On the Road to Racial [and other types of] Reconciliation, or What I Wish the Churches I’d seen in the South Looked More Like

On my ride aboard the Long Island Rail Road returning from a trip to New Jersey this weekend, I thought a lot about a course I took at Vanderbilt Divinity where we were discussing racial reconciliation, and on the table was a really tough question about whether black congregations and white congregations should be worshiping together. That may seem like it deserves an obvious answer in 2015. Of course they should, right? But we arrived at that question by first asking why our churches – unlike our schools, unlike most of society since the 1960s – had remained mostly segregated. Was that evidence of our inherent prejudices? The ones we seem still so stubborn to admit we have? Was it simply the reality that different experiences had created different cultures? One black student remarked that she feared if she were to worship in a white church, her cultural history would be washed away. Would a white church with a white pastor focus as much on the story of the Exodus where Moses leads God’s people out of Egypt like those slaves seeking freedom along the underground railroad? Would that sense of liberation – still so crucial to black churches – be as important to white churches? Moreover, what does it mean for a white church to have been “free” for so many generations that we can no longer conceive of the need for liberation for others? Have we lost the ability to relate? Must we experience oppression to see the need for calling the oppressors into question? If we think we have no need of this, do we lack empathy for those who still very much relate to the need to be liberated? That day in that classroom opened my eyes in a way I don’t think I’ve realized until recent events, really, that whether or not black churches and white churches should worship together is a deeply complicated question with a deeply complicated past, present, and future. What I came to terms with at the time was this: maybe we need to be segregated in our worship, but we still have to find some way to work together for the betterment of everyone. Separate in worship, together in mission could be a solution. But I’m not so sure I’m as satisfied with that answer anymore.

This morning, I attended my first church service north of the Mason-Dixon, and it drew an incredibly incriminating picture on the almost insular way of the church in the South. Sure, up here, the church may be dying in numbers, but what I saw this morning drew a picture of a church that is, in my mind, thriving. On the wooden pews in an ark-shaped sanctuary in Bloomfield, New Jersey, there are members from four continents and twenty countries. Every color. Gay. Straight. Female. Male. Transgender. Hurting. Joyful. Family. The lot of them: family. And you could feel it. Something that was in the air, like a kind of earnestness that the people there wanted to be there. No – that the people there were there because they needed to be. That they were honest about their brokenness and joyful to be made whole together. Outside of camp, I’m not sure I’ve seen so many different people made into one family in a church. And for most of the service, I was just overcome with sadness for my home state, for the South, for the reality not that it’s broken but that it’s so gosh-darn unaware of just how broken and pathetic it is. No, more than that: that down south it’s in-your-face adamant about how it carries the one-and-only capital “T” truth when the church in the South as I experienced was driven too-often instead by staged ostentation and a smug need to grab and maintain control and power in a world where people of privilege fear losing it.

Eh, I should come down off my high-horse long enough to say that my own disdain for those kinds of churches or even for the South at times isn’t lacking its own arrogance. Nor am I naive enough to imagine that every church up here is like the one I went to today. Or that this particular church isn’t without its own members who are there for the wrong reasons: to gossip and grasp power when and where they can. That’s just all too human to be confined solely to one region of the country. And yet, having seen what church could be is to know what so many congregations are lacking, and frankly, I’d take a small church with a healthy soul over a large soulless church any day. But I can’t seem to shake the question over what’s the difference between here and there, between this church or that one? Maybe it’s tied to the urban nature of a church that’s only a twenty-minute train ride to New York City. More exposure to diversity is bound to breed world-centric behaviors as opposed to the more insular, isolated rural communities of the South. Or maybe it has something to do with southern culture’s tie to social traditions. If you were born into a world where people go to church because “that’s just what you’re supposed to do,” you’re bound to find people who are there to maintain “polite social behaviors,” or niceties rather than to claim with honest self-awareness their own struggles in an effort to find sacred wholeness like that preached about in our holy texts, or y’know, to do church.

