Friday, April 27, 2012

Religion or Relationship?

This past Wednesday, I had my friend Kelly as a guest blogger here.  She wrote an wonderful piece on faith - about having religion versus having faith.  You can read that post here.  When she sent me her post, I immediately loved it because it has been a subject that has been on my mind a lot, particularly over the past few years as our family shifted away from a Catholic background to a non-denominational Christian church.

At my church, we have a women's ministry called "Sisterhood".  We meet for several weeks in a "semester" where we do a particular study as a large group of women, broken out into smaller tables.  The spring Semester began last week.  This week was week two of our own home-grown study called "LIFE: Living In Freedom Everyday".  I have never completed a LIFE course at our church before but have been quite interested in it for some time.  Essentially it seems to be about learning how to break free of the strongholds over your life so that you can live in the fullness that God desires for you.

The subject matter for this week was entitled "Knowledge of Good and Evil".  It, of course, is based on the scripture found in Genesis where we read about the fall of Adam.  What we took a look at the tree of life versus the tree of knowledge.

Essentially, the tree of knowledge represents the "law" and the tree of life represents, well, "life".

So then the law is holy.  The commandments are holy, righteous and good. {Romans 7:12, NASB}

But we also know this:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. {John 15:1, NASB}

As our group was studying the material in this session {it was based on far more than what I've shown you here}, I couldn't help but think of Kelly's post from earlier in the week.  We are talking about having a relationship with God versus having religion.  It's that same issue I've had on my mind for a long while now.

I was born into a devout Catholic family.  I was baptized as an infant.  I went to Catholic schools - all the way through university, in fact!  I received all the sacraments at their appropriate times.  I was married in the Catholic church.  Ron had a bit of a different upbringing but still ultimately wound up in the Catholic tradition.    Our children were baptized in the Catholic church.  We had traditions to uphold and maintain.

I can tell you that as I was growing up, we went to church regularly.  It wasn't a question of if we were going.  Every Sunday.  All of the major special church feasts and observances.  There wasn't an excuse worthy of keeping you away from church in my house.  If we were traveling, we found a church.  I attended some youth groups and some retreats as a teen.  I got involved in groups in school which were demonstrative of my religion.  I didn't ever really rebel against my family and the church.  I grew tired at times and at times didn't enjoy going, but I still went.  Out of obligation.  A duty as a Catholic.  I still went to church when I was at university.  I clearly remember skipping one Sunday and the guilt laying so heavily on me all day thinking how my mother would react if she was there and if she knew that I walked something like 5 miles to a church that had an evening service.  In the rain.  And back.  Guilt.

It became difficult to go to church once Peyton was not an infant.  With her special needs, it became a challenge.  We had her and Moira.  We wound up to the point where Ron and I would take turns going or we wouldn't go at all.  The alarm would go off Sunday morning and the eyes would roll and the hemming and hawing...and the guilt if we didn't go.

When we moved to Charleston, the very first weekend we were here, was the anniversary of our stillborn son and we made a point of finding and going to a local Catholic church.  I have to say that I always look back on that and think that our kids were not misbehaved at all but you have to know that a special needs child is likely going to make a sound at some point.  And she did but it wasn't loud.  Or so I thought.  An usher in the church tapped me on the shoulder and asked my family to come with him.  It was not even quite mid-service.  Feeling very strange and awkward, we followed.  Well, apparently, unbeknownst to us, the priest had given the usher "the eye" which meant that we were to be escorted out of the church because we were allegedly too disruptive.  As I said, I would never have made that statement about my children's behavior that day.  If it had been someone else's children behaving the same way, I wouldn't have thought anything of it.  It simply wasn't that bad.  There was no room in the crying room and the seats in the vestibule were filled.  I was filled with such anger and so near tears.  I looked at the usher and said, above a whisper, that if we weren't welcome in the body of the church, then we just weren't welcome there and we were not going to be cast aside in a corner because our handicapped child made a sound.  We left.

