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I think Christianity is supposed to be the unreligion. That's because the strictness and predictability of religion causes simple, pure faith to become diseased. If not stopped, religion can even kill living faith. And dead things just aren't very interesting. Case in point ...
I was eleven years old the first time I dissected anything. I was on a scouting trip. Armed with flashlights, a few of us wandered into the woods after dark to explore.
Joe was the first to spot him. He was a pretty good-sized frog. And he was quick. Flashlights and size-8 feet darted every which way as we scrambled to grab him. Something in us boys wanted to know what was inside that frog, what made that living thing alive.
"Don't kill it!" Joe cried. "Take him alive."
I'm sure that frog had no idea he was going to stumble into the midst of a gaggle of earth giants that night, and he did his best to flee, but to no avail. I got my hand around him as he tried to hop between my feet. Then we each whipped out our scout-issued jackknives and begged to be the surgeon.
In a few moments, the frog lay dead, his inner secrets uncovered. But to my surprise we didn't gain any greater understanding of Froggie when we opened him up. We had lost something. The interest that had charged the air during the hunt completely disappeared when he lay open and lifeless before us. Dead things aren't nearly as attention-grabbing as things that are alive. Only in the presence of life does mystery exist.
My quest to dissect continues to this day. It is as though I am uncomfortable with wonder. I find something full of life and, instead of enjoying the mystery of it, I want to dissect it, to figure out the how and why. But dissecting life results in death. And once death comes, the mystery disappears.
Religion, too, is all about dissecting. It is the nemesis of mystery.
But religion does have its attraction. It is so neat, so organized, so repetitive, so habitual, and oh-so-predictable. It makes God look more like a clock than a person-ticking and tocking in a perfectly ordered way. Life isn't nearly so conventional. It is messy and full of surprises. Repetitious? Yes, but certainly not predictable.
I have conducted more funerals this year than in recent memory. We often say that dead people "rest in peace." I think we are fooled by the way they just lie there. No complaining. No whining. Just nice and stiff and orderly-religious, really. That's because religion is antilife in some ways. It demands order and fixation, just as rigor mortis demands of the dead.
Religion may be attractive on one level, but it always strives to remove all the mystery that congests life. It has answers for everything, because questions are way too untidy. "Jesus is the answer." Right? But what if Jesus isn't the answer? What if He is the question?
As a kid, I always felt unfinished. I was unsettled, and something in my soul was in search mode. My mind and body were always in motion. There was an inner grinding that didn't stop from the moment I got up until I drifted off to sleep at night. I felt hungry. Incomplete. Searching for a where or a what or a why everywhere I went.
My older brother Mark seemed to float through life. He was good at sports, made friends easily, and lived in the spotlight. I was fourteen months his junior and didn't fare nearly as well. I didn't float through life; I was towed. I would make friends, bring them home, and then Mark would take it from there. I would try out for sports, but due to a pretty stiff case of childhood asthma, and no coaching, I was the last one to get picked for teams.
"You take Gungor," one captain would say to the other.
"No way. I had him last time," was the retort. "I'll take the fat girl."
Then there was God. I didn't know quite what to make of God. I grew up in a traditional, liturgical church that left a lot of information about God in the dark. After all, God wasn't the issue; we were. Faith was all about how we performed. But no worries; as long as you covered the basics (church attendance, participation in the sacraments, etc.), you could count on God understanding where you were. And though He was a very busy and mysterious Deity, you had a fair shot at staying in His good graces and getting into heaven.
But I fell in love with God in that church, as much as I knew of Him. I guess I loved the idea of mystery and the reverence inspired by it. I also loved the statues and the symbolism. I even became an altar boy. Some Sundays I would go to two services just to try to be closer to this mysterious Being. But then adolescence kicked in, with all its fury. I abandoned my journey to discover the mystery surrounding God to investigate a new mystery: girls.
It was Christmas 1970 when my best friend told me he had just "given his life to Jesus" and said I should do the same. I pretended to know what he meant but really didn't. How do you give your life to someone? And if I could answer that, would Jesus even want whatever that meant? But the idea stuck with me. Give your life to Jesus.
Something in me always wanted to belong. If I ran into someone I thought was cool or enviable, I would try to be like him or her. At best, I was open to changing my life. At worst, I became most like the person I was last with. I certainly was not centered, but I definitely leaned toward the spiritual side of things.
One time I met a guy who was carrying a Bible around. He was really cool, so I checked out the one Bible in my school library and carried it around with me for six months. I tried to read it a little but got to the Old Testament dietary laws and lost interest. (A love for bacon had something to do with that.)
