Wow Jesus! How did all this religion creep into the relationship?
This is a rhetorical question. I know how we got where we are now. The evolution of the Christian Church in two thousand years went from a relationship based relationship between God and man and the human relationships between other human beings to an enshrined rigid religious system that mirrors much of the other religions and religious systems around the world. Those within the institutional church (IC) who keep trumpeting that “Christianity is a relationship not a religion” are all “blowhards.” Just because you say something often enough, loudly and often, doesn’t make it true. Just because a person may be an Evangelical or Roman Catholic, or Orthodox or a Mennonite, and believes they have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, it doesn’t mean that their expression of church is relational. In fact I would argue that when it comes to the main gatherings of all churches, regardless of church affiliation, they are all full of religious rites, observances and rituals that are largely not found in the New Testament texts. In fact much of the theological underpinnings of the ecclesiology (doctrine of the Church) are rooted in the worship of the Israelites in the Old Covenant (Old Testament). For 14 years I left the institution and would occasionally show up at one of their churches for a conference or an event, a wedding or a funeral, and come out of it seeing all the religious garb and rhetoric that accompanies it and give my head a shake and ask myself why I subjected myself to it all.
This past weekend, Lori-Anne and I went to Doors Open, an event in Kitchener Waterloo and Cambridge that had different businesses and enterprises open their doors to the public, offer lectures, and tours about their particular enterprise and expose the beauty and diversity that is in Waterloo Region. It was a fun day together. It was a great way to top off having coffee and pastry at the City Cafe on Victoria Street. There was much to see and experience but not enough time to do it all.
During Doors Open Ontario on 17 September Lori-Anne and I went to two locations, one was St. Peter’s Lutheran Church to hear a lecture on psychology and space and our sacred spaces, and architecture affects our brains and our overall heath. We heard the organist during his one hour session of playing the pipe organ, which this piece was his final piece before the lecture. Then we went to the adjacent building of the church, and Lori-Anne walked the Labyrinth. Then we went off to Christ the Saviour Antiochan Orthodox Church and had a tour of the church.
I came home to post photos of our time at the Doors Open event in Kitchener and Waterloo, when I noticed a post by my friend Stravo who had posted a statement that pretty well sums it all up for me.
On this day of open community connections we were drawn to visit two churches
Considering what I had just gone through on this day, this really summed up how I felt. Hearing the good professor from University of Waterloo speaking about sacred space and about design and architecture and its impact on our physical and emotional well being and the impact of what we would call “awe” and sense of wonder. Here I was in St. Peter’s Lutheran Church designed in the 1960’s and the architecture was spacious with high ceiling and pillars on the side and stained glass windows at the front and sides with icons in the glass work of the life Christ. The organ was to the left and the organ pipes were on the right. You could not help but have your eyes rise up to the ceiling as you entered the sanctuary. It was designed intentionally that way, invoking the style of church architecture that has dominated the Christian West.
Lori-Anne and I then went to the adjacent building to take in the labyrinth and Lori-Anne walked the labyrinth and meditated as she walked. I could not help but remember the labyrinth that I had seen as a child in Chartres Cathedral in France when I lived in France in the 1960’s. It evoked as much nostalgia as much as it evoke religious feelings and emotions as distinct from what I would call a sense of deep spirituality. To me the labyrinth is intrinsically linked to “religion” and in particular the Roman Catholic tradition, a tradition which my forefathers and my own family forsook and had little to nothing to do with. It was viewed as one of those “mystery religions” and an aberration of “biblical Christianity.” It was not until I was in my twenties and thirties that I overcame my family biases and opposition to Catholicism. So I had all those reminders come in to my mind, and then sorted it all out and cast it aside and I sat down to take it all in afresh. I was able to not let those nostalgic moments rob me of embracing this present moment, and God being with me in that moment of space and time. I became very thankful that I could simply be at rest in God, and did not have to perform or do anything, and I could just be me.
We ended up leaving and driving to Waterloo to the second church we wanted to visit, Christ the Saviour Antiochan Orthodox Church. We drove and had a certain anticipation of going inside to check out the church and just take it all in. We don’t live far away from the church and for the better part of the last decade we have had an interest in the Orthodox expression of Christianity. I had read the Church Fathers and the Anti Nicene and Post Nicene literature, and had studied Byzantine Christianity and had always had a fascination with the Middle Ages and Celtic Christianity and the spread of Christianity from Greece to Eastern Europe. So this was always an interest.
