Imagine you’re married. If you are married, that’s not a stretch.
If you aren’t married, think of a really close friendship.
In your mind, play back a recent conversation. Listen. Listen to the inside jokes, the code words, the naked vulnerability that you have with each other.
You say things you’d never say out loud. Ever.
There is trust and belief as well as common language and shared history. This is human richness on display.
Now, imagine finding a stranger on the street – on the Metra, in the mall, etc. – and talking to them in the exact same way.
Use the same language.
Use the same trust. The same vulnerability.
It’s not possible.
For a long time, we’ve heard this phrase regarding Christianity: It’s not about religion, it’s about relationship.
The intention, which at heart I believe is helpful, is to wrestle the flaming heart of faith from the corpse-like grip of formality and legalism.
It isn’t bad. Except…
The problem with the religion v. relationship divide is that it doesn’t make sense.
Reading David Dark’s wonderful book Life’s Too Short To Pretend You’re Not Religious helped me to see that religion is what we fuse ourselves to – it’s something we bind ourselves to for the purpose of becoming something new.
In other words, religion – the stories, the traditions, the language, etc. – is the context for our relationship with God.
Just like marriage is the context for our relationship with our spouse, just like long association and trust are the context for our deep friendships, we don’t know how to speak or walk with God without religion.
I know some of us had horrible experiences with certain Christian traditions.
There was abuse.
There was insensitivity.
There was hypocrisy.
I know there is a great need for healing and for our souls to be re-formed around something good and wholesome when it comes to walking with Jesus.
I get it.
Yet at the same time, there is a richness that only comes when we have the words of our liturgies. Whether it comes from the Book of Common Prayer, the Lectionary, or if it plays out like this:
All of these orders, these works, these liturgies are teaching us new language.
Confession teaches us to say, I’m sorry.
Bread and wine teach us to say, “I’m hungry” and “I’m thankful.”
Reading the Psalms teach us the language of joy, lament, ache, doubt, frustration and fury.
This is religion, in a sense. It is the work and words we bind ourselves to.
This is the grammar of our walk with God. It is the context of our connection with and vulnerability towards God.
As church leaders, we need to honestly assess the rhythms we’re teaching through our verbal and non-verbal communication and ask this question:
What language, what words, what context are we giving to people’s relationship with God?
As those who walk with Him, we need to ask ourselves this question:
What traditions, practices, habits and rhythms am I binding myself to? Have I entered into an awkward relationship without context, without any idea of how this is supposed to go?
It is about religion, because a relationship without context is like sharing your greatest secrets with a stranger on the street.
God longs to be more than a stranger.