I am just crossing the river, coming back from the neighbours, when a bald eagle flies close over my head, heading downstream. I can hear the air pushing through his great, dark, outspread pinions. For a moment, his nearness makes him so solid that the fact of his gliding through air seems pure sorcery; it is easier to believe that eagles are real when they are far away than when they come close. And then, in one sharp intake of my breath, he is gone again, around the bend of the river, and I am suffused with joy.
And I am struck, struck that this place of reverence is exactly where I try so hard to take people as a worship leader. I spend hours poring over songs and scriptures, crafting prayers and poetic turns of phrase to construct the road that will lead the faithful exactly here: Awe. Self-transcendance. Holiness. Joy. Here I have been waylaid by it, entirely without human contrivance or effort. I can understand why Christian priests of old were suspicious, hostile even towards pagan spiritualities that drew people out of the pew and into the woods. It's pretty hard for us to compete.
But then, why would we think it was a competition? Why would we think that the God people meet in the woods would draw people away from the God they meet in church? My friend and neighbour, Jonathan Sears, was telling me about a distinction some have drawn between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien that seems to speak to this question. Lewis, even in his fiction, never veers off message, never strays far from the the skirt hems of Mother Church. He may lead you through a magical wardrobe into another world, but the allegory always carries a Christian apologetic that is obvious and familiar. Tolkien, a friend of Lewis, also a deeply convicted Christian, leads us into a more mysterious and subtle world, much more frightening and beautiful, and more convincing than Narnia. Tolkien might not be a pagan, but he clearly is acquainted with their ways and loves the land they inhabit. The difference between Lewis and Tolkien is one of confidence. Tolkien trusts that his whole world is steeped in Christ. Those with eyes to see will see.
These are days when Christian confidence is taking a bit of a beating. Mainstream churches continue to dwindle, whether they try to water the message down or try to cement it in dogma. And although evangelicals still attract the masses for the moment, the certainty they proclaim increasingly carries the shrill ring of denial. Is this a celebration or a sales pitch? Somewhere along the line, the logic of the market took over in our sanctuaries: create a desire, provide a product.
I've read the words of an aboriginal elder criticizing his own people for commercializing and marketing their sacred rites and objects: "once you sell a sacred thing, it isn't sacred anymore." To sell, to push, is to make a desecration of the holy, and cynics of us all. It is not an invitation to faith. It is an inoculation against it. It creates an allergy to religious awe. How hard it is for us to speak to one another of wonders now, and not suspect a hidden agenda. Our souls are guarded, wary of being sold a bad bill of goods.
Perhaps this is why I could respond to that encounter with the eagle as a sacred moment. He wasn't trying to sell me anything.
And maybe that's why I love Jesus too. As far as I can tell, he isn't trying to sell me anything either. In the Gospel I read more warnings about the trouble I'll see if I sign on than boasts about the great benefit package or the eternal retirement plan. And his love is just there, free and pervasive as air, whether I sign on or not.
Unlike him, and unlike the eagle, I have a hard time freely offering up the sacred. I want something in return: Affection. Influence. Stature. Money. Hey, I've got a family and an ego to feed too, you know.
Ah yes, the altar call and the collection plate, the blessed one-two punch, be it strong-arm or survival tactic, of every priest, every shaman, every rabbi, every preacher, every imam. Perhaps that's why the poor have often been pagans. There are no collection plates in the woods. Or, at least if the shaman does pull one out, it's a lot easier to disappear into the underbrush. Jonathan pointed out to me that pagan simply means "people of the land." A pagan is someone who seeks the sacred in an encounter with the land. If you're in the business of packaging and selling sacred encounters, they make lousy customers. Kind of like selling ice to eskimos, as the saying goes. Which I suppose would be one reason why shamans hit an income ceiling a lot sooner than the figureheads of megachurches, and why pagans are still on the must-convert list for most organized religions.
We've driven them nearly to extinction by now, those people of the land. Which is perhaps why, like the Mountain Lion or the Timberwolf, they charm us now. I count as good friends some folks who would be honoured to be called pagans. Born-Again-Pagan is in in the Mother Earth-lovin', back-to-the-land movement I'm so drawn to. Christianity is the house of the overbearing and controlling parent they've finally moved out of. I can understand the urge to bolt.
But, God help me, I do want to win back the neo-pagans. Or at least, as Jesus did, to sit at table together and swap some parables. That eagle, as swift and majestic as he is, might be able to ride the wind all the way to Mount Doom to carry Sam and Frodo away from its angry fumes, but he cannot explain the foolish wisdom, the power perfected in weakness, the vulnerable love that bore them there, that pinned all the hopes of Middle Earth on these unlikely saviours.
And so, with as open a hand as I know how to extend, I make this invitation: Come, all ye pagans. Let us speak of eagles, and let us speak of Christ.