Christianity: Ritualistic Religion vs. Relationship

I’ve never liked the term ‘religious’.  For me that invokes mindless rituals and a lack of personal interaction with God.  Sort of a Monday through Saturday apathy, but a false piousness on Sunday when people are looking.  I don’t like that.  For me, Christianity is a relationship- and it’s not about being in a specific place on a specific day.  Going to a shoe store doesn’t make me a shoe.  Going to church doesn’t make me a Christian.  What I do seven days a week makes more of a difference than whether or not I show up at a specified building on Sunday.  Yet I can’t ‘do’ anything to earn heaven.

I grew up in an evangelical church, and for me it was a great experience. The other kids were fun, the youth groups were active and kept us busy with activities and ‘field trips’, and the chaperones were generally goofy enough to not be embarrassing adults, but grown up enough to keep us from getting killed. The senior high choir even did week long tours during Spring Break to Kentucky and Washington, DC, and everybody came back in one piece. We had fun.

The teaching part was also a positive experience.  None of the pastors hollered. I don’t like to be hollered at. If someone wants me to listen, they have to treat me like my ears work, and I’m not in trouble before they even get started. Hollering is punitive to me. Normal volume gets my attention.  Just about everybody who had a pastoral position had a great sense of humor- that was also crucial. I didn’t want to sit through an hour long service with someone that sounded constipated and annoyed.  During the time I went to that church, I was lucky.  Humor was intact.  I learned a lot.

Sunday School teachers were also great role models. I remember several of mine. I even taught kindergarten Sunday School for a while, and it was a lot of fun. We had the curricula all spelled out, and projects to help reinforce the lessons.  There was singing, and with little kids, a fair amount of hugs. One of ‘my’ kids came from a moderately rough background. Her mom wasn’t in the picture much, and I was near the same age as her mom.  She tended to hang out with me a bit closer than the other kids.  I still have her school photo from 1984.

People who don’t grow up in a church often think that TV ‘Christians’ are representative of all of us.  Um, NO !  There is no magic handkerchief, or vial of oil (probably Crisco), or need for someone to pray on my behalf.  I’ve got the direct number. It’s “Hey, God?” 🙂 , or “Oh, Lord” 😮 – depending on the tone of the prayer or conversation.  I don’t always get very formal- sometimes I’m even sort of ticked off. God can handle my anger. He can handle my frustration and He WANTS to hear about my pain.  The Psalms are full of examples of David’s pain- and God used  him to be the lineage from which Jesus was born.  Check out YouTube and Amy Grant’s ‘Better Than A Hallelujah’… we don’t have to follow rules to pray and be heard! Just be open, and let God know what’s going on. Good or bad.

TV preachers don’t work for me for the most part. There are exceptions, but the ones nobody has ever heard of except for the people awake during the 3:00 a.m. time slot used to  suck money out of the desperate and disenfranchised are pitiful in my opinion. But that’s just me.  God gets to judge their hearts, and He holds preachers and teachers of the Bible to a higher standard than us regular folks.   God judging hearts- that’s good news in my book.  What humans think of me is pretty irrelevant, though I’d want nothing more than to be a good representative of Christ- but in the long run, it’s God who will judge me. NO human’s opinion even comes close.

Judgement and being a Christian aren’t the same thing. Becoming a Christian is a choice. It’s an actual ‘event’ of praying to ask for forgiveness, believing that Jesus died on the cross for my sins, and rose again- and He’s coming back one day. That isn’t something that gets ‘revoked’.  People can choose to develop a stronger relationship with Christ- or not.  And nobody does it perfectly. People ‘backslide’ (fall away from their spiritual teachings and beliefs).  I routinely ask for forgiveness for stuff I do.  I will be judged one day before God- but my salvation is secure. My judgement won’t be the same as someone who has refused to accept Jesus.