My fond remembrance of the Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe
The interest heightened when Lori-Anne and I went to Eastern Europe in July 2012 with John Crowder, on a church mission trip. We traveled on a team of 25 people and we were part of the prayer ministry team where John Crowder spoke. We were first in Riga, Latvia, where Lori-Anne and I on our second day walked uptown and took in the Orthodox Church that was undergoing renovations. When we went inside there was such a sense of the presence of God for me, not in the building or the architecture, but rather in the devotion of the people who came in at 2 in the afternoon, in order to pray and express their devotion to God. I have fond memories of being in that moment on that afternoon, just absorbing it all in. That day I experienced a deeper understanding, not head knowledge, but spirit knowledge of what Eastern Christian piety and devotion really are. This was repeated again when we went to Kharkiv, Ukraine and St. Petersburg, Russia. Walking among people who are devoted to God and their Christian tradition in a manner where they take their faith so seriously and with such passion, only heightened my desire to see for myself if this was the same here in Canada.
It may be safe, but the requirement to meet criteria to belong render it meaningless
We arrived at the church and parked on the street. The Doors Open sign was up out front and it was welcoming. We went inside and we moved toward the sanctuary and the local priest opened up to us in a real friendly manner. We spoke with the priest who was a former charismatic Anglican who had been part of the VIneyard as we had been, and found out we have friends in common like Brad Jersak and Brian Doerksen and others whom we knew over the last few decades. This was nostalgic for me again, and as the priest said, this place is a safe place, and indeed it felt safe. Emotionally I felt safe because this man knew of my Pentecostal and Charismatic roots. There was no trying to decipher where we were at. We connected at a religious spiritual level just by finding out our respective traditions and bits and pieces of our respective journeys. There was no awkwardness, and there was a keen interest in the building, the layout of the sanctuary and the icons.
We walked around the building and took it all in. As I walked around I overheard the priest explaining the distinctions between Roman Catholicism and Orthodox views and practices. I heard the priest speaking of “closed communion” and that if you were not a member of the Orthodox family you could not participate in the Lord’s Table. He spoke of the “blessed bread” that those who have not yet “chrismated,” that is the Orthodox belief and practice of being confirmed as an Orthodox believer, you could not participate in the communion service. That is why it is a “closed communion” where only those who qualify as an Orthodox member in good standing can fully participate in the Lord’s Table. When I heard this I was not surprised as I had studied the beliefs and practices of Orthodox belief and knew this as well as other beliefs and practices that I don’t personally embrace and practice. Just hearing the priest quietly and gently explain this in a pastoral way was nice to see.
However as nice as it was to hear and see, it also brought to mind the words of the Syrophoenician woman to Christ in the Gospel in Mark 7, where she confronts Jesus for help for her daughter, to drive out the demon that was within her. Jesus rebukes her, and she responds back in earnest, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28), and Jesus responds to her by telling her to go and that her daughter has been set free from the demon. I could not help thinking of that story, that even a person not fitting in, not being good enough, still expressed faith, and that expression of simple faith was rewarded with an answer to her heart’s desire for her child’s deliverance. I also thought of my own situation here.
No matter how nice you say it, I am still an outsider and I am more than OK with that
I thought about how much I am still an outsider in this equation. I was an outsider at the Lutheran church as much as I have always been an outsider at all the churches I have been a member of or engaged in corporate worship with. In some cases I have been invited to participate and even join with them, but to do so I really cannot be my own true self. I have to conform to human standards of belonging that have been derived from Scripture and tradition in order to fit in when matters of “institutional church” and “community” are concerned. I am good enough to get the “blessed bread” at communion, be an outsider without the full benefit of the Lord’s Table, and I can be blessed and prayed for, but I remain alienated and an outsider. This is why I have always opposed “closed communion” as I understand it to be an oxymoron and a contradiction of the Gospel where everyone fits and everyone belongs.
I was left empty and yearning to belong but not sad
I realized at the end of all this that I was truly NOT ever going to find that sense of connection and belonging within a traditional Christian church setting. Even this past year where I was part of a congregation that has small groups, the small groups while attempting to connect people outside the four walls of the church was no less still religiously structured and had to have everything programmed, from songs being song, and a “teaching” of some kind with study questions to guide the discussion. It was neither Spirit led or free and open to go with the flow you find in friendship and community time of experiences. The sense of always having something “spiritual to do” is what guided the gathering. Religion was always front and centre even by those who denied that it was religious. Most people do not know how to be “Christian,” and how to interact with other Christian without being overtly religious in their understanding and approach when engaging with them.
