Packing for the Wilderness of Progressive Christianity

Mar 16, 2020 8:34:00 AM / by Colby Martin

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Excerpt from The Shift, Chapter 3

I am not what you might call an “outdoorsy type”—unless golf counts; then call me Bear Grylls. So, when I lay out six essential tools to navigate the wilderness of progressive Christianity, and as I use the metaphor of tools for surviving the actual wilderness, you hereby have my permission to call me a poser. About the only outdoor survival I have done involves figuring out how long I can keep the car running (while it charges my laptop and powers the fan that cools my tent) until it won’t start the next day.

Sure, the first cannon blast in the Hunger Games arena would likely be followed by my face projected in the sky (can you starve to death after just five minutes out in the wild?). But as my friend likes to say, I have other gifts. One of those gifts is my keen Google search skills, which is how I curated the following list of the six most important tools to have when it comes to surviving the great outdoors: good shoes, proper shelter, first aid supplies, food and water, a compass, and a flashlight.

We’ve been lugging around unnecessary items on our spiritual journey, namely certainty and correct belief. We’ve been told that we need to get the answers right (because this matters most to God) and then lock it down, resisting questions or transformation. However, I’ve found certainty and correct belief hardly register when it comes to living the abundant life found in the way of Jesus. It’s like me towing around my laptop or an electric fan for my tent: not only do they not assist me in surviving the journey ahead, but they actually make it harder.

As with Googling essential tools for surviving the wilderness, I also collected stories from those who’ve Shifted to help me determine the six most important tools for moving toward a more progressive expression of Christianity. They are trust, openness, kindness, mercy, love, and the Christ pattern of death and resurrection. Like braving the elements, these spiritual tools help us know where we’re going, stay on track, sustain us for the journey, shelter us from obstacles, and keep us stable in the uncharted territory ahead. You won’t need to visit REI or fork over loads of cash, because these tools come free of charge and are available to you right now.

#1: TRUST (A.K.A. SHOES)

Shoes are everything. What we wear—or don’t wear—can signal our socioeconomic status (think Louis Vuitton or Yeezys), our vocational situation (think Red Wing boots or Gucci loafers), and what our upcoming plans might be (think Nike trainers or beach flip-flops). They can symbolize our cultural context, such as resistance (gum boots in the mines of apartheid South Africa), fashion (stilettos on the runways in Paris), or religion (removing your shoes before entering a Hindu home). Plus, you can’t deny their enormous psychological power—who didn’t get a new pair of sneakers as a child and swear you could run faster and jump higher?

More importantly, shoes save lives. Infection and disease enter through our feet when they’re unprotected, explaining why adequate footwear tops any list of the most important things to pack when heading out into the wilderness. You need to prepare for the cold, the wet, the rocky, the steep, and the long stretches in between. If you don’t have good shoes, you won’t get far.

Likewise, a posture of trust offers us the best chance to survive (and thrive!) on our journey toward becoming a progressive Christian. Hence its place at the top of my list.

Trust animates our practice of faith. Marcus Borg, in Days of Awe and Wonder, writes about faith as a way of trusting that the Whole—his way of naming that in which we live and move and exist—is benevolent. Trusting, in other words, that God is gracious, nourishing, and supportive of life. The alternative is to believe that either everything is malevolent and out to get you, or indifferent and meaningless. Practicing the posture of trust, however, changes the way you interact with the world around you because deep in your bones, you believe that the fundamental source underneath everything is in favor of your well-being.

As you encounter people who question and reject you, as you experience the dissolving of doctrines you’ve long held dear, as you attempt to reassemble some semblance of a spiritual or religious life, do not forget to bring with you the tool of trust. Like a good pair of shoes, it can empower you to navigate the toughest terrains.

#2: OPENNESS (A.K.A. SHELTER)

In spite of my aforementioned lack of outdoor inclinations, our family does camp from time to time. Our coldest experience came in the mountains outside San Diego, where my wife observed that our brand-new tent had openable roof flaps.

