Fence Folks and Pasture People

We’re allowed to not like God but we’re not allowed to be the reason others dislike God.

The Chinese prayer bench in my living room has two translations of the Bible on one end and a marble head of the Buddha on the other. I bought the bench from an importer because I love the physical reminder that kneeling in prayer sets it aside as a sacred time and yet, I’ve never used this bench for that purpose. In my Protestant faith tradition, there were no physical artifacts, no rosaries, no prayer rugs, no benches, just heavy study bibles and highlighters. We sat in church with our highlighters marking our bibles and maybe a cross necklace around our necks.

Anne Lamott wrote that we could group our prayers into three categories, “Help”, “Thanks” and “Wow” and she’s right. Before my feet hit the ground each morning, my prayers fall into the category of ‘thanks’. As I hear from friends or family, read the news or my email, my prayers will settle into ‘help’ and any walk in nature will have my heart whispering, “wow”; but I no longer attend church or mark up my Bible. I believe in a God who craves a personal relationship with each human just as we are.

Celine Dion’s song “Because you loved me” is not my favorite by ANY stretch, but every single word in that song has been uttered from my heart to God. When I hear that song, I am reminded of when I lost my faith and felt like I was utterly alone with no one in my corner. This song came on the radio and I laid down on the rug, face down, crying, and knew this was how I now felt about God. My relationship with faith and spirituality was forever changed.

I was raised going to church three times a week and a Bible study added in for good measure; and because we moved so much as a military family, the church was our constant. I learned to speak Christianese and recognize our coded language in others. Most of the Christians around me were the type that if Michelangelo painted them, he would depict them cramming a bible down someone’s throat and then they would complain about the depiction. They were focused on labeling sins and segmenting life in boxes. There was a box for modesty, one for morality, one for the language used, TV shows watched, TV shows boycotted, behavior considered acceptable and there was even a box for ‘lukewarm christians’, the ones they gossiped about over lunch. I was stressed out over verses like “Be Perfect Because Your Heavenly Father is Perfect” and told how ‘we’ voted. That kind of focus leaves no room for joy and for years I pushed back against people who white knuckle church pews, use their bibles as weapons, and politicize the church. I’m tired of fighting with them or about them. Their beliefs aren’t changing the world, they’re only making headlines and turning people off to God. They remind me of barbed wire fences: dangerous, harmful and designed to keep others out.

My definition of spirituality/faith feels like the lush green meadows and pastures promised in the Psalms. When I think about God, I see a soothing brook of fresh water, warming sunshine and gentle love, there is no scarcity, just peace and acceptance. My faith tells me that God is Love. Full Stop. It also tells me that I am loved as much as lilies and birds — that as their every need is met, mine will be too, and in fact, that we are all worthy of love, that God wants only one thing-a personal relationship with each of us and personal relationships look different for each person.

Christ said that only two commandments mattered: Loving God with all of my heart and loving my neighbors as I would love myself. (yes, self care is Biblical) Those two things alone take up a great deal of energy and leave zero room for the other nonsense noise the barbed wire folks seem to care about so much.

“Set your mind on things above” is from the New Testament, and I interpret that as directing my intention-that what I think about, I will bring about. I am nudged to focus on the good things in my life and all around me. “Whatever is good, pure and right, think on these things” was once language used to tell me to not see R-rated movies. Now, those words help me count the blessings, never take a hot shower, food in my cupboards or clothes on my back for granted. My biggest problems are not IF I will eat, but what food I am in the mood to eat.

Spirituality feels a little messier to some but it feels like my favorite slippers to me. After waking around on NYC sidewalks all day in uncomfortable shoes, I step inside my apartment and trade the heels for slippers that comfort my tired toes and let me know I’m home. I can be real here. I don’t have a Bible in every room but one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received came from my Jewish friend Dawn, “She doesn’t even have to open her mouth for you to know she loves God and people.” Thank you, Red.

In the churches of my youth we sang, “My God and I go in the fields together, we walk and talk as good friends should and do.” I think I understand barbed wire beliefs-they make some feel safe and provide order. I grew up with order and safety and the words of that hymn left an imprint on my heart. I even wore a little mustard seed in a bubble around my neck — a faith as small as a mustard seed is powerful. Faith was all I needed. Not facts, not boxes for acceptable behaviors and conversations. Just my God and me.

As a pasture person, I believe in the power of intention and intuition and refer to them as the Holy Spirit. I take my faith literally when Christ said he would search for the one lost sheep and leave the 99 unattended. My faith taught me that the original barbed wire fence folks hated Christ. I’m not surprised they make headlines these days for who they hate as they express moral outrage and wag fingers about how this nation should be a Christian nation. (Some fence folks slept through American History and World History) The Pharisees were the original barbed wire fence folks. They obeyed the rules and Christ was not interested in the rules; He was interested only in the people who were made to feel less than because of the rules.

Henri Nouwen’s book “The Prodigal Son” changed my life in many ways. In this small text, Nouwen reminds us of the New Testament parable but admonishes us that at many points in our lives, we have all been the perfect elder son, following the rules and judging those who do not. We have also all been the prodigal son, disappointing and rebelling; but the ultimate goal is to be the Father. The Father who did not stand at the door waiting for his child to return. The Father who did not lecture his child or set down conditions before he would be allowed back home, the Father was not a part of the Fence Folk. He lifted up his garments (something no self-respecting Hebrew man would do then) and ran out to his child. Spirituality to me is leaving the fence and running out to meet the hurting, the poor, the lonely, the cast aside, the broken-hearted, the refugee-not sitting on fences and barking for the world to change around you.

The phrase Namaste at the end of every yoga class is a holy statement: acknowledging that God lives in every single being. These are some of my spiritual practices: tend to creation, care for animals, show up and bolt into the lives of the hurting, help the poor and the refugees, question how I am spending my time and money and how I could make better use of both and have a continual conversation with God. Praying without ceasing. Love others. Even the fence folks.