaphone.”

In the words of Mirabai Starr, “The sacred scriptures of all faiths call us to love as we have never loved before. This requires effort, vigilance, and radical humility. This is the narrow gate Jesus speaks about… mutual dedication to lovingkindness as the highest expression of faith. The call does not come softly. It bangs the shutters of your heart and wakes you from a deep sleep. You have no choice but to respond.”

So, here I stand naked and humbled before God. As uncomfortable as that may seem, it is far more desirable than sleepwalking through this one, short, marvelous life we have been given.

The experience of my seventy-second birthday a couple of weeks ago was more profound than even life’s typical milestones some call “rites of passage”. Like sixteen when I smoked in front of my dad for the first time. Guess he was just tired of me stealing his cigarettes, and since I now had a job, I could buy my own. Not sure how that stacks up with being allowed to wear makeup or going on a first date. It simply paved the way for a swifter road to possible lung cancer. But who thinks about that at sixteen? At twenty-one, I could discard the fake ID I had already used for a few years to get drunk. Now I would remain drunk and stupefied for years! Woohoo!

As you may have deduced by now, few birthdays for me became Kodak moments. Except for this last one. Hopefully, not last as in LAST. But that’s the final point I want to make here. If this past year has not impacted me any other way, it has reminded me of what’s really important because I often forget that we have no guarantees in this life. And God will be VERY disappointed if, for whatever time I have remaining, I have not left this world better in some way for my having been here. Thankfully, there’s still time as long as I am breathing.

At the end of my life, I DO NOT want to be reminded of these profound words by Gian Carlo Menotti, “Hell begins on the day when God grants us a clear vision of all that we might have achieved, of all the gifts which we have wasted, of all that we might have done which we did not do.”

I would prefer to dust myself off, let go of the negativity of 2020, and embrace these thoughts to empower my every action from here on out. Because every day is a new day. Every day I am a new creation in Christ. Every day I can hear God say to me, “Okay, Linda, let’s try this love thing again.”

Richard Rohr says it beautifully, not that God doesn’t (sorry, Lord), “We must re-teach all things their loveliness. That could be your one and only life calling!”  

Howard Thurman tells us:  “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

The beginning of my quest for truth came with my willingness to question what I believed about who God was, who Jesus was, who I was, and who my neighbor was. Dag Hammarskjold said, “The longest journey is the journey inwards. Of him who has chosen his destiny, who has started upon his quest for the source of his being.”

Well, alrighty then…that was fun! Are you still here?

Let me leave you with my favorite prayer of blessing and this incredible song by Casting Crowns as we prepare for Christmas. I pray for God’s blessings for you and your loved ones during this season of remembrance. This time of renewal and commitment to love God and each other!

“The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face shine upon you,
and be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.”
  (Numbers 6:24-26)

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Throughout Jesus’ ministry, inclusion of everyone was his message and purpose; in the way he lived, loved, and taught others. It was what ultimately got him killed. And yet, here we are.

Can we look honestly at ourselves in the context of that truth for a moment?

Wait! Don’t leave…

If you want to leave because you’re afraid your beliefs may be called into question and you’re not sure you can defend them, wouldn’t that signify that something is wrong?

If you want to bolt, cover your ears, send a few choice words my way – something or Someone needs your attention… God Maybe?

If it is to be real, the faith we adhere to requires truth-telling. Deep down, whole-hearted, fierce, raw, unabashed, truth-telling – first to ourselves and then to others.

Does your faith today look any different than your parent’s faith when you were a child or what you were taught in Sunday School? It should. We should always be maturing in faith. Ownership of our beliefs is critical to the moral integrity that guides our lives. If it is not, why not?

Is it fear of what lies outside the immovable brick walls of our comfortable, unchallenged belief system? Walls that separate us from those who are not like us? Walls that keep God at a safe distance? Walls that violate the very essence of our being – God within us? Are we so busy projecting our pretentiousness onto others that God sits in our shadow?

I am reminded of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke’s Gospel (18:11-13). The Pharisee unexpectedly dropped dead and found himself standing before God.

(Fun Factoid: When he was standing in line, which, make no mistake, he hated – he thought to himself, “Gosh, God’s shorter than I imagined!” Wait, no, that was Moses at the burning bush. Sorry.)

Anyway, he suddenly noticed the guy standing in line next to him (not behind him, which he also hated!). “Ahhh, that low-life tax collector is here. This should be fun!” Now, our Pharisee was always prepared for this day and kept his handy “ain’t I special” checklist on him at all times to impress God.

He finally got to the head of the line, “Ahem, I thank you, God, that I am not like, you know, those people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” He then whips out his checklist, “I fasted, I tithed, I didn’t cuss or lust-on weekends, I didn’t kill anyone (God side-eyes him) – okay, that one time it looked like I shoved that heathen into a pit – but that was an accident – he slipped. I swear – oops!” (side-eye again!)

