I ease my back into the old wooden pews. Tall candles flicker just above my head. The cedar garlands draped above the altar and the small fir trees decorating the foyer release a spicy-sweet smell. Deep old sounds emanate from the organ. Ancient words are intoned by a man in a deep voice and a woman invites us to meditate on peace in a time of division. The voices of the choir join together to meld harmonies that have been sung in churches for 350 years.
I exhale deeply and close my eyes. Grateful to find a moment of peace and reflection in a busy season. I feel comfortable in religious spaces. I think I always have. But it’s not very popular to be millennial and be a practicing religious. Only 27% of millennials report attending a weekly religious service.
I get it. Religion has let us down over and over again. Religion has promised things that have never been fulfilled. Religions have used their political and emotional power to force people to do things against their wills. Religions have promoted unspeakable actions. I can only speak for my own religious tradition but Christians have done (and still do) truly horrific things in the name of the Church. The Crusades, the Inquisition, sale of indulgences, supporting ant-semitism, burnings at the stake, segregation and racism, the KKK, forcing Native Americans to abandon their culture, misogyny, hateful acts against the LGBTQ community – the list goes on and on. It is a list I grieve and mourn. The history of my religious community is not one that I am always proud of. It is one that I intentionally study and recognize in the hopes of not repeating some of my forefathers and mothers mistakes.
But I must also recognize that religions have promoted really beautiful meaningful acts – care for the poor and lonely, abolishment of slavery, elevating the rights of women, challenging dictators, giving homes to the homeless and food to the hungry, encouraging selflessness and community, and promoting peaceful actions – just to name a few. Yes, not even all of these good acts have been done in a “pure and genuine” way. Some of these acts have been done in self-serving ways – for self-promotion, for power, for a false sense of goodness. Yet even with all these human failures in attempting good, St. James reminds us “pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.”
In effort to reckon with and also side-step the complicated history of Christianity, it is currently popular in my sub-set of the Church to say that following Jesus is about a “relationship and not a religion”. Meaning that our highest goal is to know God and not to just practice meaningless forms or promote harmful and dangerous ideologies. I understand this and in many ways affirm it too. It comes from a desire to strip away the unnecessary in order to focus on the most important aspect of our faith. But here’s the thing: I think I need religion to help me know and experience God – to cultivate that relationship.
It may not be true for everyone, but for myself, I am not sure that my personal imagination is grand enough or consistent enough to direct me to practices to connect with God on my own. I need the consistency that religion offers through weekly practices. I need the liturgical seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter to guide my reflections on different aspects of the Divine and my own humanity. I need the ancient texts, readings, and songs to help me express the words and feelings and devotions that I know deeply but do not know how to express on my own. I need the confessions to help me search my heart for the inclinations that would lead me to any of the awful things humans are capable of. I need the comfort that comes with belonging to an ancient faith and history. I need the wise words of those who have gone before me when I am overwhelmed trying to confront injustice, hatred, and division. And honestly, sometimes I just need the kick in the pants to focus on something or someone other than myself.
That’s not say I am by any means a slave to religion. I have not been an official member of a church since I was a young child. Most of my life I have attended non-denominational churches and as an adult I have felt the freedom to borrow practices from other Christian traditions that I do not belong to. When I am asked my religious affiliation, I am mostly unsure what to say beyond “Christian”. (And even then I am not confident that term fully expresses my faith and practice.) I have prayed and thought long and hard about making a more formal commitment to a certain branch of the Church but so far have never felt comfortable enough with any one tradition to make that leap. But deep down I still know that I would be lost in my feeble attempts to deeply connect with the Divine and with my fellow humans without the helpful guide that religion offers.
So under those beautiful garlands in the warm glow of candlelight, I stand with the congregation at the Advent Evensong and with one voice affirm the tenants of the Apostles Creed and tears come to my eyes. I am grateful for the early bishops who affirmed the central beliefs of our faith in 390 AD. I am grateful that I can walk into a church of which I am not a member and speak the affirmation truthfully with them. I am grateful for the history of attempting to love God and to love others and the community that my religious tradition offers. I am grateful for the practices offered that have help me find my way to God over and over again. And I keep wrestling with the dark parts of my religious tradition just as I wrestle with the dark parts on my own self.