Younger Generations Uninterested in Organized Religion Not Missing Out

by Greg Gonzales

Never did I think I’d find God on the internet, but I did toward the end of December 2017. On Radio Garden, a radio station streaming service, I found a Dubai station called Ananaz that played awesome song after awesome song that I’d never heard before — I learned Paul Mauriat covered the “Godfather” theme and that a band called Banda Do Sul covered “Evacuate the Dance Floor.” Each song I learned about helped me branch out to discover more artists, more songs, and to fill my playlists for my own radio show. Those connections, that branching out, is one way I experience God; rather than a being, it’s the process of being, of participating in the world, of moving forward and bursting forth into the future as an effect of an infinite preceding cause, part of the nonstop cosmic evolution. To many, that kind of spirituality is nothing more than hippie-dippie hocus-pocus, but it’s central to my mode of living.

Turns out I’m not alone. A third of Millennials surveyed by Pew Research Center said they don’t affiliate with a religion, but two-thirds of that third said they still believe in a God, or some sort of universal spirit. Adults 18 to 25 apparently aren’t fans of traditional congregations, and I’m one of them. Though I grew up in a Disciples of Christ church, I never have liked the way a service comes off like a performance, or the way some people use church like a way to wash themselves of their wrongdoings. I appreciate the divinity in music, community, and ancient texts, but I don’t feel a need to have all those things bundled for me. I get all of those things in my daily life, through my volunteer work at the radio station, through sharing my homemade wine with friends and family, and by exploring the works of every philosopher from Ancient Greece to post-modern France. For me, choosing non-religious spirituality means not expecting anyone to curate these things for me, and more freedom to explore when I feel inspired (it’s not really acceptable to pull out my phone during the sermon to follow up on a Bible verse, for example).

That’s not the only reason my age group is turning away from organized religion. Some of them are indeed atheists. But the main reasons have more to do with feeling left out of the picture. We feel left out of traditional institutions, but find the same love and divine presence when we get in touch with our bodies at the gym or in yoga, when we join strangers at dinner or in support groups to share honestly our griefs and joys, or get to know our own minds through meditation — we get to become something larger than ourselves without the guidebook. We get to write our own books.

And isn’t the point of that word, gospel, is that it means good news? Those pages have some dust for good news. Though I don’t believe in magical miracles, I do believe in miracles of great fortune, of divine experience, and unconditional love — and those miracles happen every day. As we connect to each other, as we listen to each other’s stories and use those lessons to grow, we gather our own “good news.” Perhaps the only reason the Judeo-Christian traditions are so important still is because the people who lived out those stories bothered to write them down. This generation, and the generations who inspired us, have new gospels to write for a new era.

Dark Nights: The Spiritual Promise of Grief Work

by MK LeFevour

Editors note: Southwest Folklife Alliance, an affiliate of the University of Arizona, recently interviewed Mary Kay LeFevour. She has graciously shared her words from the interview with us.

Grief work is very spiritual work. How do you spiritually survive losing a beloved? It’s the family members that are left after a death. Trust is the biggest thing that gets jettisoned. There’s the primary loss, of course. But the secondary loss can be a trust in the universe, God, the idea that life is beneficent.

So all those wonderful questions of spiritual inquiry come forward: Who am I now? Who is God? What’s my meaning in life? You’re now swimming in unchartered territory. For a lot of people this is the first time they’re having an existential crisis. You are in the dark night of the soul.

I’ve always loved dark. What’s wrong with the dark? As a Taoist and Buddhist, I know you can’t have one without the other. We are a society in America that denies death and denies grief. When someone experiences a death, society says, “Get over it. Just start consuming, start eating, buy something, find someone new.”

But this place of despair is a great cauldron to bubble in, to find your essential self. This is the time when I feel people are the most open to wisdom or beauty or reconnecting. They have to reinvent themselves. Some call it “post-traumatic growth.” It’s an opportunity for growth, for differentiation, for resilience, to become more of who you are or who you were. Because you have to.

Of course you don’t say any of this to the bereaved. You don’t say it’s all going to be okay, when they’re thinking, I’m lonely and I hate my life and what am I going to do? I just go, Yeah that sucks.

