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Saturday, October 03, 2009

Let's find 'Sheila'

It's a running joke in my congregation that I write six sermons for the one I actually preach.

This week's gospel lesson on divorce (Mark 10:2-16) provided at least seven times seventy sermons.

I've been thinking of that video that is now, I suppose "viral". It's the one where Wile E. Coyote finally gets the Road Runner.

He has dedicated his entire life to attaining this goal and, when he finally does, he falls into severe depression. His life loses meaning and purpose. He contemplates suicide.

After a terrible time, the final scene is one where he's talking with his friend, and tells him about how he pulled himself back from the abyss and finally has his life in order.

"Wow, that's great," says his friend.

In the final frame, Wile E. says to his friend, "So, if you have about 45 minutes, I'd like to tell you about the Lord Jesus Christ."

"Ah, s**t," says his friend.

It's clearly meant to make fun of Christianity - well, at least that 'brand' of Christianity which purports a particular kind of fundamental theology. The kind that trades in one addiction for an 'addiction to Jesus'.

It makes the rest of us Christians look and sound like idiots and I suppose, on some level, we deserve the ridicule.

What's fascinating to me is why this particular brand of Christianity continues to have such wide appeal to so many. I don't understand it.

At a very, very basic level, however, I think the creators of this video know something that I haven't considered. My belief in Jesus became very strong in one of the lowest moments of my life. His suffering - the betrayal, the false accusations, his death on the cross - spoke powerfully to me at a time when I was feeling similar suffering.

That's not the problem. The problem is when folks get 'stuck' there. In the shallow end of the baptismal water. We seem to focus on the problems of others - of 'saving' others - rather than continue to work on the path of our own salvation.

The passages from Mark on divorce are very clear. Jesus is 'just saying no' to divorce. And yet, the same people who are 'fundgelical' Christians - you know, the 'real' ones - seem to turn a blind eye to these passages from the lips of Jesus while they focus on the Levitical passages about homosexuality.

We look like hypocrites.

Or, at the very least, well-meaning, well-intended but rather annoying losers.

Sheilaism is the name of a personal religion, invented by a woman named Sheila Larson. Her description of her faith in Robert Bellah's 1985 Habits of the Heart made her, and her religion, emblems of a particularly American mode of belief.

From p. 221 of Habits of the Heart:
"Sheila Larson is a young nurse who has received a good deal of therapy and describes her faith as "Sheilaism." This suggests the logical possibility of more than 235 million American religions, one for each of us. "I believe in God," Sheila says. "I am not a religious fanatic. [Notice at once that in our culture any strong statement of belief seems to imply fanaticism so you have to offset that.] I can't remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It's Sheilaism. Just my own little voice." Sheila's faith has some tenets beyond belief in God, though not many. In defining what she calls "my own Sheilaism," she said: "It's just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other." Like many others, Sheila would be willing to endorse few more specific points."
These seem to be the markers of the boundaries of religious and spiritual landscape:

At one end, there's "Your brain on God." At the other is Timothy Leary's "Your Brain IS God. It's 'thou shalt not' or 'I am the Walrus, Goo Goo gajoob."

And, in the vast middle is "Sheilaism."

I think The Episcopal Church has got an awful lot to say to the 'Sheilas' in the world. We do try to encourage people to "just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself" and understand that "God would want us to take care of each other."

That's not a bad place to start. I think what The Episcopal Church does is to offer people viable, and, in fact, exciting alternatives to taking the next step and putting those beliefs into action through mission and ministry.

We have to stop priding ourselves on being "the best kept secret in Western Christendom." Let's find Sheila . . . and, Sam . . . and tell them about The Episcopal Church.

Who knows? In trying to impact the habits of the hearts of others, we just may find transformation in the habits of the heart of our church - and, our own hearts.


Anonymous said...

This post is right on the money. Another outstanding job, Elizabeth!

Jane Priest said...

Much of that is what I planned (and still plan) to preach tomorrow. At our last vestry meeting, we pondered the question of what people think when they here the word "Christian." The responses from this tradition group were not positive. I told them just what you have said here, the Episcopal Church is in a unique position to welcome people who cringe at the word, "Christian." Our new diocesan said later in the same week that we need to reclaim the word. Can't wait to read your actual sermon once it's posted.

Fr Craig said...

EK - I think right wing evangelicalism is so popular because it is essentially 'all about me.' I AM SAVED, I AM GOING TO HEAVEN, JESUS IS MY FRIEND, etc. Once folks (and, let's be honest, usually pretty simple folks) believe that Jesus died for them, so they can go to heaven, the rest of the world really doesn't matter. They make an effort to covert, because that, once again, is all about them - I saved someone, aren't I wonderful!! I truly believe it boils down to Great Commission Christians (get everyone else baptized) vs. Great Commandment folks (love one another). I happily subscribe to the latter. blessings -

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Joie - I published your post. Don't know what happened to it. Hmmmm . . .