By Frederick W. Schmidt
My brother Dave is ex-Army, an orthopedic hand surgeon, and a Christian. But recently he had to give up his practice because he had an aggressive and malignant tumor removed from the occipital lobe of his brain. The damage that the tumor and the treatment did to his eyesight cost him his career.
After operating on 120 patients a month who needed repairs to shattered bones and severed blood vessels, one commonplace Tuesday afternoon, he took the results of his MRI, went in to see the chief of surgery, and explained, "I can't operate anymore and you can't afford to have me operate." Now he is trying to sort out what he can do with his life in a world made smaller by damaged eyesight.
But he doesn't go to church anymore in order to find help with that struggle. Why? Well, as he explains it, there are at least three reasons and I think that they help to explain why an increasing number of people think of themselves as spiritual but not religious.
One is that the church won't stop talking to him about money. Oh, he understands the need for stewardship. He gets the expenses involved in real mission. What he doesn't understand is the way in which the church so often lets the appeals for money take precedence over nearly everything else. Rightly, he notes, "Jesus risked everything to save others. The church risks anything and everything to save itself."
Second, the churches he has attended won't talk to him in a way that speaks to his life. He's listened to clergy talk over and around life's challenges without ever saying anything real about them. The preachers he has heard either string together a series of twenty-five dollar words they learned in seminary, or soft-ball life's hard realities. One way or another there is little or nothing with which he can connect.
Third, on the rare occasion when the church does speak to him about the challenges he faces, as he puts it, the preacher usually "blows sunshine up my ass and tells me that everything will be alright." It's hard, he points out, when you've been told that you have a brain tumor to hear people tell you that God has a plan, that the best is yet to come, or that you are living a blessing in disguise. Saying that to someone with a tumor that claims the lives of all but 3 percent who have them is worse than useless. "It's horse shit, not just false hope, to argue that at age 52 I can do more good without my surgical skills, than I did with them."
It's no surprise that the two friends he has that speak most readily and directly to him about the spiritual demands of life are no-nonsense, plain-spoken, recovering alcoholics. They may lack the theological vocabulary of a priest or pastor, and they may not have the time to dedicate their lives to a study of scripture, but they have sharpened what they believe and they have refined the way that they live by bringing their faith to bear upon the hard realities of life. "The institutional crap doesn't mean anything to them. Living their lives does."
The conversation has led me to begin applying what I call "The Dave Test" to what I write. Am I writing for real people who work in the real world? Am I writing for people who think that their faith in God ought to make a difference and are looking for a book to help them in the press of busy lives that demand that most of their attention?
If you are convinced that the way we think shapes the way we pray and the way we pray shapes the way that we think, but you find it hard to get advice that speaks to you - advice that is honest about life and spiritually grounded -- then this column is written for you.
I won't argue that I have all of the answers. I won't claim to have named all of the challenges that you are facing. For all that we hold in common, each of us have an experience that is all our own.
But I will offer you a place to begin doing your own spiritual work, a place to talk about what is happening "out there" in the spiritual landscape that we all journey, a conversation partner, a place to begin thinking spiritually about the life you live, and thoughts to build on or to reject. Come what may -- and your responses will have a lot to do with what we discuss -- my hope is that you will be a little clearer about what you believe, why you believe it, why it matters, and how it shapes your life.
Check back every Monday for the latest column in The Spiritual Landscape.
The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. is Director of Spiritual Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. An Episcopal priest, he also serves as the director of the Episcopal studies program. He is the author of several books, including Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Luke (Morehouse, 2009) and What God Wants for Your Life (Harper One, 2005).