Throughout my life, I have not been a big fan of organized religion. To me, there is a difference between faith and organized religion. Throughout history, much conflict has occurred in the name of organized religion, whether it's the Crusades or the Holocaust or flying passenger planes into skyscrapers or any of the other multitude of "holy wars" over the course of time. I don't like it.
Faith, on the other hand, is personal and individual. I don't believe that to have faith, a person must be placed in some sort of organized category--Catholic, Protestant, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Jewish, Buddhist, whatever--and publicly display that faith on a specified day of the week at a specified location. Just as individuals are unique, faith should be unique and observed whenever and however a particular individual desires. As long as a person isn't hurting another, and as long as the goal is to be a better human being, I couldn't care less if that individual prays to God, Jesus Christ, Allah, multiple gods, a cow, a rock, or anything else. I really don't care if that individual doesn't pray to anyone or anything at all. People seek comfort and guidance and inspiration in all sorts of ways. Just because one way works for me doesn't mean that it necessarily works for someone else, and vice versa.
So when my six-year-old, Olivia, announced recently that she wants to learn about God, I was conflicted. I absolutely want my children exposed to religion--all variations of it--and to choose their own beliefs. I just don't want to go to church because of my aversion to organized religion. But when Olivia is staring at me with those doe eyes, excitedly asking to learn about God, I'm not really left with a choice. Off to church we go.
The Mrs. and I happen to lean toward Christianity, so that's where we started. We went to a local Christian church this morning, sending our daughters down the hallway to age-appropriate classrooms, and then I attended my first service in quite some time.
I was uncomfortable when we got there. As we entered the church, though, the building didn't collapse, there were no lightning strikes, and I didn't spontaneously burst into flames, so I took that as a good sign. Lots of people were dressed in jeans and tennis shoes, so that put me at ease, too. I'm not a big dress-up guy, but I did wear a polo and khakis this morning. Nevertheless, I found comfort in seeing that the type of clothes that people wear isn't a big issue at this church.
This particular church has a nice breakfast nook, so we enjoyed some pre-service pastries and coffee. It provided me the much-needed opportunity to sit down, get my bearings, and kind of adjust to the environment a little bit while sipping some coffee and munching a donut.
I'm naturally shy and introverted, so when I didn't see anyone that I know, I just kept to myself. While the Mrs. took the kids to their classrooms, a man and his two daughters were clearly looking for a space to sit with their pastries and morning beverages, so I got up to make room for them. As I was walking away, the man asked me, "Can we join you?" That was not the question I was expecting, and I fumbled for an answer. "I was just leaving," I said, and then I immediately felt like a jerk. The man was just trying to be friendly. I'm going to have to work on this shyness thing.
When we entered the preaching room--there's probably a much more official name to it, but I can't think of it right now--I was pleased to see that this church has a band that plays electric guitars and bass and drums. My mother-in-law's church has a band like that, and I liked it when we visited there many moons ago. The stereotypical foreboding organ music doesn't do much for me.
The band played some good music, and a woman sang some uplifting songs, and I enjoyed it. Then she led us in a prayer, which is not my favorite thing, given my belief about the personal and individual nature of faith. Having someone tell the whole congregation what to say to God seems pretty fake to me, and I think God sees right through that. But it's a part of church, so I just went with it.
The sermon was interesting. The preacher ... pastor ... reverend ... whatever he's called, discussed Exodus 14, where Moses leads the Israelis through the parted Red Sea and away from the Pharaoh and his Egyptian troops, who were chasing them. After the good guys get across, the bad guys get swallowed up by the Red Sea.
The sermon was interesting because I didn't like the story at first. I've read it before, but I never liked the part about God killing the Egyptians. Why are the Israelis better than the Egyptians? Aren't they all human beings? Aren't we taught not to kill people? Why should we give glory to God for slaughtering a bunch of Egyptians? I'm starting to see why religion is such a big issue in the Middle East.
But after the preacher/pastor/reverend finished reading the scripture, he expounded on the story, picking out the point that he wanted the congregation to be left with: that all glory goes to God. Apparently, this Pharaoh guy had been getting pretty full of himself and was going around making everyone worship him. Well, God heard about this on Facebook or Twitter or something and didn't really appreciate it, so he led the Israelis--through Moses--out of there because God is in charge, not the Pharaoh. The Pharaoh took offense to God getting all up in his business, so he rounded up a bunch of troops and chased the Israelis. He had them cornered, and it looked like it was curtains for Moses and his crew, but that's when God parted the Red Sea and gave them an escape route.
Once the Pharaoh and his henchmen gave chase, God said (in a thick Austrian accent, no doubt) "You're terminated." Down came the water from the Red Sea, and the Egyptians were obliterated.
So one message that the preacher/pastor/reverend was trying to get across is that we should fear God or suffer his wrath, much like the Pharaoh did. I'm not sure that I'm on board with that. I have always respected God, not feared him. Fearing someone doesn't make me want to follow them--it makes me want to run in the other direction. Respecting someone, though, makes me want to follow them. And I also prefer to believe that God will always love me, no matter what, as opposed to the belief that He'll bring the Red Sea crashing down on my head when He gets mad at me. So I struggled with that part of the sermon.
The part of the sermon that I liked, however, was that God led Moses and the Israelis to this spot by the Red Sea. Things looked bleak for these folks--they were surrounded by bad guys, and the sea was behind them. There appeared to be no way out.
But as Exodus 14:13-14 goes, "Moses answered the people, 'Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today ... The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.'"
Basically, have faith that God won't give you more than you can handle. Believe in Him, and there will always be a way out, even when things appear bleak, as long as you have faith.
I like that message, and that's what I chose to walk away with from church this morning.
We did communion--and I really liked that no one cared whether or not I've been baptized when they passed around the bread and juice--and we put a little money in the plate as it came around, and then it was over. We picked up the girls and headed to the car. On the way, our youngest, June, announced that everything is created by God, and Olivia was pleased to show us that she had gotten a couple of stickers for remembering some Bible verses. They enjoyed themselves and want to go back.
It's going to take me awhile to warm up to church, but today wasn't entirely awful. In fact, it wasn't really all that bad. I didn't completely embrace 100% of what was said there, but as a relatively bright person with my own free will, I don't think that I was supposed to. After all, faith is personal and individual. What I took away from the sermon is not necessarily what the Mrs.--or anyone else in the preaching room this morning--took away from it, and that's okay.
This particular church worked alright for me. I can see myself growing more comfortable there over time, and the Mrs. and the kids really seem to enjoy it, so there's that added benefit, too. I can think of worse fates on a Sunday morning, so I'll give it another try next week, and we'll see how it goes.