Tuesday, March 8th, 2016
I’ve been pondering my spiritual history this week and came upon a dramatic realization. I’ve changed religions!
I grew up in the Catholic tradition. When I was a kid at school, we’d often talk around the school about what religion we were. Some were Baptist, others Lutheran or Presbyterian and I was Catholic along with some others. We knew our beliefs differed and really thought of our religions as major differences in our practices and where we attended church on Sunday. We didn’t consider ourselves as being Christians in a larger context. We also didn’t separate from one another; we just went to church somewhere different on Sundays.
As I grew up, I made the decision to stop going to church. When I got close to thirty years old some friends from high school talked with me about being “born again” and that Jesus was the focal point of their lives today. They really seemed convincing and passionate about their new religion. Both of them were Catholics when we were in school. Although I was curious about their new enthusiasm I wasn’t ready to go back to church.
About a year later I discovered a church that I was interested in. A new friend introduced me to it and said it was “non-denominational”. That was something new for me and I embraced the freedom that seemed to come along with not being labeled in any religion. But I soon found out it was Assembly of God and that it was in fact associated with a specific denomination but by that time, I had connected with the people there and didn’t care that we were Assembly of God.
From there I changed churches several times to belong to Charismatic independent churches, Presbyterian churches, and even Baptist churches. Throughout my church transitions it seemed most of us considered ourselves Christian and not necessarily a specific denomination. We connected on some basic tenants of belief and even went to events together under the cover of being Christians.
We held tightly to certain beliefs and soon I discovered there was an us vs. them attitude. We were saved, and there were people that weren’t. It was our responsibility to evangelize others to help them come to our side, our beliefs so that they could be saved too. I began to see the unsaved people around me as somewhat of a threat to my religion in that I was taught that they were of the world and I needed to be careful not to be tempted to fall away from my faith through associating with them without caution.
Then there were those who “fell away” from the faith. They were people who’s behaviors or beliefs were incongruent with what we, as Christians, believed. I was taught that the Bible said there were times when we needed to disassociate with some people who had fallen away in order to protect our fellowship and to allow them to find a life lesson that may bring them back to our side again.
In my journey I came to a place where I began to question some things that I had been taught. I held my questions tightly to my chest as I believed I would be challenged if I believed anything other than what I was taught I must believe in order to be close to God and others. Fear entered my spiritual journey. Fear that I could be wrong and lose God, fear that I could be ostracized by those around me if I began to believe differently.
At one point I began to throw my questions out on the table within a close-knit group of friends. I could see the discomfort on their faces as I made comments connecting to my internal questions. But by this time, I wasn‘t willing to stuff my questions back into the secret places of my heart. I truly wanted to know, I wanted to explore. I started to find things about what I was taught that I no longer believed for myself. I saw inconsistencies within the teachings and what I believed about God, what I believed about humanity. I felt a need to be a person of integrity and I could no longer espouse something that I wasn’t convicted to be my personal belief.
I didn’t think my questions were that far out of place. I still believed in the basic tenants of the Christian faith, Jesus, God, salvation, living a good, godly life. But I could tell that my surrounding fellowship of people were becoming more uncomfortable with my questioning mind and some of the conclusions I was coming to as a result of my own searching and discoveries.
At one point I began to search for others who were searching as I was. Through lunch meetings and casual conversation I began to find others that found the freedom to question the status quo. There was great liberty and excitement as I found I could be more connected in my heart and my faith.
One day two men from my regular fellowship contacted me to meet. I agreed and could feel something serious was about to take place. “John, we have come to believe you to be a false teacher, unrepentant, and in rebellion. We must break fellowship with you.” I wasn’t surprised, but the sting of that meeting still resonates within my heart. A group of people that I was closer to than anyone in my life at that time had made the decision that they could no longer speak with me. There was a warning of impending doom in my life if I continued down my path of deception.
I felt peace about the event as I’d come to a place where I didn’t believe all of the same things as they did and the changes in my own convictions brought deep discomfort in being around them anyway. It was right to separate even though it came through a measure of discipline from their perspective.
