Religion For Even the Unreligious
I’ve decided to be more religious.
Let’s face it — we’re a screwed up people. Those of the Christian faith in particular. We have all these rules and regulations that reflect our idea of what God wants from us (though all of us fall short of meeting them or we are ineligible even to be a Christian), and we don’t pay attention to the essence of our faith.
Even more, we are offensive. Being offensive is OK sometimes. I say you aren’t living with authenticity if you don’t offend people on occasion. Look at the comment section on almost anything on the internet, and you see someone is going to disagree or be annoyed with almost anything everyone says. We’re all going to offend someone some time. Let’s not spend much time worrying about that.
But there’s another kind of “offensive” that is not acceptable. It is evil some people try to pass off as faith. Behavior that does not come from God. Think Pharisees. People who hold to the letter of the law, but have no clue as to its spirit. Mean-spirited behavior thinly disguised as love.
“God’s Spirit makes us loving, happy, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. There is no law against behaving in any of these ways.” — Galatians 5:22–23 (CEV)
When we are looking at Christians in action, we can judge their actions on whether we notice these qualities mentioned in Galatians. If they are not in evidence in their actions, it shows something about their faith.
Oh, don’t judge too harshly. Human beings are complicated creatures, and we are dealing with many things at any given time. We don’t know what is going on in each other’s lives, or what has gone on in the past, and probably it’s not our business. How about if we turn it inward? Instead of paying too much attention to them, how are you stacking up?
These qualities show that a person is living focused on faith or is mature in their faith. Still, people can get off course, which is why worshipping people is never advisable. We tend to be self-centered. Therefore the best use of this list is to say, “These are qualities God passes on to people.”
But faith aside, aren’t these qualities you want to be evident in the people you are around? Aren’t these qualities you want to possess?
I usually get annoyed (or maybe it’s eye-rollingly bored) when people start talking about Christians as hypocrites. Most of us are quite hypocritical in how we live our lives, regardless of any professed faith. We talk about people being judgmental while we judge them. We’re human.
It seems to me that, religion aside, a good human goal is to work at being more loving, happy, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. How would our world change if we all focused on living these qualities? If you spend your time working on the good things, you don’t have time for the bad.
The fact that people feel the need to say “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual” troubles me. I believe we’re confused about what “religion” is. It‘s not about walking into a church building three times a week (plus extra time served for revivals or nursery duty.)
Here’s the definition of religion I believe.
“Religion that pleases God the Father must be pure and spotless. You must help needy orphans and widows and not let this world make you evil.” James 1:27 CEV
Religion is not the ritual of the church service, though that can be beautiful and inspiring to some. It can be a stumbling block to others, who will do the routine perfectly and regularly, but when the ritual is over, it makes absolutely no difference to the way they live their lives. Or they can just suck at doing the ritual, too.
I realized long ago that a lot of ritual doesn’t work well with my sensibility. Not because I can’t do it, but because I have the propensity to do it piously and use it as a way to show how “good” I am.
I highly value authenticity and choose to attempt to live a life that is honest and true. For me, a faith that doesn’t encourage me to grow this way isn’t worth a heck of a lot.
I don’t do well with Christian aerobics. Hands up, hands down, kneel, say “amen,” and greet the person sitting next to you on command. Can I leave now? The answer to that question has progressively become “yes” in my life, as I have grown beyond caring what people think about me. I’ll leave when it makes me crazy, and I don’t feel it’s about God. Performing rituals for the sake of the ritual, or at the command of another human’s ego, are a futile exercise to me.
But that definition from the book of James? Pure and spotless? Helping needy orphans and widows? Making sure I keep myself from being polluted by the evil of this world? That I can get behind.
Pure and Spotless
Some will hear the words “pure and spotless” and think this is something unattainable. So much is tainted. So much done for show. So much is done for self-interest.
But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes people help others because others need help. Sometimes hearts are soft and compassionate, or strong and righteous.
Sometimes we start with pure hearts and get off course. Sometimes we start tainted, and our heart changes.
I used to help lead a youth group in my church. One of the teenaged boys met a man in our denomination at a weekend retreat that led camps for disabled kids every summer. In passing, the kid said he would volunteer at the camp for a week in the summer. He didn’t mean it. He was just trying to get away from the guy.