The other church left it all up to other people to connect with each other. The church was known for having no programs. So if you wanted to connect you were all on your own. So I went from one extreme where most people were in a small group, and connected at least every other week, to a church that only really hand a Sunday gathering, and if you wanted to connect, you had to reach out to people and befriend them in order to do so. That can really be intimidating. Even here in this church, which claims to not be religious and claims to practice the life of living by grace, everything was institutionally driven. The life of the congregation was the church Sunday gathering. All other occasions to gather were encouraged by never meaningfully provided for. So it reduced me to being a spectator, and another body in the seats on a Sunday, and everything was centred on the sermon, just again reinforcing and demonstrating that you can claim freedom and grace, and not walk it out or provide the means for others to embrace it in community.
I have tried over 35 churches in Waterloo Region. I am done. I am so done.
I am thankful for this weekend. Here is what I realized:
- I realized that I did not need, and that I no longer wanted what the institutional church has to offer.
- I realized that no matter what kind of religious body, Christian or otherwise, meets and gathers, they are essentially the same and do the same things and believe most of the same things when it comes to proclaiming a good God, who loves his creation, and wants people to love and help each other. The only difference between Christianity and the others is that I believe Jesus Christ is the ONLY mediator between God and man. When it comes to “practicing religion” the institutional Christian religion is not that different from other religions.
- I realized that true peace and contentment is not found externally, but as Jesus said, the Kingdom of God is within, and it must be an inward journey of the heart and spirit, where we can experience union with God and true intimacy and love. I do not need “organized church” for any of this.
- I realized that “institutional religion” has taken the bare essence of Christian faith, and has built an apparatus of qualifications and merits that have no basis on the core teachings of the Gospel. In its essence many forms of organized Christianity come close to being “another Gospel” as Paul taught simply by how it has become a self-propagating organization that is more a akin to belonging to a community organization, filled with rules, regulations, positions of power, financial wealth and distribution, which has become the face of world-wide Christianity. It has become so much less the powerful force and community it was in the first century of the Church.
- I also realized that many, many people are the same as I am. They no longer fit in the “church” no matter how you describe, and no matter how many times they try, they end up walking away. Many are beginning to realize that they no longer need to keep trying to fit into the institutional church. It is OK to be an outsider. In God you still belong, and you are in. There are no hoops to jump through. You confess your faith in Christ, and you are in. You don’t have to play the “choosing my religion game” anymore. You can be done with it and be at peace.
- Finally, I realize that all people need is God, and to connect with other people through regular human connections. Wherever you find people, you can connect. You can build authentic relationships with people who share similar interests, hobbies, charitable causes, sports, and other ways of connecting. You can build on those relationships and turn them in friendships of substance. You can move out from the “religious nomenclature” that held you back and experience the fullness that life has to offer. You can see God in every situation and every person that comes across your path, and you can interact and walk with them, and realize you need them as much as they need you. You can be thankful that you are not alone. God is with you and people are with you and you are with people. You never needed “church” to know and experience this. You can be free from all sense of “religious obligation.”
Don’t worry, be happy
I just want to thank my wife Lori-Anne publicly, as well as my friends Claude, Bob and Lois, who have journeyed with me the last six years. It has been quite a journey of discovery. It has been a liberating journey that has been very painful to discover and release and let go. We all want to belong, and trying to belong to an organized “religious body” is not necessary in order to belong to God and to walk with other believers. The “church trappings” are exactly that, trappings. It is a ways and a means to ensnare and trap people into a set way of believing and behaving. We are free from that.
We can walk with God in complete and total freedom without having to deal with the judgments of men and criticisms of organized religion that says we can never be enough, do enough, give enough, go to enough meetings, do enough ministry. No! You already are enough in the heart of God! You do not need to be or do anything. God loves you the way you are. You do not have to perform for God. You are free to truly be yourself. Just love God, and love and serve others as he enables you and guides you. When you can look in the mirror and be at peace and content that you have lived well today, and that tomorrow will bring you more opportunities to love and live well and you are content with that, you are indeed a blessed person. Embrace it! Embrace what God has set before you. He has set you free through Christ Jesus. The chains or organized religion are gone!
~ Samuel M. Buick