Stupid Religion

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I just had another one of those conversations.  The conversation I seem to have a lot these days with my Christian friends. Gay and straight. About what it means to be a Christian.

Am I still a “good Christian” if I don’t go to church? Am I a good Christian if I cuss, if I have sex with my girlfriend or boyfriend? And of course, that one question that seems to preoccupy the evangelical world right now: Can I be a good Christian if I’m gay?

Franklin Graham, the hostile son of that epitome of Christian kindness Billy Graham, thinks not.  And he’s spouting his morality-driven view of Christianity in all the media.  For him, and for many in the church world, Christianity is defined in terms of do’s and don’ts. Rules. Outward behavior.

And ya know, to some extent, I would agree with that. But only to the extent that “behavior” is defined as how we treat other people.

Christianity, at least for most Protestants, is defined by our faith in Jesus, and then how that faith translates into real life. More than just simple head-knowledge or believing something to be true, it is the transformational power of relationship with the Living God that defines us – proves us – to be true followers of Jesus. In a word, what makes us “good Christians.”

And that’s what I’ve come to conclude, after living my entire life in the church, growing up in a conservative evangelical home, going to an evangelical, charismatic seminary, and wrestling with God to sort out my own relationship with him.

Any so-called religion that does not result in a growing relationship with the Living God is a fake.

And any religion that does not transform you to treat other people around you in a better, more loving way is garbage.

If your religion – even if you can pull up all kinds of Scripture to justify your actions – results in alienating or hurting people, guess what?  You don’t know God, and you are not practicing God’s ways. You are not walking in the way of Jesus.  Period.

Because, at the core of it all, Jesus did not come to give us another book of holy rules to live by.

God is love, and the one who walks in love, lives in God, and God lives in him. … The one who claims to love God but treats his neighbor badly is a liar. – 1 John 4

A friend messaged me today on Facebook, in dismay over the cruel and cutting comments he received in one Facebook Christian group. They were targeted against “the gays,” of course, and our so-called delusion that we were saved.  My friend was puzzled how they could be so mean yet claim to have the truth.  For me, it was the same old, tired, story.  Stupid religion.  Words, Bible-knowledge in the head that never transformed the heart.

And this isn’t just a Christian thing.  Americans in general love to pick on Muslims and claim the actions of the radical fundamentalists are obviously not the actions of a Loving God – it’s a fake religion.  I’d have to agree – not about Islam in general, but about the hateful actions of radical fundamentalists.  And Jews, I’ve seen the reality of throwing stones and cold-hearted shunnings of the ultra-conservative against those who do not dress appropriately or honor the Sabbath as they believe it needs to be.  Even Buddhism, that religion known for its peaceful focus, has militant sects.  And my New Age/New Spirituality friends who have helped me see God in new and expanded ways … I see hearts seeking contact with the Universe, but sometimes in manipulative ways, trying to re-establish links with our own divinity in order to get what we want out of life.  And we Christians are no different. We have our militant sects, our KKKs, our Westboro Baptist Churches, our Franklin Grahams, even our seemingly Biblical messages coming from Assembly of God pulpits promoting a cultural agenda instead of offering the life-giving words of a Loving God.

Where is the personal transformation that comes from the faith? Where is the reflection of the God who sacrificed himself so that he could establish a better connection with humanity?

StupidReligion-274835316_3c95528b66_zI saw just a few days ago another post on Facebook by well-meaning Christians, trying to encourage holiness and morality in our “easy-believism” faith.  They quoted Jesus, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” And their emphasis was on keeping the laws of morality and purity, of “cleaning-up” the life of the Christian.  And my first thought was, “and what were Jesus’s commandments?”  “This is my commandment: that you love one another, as I have loved you.  By this the world will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35; 15:12,17)

Funny, Jesus didn’t say the world would know us by our clean-cut looks, our short hair, our modest clothes, or our sexual abstinence. He didn’t say our church attendance was the fulfillment of the law.  He said it was Love.  Period.

“But we do love you,” many Christians say. “That’s why we are trying to get you to stop living your sinful lifestyle.”  Or, in other words, “we love you, sinner, but we hate your sin.”   Haven’t we debunked that view enough already?  You cannot truly love someone while you are throwing stones at them. That’s not the life Jesus demonstrated for us.

