Recycling Our Lives, Recycling Our Religion

Last week, my wife and I visited family in Portland, Oregon. While we were wandering the streets on a cold afternoon, we stumbled into a store called Scraps. It’s where artists go to get raw materials for their creativity. Some might refer to the contents of the store as junk. But every item of junk is treasure in the eye of the right beholder. And for the right eyes, the treasures were everywhere. A barrel of jar lids. A box of irregular little pieces of leather. A bucket of random pencils. A bin of odd-shaped plastic lenses. A pile of replacement parts for pianos. A tub of dented ping pong balls with a sign over it that said, “To get rid of the dents, put them in boiling water.” Remember this vital knowledge!

And over a barrel full of plastic tennis ball container tubes, a sign: “What will you do with these?”

There are two kinds of people. The kind of people who look at that sign, and the contents of the barrel, and say, “Huh?” And the kind of people who look at them and say, “Challenge accepted!”

How many times have you told the story of your life? Besides the story getting longer and longer, even in condensed form, how often have you changed that story? Told a different version altogether? Think of it. There are countless thousands of equally truthful ways to share your autobiography, no matter how young or old you may be. For one thing, there is a staggering amount of information from which to choose in telling your story. You could spend all day just recounting all the different kinds of foods you’ve eaten, and in what contexts. When was the last time somebody asked you to tell your life story, and you answered with a story entirely about food? Try it! And let me know how it goes.

My question for you today is this: pick out something from your life story, and ask yourself: “What can I do with this? How can I take this experience, incident, or moment from my life and re-use, re-purpose, and recycle it to come up with a new story for my life?”

Seems like a good new question for a good new year, does it not?

How many obituaries have you read that included the following sentence: “Jane Doe died after a long battle with cancer.” I would like to go on record right now and declare that if I get cancer, and die as a consequence, I do not want that sentence to be included in my obituary. It is time to recycle the story of cancer. Of course, it is time to compost cancer once and for all. But short of that, recycling of the story of cancer is in order. Is cancer a battle? Or is it a journey? — a series of discoveries, some miserable, and others profoundly good? Is it like the War on Terror, or is it more like John Wesley Powell’s exploration of the Colorado River, which included a lot of ups and downs, rapids and still waters, frightful incidents and amazing discoveries, as his crew floated down the Grand Canyon? If this is how I go, write my obit in terms of the first trip down the Colorado!

We just celebrated a major event in the history of recycling: Christmas. Because Christians took all sorts of bits and bobs and scraps from Judaism and recycled them into a new religion. Starting with Christmas itself. If ever there was a mash-up of disparate elements into a new story, it would be Christmas. Reach into one barrel and take the story of Augustus, the Roman emperor who was said to have been born from a divinely impregnated woman. Reach into another bin and take the hope of the Jewish people for a Messiah to deliver them from oppression. Reach into another bucket and pull out Bethlehem, where a king in the line of David should be born, and into another pile where you find Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, and create a narrative connecting these locations. From another barrel pull out the line in the Book of Numbers that says “A star shall come out of Jacob” and mix it into the story. Keep going through the Hebrew Scripture Scrap Store and string together the greatest story ever told.

This morning, the lectionary reading is the story of Jesus’ baptism. It’s a great story for starting a new year, clean. Dipping ourselves in the Jordan River to cleanse our souls of 2017, which, let’s face it, was a very messy year. This story is the product of religious recycling, too. It takes the Jewish practice of baptism for repentance from sin, and re-purposes it with new meaning – the infusion of a new Holy Spirit into a person. Early Christians went on to recycle this story into a liturgical practice of initiation into Christian community. It’s the same old H2O, but ritual anointing with water means something different to us now than it did for the people who were baptized by John the Baptist.
We practice a religion that was recycled from pieces of an older one. And we get to recycle Christianity’s bits and bobs and scraps, too, into a form that serves souls for our time.

We get to re-use parts of our religion that have been neglected or forgotten, but are spiritually useful now. The monastic spiritual practices of ancient and medieval Christianity have been left behind by most Protestant churches today. But it is high time to reach down into the barrel and retrieve them and dust them off and adapt them for our time. That’s what I’ve been working on doing in my Mindful Christianity project: reviving the mindfulness practices that the monks and nuns used to experience God directly for many hundreds of years.