I might quote Victor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, who says we are happier humans when we have meaning. It doesn’t matter what the meaning is, whatever it is you have to create it. Some don’t like that because they believe there is one meaning and that they have to find it.

The trick is to let them swim in the despair or sink into the quicksand and hold that space. Sometimes you have to just let them sit in there. You can’t fix it. You can hold a branch, maybe, but people have to move through it. I just hold the grief and I don’t do anything but hold the grief.

I saw a guy this morning—77 years old, just lost his wife of 50 years. He said, “I’m okay.” He’s been grieving for almost a year. And he did sound pretty good. “I’m okay because I’ve got lots of stuff to do, he said. But it’s hardest at night, when I’m alone.”

People say the nighttime is the worst, the evening. It’s the time of intimacy, snuggling, having dinner, watching TV. That’s when you feel absence. Insomnia is most common presenting grief symptom. So night becomes the enemy, because we make it the enemy instead of the friend.

But mammals, when they’re hurt, find a dark cave and lick their wounds. It’s natural for us to want to go into a cave—it’s dark, we don’t want external stimuli. Bereavement work is not about giving people a spiritual bypass with distractions. They get that from friends and family. I’m the one person who lets them wallow. This is the tax we pay for being human.

Grief isn’t good or bad. It is a human thing. Loss begins from the time we’re born. We lose this cozy place in the womb. Loss is inherent to our life as humans. My feeling is if you can’t avoid it, then what can you do with it?

Grief takes away your artifice, every shred of dignity you’ve had and makes you this mass of vulnerability and also someone who’s open to a different way of living, one that makes sense. That’s what’s exciting to me about it. I get to be at somebody’s birth. You’ve lost and you have to be reborn. I feel like a midwife in that respect and it’s such an honor.

Sometimes you’re just hoping people don’t commit suicide before they get through the dark night. You hope and you hold and that’s all you can do. I don’t even have faith. I have knowing on my side. I’ve seen people go from being barely able to crawl into the room to having a full life again. I see it again and again. I can sit with you in the not knowing. I don’t know if you’re going to make it but I have seen the most desperate people make it.

Rather than resist, through denial, the very thing that’s going to happen–which is that we’re going to die and we are going to lose things we love along the way and we are going to lose parts of ourselves–we can reclaim the night. We may never be able to embrace it wholeheartedly, but we can aim for it. We distract ourselves so we don’t have to pay attention to grief, mortality, death. And then we are unprepared when they come for us.

Many cultures have mourning ritutals–wearing the arm band, the day of the dead, putting a stone on the tombstone, sitting Shiva.  The ritual of mourning. But there are so many ways in which we no longer participate in the night. We look at is as something to get through, instead of something to enfold ourselves in.

Again, I’m not going to tell you this when you’re in the quicksand. I’m just going to hold you and tell you it’s okay to feel everything that you feel–angry, abandoned, miserable. All of that is welcome here. That’s what people need–a steady presence that radiates the idea that this is a cycle. This is a cycle. Life is a cycle. It’s going to be a roller coaster, but all things arise, develop, and fall away. All things. There’s no one thing in nature that doesn’t. And grief is that way. Because grief is part of nature.

The In-Between

by Abigail Conley

On Christmas Day, I’ll lug bags through the airport. They’ll be filled with gifts that I wanted to see so I didn’t have them shipped straight to my parents’ house. Those gifts will be padded with the few winter clothes we own, all of which get pulled out for the week of thirty or forty degrees colder than Phoenix. Some version of this has been part of the ritual of Christmas since I became a pastor. A day of flying ends with a few more hours of driving in a rental car. Many times, I have longed to be traveling to a place where I could at least top off the endless day with a glass of wine. Alas, the Southeast continues to hang on to dry counties with the same death grip it uses for the Confederacy.

The plane ride is eerily silent and empty if it’s early and chaotic if it leaves after 8 a.m. The seats are packed with children who are excited about more things than I care to count, are ramped up on sugar or ramped up in hope of sugar, likely tired, and definitely bored. The best of parents are worn thin by the time anyone is seated on the plane. The same pattern is true for security, where parents herd kids through the line. It’s immediately evident if the family flies often or only at Christmas. The kids’ excitement manages to derail that process, too.