If your religion is not transforming you to love your neighbor – to treat your neighbor as you want to be treated – then you are deceiving yourself. The truth is not in you. And you do not know the God you claim.

It’s really that simple.  “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and yet do not do the things I say?” Jesus asked.

My friend today did not know how to respond to those harsh words wielded by “good Christians.”  Honestly, he didn’t need to respond. Sometimes battling words accomplishes nothing. No one listens. No one is changed. But for his own reassurance, I suggested this.

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It really is that simple.

Love God. Love your neighbor.

And that “love neighbor” stuff isn’t just some vague, undefined feeling: “oh, yes, we love those sinners.” It’s your heart transformed by the power of God into loving action. It’s how you treat them. It’s what you say to them.

All the rest, all the verses from the Bible you can quote and hurl at people to prove your point that what they’re doing or how they’re living is wrong – all that is just religious technicalities. It is law. It is death. There is no life in it.

Without real love, all you have is a stupid religion.

 

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photo credits:
Angry God, Matt Katzenberger – flickrcc
Church Rules, Debby and Gary – flickr, cc

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He blogs here on IMPACT Magazine’s Cafe Inspirado column, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.

 
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One little word that makes all the difference

flowers-in-hand_277221852There I was, minding my own business, innocently browsing through endless Facebook posts from my infinite number of friends (never been more popular in my entire life!), and I noticed that one buddy in a moment of excitement and adoration wrote out the doxology as his status.

“Praise God to whom all blessings flow. Praise him all creatures here below.
Praise him above, ye heavenly hosts. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.”

Only he got one word wrong — as some of you may have already noticed.

I grew up in church where we sang this almost every Sunday, so it jumped off the screen at me.  And it’s always those little windows of time when you see something old in a new light that spark fresh insights.  That one little word makes a huge difference.

From whom” not “to whom.”

Big deal; who cares?

Okay, call me knit-picky, but it effects how we view God, how we view our relationship to him — how we view life.  God deserves our praise, to be sure.  And my mom taught me at a young age the incredible power that is released into our lives when we praise God in the middle of our difficult circumstances.  There’s value in that; it’s honorable to send your blessings to God.  As that cranky old oatmeal commercial guy used to say, “it’s the right thing to do.”

But we miss a powerful point about the character of God and his amazing love for us if we get that one word wrong.  “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights, who does not change like the shifting shadows”, James tells us.  God is a generous God, a giving God. One who pours out good stuff on us, just because he loves us.  And he doesn’t quit when we mess up.  He doesn’t change his mind.  Like that powerful revelation in Exodus when he proclaims his name to Moses: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love … (Ex 34:6).

That good stuff is for us.  
And if we miss that point, we’re missing out on some jaw-dropping grace,

some amazing love,

some unheard-of favor. 

Not because of who we are, or the fact that we’re constantly buttering him up with our praise.

Just because that’s who he is.

 

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”  That’s your heritage.  That’s your birthright.  We can love him all the more because of his love for us, because he is constantly pouring out blessings — even when we don’t see or feel them.

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” That one little word can turn your whole day around.

 

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photo credit: Hamed Saber via photopin cc

 

This blog was orignally posted on Cafe Inspirado, Aug 15, 2011.

 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He blogs here on IMPACT Magazine’s Cafe Inspirado column, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.

 
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One word that makes all the difference

There I was, minding my own business, innocently browsing through endless Facebook posts from my infinite number of friends (never been more popular in my entire life!), and I noticed that one buddy in a moment of excitement and adoration wrote out the doxology as his status.

“Praise God to whom all blessings flow. Praise him all creatures here below.
Praise him above, ye heavenly hosts. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.”

Only he got one word wrong — as some of you may have already noticed.  I grew up in church where we sang this almost every Sunday, so it jumped off the screen at me.  And it’s always those little windows of time when you see something old in a new light that spark fresh insights.  That one little word makes a huge difference.

From whom” not “to whom.”

Big deal; who cares?

Okay, call me knit-picky, but it effects how we view God, how we view our relationship to him — how we view life.  God deserves our praise, to be sure.  And my mom taught me at a young age the incredible power that is released into our lives when we praise God in the middle of our difficult circumstances.  There’s value in that; it’s honorable to send your blessings to God.  As that cranky old oatmeal commercial guy used to say, “it’s the right thing to do.”

