Heard that? It’s not the first time. 1980’s, 1990’s 2000’s. Last week. Some might even say now it’s not just a Christian thing. The word is our Jewish and Muslim friends partake and are adding a few bricks to the wall! And it’s never ever a new comment and still when someone thinks I’m hearing it again for the first time, I get out my grumpy old man1 posture faster than Doc Holliday drew on Ike Clanton at the OK Corral. Is there a point? It’s not an OK or helpful statement and I think it gets said in an attempt to avoid talking about what now too many know too little about. Most folks want to have faith, but too few major in religion. After all, why would I want to talk ‘hockey’ with Wayne Gretzky or ‘home cookin’ with Paula Dean? Is it that I don’t believe in organized hockey or having a plan for home cooking? No, it’s just that I don’t have much to offer to either of those conversations, so avoiding one would serve me best.
Have you ever heard that same excuse…“I don’t believe in organized religion”? What did you say? How’d it go? Sadly, for me, it seems that I never really get to truly engage in the conversation as the comment is designed to end it before the talking gets started. But, someday I hope to and someday really want to because I do believe in organized religion and my reasons are both personal and professional. So, when I do, maybe, this is what some of that conversation can include…
Well, let me ask, then, “Does that mean you believe in ‘DIS-organized religion’?” I’m pretty sure that’s the best next question. Or at least make the query, “What is it exactly that you don’t believe?” Do people really think that religion shouldn’t be organized? All of life is organized! Patterns, sizes, shapes, seasons, cycles, movement, temperatures, connected-ness, heads, tails, etc—are all part of being organized. Hey, even chaos comes in a form that is eventually recognized. Or, maybe what folks mean and believe is that religion is over-organized? Too much talk. Too many rules. Too complex to figure out. After all, ‘bearing false witness’ or lying about one’s neighbor is pretty harmless, right? Or is this all just an excuse people have invented to shirk any kind of participation in God-talk? Do we even know who first said it?
I’d much rather have someone tell me that they don’t believe in God or Jesus or Spirit or truth and then at least they could say they have no need for religion because they’ve made it clear they have no need for God. At least that would seem more authentic! And at least for this person… to say one has no need for God or doesn’t believe in God is to suggest that all we are and all that is past or present is just a fluke and that would lead us then to have no reason to speak about any kind of future—which then would make us the acknowledgers, participators and perpetrators of a great cosmic accident. But, when I look around my life and world and when I look inside my own self it doesn’t take me long to say that this is no accident at all.
But, what is it about the comment that provokes me to grumble? Is it the word ‘organized’ or the word ‘religion’? Or is it the combining of the two that initiates such angst? And that’s a funny thought, too, all by itself, as in the combining of the two terms it gives rise for one to have the power and desire to do nothing because the people who say ‘I don’t believe in organized religion’ are usually the people who believe in something else, have put their life chips on a completely different table, participate in a certain kind of selfishness cult along with demonstrating a lack of spirituality (i.e. Martin Buber’s I and Thou posture) or respect for the ‘holy’ and have actually organized their own life to have a religion of something or anything else.
NOTE: This writer falls in the camp of the late Paul Tillich who suggested that for any and all of us, the definition of God is that thing or person or object that is our ‘ultimate concern.’ Therefore, that which has our greatest attention and serves as our highest priority is our real and true God, despite what we might say otherwise. Often, just a bank statement bears that out.
An example of that is the person who says they are a Houston Astros fan but never wears the hat, the multi-colored jersey, never attends any games at Minute Maid Park, and doesn’t listen to the games on the radio or watch them on TV. They can’t even tell you the score of yesterday’s game, who’s in first or who’s on first! But, yet they will insist and tell you they are a big, even huge, fan of the Astros. Their actions speak otherwise. Same goes for those who say, “I believe in God and all that” but yet cannot tell you what they appreciate about God nor can they elaborate on the ‘all that’ part of the faith when asked. It’s sad that in culture such as ours, we find most people can recite the names of Dorothy’s three new friends on the road to OZ and her little dog, too, but not the names of the first four books of the newer side of the Bible.
So maybe it’s the word, ‘organized,’ that doesn’t make sense. Religion, organized? How dare God? Prophets, kings and priests? Wilderness journey? Promised land? Eternal-ness? Shheeeesh. Jesus had a plan for organization. He used words like ‘go,’ and ‘baptize,’ and ‘teach.’ The goal is to ‘make disciples’ and the starting point was Jerusalem then on to Judea then to Samaria and on to the ends of the earth. This effort required community and cooperation. He even quoted old man Moses from way back in the day and said, “love God with all your heart and strength and mind,” tacking on, “and love those around you, too.” Peter and Paul got in on it, as well, as Peter tended to the Jerusalem movement with Jesus’ brother James and Paul took his new found faith and a few new friends on a number of road trips west of there. It was working. Even Constantine, the Roman emperor has to be given some props for helping bring clarity to an expanding religion that for many was not so much confusing as it was just all over the map… literally… with some geographic and patristical uniquenesses…as they duked it out in Nicaea around A.D. 325…Just ask St. Nicholas! So, when someone says they don’t believe in organized religion I’m just not buying it and I think that others who challenge that posture stand on pretty firm turf as well.