Pick a place along the journey and business as usual has gone out the window. The lone open gas station is packed, as is the Waffle House. Roads are mostly deserted, no matter where I’m driving. Across the board, people are either exuding Christmas cheer or in a Scrooge-level huff, with few occupying middle ground. For me, at least, this holy day is mostly an in-between day. It is most definitely the already and the not yet. I have sung carols, heard the Gospel, and marveled at the promise of the Christ child. Family gatherings are still a ways off, including packages and too much food. This day lies in between.

The in-between places are never the ones of memories carried through the years. They are never talked about at family gatherings. We don’t mark in-between places as holy. I am incredibly aware that not hitting cultural milestones makes some places feel more in-between than they should. I spent three years as a very single adult after seven years of higher education and another three as a kind of single adult before getting married. Many people treated all of those years as an in-between, not my life.

As Christmas draws near, I’m aware of how much weight the in-between places carry. Holiday expectations and in-between places never seem to match up just right. The in-between is a place of grief, a place of longing, and a place of wandering.

That day of travel every year that is spent mostly nowhere has given me some perspective on the rest of the year, especially the in-between times. If I cannot live my faith in the far more prevalent in-between times, then I’ve lost some of my best opportunities. Here are a few things I do that day a little more intentionally than the other days:

  • Hold babies. I’ve said it many times, but here’s once more: I hold babies in the line for security. At least I make the offer. Most parents look surprised, look around briefly at the number of security guards, then hand over the baby. I know they’ve done the math and realize I’m not going to make it anywhere with their baby. Maybe holding babies freaks you out. How do you make the day of the people around you a little easier? How can you tangibly love your neighbor in that moment?
  • Tip well. I loathe that we create industries where we intentionally underpay employees. I always tip 20% out of the conviction that if I can’t afford that, I can’t afford to eat out. We don’t buy drinks at restaurants most of the time, so it evens out pretty well. Maybe your budget is tight and you’re only eating out because there’s no other option. Even so, how can you be generous?
  • Be patient. So here’s one way to be exceedingly generous. I am not a patient person. Ask my partner about this and he could well talk for twenty minutes about my lack of patience before you got another word in. Still, we’ve opted for a society that pushes productivity amid stagnant wages. Most everyone is a little tired and overworked. An old Sunday school song might help, “Remember that God is patient, too, and think of all the times that others have to wait on you.”
  • Say, “Thank you.” The stories of people in service industries are appalling when it comes to the way they are treated. Recognize the dignity of people around you (imago dei, anyone?) and treat them with basic respect.
  • Accept help. The implication of “Love your neighbor,” is that we’re all in this together. There’s more than that, sure, but if you get nothing else, remember that we’re all in this together. You might need help one day and it’s ok to take it. You gave someone else the chance to be nice or to live out their faith. One terrible morning on my way to work, I stopped to get caffeine at a gas station. I opened my wallet to pay and it was totally empty. I realized in my non-caffeinated stupor that when I dropped my wallet from my nightstand the night before, the cards must have fallen out. Someone behind me paid the $3 and I went back home and found my cards. I love that person dearly, even though I wouldn’t recognize them if I saw them, again.

The in-between is holy, too. For it was in the in-between place that the Christ child was born because we needed something in-between heaven and earth. Let us occupy the in-between with as holy intent as we welcome the Christ child.  

The Womb of the Night

by Karen MacDonald

Morning meditation, chanting/singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” on my Hindu prayer beads. A phrase in the sixth stanza struck a chord:

“Love stir within the womb of night….”

The dark nights of winter can seem depressing. These long nights can also be a time of renewing, resting, of taking care of our selves. Like bears hibernating.

These times seem dark and frightening, with such deep polarization, self-centeredness, greed, hatred, fear. We have lost our selves.

In the womb of this social night, what love might stir? What love might we nourish to birth in this night? How may we, individually and collectively, take care in this night and come to our selves? Like a baby in a woman’s womb.

“Love stir within the womb of night….”

Love being born in us, even in the night. Feel it stirring?

