Someone recently looked at me and said “you’re religious, aren’t you?” I was gobsmacked. They meant it as a compliment, a type of assigning me a label which would make it easier for them to understand who I am. How to explain the difference? A vibrant, living and loving relationship with God, or a stuffy, regulated, litany of ‘should’s’, ‘musts’ and ‘have tos’ encompassed in meaningless rituals and second hand guilt. I know what I would choose, and I have.
I will probably offend a few, but here goes. I was born into a very staunch Roman Catholic family. We regularly attended church in a rickety old wooden building where the organ pumped out dust with the dreary spiritless hymns. The priest would perform a ritual in Latin, we would swallow a small disc of wafer, listen to a long and discouraging sermon while the congregation would cough, wriggle and intone in unenthusiastic monotones the required responses. I would entertain myself by pulling fluff balls off my cardie or picking my nose till I was slapped by the well aimed white gloved hand of my mother. My three sisters and I all attended a catholic school where sour breathed, black garbed nuns took every opportunity to hit me with a cane for any deviation from obedience. My father would insist that we said the rosary (a string of prayers measured off on a string of beads) every night, kneeling on the sisal carpet which left indentations in my poor chubby kiwi knees.
At my convent secondary school, I remember pleading in Christian Doctrine class, “but how do we know God is real?” to be given a detention for my insolence. I guess I just shut down after that, but a cataclysmic encounter with the Jesus who has remained my faithful and accessible saviour changed all of that at age 18, during the Jesus Revolution in 1972, when on a chilly spring night in an AOG church in Sydenham Christchurch I met a God who was vibrant, living and was wanting to ignite my life with joy.
And he did, and he has. Religion? A list of requirements to make a certain grade, achieve a certain level of holiness. Religion? Jesus hanging on the Cross for eternity, never getting off that cross and finalising the work that makes us righteous through his blood. Religion, lining up to tell the priest behind a dusty curtain a list of sins or failings which would be forgiven with a few prayers. Give me relationship any day. Give me a Jesus who is accessible 24/7. Give me a Jesus who welcomes me with open arms and says “Come, I love you, it’s finished at the cross, now let me complete my work in you” Give me a saviour who forgives me every time, wipes my cheeks of the tears of frustration when I fail, tells me he loves me through his word, reminding me that he sent the Holy Spirit to complete the plan as I was not expected to do the whole thing in my own strength. And a father, a heavenly dad who loves with such depth and passion. A heavenly father who longs to provide, heal and restore. Because he is love, then love is what comes into our lives. Such profound and miraculous love. Now that is not religion.
I look at religions in the world. Many have a mandate of hate. They murder and destroy to appease a harsh and vindictive God. God our father is love. Our faith is propelled into the world by an act of selfless love. God, offering a world who could not manage their sin through the law was offered one sacrifice for all time. The selfless love of God the father allowing his own son Jesus to accomplish what the law could not. And we are the recipients of that love. Such complex, all encompassing, passionate and abiding love. A God who cares about the minutest detail of our day to comforting us in the moments of the most horrendous of sorrows. A personal God, a caring God, a loving, healing and generous God. A God who tells us to not worry; he will carry the burden and supply all of our needs. He will answer our prayers and comfort us when overwhelmed. He will carry us through the most sorrowful of times which, all of humankind must encounter, but he offers a promise of being with him always to allay our every fear. He is no remote, stern figure head or Idol carved from stone. He is loving, compassionate and understands our human weakness.
Yes. I would rather have relationship than religion. A God whom I do not have to whip myself to appease, do not have to pay bribes to attain forgiveness, or wear sackcloth and ashes to ascend into heaven. A loving God who is so generous he allowed his own child to die on the cross and to suffer the horror of separation from him and to take on the sin of all, and a Jesus who was willing to do it for us. Now that is love.
When I look back to my nine year old self, kneeling on the sisal carpet under the harsh glare of that fluorescent tube, praying that the repetitive words which were so meaningless would end, gazing at that agonised figure nailed to the cross above the mantelpiece, I never realised then that my questioning heart would find the answer it needed. I look up to an empty cross now. He died yes, for the sins of the world, but he rose in new life so we could live lives which are empowered to be dynamic and world changing. An empty cross telling us that it is finished, once and for all.
Religion which is dry and hollow and devoid of life, or religion that requires its acolytes to subjugate women, behead unbelievers and rule the world through terror. Or religion that requires privation such as extensive fasting and self flagellation. Or religion that is so self absorbed it requires you to chant your way to bliss while the fate of the world goes to hell in a hand basket. Give me a faith, a relationship which is robust and reciprocal. Where I love and am loved. Where I am listened to when I talk to him, where he answers when I pray. Where he comforts me when my world is filled with weeping and where he provides for me when my back is against the wall. Give me a relationship where I can chat easily to him as I am driving my car, knowing he is listening, or ascend into the heavenly realm during worship, or, where when I see someone hurting I can plead, “Dear Jesus, please help them” and know that he will. A relationship where I don’t have to be perfect, indeed where he forgives me the minute I say I’m sorry, and I don’t have to wear sackcloth and ashes to indicate repentance. A relationship where even when I am alone, I am not lonely, because I know that he is there with me.
A relationship that will sustain me until that moment I am with him forever in eternity, a relationship which will support and protect me though uncertain times in our world’s history. A relationship that is possible for any who will open their heart to him and invite him in. A life changing, transformation that is powerful and profound. A life of love and joy. That is the loving relationship which I am in. What would you rather have? Relationship or religion? I challenge you to think about that.
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