Then, he turned his smugness toward the tax collector as if to say, “Good luck topping that, loser!” But the tax collector humbly stood there praying for God’s mercy. Which God immediately granted as the Pharisee desperately tried to rewrite his “this ain’t getting you out of hell” list.

The tax collector knew what we often fail to accept about ourselves: We’re ALL sinners. All of us. Romans 3:11 is a sobering reminder of that truth, “None is righteous” There are no exceptions. So, we simply try to make ourselves exceptions, just like the Pharisee. Do I detect a bit of a HUMPH slipping through those clenched teeth of yours? Huh? Come on, were you doing that?

Was there suddenly a God-thump on your heart trying to remind you of that piety and self-righteousness that has been shielding you from the truth of your indifference, or perhaps even participation, in the anger and violence we see today against others?

Of course, scripture tells us that brutality against humankind has existed since the beginning of time. We don’t even get through the first book of Genesis. First, God creates Adam and Eve. Then he tells them, “Go on now, make some beautiful babies and fill the earth. Spread the love!” They have two beautiful bouncing baby boys: Cain and Abel. Just two chapters later, Cain kills Abel, and it all went sideways.

It’s nothing new. It’s just that now we can see it every blasted day! We cry out, “How could anyone commit such evil against other human beings?”…and then turn off the news or computer screen and go about our business, pronouncing to God, like the Pharisee, “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like them!” But is that true? Come on, don’t get all huffy again. Hear me out because it’s essential to look at what underlies acts of violence.

Hating and hurting others does not begin with violence; it begins in the heart. Of course, none of us want to hear that, but every one of us has the potential for evil. John Phillip Newell tells us, “There are angels of light and angels of darkness in us all.”

Proverbs 4:23 tells us, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Now, you could probably puff out your chest and proclaim that you have never murdered anyone, and you likely never will. But how about this…do you reject or shun anyone? Do you gossip about or make fun of someone who is not like you?

Watch this:

In 2013, Susan Boyle walked onto the stage of Britain’s Got Talent. The audience and the judges snickered and laughed at her appearance and awkwardness. She was used to that because she was made fun of all her life. But, somehow, she mustered up the courage to walk onto that stage and belt out a song that stunned everyone there to dumb silence:

She became famous overnight but could never overcome the belief that she just wasn’t good enough. People surrounded her everywhere she went. They screamed and cheered for her, but she never felt truly loved.

The song she sang that night was Les Miserables, “I Dreamed A Dream”. Pay close attention to these words:

But there are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms we cannot weather
I had a dream my life would be
So much different from this hell I’m living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed
The dream I dreamed

It’s a stark commentary on the shallowness of humankind, and the unconscionable fact is that we, as people of faith, are no different.

Jesus spent his life calling out that “holier than thou” attitude of the elites and raising up those cast aside, rejected, and unworthy by the world’s standards. He is trying to speak that truth to us. But are we listening? From the looks of the mess our world is in today, it doesn’t seem so.

If we consider ourselves professed believers, we must first change in the depth of our hearts if the world is going to change. We must remove the blinders and look honestly at the faith we declare. Religion begins and ends with rules and dogmas. Spirituality moves beyond that mentality.

Religion stupefies the love of God and proclaims that if you’re not like me, you don’t matter one whit. If you don’t believe what I believe, if you don’t profess what I profess, sorry for you, you’re destined for hell. Have a nice trip.

We see the “ALL ARE WELCOME” sign on the front of many churches. But, I wonder if it’s true…the “ALL” part in particular. Often it is actually saying, “You are welcome to become one of us if you clean yourself up first. We are here to share our truth of salvation and save your wretched soul from damnation!”

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If we don’t loosen our grip on our narrow-minded belief systems tucked into the stone walls of our churches, the divisions we experience in our lives and communities will only deepen as we entrench ourselves in a sanctimonious attitude, not born of faith but of fear.

How can we go on pretending we have some kind of VIP membership to the right hand of God, that we have the Penthouse Suite awaiting our arrival in “heaven” when we refuse to acknowledge our sinfulness against our brothers and sisters? At the same time, claiming to be bearers of God’s love. You do know that’s what we are called to be, right?

Did you know that Mahatma Gandhi once considered becoming a Christian? Yep, he read the Sermon on the Mount and fell in love with Jesus. He wanted to emulate him. So, one day he went to a Christian Church in India, but they wouldn’t let him in! He since said, “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” That should shame every one of us. It should cause us to look deeply into our own hearts and ask ourselves if we are Christian in name only. And that should send us to our knees where God does his best work!