I was also lucky to have a summer camp to go to as a kid for week long sessions. Between the summers before my senior year in high school and  freshmen year in college, and half of the following summer, I worked there as a nature counselor (and a few weeks of ‘cabin’ counseling).  Timber-lee Christian Center in East Troy, WI was SO much fun- and is still a very important part of my spiritual ‘roots’. People there lived what they talked.  It wasn’t put on for show. We believed what we talked about. For those of us who worked there, it was how we all lived, for weeks on end.  The immersion in 24/7 Christianity out in the open was special.  It wasn’t a ‘real life’ setting- but it was a huge blessing to have had those times there, whether as a kid going to camp, or a summer staff member.  I met people there that I’m still in contact with, and they haven’t become ‘less’ solid in their Christianity when nobody is looking…they were and are solid examples of loving Christians.  We do exist!  But we’re not perfect.

I’m not someone who spends a lot of time talking openly about my beliefs. I think as a nurse, I became less likely to just open up about God. When I was working,  I was at work to take care of patients, not preach.  (And, it could get me fired; being an example of kindness could do more than verbally ‘Bible-thumping’ someone)  It was that way for all religions.  If a patient mentioned something I also agreed with, I did smile and say I agreed. But that was pretty much the limit that was allowed.  I did support patients in their beliefs. For example, an orthodox Jewish patient needed matches (or a lighter) to light candles when his rabbi came on Friday nights. I had no problem finding those for him.  I took trays with pork products back to the kitchen at a nursing home for a Muslim resident.  I didn’t have to believe the same thing to be respectful.  I didn’t see that as a threat to my beliefs.

For me, Christianity is a relationship with God.  I’m physically limited as far as getting to an actual church building, but there is nothing wrong with my ability to read the Bible, pray, and have ‘general’ conversations with God.  I guess it’s a fine line between that and praying, but there’s communication.  I’ve read through the entire Bible a couple of times so I could see for myself what’s in there (and the study notes I had). Mostly what I learned is that I still have a lot to learn.

I also learned that it’s not my job to cram Christianity down anybody’s throat. It’s not my job to be offensive in my beliefs.  Being a Christian isn’t about ‘making’ someone believe something.  To me, it’s more about being willing to tell someone what I believe, and hopefully living in such a way that I don’t push people away.  The Bible is clear about being gentle in one’s approach to nonbelievers.  That gets missed a lot when the sensationalistic preachers are interviewed for TV, or taped as they holler on the streets.

Christ is about love.  John 3:16 is a common verse, and talks about how God sent His only Son to die for our sins and give us eternal life if we believe Him. What gets missed is John 3:17- that God didn’t send His Son to condemn the world, but that through Him the world might be saved…. there are so many more references in the Bible about love in regards to God and Jesus than there are about judgement and condemnation. Will God judge those who reject Him?  Yep… but He also isn’t cramming Himself down anyone’s throat….it’s a personal choice.  Free will.  If you don’t want Him, that’s up to you.

Religious rituals aren’t paths to salvation. It doesn’t take much to repeat an action without thought behind it.  A relationship is personal.  It’s voluntary and individualized.  I much prefer a relationship with  God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit.   I don’t ‘do’ Christianity exactly the same as someone else, and they don’t do ‘my’ Christianity either- which is the beauty of a relationship.  The big things are belief and faith.  Those are relatively simple decisions.  And continuing to aspire to be the type of believer that will please God is also a decision. I might not get it perfect all the time, but God does know my heart, and that is very reassuring.

Growing Up Evangelical

The term ‘evangelical’ has become attached to so many negative meanings nowadays. It’s really sad that most things to do with God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, or anything ‘religious’ (I don’t like that term) are met with such hostility.  Though I do understand some of why that ‘is’.   Sometimes Christians can be their own worst representatives.  I also learned later (in my 30s) that a person’s ‘assumption’ of God often reflects how they view their earthly father. If that relationship was damaged or weak, it’s hard to comprehend a loving, consistent God.  When I read the Bible for myself, I found a very compassionate and constant God.  I also found so much more love than judgement.