Of course, the deeper question underlying much of this is to ask, “What is church?” It’s become trite to say it’s when “two or three are gathered” in God’s name. I’m not sure I really know what that means anymore. Plenty of awful people gather themselves invoking the name of God or Jesus or Allah, after all. But I’d be willing to bet that, even if we remain segregated in the here-and-now, what church – what all of religion – is meant to be is to provide a space where “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28), nor gay nor straight nor conservative nor liberal nor rural nor urban. If religion can’t be what breaks down the barriers that are the sources of our strife and violence, what good is it doing us? I, for one, want to seek out and hold up those places where that’s actually happening, where those boundaries fall away, because it is happening. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It may happen in a place where the church is dying, but on this road, we are well on our way to something good, to something better, and we will keep moving forward as best we can.

When Surface-Level Religion Meets a Psychology of Depth, or Why Camp (or Something Like It) Could Replace Church

Tomorrow morning, thousands of families will pack into their cars – some wearing their Sunday best, others in jeans and a t-shirt – and head once again to a church service like the one they went to last week. For some, there’ll be a choir decked in robes, lighting of the advent candle, a scripture, a message, a few hymns. For others, there’ll be a praise band, hands raised in the air, a worship leader, a projector-and-screen displaying stock images of a pretty waterfall behind the scripture message. A pastor will speak. Some of them will deliver a message that’s tough to hear, challenging perhaps, but quickly forgotten. Others will preach a message of nurturing love, of taking care of your own, a message patting the congregation on the back, and everybody will momentarily feel a tiny bit better about themselves as they walk out the door to go back into the “real world.”

In most cases, church as it works like this really does help people maintain their status quo. Had a bad week? The pastor might legitimately say something that speaks to you. There’s a good chance that a song you hear or a scripture that’s been read could bring you out of your funk or at least provide a different perspective you hadn’t considered. And this has been well-documented in the field of psychology. People who attend church, by-and-large, are healthier psychologically than those who live fully secular lives in the same culture. After all, “optimists are healthier” and religion and ritual promote reasons to lower stress, not to mention the power of a social support group that religion often provides.

But in maintaining the status quo, if that’s the unseen goal of “church,” there’s a lack of concern for any continual, real depth – that is, any confrontation that brings about self-awareness. A good movie can challenge you or bring you out of a funk, especially if you see the movie with a group of consistent, caring friends. But it won’t necessarily demand that you look within yourself to answer the question, “Who am I?” or “What about myself should I change?” And, similarly, modern American religion doesn’t either. It’s too often a system of staged complacency. After all, if church today functioned to bring people to true repentance and forgiveness (of themselves and others), to self-actualization, there would never have been a need for the field of psychology to develop in the first place.

But think about it: It seems more and more that modern psychology can and does succeed where religion has failed on an epic scale. The honesty required of, say, an AA meeting or of any form of therapy does what church never could quite get right – but only for those with the courage to admit they needed or wanted the help to begin with, only for those who were ready to ask the tough questions. Otherwise, therapy is just as useless an endeavor as religion. No one overcomes an addiction, as an example, without surrendering their will and truly wanting the help to overcome it, but those who do surrender and overcome their addiction are able to do so because they were able to confront the worst of themselves. They find the courage to confront their own suffering and self-destruction.

All of us, at the core of our depths, will find – if we go looking – similar suffering and attempts at self-destruction. We need not be addicts to know there are things about ourselves we do not want known, things we do not talk about, usually. But isn’t it kind of absurd that exploring those ugly depths is precisely, in the field of psychology, what brings people to healing, but it’s as if we are conditioned to fear that exploration instead. And church has not historically been a place that fosters or encourages us to delve into the worst of ourselves with any sense of honesty, largely because of our fear of shame and judgment. Instead, we just sing a song or read a paragraph from a Gospel and expect that to do it justice. Theologian Paul Tillich writes about this when he says,

We are always moving forward, although usually in a circle, which finally brings us back to the place from which we first moved. We are in constant motion and never stop to plunge into the depth. We talk and talk and never listen to the voices speaking to our depth and from our depth. We accept ourselves as we appear to ourselves, and do not care what we really are. Like hit-and-run drivers, we injure our souls by the speed with which we move on the surface; and then we rush away, leaving our bleeding souls alone. We miss, therefore, our depth and our true life. And it is only when the picture that we have of ourselves breaks down completely, only when we find ourselves acting against all the expectations we had derived from that picture, and only when an earthquake shakes and disrupts the surface of our self-knowledge, that we are willing to look into a deeper level of our being.”

