Imagine no religion

I am not a deeply religious person. I was reared in a home that attempted to be very Christ-centered, but I left the majority of those beliefs behind as I grew into adulthood.

Even though I have been attending church regularly for a few years now, I do not consider myself a person of faith. I don’t even identify as Christian, since I consider the meaning of that word to be Christ-like. I do my best, but I’m far from being anywhere close to the seemingly unattainable character of Jesus as portrayed in the New Testament.

Whenever something comes up the news pertaining to religion – whether it be something as horrifying as Muslims killing one another over cartoons or movies, or something as inane as Chick-fil-A’s donations to organizations fighting against same-sex marriage – I find it embarrassing to even consider myself part of an organized religion.

Although my church is a member of a very progressive denomination, that fact isn’t always evident to outsiders looking in. Someone driving by our church would have no reason to believe it to be any different from the multitude of ultra-conservative churches in the area. Why would a woman or a gay person have any reason to believe that our congregation supports equal rights for both?

During times like these, I wholeheartedly believe that religion is at the root of the world’s problems. Sure, poverty and class warfare play some role, but religion almost always seems to be the catalyst for violent uprisings, terrorist attacks, and various other forms of human rage. Let’s not forget the corruption and sexual perversions that are running rampant through the world’s biggest Christian denomination.

Although certain religions seem more prone to violence than others, the phenomenon certainly isn’t exclusive to any one religion. Christianity still has its fair share of extremists running around calling for the deaths of those considered to be sinful, so to say being a Christian is more peaceful or God-like than any other religion is fruitless.

So, basically, I am embarrassed to be associated with any organized religion. I love my church and many of those in attendance, but it causes me great discomfort to realize that most of the world assumes our congregation is no different than all the others. How can I ridicule other churches for their archaic views when my church is part of the same machine?

Religion isn’t all bad. It helps fill a desperate need that mankind has to be a part of something larger, and provides peace to people in times of suffering. It just seems that far too often, religion is the cause of the suffering.

Many years ago, John Lennon asked us to imagine a world with no religion. I don’t think he was asking people to become athiests; I think he was referring to the way we use religion to divide people and create untold agony. Perhaps he was onto something.

Choosing compassion over condemnation

I have watched with great interest over the past couple of weeks as Whitney Houston went from being perceived as a washed-up addict to a veritable saint in the eyes of the public. As tributes began pouring in from celebrities and fans, many expressed their belief that she was finally at peace in heaven. Family and friends said they knew without a shadow of doubt that she was with Jesus. Where she had been ridiculed only days and hours before, she was now being proclaimed the newest angel in paradise.

We tend to do that when people pass away. It becomes much harder to pass judgement on someone when they are no longer around to defend themselves. Death also reminds us all of our own mortality, and of our desire that other people not be too harsh in their judgment of our lives.

The morning of the day she died, I spent several minutes perusing photographs of her looking rather disheveled as she left a recent event and thought to myself that she probably wouldn’t live long. I was heartbroken when the news came in later that evening.

I have been a fan of Whitney for several years, and although I wouldn’t describe myself as a “fanatic,” I did purchase her albums as they were released (I actually have over 20 compact discs of her music), watched her movies, and always rooted for her to overcome whatever demons she was fighting at any particular time. Even though I liked her a great deal and followed her career, I don’t think I realized just how important her faith was to her until this weekend.

As I watched her funeral on Saturday, Whitney’s personal friends and family members recounted over and over how she prayed constantly, read her Bible, and quoted verses. Her bodyguard said she refused to go anywhere without her tattered Bible, even leaving clothes behind in order to have enough room for it in her suitcase. In a television interview, a minister friend recalled how Whitney recently laid prostrate on the floor as she prayed and spoke in tongues while begging God for deliverance from her addictions. Even the last song she sang publicly just two nights before she died was “Jesus Loves Me.”

On Sunday night, Oprah rebroadcast the interview she had done with Whitney a couple of years ago. Whitney had just revealed her obviously painful battle with drug abuse and the dissolution of her troubled marriage to Bobby Brown when Oprah asked the poignant question “Who do you love?” Without a moment of hesitation, she replied, “The Lord.”

So, what I know now is Whitney Houston had an astonishing love for God. She might not have been living what some would describe as a “Christian lifestyle,” but she certainly didn’t have a problem with faith. She wholeheartedly believed in Jesus, salvation, and the hereafter. Despite many shortcomings in other areas of her life, no one can accuse her of not taking her faith seriously.

As society replaces its condemnation of Whitney with a more compassionate understanding, I wonder why we have to wait until someone dies to show them any mercy and respect. Maybe if we would look a little deeper, beyond the image projected on people by a ruthless and merciless media, we might see how each person we take so much joy in building up and tearing down is still just as human as we are. We all have flaws, we all make poor decisions, and we are all worthy of a little grace and compassion.

