A decluttered faith

August 19th, 2014

There’s a long and passionate spiritual tradition of waiting for God, waiting for revival, waiting for a personal sign or the end of time—waiting for something, anything to happen. But when the noise simmers down and the cameras stop rolling, another truth endures: God is waiting, the faith itself is waiting, patiently waiting out the world’s false starts, waiting out my own inattention to the pulse of life. It’s as if God is rooting for the soul to look, listen, brush past the distractions, get a move on, on toward the burning light, toward the divine presence, the indestructible news, a less distorted faith.

For years I was a daily journalist, a religion writer with a view of the great parade of faith sensations, the numinous and the non-starters, everyone’s struggle to sift the real from the false. It was a great job, a continuous education. My desk in the newsroom was legendarily cluttered. I had trouble throwing away the slightest press release or the flimsiest new poll or study. Each scrap was a potential story. Surely it would all come in handy some day. Everything was a clue to the world’s secret search on the ever-rising river of spiritual yearning.

But one can wade in the roaring current only so long. I eventually wearied of the late-breaking disputes of belief and my own relish for the battle. My interest was shifting. After nearly twenty years, I decided to quit the daily beat and clean out my desk’s monumental mess. I was eager to pursue, move closer to, some divine impulse at the base of it all, some spark of permanence that survives the onslaughts of spiritual fashion and controversy. Maybe that spark could explain this great diversity of faith expression that we’re all seeing today. Maybe it could fuse all opposites and misunderstandings and actually offer the “peace be with you” that people say to one another during church.

Religion has given civilization many traditions of intense inquiry and disciplined practice but also a littered scene of disunity and damage. The madness of bloodshed, so much of it religion-fueled, is a world crisis. I wanted to strip away as many false leads and pompous distortions as possible, including my own. Pay more personal attention to the force that has kept the writing going all these years: a tenacious sense that behind the furious search for spirit is a daily retrievable miracle, the image of God imprinted on each of us, every moment carrying breakthrough potential and surprise and simplicity, a poem in the making, moving toward birth. Find that liberation and serenity: if possible, a decluttered faith, the search for God undistorted. “He strips the wind and gravel from my words,” Robert Lowell wrote, “and speeds me naked on the single way.”1

All this meant feeling my way back to the speechless fact of the Creator as well as the Jesus of record, catching up to them. That news, that poetry, that divine force, exists despite my fickle mood or the latest bad-news headline.

I admit my own religious receptors are just average, if not comically inadequate. As a churchgoer I’m often an underachiever. But bigger facts overshadow this or that detail: the moment-to-moment march of life’s outrageous episodes and emotions—amazement, grief, hilarity, pain, transformation. In this freakish turbulence, signals do get through. In-breakings happen. They test the fabric of the familiar. They endure in the silence that returns after the noise passes. I’ve come to regard such moments as reminders of God, evidence of a divine persistence, the shadow and motion of the Creator. A divine presence. The divine patience.

There’s no owner’s manual or magic potion or quadratic equation to conjure it. But try to deny it or send it away or change the subject, and it still looms nearby, in Gospel reading, in the life of the senses, in music and prayer and memory and humor, in interactions with people, in the hard work of congregations, in tech revolutions and walks along the shore, in all the strange daily turns on the dance floor between mind and heart—whenever the soul itself stirs with urgency, looking for home, daring to dream dreams of reconciliation. People yearn to know it. It is restless to be known.

The secular world is pleased to ignore these matters or flatly contradict them. Every day, the materialistic dynamo grows louder, more confident, storming ahead by its own logic of money, ego, and extremism, throwing its elbows, eager to remove religious faith from the field of action.

The days are many when official religion indeed looks threatened—enfeebled and sidelined. The world of church, a moderating influence on society, gets outmuscled by the surliness of public life. People exclaim the divine name as much as a curse as a prayer. Society sings new hymns to the lone entrepreneurial ego or to utopias of the Internet. The telling of the divine story—a peacemaking venture in goodness and resilience—often dims in confidence or appeal.

Many believe this modern secular drift of things is inevitable. “It is what it is.” This remarkable era of opportunity, exhilaration, and sensation is also known by other words, too—data glut, exhaustion, inequality, and rage, all shaped by haphazard economic, social, and spiritual conditions. Savagery creeps in, giving us a long war, an abusive economy, family dysfunction, political stalemate, financial misdeeds, delusional mass killings, secret addictions, and ornate conspiracy theories. These things deserve defiance, not compliance.

In such a day of extremes—not just the terrorist sort but extremes of media saturation, insomnia, wealth, poverty, glamour, boredom, and snark, not to mention weather—it’s good to remember that extremes never get it right. They eventually collapse in self-defeat, excess, madness. They ignore or disdain the great sacred, self-evident truth that overshadows their schemes: existence itself is the shocking wonder. We can’t account for the fact that we are here at all. Yet that fact solicits gratitude. We didn’t have to be created. Yet we were—were launched on an adventure, where certain rules apply, and the outcome rides on our involvement. Everything points beyond itself. The meaning of the world is found outside the world.

I have no interest in writing a pious confession that panders to some in-crowd. I have no time for postmodern deconstructions of the living Christ. I’m wary of the narrowness of cold rationalism as well as the settled vocabulary of religious custom. Both sides—today’s strenuous secularism and the welter of religious options—provide triumphant plot points in the tale of our contemporary spiritual era. Yet people are still left feeling cut off, lonely, shriveling, scared to death, angry as hell, flirting with evil, flailing with debt, losing sleep, their dreams blasted, frantic to start over, longing to discern their own voice against the noise, eager to fetch a spiritual realism to help them make the next move. The battle over what’s real, what’s permanent and undistorted and worth the fuss, is at fever pitch.

As an absent-minded baby boomer halfway home, I’m seeking a way out from under the chaos, tracing the glow and shadow of that first Easter morning that still haunts these scarcely believable days. Heaven knows (and my wife knows), clutter still hounds me. What’s exciting is the endeavor of cutting a path out of it, by circling back to those strangely powerful, enduring materials of the faith, those sources of belief that fracture routine—moments of communion, eruptions of scripture, movements of soul, alignments of mind and body, encounters with the hidden image of God. Despite the darkness that’s been done in the name of religion, there’s a poetry to be pulled down from it that redeems everything around it, a poetry that’s within the power of everyone, the drama of belief, the courage to act.

I hope to share some odd turn or breakout moment toward gospel simplicity, confidence, defiance, relief, realism, or surprise—a return to foundations. I believe this circling back to inner sources—the access and undertow of antiquity, the silence of the spheres, the poetry of text or sky—is a way to clear space, to hear one’s own name being called out on the road to truth and then move toward that beckoning. Removing all distortions in our perceptions of God is, of course, an impossibility. But a return to foundational astonishments can shake a person free of old habits and unexamined prejudices—distortions all. What happens then? A new journey commences, perhaps a less anxious one, a freer one. It’s the work of a lifetime.

Jesus famously said his burden is light. That’s always a surprising thing to hear from the teacher of hard sayings and redeemer of the world. Yet we should expect to keep looking for such surprises. Like those who populated the Gospels, we’re all witnesses now.

excerpt from: Undistorted God: Dispatches of Faith Amid the Cultural Noise by Ray Waddle Copyright © 2014 by Abingdon Press. Used with permission.

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