Surviving The Institution

I usually have some kind of spiritually oriented book nearby: at my bedside, with me at the gym, in my briefcase while traveling for business. I seem to possess a lifelong need to fill the soul, to add wisdom, to feed the spirit that hungers for deeper dimensions of truth.

Right now Philip Yancey’s Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church is my reading companion. I must admit that sometimes just the right book comes across my path at a season when I am deeply in need of its textual nourishment. I’ve owned this book for several months, but in recent days it jumped off the shelf, standing out from the crowd of other Christian-ese titles, demanding to be devoured.

You see, the subtitle really appeals to me. It seems that after several years of being immersed in the deepest layers of the institutional church, I’ve been re-knitting the fabric of my own faith and trying to figure out what it should look and feel like.

Yancey writes, “Sometimes I feel like the most liberal person among conservatives, and sometimes like the most conservative among liberals. How can I fit together my religious past with my spiritual present?”

I can relate to his sense of not fitting into any particular group with full ease, whether religious or secular. I know just enough about the religious community to be skeptical of organized faith. I know just enough about pagan depravity to be desperate for God.

Yancey writes of growing up in the Deep South, attending a church that was blatantly racist, ripping scripture out of context to justify its theological darkness, focused on itself and taking care of its own rather than embracing the heart and soul of the Gospel. His story resonates with many persons I have encountered in my life, some within my own family, who felt the stranglehold earlier in life of the judgmental sanctuary, synagogue or private classroom…and who found God mostly irrelevant because his representatives seemed so lacking in grace and depth.

But the author, who is critically acclaimed in the Christian publishing world and now resides in the beautiful mountains of Colorado, uses Soul Survivor to chronicle the lives of people who have managed to develop a vibrant faith in spite of the prevalent institutions that seek to define what it means to be a faithful person. They include Martin Luther King Jr.; Gandhi (Can you handle that, my conservative Christian friends? Judge him by his deeds, and not just his theological precision!); and one of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner. He studies them in all of their graces and flaws, not afraid to point out the merits of people who stray beyond the established orthodoxy. He sees their thirst for God, for justice, for mercy. Broken people, quality people. People like us, if we will only admit it. Fellow journeyers.

Yancey encourages us to not let the institution rob us of a vital relationship with God. He reminds us that none of us frail humans has the final word on God. (Imagine how much God chuckles when he sees us spinning our epistemological webs of logic, pontificating on the meaning of virtue and human behavior and societal transformation as if we were little deities…knowing that God has the greatest sense of humor of all helps me to relax, for some reason!).

Now let me be clear—I believe that at many times the religious institutions help us make huge strides into that vital relationship. Certain churches certainly have done that for me, and I owe a lifelong debt to my graduate school, Asbury Theological Seminary. I’ve seen my daughter’s faith develop at amazing speed through her Christian pre-schools, I’ve known a ton of teenagers and young adults who have a hands-on faith that blows me away. I’ve known countless numbers of persons of all ages who shine with the love of God.

But I can’t just focus on all of that and ignore the brokenness I see in so many other people. Broken not just by the world, as each of us are to some degree, but broken by the institution. Weighed down by judgment. Left out by cultural selectiveness. Bored by ritual.

Some of these persons happen to be clergy. They don’t necessarily want to admit it, but they feel boxed in by the demands of the institution. They grow weary of always having to be “on,” to constantly be on a spiritual pedestal. They are frustrated by the bureaucracy of denominations, by the fickleness of their congregations, by the indifference that most of the surrounding culture seems to have to their programs, buildings, outreach efforts.

I know these persons exist. I was one of them.

I made a decision a couple of years back to break out of the mold, to immerse myself in not just the religious world anymore but the business and civic community. So often the ministerial life won’t allow such variety, such depth of relationships with people of all backgrounds and faith perspectives. I couldn’t take that one-dimensional sense of living anymore.

And for a while I felt a lot of guilt about this. I felt a need to constantly justify my decision. I wrote lots of pondering emails to friends and colleagues. I second-guessed myself without mercy. I became motivated by fear more than faith.

Time has passed. I am happier. I am freer. I am not afraid anymore, at least not as much. Because God is still there, and I do not need to cloak myself in the layers of the institution in order to feel that I can have a vibrant spirituality that has a positive impact on the world around me.

God is found in so many places. He is in the art museum, speaking to us through painting, sculpture. He is found in the integrity of a company that serves the community well while earning an honest profit. He is found in the thrill of a good sweat at the gym. He is found as we build friendships and teams. He is found as we take care of nature and beauty. He is found in a child’s eyes. He is found along the shoreline.

Why does religion need to take all of these wondrous ways in which we can experience God, and place them into systematic, neatly packaged, doctrine-laden, lists of do’s and don’ts?

Listen to me, church, synagogue, mosque, temple, parochial school, etc.: If you do not take greater strides to celebrate people’s God-given humanity, talents and passions, and meet them where they are, you will continue to slouch toward irretrievable irrelevancy.

The law kills, a great biblical writer asserts. The spirit gives life.

Don’t let the institution kill your spirit. You’ve only just begun to live!

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