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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You’re Trying Too Hard

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #e10069;”]W[/dropcap]hy do we always try to make things so complicated? Life. Love. Faith. Our walk with God. Churchy terms like salvation and righteousness sometimes give us the impression that our day to day life requires special activity to achieve a harmonious existence: one where we’re living in reality in the here and now, at peace with our fellow human beings, and in touch with our God. But it’s really all very simple. And that’s how it’s supposed to be. Effortless. If you’re struggling with it, here’s a little message from God for you: Relax. You’re trying too hard.

When God called Abraham about 5000 years ago, he didn’t give him a set of detailed instructions to live by. He didn’t hand him road map or a rule book. Abraham (actually he was called Abram then) was minding his own business, probably looking into the starry sky, reaching out with his heart, seeking the Creator of All, when God spoke to him. “Just go to the place I will show you.” No lengthy list of directions. Just a vague, pointing in a general direction: head that-away and I’ll show you where to go. It was a walk, plain and simple. And that’s a model for us.

In the very early days of Christianity, when Jesus’ original disciples were building the faith community, working out the details of it all, they ran into a sticky situation. They were mostly all Jews. They all got along; they knew the rules of social etiquette. But it started getting messy when a bunch of non-Jews wanted to connect to their God. They had to rethink things. God was the God of Israel. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. So did these non-Jews have to convert to Judaism in order to join the group, to enter the Kingdom of God? After some lengthy (and I’m sure heated) discussion, they arrived at a conclusion. A really simple one. These non-Jews (us!) would enter relationship with God (“be saved”) by grace, just like the Jewish disciples were. Peter put it succinctly: “Why do we try to test God by putting on their necks a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (Acts 15:10). So, no. No new rules for the new-comers. No converting to Judaism, no circumcision, no enforced observing the Sabbath, no tithes. Just grace.

Let’s translate that into present day language: if you’re wanting a better relationship with God, you don’t need to “convert” to all kinds of churchy ways. You don’t need to adopt a “religious” lifestyle. You don’t need to clean up your act, or stop drinking, or dancing; you don’t need to take out those extra ear rings or hide your tattoos. You don’t have to cut your hair or change your clothes. You don’t have to stop going to clubs Saturday night or even start going to church Sunday mornings. No rules. Just seek, and there will be grace. That’s because the hard work is already done. Jesus did all that was necessary to make that connection for us on the cross. We just gotta accept it and go.

 

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This is a big deal. This is important. Because we’re all wearing ourselves out trying to get in good with God ….  We live frustrated lives because other people try to hand us the old rule book. We can become depressed, even suicidal, because of these impossible “requirements.” But they are all wrong!

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And it’s not like those early apostles just made that up. This new simple relationship was foretold prophetically by Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and probably others. There’d be a “new covenant”, a new way of God interacting with humanity. And it would NOT be like the old way, with its tablets coming down from a mountain, it wouldn’t be made of 613 commandments, a list of do’s and don’ts. “It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers … THIS is the covenant I will make with them: I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people. No longer will someone have to teach them “This is how to know God” because they will all know me…” (Jer 31:31-34). Ezekiel says it similarly, “I will cleanse you from all your impurities; I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; … And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezk 36:24-27).

God himself would change our hearts because his Spirit would be in us. Our job is just to cooperate with those changes, to grow with the relationship.

It wouldn’t be some radical thing. We wouldn’t become saints overnight, perfect in all our ways. But little by little, day by day, as we go, we’ll grow. And in the meantime, in those rough patches and in messy times when we screw up, it’s all just a simple thing: love and grace. No rules, no worries. No guilt, no beating ourselves up — and no one else being able to judge us or point fingers at us. It’s none of anybody else’s business. Like with Abraham, it’s just a daily walk thing, a “go, and I’ll show you as we go” kind of thing.

 

Throw out the rule book

If anybody, and I mean ANYBODY, on TV, on the radio, in a church, behind a pulpit, or even just over a beer, tries to hand you a set of rules in order to “please God”, throw it back at them. “It will NOT be like the covenant I made with their forefathers.” No laws. Just a day to day walk. If your best Christian buddies, if some saintly woman of God, if your dad or your mom tell you gotta give up the gay thing because God hates that, you just tell yourself (and them): “MY relationship with God, my covenant, is NOT like those old rules.”

