Home » Theology » having my cake and eating it, too

having my cake and eating it, too

love jesus

So, you might remember this man, from the video “Why I hate Religion, but Love Jesus.” I remember it swamping my facebook home feed during spring semester my last semester of grad school, right about the time I met Handsome. People reacted very strongly with the message of this video, and I understand why. Because it was an idea I grew up with, was intimately familiar with.

“I’m not religious, I just love the Lord!” has been on the back of my mother’s car for as long as I can remember.

“Want a taste of religion? Lick a witch,” was one of my favorite jokes when I was a teenager. Yes, I was that awful.

It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship has been the mantra of basically every summer camp I attended.

Just recently, in a Bible study about communion, a few of the people there noted how “ritualistic” and “rote” communion can be in some churches, and noted that “making something a habit” was inherently a bad thing.

Micah Murray has written an excellent post on the subject; that claiming that Christianity is only a relationship and not a religion is at best a bait-and-switch when so many of the expressions of how a relationship with Jesus is formed are, well, religious. Baptism, communion, church attendance . . . all are important parts in orthodox Christianity. I, like Micah, can understand why some of us are trying to distance ourselves from religion– many of those reasons are listed in the video above. The seemingly constant hypocrisy, all the pain and destruction people have caused in the name of religion– the horrors of religion seem endless.

For a long time, I tried to distance myself from both religion in general and Christianity in particular. Through high school and early college, I deliberately didn’t identify as a Christian. When I first set up my facebook page, I think I had something innocuous like “Bible believer.” At the time, it was mostly because I thought of “Christian” as a meaningless term– anyone could claim to be  Christian, even Catholics, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses (and, yes, *sigh* I’d lump all of those into the same boat). I was a “Bible believer,” and that actually meant something.

For a while, though, I left even that behind. I became an agnostic in the sense that I simply didn’t care if God existed or not. My return to faith happened in fits and starts, one step at time, but for a little less than four years I refused to really go to church. This happened in an interesting way, because while I was in college I was forced to attend a fundamentalist church three times a week and chapel four times a week, and when I graduated and went home, attending church with my parents was non-negotiable. I did, sometimes grudgingly, sometimes ambivalently, and sometimes I looked forward to seeing the people at church. But I didn’t engage with the whole church– not really.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you might have picked up on a pattern– I sort of “found myself” in graduate school. It was a very productive time in my life– I moved thousands of miles away from anyone I knew and completely started over from scratch. I went to grad school at Liberty University, which gets a lot of flack (for understandable reasons), but, to be honest, my experience there was . . . good. The graduate English program at Liberty fit where I was, and helped me get where I’m going now.

And, best of all, they didn’t make me go to church.

Oh, they encouraged it, but, as a graduate student, there was no requirement for attending church. So, for a while, I simply didn’t. I stayed away from church altogether, and I didn’t bother looking for a “home away from home church.” I enjoyed sleeping in on Sunday morning, getting up and drinking coffee on my porch, reading any book I felt like, puttering around talking long walks in the neighborhood– and I was content.

After tentatively attending a Presbyterian church with a friend, however, I decided that I was going to experiment. I’d visited a handful of appropriately Baptist churches, and my experiences there were . . . less than pleasant. Not because of anything that happened in any of these churches, but because it just felt stale, and old, and, well, boring.

So I went to a Catholic mass, where the service was in Latin, then another, where everything was in English. I went to a Lutheran church, several Presbyterian churches, a “Celtic service,” and a few others.

I fell in love with all of these churches.

I fell in love with liturgy.

I fell in love with tradition.

I fell in love with ritual.

I fell in love with religion.

I’m still painfully, excruciatingly aware of how words like religion and Christianity have been used to hurt people. I know that religion, like many other tools, can be used to suppress free thought; it can be used to further a political agenda; it can be twisted and perverted to convince some of us that we have to hate whole groups of people; it can be used as a weapon in war.