I grew up in an evangelical church from the time I was a newborn.  It just ‘was’ in my house.  I had a great experience in that church when I was a kid. It was my primary social contact, and the youth groups were a lot of fun.  I was in various choirs, and most weeks, I was at church functions at least four different times.  Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday evenings, and some sort of weekend youth activity.  In the summers we had Vacation Bible School as little kids, and I worked as a VBS volunteer when I was in high school.  I spent eleven years working in the church nursery.   We also had an amazing summer camp that I attended for week long sessions as a young kid. For  2 1/2 summers I was on summer staff as a nature counselor between my senior year of high school and early college ages.  My memories of that camp are amazing; I still love that place.

When I was growing up in that church, I never felt that there was an exclusivity about it.  Back when I was younger, there weren’t that many controversial issues that were discussed openly.  That made for a fairly sedate experience.  The things I was taught were directly from the Bible.  Were there some ‘taboo’ topics? Yep.  But it wasn’t something that was beaten into me by some rabid preacher.  There were simply Bible verses that were discussed about various topics, and that was that.  No drama.  Nobody talked about abortion, LGBT issues, or even divorce (until well into the 80s when a Sunday School class for divorcees was started).  But I didn’t hear much about those things outside of church either.

As a teenager, there was the expectation that sex happened after marriage (and I had no issue with that).  Language reflected character, and was expected to be G-rated (I later had some issues with that, and had a lousy character for a while). Clothing was expected to be modest- but wasn’t Puritanical- shorts and t-shirts were fine, as long as they weren’t Daisy Dukes or low-cut.  There weren’t any bans on dancing, playing cards, or going to the movies. The guidelines for deciding activities were simple: Was it something that glorified God?  And God is a pretty open-minded guy on many issues !  (I have read through the Bible many times, and found that most of the ‘rules’ were imposed by humans, not the Bible).  There were instructions about the power of music and the lyrics and beat that could distract from beliefs; music is powerful.  I never got into hard rock, and even paid attention to the softer rock. It had to have a positive message.

How I decided what was right for me was also simple. It was in the Bible.  When I became a Christian (an actual event- not a progressive tally of behavior and deeds), I was very young. As I got older and realized the sacrifice of what Christ did on the cross for all of us, obedience to the Bible became something I wanted to do.  It wasn’t forced on me; I wanted to follow the Bible out of respect and gratitude. I don’t always do it ‘right’, but I’m a work in progress. Since God has my heart, He can work in me.  It’s a relationship more than a religion (which to me implies mindless rituals and Sunday behavior that isn’t the same as the rest of the week). It’s something that grows and gets more mature in time.  It doesn’t end, but that’s the beauty of it; God won’t leave me.

I had no interest in having sex before marriage. I wanted to wait until I met someone that I loved, so it was special and not something to take for granted.  My body was considered to be the temple of the Holy Spirit, and what I did with it was to reflect that.  Drinking and drugs weren’t of any interest- I did go through some stupid drinking when I moved away from home (1200+ miles away), but it wasn’t fun. I stopped.  My activities were always rather dull. I’m just not that interested in things that I couldn’t do with Jesus standing next to me (which He is).  I don’t feel I missed out on anything.  My eating disorder years were a bad example of Christian values; I didn’t respect the body God loaned me.

I do think that some issues were either glossed over or ignored.  I was always taught to help my ‘neighbor’ (basically anybody), and not think much about it beforehand.  I wasn’t taught to evaluate a situation and feel that it was OK not to help someone if my safety was at stake. It IS Biblical to be safe and not suffer from the absence of common sense.   But that’s the big ‘negative’ I experienced (and it was significant in how it affected my life). On the whole, I value my church upbringing as THE single best thing my parents ever did.

