Recently, I was asked for my view on religion. There was a time when my evangelical upbringing would have conditioned me to resond first with, "It's not religion, it's a relationship!" I would have thought myself insightful, if not clever. However, as much I still firmly believe that the concept of religion as a relationship with the Christian context still has value and importance in spiritual formation and growth, I also believe that it leaves so much out.
The first two definitions of "religion" from dictionary.com are:
1.a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
2.a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
When I say I am a Christian, I am saying more than that I simply have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as if were some novel idea or I was doing this solo - just me and God. I am saying that I ascribe to a set of beliefs that has been around for thousands upon thousands of years and that I am a part of a community of people who have held those same foundational beliefs for centuries.
Embracing religion, with all of it's implicatoins, allows me to see the beauty in the traditons, the history, the scripture, and the weight of what it is I believe. When I embrace religion rather than something wholly personal, I am more willing to own up to the egregious behaviors and failings of the global church - to admit imperfections and our need for ongoing sanctification rather than just simply dismissing these errors as the result of someone whose personal relationship wasn't strong enough.
When it was just a relationship, it was only about me. It was about making sure that I loved Jesus and remembering that he loved me. The rest of the world could blur, or grow strangely dim as the song says, when all I was doing was cultivating a love relationship with Jesus. While I can never recall being taught to ignore the rest of the world (especially its suffering), it was easy to simply assimilate that into my life of focusing only on "the relationship." If a concern had nothing to do with me, with my community, with my denomination - it was easy to dismiss it as someone else's problem. As long as I prayed every day and read my Bible and worked on that relationship, I was good.
But, as much as I do believe that God so Loved Nicole that he sent his son to die for me, the Bible says that God so loved the world. The world is old, and broken, and vast. Twelve years ago, I sat on the front row of St. Paul's Cathedral in London and watched with skepticism the rituals and the ceremony of the Anglican service. I was angry sitting there. I was in London on a mission's trip, and here I was being forced to listen to ritual prayers, boring songs, and I'm pretty certain they had real wine in the communion cup! This was not how I worshipped. It was different and strange and uncomfortable. I was not a fan.
By the grace of God, there in St. Paul's began my journey to embracing Religion as the quiet whisper of the spirit reminded me that he is the God of more than me. It took me a while to hear it through my arrogance and indignation, but the whisper was persistent. It whispered that in a world full of humans, no one gets it exactly right. Whispers reminded me that he promises to be found by those that seek him; through centuries he has proved himself true across nations, denominations, ages, and racial lines. It was a slow progression as I learned to let go of cultural baggage on what a relationship with Jesus is supposed to look like, and be willing to accept that it looks different for different people.
I now understand that I am indeed a part of a religion, a follower of God, and recognize that it's not just about my relationship with him. There exists such a depth and breadth to the history of the church and the wisdom, encouragement, and conviction I can glean across denominational and other boundaries is extensive. With this understanding I am willing to listen and to learn. I open my eyes and heart and I realize that there is more than one faith experience with the Christian religion. There are people who dance wildly in praise, those who whisper words they've repeated over and over as they count beads, and people who cry in grief and weep and lament and they are all a part of it. They are all a part of seeking the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and searching for truth.
As I let go of some incorrect and limiting beliefs, my restless curiosity for the stories, viewpoints,and perspectives of others only increased. For years I was ashamed of my widened eyes and opened ears in regards to my faith. I was certain that if I did not lean in to my views with a strong footing and sturdy supports, that I was just weak, apathetic, and easily swayed. It's just been within the past year or so that I've begun to realize: I am not apathetic. For reasons I don't fully know, God has given me a questioning heart. It is with immense gratitude and humility that I praise him for also blessing me with the gift of faith so that in my questioning, he has always been the center, the grounding force. So now I seek to embrace the questions and to seek my God who answers prayers prayed in silent whispers, exuberant dancing, and tearful laments. Who shows up in ornate cathedrals, bare-bones slightly-refurbed old warehouses, sprawling suburban mega churches, and small living rooms in tiny city apartments.
I eagerly anticipate the day when I am able to stand around the throne with brothers and sisters from every nation and age and sing Hallelujah to the Lamb. Maybe I'll run into Terri, the lady who took me to St. Paul's that summer, and tell her thank you.