Tillich calls this deeper level, depth itself, “the Ground of Being,” or God. And I’m moved to agree, but the glimpses I’ve gotten of that depth have not been easily, nor painlessly, uncovered. And perhaps more importantly, I can’t claim to have a solution for the way we miss this in religion, for the way the modern church is overcome with fear of this self-honesty. I don’t think it works exactly for pastors to become shrinks, or merely to send their parishioners to them (though I think the latter should happen more often). I don’t think that it’s helpful for us to simply and suddenly expect people to start being honest with themselves or with others, or to demand as much like an intervention. But the status quo will be what does religion off, if religion is to die… the way it appears to be slowly dying.

So what must change? If I had to guess, too often in the church, the reason people seem to fear plunging into that depth (and, Tillich would say, finding God there) is because they don’t know each other. In therapy, the relationship between the therapist and the patient is built on trust. In church, especially larger ones, small groups, Bible studies, Sunday schools, etc. help build that trust, but the nature of why people attend creates large gaps in it. When you see someone once a week, not always consistently, and you don’t know why they’re there, the likelihood that you’re going to feel comfortable opening up – and finding resolution for – your deepest, darkest issues is pretty nil. That’s not to say it never happens. I think summer camps and retreats work to build more authentic relationship. I’ve seen firsthand a group of kids who didn’t know each other at all on a Monday really love one another openly and honestly and learn to love themselves by Saturday. It’s simple, really. Put people under the same roof for any length of time and, after they’ve endured the trials of that experience, you’ll eventually create trust – that is, an authenticity that will allow people the safe space to delve deeper into who they are. In other words, if religion is to learn to do what psychology is already besting it at, it’s going to have to start to look a whole lot more like camp. I don’t mean in saying that to suggest that things will just get better, that people will delve into their inner core, if a church just starts building a fire outside and singing “Kumbaya” on a Sunday morning. But I do think that if religion is to survive well into the 21st century, church has to learn how to aspire to more authenticity, to create a culture where one of the first goals is to get people to know each other, to trust each other, and finally, to listen with that knowledge and trust. If we can’t do that, we’ll just keep packing into our cars, schlepping ourselves off to another mundane, if not staged, experience every Sunday, an experience that helps keep us going but without ever asking us to wonder who we are or to seek our real depth in the Ground of Being.

The Curious Case of the Toilet Seat Picture Frame

A few years ago, when I was working at a church near Nashville, I took my youth group on a trip to do service work in the Appalachian Mountains at a summer camp there. It was a week filled with hack saws, lots of paint, and conversation with poor or elderly folks of the Grundy County community in East Tennessee. When a former youth of mine began working full-time a few years later at the same summer camp, he mentioned one day that in an office used by summer staffers, there was a make-shift toilet seat on the wall that functioned as a picture-frame. Inside the picture frame? Me.

Toilet Seat

At first I thought it was hilarious, and on some level I still do, but at the very least, it was an incredibly befuddling thing. Who would put a picture of me in a toilet seat picture frame? What had I done that irked them so, or did they just want someone attractive to be hanging there on the wall (ha-ha)? Were they trying to make a statement about me by hanging my picture in a toilet seat? Where did they even get the picture?

After an old friend asked around, at least some of those questions were answered this week. While I still don’t know who was behind the curious case of the toilet seat picture frame or how they got the picture of me, I now know why they hung the picture. And the answer is Sufjan Stevens.

