Finding Jesus Under the Golden Arches, and Other Tales of Religionless Christianity

After moving to Maine in my mid-twenties, I slowly emerged from a long stretch of having nothing much to do with God or organized religion. During my high school years, I was a devout Evangelical, and the only school I applied to was a Christian liberal arts college. But in that first year away from home, I found that my world—and my sense of the possibilities of God—began to open up. I didn’t last long at the Christian college, and for the next several years going to church struck me as a tremendous waste of a Sunday morning.

In 1988 my husband Scott and I moved to Maine to run a bed-and-breakfast—something that we were ill-equipped to do but didn’t know at the time. In those quiet early mornings after the coffee was on and the muffins were in the oven, but before our guests trickled into the dining room, I surprised myself by giving Jesus another chance. I started reading a chapter or two of Mark—the shortest Gospel—intent on discovering what Jesus really had to say without the filter of my youth group leaders’ or professors’ particular Christian lens. It was as close to a science experiment as a creative writing major ever gets.

What I discovered both startled and delighted me. Jesus was impatient. He didn’t suffer foolishness. He seemed to take a bit of pleasure in confounding people. “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you?” he says to his disciples. “How much longer must I put up with you?”

He often “sighed deeply in his spirit” before speaking. He often sounded dismissive and grumpy around those he knew well, but exhibited a generous and gentle manner with those who approached him for help and healing. He wasn’t found in the synagogues, but rather out on the water or walking from town to town. Jesus turned out to be a very interesting person, and slowly I began to warm to him again.

Organized religion, not so much.

People who follow Jesus into their communities stand a chance of encountering people who need the love, healing, and transformation that God so freely offers.

Had I added Dietrich Bonhoeffer to my reading list back then, his notion of “religionless Christianity” might have resonated. Almost 50 years earlier, Bonhoeffer had spoken of a “world come of age” where denominations—like those in Germany whose leadership did nothing to stand up to the Nazi regime—would no longer find purchase on the hearts of the people.

In Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer wrote of a Christianity “born anew” though “prayer and righteous action” rather than practices of hollow self-preservation:

It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming—as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with men and the coming of his kingdom . . . Till then the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair, but there will be those who pray and do right and wait for God’s own time.

Fast forward ten years from my bed-and-breakfast days to find me working for an Episcopal diocese. Press the remote again to zip along another 18 years and share in an experience I had a few weeks ago. Join me as I sit in a side pew of a church in Brunswick, Maine listening to my boss—a smart, wise, and kind guy who happens to be a bishop named Steve Lane—talk about where following Jesus might actually lead us:

Jesus leads us into the world. God may be found in the church, to be sure, but not exclusively so. God is in all the places where people live, and it is to these places that Jesus leads us. We go into our communities not because potential members live there. We go to meet our neighbors because that’s where Jesus is.

Steve is right, of course, but recent events have reminded me that we don’t even have to walk out the doors of our homes and churches to encounter God.

Sometimes we only need to go as far as our own bathrooms.

20160429_Tools_ShottLast Saturday evening Scott and I returned home after several days away. We were excited—in a way that only middle-aged people can be—to see the new bathroom tile that had been installed in our absence. What we found, however, was a whole lot of nothing. The tile contractor, a quiet man named Bob, whom I’d met briefly when he was working on our guest bathroom a few weeks before, seemed to have left in a hurry. We found an abandoned bucket half-filled with rock-solid mortar, a trowel left soaking in another bucket, boxes of tile piled up in the hallway. The next morning I discovered a dime-sized spot of dried blood on the window sill. We speculated on Bob’s fate. If he had cut himself, wouldn’t there be more blood? Had he had chest pain or a car accident on his way to get a sandwich for lunch? His trailer, filled with expensive equipment, was parked in the driveway. Lots of tools were laid out in the garage.

“What about Bob?” we asked ourselves all weekend.

On Monday I emailed the manager of the flooring company. I didn’t want to narc on Bob, but I thought I should let him know. An hour later, the manager called. He thanked me for my email and sighed deeply in his spirit. Bob was apparently having “personal difficulties,” he explained. “We all have our demons, but some of us keep them under control better than others,” he said. Whatever Bob struggles with had caused him to abandon his livelihood in a flash, with a fresh batch of mortar mixed up. Whether Bob’s demon is alcohol or the opiate addiction that is growing exponentially in Maine, I don’t know.

Here’s one thing I know to be true, though: Religion doesn’t have anything to offer Bob.

Religion can’t help because religion expects him to come to church. Bonhoeffer said that “the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair” until we adopt a new language and a new way of being—one that shocks people with its power to bring God’s peace and God’s kingdom into our midst.

People who follow Jesus into their communities, however, stand a chance of encountering people who need the love, healing, and transformation that God so freely offers. That is to say, they’ll find Bob and the rest of us. If we Jesus Followers do this, I don’t think it portends “religionless” Christianity, but rather that the facets of organized religion we cherish—the gathering for worship and mutual support and good company along the road—will be a byproduct of the ministry we engage in outside our big red doors.

Whether Bob’s demon is alcohol or the opiate addiction that is growing exponentially in Maine, I don’t know. Here’s one thing I know to be true, though: Religion doesn’t have anything to offer Bob. Religion can’t help because religion expects him to come to church.

Three years ago a Roman Catholic neighbor twisted my arm to attend an informational meeting at the local library about restorative justice efforts starting in our community. They needed mentors for young people in legal trouble. Not my thing, I thought at the time. But the dentist drill of the Holy Spirit started its unrelenting whine and, the next thing you know, I’m in mentor training.

Last summer I met Dan, a young man who is in some serious trouble. Frankly, prior to becoming a mentor, I had never spent time with someone in serious trouble. When I was first offered the mentoring gig, I had to pause for a bit. I was a little frightened by the thought of someone who had done what he had done, even if he was drunk at the time.

Several months after I started meeting with Dan, I was standing in the kitchen babbling to Scott about how it was going, when he turned to me and said, “I’m not so crazy about you hanging out alone with a guy charged with multiple felonies.” I assured him that I am not afraid. I know Dan. I trust him. I respect the hard work he is doing to turn his life to a productive and healthy path. His transformation is a wonder to behold.

One of the conditions of Dan’s restorative justice agreement is to speak to students about substance abuse and second chances. In January, he was invited to speak to a group of about 600 people at a local high school. He asked me to look over his speech before he sent it to the school administrators for review. Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have recognized Dan’s language immediately. It was non-religious. But at the same time liberating and redeeming.

The day before Dan gave his speech, we met, as we do each week, to check in over coffee at McDonalds. I felt pretty confident he was good to go. I felt the certain, unchurchy presence of Jesus with us.

It’s funny: after all these years I can still find Jesus under the splendor of a cathedral’s arches, but these days I’m more likely to find his company under the golden ones.

Heidi Shott

Heidi Shott is Canon for Communications and Advocacy for the Episcopal Diocese of Maine. Two of her previous Bearings contributions, “Praying the Neighborhood” and “The Privilege of Belonging,” have won Polly Bond Awards in Theological Reflection from the Episcopal Communicators. Her news stories and features about the church and essays about faith in daily life have appeared in Episcopal CafeEpiscopal LifeThe WitnessTrinity (Wall Street) News, and several Forward Movement publications, among others. She blogs at “Welcome to Heidoville.” Follow her on Twitter @heidomaine.

Image credits

Cover: Sean O Domhnaill, “Salivation or Salvation,” October 5, 2013. Via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Cropped.

Inside: Untitled, by Heidi Shott. All rights reserved.