This is a big deal. This is important. Because we’re all wearing ourselves out trying to get in good with God. Trying to hear him better. Trying to “live right.” Or stressing over the fact that we really want God in our lives but have been told by everybody for so long that God rejects us because we’re gay or lesbian or transgender, or … whatever else we may be. We live frustrated lives because other people try to hand us the old rule book. We can become depressed, even suicidal, because of these impossible “requirements.” But they are all wrong! It’s really just a simple thing. The hard stuff has already been done — by Jesus.

Our job is simple: to seek God. God promised this very simple reciprocal relationship: “If you seek me, you will find me.”  And the rest is just the day to day working out of the details, as our hearts respond naturally to that relationship. No rule book. No laws. It’s all grace — a state of freedom and acceptance, of simple living.

So if you’re wrestling with trying to get your life in order to connect better with God, if you think you need to stop doing certain things, or even to start doing certain things in an effort to reach out, this is his message to you right now: Just stop. It’s so much easier than you’re trying to make it. All you have to do is seek. How ever that translates in your life — whatever it is you gotta do to clear your mind a bit and connect. Just seek. He’ll be found. In the day to day whispering relationship between you and him. That’s his promise. So stop worrying about it so much. Stop struggling. Relax. You’re trying too hard.

 
 

[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 at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.
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Good News? What Good News?

laughing-jesusWeird thing happened last night at church. A bunch of us got together for our weekly Bible study, and, it being the night before Thanksgiving, only a handful of people showed up. And we talked, and joked, and laughed like we normally do. And then it was time to get down to business. Leading the group, I started praying. And I was still laughing while I prayed. Even as we all lifted some of the concerns and requests up to God, I described the various situations to God as any of us do in a group of friends we enjoy being around. Real issues, real stories, but told from the comical side, sharing the joke with God.  Laughing in the Throne Room.

And it struck me: I’ve never in my life seen a preacher laughing while praying in church.

How ridiculous. Why are we always so serious, so “religious” about talking to God? Laughing, expressing our humor with God should be the most natural thing in the world. And I think it’s because even after all these generations of being a supposedly “Christian nation”, of being the most overly-churched, overly-exposed people to the Gospel in the entire world, we still have it ALL wrong. We still have very little idea what that “Gospel” is really all about. But then again, religious people are almost always the last to grasp the simple truth.

What Good News?
When Jesus first started doing public ministry, way back 2000 years ago, the very first words he said were: “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is here. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:15). I was rereading this a few days ago, and I was stumped by the phrase. “Believe the good news”? What good news? Mark, the gospel writer, never explains what that is. Of course, it had to be related to the Kingdom arriving, but what did that really mean? Well, we have four gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — and each describes the same events from different perspectives. Like four people at a party, each will remember and highlight certain things that were particularly important to him, bringing out details that the others may have overlooked. So I flipped over to Luke’s account to see if he could fill in the missing details: what good news?

Jesus went to Nazareth where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue … The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners,
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Then he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Everyone spoke well of him and were amazed at his gracious words” (Lk 4:16-22).

There It Is
And there it was — the good news. And these religious folks, these people who had read their Bibles all their lives, were amazed at what he was teaching them. Jesus didn’t just read to them, he “began by saying to them”, so he must have spent some time elaborating, explaining, telling them familiar truths in a way they’d never heard before. He opened their eyes for the first time in their lives to the true heart of God, hidden in words they already knew so well. And this is it…

That religious prison you’ve been living in all your life — you’re free from it. That view of God you’ve had all these years, the God who counts your sins, the one whom you try so hard to please but keep failing — here’s a different view. See the Father in a new way: not through laws and rules and religious lifestyle, but in simplicity of a loving relationship. Don’t be blind anymore to the true character of God. Open your eyes and see. That oppression you’ve been living under, the frustration of constant failure to live up to other people’s expectations and rules and regulations, trying to force you into a mold of “holiness” — you’re released from all that. Oh, and by the way, the time has come, your King is here now, and that means you NOW live in a time of God’s favor. You’re accepted, you’re loved, unconditionally, just as your are, right now, independent of your ability to live up to all these legalistic standards. It’s a whole new world, a whole new age. You are completely free from all that old stuff, and you already have God’s blessings and favor. It’s yours now. And you don’t have to do anything to have it except believe it. That’s the good news!