When I hear about the extremists on the news, it breaks my heart.  Most evangelicals (or conservatives in general) aren’t haters.  Many have strong convictions, and may disagree with some social issues, but that’s not the same as ‘hate’.  God wants everyone to join Him. Heaven is a choice.  Salvation is a decision- it can’t be earned by any deed or quality of life. God used social outcasts for most of His plans in the Bible.  He used people of good reputations as well- He can use anybody.  God doesn’t hate anyone (that preacher from Kansas is going to have a lot of  explaining to do one day).  I can’t view anyone who hates another person as someone who is following the Bible.  God is the only Being who has the right to judge anyone.  He gave us all free will and it’s not up to me to define that for anyone. Do I have opinions on things? Yep.  But I can’t climb on board the hate wagon.

As far as salvation and Heaven go, it’s very simple. The Bible is clear on that.  Those who believe that Jesus died on the cross to be a sacrifice for our sinful nature , He rose from the dead, and is coming back someday to take believers to live in Heaven for eternity.  For those who die before He returns, their spirit goes to Heaven when they die IF they have prayed for Christ to forgive their sins, and believe in His gift to us when He died on the cross.  It’s very simple.  It’s open to anybody.  There are no mandatory deeds to ‘earn’ salvation (earning salvation isn’t possible – which is pretty neat, nobody is excluded from eligibility).

(We’re born into sin as human beings; the age of accountability is different for everyone, and  includes developmental stage and the awareness of right from wrong; I don’t believe that babies or those who can’t understand the process of confessing sin and receiving Christ will go to hell).

Baptism is a sign of obedience, but not a requirement for salvation.  The Holy Spirit is a guidance system, and comforter.  Speaking in tongues isn’t something dramatic used to ‘show’ other people anything.  It’s a language between the believer and God, and not required for salvation, or as ‘proof’ of the Holy Spirit’s  presence.  He can be very quiet and private ! The Bible is a constant, and never changes (the versions and translations may, but the message is the same, from the same Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic sources).  There are so many verses that are ‘go-to’ verses when times are tough. Psalms and Proverbs are huge helps when I’m feeling bad, or feel I’m being ridiculed by humans.  Proverbs is also a great source of direction on how to live a prudent life. The New Testament gives me the blueprint for living as a Christian (the Old Testament is still valid, but the words of Christ are invaluable).  The books of John and Romans are great for new Christians and those who want to go to the ‘nitty gritty’ before anything else.

I mess up living as a Christian all of the time.  I ask for God to forgive my daily screw ups, and He is faithful and just to forgive me when I confess my sins.  He knows my heart like NO human ever will.  With Him, I am totally understood.  There is none of the feeling of being misunderstood that I encounter with the vast majority of people I know.  But since asking God to forgive my sins and receiving the gift that Jesus gave when He died on the cross, I can never be ‘unsaved’.  I can fall away from the type of life I want to live- but I can also return to a closer walk with God at any time.  He is still there. He is the ultimate loving Father.  The decisions of others, and my own decisions, can lead to trials and struggles in life… but that doesn’t mean God is ‘punishing’ me, or that he ‘makes’ bad things happen.  All decisions have consequences; I decide how I react to them.

I’m comforted all the time by the assurance of Heaven, especially with my health problems, but even before then.  I know that I’ll see other Christians again, which makes earthly death less painful.  I grieve for the temporary loss here, but know that in the grand scheme of eternity, the time on earth is very short.

I hope I’ll see you there. 🙂

I’m Not Mad At God…

…but I am mad at the narrow view of the world I was taught by my church.  Don’t get me wrong- it was a great church to grow up in, and I’m incredibly thankful for a Christian upbringing.  Most of my friends as a kid and teenager were church friends.  Most of my social life  (like %90) was through the church, and I loved it. I went to church camp for one week each summer from 4th – 11th grades (summers before that year).   I worked at the church camp for 2 1/2 summers, and those summers were the best !  I still love that camp.