At the end of our week in 2010, a group of my youth wanted to perform a song for the Friday night talent show. With one of them on banjo, two on guitar, and a percussionist, we performed “Casimir Pulaski Day” for seventy or so youth and adults. Since none of them wanted to sing, I offered to provide the vocals, which is weird because singing isn’t really my thing, but I wanted to be supportive. So, we sang the song straight through, and when it was finished and we’d sat back down, a woman behind me (probably in her mid-40s) sneered, “Well, that was just inappropriate!” At the time, I just shrugged it off and hadn’t thought twice about it. Apparently, though, one of the staffers also thought it was inappropriate, and rather than addressing it with me directly, decided hanging my picture behind a toilet seat was the best way to handle it.

The truth is, I don’t really care. Summer camp staffers are usually in their early 20s, and even us 30-somethings can be incredibly petty sometimes. And yet, I think it’s a really good example of some of the wider problems the church faces today – namely in the way Christian people can sometimes cower in the face of anything a little too human:

“Casimir Pulaski Day” is a heartbreaking song that narrates a crisis of faith in the midst of losing a friend to terminal cancer. It raises questions about morality – the complications caused by a tempting kiss and the shame of creating those complications for someone about to die. It questions God, particularly God’s seeming absence in the face of bone cancer, yet still manages to find “glory” in the face of God whom the narrator encounters the day his friend dies.

“Casimir” is the first and only song I know how to play on guitar, and singing it with my youth group was probably one of more special moments of my three or four years working with them. When I found out someone had found the song offensive for a Christian camp (to the point that they felt putting my picture up as a symbol of human excrement was of equal merit), I poured over the lyrics. There is that one line that says, “Tuesday night at the Bible study, we lift our hands and pray over your body, but nothing ever happens.” Maybe they thought the song was pushing a kind of agnosticism? But no less than the Psalmist (Ps. 22:1) or Jesus crying from the Cross in Mt. 27:46, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Sufjan himself acknowledges this in an interview discussing the song when he says, “Firm belief is a bit unreal. That leads to religious fanaticism. Doubt is inseparable from Christianity. With every figure in the Bible you find doubt – Abraham, Moses, all the kings and the apostles. Even Jesus doubted. So isn’t it funny how religions – especially Christian institutions in the U.S. – have eliminated all doubt? They don’t understand how important it is to doubt.”

Or maybe it was the line about the kiss? In the song, the girl kisses the narrator’s neck, and he says to her that he “almost touched your blouse.” Or even later, there’s an unclear reference to something shameful they’ve done in the night. There’s nothing sexual about it at all – unless you’re looking for something sexual there. But even if it is something risqué, this fear some Christians have that demands topics always have a G-rating can sometimes make Christianity seem at least a little fake. There’s something heart-wrenching about the honesty of a young man torn by the temptation to share an intimate moment with someone dying. In its prude, proper obsession with “holiness,” a lot of Christianity forgoes the earnest struggles anybody could relate with to instead champion some artificial propriety. Those Christians make sin into a kind of laundry lists of do’s and don’ts rather than the simple concept of being alienated or separate from that which we hold sacred. The beauty of “Casimir” is in Sufjan’s heartfelt search for something sacred in the goodbye of this friendship, in the way the things we hold dear can so easily be taken from us, and so he sings, still finding glory in something, “All the Glory when he took our place, but he took my shoulders and he shook my face, and he takes, and he takes, and he takes.”

One of the things I love about Sufjan is that very shear honesty. Or maybe honesty is the wrong word. Maybe it’s just some very blunt confrontation with reality. I see that in a lot of people my age. If we can’t get to the heart of matters, acknowledging the best and worst of ourselves pretty quickly, then we’re probably going to lose interest just as fast. In that sense, I kinda hope my picture stays behind the toilet seat for a long time. Like a badge of honor, it symbolizes, for me at least, that I’m a person who is willing to sift through a few heaping piles of dung if that’s what I have to do to watch the garden grow. Admittedly, those of us eager to sift through the manure seeing it as fertilizer rather than something stinky and awful are bound to offend from time-to-time. But the fruit is riper, the vegetables larger, and for that we should make no apologies.