So why are we so serious, so religious, so legalistic about our relationship with God — even after two thousand years — when it’s so simple? In a single word, the heart of the good news is freedom. Freedom from ANY rule or protocol or standard of behavior required to enjoy the company of the Creator of the Universe in your normal, day-to-day life.

Real Life
But what does look like in real life? Simplicity itself.

You know those rules people told you about, things you had to do to please God? Or those things you weren’t doing, and that’s why God wasn’t pleased with you? Throw them all out.

You know how you were told you couldn’t wear too much make-up because it would displease God? Or how your hair was too long? Or that that tattoo you had on your arm was a sin? Or your dress was too short, or your ear was pierced too many times? Or how you went dancing last night, or had too many drinks — or that you had a drink at all? It’s all garbage. To use the language of the Old Testament, that shirt you are wearing was made from two types of fabric: you’re a sinner. You cut the hair at the corners of your head. God is displeased. The tassels on your shirt are not showing in public — you failed. You walked too far on the Sabbath. You must die. You didn’t bring your whole tithe into God’s house — you are cursed. You ate shrimp for dinner last night — you are an abomination. You had pepperoni on your pizza — you must be outcast and shunned. Or — hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen — the person you love is the same gender as you. You are abhorrent to God, and your blood is on your own hands. Rubbish. It’s all garbage.

That’s why the Apostle Paul, who used to be one of the biggest legalists of his time, could say, “God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins. He canceled the written code that was against us and that stood opposed to us, with all its regulations. He took it away, nailing it to the cross. … Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink …” (Col 2:13-16).

News Flash
The great news flash of Jesus is this: none of these rules has ANY intrinsic spiritual value. Not one of these can make you holy, and none of these has the power to make you unholy. The good news is that you are free from all these regulations and standards. And anyone who tries to impose these on you again as a way of pleasing God is a liar, a prison-keeper, someone who wants to put you in chains — against the very Declaration of Freedom Jesus himself proclaimed.

You are FREE from the prison of religious rules and restrictions.
You are RELEASED from the oppression of other people’s expectations of your life as a way of having a relationship with the God who loves you.
The true image of your Father is RESTORED – one who accepts you, loves you, without any condition. And that blindness which kept you from seeing his true nature, which always made you think he was angry with you — it’s gone.
And on top you your total freedom, here’s the bonus. You walk in God’s FAVOR, whether you feel like it or not.

You were poor because all this freedom was kept from you. You walked alone in the misery of your life because religious people all around you told you that you had to take on the burden of all these rules and laws of “godly living” in order to have the blessings that are already yours.

This is the good news. You are FREE. You are FAVORED. And when you walk in that simple, uncomplicated relationship with the Father who loves you, you will slowly begin fulfilling “godly standards” automatically. You won’t want to kill or steal. You won’t want to disrupt the beauty of someone’s marriage by having an affair with one of the spouses. You won’t want to gossip or bad-mouth your boss or that irritating co-worker because you know in your heart how hurtful that is. You’ll start feeling compassion for your neighbor who’s trying to deal with screaming kids. You’ll be concerned about that old woman down the street who can’t afford groceries. As you walk in the freedom of God’s love, your heart will be transformed. Any code of behavior that God is concerned about will be written on your heart, and you’ll do them naturally as you grow. No rules. No one telling you what you must do. Just natural living. Free.

The good news is it’s already done. The time has come. Your King has arrived – and he wants an intimate relationship with you! You can have peace with God, you can have the wonders of his friendship, and it all comes without a rulebook. The good news is you can tear up that old rulebook and throw it in the garbage where it belongs.

Anything else is worthless. It’s nothing more than legalistic prison. You are free. You are released. You can see God as he is. And he is already pleased with you: you already walk in his favor. Because of Jesus, there’s nothing you need to do except believe it.

And that’s good news worth celebrating!