A bunch of years ago I did a VISTA stint in Burlington. It was my second go-round in the VISTA world, so I knew the drill. VISTA, for those of you not so versed in public service, stands for Volunteers in Service to America. Catchy, huh? I always described it as the domestic Peace Corps but I've never served in the Peace Corps so I'm not really sure what I was talking about.
Anyway, it's a good idea and lots of good stuff comes of it, but there's also a lot of nonsense: team building (I'd rather have my fingernails removed) and endless meetings. I hate meetings, too. The older I get the less inclined I am to play along with things that mostly fill time.
So I was at this VISTA team building meeting one day and we had to play some games. We made a big circle, like about 50 of us, then the leader person asked some questions and if our answer was yes, we had to step inside the circle.
Did you go to college? Everyone, pretty much.
Are your parents still married? Maybe about half.
Do you have a pet? Most.
Have you ever been to Mexico or Canada? Almost everyone.
That sort of thing.
Then came "Do you consider yourself to be religious?" I think three of us entered the circle then.
To tell you the truth, I'm not really even sure what it means to be religious. I do know, though, that most people I encounter will say, "I'm not really religious."
The last time I took a look around I noticed these things:
In God We Trust.
Oh my God!
One nation, under God.
I hope to God.
God bless you.
I'll bet that the last time you were in a crisis, an emergency, the last time your car was sliding off an icy road or you got a call that your kid was in the hospital, the last time your dad was having a heart attack. I'd be willing to bet you said a few words to God. "Please God, I promise, if you get me through this..."
Funny how that happens.
There's an awful lot of God out there floating around, mixed in with an awful lot of people who seem to be saying that they don't believe in God.
Maybe what people are saying when they say they're not religious is "I don't go to church." Or maybe even, "I had a bad experience with church." Or, "I was forced to go to church when I was a kid and I hated it."
They might be saying, "Church? Are you kidding? The only bigger bunch of hypocrites walking the earth are politicians!"
Whatever the case, most people don't consider themselves to be religious.
I encounter it in dying hospice patients all the time, when I ask them if they'd like me, the chaplain, to continue visiting them. "Well...I'm not very religious..."
The wiseass in me wants to say, "Not yet, but you will be soon."
But actually, you know what? I'm not really all that religious either. Obviously I care about the structures and frameworks we create in which we can worship together, but I don't consider them to be necessary.
What do I love about the work I do?
I love how the people take good care of each other.
I love that our voices mingle in prayer and song. Praying alone is great, but it's lonely, too.
I love the old building in which we gather. I love the stained glass windows. One has an anchor on it! Every time I look at it I wonder who thought to put an anchor on the window of a church in the middle of a farming town.
Sometimes I walk into our church in the middle of the afternoon and the sun is streaming in. And I mean streaming in, and it's filling up the entire place, bright and yellow and warm, and it stops me in my tracks. And I stand there, still, and I imagine all of the people who sat in those pews over the years, praying and singing. And all of the babies who were baptised there and all of the couples who were married there and all of the folks whose last stop was that room before the cemetery up the hill.
I love that about our church. Does that make me religious?
Who knows? Who cares?
I love the stories. I have always loved stories. I think I fell in love with God because of the stories.
But I also think I fell in love with God because it's all God wants for all of us. God isn't in the business of getting us to go to a church every Sunday. God wants us to love deeply, every day of the week, this life and each other. To be here, loving, and to be of service to this very weary world.
I found an almost perfect articulation of this in yesterday's New York Times Men's Style section.
Life is funny that way. You never know where God might be hanging out.
It's a good piece about musicians. Kendrick Lamar, Beck and Tom Waits talk about music and songwriting. But the juicy parts came from Leonard Cohen:
"A Japanese reporter asked Cohen about one of the lyrics from the new record’s title song, “You Want It Darker,” in which Cohen sing-speaks, “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my Lord.”
A Hebrew word that appears in the Old Testament, hineni — הנני : “Here I am” — is said by Moses and Abraham and Isaiah when God appears to ask something of each of them. It’s a declaration not of location but of disposition, of willingness. The reporter wanted to know from Cohen about the moment that inspired the line. “I don’t really know the genesis, the origin,” Cohen began. “That ‘hineni,’ that declaration of readiness no matter what the outcome, that’s a part of everyone’s soul. We all are motivated by deep impulses and deep appetites to serve, even though we may not be able to locate that which we are willing to serve. So, this is just a part of my nature, and I think everybody else’s nature, to offer oneself at the critical moment when the emergency becomes articulate. It’s only when the emergency becomes articulate that we can locate that willingness to serve.”
It is a declaration not of location but of disposition.
A willingness to serve.
If I lived another thousand lifetimes I couldn't possibly articulate it more clearly.
Later in the article Tom Waits describes writing songs in terms of making your life an interesting place for the songs to land.
Am I religious? I don't know nor do I care whether or not that particular adjective describes me or my life; it's a word.
What I am, though, is ready. The emergency has been articulated to me. The willingness to serve has been located. And I am hopeful. That I'm making my life an interesting place for God to land. And I hope very much for this for you, too. Amen.