Our Lost Sense of Intimacy and Participation In Our Wild Places

guest post by Tom Martinez

When it comes to bucket lists, I can check off being chased by a Grizzly.  Of course had I not run, it probably wouldn’t have chased me.  It would have been like the other Grizzly encounters I had while rafting through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (or ANWR), with them watching me or me watching them, more or less calmly, across the species divide.  Though few people realize it, the protected status of the Refuge is endangered by the President’s new budget, a provision of which—if unchallenged—will open up the Refuge to drilling.  Hence the religious consortium rising up in defense of ANWR, which is likely to become the next “Standing Rock.”

My encounter with the Grizzly happened roughly midway into a three hundred mile river-rafting trip my first wife and I took through the Refuge.  During our preparation we thought a lot about bears.  But once we were there we realized they had been a lightning rod for a complicated mix of feelings about the Wild. That’s not to say we lost all fear, but as the exaggerated nature of our fears became evident, our fear deepened into reverence.

We chose ANWR because it is one of the last really wild places in North America and because the Porcupine River offers one of the longest stretches of water-born travel (our trip covered 300 miles) without major rapids.  The refuge itself spans over 19 million acres of wilderness and enfolds one of the most biologically productive ecosystems in the world.  Despite its rich biodiversity and long-protected status, the current tax bill threatens to open the area up to drilling.  To do so would be turn back the clock on what has been, since 1960, its legally protected status.

In addition to being home to Grizzlies, Polar Bears, Arctic Foxes and 200 bird species, the Refuge is also home to the Gwich’in people, an Indigenous tribe that had already been living off the land for thousands of years by the time Columbus “discovered” America.   To this day their diet consists mostly of Caribou.

During our first few days rafting through the Refuge we were puzzled by the complete absence of wildlife. Then as we sat on a boulder eating lunch, a fox sauntered by practically close enough to touch.  As he passed he looked over his shoulder as if I were the curiosity.

We took to traveling down the river by night, which never grew completely dark.  The sun lowered in the sky and then rose again, plunging us into a kaleidoscope of beauty and wonder. One night we heard the sound of wolves howling.  We howled back and to our surprise they appeared along the riverbank and ran alongside us.

Because so little of the Wild remains we have lost this sense of intimacy and participation, opting instead for metaphors of domination.  In the process, awe and wonder have been replaced with greed and extractive exploitation.   That’s why the Refuge and its protected status is now threatened.  Some in power see no reason not to drill there.

But Standing Rock signaled a new ecological awakening.  Images of Native Americans on horseback facing off with police in riot gear gave symbolic expression to the sense that nature is in trouble.  We are wondering if scientists are perhaps right and the sudden upsurge in “unprecedented” weather events and super storms are a function of our having upset the balance of nature.  If so, we’ve managed to accomplish that in roughly two hundred years.  Meanwhile the Gwitch’in stand for a way of life that’s been sustained for many thousands.  Perhaps they have something to teach us.

Many religious voices are attempting to call attention to the ethical or moral nature of this historical moment.  The growing sense of urgency felt among the human family is being interpreted as a call to deepen our understanding of our true place in relation to God’s creation—a shift from dominion and even the notion of stewardship, to one of kinship.   As we begin to shift at the paradigmatic level, the Earth transforms from an object to be exploited, to something more akin to way the Gwitch’in view the Caribou calving ground, “the sacred place where life begins.”

A disruption of the herd’s massive migration would be similar to what we did to the Plains Indians, who moved in such dramatic harmony with the  buffalo.  Only this time we have a chance to do something different.  Preserving this bio-region and honoring its people would mean preserving a way of life that has moved to the deeper rhythms of the Wild for close to ten thousand years.  The choice is clear: we can keep it as protected for centuries to come, or we can throw it away for an estimated three years’ worth of oil.

In the wake of my encounter with the Grizzly I’ve often wondered whether we will ever come to see that the Wild we so fear is ultimately a projection of the danger we ourselves pose.   But it’s hard to see that from inside our cars and cubicles.  We’ve got to get out into the Wild, which is why its preservation is so important.