From Forgiven Murderers to an Unforgiving World

After holding onto a lot of grief and hurt, I recently made an effort to forgive someone I’ve despised for months who holds an authoritative position in the church. Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about the absurdity of a 21st century corporation operating on the ideals that grace and forgiveness should be the cornerstone of the organization. I’ve been thinking about just how radical that actually is, whether it’s good business practice or not, and how it might be both the church’s undoing and the reason it’ll survive well beyond the 21st century at the same time.

Bear with me here. Imagine for a second that Steve Jobs, instead of firing people who weren’t getting things done or who he just didn’t like, had decided to bring them into his office, yell at them until they said they were sorry, and then forgave them. Apple probably would have collapsed, and Jobs probably wouldn’t be the visionary we believe him to be. Or, how about our government? Can you imagine a prison system that released murderers and dangerous criminals once they apologized? I guess people do get out earlier for “good behavior,” but the world outside the church really doesn’t operate with the premise of radical forgiveness in mind, and that’s probably been a good thing for the most part.

You might even argue the church itself can be too forgiving. A friend of mine has done some great work to this end in pointing out that Biblical forgiveness is not unconditional; unconditional forgiveness is a modern construct placed onto Biblical texts which always instructed that accountability come first. And forgiving people who are likely to repeat past violent behavior dangerously gives them a clean slate they shouldn’t have. While I don’t doubt that some folks in the Catholic Church were very interested in covering up the abuse scandal, I’d be willing to bet that some of the priests who were shifted to a different parish (rather than fired) were being given a second chance because it was a church that was operating with that kind of cheap forgiveness as a chief principle. Sometimes, the church confuses forgiveness and reconciliation when it shouldn’t: you can forgive people who’ve wronged you or your organization but that doesn’t mean you allow them to keep working for you.

But in an organization like the church, how much does a person have to screw up before it becomes time to cut ties and move on? That’s easy to figure out when it’s grave abuse, but it’s a much harder question to answer when it’s more common failures – showing up late, poor communication, not being very organized, mishandling funds, holding views that aren’t in line with the organization, etc. (i.e. you know, things people might really easily get fired for most places). The church, because of its history, has the hard task of trying to figure out where to draw that line – a task made much harder when it’s working with a past where some of its greatest “saints” were redeemed murderers from Moses to David to Paul. If church business includes forgiving the worst of the worst, where do you draw the line?

And that’s just it. When an organization’s legacy is the forgiveness of murderers who became great leaders, it’s probably going to continue to function as an organization that maybe forgives too quickly or too easily, and it’s inevitably and rightly going to be criticized for doing so. This backward business approach won’t necessarily foster visionaries like Steve Jobs into our world, and if we’re not careful, it can also keep the wrong people in the wrong place doing the wrong thing – all while being forgiven for those mistakes. And yet, in the midst of that radical forgiveness, there’s also a lesson about uniting community and maintaining relationship, and for the seemingly 99% of the time the church gets it wrong, there’s that 1% of the time where the church gets it right in a way that almost no non-religious organization can compare. Sometimes, the church gives the wrong people the right chance to become the right people, and then that’s exactly what happens. So, for as disappointed as we’re bound to be in churches and other religious organizations when they get it wrong for being a little too loving, there’s something about that legacy worth being proud of, too. I say that as someone who’s need to be forgiven just as much as he’s needed to forgive, and there’s something about realizing we’re all in that boat that keeps the boat floating.

Stained-Glass Stories, or Why a Generation Runs Away from Organized Religion

Being Facebook friends with so many pastors, it’s not uncommon for me to see an article they’ve posted about the “state of the church.” Something from Pew or some other study about how millennials are abandoning religion. Some articles will then try to explain that the church’s stance on homosexuality is usually the chief reason millennials have forgone religion.

I don’t buy it. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t doubt for one second that the media has done a good job of portraying churches and religious institutions, especially in politics, as being incredibly bigoted (and a lot of them are). So too, I’m sure some millennials have walked away for those reasons. But I think there’s something embedded into the ethos of my generation that’s the real reason they’re walking away, and I think it has to do with integrity and accountability. I mean, think about the culture as a whole. Agree with him or not, it’s no surprise someone like Edward Snowden is a millennial. Or that movements like Occupy Wall Street demanding money out of politics would be driven largely by college kids. There’s something about our cultural identity that screams, “We want people to be real with us.” Is it any surprise we’d ask that much out of our religious institutions as well?

