Religion or Relationship?

22 07 2014

Let me start out with a question:  Is it enough to simply go through the religious motions of church attendance?  Is it enough to stand and sing, at the appropriate moments, laugh at the appropriate places in the sermon?  Is it enough to turn to the appropriate song in the hymnal during the closing song?  Is it enough to leave looking forward to the next encounter with God, the next gathering?

To which, I respond a resounding no!  Church attendance doesn’t change you.  Singing doesn’t soften our hearts.  Listening to the message doesn’t push you forward.

So many people miss the mark.  So many people think that mere church attendance is enough.  It has to be enough, because we’re just sooo busy that we can’t take any more time out for God.  It’s funny, isn’t it?  The one from whom all time comes from, we cannot give that time back to him.  It’s not enough unless you do something with it. 

Look at Jesus.  He taught alot, right?  But he also did alot.  He touched the untouchables.  He healed the sick.  He walked on water.  

Church attendance makes it easy for us to talk the talk.  “What’d you do this weekend?” a colleague will ask us, and we chalk that as an opportunity for us to share that we’ve been to church, check off the list, and we use that as an opportunity to “witness.”  Through the church, we have opportunities to minister, direct children’s plays and do missions outreaches.  We have opportunities to visit the sick, pray for the hurting, and hope for healing.  But…is mere attendance enough?  

What about if we walked the walk?  More than simply telling people that we attend church, why don’t we be the church?!  We invite people to experience a relationship with God, and then, when they become a “Christian” and get “saved” we are in victory of another lost soul being won to God, but we abandon them, and don’t show them what discipleship is all about.  Because, the problem is, we don’t know what discipleship is all about either.  

While Jesus was on Earth, a disciple was one that walked around with Jesus.  Now that Jesus is not physically on this earth, the definition is the same:  one who walks around with Jesus.  Discipleship has the form of the word “discipline.”  Because it’s never easy to take out time for God.  It’s never easy to make time for God to encounter us, or us to encounter God, in our normal life, but it is a discipline that we learn.  

Discipline?  What?  The Christian life was never meant to be easy.  Jesus warned us that it might be difficult, but in the end, it’s worth it, because Jesus understood that this life is not all there is.  What discipline does Christ call from us?  If you read through the Gospels, you encounter challenging words, words such as “deny yourself.”  “Love others as you love yourself, but love God first.”  “Go and sin no more.”  “Follow me.”  Commands that seem very easy…but very difficult.  To deny yourself, that means that you quit desiring what you want, and desire what God wants.  To love others like you love yourself, means even when someone is mean to you, or hateful, or they annoy you….you’re commanded to love them like yourself.  But you must love God first, before your family, before your friends…you gotta love God first.  To “go and sin no more” talks about how you have to not merely regret when you’ve done wrong, but to change your heart so that you won’t do it, that’s called repentance.  To obey the call to “follow me” means following God wherever he takes you, even if it is the roughest places of the world.  All of these things, when we take them literally, are very harsh commands, very difficult commands.  How is this possible?

I return to a basic principal of the faith:  we invite people into a personal relationship with God.  That’s it.  This means a relationship that has constant communication between each other.  And not just from one side, either.  But both people engaging in conversations and communication.  We communicate to God through prayer, song, meditation…and God has a multitude of ways that he communicates to us:  through speaking to us, songs, meditations, through scripture.  To invite people into a relationship is inviting them to a communion that is dynamic and ever-changing.  

But sometimes, God is silent.  Sometimes he just doesn’t have alot to say.  Sometimes, we get no response, or the response that we get, we don’t like.  So many people fall away from the faith because they enter into momentary silence, and they forget the important spiritual practice that silence is.  They forget that the Word of God, was born out of the eternal silence of God, as Henri Nouwen says.  Instead of remaining fiercely committed to God, no matter what (like they promised in the mountain), they abandon their spiritual growth. We want the fireworks, the explosions of love, like the experience we have when we first fall in love, and ordinary life isn’t enough to satisfy our longings.  I can honestly say that this is my experience.  This is what I’m experiencing right now.  But the prayer of Jim Elliot captures this solution very clearly:

Teach me, Lord Jesus, to live simply and purely, like a child and to know that you are unchanged in your attitudes and actions towards me.  Give me not the hungering for the ‘strange, rare and peculiar’ when the common, ordinary and regular…will suffice to feed the soul.  Bring struggle when I need it; take away ease at your pleasure.

The problem is, that we expect hugely emotional experiences when we worship or when we experience God.  But the thing is, God is with us always, and not all of life is supposed to be a hugely emotional experience.  There’s monotony in the daily washing of dishes, boredom in the commute to work, distraction at our desks.  But sometimes, that’s what relationships become.  After the initial euphoria of falling in love, you and your loved ones remain silent in the car, wash the dishes together and discuss the mundane happenings of the day.  It’s ordinary and regular.  Does that mean you abandon your beloved one?  No!  It’s just how the relationships changes and grows.  Doesn’t mean your love is any less, or it diminishes…it becomes more deeper!  

Another problem is that we don’t exactly always know how to remain committed when we’re not in tough times.  During the difficult times, it’s easy to claim God and to read scriptures, and pray and spend our time in spiritual conversations.  During grief it’s easy to run to God with our broken hearts.  But what about when God brings us through those difficult times?  What about when God heals us?  If we’re like the rest of the world, it’s easy to just go back to the usual way of life, put God on a shelf until we need him next.  That is what religion is.  It’s a crutch for the limping.  If we’re like the rest of the world, we chalk our experiences in church as our only encounter with God, and that’s just enough.  That’s what religion is.  But a relationship is something that we actively pursue, that we are not lazy about.

