Leaving Salem

A few years ago I made a visit to a monastery. Not that I’m thinking of taking monastic vows, mind you; no, no, no. Jesus told his disciples that not everyone can live the ascetic life. I’m sure he was thinking of me.

But I really looked forward to this visit. My friends and I toured the grounds and for a short time peered into the lives of these men most dedicated to contemplation, hard work, and spiritual discipline.

The hillside surrounding the monastery’s abbey was dotted with black cows, hay bails, and fruit trees. Consistent with their particular order, these monks were as good with their agriculture as they were with their theology.

Inside, we discovered a further treat: Handmade artwork of all kinds. Beads, bracelets, paintings, stained glass; all of these came from the skilled hands of this community. And the greatest pleasure of all, these monks cultivated beautiful little bonsai trees – hundreds of them.

For decades, this order had been refining their proficiency with these potted plants. Their hard work showed. While I expected the times of prayer, the lit candles, the simple but hardy meals, the ringing of bells, and the burning of incense; I did not expect Angus cows and bonsai trees. It was a surprise.

Something else surprised me: A gift shop. That’s right. This monastery, this symbol of the casting off of worldly pleasures, had a mini-variety store right there on campus. It ran with an entrepreneurial spirit that would have awed even Sam Walton.

Need some books? They got ‘em. Want a new rosary? They will set you up. Got the hankering for some fresh preserves or coffee? Step up to the cash register.

Fruitcake, fudge, icons, note cards, souvenirs, and of course, all the bonsai supplies one needed to start their own nursery at home, could be purchased at the “Abbey Store.” These supplies included the “Monastery Master Mix,” a complex potting soil designed to grow the best bonsai trees under God’s heaven.

Did I mention that the chapel was closed on the day of my visit? See, you couldn’t pray at the monastery on this day, but you could visit the gift shop. In fact, every single one of the half-dozen monks I met enthusiastically invited me to do so.

There I could pick up a bit of the monastic life and take it back home with me for $19.99 plus applicable local sales tax. And don’t worry if you left your wallet at home. The Abbey Store offers an extensive virtual shopping experience for those who cannot visit the monastery personally.

Online the monks manage an e-commerce catalog and a bells-and-whistles website complete with the little digital shopping cart and everything. They take all major credit cards and even Pay Pal. How edifying. I left the monastery feeling less spiritual than I had hoped.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not so high and mighty that I would deprive these good men of making a living with their hands. I’m all for that. Nor do I think Christian people shouldn’t sell things. I’m a good capitalist. Please, visit my own website and buy my book.

But something about these good brothers was out of joint. On one hand they were deeply, deeply traditional; long robes, honest labor, living lives dictated by discipline and ritual. Then on the other hand they were so, dare I say, opportunistic.

One moment I seemed to be conversing with Thomas Merton himself, with talks of prayer, fasting, and readings of the Church Fathers, and the next moment this same man would morph into Elmer Gantry trying to sell me glorified potting soil. It was wacky.

Is there no sacred space left in Creation? Have even monasteries been run-over by the E-bay Express? Does every one offer 90-days-same-as-cash now, even those who follow the order of Saint Benedict?

If someone feels led by God to join a monastery and forsake so much that is wrong with life as we live it, then more power to them. If someone wants to operate a thriving internet business, selling everything from coffee mugs to bailing wire, then by all means do it in style.

But maybe – just maybe – a little distance between the two would help. Don’t invite me into a spiritual retreat and seem more concerned with swiping my Visa card than assisting my soul.

An old man and an old woman, who had been married for many years, were driving to church one Sunday morning. They fell in behind another car being driven by a young man. He was of college age or younger. Sitting beside the young man was a young woman, obviously his girlfriend.

In fact, she was sitting so close to him that a credit card could not have been slipped between them. She was almost sitting in his lap, her head resting on his shoulder.

The old woman grew nostalgic. She began to think of her and her husband’s younger years when they were so in love with each other. They used to drive up and down the strip of their home town every Friday night just like the young couple now in front of them.

She turned to her husband sitting behind the steering wheel on the other side of the front seat. Accusingly, almost bitterly, she said, “Look at them. Look at how they love each other. Why don’t we drive through town like that any more? Why don’t we sit that close together like we used to?”

She was met with silence. Her husband said not a word. After a few minutes the old man looked over at his wife and said, “I haven’t moved.”

God sometimes seems so far away, doesn’t he?  At times we think he’s playing hide-and-seek at worst or peek-a-boo at best. But he’s not. He’s there, right where he has always been. He hasn’t moved.

The Bible tells us to “Draw near to God.” Draw near the immovable, always present, always graceful God. And when we do that, he will draw near to us. Scoot across the seat. Take a step toward him – even a halting, feeble step – and he will come running to you.

Most Christians live under this idea that God secretly dislikes us. He’s the cosmic traffic cop maintaining the mother of all speed traps, itching to write a ticket and meet his quota of the condemned.

