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Susan Thomas: What We Talk About When We Talk About Religion

Not so long ago, I took our car to be serviced and found myself deep in conversation with the shuttle bus driver who gave me a ride so I could get to my day’s work at church. When he picked me up at the end of the day, he picked up the conversation again where we’d left off.

It was one of those situations where an individual attaches to the fact that you’re a pastor/priest/minister and therefore is sure that this is the perfect moment to talk about the end times and the Book of Revelation.

It doesn’t matter if they are persons of faith. Or if they are biblical literalists or biblical crazy people or long ago took a college religion course that changed their thinking forever. This particular person — the shuttlebus driver — happened to be thoughtful, someone who appeared to have genuine questions that he was pondering and who actually listened to my musings with him.

We religious professionals are pathetically easy prey when we’re out and about in public and our cover is blown. What clergyperson, who has opted to travel without any vocational accoutrements like a clergy collar, doesn’t dread the innocent question posed by a seatmate on a plane: “And what is it that you do?”

Bam. We’re off.

If it isn’t the Book of Revelation, it’s the Crusades.

And who wants to be trapped in a seat or an aisle defending either of these?

Sometimes I reply instead that I’m a writer and I’m taking notes. Then I peer at my seatmate’s neck or sleeves or hands and start scribbling. It isn’t exactly a lie. And they almost always go back to their magazine or computer game.

But if I’m feeling courageous, I wade in and confess what I do.

And then, to my inevitable disappointment, we spend the remainder of our chance meeting knocking up against all the rocks and roots lining the troubled edges of the faith instead of floating out onto the deep wide current in the center of the river.

Sometimes I can even see the bruises my companion carries from all this thrashing about in the shallows.

At that point, it’s not just my disappointment that I have to deal with. It’s my anger and sorrow.

What or who is making them stay on that tangled shore, battering themselves on the edges of things? Haven’t they longed for deeper waters? Has no one invited them to immerse themselves in the current of faith flowing majestically and mysteriously through those deeper waters, ever renewed and renewing?

Why have they settled for scraping along the edges, where they inevitably get tangled and caught up by so many things?

When I was a child, we lived near a weedy, mud-bottomed Minnesota lake that only could be appreciated if we rowed out to the center and jumped in to swim there. Until we did that, we argued and complained about everything on the shore. We couldn’t see our feet in the muck we stirred up, our toes were pulled at by weeds, we’d slip on the hidden rocks, and sometimes there were bloodsuckers. We spent a long time on the shallow edge of the water, thinking that if we could only get all the rocks into one spot and all the weeds into another and if we could only replace the mud with a pile of sand and lure the bloodsuckers further down the shore, we could finally go for a swim.

It wasn’t until my friend’s older sister came strolling down to the lake carrying oars strung with life vests and told us to “just get into the rowboat, for heaven’s sake” that we realized what we’d been missing. How scraped shins and muddy feet and annoying small creatures had been our constant companions there on the edge and how unsatisfying that was compared to the clear unimpeded waters she rowed us out to in the center.

So much of our energy when we “talk religion” gets spent on the stuff that scrapes our shins and muddies our feet and sucks our blood, as if that’s where God intends people of faith to stay.

But God, I believe, strides onto the scene carrying oars and lifejackets, interrupting our sweaty, bruising arguments on the edges with the welcome invitation to just get into the boat and out into the deeper waters, for heaven’s sake — and our own.

The writer is a pastor at Our Savior Lutheran Church and Campus Ministry in Hanover and part of the United Campus Ministry at Dartmouth.