But, religion, with all of its trappings, with all of its mindless, rote little habits, was a part of restoring my faith. Because I found peace in religion, precisely because of its ritualistic nature. I have always been a creature of habit– I find ways to introduce patterns into my life. I wake up, I read news articles and respond to e-mails. I put up a new post around lunchtime. I read some more, I work on my French, I work on other projects, I go for a walk (and, when it gets warmer, a swim). I do something to clean my house around three, and around four I start dinner.

And I’ve found, that as a person inhabiting a body, that I need these patterns, these habits. That I need to incorporate the physical, the mental, and the spiritual into a single act of worship in order for worship to feel whole and complete. This is why I see making the mark of the cross, kneeling for prayer, using a rosary, all of these “rote” things, as beautiful.

I was a music major in college– piano, specifically, and I practiced about five hours a day, give or take. Something I was constantly told was that practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent. When I was getting ready for my sophomore platform, I chose a Telemann piece in order to work on my precision of voicing and line development. By the time my platform arrived, I could play that piece through, in its entirety, flawlessly. If you’re a musician, you know exactly how flamboyant a claim that is, and I mean it. I had mastered that piece, but mastering it took repetition– endless, endless hours of disciplined, conscientious repetition. And, in mastering it, that piece became a part of me– so deeply a part of me, that now, six years later, when I’m being absent minded, my fingers start moving in those patterns.

It’s deeper than muscle memory, too, although that’s a part of it. I played that piece probably hundreds, if not thousands, of times. But conscientious, mindful practice means being aware of my body, of being connected with the weight of my arms and my shoulders and my back and my wrists and my fingers. Playing a Baroque piece means creating a flow of line, of giving the voices meaning and articulation and growth and decline.

And playing a piece hundreds of times means that each time you play it, it doesn’t become rote. It becomes more beautiful each time you play it; each time, you notice a new, different moment, you discover your favorite sounds and harmonies, and you play with them. You participate in the creation of music.

I see these two– my approach to music, and my approach to religion– as connected. Both are expressions of my soul. Both require maintenance and discipline. Both need my mind and my body and my heart to become an active part of what I’m doing.

Both are enriched, not lessened, by repetition.

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23 thoughts on “having my cake and eating it, too

  1. “For a while, though, I left even that behind. I became an agnostic in the sense that I simply didn’t care if God existed or not.”

    This is where I am right now, but I totally get you on the liturgy! It is incredibly beautiful and rich. For a long time, I attended an Episcopal church that was very heavy on liturgy (but socially liberal), and I absolutely loved it. That was the only church where I’ve actually felt like I loved God, and that maybe God understood me. I think when I feel ready for church again, I will definitely seek out a similar church.

    • May I suggest an Orthodox Church. It doesn’t get more beautiful than that. It is the oldest form of Christianity because it is the original one.

  2. Like others have stated: Beautiful. I’ve been trying to find a way to explain why I like the ritual associated with the high church (having grown up Baptist), and why I think traditions are a good thing. Thanks for putting into words the beauty and the purpose behind the rituals. It sounds weird when I tell people, but the liturgy puts God back into the position of Other Being who is all-powerful, all-knowing and reminds me that He isn’t my spiritual daddy or my buddy, but that He is God.

  3. After attending what was to become a “home church” it is refreshing to look at traditions as something that can enhance rather than detract.

  4. Oh Samantha, this is really beautiful. I grew up in non-liturgical churches, and the beauty and ritual of the Church was one of the things that saved me. It makes me so sad that so many believers ridicule the structures of the traditional Christian faith. Thank you for so bravely defending it.

  5. I was a member of a non-liturgical church. Many members of that church actually teach or believe that liturgy is wrong because it isn’t a spontaneous expression of worship. But, along my journey, I have also visited a number of liturgical churches. I have found that writers of the past have beautifully expressed ideas and prayers or spiritual truths in such rich, beautiful language that expresses what my heart and soul long to say, but I don’t have those words myself. The liturgies help my soul express those truths and connect me to a heritage of faith that has been shared and felt for generations of believers. They make me feel a part of that heritage. I wish I knew of a church that did both..had some contemporary and spontaneous worship AND some liturgy.