We get to re-purpose parts of our religion that are defunct in their original use, but with re-interpretation, can be put to use again in new ways. There are rules for behavior in the Bible that just don’t make any sense anymore. Like the prohibitions on homosexuality and divorce and the rules against eating beef stroganoff… that’s right, the Bible says you can’t eat food that mixes the flesh and the milk of the same animal. And so on. Instead of seeing these passages in the Bible as prescriptive – telling us how to live our lives today – we can re-purpose them to understand them as descriptive – revealing the long and continually evolving story of human beings as they have worked out how to put their faith into application in daily life. It is a story that did not end with the Book of Revelation.

We get to recycle the good parts of our religion. Which means reassembling its basic good elements in new and creative ways. We get to find new good meanings in stories and rituals and practices that had old good meanings. We get to take a bold leap beyond orthodoxy and mash-up and mix-up the wonderful ingredients of our religion. Christians have been doing this since day one, so why should we stop now? I’ve participated in this tradition of recycling by creating new rituals for the church, based on old ones. One of them is the blessing of the driver’s license. Cars are dangerous and we need all the spiritual air-bags we can get for protection. Anybody here recently get a driver’s license? Bring it up and I’ll baptize it. I also baptize decommissioned licenses. Anyone who has to give up their license because of age or infirmity richly deserves such a blessing.

Another word related to recycling is to “reduce”…. And would this not be a good idea for our religion? Christianity is full of priceless treasures. And it is also full of excess baggage, mostly in the form of obscure and outdated dogma. Like the Holy Trinity. Let’s face it. The Trinity is the product of a bunch of ancient theologians with too much time on their hands. It took them hundreds of years to come up with this tortured, obscure, opaque dogmatic formula. They should have spent that time and energy digging latrines or otherwise contributing to human health and happiness. Why God in three persons? Why not just one? But if more than one, why not more than three? My seminary roommate, who was no more orthodox a Christian than I, was much influenced by Carl Jung, the psychoanalyst. Based on Jung’s perspective he wrote a paper about the Quaternity – Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and Holy Mother Wisdom. I liked it. Endless interpretations and dissertations and sermons have dissected the doctrine of the Trinity, but is it really essential to the faith? Probably not. Let’s travel light in the spirit, release or recycle beliefs that get in the way of love and kindness and compassion, and make room for more spiritual creativity.

Some things in our religion just need to be composted. Such as taking the Bible literally, even when science and common sense and common decency suggest otherwise. Such as assuming that our religion is superior to all others. Such as assuming that people who are not Christian will go to hell. Such as assuming there is a hell of damnation for certain people, and a heaven of reward for others. Such as the useless concept of Christian orthodoxy itself. Time to dig a big hole and toss this stuff into it and bury it once and for all, and then plant the seeds of a new kind of Christianity on top of the heap. Whatever nutrients remain in this rotting dogmatic pile will feed new and wonderful forms of the faith.

How can we put these recycling practices into action in our own lives? How can we re-use, re-purpose, recycle, reduce, and even compost the incidents and memories and experiences and trajectories of our lives into a new narrative that serves us and others better? Because the stories we choose to tell are the stories that shape our lives today. If you tell the story of your past as if it were a battle, you’ll be looking for cover, or looking for weapons, today and tomorrow. If you tell your life story as if it was like going down the Grand Canyon for the first time, you’ll be looking for adventure and discovery, taking deep breaths in the tough stretches and exhaling in awe in the beautiful ones. Likewise, the way we reframe the story of our religion will reframe the way that we live it out today.
It’s a new year. Will you tell the same old story in 2018? Or come up with a new one, out of the same factual raw material, that aims you toward kindness and joy and creativity? Will we do Christianity the old way? Or recycle its good old elements into a fresh good religion for our time? What will we do with it? May we all say: challenge accepted!

About the Author

Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, USC
Website: MINDFULCHRISTIANITY.ORG Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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