The old wisdom used to be, “Don’t ever talk about religion and politics.” That’s still probably good advice for me and my mother. It only leads to trouble. But, my children are different. For whatever reason, they have quite a bit to say about religion and politics. Since I was a pastor, we tried to avoid talking about religious things in our home (we figured they got plenty of exposure in church and didn’t want to talk about it at home). That was probably a good move but it didn’t stop them from forming very strong opinions about religion and politics. Today, I consider the three of them very astute in both arenas and I often discretely solicit advice from them.
Earlier in their lives, I was less confident about having these discussions with them. After all, that was how I was raised — nothing good can come of it. I remembered my cousin arguing with my grandpa Joe and, to my shy, non-confrontational self it just seemed like a waste of time. But, despite all of my hang ups, I bolstered my courage and approached my daughter one day and asked her, “How do you really feel about church?” She responded, “I’d rather be on a mountain thinking about God than be in church thinking about a mountain.” That certainly fits with what Jesus said when the Samaratin woman asked Him about where to worship. It’s a common thought, with all our religious problems, to reject religion outright and opt for a more private experience.
It is pretty common to hear the phrase, “Jesus didn’t come to start a religion.” That’s true, at least of Christianity. He would have had to wait 30 years after his death to even be included as a Christian. Some of my friends would respond, “He didn’t start a religion because he already had one — He was a Jew and He practiced Judaism.” It turns out Jesus was pretty religious. Was that because of his parents or because of He was God? Do we need religion? Is it required? Some of my wiser friends would say, “Yes, because it helps us be properly formed.” But, even they would admit that it’s more complicated than that.
To go a little deeper into the discussion, let’s consider a quote from Wm. Paul Young in his book Lies We Believe About God:
Human beings form religions around the things that matter to them and the fears that drive them toward certainty.
It seems to me that this has always been true–at least part of most religion is satisfying that basic longing in us. The failed system of sacrifices to the gods led to other practices that served to satisfy our fears and give us a sense of certainty in an uncertain world. Ultimately, it breaks down to one degree or another eventually. To me, religion has always been about finding a road to God or reestablishing a relationship. Since the time of Jesus and like the Samaritan woman, we associate our faith with a place or an organization. This always confuses the issue. In reality, maybe it is not so much about finding a road to God as it is opening a path for Him to reach us. Or if you prefer, making space or just being open.
For me, it helps tremendously to not use the word church or religion. Church and religions probably are even triggers for my wife and I. I prefer the word practice. A couple of times, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is described as being led by his ethos (his custom, his habit). If we are not careful, we can use this understanding to legalize a prescribed way to worship and pray and interact with God. I believe we have to see both sides of the coin. We have accept that others have passed the faith to us and borrow those customs and traditions that work. But, we also have to adopt the practices that work for us. Jesus practiced the religion of his ancestors but He also reserved the right to exercise “his” practice. If it wasn’t a little unorthodox, then why did it upset people at times? He came to the temple but also went out to the garden. I feel that way about meditation and yoga. My practice has to work for me.
Another thing I have learned recently is that my practice needs to celebrate presence. I am somewhat of a task oriented dude. I like to accomplish things and know what my mission is so that I can accomplish it effectively. I am learning, through things like centering prayer, that there is often a more important focus — the need to simply be present. I celebrate the fact that I am here–I am breathing–I am enough–I am present. But, I also celebrate the fact that God is here. I am learning that I do not need to ask for anything or even to expect anything. Back to my children–the best times together are when we are just near each other, not expecting anything or needing anything–just present together. I am truly discovering the truth behind an old phrase we used to say in church, “It is good to be together.”
When I am quiet, one of the most common emotions or qualities that arises in me is appreciation. Appreciation for God–appreciation of myself–and, surprisingly, an appreciation of others. Appreciate means “to recognize the full worth of” or “raise in value.” God cares about all three of those things (Himself, me and others) and when I recognize their true worth, I can’t help but draw closer to Him. When my children learn to appreciate the things I value, and vice versa, we draw closer. It’s a good practice when there is appreciation for all.
I used to worry a lot when I went to church. Was I doing things in the right way? Would someone be cross with me if I didn’t do it right? As expected, when I changed my practice there were a few people that did let me know that I was on a slippery slope doing such things as yoga or meditation. Even if I called it centering prayer, that still might be a little too “catholic.”
I also worried about my relationship with my children because, to be honest, we didn’t have the best practices. We didn’t talk enough, and when we did, it wasn’t very genuine or honest. It was obvious, we both desired to be closer, but it just didn’t always happen and it left us a little frustrated. Trying harder often made it worse. This can also true of church and religion.
I feel like things are changing for me. I think it is mostly because my practices are better. There is more presence, more appreciation and probably a little more honesty. My practice is anything but fixed–it seems to change slightly every day. Maybe it IS a journey after all!
I pray that you find your practice!