But then I had to go out into the world as a young adult, and be ready for life.  I wasn’t.  I had moved 1200+ miles away from home essentially on my own. It was a bigger city with a very diverse population. That was eye-opening at times, but not anything that caused me any sort of turmoil.  What I wasn’t prepared for was how to deal with crime and keeping myself safe.

Yes, it’s also a parents’ responsibility, but when you are immersed in a church subculture, most of your social interactions and social knowledge/mores come through the youth groups.  Or at least it did. Maybe things have changed since I left high school in 1981.  I left home for good in late 1985.

I wasn’t prepared to assess my own safety in a situation, and protect myself by knowing when it was OK not to  help someone.  I was taught that you help your ‘neighbors’ (that was basically everyone). I wasn’t taught that people can be really nuts, and dangerous.  I got the ‘stranger danger’ talk when I was 6, but I wasn’t told that even people who were known to people I knew can be very harmful.  So, I didn’t have the skills to avoid getting raped and beaten for hours.

I’d been lied to by the brother of the mother of a baby I took care of.  He made up some story about needing my help  to come and get the baby because of a family emergency. My other posts go into more details, but the bottom line was I didn’t have the skills- or permissionto say no to this guy I didn’t know.  I did know he’d gotten out of prison, but I didn’t know anything about crime and criminals, or what his story was.  I was very naive because of my church upbringing.  We were sheltered from the real world in many ways.  I did know that I could say no to the sexual perversions he did (and ignored my pleas to stop), but a lot of that was also because of NO sex before marriage. I felt a funky gut feeling about him before he got to my apartment (longer story)  that wasn’t good, but didn’t think it was OK to refuse to help.  That nearly got me killed.

There are many reasons I won’t go back to my old church now that I’ve moved back here.  I tried it several times, and in several different ‘groups’ (regular service, Sunday singles, Wednesday singles, special events- the special events were OK).  It’s not the same place, and quite frankly, it’s not welcoming. It’s not for ‘new’ people.  I still value my church upbringing, and my core values have never changed. But I’m angry that as a teenager, when I was forming my view of the world, and my place in it, I was given the sugar-coated view of how people behave only in a church setting/belief system.  I got no information about how to assess my safety.  Nothing about what can happen when evil compels a person to commit a crime – or that Christians can be targeted (simply because they’re humans).  It’s not possible to pray away all things that can happen in life.  Christians can have horrible things happen to them.  That doesn’t make them ‘weak’ Christians.

Churches have a responsibility to teach how not to stray from their beliefs, but how to deal with people who don’t share their beliefs, and  what to do with actual evil. It’s fine to pray, but some sort of action also needs to be taught.   They need to teach that there are times when it is foolish to reach out to people.   It is Biblical to assess a situation before jumping in with both feet.

Proverbs 27:12 … “The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and suffer for it.”

Churches breed simple thinking, and following the standard ‘love your neighbor’ and ‘do unto others’ belief system.  Those are great when there is no possibility of encountering evil. And I don’t know  on what planet that is  really possible. But it’s not realistic in this world.

I do believe that God can use what I went through to be of value and purpose to others (Romans 8:28…”For we know that all things happen for good, to them that love God and are called according to His purpose.”).  I have no issue with that, and that verse was actually my ‘mantra’ during the rape.  I had to believe that it happened for some reason that I didn’t know at the time.  I had to believe that God was still with me, and for some reason was allowing the rape to happen.   But I also believe that God could use me not getting raped as well.

For the most part, I’ve come to terms with the rape/beating. I’ve forgiven the man who raped me (God will deal with him).  I’m just now realizing my anger at my church not teaching me how to deal with REAL life in the world.  I’m sure I’ll get over it.  But I hope someone will see this and consider preparing upstanding Christian kids to protect themselves and avoid what I went through.  I still love the Lord with all I am… but I’m not fond of any religious institution that ignores the presence of the real world when educating its youth.

Yes- it’s true we are not of this world, but boy howdy, we’re sure in it.