My family got religion in the spring of 1968. It had become clear that, apart from a miracle, my brother was not going to recover from the acute lymphoblastic leukemia with which he had been diagnosed. Looking for help wherever they could find it, my parents talked to the preacher at my grandmother’s church and attended a series of revival meetings held there.
I had never been to a church meeting like that. In fact, I don’t remember attending church at all, except on Easter Sunday, prior to my brother’s illness. The revival meeting was new to me. The earnest preacher didn’t just talk: he urged, pleaded and admonished us to begin a new life of faith. On the second or third evening, I responded publicly to the invitation and prayed to “receive Jesus.”
That was the beginning of my spiritual life and also the beginning of my religious life, which have not always been the same thing. I don’t want to understate the benefit the church has brought to my life – I cannot begin to measure its value to me or imagine my life without it. But on that night many years ago I not only received Jesus, I received religion.
Receiving Jesus has been an unmitigated good, the beginning of a new and extraordinarily rich life. Without Jesus, I would simply not be me. On that evening so many years ago, something happened that has shaped the person I’ve become and provided the dynamic for the person I am becoming.
But something else happened too: I got religion. And with religion came unexpected and undesired side effects, one of which was hypocrisy. No one intended for that to happen. The church, I am sure, wanted to make disciples, not hypocrites. But it happened nonetheless.
I think I picked it up, at least in part, from my dad. The church to which we had become attached frowned on smoking and drinking. My dad had already quit drinking (for the most part), but smoking was another matter. He tried to quit, but twenty-five years of heavy smoking was too much for him.
He was a barber, and he always had a pack of cigarettes with him in the shop. But when the preacher or some other member of the church would drop in for a haircut, the cigarettes would disappear. As a teenager I noticed, with a kind of wonder, how quickly and clandestinely he could dispose of a cigarette, almost in mid-puff, whenever he was surprised by a church member in public.
My dad’s talk could often be cutting and harsh. But when he was at church or was around church people, I never heard him say an unkind word. He was shamefully biased against minorities, but you would never know that at church, when some visiting missionary was urging us to send the gospel to Africa or the Far East.
I’m glad to report that my dad’s life gradually changed to take the shape of the doctrines he professed. He became much kinder – loving even – and generous to those in need. But for the most part, this happened after I was out of the house. I had already learned my lesson.
Jesus did not teach me to hide my struggles and failures or to project an airbrushed image of myself to others. Religion did that, though unintentionally. It seemed to me that no one else at church was even tempted to do wrong; much less did they do it. If I was going to fit in, I would need to hide all the bad things about myself, as skillfully as my dad hid his cigarettes.
Perhaps it sounds as if religion is the enemy of true spirituality. It is not, and it can even be its great and helpful friend. The tried and true practices of the church – call them religious, if you will – have helped millions of people experience true spirituality. Religion is not the problem, but the contraband that is sometimes smuggled in with it – hypocrisy, pride, envy and a judgmental attitude – is. Wise is the person who can distinguish between the two.
Published first in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/4/14