The man called him the week before camp was to start and said someone had to drop off of the staff. He asked the kid if he could come. The kid couldn’t think of a way to get out of it, so he finally said yes. But he didn’t want to do it one bit.
To say this kid was insolent would be an understatement. He was often a brat. He drove me crazy. But the week after his time at camp, we were on a mission trip together. It was a tough trip for me — another story in itself.
But this kid found me and asked if we could talk. He told me the story of this camp for disabled kids. He had worked for two weeks there.
The first week he had a bad attitude. He was assigned a kid who used a wheelchair, and it was a lot of work to take care of him. He hated it. At first. About the third day, something changed — he started caring about this young boy and understanding it was a privilege to serve him. He said God had to be at work because he certainly was not responsible for the change in heart. He served the second week with a different attitude, then joined us on this mission trip. It was as though he was a different person than we had known back home.
The change in attitude and love for service never went away. Today he works internationally to help start small businesses and improve lives in developing countries. Pure and spotless sometimes start as tainted.
The Orphans Around Us
The world has changed. Orphans are more than kids whose parents are deceased living in orphanages with no other relatives to look after them. I worked in a children’s home after college, and I can’t recall one kid there without a living parent. Almost all were there due to parental drug issues, child abuse, and neglect. One was there because he asked to be due to his parent’s constant fighting. They were university professors.
Our foster system is both wonderful and horrible. It’s a lottery for kids. A few wind up in homes with dedicated parents who make it their goal to help the child grow up to thrive. They not only recognize the issues these kids bring with them but have given some thought as to how that background needs to be treated.
Other kids end up with people ill-equipped to handle their issues, but their willingness to do it for the fee paid gets them in the system.
Group homes by nature are also problematic. They house the older kids, typically, who are less able to be placed in foster homes. The older kids are placed there with other kids experiencing the same or worse issues.
Oh yes, there are amazing group homes, with really great therapeutic houseparents and care teams. Still, though, I feel most kids in this group home environment get short-changed.
Then we have the kids not in “the system.” So many kids today have parents in name only, and no one is fully available for them. They need adults to talk to them. Adults who care about the people they are becoming and don’t believe that children should be seen and not heard.
Children should be both seen and heard, and they should have adults around them who actively listen to what they say. Do you want them to form the framework for their decision-making from their peers?
And how about adult orphans? I’ve been thinking a lot about them lately.
One of my cousins, an only child, has lost both of his parents. I’m his cousin and don’t think I was compassionate enough as he was dealing with his mother’s death. His dad had died some years earlier.
Months after her death, he brought me a few prints from his mom’s house he wanted me to have. In the course of our discussion, I realized just how difficult it had been for him. He does not wear his emotions on his sleeve and does not accept help easily. I had offered different times, as had my sister.
In retrospect, I should have pushed harder. I should have made sure he knew he had family, besides his wife and kids, who would walk through that time with him. I was there, but not enough.
Then there are the friends who have lost their parents. When we lost my Dad, my siblings provided a lot of support. A lot of friends did, too. My Dad’s funeral was Christmas week, on a Wednesday afternoon. It amazed me that a contingent of my friends was there. It also surprised me how much it mattered. It reminded me that even when our people are adults, sometimes even the memory of our faces at a memorial service brings comfort.
Caring for the Widows
It was almost impossible for women to make it on their own when scripture was written. Times have changed, but we still have widows. We also have widowers. It’s not just the financial and physical needs but also the emotional and spiritual needs that need to be met.
My mom married my dad on her 19th birthday. My dad died one month short of their 60th wedding anniversary. I never thought that the hardest part of losing my dad, one of my favorite humans ever, would be caring for my mom.
Mom was in great physical shape but had never lived alone. She and my dad lived in a large home that required a lot of maintenance. Dad had taken care of most of that maintenance, up until that last hospital admission. He’d also handled things like the majority of the financial management and planning, such as getting the taxes done.
Mom was understandably depressed, but her depression was more significant than most. It’s been over three years, and she can rarely have a conversation without bringing my dad up.
She changed her eating habits. When Dad was alive, they ate well-balanced meals. Now she regularly has meals of chocolate in large quantities or doesn’t eat at all.
We sold her house and moved her into a beautiful condominium, which she said was all she wanted, down to the paint color. Now she wants to redecorate it completely, at age 82. After not understanding it, we finally realized these projects help her get out and live.