  6. Beautifully written. As a former homeschooler and fundi-gelical, I’ve found that your experience is not uncommon. A lot of my friends who grew up in similar churches are actually Eastern Orthodox now. They, like you, have found meaning and comfort in tradition, the value of which was always discounted in our childhood as idolatry or “legalism”. (Oh the irony.)

    I myself considered converting to Catholicism but was dissuaded when the Catholic church in America decided to compete with the fundamentalist movement on how politically obnoxious they could be. And I still need to figure out the god-believing bit as well. :)

  7. Every time someone tells me that they have a relationship, and not a religion, I remind them that there is no Constitutionally guaranteed right to a relationship, especially if they keep fighting gay rights.

  8. This actually resonates so much with me. The “what’s new” approach to evangelicalism grew disillusioning, but its the discovery of liturgy, rooted in the history of the Church that has strengthened my faith by providing something constantly the same in a world that’s steadily shifting.

  9. I discovered this too! I grew up in a Church of England church, which was very low-church, we hardly used liturgy at all – only the bare minimum that we had to in order to conform to C of E requirements. But then I went and worked in a baptist church for a year and I was so surprised to find that I missed those little bits of liturgy. I missed knowing the words, saying things together, the way that doing the same thing brought up specific feelings and memories and made me feel part of something bigger than me. I’m learning to tentatively value religion too. Thanks for saying it so well!

  10. I join in with all the voices that say this is beautiful and well written.

    There seems to be a echo of voices here that reverberate on the beauty of liturgy. After being pew-less for six years I starting attending what was forbidden, the Catholic church. At first I could barely drag my weary bones to sit, stand & kneel. It took a few months before the rhythms of Mass became familiar and soothing.

    Four years in, I am not in a hurry to convert. One of the many wonderful aspects of attending is no one is taking my spiritual temperature, no one asks me if I am saved, and I have never been pressured to sign on the dotted line.

    And a yes yes and amen to Bridgette’s voice: “the liturgy puts God back into the position of Other Being who is all-powerful, all-knowing and reminds me that He isn’t my spiritual daddy or my buddy, but that He is God.”

    • I attended Catholic Mass for a number of years before I joined. No one paid attention that I didn’t go up for Holy Communion, the sign of peace was way cool, and the Bible made sense as it went ’round the Liturgical calendar. I found peace and serenity in being connected to something bigger than myself. And, you can be as connected to others as you wish, but no one is concerned if you don’t chit chat afterwards. You are accepted for who you are. I find that God meets me where I am, whether I’m in a good place or not.

  11. As a fellow musician, I wholeheartedly agree with you about repetition not becoming rote. It is only once the notes are fully internalized that one can truly make music. This is why I find it irritating when (usually non-musician, pastoral sort of) people try to treat preparation and spontaneity as opposites. It is the hard hours of preparation that make it possible to be truly fresh and of-the-moment.

  12. I left fundamentalism to join the Catholic Church. Going to Mass with my daughter and her then future husband, gave me a personal view of the Liturgy, the Bible readings as going in cycles (which made sense) and the love of Christ which shone forth. I realized I had been taught incorrectly by my fundamentalist pastors, which is why I joined. My daughter followed me into the Church a year later. We are the only two Catholics. In my nine years of being a Catholic, I understand more and more just what a Christ centered, Biblical faith that it is. The Liturgy keeps me focused, and the sense of community is fantastic. Thanks for this great post.

  13. Pingback: Life Is a Journey; Or, How Beliefs Change

  14. This is such a beautiful article – you’re an amazing writer.

    “And playing a piece hundreds of times means that each time you play it, it doesn’t become rote. It becomes more beautiful each time you play it; each time, you notice a new, different moment, you discover your favorite sounds and harmonies, and you play with them. You participate in the creation of music.

    I see these two– my approach to music, and my approach to religion– as connected. Both are expressions of my soul. Both require maintenance and discipline. Both need my mind and my body and my heart to become an active part of what I’m doing.”

    This is one of the most amazing descriptions of the need for religion I have ever read. It’s hard to describe why I need the consistency and the maintenance that religion provides, but this is perfect.

    moreawesomer.wordpress.com

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