“How cool would it be to sleep under the stars?” we asked—evidently rhetorically, because our kids’ skepticism nudged us not. The sun blazed during the day, so we didn’t anticipate the temperature dropping like it did after we retired to the tent that evening. Separated from the stars by nothing but a thin mesh ceiling, the six of us shivered through a sleepless night. You might be wondering, “Why didn’t you just get up and zip the roof closed?” All I can say, dear reader, is that the mind does funny things when under stress, such as whisper to you, “Stay here, tucked inside this warm sleeping bag. Do not get up! It’s far worse out there!”

The lack of a solid shelter above our heads left us exposed to the elements. So, when I say openness, the next essential tool, is like good shelter, I recognize that it sounds counterintuitive.

Most Christians I’ve interacted with who have either already Shifted or are in it right now can give a dozen reasons why it makes sense for them to close off their hearts and walk away from church, faith, and the spiritual life. I can’t blame the critic or the cynic for choosing to board up their religious self and vow never to pass under the steeple of another church. The pain experienced when leaving or getting kicked out of our conservative community is real, and so is the temptation to lock the door behind us.

Yet, closing our hearts will lock that pain on the inside, where cynicism and bitterness can establish residence and thrive in our minds. A closed heart ensures all our pain remains alive and well, capable of striking at any given moment. As Richard Rohr says, if we do not transform our pain, we will transmit it.

On the flip side, when we bravely open ourselves up and choose a posture of acceptance and humble trust, the pain now has an outlet. It can grow bored of cynicism, tired of bitterness, and move on. Staying open—to connection, to intimacy, to community, to love and being loved—keeps our hearts soft. This is why openness is like shelter; just like shelter protects us from the attacks of the elements, so can openness immunize us from the pain caused by shame and fear. It is the antidote to a hardened heart that, like having no shelter, leaves us afraid and cold.

#3: KINDNESS (A.K.A. A FIRST-AID KIT)

In our family, we feel less concerned about surviving the wilderness than we do with surviving the San Diego Zoo. If you’ve never been, the incomparable hundred-acre park not only exhibits incredible animals from around the world, but it also challenges visitors with undulating concrete hills as you walk from African elephants to Arctic polar bears. Our youngest kids never met an incline they didn’t desire to run down, and the zoo provides them in spades. I’m confident we’ve left more skin on their sidewalks from the knees and palms of our boys than Child Protective Services would deem acceptable. Yet, whenever I take our four boys to the zoo, without fail, I neglect to pack Band-Aids. I stuff our backpacks full of water bottles, cheese crackers, and trail mix, but for some reason I always forget the first-aid kit. Many, many people have left the San Diego Zoo with a story to tell their friends of how they gave Band-Aids to some poor dad who let his kids fall down a hill and had no means of stopping the bleeding.

Whether for bee stings, poison oak, or crashing down a hill, an essential tool for surviving the great outdoors is a solid first-aid kit. With it, you have salve for wounds and bandages for injury. The journey to progressive Christianity is fraught with sharp objects and painful situations. Experience has taught me that kindness is often the best remedy for spiritual wounds. Like a good first-aid kit, kindness eases pain and prevents infection.

Though similar, kindness and niceness are not exactly the same, and the distinction matters. Being nice comes from a place of feeling inadequate. We do nice things for others because we seek their approval. Nice fears rocking the boat. Nice avoids total honesty because it prefers being liked. Kindness, on the other hand, comes from a grounded place of healthy self-love. We extend kindness to others not because we desire reciprocal goodness or validation, but because we genuinely see and care for the other person’s humanity. Kindness requires healthy boundaries, whereas nice people often get trampled over.

Your friends and family may not understand your new ideas and values as you move toward progressive Christianity. From a place of fear (remember, they likely remain fixed in a mindset that God cares first and foremost about correct belief) they may criticize you, question you, or even cast you out of the fold. Responding with kindness not only gives you a chance to minimize their painful responses, but it lays the groundwork for more open and honest communication moving forward. When we respond with our own criticisms and frustrations, or react from a defensive place, we pour salt in the wounds and delay possible repair. But kindness can be a powerful tool for making sure the cuts don’t go deeper and the poison doesn’t spread.

