Bottoms-up religion

Have you thought about why the Dallas Cowboys are winning this year? (Since I am writing this at the beginning of January, I can’t say how much success they have had. But moving from a 4-12 season to a 13-3 campaign in 2016 was a remarkable transformation.)

The easy answer is to look no further than the drafting of Ezekiel Elliot and Dak Prescott. Both were spectacular in their rookie seasons. But the real difference is the play of the offensive line. Winning football teams are built from front to back or, said another way, from the inside out. The patient drafting of sturdy and steady soldiers up front has paid off.

A solid spiritual life is similarly built from the inside out. Or, as the Franciscan monk Richard Rohr puts it, from the bottom up. “It seems to me we need to rebuild our whole notion of religion from the bottom up. All too often religion — and Christianity in particular — has focused on continually re-icing a collapsed cake rather than baking the bottom layers properly.”

Baking the bottom layers of faith properly begins with setting the right base. Start with God, not yourself. Commit to an understanding of God that will give you strength within to endure whatever challenges may come from without.

God is love. Nothing is more foundational than that. But saying “God is love” is easier to ascribe to as a doctrine than it is to live up to day by day. Notions like “God is power,” for instance, tend to sneak ahead of “God is love.” But look what happens when that happens: Since we all created in the image of God, if our image of God is power ahead of love, the love of power will feed our ambition instead of the power of love.

To say that God is love means that God is relational at heart. God will therefore always and only act in the interest of the wellbeing of those whom God loves (which, incidentally, is everyone). When we live into that vision of God, love will guide all our ways. If God is primarily power personified, our tendency is to fall in love with the ambition to be like God and assert our will above all else.

What does that mean for your spiritual life?

It means asking yourself daily whether love guides your attitudes and actions. Love isn’t judged by individual experiences where you feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside after hearing a stirring song from the praise band or even the promise of eternal life after you die. Love is measured by your capacity to share the joys and sorrows of others and to work to see them flourish.

Whether you are building a football team, baking a cake or solidifying your spiritual life, getting the basics right first makes all the difference. Since “love never fails,” as St. Paul says, when love is at the bottom of all things in your life, you will never fail.