Some bloggers have noted that a lot of millennials, instead of leaving the church entirely, are actually turning away from contemporary services (that were, ironically, supposed to “save the dying church”) to instead choose higher church traditions like Catholic or Anglican or Episcopal churches. You could point to Pope Francis shifting the conversation as one reason for that, but I think millennials were moving toward higher church traditions before Bergoglio became “Francis.” Why?

While I can’t answer that for the whole generation, I can tell you why I would prefer high church over contemporary Christianity: steeped in history and having stood the test of time, despite its flaws, it’s more genuine. It isn’t flash-and-bang with a praise band that, as Hank Hill puts it, isn’t “making Christianity any better; [it’s] just making rock-and-roll worse.” The ironic thing is, a lot of those praise songs, I really loved singing at church camps. But I think that’s because I was singing them by the fire with many people who were usually ready to get to the heart of matters. When you transfer a song like “Unashamed Love” from an acoustic setting in the woods where people go to spend a week earnestly trying to get to know one another to a stuffy sanctuary where people are bickering over the color of the carpet or the music they’re going to sing, it starts to feel a little more like the whole “show” of worship is at least a little staged. High church may be “staged,” as well, but the way it aims to connect people to the past brings an authenticity to it very lacking in praise worships. And that’s just one guy’s personal tangent, but it goes right back to our cultural identity screaming for something real.

In my personal search for something real in the church, one of the things I’ve always loved about churches is the stained-glass in them. Stained-glass tells stories and I love stories; I love the truth in the metaphor, which is bigger than history or facts to me. The story stained-glass tells best is a story of grace soldering something shattered into something lasting and beautiful. What better way to tell a story of crucifixion-gone-resurrection than to tell it in the form of sharp shards of many-colored glass made into a window? The art itself fits so nicely with the Christian story. But over the years, a lot of what I’ve seen in the church from both leaders and lay members alike doesn’t really depict that story.

If religious people were honest, our stained-glass windows would come with gaping, empty holes, and some of those sharp shards would be lying around on the floor while other pieces would be soldered onto the window with its sharper edges still exposed. The greatest problem facing today’s church – and perhaps the reason my generation runs away from religion – is that too many people pretend (channeling Dear Abby here) that because of resurrection the church is a museum for saints rather than a hospital for sinners. And in reality, that hospital is one where some of the sickest folks are the doctors and the nurses. Maybe when my generation flocks to higher church traditions, they’re doing so because those traditions feel more like hospitals than museums. Or to put that another way, the story of crucifixion-gone-resurrection doesn’t end with resurrection; there’s still large shards of glass lying around or missing, and we’re charged with the very difficult task of navigating those problems with honesty – a task we’re sure to fail, but maybe the real grace is in learning to admit that’s what’s happening and that that’s okay. In the meantime, instead of figuring out what social issues might be driving people away from religion or trying to mask desires for control in arguments over the type of music people will sing, the harder task before those religious groups is to abandon the need to stage who they are and just come to the table honest that they’re broken instead. Until then, my generation will probably keep leaving.

A Trip to Camp, or Surveying the Remnants of Eubanks Bank

Yesterday, as I was driving to visit the church camp I used to work at, I had a moment where I decided that if there’s a hell (and if I go there), I will probably spend eternity in a continuous loop of being forced to drive Highway 641 North between the interstate and Camden on what has to be the most boring stretch of road ever constructed. Inevitably, I’m always stuck behind a car going forty in a fifty-five, and the speed limit should’ve been bumped up to sixty eons ago.

