Saturday, February 25, 2012

Vicar's Voice on "religion"

Religion has gotten a bad rap—both in the world and in the church as well. I remember being part of the tradition that affirms, “Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship!” I must have heard that at least once a week, and I bought into it “hook, line, and sinker.”

The main sentiment that stance wants to emphasize is correct: that salvation is not based upon obeying certain arbitrary rules, but upon the grace of God, offered to us in a Savior who is Jesus Christ our Lord. But it’s a long stretch from that truth to saying that Christianity is not a religion. It is a simplistic view that “religion” can only mean “false religion,” therefore, Christianity (which is true) cannot be a religion.

I remember back one day to my internship as a VA hospital chaplain during seminary, the driver of the shuttle van from one hospital campus to another asked me, “Chaplain, isn’t it true that the Bible never uses the word religion?”

I responded, “Well, that’s not quite correct.” The driver said, “Oh false religion, sure. But, I mean, the Bible denounces religion.” I responded, “Actually, St James wrote, ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world’ (1:27).”

This gave my driver pause for thought. “Well, my pastor says that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship,” he said. I responded, “Your pastor is right about the relationship part. But don’t forget that Jesus said in John’s gospel, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ (14:15), which makes it sound like that relationship is a religion.”

As C. S. Lewis said, “The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because he loves us.” Of course, nothing about Christianity reeks of religion quite so much as Lent, which begins on February 22nd this year. During this time, the Church calls us to grow closer to Christ by practicing our religion through the spiritual tools of prayer, good works, and self-denial. Each of us should form a personal Lenten rule of fasting, abstinence, almsgiving, prayer, worship, and spiritual reading.

Of course, the Bible does thoroughly denounce false religion (paganism) as well as hypocrisy. We should do so as well, and look upon this as a time for self-examination and confession. We should look for false religion or false idols within ourselves. We should also look for those ways we entertain the hypocrisy which Jesus himself denounced in the way we practice our religion.

I will be available for spiritual counsel and/or sacramental confession by appointment or after Mass on Ash Wednesday. Addition scheduled times will be posted for Holy Week. This Lent, I invite you to strengthen your relationship with Christ by practicing your religion.

Let our Lenten prayer be the words of the priest, who, after putting ashes on our heads on Ash Wednesday, says: “Grant, we beseech thee, O Lord, that we, who now with prayer and fasting do put upon us the armor of our Christian warfare, being defended by the power of abstinence, may fight manfully against all spiritual wickedness; through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Your pastor and friend,

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