Wednesday, May 27, 2015

I'm Not Religious, I Just Love (My Version of) Jesus

"It's not a religion; it's a relationship!" 

"Religion destroys!" 

"If only we'd get rid of all of these doctrines and learn to just love Jesus, we Christians could impact the world for Him!" 

"I just need me and my Bible, not any man-made (always said with a superior attitude) traditions!!!!"

Sigh...

...okay, I have a confession to make...

...

...I don't want to confess this, it's tough; give me a minute...

...I used to be one of those people.

Surprised? It gets worse: when Jefferson Bethke's  video, "Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus" came out, I ate it all up and loved it.

(Yes, I know that's not his video: I linked a better one.)

I was a Baptist/non-denominational (they're basically the same exact thing) back then.

Even one of my favorite theologians, Greg Boyd (although he and I are completely opposed in some very important points of doctrine, this being one of them), got in on the act:



For those of you who can't read his shirt, it says, "It's against my relationship to have a religion."

Sigh...yeah, this is not a good mindset. Pitting religion against Jesus, as if they are inherently opposed to each other, is just stupid.

"But wait! I like Jefferson Bethke's video! It's so hippity-hop happenin'! Why don't you like it? Isn't religion just evil? Shouldn't we all just love Jesus?" 

Oh yes, because it's either love Jesus or love His religion. You certainly can't do both. It's gotta be one or the other.

Or not.

Listen, if you want to redefine the word "religion" as, "stuff that is related to Jesus but is bad", then I'm sorry, but we can't dialogue here. As long as you insist upon using a definition  that was pulled out of some hippie-Christian's weed stash, you won't be able to read me saying anything other than, "Hypocrisy and scaring people into being good is a good thing."

So that brings up the question: what is religion? It's a good question, and to be honest, it's kind of tough. There are a bunch of academic definitions of religion, but I want to focus on a few things that even religion-haters would agree with me are part (though not always essential) of what we mean when we say the word "religion":

1) Institution--organized religion, as in, there is at least some of the following: a hierarchy, sacred writings, creeds, confessions, etc.

2) Structure--not just institutional structure, but structure in daily life. Rituals and a moral code. Those, ya know, evil lists of "do's and don't's"

3) Doctrine--what one is supposed to believe in order to be part of said religion.

Of course, there is much more we can add. However, these will suffice for the moment. I'm imagining that your average "I'm not religious, I'm spiritual" advocate will agree that these are part of religion. Not only that, she or he might point to these very things as the very problem with religion.

Well, this barely protestant Christian is going to demonstrate why those things are good, not bad. Keep in mind that this is an article that is speaking to the "I'm not religious, I'm spiritual" people who consider themselves followers of Jesus. Here we go:

Institution

Whether you are Roman Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Presbyterian, or even Southern Baptist, you have some form of this. You have a hierarchy in Apostolic Succession, in the Great Creeds, in a Confession, and/or in Scripture. Someone or something, in other words, has the right to say "you're wrong" when you spout something like, "I believe that God is a jelly-filled donut and we should baptize people into icing while singing ABBA songs! That's what Jesus would want!"

Of course, it doesn't have to be that silly.

It could be something like, "I believe Jesus totally affirms gay marriage, so we should celebrate it."

It could be something like, "God is going to have everyone eventually be part of new creation; no one is going to be damned".

It could be something like, "I think God hates everyone except for my little inner circle group!"

You see, the Institution is there for a reason. It is meant to guard us from something called "heresy". Without guard rails, you fall into heresy.

"Yeah, but those are so restricting and non-inclusive!"

...that's the point.

You have guard rails because you don't want to fall off the road.

"Are you saying I'm gonna go to Hell if I don't have all of the right beliefs?"

Why is that always the first concern? The only concern? No, being theologically wrong on something doesn't always constitute a one-way ticket to Hell. I don't know about you, but  I've always wanted to have the right beliefs because, I don't know, they're the right beliefs. What ever happened to making sure that what I believe is actually true? Do we want to believe lies?

"I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life."

It seems like if what Jesus says here is true, then seeking truth is also seeking Him.

There is a reason for our Institutions: they protect us from heretical beliefs. Heretical beliefs are wrong beliefs. I'm not saying you're going to Hell for wrong beliefs; I am saying that you should be concerned about Truth.

What I see here is that many of these anti-religion people have a problem with authority; the desire to be the one who gets to make all of the decisions is what seems to be the heart of the issue.


