So, there’s this:
I know, this clip has been around forever, but I just haven’t had anything pertinent to say until now. Initially, I was very moved and in agreement with this…author? Artist? Rapper? Don’t know what to call him, but he’s pretty cool. The trappings of religion can often divorce us from the heart of Christianity, which is a Person, and a relationship. I think my tattoos automatically obligate me to be on the side of Jesus, versus the side of religion.
But something happened to me yesterday that made me rethink this position, or at least think about it from a different angle.
My eldest daughter was being a bit of a brat. For those of you know her, you know this is an incredibly rare occurrence. Sophia is usually a very sweet and considerate 12 year old – I mean, 6 year old. But yesterday she just wasn’t having it. She belittled her sister by calling her a baby, and when I confronted her about it, she said that she hadn’t called her a baby, but a “badey“. I then asked her if she was telling me the truth, and she said that she was.
Blood pressure rising…RISING…
All of this stemmed from the fact that Sophia didn’t want to share a certain toy with Katie, and Katie responded in a childish manner. But by this point, I was pretty upset that she had called her sister a name, and then lied to me about it. So I let her have it, and lectured, no…SERMONIZED to her. She got it from both pastoral barrels, a long harangue about generosity and how our tongues can set fire to great forests, or something crazy like that. Being the sweet child she is, she listened with tears in her eyes and hung her head. I ordered that she go to her sister and apologize immediately, which she did.
But later, she did something strange. She started writing something on a sheet of paper, and then speaking it out loud. I asked her what she was doing, and she told me that she was performing a play about Christmas. Here’s a picture of her “script”:
So she stood up on my armchair and pronounced these words, all the time, glancing at me out of the corner of her eye. And I realized that she was trying to appease me, not by being nicer to her sister, but by putting on this little religious skit. She thought that’s what I wanted from her. And this didn’t sit well with me – after all, hadn’t she missed the entire point? I didn’t want her to try to outwardly be more holy or talkative about God, but to speak to her sister with gentleness and grace. And I was about to get my butt out of my chair to give a second, and even longer, sermon about being a whitewashed tomb, or something crazy like that.
But I didn’t. After all, what was I supposed to do, shout at her until she changed her heart? Can you really shout someone to such an end? And more than that, I realized what she was trying to do – she was trying to change her heart, in the only poor way she knew: by talking about God. She didn’t know how to tame her tongue or immediately be generous, so instead, she tried to be religious. Was it flawed and misdirected? Sure, I guess so. Was it incredibly sincere and well-intentioned? Absolutely.
You see, for Sophia, she couldn’t just immediately be the daughter that I wanted, or that she wanted to be. The only way she could manipulate those hidden and secret parts of her was through this play. As this dawned on me, my heart softened, and I told her that Christmas was the ultimate act of generosity, God giving us His beloved Son. And so we could be generous with others, and with Katie, because God had been so generous with us. And she understood that much better.
I don’t think this dynamic is limited to my daughter, or to children. I think it applies to us all. It is true that Christianity, at its very core, is an intensely personal relationship with a God who became man, and gave His all for us. No ritual or religious expression will be able to encompass a relationship so divine, and so dynamic. In this sense, Christianity is so simple, and so pure, isn’t it?
But it is equally true that we, as imperfect people, cannot express our love to an invisible God in a perfect way. We cannot love God perfectly, and neither can we change the way that we think and feel on command. And so we are caught. We have a simple goal to love God and to love those God has made, but no way to do that, to love and live in the way that we know we should.
We have our end, but we have no means.
And so, what we do is the same thing that my daughter did: we use whatever imperfect tools we have around us to delve into our heart of hearts and prod us into rightness. Some of us turn to emotionally powerful worship music to move us, and help us engage with God. Is God contained in the music? No. Is there some sense in which the sheer emotionalism of music can become a form of religiosity, divorcing us from truly being in relationship with God? Yes, of course, and we should be careful. But at the same time, it is a tool that some can use to change thoughts and emotions that are not easily changed by sheer force of will alone. Some of us turn to church – not the community, but the location. You know, the building. Is the church a building? No, of course not, it is far more than that. But can that building, and its separated “holiness”, provide us some respite and distance from the world that consumes us? Yes.
That, in essence, is what “religion” is. Religion and ritual are the imperfect tools that we use to manipulate deep things within our spirits, and change what is so difficult to change: our hearts, our emotions, our thoughts and beliefs. These tools, when overused or used improperly, can become an end unto themselves. We love worship music, we love the church building, and we love hearing a really great message…period. Those elements of religiosity become our weekly goal as a community. And because of that danger, we should always handle these tools judiciously, so that they do not become the end, because that is not what they are.
But at the same time, we should never forget that they are a necessary means to an end. We should not be so idealistic as to forget that because we are physical and imperfect, we need means. We need handles. We need our shoddy tools to handle the divine. No, religion is not the same thing as relationship. But it is religion that allows us as humans to have a relationship with One who is so mysterious, and sublime.
Like my daughter, we are all using our silly little means to try to please God, and to be the way that He wants us to be, aka “religion”. And these means are transparently insufficient, laughable. But what makes religion so powerful is not the inherent power that these rituals have, but the gracious way in which God receives them. Because I would like to think that God looks at each of us in the same way that I saw Sophia, with a heart that looks beyond the imperfect externals, and sees us for who we really are: silly children who just want to love their Father.