A few months ago I had the opportunity to sit at the feet (quite literally, he was on an elevated stage) of someone on whom I have always had an existential crush. The event was just him, a stool, and 16 hours of conversation about theology, art history, spiral dynamics, stand up comedy, and the future of religion in American life.
I loved it, and by all accounts so did the roughly 200 other true fans in the room.
That is, until about halfway through the event I realized that my favorite spiritual guru was wearing a sweater that costs -- let's just say-- a fair bit more than the 2001 Honda Civic I drove for 3.5 hours (after paying 300 dollars) for 2 days of this man’s uninterrupted monologue about the shifting nature of life on Earth
which left me feeling a bit like an idiot.
Not because this fella didn’t “earn”* his money (I think he only took like 3 drinks of water the whole time), but because no matter the changing circumstances of my personal and professional bric-a-brac, I can't keep myself from constantly falling for the idea that someone with a big enough platform, slick enough marketing, and a loud enough microphone somehow possesses information so necessary to being alive, that I should enthusiastically shell out 300 dollars to hear it.
*NOTE: I’m not sure what the word “earn” actually means anymore, considering the highest paid people in our civilization don’t actually do anything but move the decimal points around in everyone's retirement accounts until they get fired for ethics violations or hunting humans for sport, whichever comes first.
If you have the great benefit of remaining unfamiliar with the "professionally religious conference circuit," these events are typically attended by a herd of mostly unhappy church employees who so desperately want to become passable facsimiles of the traveling, published, uninterrupted monologue-givers we all look up to on Twitter, they’ll* willingly shell out 300 dollars for a Christian celebrity to tell a whole crowd of them they’re definitely right, and their big break will totally happen if they'll buy the books, listen to the podcast, come out to the tour, and make all inquires through my booking agent, please and thank you.
*NOTE: I mean "me" here.
When I was actually offered the chance to touch the expensive hem of my hero's jacket (IN ORDER TO BE OCCUPATIONALLY HEALED!), snap a quick photo for the Internet, and relay to him what his work has meant to me (I have all his live albums),
I couldn’t go through with it.
Instead, I left early so I could spend the rest of my evening crying off and on in my out-of-alignment Civic all the way home thanks to the unshakeable feeling that I’d been “had” for the past 10 years. Had, not necessarily by this particular guru per se, but by an entire spiritual system predicated on the idea that a person saying interesting things to large crowds in 400 dollar shoes is definitely worth modeling your life after in the name of the homeless, crucified, 33-year-old 1st century rabbi we attribute everything to while closing our eyes and pointing at the heavens.
I can’t speak for you, but in my case it’s terribly hard to come face-to-face with the realization that most of my professional life has been spent in an effort to become financially comfortable (or at least "not poor") marketing the goods and services of an institution built to carry out the rather revolutionary wishes of a man who slept outside for the majority of his formative years and never had a job,
which leaves me feeling a bit like an idiot.
In retrospect, perhaps this guru was worth the expense, he did at least remind me that maybe being good at speaking compellingly to large and small groups about non-toxic cleaning solutions or our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just that, being good at speaking compellingly to large and small groups. In my growing experience with being both let down and a let down, this skill — when divorced from actual relationships with people who are thought to be the grime caught in the fingernails of the universe, ones who scrape out "a living" in parts of town we can’t find on a map of our city — has very little to do, in and of itself, with a religion doggedly committed to the idea that existence isn’t just some tragic loop for all of us with the wrong last names, and who definitely own no hotels on Park Place.
For years now, I've bought into the lie that passively avoiding relationships with people in poverty because of "insurmountable cultural differences," or politely talking about poverty, or wearing matching t-shirts with people from my cul-de-sac once a year to take a field trip into poverty’s favorite neighborhood in the name of Jesus, were actually really spiritual uses of my occupational and creative energies BECAUSE THAT ALL NIGHT YOUTH LOCK-IN ISN'T GOING TO JUST PLAN ITSELF.
It took sitting in a room where 200 mostly upper middle class white people paid a collective 60 GRAND to hear another upper (no middle) class white dude (with celebrity friends) talk about how to prepare for the future of Christianity in a world where the “average Christian” is an impoverished, Latina, Pentecostal-Catholic woman from South America, to realize that it might be time to take an extended sabbatical from the gurus, podcasts, personality profiles, books about minimalism, and "empowering" 2-Day conferences that comprise the whole of a life spent looking for my best life™ rather than just getting on with living the thing.
I wonder what might happen, collectively, to our faith were many of us to decide en masse to step away from the well-published, marketed, and platformed purveyors of religious wares; to step away from those whose “family business” is selling American spirituality generation after generation after generation (you know, just like Jesus and his earliest followers: I mean, they were about HIS father's business); to step away from those of us who are both professional followers of a crucified, Middle Eastern, carpenter’s son, and who don’t know the first and last name of someone in poverty with whom we regularly share time.
Listening to wealthy people wax poetic about a God who walked the Earth in poverty won’t ever be the future of Christianity, it will only be its past again and again and again, until isn’t even that anymore.
I dare say that fundamental change to spirituality in America we've all been earnestly waiting on probably won’t begin until those of us with the right credentials (or at least some credentials), golden parachutes (or at least a parachute), impressive last names, and/or the historic backing of most of our great religious institutions, don sackcloth, ash, and a commitment to learning, loving, living near, and listening to people with whom Jesus constantly surrounded himself, the poor.
And in my experience, the poor don't go on tour, have a podcast, or even a 3 book deal with minimal marketing agreements from a mid-sized publisher.
Only when we have first hand experience with those who actually depend on the divine as a way of making it through a world consistently stacked against them will we learn what it means to read a book written hundreds of years earlier by just these kinds of folk. A book mostly concerned with describing the ambling process of often maligned people from the wrong parts of town initiating a heavenly revolution of grace and peace on an Earth overflowing with exploitative, destructive, and impoverishing institutions typically bearing the name of God.
But until that day is this one, maybe pump the breaks on booking your next conference, or popping your earbuds in for another episode of professional Christians talking about the Enneagram and human flourishing, and instead use your lunch hour to physically eat beside someone you don't know all that well. Or, maybe even crazier, go out of your way to break bread with someone who needs a free meal (and if you're fresh out of ideas for someone you know who might be struggling to buy groceries, might I first suggest a local public school teacher before you head downtown to buskers row with a tunafish sandwich).
Who knows? You might learn something compelling about the world that didn't first come with a ham-handed pitch about a new book!