When that Grizzly got close enough to make out what I was, she went from a full sprint to a complete stop.  I was poised and ready to shoot.  We beheld each other for a few brief but unforgettable moments, precious time that allowed me, eventually, to see her as she was. Then, she turned and disappeared into one of the last vestiges of the wild, a place I pray we preserve for generations to come.


Read about a diverse alliance of faith institutions and leaders bringing voice and action on behalf of caring for God’s Creation. 

Photo by Elizabeth Meyers on Unsplash

A Piece of Fruit and a Serpent: A Different Perspective

by Tony Minear

“I want a drink of that.”
“Why not?”
“Because it’s hot and you might burn your tongue.”
“I said, ‘No’.”

“Look at all these fruit trees. Yummy.”
“They are, aren’t they. You can eat from any tree you want except one, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.”
“Why not?”
“Because on the day you eat of it, you will die.”
“Because I said so.”
“But why?”

In the Genesis 3 story God gives a simple command to Adam and Eve. It is much like one given to a three-year-old. You don’t need to think about it. It isn’t an ethical quandary of right and wrong or good and evil. You need to simply obey.

When the curtain opens on Genesis 3, we recognize three characters from the previous scene (Genesis 2): God, Adam, and Eve. In this scene, a new character appears, a serpent. The narrator does not provide much insight into this creature. This particular serpent is the most “subtle” creature God created. It possesses a special form of wisdom. The narrator’s silence allows us to assume that this serpent, like the rest of God’s creatures, is “very good.” Despite the stinginess of our narrator, the information we are provided is enough for us to hear the coming dialogue between the serpent and Eve.

The serpent begins by intimating to Eve that God is holding back some valuable insight and capabilities from her and Adam. The forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil will not kill them. In fact, it will make them like God in that they will have the ability to discern good from evil. They will become wise. Impressed with the serpent’s grand wisdom along with the lure of the fruit, Eve decides to take a bite. The serpent is right. It tastes exquisite and she does not die. For the first time her eyes are opened and she can perceive evil.

When God discovers what has happened, God is displeased. Until this moment Adam and Eve could perceive only good. For them there was no evil. Only God knew of it. When they disobeyed God’s simple command, they acquired the ability to know evil along with good. Now they could make a choice between the two. However, because God does not believe it wise that these two live forever with this new skill set, God removes them from the garden and sets up security to protect the Tree of Life from any poachers.

Adam and Eve find themselves outside their utopian garden of Eden and along with their new ability, they each carry a curse, his and hers. As they journey through life they will face choices between good and evil. As we watch their lives unfold, we discover they don’t always make the right decision. Okay, they usually don’t get it right. Every choice, however, right or wrong, is an opportunity for them to grow and learn. They will continue to evolve.

This understanding of Genesis is probably new to the majority of Christians and many may find it objectionable. The popular reading is that Adam and Eve’s disobedience led to their “fall.” They along with all future generations are sinful. The results of this are devastating. We are born with a sinful nature and are unable to live without sinning. No matter how many times we make good choices, we will eventually choose evil.

This other way of reading implies a “rising up” of humankind rather than a falling when we disobey God. Adam and Eve were created spiritually immature, much like a three-year-old. All they are asked to do is obey a simple command. With their disobedience, they take the first step on a journey that will last a lifetime. This is a journey of spiritual maturation. With each choice, they will grow and evolve. As their descendants, we too are given opportunities to spiritually evolve and mature.

The next time you hear or read the story, I imagine you might recall this alternative reading. If you do, you will either ignore it or perhaps consider its merits. No matter your choice, please understand, how you read this story has implications on how you will view yourself, others, and especially God. I choose to read the story as one of a “rising up.” It works well with my understanding of Jesus. Jesus through his actions and words modeled for us how to make wise choices between good and evil. I, like Adam and Eve, make wrong decisions. I learn from them and take another step forward. Life is a journey of becoming the person God ordained me to be.

All Pointed in the Same Direction: Body Acceptance, Grace, Nonviolence, and Our Whole Lives

by Karen Richter

Advent is short this year, y’all. Because Christmas Eve morning is the fourth Sunday in Advent, the season is 6 days shorter than usual! It’s a great time to do something pondering on the incarnation. I like the incarnation as a metaphor to help us have a healthier understanding of sexuality.