Going to church by herself is tremendously difficult for her. She and my dad were in different Sunday School classes, but she has quit going to hers. She said it is too hard knowing he is not in his class. Family events are also difficult, even though we pick her up to attend.
She had five children, and we all live within 30 minutes of her. She sees us often, yet often tells people she never sees us. She has begun developing dementia, which appears to be rapidly escalating. Is it the reason for much of her negative behavior, or is it the depression? We’re trying to figure this out.
Everyone doesn’t have five involved children, and even with all of that support, it is difficult. How do we care for the elderly in our community without involved family or with family at the end of their rope, and make the quality of their life as good as possible? It’s not just the job of the church, though there is a responsibility there. It’s not always the job of family members, merely because they were blood relatives. I have friends who had toxic family relationships. I understand when they don’t step up. But who will?
We shouldn’t just think of the women. Men also suffer when they lose their spouses. Who’s looking out for them?
Add to single people, single parents, and those who are going through marital problems. Are we noticing and looking after them when it is necessary? Needs just aren’t financial, but also physical, relational, and spiritual. Those lives who touch ours — what do they need? What other people do we need to notice who has faded away from the sight of the world?
My niece is an Occupational Therapist in a nursing home. She brought one of her residents without family to Christmas dinner last year and has taken her out for other events. The woman loves every minute. My niece has moved to a new city but still drops by to visit her when she is in town (lately through the glass doors and with her cell phone because of the coronavirus restrictions. They recently had a dance party.)
But how about the rest of those in nursing homes with no family, and how about those elderly or impaired who still live in their own homes and apartments? Who’s paying attention to them?
We’re living in a disconnected world. That often bothers me, even though as a strong introvert I’m OK with the isolation. So many people are lone wolves. Not necessarily because they want to be, but because they have never developed social skills or they don’t feel wanted. We’ve lost the need to be intricately involved in people’s lives. But we shouldn’t feel like we have to be completely self-sufficient. We should recognize when we need people and know when people need us. How do we reach out? How do we develop eyes that see needs?
Becoming Polluted By The World
We’re living in a world that can be cynical and hateful. Because of media and social media, we have millions of messages that flow through our brains. Sometimes we catch onto these ideas without thinking about them. We let them impact us, without a whole lot of thought as to whether we agree with them. It may be the words of someone we respect. It may be the thoughts of a group we follow. It may include the views of a pastor or a church or a politician or a TV commentator or a family member or our significant other.
How often do you stop, examine the thoughts in your brain, and see if they reflect your own beliefs? What have you accepted without thought? What has become a part of you, with your uninformed consent?
The world can pollute you, but it’s your job to do the internal house cleaning. Too often the loudest voices, the loudest accusers, those who demand you listen to them, are the people who most need to look into the mirror; but, also, sometimes we’ve become so passive we have let everything else in the world invade our brain except thoughts based on our own beliefs.
Living In A Faithless World
I’m someone who has never felt I “have” to go to church. My parents wisely said once we got to high school, it was our own decision. I still go because I want to, not because I have to.
Christians who are hyperventilating right now, I do believe I am supposed to have regular fellowship with other believers. That’s never been a problem for me. I’ve always connected with other Christians, and that is the true definition of church. The building isn’t that important.
I do go to a church building on Sundays (in non-isolation times) and have found a great group of people with whom I worship. But we make sure our church leaves the building regularly.
We seek to know the needs of our community. We work with other churches to help meet these needs. We have special relationships with churches of different races, our local homeless shelter, and ministries to the poor, and we worship on occasion with the local mosque and synagogue. Our church is small in terms of the number of people, but high in terms of commitment to service and social justice.
There’s plenty wrong with our world today. Still, I believe that there are too many coincidences for life to be by chance. I believe in God. I call myself a Christian. My primary relationship is with God, not with other Christians, or churches or others who claim faith.
If your religion ties you up and constrains you, perhaps you need to examine your religion. For those of you who are Christians, God intended you to be free. If you’re wondering how you should live, the answer appears to be with love. All those rules? If we could live them perfectly, why was Jesus sacrificed?
“Christ has set us free! This means we are really free. Now hold on to your freedom and don’t ever become slaves of the Law again.” — Galatians 5:1 (CEV)