I attended a dinner party with some of my co-workers two weeks ago. One asked me about the book I was writing and I told her: it’s a series of seven fantasy novels using imagery drawn from The Bible. She asked me if I was religious and I said no. She then expressed surprise at the difficulty at the research involved with such an undertaking when I wasn’t religious. I tried to express that, while I have no religious label I can apply to my beliefs, I have a vibrant spiritual life. But, it wasn’t something I could put into words and then the conversation shifted. The opportunity for explanations and clarifications was over. That conversation got me thinking about our desire to understand our fellow human beings and how labels help or hinder that process.
In my opinion, labels hinder the process. I can say “I’m a Christian” but that word carries with it so many different belief systems and countless examples of mistreatment and hatred, old and new. Not that I wish to say that because some Christians have not positively represented Jesus’ character that all fail to do so nor do I wish to infer I am somehow ashamed to be labeled a Christian. It is just that I understand that word means different things to different people and “Christian”, while accurate, doesn’t describe all I am and all I believe. “Christian” is broken down into different denominations like Methodist, Lutheran, Charismatic, Pentecostal, Catholic, etc: perhaps to negate confusion, perhaps to increase understanding. I feel such labels have the opposite affect. I never belonged to a denomination whenever I attended a church building so none of those labels have ever applied to me. The dinner party made me ask myself; how do I describe what I believe when someone asks me? I suppose I could use the term “Spiritual but not Religious”. What does that mean? What does it really say?
I suppose that, for lack of a better word, I did spend most of my life trying to discover which religious label would suit me. Or lack of religious label in the case of the interdenominational and nondenominational services I attended. It ought to have worked. I was doing everything right, I thought. I was heavily involved in Church. I attended at least two services a week, I adopted the proper worship postures during the half hour or so devoted to worship before the sermon, I listened to the sermon attentively, took notes, studied, and served the church in whatever capacity I could. Why then was I so miserable? I constantly felt like I was falling short of the Glory of God, that there was some deep character flaw the kept me from living the successful Christian life like all those around me.
I’m simplifying, I know. I’m sure no one’s life was as perfect as it looked but I can’t deny Church seemed to work for them in a way it didn’t for me. I was desperate to stop feeling despondent and, in an attempt to drum up the joy I was supposed to be experiencing, I listened to as many teaching tapes I could get my hands on. Good old Joyce Meyer: I was listening to one of her teachings-so long ago I can’t remember which one-and she said something that caught my attention. She was describing everything I felt and then she said; “if God is telling you to leave your Church, listen.” Could that be it? Was it okay to leave my Church?
Everything I’d been taught said it wasn’t. If I didn’t belong to a Church I was forsaking the assembly, a big no no. No Church meant I didn’t tithe and was thus robbing God, another big no no. Maybe I could leave my current Church but find another one. I was sure that was what God was telling me. I began attending another Church and met wonderful people whom I liked and enjoyed being around, attended home bible studies where I did learn a few new things, and started auditioning for the choir. In less then three months the uncomfortable, depressed feeling returned. I hung on for a year and then one day couldn’t take it anymore. I walked out of the Church (as a building) and never returned.
It is not a popular decision. Some wonderful, loving Christians I’ve spoken with since then have been genuinely concerned for my spiritual well-being. I can see ‘backslider’ flash through their eyes and then they invite me to their Church. I appreciate the concern because I know it comes from a place of love but it also comes from a place of fear. I know because leaving a formal Church terrified me. What if I was backsliding? My life was not mistake free and full of struggles. Didn’t that prove leaving Church was the first and biggest mistake? What if I was one of those falling away in the latter days? So what, I asked myself. Anything is better than constantly feeling beat down and miserable. Isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? I prayed a prayer. It went like this.
Father, I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing but I need something new. I put my life in your hands and trust that, no matter what, you have a hold of me. Whatever happens to me from this moment on is your concern.
I have trusted Him to keep me ever since and He has never failed to do so. I have not been joined to the Church as a building but have a beautiful awareness of being a member of the Ecclesia. There have been moments of magnificent fellowship with my fellow called-out ones and moments of tremendous isolation where I feel alone in the wilderness with no one but Jesus. How then do I define myself? Is there a label that defines me as following the Lamb wherever he goes? (Revelation 14:4b) I suppose my answer would be Relationship not Religion.
What makes me so sure my co-worker was interested anyway?
More than likely, she was not. However, it’s never a bad thing to take a look at my life and ask myself questions. And, it’s never a bad thing to ask myself if, in an attempt to understand my fellow human beings, do I seek to do so with labels. I hope not. I hope I look at others and see that they are all unique and that I can have no true understanding of them as long as I continue to label them. I must give them the freedom to live beyond such interpretation as I demand that right for myself.
End note: I borrowed the title of this post from “Lay My Love” by Brian Eno and John Cale
For anyone interested on two excellent studies on “Forsaking the Assembly”: