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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