There he is in our rearview mirror. Our palms sweat. Our body tightens. We drive through life terrified that the smirking, mirror-lensed God is about to turn on the blue lights. Surely he’s out to get us.

Yet, God is not after you. What do you think the cross was all about? Why was God hanging on that piece of wood? The cross means that sin’s back has been broken. We have been set free from fear and dread, and given a worth that exceeds the wealth and creation of the world. The cross, if it means anything at all, means we are welcomed into God’s loving arms.

My children sometimes drive me absolutely insane. I’m talking bonkers; Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde; Bruce Banner to the Incredible Hulk kind of insane. I lose my cool. I rant and rave. I lose patience; all those things that parents regrettably do.

I want my children to obey me. I want them to respect me and honor me as their father. But I do not want my children to be afraid of me. I don’t want them to feel that they must keep their distance, or that I’m out to get them.

Even when they are on my do-do list, I want them to come in, sit in my lap and talk to me. I want them to feel welcome. And they are. Why? Because they are my children.

I want them to draw near, even more so when things are not going as good as they should be. How much more with our heavenly father?

Draw near to God. Through prayer and stillness, crawl into his lap and listen. Cry out with your frustrations, your fears, and your anger. He can take it. He welcomes it. Get quiet long enough to experience his embrace, his love.

Look at that cross and realize that he has given you the greatest thing he ever could, and he loves you with a love that is so high, so long, so deep and so wide that all of eternity will not be enough time to comprehend it. The traffic cop God should be avoided, but not the God revealed to us in Jesus the Christ. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.

Tooling through the Deep South recently I saw an amazing sight. In a small town, tucked away between rolling hills and cotton fields, was a religious compound of sorts. At least that’s what I think it was.

The Landmark Baptist Encampment had obviously acquired the facilities of a long-discarded school. There, they had set up a refuge of sorts, an “encampment.” Not “camp,” not “campground,” not “retreat,” but encampment. That got my attention.

The place lived up to its name. The building and grounds were surrounded by a high chain link fence. The driveway was gated. Rolls of barbed wire were strung along the top of the fence. Large “No Trespassing” signs glared at passersby. It looked like a detention facility.

Maybe it was. I don’t know. Several very sad-looking children were sitting out front in the summer heat with long faces. They had the look of those who wished they were somewhere else – anywhere else – but there.

Now, the Landmark Baptist Encampment may be a wonderful place to camp, go fishing, ride horses, or do whatever happy campers want to do. It may be led by some of the most compassionate and kind people in all the South. All I’m saying is it sure didn’t look like it.

As the Encampment wilted away in my rearview mirror I couldn’t help but think how it was such a sadly accurate representation of so much of Christendom. Fences. Walls. Gated doors. “No Trespassing” signs. Keep out.

As a Christian I believe that Jesus was/is the Son of God. I firmly accept him as the true and living way, the exact revealer of who God is. And when I read the gospels, I find that Jesus was also one of the most welcoming personalities this world has ever received.

Tax collectors (We would call them extortionists, traitors to their country, the mob), prostitutes, drunks, addicts, the rabble that hung out in the wrong places and those whom your mother warned you about: Even these – especially these – were welcomed by Jesus.

Did this mean Jesus threw his arms around them and with a casual wave of his hand said it didn’t matter how a person lived his or her life? Of course not. But let it not be missed that the accusation the religious community always brought against Jesus was this: “He is a friend to sinners.”

Could such an accusation be laid at the feet of the church today? Would such an indictment stick? “See those people over there? They love and befriend sinners.” I wonder.

You don’t have to travel to an obscure campground to see religious “Keep Out” signs. The establishment is very good at sorting the sheep from the goats and the wheat from the weeds. “This one is in. That one is out. This one passes. That one fails. This one is approved. That one is rejected.”

Through careful examination and religious inspection, only those with acceptable morals, beliefs, and lifestyles are allowed in the door. This is all done, of course, with God’s blessing. For God is on our team. He is inside our fence. He authorized our “Keep Out” signs. Thus, to argue with the rules is to oppose God himself.

We can build fences, string wire, and lock the gates to keep out everything we find polluted, fearful, and threatening. In the end, we may succeed in this task. But what will we have gained if the world outside perishes, while we remain safe, comfortable, and pure?

People of faith must find a way to open the gates and remove the barriers. We must smile out at the world with hearts and faces of joy, not behind concertina wire, but with open arms and offered friendship.

Better still, we should leave our religious compounds altogether, and follow the example of our Lord. Jesus was found “out there” in the very “contamination” the religious community was trying so hard to distance itself from.

Like Jesus’ antagonists, there will be those who say such wall-destroying behavior is too risky, too compromising, too far out of bounds. I disagree. Tearing down our religious fences simply means our love for others is stronger than our insecurities and fears.

Being a “friend of sinners” is an accusation that Christians should wear as a badge of honor, for nothing could honor Jesus more.