One night in my late teens I found myself having a long, deep, 3am conversation with a friend of a friend I hadn’t met before. This young woman was in her mid-twenties and initially couldn’t get over the fact that I went to church (‘you’re religious?! re-huh-eeeallly?!’). For me, I had recently heard someone making the neat distinction between being ‘religious’ (bad, apparently) and ‘a follower of Jesus’ (good). So the poor other girl got more and more confused when, throughout our conversation, I kept repeating ‘oh no I’m not religious though … I just go to church and read the Bible and try to live how Jesus taught us to.’ You won’t be surprised to hear she and I never hung out again.
I’ve been thinking over this conversation a bit the last fortnight since I heard Alison firstly speak about always looking through the lens of ‘the way of Christ’ when reading the Bible. In the face of the violence, prejudice, hatred and suffering that has been committed in the name of religion, how important it is to always return to Jesus’ inclusive, peace-making teachings. In other words, how important it is to remain first and foremost a follower of Jesus rather than a just a practicer of religion.
The thing is, though, the girl I was chatting to that night in 2004 was coming from almost zero experience with either religion or Jesus’ teachings, so she really couldn’t grasp this difference. Yet there I was, trying to ram it down her throat.
It’s usually my experience that when you repeatedly keep trying to make a point even though it’s clear the other person isn’t in a position to grasp it, you are wanting to make it for your own sake rather than theirs. This was certainly the case with me that night. I was so keen to distance myself from the bad, ugly and daggy often associated with religion that it was a top priority to get her to understand I’m not like those religious types that have hurt people or condone suffering throughout history… I’m not even like the ones that are the butt of jokes in those American movies. I’m a Follower of Jesus!
My problem (besides not actually listening the the person I was talking to!) was that I was so keen to pursue this ‘authentic’ Follower of Jesus path, that I almost made a dogma out of being ‘non-religious’. This meant that for a long time, I didn’t allow myself to recognise the good aspects of religion.
This recognition has in fact only come for me quite recently. It has come partly from a growing belief that community is one of the most basic human needs, and seeing how well churches can and have provided this. It’s otherwise mainly come from having spiritually barren times, when I haven’t really felt much connection with this Jesus I am meant to be Following. I probably would have lost sight of Him altogether if it weren’t for very set routines and rituals of the Church: words to pray when I had none of my own, Bible stories and Jesus’ teachings spoken out loud when I wouldn’t read them by myself, and an hour on Sunday to sit with the Spirit when I never would have made the time otherwise.
These activities are the religious practices that Alison spoke about this week. These practices are never ever more important than following Jesus’ teachings, and thinking they are is where religion has so often gone wrong. But I do wish I could go back and tell 2004-Lucy to firstly chill the flip out, but also to not throw the religious practices out with the religious abuses of power. Fifteen years on, I have found that it’s near impossible to be a Follower of Jesus without them.
Peace and love,