Structure

Structure, dreaded structure. Yes, we hate structure sometimes, don't we? 

Except for those times where we like it. And you know what? Even when we don't like it, we need it. 

I put within structure the ideas of rituals and moral codes, because they both fit into it so well. Rituals such as Prayer, Baptism, and the Eucharist are essential to the Christian--dare I say "spiritual"?--life. Jesus kinda makes a big deal of them: of Prayer, Baptism, and the Eucharist

And if we are just "following Jesus", then that means we need to hold to what He taught about these things, too. 

As for that moral code, this is one of the things that many within the "I'm not religious, I'm spiritual" group get, well, not entirely right, but they are hitting something. 

Our two great commandments that sum up the Law are these: Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself. 

When the "I'm not religious, I'm spiritual" people talk about the importance of love, they are certainly on to something. Those of us who are religious have many times in the past forgotten about the importance of love. It is a fault of ours, a major one.

I know I've forgotten about love, in conversations with friends, in actions I take, in thoughts I think.

And it scares me how little I've loved in comparison to what Jesus has done. It nearly brings me to tears, even as I type this. What a hateful, unloving person I've been in my life. For those who have been hurt by me, I ask for forgiveness. In all sincerity. 


But that's the beautiful thing about religion; I know I've been forgiven. Without religion, when I was just "spiritual", I...well, I had no idea.

Was I forgiven?

Could I be forgiven? 


I mean, look what I did. What I said. God forgave me? Am I sure? It doesn't feel like it.


God, it doesn't feel like it. 

And this is the problem with an anti-religious spiritualism. It's focused on how one feels. And to tell you the truth, I have felt incredibly shitty and unforgiven even after asking God for forgiveness. 

I've been on my knees for hours, asking God to forgive me for the horrible things I've done. 

I've cried myself to sleep almost every night in my bed for days and even weeks at a time, because I had asked for forgiveness but did not feel like I was forgiven. 

You see, in my religion I do not merely rely upon my feelings for truth. I know I have been forgiven because of what my Church teaches. I know I am forgiven every Sunday at the least, by the absolution given by my priest. If I were to base it upon feelings, I would be in trouble. 

Praise God I don't base it in feelings. Praise God His Institutes protect me.

Doctrine


Everyone has doctrine. From Bill Nye the Science Guy to Lady Gaga to Barack Obama, we all have doctrinal beliefs. 

Yes, even Jefferson Bethke. 

First, the quintessential Lutheran Satire video on this.

Oh, and this one just for fun.

(Geez, you'd think that the Misouri-Synod is paying me for all of these or something. Sorry, I just really love these two Youtube channels. This Anglican loves Lutheranism. Well, most of it. Some of it's a little cray.)


Beliefs are what drive us. Take the anti-religious spiritual people: they believe that religion is destroying--or at the very least, in the way of--people's relationship with Christ. That belief is what drives them to hate religion.

Doctrine matters. What we believe matters.

If you believe that a child in the womb deserves full-human rights, you will have a specific view of abortion.

If you believe that the state and not the Church is the one that establishes marriage and grants the allowance to perform them, that will affect your views on the whole gay marriage issue.

Beliefs make a difference in our actions. It is unavoidable.

Now, can some doctrinal differences have no affect on us when it comes to actions?

I don't think so. I think that, at least on some level, every belief that we truly hold affects our actions.

Our actions flow from our thoughts and our hearts. Our hearts and our thoughts are shaped by our theology.

This is why the correct doctrine, the correct theology, is so important. Because we are creatures prone to both rejecting authority and creating God in our own image, we tend to abhor the idea that another person can tell us that we are doctrinally in error.

Every chink of theology that is wrong is a chink of our understanding of God that is wrong.

The God that we love and adore. The God that we worship.

There's a reason most of the New Atheists, those insufferable atheists who worship Richard Dawkins and are complete jerks, like this (the video is made by an atheist who hates New Atheists; it's got some naughty words in it, fyi),  mostly come from a theologically shallow background. I've met literally no New Atheist who has a deep knowledge of the Faith, whether former Presbyterian, Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Methodist, etc.

The ones who do reject the Faith, who know about it, have in my experience always been the atheists or agnostics who are much more tempered and reasonable. And I know very few of those.


My whole point is this: religion helps us by guarding us against the age-old desire of being God and telling Him what's up.

I'm sorry, but there are too many temptations for us when we internalize the Faith as something only experienced between us and...well, what we call "Jesus".

Because it's cute and all that we (and don't believe for a second I am not including myself in this) claim that our understanding of Jesus is accurate...but is it?

The same One Who fed the five thousand miraculously...also allows the five million to starve today.

The same One Who says we should not repay evil for evil...is coming back as a warrior on a horse, with a sword shooting out of His Mouth.

The same One Who died for us...also has many of us die for Him.

Those things don't make sense.

Do not delude yourself into thinking that you all by your lonesome can figure out the One Who formed the galaxies with His very Words. We need to try to understand Him together, with the wisdom of His people throughout the centuries. It is nothing but arrogance that makes us think we can do this all on our own.

Am I religious? Yes.

Am I spiritual? Not by a long shot. Lord, I have so much growing to do. I am a horrible person when I think about it.

I'm religious, and am trying to be spiritual. My religion has helped me so much in that.

I take it that if you're spiritual, but not religious, you've apparently arrived?

If so, congratulations on being perfect. If not, get in line with me and take the Eucharist. We both need God's Grace.



Sunday, May 17, 2015

Yes, I'm (Anglo) Catholic (Part 3: Liturgy and the Book of Common Prayer)

Whew! We've reached Part Three in my Super-Special-Awesome (bonus points if you caught the reference there...in America!) series on the beliefs that led me to the Anglo-Catholic tradition! Up now: the Liturgy and the Book of Common Prayer!!!

Now, I want you to first take note of something, because this is very, very important: out of the (now) three articles I've done (or in one case, am still doing) concerning the Anglo-Catholic Tradition, how many of them are utterly abstract beliefs that do not have any Real Presence (pardon the pun) in the physical world? The first was on the Eucharist, which has a physical manifestation; the second was concerning Baptism, which also has a physical manifestation; this third one is about our physical tool for prayer and worship (the Book of Common Prayer), and the Liturgy we practice from it, which is also very much a physical involvement. Not to say that purely abstract dogmas are unimportant--they most certainly are--but the focus here is on the physicality of the Christian Faith, as understood by historic Christianity.

Why?

Because the modern Western Church has almost entirely forgotten it.

Think about it: what does your average modern day American church believe?

Baptism? It doesn't actually do anything supernatural, but instead is merely a "profession of Faith" (funny how Scripture never calls it that). Oh, and NO BABIES. Because babies can't be Christians. And Jesus doesn't want us to bring babies to Him...or something...(Matthew 19:14...)...

The Eucharist? Meh, merely a memorial. It's not actually the Body and Blood of Jesus; we only take it once every 3-4 months because...it helps us remember Jesus' death or something. Mind you, not "remember" in the Scriptural way, where we are united with Christ through the Eucharist, but "remember" purely in the epistemological way. As in, "Oh, now I remember that Jesus died for me. Thanks, crackers and grape juice, for reminding me of that."

Prayer? Well, we kinda do this whole, "think nice things in our minds and that's our morning prayer" thing, often, don't we? C'mon, admit it: you do the whole, "Ugh, I don't want to get out of bed, so let me just think nice Jesus thoughts in my warm, cozy bed and that'll count." I mean, sure; it counts as prayer..ish. But this brings me to my point: a minimalist, anti-physical, Jefferson Bethke-type religion that tries like Hell to pretend it's not a religion but is "just about Jesus" permeates our modern understanding of Christianity in the West. When does the modern American church ever advocate for spoken prayer in private time? for literally getting on one's knees? for--Heaven forbid--reciting or even--Lord have mercy--singing our prayers? Why do we only embrace the types of prayers that involve the smallest amount of physical participation?

Why do we insist upon acting as though the only important part is the non-material part?

In other words, why does our spiritual journey almost never involve our body?

But that question is, perhaps, for another time.

For now, I wish to focus on the third (and maybe last for this series? not sure; we shall see!) thing that drew me to the Anglo-Catholic tradition: the importance of the Prayer Book and the Liturgy.


We All Practice a Liturgy


It's true.

Some of us practice this type of liturgy:





Some prefer this type of liturgy:




(Is there a difference between those two? Just kidding...ish.)



Some prefer this (can you tell I just discovered how to post videos on this blog?): 



Others prefer that: 


(...well, let's hope there are VERY few who prefer that abortion of a church service.)


...and finally, some REALLY prefer this: 



...for some God-forsaken reason.


Every single one of these services (or in a few cases, "services") uses a liturgy. Which makes us ask, "What is a liturgy?"


