Back in 2014, my now best friend Michael Machuga told me that he was no longer a Christian, but a Buddhist. It was during what would become our favorite hike – down the Feather River Canyon, across what is known as Head Dam, up to the top of Sawmill Peak, and then back down, across, and up the canyon again. All in all, I’d have to say it’s roughly 5 miles, but it feels more like 10. It’s steep. There are boulders to climb. The ground gives out on you from time to time. And did I mention that it’s steep?
Anyway, when he first told me this, I was still in the process of deconstructing my Evangelical faith. I was not quite in it, but I was not entirely out of it. I still had worry. Fear. Trepidation. Would God punish the wicked and send them to hell? Were non-Christians destined to the flames? I didn’t think so, but I still wasn’t 100% sure. So, needless to say, I was worried for him. But damn! I was worried for myself, too, because I had gotten to the point where I wasn’t sure God even existed. And on my most skeptical of days, I was pretty convinced God didn’t.
However, what he told me about Buddhism also made perfect sense to me. Life wasn’t about what happened after we died; life was all about the “Now.” It wasn’t about “going to heaven,” or, probably more accurately, NOT “going to hell,” but about how to be mindful and here in this beautiful present moment – the only moment we really have. I am so glad that I had at least deconstructed enough of my former faith to just accept Michael where he was at, without any need to proselytize. This has been one of my life’s greatest blessings, because had I had an agenda that day, I would have missed out on a beautiful friendship, one that has helped me grow in ways I would have never thought imaginable.
Friendship Without Agenda
Friendship without agenda is one of the keys to a long-lasting relationship. Within the confines of most Christian circles, this is impossible. I learned that firsthand, the minute I walked away from my church and my faith. Those who I thought were ride-or-die homies ghosted on me the minute I was no longer in the “tribe.” Like the main character in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, it was as if I never existed.
But with Michael, this has not been the case. Throughout our 6 years of friendship, there has been no agenda, no script we have to stick to. Sure, we have shared interests and worldviews, as well as a podcast, but it’s perfectly permissible to disagree and not see eye to eye. Yes, we are both Tolkien nerds, and include references to The Lord of the Rings in our multiple books, and yes, we both believe that in the end, all will be well (let’s loosely call it universalism). But should one of us decide, for example, that they no longer believe in God, or something to that effect, I know deep down in my bones that we’d still be friends.
I wish Christianity embraced this mentality. But with fear as the cornerstone of many of the faith’s denominations, it’s impossible. Should any of our friends backslide, they’re doomed. So, we must always be on guard, so as to help spare our fellow congregants from the potential eternal flames. As Michael says in our book A Journey with Two Mystics, hell and fear are both traps of the highest order. And he’s right, at least per my experience and the experience of many I’ve come into contact with over the years.
So, what is my advice? It would be this: To have authentic relationships, we must approach them devoid of any agenda. If you are a Christian, and think others should be Christian as well, then allow Jesus to stand on his own two feet. In other words, be like Jesus – serving the needy, feeding the poor, and so on – without having to ram the name “Jesus” down people’s throats. Remember, heaven and hell are both at-hand. They are both potential realities, and are both experienced, in some way or another, by everyone who walks this earth. So, carve out slices of heaven now for the sake of heaven itself. There need not be any threat of hell attached as an epilogue.
And lastly, go out there and find a fellow Hobbit to traverse this life with. If you are a Frodo, make sure you have a Samwise Gamgee to always have your back. And if you are a Sam, take care of that Frodo in your life. It truly is a beautiful thing to have a best friend, and I’m lucky to have one in Michael.
If you want to get to know both me and Michael more, please check out our website, where you can link to our podcast and our books. Or, here’s a link to each installment of The Bonfire Sessions. Each one is only 99 cents on Kindle, because we love ya!!!
The Bonfire Sessions: Winter (coming January 20, 2021)
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