I wrote an email to that priest within a few days afterwards.  I explained to him about how we had just moved to town, about the fact that we were remembering our son's anniversary, and how we had a handicapped child, and so on.  I gave him what for!  I reminded him that Christ even said

Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.  {Matthew 19:14, NIV}

After that experience, we certainly never went back to that church and it took a long time before finding a different church to try.  We tried a couple churches, but we were back to not being able to go as a family and for the children to have no place to "be" in church.  It was so disheartening.  Yet when the parents visited, we made sure we went.  Eyes rolling {inside my head of course, because we had this obligation you see}.  Sighing.  Not enjoying.  Not getting anything out of the experience.  Feeling empty and spiritually dead inside.

Fast forward to the introduction we had to our church a few years ago - a day care mom I knew invited me to go with her family to their church.  I was in awe of what I saw.  There was a kids program unlike anything I could ever imagine.  There was a special needs ministry.  I will write someday again on exactly what that ministry means for my family.  There was incredible worship.  An incredible message.  I felt "home" though it was only my first time there.

But then the guilt.
OH the Catholic guilt.

It was ages before I could have the conversation with my parents about how we had become the rogue "born again" types.  Get the stereotypes out of your heads, people.  Christians.  Christ followers.  Jesus lovers.  We had grown to embrace the teachings of the church and very quickly we had discovered that the church was not about the buildings, or the embellished vestments of the clergy, or the ornate vessels used on the alter, or the pomp or the circumstance, or the "thee"s the the "thou"s, or the repetition of prayers drilled into my mind from an early age, or the responses that I could say in my sleep, or the constant kneeling and standing and sitting, and so on.

What I came to find out was that all these years, I'd believed in God {I never didn't believe}, I never knew Him.  I never had a relationship with Him or His son.  It was never about cultivating a deep, personal, intimate relationship with Christ.  It was about making sure you believed...or you'd surely go to hell one day. It was about saying the right prayers at the right time.  It was about saying specific prayers that everyone said from their head and not from their heart.  It was about knowing that Jesus was born of a virgin, went into ministry, and died on a cross and rose again.  But it was not about knowing that Jesus Christ was sent here by His heavenly Father for me because I had been separated from God because of my sin and that Jesus came to restore me and to offer my salvation so that I might experience eternal life with the Father one day.  It was not about how Jesus paid it all so that I could be saved.  It was not about how I could personally experience God's grace and mercy every single day of my life.  It was not about proclaiming the gospel that Jesus died me and rose again so that he could save me!

There was a deep struggle in my mind between religion and relationship for a while without me even knowing it.  That was this guilt that I was experiencing.  God doesn't want us to feel guilty about coming to know Him and his Son!  God wants us to know them and experience relationship with them.  Having faith should never lead you to feel guilty!!  

Individually, Ron and I both accepted Christ into our lives.  I was newly baptized in the church in March of 2010 and Ron in March of 2011.

Now, friends, I know that there are many of you out there belong to Christian churches similar to the one we attend.  But I also know that many of you belong to a traditional religious background.  I want to share with you that what I have said is based on what I personally have experienced.  I am in no way discrediting anyone's beliefs or religious affiliations.  This is the beauty of having a relationship with Christ.  I am on my path and you are on yours.  What has worked for me to allow me to receive Christ in my life is what I have shared throughout my blog and in this post directly.  For you, that relationship may well be in the form of practicing within a traditional denominational church.  If you are in a traditional church and you are experiencing a close relationship with Christ, that is wonderful!  What works for me may not be what works for you and that is fine!  The point is that you have that relationship!  I am not telling you that you need to leave your church and seek Jesus in a non-denominational Christian church.  Not at all.

My faith and belief in Christ is deeply personal.  It is a growing, maturing relationship that just happens to not be steeped in religious tradition.  I am eager to learn more and grow further in my faith journey.  I am excited to see what the Lord has in store for me on this crazy path He has me on!
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