I was now free to continue my search for truth, for beliefs that were consistent with who I am and how I personally believe. I realized that things weren’t really changing for me as I had thought. Many of the beliefs that caused problems with my friends were things I had always believed. I realized that in an attempt to conform to the churches I was part of I tried to change my beliefs to their convictions.
I’ve realized that I’ve changed religions. But this has not come without tremendous cost to me personally. The overwhelming majority of people I have known throughout my experience with churches now consider me to be in rebellion, a false teacher, and unrepentant. They have overtly, and covertly disassociated from me. Some of these people I was very close to for many, many years! I thought them to be the best friends I’d ever had. Some of the men were pillars of life for me that I held tightly to for stability and security. No more! They’re gone, separated, standing in the scowling wings of my life. No more happy birthdays, or let’s have lunch. But I understand. I was there.
I was once one of those who scowled at others who had fallen away. Considering them to be in rebellion they were considered a threat to my own journey. I believed that I needed to prioritize protecting myself, and the flock from the likes of them. There weren’t many conversations to seek understanding or to hear their heart. My perception of their behaviors was enough for me to make a judgment about their spiritual life.
Now that I’m on the outside of where I was, things seem so different! I can see my judgment. I realize how many times I felt it important to separate without much concern, as it was what we were taught was the right thing to do. But I can also see how wounding and shaming that practice can be for those targeted for that action. I’m seeing how many of us there are who’ve been cut off, judged and deeply wounded.
I miss the closeness I felt with those friends but now I realize how much of our relationship was based on performance expectation. I can see how it was conditional based on having the same beliefs. I feel abandoned by many of them and it still hurts when I realize how many friends have acted upon the practice of separation regardless if it were overt or covert.
But, as a person who holds highly to a core value of integrity, I can no longer follow something that I don’t fully embrace. I can not be part of a religion that isn’t congruent with my personal convictions.
I also see how cult-like my former religious practices have been; follow the strong leader, believe the same ways, don’t question things and if you do you’ll be challenged. If your questions go too far you’ll be shamed, judged and kicked out for being rebellious. The fallacy is that if you’re a Christian you believe the same thing as other Christians. But we all know, intuitively, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I wonder what would happen if we all became honest about what we truly believe? But, like my experience, there’s too much fear of loss if we became honest about that. We’d certainly be judged.
I’m trying to find a new religion. I’m searching for connections with people whom I can connect with based on common journeys or beliefs. But the problem is that I have my own beliefs. I’m discovering that there are no two people who have the identical beliefs. I realize that we each have a spiritual journey to walk, to explore. It’s a struggle for sure and there are times when I feel alone.
I’m finding that I can no longer separate myself from others in an attempt to find people who agree with me. I must embrace people as individuals with their own personal convictions even when they don’t agree with mine. I must bring into my life those who disagree with me, who hold to beliefs that are incongruent with mine. If I don’t, then I’m just like I used to be, a person who separates from people who are different.
Yep! I’ve changed religions! I feel guilty because of how I used to scowl at people who said they had their own religion. I used to judge people as trying to make their religion go along with their behavior. I considered their own religion as an attempt to rationalize life into a place they could find comfort.
Now, I realize that there must be freedom to explore! There must be freedom for people to discover their own religion, one that is congruent with their life and belief. But this does not come without a cost. As I write this journey down I continue to discover the wounds, I feel the anguish and would love to spew out of my pain. But that would not be productive and I need to continue to allow the healing from separation to continue. I’m not there yet, but I know how important freedom is and I wouldn’t be where I am without having embraced that freedom for myself. I’m more at peace with me. I am living in the reality of the integrity that I believe in so strongly. The moments of pain are less, and shorter in duration. But there are still those times when I feel the prick of hurt. I want to continue to grow so that for one, I never do that to anyone again.
I trust God is big enough for our individuality. After all, we were all made unique, weren’t we? There are no two people who hold to the exact same beliefs. Why not recognize this and embrace life as it is?