At first, I couldn’t tell if she was crying, laughing or hyperventilating. Two weeks after arriving in the States, Franziska posted a video on her Facebook page. It was this particularly horrendous TV commercial for Der Wienerschnitzel restaurant, advertising their new bratwurst. We were still in this stage where I, and I guess all of her new American friends, were trying to outdo each other in introducing Franzi to the wonderful things that make us proud of our great country. I saw that video link, and thought to myself, “Oh. NO. No, no, no, no, no. NO.”. And then I clicked the link, which was clearly a video that she had recorded with her phone pointed at the TV screen, and in the background I hear her making these strange noises…
To say that I was mortified might be an understatement. The fact that she knew we had a restaurant named “Der Wienerschnitzel” was bad enough, but this…THIS was downright embarrassing beyond words! Of all the folks we could have chosen to represent us, did it HAVE to be Gustav the Creepy Fake German Man who was dancing and singing about bratwurst with that goofy grin on his face??? Really? Really?!
It turns out that my wife was laughing, not hyperventilating over the commercial. She says the guy actually has a pretty good Bavarian accent. She has, however, calmly informed me that she will be forced, as a matter of loyalty to her homeland, to divorce me forthwith if I so much as pull into the parking lot of the Der Wienerschnitzel with her in the car. The dread of encountering some weird aberration such as Strudel-schnitzel makes her shudder. And just like that, one dancing guy in lederhosen with a loud, completely inapplicable message about bratwurst has turned her away forever from the joy of a delicious, albeit admittedly less than healthy foot-long experience of hot doggedness, not to mention the thrill of simulated bratwurst-ness. Does she still believe in the power of the mighty Brat and kraut? Oh yes, for she has experienced in its authentic glory. But will she gather with those of us so devoted to our own faulty experience of otherness and sit down to dine with us, as we joyfully don our foam wiener costumes and adorn the antennas of our autos with plastic golden wiener idols that boldly declare our loyalty to the Der? Over her dead body.
And so it becomes suddenly clearer to me what my brothers and sisters in humanity mean when they say, “I am spiritual but NOT religious”. Do they believe in a Higher Power? Oh yes. And some still refer to that Power as God. But will they enter into the house I know as Church and dine at the table of the Eucharist with those of us who still joyfully put on our tasseled robes and giddily inhale the aroma of that incense that wafts out of our golden purses as we chant to each other in the almost forgotten language of “church-ese”? Over their dead bodies.
“But why?” so many of we Christians ask, scratching our heads and well and truly perplexed? The God of our understanding has invited us, “Come and taste to see that I am good”, and we have come willingly, joyfully to the table of His love. And we continue to do so, week after week, feeling the blissful relief of Grace melting on our tongues in the form of a honeyed wafer, satisfying our parched throats with the sweetness of the grape juice that represents the new Covenant of the wine of gladness that means unending forgiveness. How are “they”, the spiritual but not religious, sustained without the offering of these elements which become for us during the gritty, stumble-and-fall- face- down-in -the –dirt, times of life, the body and blood of our Messiah who is the Balm of Gilead for us? Why don’t “they” want that healing? Don’t “they” want the soul-cleansing-blood of the Lamb to set things right again within themselves during that hour of power every week?
The answer, I believe lies in the very questions that “we”, the earnest religious, who do not really understand why “religious” has become a dirty word but avoid using it at all costs so as not to be deemed “unspiritual”, ask ourselves. Do you see it? The answer, hidden there in the question? The answer is that some of “us”, by our ridiculous, inauthentic parody of faith and unloving behaviors have made it so that there now exists a “we” and a “they, an “us” and a “them”. And that, my religious sisters and brothers is so very UNspiritual.