A liturgy is defined as the way in which a service is conducted for public worship. Merriam-Webster is a great go-to for definitions, in my estimation. A liturgy, in other words, is how we worship corporately.

If running around with snakes in your hands is what you do on Sundays, that's your liturgical practice.

If jamming to really bad pop-sounding music that may either be about Jesus or your girlfriend is what you do on Sundays, that's your liturgical practice.

If simply singing a bunch of old-boring hymns with all the enthusiasm of reading a list of an accountant's responsibilities at his job is your worship practice, it's your liturgical practice.

Simply put: we all practice liturgy.


Okay...and?

Well, the way we worship is the way we believe.

There's a great and ancient line about this: "Lex orandi lex credendi".

"The rule of prayer (worship) is the rule of belief."

What does that mean, exactly?

It means that our worship, the way we worship, affects our beliefs. Big time.

If you are part of a church that holds to the emotional part of worship as most important, if there's rarely a moment that music isn't being played outside of the actual sermon, if there is a lot of emotion expressed by not only the worship music performers but also the minister and even the crowd, then you are likely going to emphasize emotion or feelings over intellect in your Christian life.

If you are part of a church that may or may not have modern worship, but the sermon is the all-important part of the entire service, and the minister gives sermons that are intellectually deep and heavily into the Greek and Hebrew, then you likely are going to emphasize the intellect over emotion in your Christian life.

If you are part of a church that focuses on experience: the experience of the Sacraments, or the experience of healings or speaking in tongues, the use of prayer books to pray as a community, ministers with vestments and incense, recited responses, genuflections, or the veneration of icons and other such mystical things, then you are likely going to emphasize the experience over the intellect in your Christian life.

I want you to know that none of these is wrong: emotion, intellect, and experience are all three essential to the Christian Faith. We do a disservice to not only ourselves but to God when we lack one of these in worship. Our entire being should be involved in worship, not limited parts of ourselves.


 I would never, ever claim that the Anglican Communion is the only place where a balance of these can be found; however, the best place I have found such balance is in the Anglican Communion.



All Three in the Prayer Book

In the Liturgy found within the Book of Common Prayer, we have all three emphasized. We have the emotion. We have the intellect. We certainly have the experience.

1) Within the Book of Common Prayer, our emotion breaks out into communally confessing our sins, and lifting up our hearts at the fact of being forgiven. Our emotion is found in the Doxology, and throughout the entire service. Is it as pronounced as your average modern worship service? I don't know; while I'm not shouting out modern worship song lyrics, lifting my hands and closing my eyes while swaying, I am certainly emotionally impacted. I mean, I've never cried at a modern worship service. I have multiple times at my own Anglican Church. Try saying this prayer with fellow believers, and not getting emotional:

"We do not presume to come to this Thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in Thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy Table. But Thou art the same Lord, Whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the Flesh of Thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink His Blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by His Body, and our souls washed through His most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in Him, and He in us. Amen." 

2) The intellect is certainly there. We recite the Nicene Creed every Sunday service. In fact, it is because of that practice that I now have the Nicene Creed committed to memory. I didn't try to memorize it, it just happened that way. The Liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer is filled with intellectual depth; each section has meaning. A high church liturgy is one of the best ways to bring a child up in the Faith, because it's responsive and allows the child to fully participate in it.

3) Finally, the experience. Oh yes, it's definitely there. The use of icons, the genuflection, the communal prayer, the incense, the candles, all of it is experiential and has reason for being there. Of course, the most important part of the experience by far is the partaking of the Eucharist. Eucharistic theology is sadly missing from the modern American church.

Actually, most of number three is missing from the modern American church almost entirely. We have conflated "experience" with "emotion", and think that because we have a lot of emotion, we therefore have a lot of experience. They aren't the same.

Sadly, what is by far most lacking in the modern American church is Sacramental theology. We in the United States are too "rational" and "modern" to believe that, say, Baptism actually kills us (Romans 6) or that the Eucharist is really Jesus' Body and Blood (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). We like the phrase "it's only symbolic". It's comfortable.

Unfortunately, recall that idea of "lex orandi lex credendi"; it works both ways. Because we don't like "superstition", we get rid of (as much as possible) those icky beliefs and just have them as mere "symbols" that don't really do anything.

In effect, we try to strip them of their power.

I found plenty of emotion in some of the churches I have been a part of.

I found plenty of intellectual depth in some of the churches I have been a part of.

The Anglican Communion is one of the few places I've found a healthy balance of emotion, intellect, and experience.

Does your church have that healthy balance?