If I should die this very day
Don’t cry ’cause on earth we weren’t meant to stay
And no matter what the people say
I’ll be waiting for you after the judgement day

– lyric from “Your Love Is My Love” by Whitney Houston

Learning about Lent

My church is currently observing Lent – a season of spiritual discipline that leads up to Easter. We are encouraged to “give up” something during this time, apparently as a way to relate to the 40 days of temptation that Christ endured.

Although the denomination that I grew up in didn’t observe Lent, fasting and other forms of self-denial were commonplace. Regardless, the idea of denying myself something for an extended period of time every year feels both foreign and compelling.

I guess I like the idea more for carnal reasons than spiritual ones. I think it’s good to practice forms of self-discipline, whether that means pushing away the plate or turning off the television. Even so, in the four years that I’ve been attending my church, I have yet to participate in this tradition.

I think the main problem is that I can’t decide what to give up. Most of the things that people commonly abstain from seem downright silly. Surely giving up chocolate or soft drinks doesn’t really give one a deeper understanding of Jesus’ suffering, but I can appreciate how difficult it is to choose something meaningful.

Ash Wednesday, the traditional start of Lent, was last week, but I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to abstain from. Maybe my hesitancy is evidence that I don’t want to give up anything, because deep down, I really don’t. I don’t want to stop checking Facebook every ten minutes. I don’t want to quit Dr. Pepper, or stop watching “Big Love,” or order a salad instead of french fries.

But I guess that’s the point. Jesus went through hell in order to enlighten the world and save humanity. Surely I can give up something I really like for a few days.

Hypocrite

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9

“Brian is a hypocrite. He believes his works will get him into heaven.”

Those words were spoken right in front of me the other day. What hurt more than anything was that it came from someone I care about deeply – a close relative from the same religious background.

I immediately pointed out the irony of such a statement from a person who clearly doesn’t rely solely on grace as a means of eternal life – something evident in both dress and action. Nevertheless, the words stung.

From the time that I started attending the United Churches of Christ, I have known that most of my family would not be supportive. Anything outside the religious beliefs of my childhood would be considered false teachings and deception. It is interesting that the denomination they expect me to be a part of is one that is the least accepting of who I am.

It is one thing to realize that your family doesn’t agree with your choice in denominations or have any confidence in you spiritually, but it’s something else entirely to hear those feelings voiced.

I’m also a little confused about the meaning behind the words that were spoken. What makes me a hypocrite? It is because this person doesn’t recognize my denomination as legitimate or because I’m openly homosexual and attending a Christian church?

I even looked up the definition of the word “hypocrite.”

hypocrite: a person who professes beliefs and opinions that he or she does not hold in order to conceal his or her real feelings or motives; professing feelings or virtues one does not have; deceptive, just pretending to be good.

The words have made me question myself. I want to check and double-check that I am not allowing myself to be deceived or manipulated by others. I want to make sure that the works I perform are for God’s glory and not my own. And I don’t want to simply appear righteous and good, I want to actually be those things – as much as humanly possible.

Regardless, I believe the verses in Ephesians are somewhat misunderstood. They do say we are saved by the grace of God and not our own works, but they don’t provide an excuse from doing good works. The rest of scripture is rife with commandments on how to live one’s life in order to achieve eternal life. I think a person who is truly a Christian will want to do the things that Christ taught, not just for a reward in the hereafter, but because they help us reap treasure while we’re here on earth.

I pray that God will help me to always be a true Christian – one that loves and forgives.

DJ for Jesus

I used to dream of being a disc jockey. I have always had such a love affair with music that I figured the perfect job would be choosing and spinning tracks for other people’s enjoyment. During my clubbing days, I would envy the guy or girl who selected the songs that got people moving on the dance floor. That was many years ago and although I’m not playing records to get people dancing, I am being blessed with the opportunity to move people through the medium of music.

music_saves_my_soulWe recently started having a mid-week prayer service at our church – something I suggested and was put in charge of coordinating. Each week, another church member and I put our heads together and come up with a short service that reflects a particular theme (praying for our church, praying for the sick, praising God, etc). She then selects an inspirational story to share with the group and I select two songs.

Since our regular pianist can’t attend on Wednesday evenings, we play professionally recorded tracks over the sound system. Honey graciously “spins the tracks” from the sound booth, which allows me to remain at the front with the group. We have listened to a wide range of musicians – from acappella to southern gospel to soul – a nontraditional mix that allows us to step outside of what we’re used to hearing in the sanctuary.

Choosing the songs for this gathering isn’t always easy. In fact, there have been a few times that I have been terribly stressed as I’ve tried to find a song that properly reflects the subject matter of the service. During those times, I have simply prayed for guidance and sat back in amazement as the perfect tune would practically fall into my lap.

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. There are weeks when those in attendance are singing along, swaying back and forth in joy, or silently weeping. Young or old, rich or poor, they are living evidence of music’s universal appeal.

So, each week I get to live out a slightly altered version of my dream – one that is much more Jesus-centered and spirit-filled. And I am blessed beyond measure.