Why do we need spiritual leaders?

In a team building exercise at work today, we were given fifteen people and a life raft that only holds nine. The Titanic is sinking, basically, so who gets in and who stays behind? My team kept Obama but dumped Jay-Z, we kept the carpenter but dumped the line cook at Denny’s, we kept the pregnant lady but dumped Meryl Streep, we kept the stay-at-home mom but dumped John Boehner. At the end of the discussion, we had a priest and a rabbi in the boat with us and Oprah Winfrey in the ocean. My teammates wondered, why are we keeping the priest and the rabbi? “I suppose maybe someone might take comfort in a spiritual leader,” someone said. “I’m agnostic, so…” someone else said. “If we dump the priest, I’ll feel guilty about it,” someone else said, crossing herself simultaneously, “and have to go to church.”

I didn’t know how to answer. Why should the priest and the rabbi get a spot in our hypothetical life raft? What do they have to offer?

I had just brought up my come-to-faith college experience during the earlier ice breaker, so one colleague asked, “Are you still religious?”

I process my thoughts so much better with a keyboard and a backspace button, so when these kinds of conversations happen, I get a little nervous. I always work up in my head this big deal about how I love Jesus but I’m not that kind of Christian, you know, that kind, and I’m not that other kind either, I’m serious but not legalistic, saved but not a six-day Creationist, deeply interested and educated in the history of religion and a lover of the word of God that I really believe is the word of God but also believe that all truth is God’s truth so I also like science and math and philosophy and the advancement of new ideas and the realization of wonder and awe in nature and the power of mystery and miracle and relationship and love, love, love, so you see I’ve really thought a lot about all of this so please don’t think I’m crazy. That’s what happens in my head.

“Uhh, yeah… well… yes, but not in a ritualistic way…” I stuttered, “I care very much about faith, still.”

“Oh, okay,” she said.

She really doesn’t care about all of that. All she really wants to know is if I’m going to be offended because we are thinking about saving Oprah and ditching either the rabbi or the priest.

So I offered the priest up to the sharks. After all, I said, he’s a man of God. He’d do that kind of thing to save someone else. Plus, if he’s Catholic, he doesn’t have a family waiting for him at home, and he’s on good terms with God, soooo… pull Oprah back into the boat.

The question bothered me all day long—why should we keep the priest and rabbi in the boat—all through the afternoon trust equation discussion, through happy hour, on my drive home, and even through our Friday night house church meeting.

We studied the first part of James 3 tonight, which is all about the power of the tongue. How does bad language and our speech affect our behavior and attitude? How do words impact our children, our neighbors? How should we speak? What should we expose our kids to?

And in the midst of all of this I thought—all of the people I work with, all of the people I’ve interacted with year after year, they are all trying to be good people. They generally know the difference between right and wrong. They have their own moral codes, adopted from their parents or from their culture or reshaped and redefined along the way, and they are all not perfect. They try to watch their language and speak kindly to other people and encourage their children and spouses. They are all trying to be better. My office and school and higher education is filled with people who are generally good human beings trying to be better at something, trying to succeed.

The conversation tonight wasn’t just morality, but isn’t that what you hear most days from spiritual leaders? Do this. Don’t do that. Be kind. Follow the golden rule. Do better. Be better. Even corporate America and business educators are suggesting that businesses flourish by becoming agents of world benefit. World benefit – isn’t that what Christians aspire to? Do good? Serve the poor? Care for the earth? Treat each other with kindness (it was, after all, World Kindness Day yesterday)?

Which brings me back to an even bigger question than why spiritual leaders… why God? Who needs him, anyway, now that world leaders and business educators and philosophers have reasoned out the best ways to live? They are preaching the same gospel, aren’t they?

As we hashed out the ways our words affect other people tonight at house church I imagined the same conversation taking place in my secular work environment. It was nearly the same, minus a few Bible verse references.

Except for this one thing: Grace.

Grace—an undeserved gift that releases us from slavery to “do good things” and delivers us into “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.” This love frees the spirit from the burden to perform, the burden of guilt, the burden of fear. It is rooted in relationship. It filters the muddy waters. It strengthens and encourages and emboldens because we know there is a force that is stronger than our imperfections who is working in and through us for wholeness, for completeness. It is compassion in a hurricane of brokenness and disease. It is freedom from the hells we have been given and the hells we’ve made for ourselves, in addictions, in poverty, in selfishness, in greed. It illuminates so we can see how we have been fearfully and wonderfully made. It resides in us through the Holy Spirit as compass. It clarifies, purifies, mends, heals, hones, hammers, and polishes. Because it is unearned by definition it does not consider your qualifications or your past failures; grace loves and loves and loves, all day long, whether I take it or not, whether I recognize it or not, whether I call it “Jesus” or “God” or not, it shows up in truth, it shows up in beauty, it shows up as forgiveness, it shows up all over the place.

Spiritual leaders, then, shouldn’t be morality instructors. Even though the internet loves the “ten ways” lists, and people love to know how to become better people, the priests and rabbis might do better to stop telling people how to be better. Spiritual leaders should be more like scientists who observe and announce, “Look! Look what I found!” or maybe like poets who ponder and write, “I saw this small thing in the world and look how full of meaning it is,” or maybe they should be like stargazers who point to the heavens and declare, “There, isn’t that marvelous?” Spiritual leaders should say, “Let me show you grace. Here it is. Here it is. Here it is again. This is grace. This is love. This is Christ. This is God. Here is the Father. Here is the Son. Here is the Holy Spirit. Here they are again, ever-present, everlasting, loving you forever and ever and ever, loving you even after you screwed up, even after you’ve been ‘saved,’ even in your attempts to earn it, loving you, beautiful you, stunning you, masterpiece you, God loves you. That’s it. That’s all.”

Maybe I’ll grant the spiritual leader this one final benediction, “Now act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God.” We don’t need the priest who preaches morality. We need the priest who points to the heavens and says, “God. Have you seen this? Have you seen this grace? Have you seen this love?”

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