In celebration of this month’s fifth anniversary of my blog, the last entry of January and every Wednesday of February I’m providing a link to the most visited post of each year. For 2013, that would be Jesus: Introvert or Extrovert? with a close second, What I Don’t Believe, What I Do Believe.
Please imagine you see before you my roller travel bag…
What you see is the baggage I usually carry with me on a speaking trip—at least, the visible baggage. As you can see, this is a piece of carry-on luggage, which is the sure sign of a frequent flier! I happen to agree that there are two kinds of luggage, carry-on luggage and lost luggage.
Now I didn’t pack this for a trip, but rather, to make some points about spiritual baggage. So let’s see what’s inside, quite literally unpacking our metaphor.
First we find another bag hidden inside. This represents hidden spiritual baggage we carry with us even when we claim to be traveling light as progressive Christians. We may discover hidden dogma: hidden expectations, latent prejudices, unintended biases, beliefs that don’t play well with others.
This may not be from any malevolent intent. The hidden baggage may just be part of our mystery as complex individuals. We stumble when we fail to acknowledge the mystery—that there are things about ourselves or our belief systems and our spiritual communities that are still being unveiled.
What have we here? My mother’s purse! We have unexpected spiritual baggage. How many of us have said we were not going to be like our mothers or our fathers only to recognize a bit of their behaviors or their attitudes in ours? This is true spiritually as well. Unconsciously we incorporate in our souls a bit of the souls of those who shaped us, our spiritual ancestry.
And if we have suffered spiritual abuse, we may spiritually abuse others—that is, force our spiritual views on others. This can be a problem whether we are spiritually traditional or progressive.
If we have been encouraged to think independently about our faith, we are more likely to encourage others in their declarations of spiritual independence. Providentially for me, my mother’s purse represents a woman who read widely, regardless of religious viewpoint, while affirming her own faith.
Look here! A pair of jeans, 31-inch waist. Now, how can I say this in a way that’s nice to myself. I am too full to fit into this pair of jeans! Sometimes in our spiritual baggage we find things that don’t fit us anymore: we’ve become too full, too open to fit into such narrow spiritual clothing. Perhaps we’ve simply outgrown it. Now that doesn’t mean we are superior to someone who would fit this pair of jeans. It just means we’re in a different place.
And what’s this? An extra-large t-shirt! Now this is just the opposite. I’d get lost in this. My spirituality may be a little more compact than it used to be. Maybe I’ve been losing some spiritual weight that held me down, or exercising my spiritual muscles so my soul is leaner and stronger. So I don’t need quite so much room or space or dogma anymore.
And here’s a makeup kit! Oh yes, what we might use to paint a smile on our faces even when we felt down, or put drops in our eyes to give us that misty-eyed expression when we wanted to look devotional or penitential or serious. As we learn more and more that the spiritual life is not about artificial highs or lows, we can leave this item behind.
Here’s something that’s harder to give up: a sorcerer’s hat! This is the hat Mickey Mouse wore in the animated film Fantasia as the sorcerer’s apprentice. It represents magical thinking.
Many of us have associated magic and superstition for so long with spirituality, that this is very difficult to let go of. Even today, if my car doesn’t start, I may offer a little incantation to God to make it go. But I no longer believe that’s how God works in the world. It’s up to me to have the car serviced, or fix the car myself (fat chance!), to take care of the car so that it will work when I need it.
So it is with the spiritual life. Though there are moments of grace that almost feel like magic, the spiritual life requires prayerful maintenance. We need spiritual mechanics (spiritual guides) and soul manuals (sacred texts and inspirational books). And we need spiritual communities to support us in our soul repair and development and customizing.
What you will not find in my bag is the “sword of truth” or the “armor of God.” I discovered long ago that God has no interest in bloody crusades, burning inquisitions, or violent jihads. To me, God is not manifest in violence but in vulnerability, not so much evident in victory as in compassion.
But look here! Now I have more room for clothes that fit, sacred texts and books that guide, and room for gifts for others. Because when we talk about spiritual baggage, what we really mean is excess baggage, baggage that doesn’t work for us any more, that burdens us, leaving little or no room for new spiritual habits or insights.
The less we carry, the farther we can go. In the spiritual life, there are two kinds of baggage: carry-on and lost. Less is often more in the spiritual life.
Jesus advised, “It is more difficult for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.” To soften the meaning of his “hard saying” about the rich, it has been explained that the “eye of a needle” referred to a particular gate through the city walls of Jerusalem which was so low and narrow, camels had to be relieved of their baggage to enter. Though this interpretation is not considered valid by biblical scholars, the metaphor works for the purpose of this post.
We still need carry-on spiritual luggage: those insights that have helped us along the way, the vision that helps us put the puzzling jigsaw pieces of our lives together in a framework of meaning. Admittedly, some of the pieces don’t quite fit together. They overlap or fit awkwardly. But we’ve done our personal best. And we have a spiritual community to help.
Many readers of this blog observe Lent, a period of fasting, or letting go of something. This Christian season, which begins today, may be an opportunity to consider the spiritual baggage we need to lose as well as that which we need to “carry-on.”
Readings for Ash Wednesday (today):
A reading for this first week of Lent:
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