Killing God with Routine

A friend recently came across a study that showed routine significantly ages a person. The more one settles into routine, the less engaged the brain is. The less engaged the brain is, the slower the brain becomes. Sounds a lot like muscles. If you don’t use them, you lose them. The takeaway of the study was to continually seek ways to learn and grow. Step outside your comfort zone. Challenge yourself. These steps will help the brain not only stay engaged but continue to develop.

Religion is full of routine. We are told what to believe so we believe it. We are told what to do so we do it. We are told whom to love and whom to hate so we love and hate accordingly. This isn’t to say that routine is bad. Routine can provide an infrastructure to keep us plugged in. But when routine becomes the point, when we are no longer being challenged, when we can’t remember the last time our view of God changed, our faith has become solely routine.

The bible is full of movement. The movement is of God pursuing people, and people pursuing God. Sometimes movement is stillness. Sometimes movement is silence. Sometimes movement feels good. Sometimes movement hurts. But it is all movement nonetheless when it is about pursuing what is good, right, and true. The reason movement is critical to the process is because God cannot be contained in one mind, or in a set of creeds, or even in one religion. Truth is bigger than the construct of people because God is.

One can operate under the belief that it is up to him or her to make God real. Or one can operate under the belief that it is up to him or her to not get in God’s way. I used to fall in the first camp, believing I knew God well. But as I learned and listened and experienced more of God through my own pursuit and through the pursuits of others, my dogma became more of a rudder than my parameters. What I believe to be true helps me navigate, but it doesn’t prevent me from seeing God beyond what I think I know. In other words, I went from walking ahead of God to following God.

Yesterday I thought I was going to lose my dog. The belief could have caused me to act towards that end, bringing her to the vet to be euthanized. Or I could have ignored the possibility and just gone on with my day’s obligations. Instead I stayed home from work to be with her. I brought her water. I carried her outside to relieve herself. I laid next to her and shared my favorite memories with her. I wasn’t waiting for her to die. I just wanted to make sure that no matter what occurred, I was there by her side giving her whatever she needed. It was a difficult day but a good day. Thankfully she is still with us, lying by my side as I write.

When we think we know who or what God is, when we become stagnant in our pursuit of God and simply judge those who see God differently, we tend to act towards the outcome we expect. We might euthanize an opportunity prematurely, or miss the opportunity altogether. As a pastor of a church that values diversity of thought versus a shared statement of faith, I am sometimes questioned about my depth of faith. But as I journey with people, my experience continues to be seeing more of God and God at work among those who regularly step outside of their comfort, understanding, perspectives, than I do among those who have settled into a routine of faith. Maybe that will change when I get older.

A Reluctant Pastor

Up until a year ago, if you had asked me to list every possible profession that I might like to try, “pastor” would not have been one of them.  I have known many pastors and even liked several of them very much.  But I never wanted to be one.  Ever.  My dream job always involved animals.  I imagined having lots of land and providing sanctuary to animals in need.  Yet in spite of this, my time, energy, and resources were never invested in making that happen, other than acquiring many needy pets along the way.  My theology may be a bit slippery here, but I think God tricked me.  My trait of procrastination and my love of lounging allowed my life to be shifted without my even being aware of it.  And quite frankly, I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Instead, here I am at 45 with a whole lot of passion and energy for connecting with people meaningfully.  My spare time is spent considering God, implications of theology, how faith helps and hurts, what church could be. None of these was on my radar professionally.  It just happens to be what energized me.  My resources have been spent on coffee, meals, books, conferences, and conversations with people who wanted to talk, explore, question, and share.  I even went to seminary for pete’s sake to further train myself, and at a time when it didn’t make any sense financially to do so.  I can’t tell you how many times while sitting in a class I wondered what in the world I was actually doing there.  But I continued anyway, and I graduated.  I am either the biggest idiot, or my life has been co-opted.  I’m thinking it’s the latter, but maybe with a dash of the former thrown in.

I had a major confrontation with self when my theology professor said to me, “I’ve never met someone who had so much passion for reforming the church and yet who also seems to have no need for the church.”  Huh?  How stupid does that sound?  And yet he was right.  I have chosen to be involved in the church throughout my life.  But equally I viewed my faith as my responsibility.  The church sometimes helped and sometimes didn’t.  As I processed his observation, I realized that for much of my life, I didn’t need the church but I saw what the church could be – a place that proclaims good news of God’s presence and love, a place to experience a healthy community, a place to both encourage people where they are and challenge them with where they might go next.  Church was a place of potential, but equally full of disappointment.  It was a complicated relationship.

In addition, I had several qualities that I never saw in my pastors, my less-than-stellar qualities.  I knew pastors were imperfect, but I felt a sterility about them.  Their articulated struggles included things such as not getting up at the crack of dawn to do their one hour time of reading, prayer, and meditation. My struggle was doing that at all or not saying the “f” word in front of my children.  We all know statistically that pastors are real people.  But most pastors seem to keep up appearances that further the sterile perception which says, “I’ve pretty much got this God thing figured out and I’m here to help you.”  I feel like I need to walk around with a sign that says, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.”  I’d like to illustrate my point with a visual.  I have an armoire that holds important papers.  The outside looks like this:

This inside looks like this:


No matter how hard I work to be good, to do good, my life always has imperfections.  Lots of them.  I could pretend that when I’m showered and nicely dressed, my appearance is an accurate reflection of my inner life, but that simply isn’t the case.  I’ve always got at least a little bit of chaos, some damage I’ve done that I’m processing, and some hurts that still haunt me.  And those are the good days.

So what happened to change my mind?  I saw Nadia Bolz-Weber speak, a Lutheran pastor from Denver.  She uses salty language, speaks in very real terms, is open about her struggles, and is doing some amazing, practical theology.  She melds the inspiring and encouraging work of God with the very real complexities of people and life.  Listening to her, I thought “I can do that.  I can be that kind of pastor.”  Then I realized I already am that kind of pastor.  I didn’t need to emulate her.  I was already doing the work.  I finally caught a glimpse of what others had been seeing in me for awhile.  I was already a pastor to people, not because of my credentials but because of who I was.

I’m still not sure how I feel about being a pastor.  Quite frankly, animals are easier than people.  But I now see how my life has been shaped by this unexpected role.  I can no longer deny that I have invested and sacrificed to be more equipped for the job.  When I experience the divine in a way that makes my heart fill with love, when I am part of a conversation that seems to transcend time and space, when I feel a peace that reassures me all will be well, when I am reminded that I am not alone and am able to pass that along to someone else, when I am inspired to do the hard work of making the world a little bit better, I know that I am doing what I was meant to do.  I’m still in negotiations about certain specifics.  But as long as I can (occasionally) curse and drink beer, I think it’s going to be okay.