Camp, though, is the opposite of hell to me, and maybe that’s why it’s such a pain trying to get there, since you’re likely to twiddle your thumbs on the steering wheel in anticipation that whatever camp holds is good and can alter your current mindset of “not-good” or whatever else the world outside of camp seems to always deliver. It’s a sanctuary, a holy ground, a tabernacle, a sacred grove. It’s home and family and memories of family – the ones we’ve hurt and been hurt by and the ones we’ve loved and been loved by. And so, it’s a refuge of sorts.

That said, I think there’s a fine line between seeking refuge or replenishment and seeking to escape, and sometimes the same place can be both, and sometimes, we need both of those things to cope, but when I sat down with the old staff (and by “old” I mean “wise” in case they’re reading this) – whether it was a candlelit Mexican dinner with Martha or closed-door conversation spouting out painful honesty with Gary or silliness and serious banter with Chris Alexander – I’m convinced that, at camp, we find ourselves always able to say, “Here, it’s okay to be you.” I think anybody who’s ever been to any half-decent camp, secular or sacred, would have similar findings.

Earlier this afternoon, I set out on a mission of sorts to locate a part of camp that bears my name. A few years ago, one of the staffers built an orienteering course in the backwoods of camp property than ran along a creek called “Polk Branch.” Using a compass and a small map, you’re tasked with the responsibility of finding ten locations named after former Wilderness camp directors. They’re places like the “Taylor Tall Beech Grove” or the “Brock Grassy Knoll” or “Pulliam’s Squeeze.” And one of them near an embankment is called “Eubanks Bank.”

Orienteering Map

When I set out to find my little spot in the woods, I put the compass in my pocket and decided I didn’t need it. The map looked easy enough to follow, I told myself, but about thirty minutes in and on a tight schedule, some part of me was debating whether I should try to recall exactly how to use the compass from my Boy Scout days. I wasn’t exactly “lost.” I knew those woods well enough (because I’d been lost in them before), but for a split second or two, I did have the sickening feeling that I wasn’t prepared or that I might not be able to find what I was looking for. When I stumbled upon the first marker in a copse of beech trees, the tension eased up and instead of trying to figure out what to do with the compass, I settled on just following the creek and letting it lead me where I needed to go.

The orienteering paperwork describes my little spot in the woods thusly:

Eubanks Bank: named for Philip Eubanks, Director 2006, this embankment rises up about 5 feet above the valley and flattens out like a table just above the creek and floodplain. There are signs of old cornrows in the ground here that are still visible from when these woods were farmland.

When I stumbled upon the marker, I sorta crouched down in the remnants and kind of admired the serene scene much the way I imagine an explorer planting a flag in the ground to lay claim to new lands. I powered on to Al-Chokhachi Balcony and a few others before I ran out of time and had to head back.

As I was walking back to the road, I thought a lot about my refusal to use a compass on an orienteering course. It almost seemed to defeat the purpose in a way. I had this map and this compass both of which gave me straightforward directions (quite literally) but instead, I chose to let the creek and the wind be my guide. I thought about how the compass and the map were symbols of religion and religious texts to me, but somewhere along the way, I’d been so angry with the compass and the map that I’d gone the extra mile to also ignore the creek. And yet, the creek was a power to be reckoned with. On the surface, it’s quiet and peaceful and glides along the little pebbles, but it’s a great mover and shaker – one that carves the whole landscape and replenishes the roots underneath. For too long, I’d turned a journey into a destination, but with the compass and the map in my pocket, it all came flooding back – who I am and the things I need to cultivate and care for. The veins and crunch of every yellowed leaf, the birds soaring overhead, the call of the creek flowing into itself: who needs a compass to know where they’re going? Or, to quote Tolkien, “Not all who wander are lost.”

Driving back to Jackson on good old Highway 641, Tennessee was beautiful. The redbud is in bloom leaving a lavender touch on a green and gray landscape. The pine trees have kept their promise through the winter and are still green. The road lies and leaves the false impression that you’re surrounded by land as flat as Indiana, but in fact, if you pay attention you’re sure to notice rolling hills and even a cliff or two somewhere between the interstate and Camden. It was a drive I can say I thoroughly enjoyed.