Think about the last time you were in a relationship, or starting to be in one.  In my previous experiences, I chased after that person with everything that I had in me.  And when we entered into a relationship, I put all of my focus on that person.  Why do we treat the relationship we have with the creator of the Heavens, Earth and the redeemer of our souls with any less of our focus and energy?  Why do we try to take shortcuts to spirituality?  If there’s anything in this world that we should work for, it’s our relationship with God.  This means that we must take our experiences of God outside the doors of our church.  When our churches and what they teach become the gospel and our only experiences with God for the week, we become brainwashed and deluded.  When our faith becomes more than the church, we realize that we don’t have to be in a particular church, or even a church at all, to experience the mercies and love of God.  Churches were created as a place to have Christian fellowship with our brothers and sisters, to encourage each other in the faith, not to become our faith.  

But let us talk of the good of Church.  When done right, it is a place for encouragement in our walk with God, and not a replacement.  It’s a joy to enter into the moments of fellowship and sharing of love.  It becomes an opportunity to enjoy corporate, rather than personal worship.  

Please don’t replace that individual experience with the corporate experience.  It’s far more valuable than you realize.  


The Love of God

15 07 2014

A lot of times, we get hung up on the idea of “love” when we talk about God.  And the way that I’ve ever heard it preached about, sung about or talked about, has notions of fidelity, and ideas of faithfulness.  It has the idea of human love being perfected, better than we understand it.  My idea of love, I honestly can say, it is a little warped.  I love someone until the very moment that they do something wrong against me, and then after that, it’s a little difficult for me to continue loving them and to offer them unconditional forgiveness.  So, in that definition, the love of God loves me unconditionally, automatically, when I do something wrong.  And while yes, this is an accurate definition, such a definition of God’s love is not enough, it does not define the love that God has for us.  Yes, God’s love is without definition, and reaches further than we understand or can comprehend, absolutely.  Yes, he casts our sins as far as the east is from the west.  Absolutely.  I’m not disputing that.  

I think there’s more.  I really do.  I think there’s more to the definition of God’s love than just “more” or “further” than human love.  God loves us.  This part is indisputable.  The sacrifice of his son on the cross of Calvary alone is signal of God’s love for us, because it is through this death, that he is able to make a home in us and live in us.  Human love tells me that I have to earn trust.  Human love tells me that I have to prove myself.  Human love tells me that if I do wrong, then things are withheld from me.  God’s love is very different.  I have to learn to trust him, I have to learn to accept his forgiveness and move on.  

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:“For your sake we face death all day long;

we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

                                                            -Romans 8:35-39

So, anything in this life that we experience, cannot separate us from the Love of God, correct?  But let’s look at this list that precedes that great statement….trouble….hardship….persecution….sufferings?  That’s not a nice list. Keep going, demons…angels….the present or the future???  These are pretty scary things to think about.  So many times, we marvel at the fidelity and faithfulness of God, but Paul, the one who was writing these inspirational words…he went through all of this!  How horrible, and Paul was convinced that he couldn’t get away from the Love of God.

Let’s take it one step further…if God loves us, why and how do bad things happen to those he loves?  This is a question that is constantly asked, Christians are constantly forced to defend the nature of God’s love.  The problem with that question is that those who ask it, are assuming that the love of God is human in nature.  They’re assuming that with the word “love” that his people are exempt from a hard life.  This is not the case.  Not the case at all.  God’s love is on a different playing field here.  Yes, God loves us.  Yes he died for us.  But the thing is, the purpose of God is not to love us, and in loving us, just make our lives easy-peasy.  The thing that God desires for us is not to have an easy life, but to make us holy.  

“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”                  -Romans 5:3-4

Sufferings come for the purpose of making us holy.  He goes right to work and puts us through situations, not to test our faith, but to purify our faith, to purify our hearts.  When you’re going through those sufferings, those trials of faith, take those not as a signal that you’ve done wrong, or are a bad person, but take that signal as a sign of God’s love for you!  How exciting!  

Yes, it is hard.  Yes it hurts.  I can’t take away the pain.  I truly can’t.  I can’t take away the sting of death as a loved one is being lowered into the ground.  I can’t take away the hurt of rejection as a person walks away or out of your life.  I can’t heal the brokenness when suddenly, you find yourself without a job.  I can’t ease the difficulty and the cost it takes on you, when the health scare comes.  I can’t comfort you, when the thing that you want most in your life, is contrary to what God wants.  Elisabeth Elliot says the following:

Our vision is so limited we can hardly imagine a love that does not show itself in protection from suffering.  The love of God is of a different nature altogether.  It does not hate tragedy.  It never denies reality.  It stands in the very teeth of suffering.  The love of God did not protect his own Son.  That was the proof of his love–that he gave that Son, that he let him to go Calvary’s cross, though “legions of angels” might have rescued him.  He will not necessarily protect us-not from anything it takes to make us like his son.  A lot of hammering and chiseling and purifying by fire will have to go into the process.

If it were easy, if the Christian walk with God, a process of continually being purified were easy…then everyone would be a Christian.  When you became a believer, a disciple, you did not sign up for an easy life, you signed up for a holy life, a life that would have its reward of a sure hope to be in heaven one day.  But the cost for that home?  It’s more expensive than anything else you have to sell.  

I included that song above for the following lyrics:

Joy and sorrow are this ocean
And in their every ebb and flow
Now, the Lord a door has opened
That all hell could never close

Here I’m tested and made worthy
Tossed about but lifted up
In the reckless raging fury
That they call the love of God

Suffering hurts.  It’s the place where joy and sorrow meet.  Joy over the fact that God is making us and changing us, but sorrow over the events that have happened.  Joy over the fact that God is telling me to focus on him, but sorrow over a broken relationship, if you’re looking from my perspective.  

I don’t know if this makes any sense.  I hope it comforts you and helps you realize the purpose of sufferings and trials.