On the other hand, I think I get it when someone tenders that remark. Maybe it’s been around longer than we’d like to admit. Maybe it’s even worthy of paying attention to. Maybe it’s because all of our attempts at being collectively faithful and religious need some re-forming and re-organizing from time to time as the world we are apart of, and the God we trust in exhibit a lot more fluidity than we dare admit. We can’t stop the cosmos nor put God in a box! Some might say that Jesus was accused of challenging organized religion. The Pharisees would agree (but where are they today?—Now that’s a whole different grumble!) Martin Luther certainly made the annals of church history asking difficult questions of the leaders of the organized church of his day. Why even those back in the 1950’s and 1960’s who are given credit for forging out the ‘non-denominational’ movement balked at organized religion. They weren’t crazy (but they were called that– as were Jesus and Luther!) and now non-denominationalism is its very own denomination!
But, in the end we also have to ask, ‘which organized religion is the one they don’t believe in?’ Is it the Greek Orthodox Church? The ones who seem to remind us better than others of the mystery of God? Around us? In us? Through us? Or is it the Roman Catholic Church who continued mission work in each generation and in every century even setting sail with the explorers to see what God was up to on the other side of the world? That organized religion? What about the Baptists? They have a ‘convention’… don’t you have to be organized to have a convention? And they have produced great men like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Billy Graham who preach about justice and kindness, God’s authorship of life and God’s authority in life and take seriously better than most of the rest of us that the goal of the Jesus movement is to have every knee bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. That’s not a terrible thing is it? Or maybe that’s the point. Some people don’t want to bow down and confess and admit that Jesus IS Lord! Maybe it’s that kind of organized religion they oppose.
Or what about my folks, the Lutherans? We can be pretty organized at times. We know the sermon always comes before the offering! We are especially good at bringing aid and comfort, hope and supplies to a disaster be it from wind or rain. Does anyone know how many millions of quilts, made by the loving hands of generous Lutheran women, have found their way around the world to serve as a bed-roll, a lean-to or even a burial shroud? That doesn’t happen because we’re dis-organized! Or is it the Salvation Army who dress up in military uniforms as a sign of peace and ring their bells at Christmas time and change the lives of desperate people for a day or month or life-time that somehow seems to get under their skin? I’m certain all those red containers outside the stores and shopping malls just show up randomly! Right? Or maybe it’s the Amish folks that they don’t believe in. After all, they do seem to be a bit backward. No electric lights. No cars. No cable TV. They are so backward and behind the times that when a man came into one of their schools and killed some of their students and the teacher and then turned the gun on himself they forgave the man. Then they leveled the school building and hauled all its pieces off and planted grass in its place. They said never again would there be a school on that site so this could happen again and called it a sacred place. Crazy, huh? Not really. It’s how they are organized. They even went so far as to collect money and started a scholarship fund for the children of the man who murdered theirs. No wonder why Americans aren’t flocking to Lancaster, PA by the buggy load. Organized religion for what?
I think people who mutter, “I don’t believe in organized religion” have too high a standard for most church folks. That would be true for me. I wreck the standard far too often! Fr. Richard Rohr once said, “The most amazing fact about Jesus, unlike almost any other religious founder, is that he found God in disorder and imperfection—and told us that we must do the same or we would never be content on this earth. ” And folks whose lives are imperfect and out of order for the most part don’t want to be found out. Truth. Word.
So, I’m going to keep being invitational. People who don’t believe in organized religion can’t have it both ways. They shop at grocery stores with organized aisles with rows of organized food and products. They send their children to organized schools so they can learn math and science, reading and writing and even a bit of history. They get their money for the house and car from the organized banking system (well that could be a stretch…) and get transported to the hospital in an ambulance to an ER with an organized and trained staff of medical personnel. Shoot, some have even given up on backyard sandlot games and have their sons and daughters play in organized sports with uniforms and trophies and everything! And it’s a good thing we have signs and lights on the roads and highways and that there is someone in a tower telling the pilot of my SWA jet when to take off and when to land. Organization helps everyone! Even organized religion!
I mentioned my reasons were personal and professional. They are. Priests and pastors are necessary for life. Houses of organized religion are where we work… or at least work from… and for those who have been paying attention to history and the development of humankind, the smartest ones know that all of our values, our identities, our boundaries, etc. are all given to us…from somewhere…as we don’t get them on our own and without the guidance of others. It’s the task of every generation. And it seems our generation is going to have to work overtime. So, next time, instead of murmuring back a rote response to someone who tells me, “I don’t believe in organized religion,” I’m just going to ask kindly…”how’s that workin’ for us? You think that’s what Jesus had in mind the day he left town?” and see how things flow from there…
1 – statistics bear out that ‘grumpy old men’ live longer than those who do not grump. Therefore, in exercising one’s grumpiness, longevity is maximized.