Before we move on, I also need to point out that in this journey you will need to be ready to show yourself immense kindness. Specifically, past versions of yourself. A common cycle among progressive Christians involves reaching new levels of awareness, then looking back in horror at what we used to believe and how we used to treat people. Therefore, make sure you stuff your backpack with plenty of kindness (oh, and maybe a few Band-Aids, in case you visit the zoo the same day I do).

#4: MERCY (A.K.A. FOOD AND WATER)

When my oldest son was six, one night at dinner he asked his mother and me, “How long can you live without water?” Why he had dehydration and mortality on the brain, I’m not sure, but I remember confidently answering, “Probably two to three weeks.”

Kate burst out laughing—not at our son’s question, as I expected, but at my answer. “Two or three weeks? Try two or three days!” she said. She went on to suggest that perhaps I was thinking of food? Oh, right. Oops. This is just reason 1,264 why Kate handles the homeschooling.

As I’m sure you know (evidently better than I do), while you can last for some time without food, without water you’ll barely last the time it takes to binge two seasons of Game of Thrones. Any guide worth trusting will insist you bring plenty of water (and snacks!) if you want to survive the great outdoors.

When denied food and water, our machine of a human body tries to buy time by initiating an automatic series of metabolic modes. Important resources get reallocated to the most vital organs, breaking down less-necessary elements into those most critical for survival. Put simply, when the body doesn’t get the food and water it needs, it collapses in on itself and the whole thing grinds to a stop.

Without mercy in our spiritual survival kit, we also slowly cave inward and initiate modes of self-destruction. Jesus once instructed religious teachers to meditate on the prophet Hosea’s words that God “desires mercy and not sacrifice.” Why not sacrifice? Because the sacrificial system establishes boundaries and builds walls. It divides what is good and what is bad, what is holy and what is profane, what is clean and what is unclean. To engage in sacrifice fundamentally assumes a distant and separate God whom we may draw in only through a mediator. In short, sacrifice inherently excludes God from us, and us from others.

Mercy, however, moves in the opposite direction of sacrifice. It does not erect barriers; it eradicates them. Mercy moves toward the other, obliterating any illusion of categories such as clean and unclean. In short, mercy inherently embraces.

I suggest that mercy is like food and water because it keeps our systems up and running, preventing us from the slow death of isolation. When we insist God exists out there, cold and distant from us—and unable to withstand our presence because we are bad, unclean, or unholy—this deprivation of the Divine causes us to shrivel up and die (not unlike the body starved of food and water). Exclusion keeps us apart, whereas embrace pulls us together. So, pack a healthy dose of mercy for the road—your well-being depends on it.

#5: LOVE (A.K.A. A COMPASS)

As Bill Nye taught me in fifth grade, Earth is a large magnet pulling one force north and an opposite force south. Lay a needle across a cork, place it in water, and you’ll see it swivel to align with Earth’s north and south poles. Voilà, a compass—a must-have tool for survival. As long as you have one, you can find true north and navigate from there.

For the conservative faith communities we came from, “correct belief ” is the goal. It shines as their north star. Therefore, you could argue that whatever mechanism they use to point them north functions as their compass. Insert the Bible. Many church or religious organization websites have a designated page to display their statement of beliefs. There, nestled between parentheses, they list verse after verse as their defense for whatever particular point of belief they deemed essential enough to publicly proclaim. If their north star (a.k.a. the goal of the whole matter) is correct belief, then the Bible serves as their compass, ensuring they’re on the right path.

As you construct a more progressive expression of your Christian faith, I propose you decide now that love—not religion, not holy books, not tradition—will be your compass. If you do not know what direction to go in any given situation, you could do much worse than to simply follow love.

Imagine the following description on the back of a compass’s packaging:

The miraculous compass inside this box never fails! It will always protect you, and as long as you have it, no matter how dire your situation may be, you can have hope that things will get better! This compass does not seek its own well-being, but only the best interest of you, the owner. Should you stray, fear not; it will lead you back again and keep no record of your failure. This compass is patient and kind, so even if you’ve never used one before, you can trust it to always be there for you.