I’ve heard lots of people talk about incarnation as a one-time, limited engagement kind of thing – that it’s just about Jesus. I’ve heard lots of people use the incarnation as an exclusionary doctrine to clobber people who believe differently. And I’m not interested in that at all.

I want to make a case for keeping the incarnation… not in a literal “special Jesus” way but in a life-giving metaphorical way.

The shame around sexuality and BODIES in our culture is the best reason to keep the theology of incarnation! The Word became flesh and lived among us for a time (John 1.14)! Full of grace and truth :: when Jesus was fully human he was full of grace and truth. WE ARE TOO. We are full of grace and truth! Who is full of grace and truth? You are, friend!

We know this. This is not new to us… except sometimes this is new to us.

Living it out  – living INCARNATIONALLY – means having a different relationship with our bodies than we are accustomed to. Living it out means treating ourselves and everyone around us in ways that our culture thinks is downright odd.

Living INCARNATIONALLY means “have you lost weight?” is not a compliment. Yeah, you heard me.

Living INCARNATIONALLY means that “I hate my thighs” goes against my faith.

Living INCARNATIONALLY means shoving your 5 year old forward with instructions to “Go kiss Auntie Jean” tears down that child’s body autonomy.

Living INCARNATIONALLY means that a school dress code that shames young women and holds them responsible for the learning environment is offensive and just plain wrong. “What was she wearing?” is always the wrong question… whether the setting is a darkened alley or a college party or a public school classroom.

On the positive side, Living INCARNATIONALLY means that when we show up for one another in embodied ways… with hugs or casseroles, on yoga mats or in the dugout, with fist bumps or shared tears, with birthgiving and diapering and nurturing, and yes, with sexual intimacy…  holy space is created.

Living incarnationally means that when we say God loves everybody… we MUST mean that God loves Every. Body. including our own… or we are liars. I like to say it like this: “God loves Every PERIOD! Body PERIOD!”

OWL - Our Whole LivesSo… The United Church of Christ and the Southwest Conference support Our Whole Lives. We do this for wonderfully practical reasons: because we value our young people, we want them whole and healthy. We want them to experience sexuality as part of God’s good gifts of embodiment and creation. And OWL does a great job at teaching sexual decision-making, values, safer sexual behaviors, and consent. In so many congregations, there are these awesome trained facilitators… they live this out, showing up for our students. At Our Whole Lives here at Shadow Rock, we eat together, we ask questions… we do many ridiculous role plays… It’s so fantastic.

BUT HERE TODAY, I WANT TO TAKE IT FURTHER. I want to move Our Whole Lives, and bodies, and incarnation, and sexuality to the heart of my own faith.

We believe that each human person is unique and unrepeatable. So in the OWL classroom and beyond, we foster a culture of consent… moving through the world in such a way that each person’s individuality is honored.

When consent become part of our basic operating system – when consent is entrenched as part of our core value of JUSTICE – when anything other than consent is anathema to us… we begin to move through the world in a non-harming way.

Consent and body autonomy are part of nonviolence for me. Nonviolence is not just nice (‘nice’ being a pretty low bar) – nonviolence is even beyond kindness (although kindness gets us closer). It’s a way of being – a kind of showing up – that’s marked by life-giving interactions with other earthlings.

Life-giving interactions with other earthlings. I have SO MUCH WORK TO DO on this. My way of showing up is way too often characterized by materialism and greed and arrogance.

But continuing to lead Our Whole Lives, even when the students are a little squirrelly… this helps.

Remembering that at my best, I too am full of grace and truth – this helps.

Being here, with you all in the Southwest Conference, being part of a group of OWL facilitators and trainers that embodies the Our Whole Lives values of Self-Worth, Sexual Health, Responsibility and Justice & Inclusivity… this helps.

Knowing in my heart in my bones that God loves me – that I am part of Every. Body. … this helps.

Our Whole Lives

So in this season of Advent, I invite you to be gentle, to remember how this idea of incarnation  – of the Word becoming flesh – makes us all siblings together, God’s children, full of grace and truth. Amen!