But Christmas 1970 was a different deal.
I was at a dance when my friend Nick told me I should give my life to Jesus. I had purchased some pot and was trying to keep a buzz going long into the night. I had just smoked some before arriving home around two in the morning., but all I could think was, Ed, give your life to Jesus. Suddenly, as I climbed the stairs to my room, I turned stone-cold sober. Believe me when I say, that was weird.
When I walked into the room, something was there. It wasn't exactly like the presence of another person. It was bigger. And it wasn't scary, but it demanded awe. Somehow I knew it was God.
I remember literally falling to my knees by my bed and calling on Mary and Joseph (and a couple other saints I could think of), as well as Jesus. I felt like a sinner, which was bizarre. I had always thought God understood my true intentions to be good and would overlook my faults. But in this moment, I felt dirty-not because He was making me feel that way, but because I was. Yet I also felt totally accepted.
The next few days were wonderful. I became an utter God-lover. When I looked around, everything seemed different. I felt so alive, and I had no fear of death. If anything, the thought of death made me smile. I'd get to see Jesus, I mused. God Almighty had chosen to live in my heart, so I loved everything and everybody: my teachers, my parents, the pope, the police, the trees and birds, everything.
Later I discovered that I had experienced what Jesus called being "born-again." Many try to reduce this experience to some kind of religious drama or routine: (1) come forward in a meeting; (2) pray this prayer; (3) say these words; (4) believe these Bible verses; and presto, you will be saved. I know some people have spiritual encounters that way (though I would argue that the moment is actually a culmination of a whole complex series of events orchestrated previously by God). I also know of many churches that boast of thousands coming to Christ in response to altar calls. Yet these churches have a hard time drawing even a fraction of those "thousands" into the life of the church. I'm just not sure the "instant conversion tactic" works as well as church leaders think. I'm not sure God ever intended for us to force encounters with Him into the rigor mortis of a religious pattern.
God met me while I was calling on Mary, Joseph, the saints-and Jesus-and not using the words on the back of the how-to-be-saved tract. I may have done it wrong, but I met God.
On our fifteenth wedding anniversary, I told Gail to pack enough clothes for four days. I arranged everything in advance: the babysitting, the travel arrangements, the hotels, and the tickets for the events we were to attend. She knew nothing about my plans.
"Where are we going?" she asked.
"I'm not telling," I responded.
After bludgeoning me with questions for a couple of days, she gave up trying to unearth my secret plan. I knew she was excited, and not knowing seemed to provoke anticipation in her. The night before we were to leave, I surprised her with the early arrival of the sitter. I told her to grab her stuff-right now-and jump in the car. She smiled and instantly complied (it's amazing how easily women submit to love).
We traveled for a few hours, stayed in a cozy inn, and got up early the next morning. We then drove about two miles to the train station. She still had no idea where we were headed.
We boarded the Amtrak bound for Illinois and enjoyed a snowy, Dr. Zhivagoesque ride from central Wisconsin to Union Station in Chicago. We then cabbed to a lovely hotel with a fireplace and fifteen red roses waiting. The next four days were filled with preplanned dinners, plays, concerts, and shopping.
Gail had no knowledge of what we were going to do until I told her to get ready. But she enjoyed the mystery. And instead of nagging me daily with questions, she just sat back and experienced the moment. She said the mystery was "romantic."
I think we long for romance because God is romantic. I also believe there is to be romance and mystery in our journey of faith. The apostle Paul penned, "Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine ..." (Eph. 3:20). I think a huge part of why we get religious diseases is that we try to avoid all the mystery inherent in faith. We try to systematize everything surrounding faith: our beliefs, our experiences, our outcomes-we want control over everything we have and everyone we know. We no more appreciate mystery than we do appendicitis.
I've been on this journey of faith for a long time. In that time, I've found that many things happen to us, and to those around us, that we can't figure out. We need to learn to be OK with not knowing exactly what is going on.
I'm not saying you shouldn't try to figure it out, but after you try and still come up empty, smile-chill. Be OK with God's being romantically in charge. Be OK with questions.
The Greek Orthodox Church speaks of apophatic theology, a theology that celebrates what we don't know about faith and about God. Paul said it this way: "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!" (Rom. 11:33). Ah, sweet mystery. It keeps marriages alive and faith healthy. But beware. Religion tries to abort it. I think that's why the apostle John wrote, "Whoever has the Son, has life" (1 John 5:12 MSG). He doesn't mention religion.
Excerpted from religiously transmitted diseases by Ed Gungor Copyright © 2007 by Ed Gungor. Excerpted by permission.
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