From Stolen Wallets to Trusting Experience

When I was in the third grade, I had this black-and-white checkered wallet that was neon green on the fringes. It was the epitome of 1990s cool. Like, I’m pretty sure that wallet should’ve been featured on Full House. And the fact that no one else had such a cool wallet made me feel pretty special (that’s a lie: I’m sure everybody was sporting wallets like these).

But then it was stolen. At church camp. And that one experience so left a sour taste in my mouth that I didn’t return to that church camp until I started working there ten years later.

During that time, though, I carried with me – even from that one experience – a lot of anger with church hypocrisy. By high school, I considered myself atheist, not really knowing what that term even meant, and it wasn’t until another experience, my sophomore year of college, that I did an about-face on my lack of faith.

At Wabash, there was a professor I deeply admired, Bill Placher, who taught me that truth was less about fact and more about trust. I remember at one point sitting in his office and saying something like, “I don’t understand how you can know so much about the Bible, about how so much of it isn’t what we were taught in Sunday school, but still believe in it.” He took his time to respond. The next day, he handed me something he’d written at Princeton and encouraged me to continue the conversation with him. I don’t remember the details of that conversation, yet that experience changed not only how I handled and understood religion but also how I confronted any kind of pursuit for truth. Dr. Placher made metaphors matter in a way no one ever had before. It was like discovering that Santa was real again, and anyone who thought they knew the “truth” about Santa was missing the bigger picture. Or they were just a killjoy.

Dare I say that I think experience, more than logic and reasoning, more than tradition, more than anything, carves out what it is we believe. It’s almost like it’s a scale or something where, if the negative experiences outweigh the positive ones, you can just about predict where a person ends up. If a non-believer were to say that logic and reasoning were what brought her to a skeptical place, I’d say that it wasn’t logic or skepticism but the whole experience of applying logic to a previously unquestioned faith. After all, there’s plenty of deeply religious folks out there who are keenly logical thinkers, and by the same token, there’s plenty of atheists who are pretty irrational, too.

But it comes as no surprise that when people grow skeptical, they often say that they no longer trust scripture or trust God or trust the church. And I’m alright with that, because that’s part of the journey. In fact, I think it’s an important step. I think doubt breeds humility, and asking questions is so very crucial to get to the bottom of who we are and why we believe what we believe. Or why we don’t.

But I think we have a tendency to question ideas and texts and institutions without ever really questioning our experiences of those things. And that’s because our experiences often carry with them an emotive power that we’re not able or willing to easily deny or even confront. I mean, some snot-nosed kid stole my wallet, and I know why I was angry about that, and it would’ve been easy to let that experience go unengaged. So, too, I’ve seen people get caught up in a kind of spiritual frenzy where they think they’ve seen a “light,” but when they find that light, it sometimes seems like something dark turns on instead, because they start using that “light” to justify all kinds of stupid or hurtful behavior that had nothing to do with that spiritual experience in the first place.

None of that, of course, is to say that we shouldn’t trust our experiences, only that we should understand how our experiences sometimes limit or hinder us. And, for me at least, that’s not an in-passing glance at a one-time experience and how it shaped me or continues to. It’s a lifetime, difficult effort, a need and yearning to constantly refocus, to engage the past so as not to repeat the undesired or, if that’s unavoidable, to at least repeat it with more understanding the second time around.

But, as we’re making this journey on the road of life, I think if we were more comfortable with ourselves, more capable of honestly confronting those emotional, powerful experiences we have that determine what we call “truth,” the whole world might be a little better off. And that’s important, because we live in a world today where the information we’re fed is a kind of fast-paced experience itself. We’re bombarded by Buzzfeed quizzes that tell us which Muppet we are; our news sources allow us to dive into our own little bubbles that stop us from critically engaging our surroundings; we place ourselves primarily only around the people who will agree with us, not the people who might make us better, because we usually seek easy and congenial relationships. But when one experience, like a stolen wallet, can carve out our next ten years, we’d be doing ourselves a big favor if we’re willing to slam on the brakes and pay a little more attention to where we’re headed and how we’re getting there. Especially when there’s so much crap to drive through.