We Christians have this habit of meeting together in a building so often that we lose sight of ourselves as the church – the organism that is the living Body of Christ, and begin to identify as the Church – the actual structure we meet in. But in reality, we are a family. A real family. Not a Norman Rockwell-esque picture perfect, completely sanctified God’s-work-is-finished-come-and-behold-our perfection-family. Not a well-oiled, smooth running “organization”. We are a family. And like any other family, we have some members that are at any given moment “fit” to be the official hosts to people who come to meet us. Members who are capable of inviting others inside, giving them the most comfortable chair, presenting them with good food and the towels we reserve for “guests” and even remembering to leave mints on the pillows. You know, people who have it together at the given moment and can make others feel so welcome that they soon cease to feel like guests and find themselves at home. And then, like any other family, we have members who at that particular given moment are better suited to stay downstairs in the basement shooting pool and arguing over who is winning the dart game when the guests come over. You know the family members I mean. The ones that are crosswise with God at the moment and are so unaware of it that they will likely get into a biting, scratching, hair-pulling fight right in the parlor floor about whether to serve Oreos and Kool-Aid or eclairs and espresso to the “company”. The ones that always tend to be drawn to the cameras and the protest signs criticizing other people’s behavior when they are still wearing electronic ankle bracelets and have handcuffs still dangling from one of their own wrists. Now before anyone gets all huffy about my characterizing some Christians that way, let me clarify: I believe that because the family of God is made up of humans, we all take our turns being both kinds of folks – some to a greater degree in either direction than others. When I look at my own life with brutal honesty I must freely admit that I have, at different times, been more suited to the parlor and at other times I have been the one that needed to hang out in the basement until I could see that I was being a jackass and needed the loving Grace that illuminates the need for changing direction and the power to do so. And the fact is, if you are honest, you have been in each position at some point in your life as well. Now that’s just the truth. However you identify – as spiritual, religious, half and half – does not matter. You’ve been an awesome uber ambassador for God at times, just like me. And you’ve been a jackass and never realized it until you felt long ears hanging off the side of your head and felt your tail slapping around when you got overwrought. Just like me. Just like her. Just like him. Just like “us” and just like “them”. We are human. All of us. And we are God’s family. All of us.
So what is the solution? We all need to get over ourselves and each other. Whatever it takes. Climb over it. Get a running start and leap over it. Stand on each other’s’ shoulders and boost each other over it. But just. Get. Over it. When we see obstacles in the road, get over them. Religious Ones, we must not retreat inside our buildings and pretend there is no one outside. If you take a look at the parlor and see that the welcoming committee has gone rogue, gently reassign some to the basement and take care of them until they heal. In the meantime, bring some folks who have returned to sanity back upstairs to meet the guests. Spiritual Ones, if you knock on a door and find a parlor full of folks serving stale cookies and suspicious Kool Aid, please do not turn around and high tail it to the woods. Go down the street a little further and find a place where you can find some good espresso and fresh eclairs. Don’t get mad and stop trying. Get inside. Visit the basement. See what you can do to help so that we can all find common ground again. It’s so important that we do not just embrace the labels and give up on each other.
Because the thing is, Jesus himself was “religious”. He worshiped in the temple and he attended all of the feasts, and he even did all of the ceremonial hand washing stuff. And yet, he was just as fully spiritual. He preached in the fields and by the water. When people spoke to him about how they were worried about things, he told them to consider the splendorous beauty of the lilies. See what he did there? See what he is doing now? Showing us that it is possible to be both religious and spiritual. I don’t think we need these artificial separations any more. When we see someone who is extremely judgmental, should we simply label them “religious” and walk away? Or do we call them out as Jesus called out the Pharisees, and encourage them to remember that their first love is the God of Love, not the law of God? If we see someone who is hiding moral flabbiness behind a label of “spiritual”, do we toss our heads with a “harrumph” in their direction and move on? Or do we approach with gentle, uncompromising boldness as Jesus did when he confronted the woman at the well and offered to introduce her to a water which quenches thirst forever?
Spiritual. Religious. The label does not matter. We must work together. It is true that sitting in a church building does not make us Christians any more than cramming an all meat frank into a pretzel bun makes it schnitzel. But just because places like Der Wienerschnitzel are serving a hot dog we can’t relate to, we can’t just give up on all of it. It’s time to take a tip from my wife, and serve up some real bratwurst and kraut and share it with the rest of the community. Then we can all taste, and see that in spite of everything else in the world, God, our God, is good.