But we miss a powerful point about the character of God and his amazing love for us if we get that one word wrong.  “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights, who does not change like the shifting shadows”, James tells us.  God is a generous God, a giving God. One who pours out good stuff on us, just because he loves us.  And he doesn’t quit when we mess up.  He doesn’t change his mind.  Like that powerful revelation in Exodus when he proclaims his name to Moses: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love … (Ex 34:6).

That good stuff is for us. 
And if we miss that point, we’re missing out on some jaw-dropping grace, some amazing love, some unheard-of favor. 

Not because of who we are, or the fact that we’re constantly buttering him up with our praise.

Just because that’s who he is.

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”  That’s your heritage.  That’s your birthright.  We can love him all the more because of his love for us, because he is constantly pouring out blessings — even when we don’t see or feel them.

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” That one little word can turn your whole day around.

Holy Kiss — Holy Cow !

This little adventure into “Radical Acceptance” and checking out this new church is making me think about a lot of things, and rethink a lot of others. And that’s a good thing.

I’m not generally a touchy-feely kind of guy. At least not with people I barely know, and certainly not with people I’ve just met. So if I meet you in person for the first time, you can safely expect a hardy handshake. Pastor Neill is not like me. He’s a hugger. Worse, he’s a kisser. Me? I tend to think that kissing is reserved for loved ones. It’s an act of intimacy shared with only a few — despite my years in the Middle East where public displays of affection were the norm. So that first Sunday at church as the congregants filed out the door, and the pastor normally (in my experience) shakes everybody’s hand, offering a kind word on the way out, I was caught a little off guard when Neill gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. I quickly regained a grip on my composure, smiled, made some off the cuff pleasant remark, and went on my merry way. Okay, so that’s just him; no big deal. A little odd, maybe, but no big deal.

I’ve had a few lunches with him since then, trying to get to know the guy better, to figure out what’s his deal, where he’s coming from, where he’s going, and most importantly, if I want to hitch my wagon to this train. So I’ve got questions. And with years of theological training under my belt, I’ve got a lot of them. Sure, I was knocked off balance by the audacity of his vision and approach to church, but was it really kosher enough for me to make this my new home? And the hugging/kissing issue came up during one of those lunchtime conversations. I don’t remember his precise explanation so I may be mischaracterizing him, but I was left with the impression that it all ties back to making people feel welcomed, loved, and accepted. But the truth might just be a lot simpler: that’s just the kind of guy he is and how he expresses himself.

I didn’t waste a whole lot of time analyzing it. Like I said, it might not be my style, but it’s really no big deal. But today I did start thinking about it again. Isn’t this really inappropriate? Isn’t it crossing that line of intimacy that should be reserved for loved ones?

And then it came to me. That is exactly the case. The whole mission of the Church should be to bring God’s love into this world, to show people that they are accepted and loved, and to mirror that love in real life. As a pastor, Neill is the visible representation of Jesus on the earth. We all are, of course, but as “leader” of a church, he is in a more conspicuous role. For better or for worse, people do look at spiritual leaders differently; they expect more of them and hold them to a higher standard. And in that capacity, as the representative of Jesus, shouldn’t he act like Jesus would? And doesn’t God actually (not just conceptually) love everyone? Wouldn’t he want them welcomed and embraced as intimately as he knows them? Suddenly I saw the kissing in a whole new light. Jesus knows every person who walks in those church doors, and he loves them dearly. Wouldn’t he kiss them? (I mean, I know he’d kiss me, right?) If the pastor’s goal — our goal — is to tend the flock in Jesus’ place, then what better way to show the people that they are loved than to treat them like close family? What better way in this world of hurting people to say “you are loved” — even though we’ve just met?

Okay, I’m not too likely to pick up this habit, but it does make me want to reconsider hugging. On any given day, a significant percentage of the people sitting in the pews will be hurting, will be going through some hard times. And in congregations comprised of people regularly rejected by family, society, and especially the church, that percentage will be even higher. The need to model God’s love is all the more urgent. And an innocent hug or kiss on the cheek becomes all the more significant. It might be just what they need at that moment.

So the next time the pastor gives me the holy greeting, I’ll try to restrain my initial reaction, accept it for what it is, and offer up a quiet prayer. “Thank you, Jesus, for your love.”

Just one more factor to consider in rethinking how we do church.

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“Greet one another with a holy kiss.”  (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 1 Thes 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14)