That would be a mighty fine compass indeed. You might’ve noticed that in this imaginary miracle compass description, I borrowed from Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13 as he described why love reigns as the greatest force in the universe. That’s why I use it as my compass, trusting it will never fail me and will always point me in the direction I need to go.

But love is a tricky thing, isn’t it? It sounds warm and flowery to say, “Use love as your compass. It will never fail you!” What does that even mean? Meditation guru Sharon Salzberg describes love not so much as a feeling but more as an ability. Meaning, inside we all carry the capacity to give and show love, with or without the feels we commonly attach to the concept. And according to M. Scott Peck, love is “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” I invite people to use love to direct them through life because we all have the ability and the freedom to choose actions that can nurture the well-being of ourselves and those around us.

Rules, regulations, religion—these can act as obstacles to a person’s flourishing. But when love is our compass, like Jesus transcending the limitations of the religious customs that shackled many of his peers, we can break through and better see what paths might move us or those around us forward in spiritual growth.

#6: THE CHRIST PATTERN (A.K.A. A FLASHLIGHT)

The pre-chorus of Semisonic’s “Closing Time” nicely articulates what I call the Christ pattern: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” First the dying, then the rising. Of course, we see this pattern in Jesus’s death and resurrection, but the same pattern plays out again and again in our lives: the old must pass away so that the new can come. Darkness falls when the sun sets, yet it cannot hold at bay the piercing light of the eventual and inevitable rising. This is the way of things—death followed by resurrection.

When it’s pitch dark outside, miles away from the manufactured glow of electricity, a flashlight ensures you know where you’re going. Should you approach an obstacle such as the edge of a cliff, a pit of quicksand, or a narcoleptic opossum, the light from the magic stick in your hand prevents you from certain doom. The Christ pattern secures the final spot on the essential tool list because, like a flashlight, it illuminates both the direction we ought to go and the paths we should avoid.

For example, when my wife and I are in conflict, I choose withdrawal, retreat, and shutting down as my go-to modes of self-preservation. These well-trodden paths are comfortable to me. Even if I were stumbling around in the dark, I could traverse them by memory. They call to me as the paths of least resistance. They entice me with offers of freedom from pain. All lies, of course, but years of traveling that road conditioned perfect Colby-sized ruts that make it oh so tempting. However, when I’m mindful, when I can take a breath and notice what is happening inside of me (namely, shutting down and retreating), I can find the necessary space to call to mind the Christ pattern of death and resurrection. This knowledge empowers me to choose the harder, scarier path of engagement and connection. It feels very much like a death to the self I’ve spent thirty years constructing, but it realistically provides the only way forward if what I want is a meaningful and honest relationship with Kate. This tool, the awareness of the Christ pattern of death and resurrection, maps out for me what paths lead to life and what paths lead to destruction.

I’ve encountered hundreds of people who’ve testified that something in their life needed to die as they moved away from conservative Christianity. Specific beliefs that held them back or trapped them in shame needed to die. Spiritual practices such as prayer, Bible study, and corporate worship often needed to end (or at least temporarily pause). Relationships or connections with communities might have demanded dissolution in order for them to find a healthier and happier future. These (often difficult) choices all felt like a dying of sorts, yet thanks to the Christ pattern, their stories always had a way to birth new life out of the graveyard of what they lost along the way.

NOW WE’RE READY

I firmly believe that as long as we carry these six tools, no obstacles will prove too hard. Jesus famously said, “Whoever wants to find their life must first lose it.” That simple (but not easy) instruction says it all. We can trust that if we stay open, responding to injuries with kindness and mercy, and choosing the path of love as we continue down the scary, vulnerable, hard, and narrow way that leads to certain death, then we will surely discover a flourishing, abundant, resurrected new life on the other side.

To learn more about The Shift, click here. 

Topics: Excerpt

Colby Martin

Written by Colby Martin

Colby Martin is cofounder of Sojourn Grace Collective in San Diego, California, and cohost of the Kate and Colby Show. He is a leading voice in the progressive Christian movement and the codirector of Launchpad Partners, Inc., which seeks to plant and resource progressive Christian communities across the United States. He is also the author of UnClobber: Rethinking our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality.

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