Freedom From Religion

Let’s just start with this.

If you are a person who identifies as a Christian, but who constantly feels the burden of religious expectation, the weight of following all the rules in order to be a “Good Christian,” or the anxiety of never doing enough to “get to heaven” (and I know there are many of you out there), I have one thing to say to you.

Lay it all down. 

You were never meant to carry such a heavy burden in this life. You were not purposed for holding up such an impossible weight. You were not created to live in such a state of perpetual anxiety.

And do not let anyone, not even the leaders of your churches, try to convince you otherwise.

For the entire biblical narrative is a grand, sweeping movement over thousands of years documenting people continually misunderstanding the nature and character of God and what God wants from them.

They believed God was more concerned with their offerings and sacrifices, with their zeal and participation in religious rituals and celebrations, and with how fastidiously and obsessively they followed the “right rules.”

But God has never needed, nor been impressed with, our sacrifices, our religious rituals, or our “following the right rules,” e.g. Isaiah 1Isaiah 58, or any account with Jesus and the Pharisees.

God, lovingly and longingly, seeks only our undivided hearts so that God’s love may be made manifest through your life.

God has never wanted your outward, righteous-looking gestures or your strict religious adherence.

God has never wanted you to follow the “right rules” to be a “good Christian.”

God has never been interested in your perfect performance in order to make the cut for Heaven.

God has only, and always, wanted your heart.

Do you understand what I am saying?

God does not want your tithes and offerings.
God does not want your Bible studies.
God does not want your weekly church attendance.
God does not want your weekly communion.
God does not want your baptism.

God. Wants. Your. Heart.

Because when God has your heart, your life will be transformed.

What is the point of giving your offerings, if we neglect those who are in need? What’s the point of going to a Bible study to learn more information, if we don’t forgive people and then harbor anger and animosity toward them? What is the point of perfect church attendance each Sunday, if we then marginalize people or people groups and continue on with a divisive spirit? What is the point of weekly communion, when we make no attempt at patterning our lives after the cross-bearing, self-sacrificial Christ? What is the point of baptism, if we still live like the person who was supposed to be buried in baptism? What is the point of any of it, if we do not walk daily in the Spirit of God?

Our religious rituals and observances are only meaningful if expressed through a transformed heart, a changed life.

But so many of our churches have made religious rituals, observances, and rule-following more important than a transformed heart and life, as if it is by virtue of our religious rituals, celebrations, and rule-following that God is pleased with us and by which we are saved.

And that is simply wrong.

The profound tragedy is that this perspective and belief system turns the unmerited grace of God completely upside-down and makes us continually worry that we are never quite doing enough to make God happy. And so we work harder and harder to do all the “right things,” to make sure we are on God’s good side so that we might make it to Heaven one day.

Not only is that wrong, it is an impossibly heavy weight and burden for anyone to carry. It is a weight and burden we were never meant to carry. And it is a weight and burden that completely misses the point of who God is and what God intends for our lives.

It was Jesus who said, “Come to me all you are burdened and I will give you rest,” and then, “I have come that you might have life and life to the fullest.”

And that’s the Good News.

That in Christ, you have been forgiven.
That in Christ, you have been given rest.
That in Christ, you have been made to be free.
That in Christ, you have been recreated to experience life in all it’s fullness.
That in Christ, you are saved only by God’s unmerited grace.
And that in Christ, you are God’s handiwork, created for good works.

So if you constantly feel the burden of religious expectation, the weight of following all the rules in order to be a “Good Christian,” or the anxiety of never doing enough to “get to heaven,” lay it all down. Seriously, lay it all down.

Religious expectation has never been the point of this life. And when you finally realize that, you will be free.

I remember a few years ago when my younger sister, who lives in the town where I grew up, was leading a Bible study with a group of women whom she had never studied with before. As they each took a turn sharing with the others, my sister always prefaced her comments with, “I hope one day, if I make it to Heaven…”

The other ladies listened for a week or two and then one of the ladies spoke up and said, “Why do you always say, ‘If I make it to Heaven?'”

My sister, having never thought about what she had been saying all those years, just sat there in stunned silence. She tried to clarify, “No, what I mean is that I hope I have done enough to go to Heaven one day.”

The ladies continued by telling her that it is only through the grace of God by which she is saved.

It was an amazing moment in her life.

The heavy burden of religious expectation she carried all her life had been cast aside.

The impossible weight of following all the rules to be “good enough” that she had been living under was finally lifted.

The perpetual anxiety and burden of never knowing exactly where she stood with God, at last, faded away.

That too is available to each and every one of you right now. It is your time to quit living under the heavy-handed, man-made expectations of religion, and walk into the freedom that God has always wanted you to experience.

Peace…

Brandon

If Death is Not the End

My grandma died when she was 62 and that was way too early.

Our rides in her beat up old red car that we lovingly referred to as “the Klunker,” our hot summer evenings talking on her front porch, and our quick trips to the local restaurant with the best milkshakes in town… were all cut short by an insidious and dreadful disease called Alzheimer’s.

She would never get a chance to meet my beautiful wife or hold my kids in her arms.

Neither would my grandpa who died of cancer when he was 80.

When I held his hand as he lie asleep in his hospital bed just a couple of days before he passed, I thought about the countless nights I spent at his house, the smell of breakfast and pipe smoke each morning, his flat top haircut, and either a Bible on his lap or Andy Griffith on the television.

Some memories never fade.

But while there is immense joy in being able to remember all of the time we spent together, it is coupled with the haunting reminder that our lives have absolutely no power over death. Whether it is my grandma, my grandpa, me, or even you, our end is certain.

And that reality, our powerlessness to death, is one of utter sadness and despair, because death is our final ending.

So much for family and friends and relationships.
So much for our pursuits and endeavors.
So much for parties and celebrations and having friends over for dinner.
So much for art and music and creativity.
So much for sunsets and mountains and shooting stars.
So much for the smell of breakfast in the morning and sitting on front porches in the summer.

It all comes to a crushing, brutal, and inconsequential end in death.

And you can’t help but feel as if we have been short-changed somehow, like it all should have meant something.

All of this time on earth for absolutely nothing in the end… except for the assurance of death.

But if death is our end and our end is meaningless and inconsequential… then wouldn’t all things leading to that end be meaningless and inconsequential as well?

Said another way- if death is the end toward which all life is moving… then why does anything in our lives matter at all?  Why ascribe any purpose to it whatsoever? It is all death in the end anyway.  

Yet we live and breathe and act each day as if it matters, like it has some sort of importance or significance.  We ironically fight for life as if it is worth something, like it has meaning and value. We grieve when loved ones die. We treat cancer and search for the cure for AIDS and go to the family doctor and try to eat healthy… because we prefer life over death. We spend our time, energy, and resources protecting and defending life and standing for those who cannot defend themselves.

But why do this if it is all death in the end… and life is of no consequence?  Why do we even have a preference for life over death?  Why involve ourselves in any pursuit or endeavor while we are alive?  Why waste our time on anything at all?

Why should we paint and design and build? Why should we continue to create and imagine and dream?  Why play music and write stories and cry when there are happy endings in movies and plays if it all just tragically ends?

Why?

I think the answer is simple:  Death is not our end.  

And if death is not our end, and if there is actually a purpose toward which we are moving, then all things leading toward that purpose is full of meaning and is well worth our time.

That is precisely why the resurrection of Jesus Christ is so important for humanity… because it gives us hope and assurance that, while we were powerless against death, only God has the power to defeat it.  Therefore life, not death, is the purpose toward which we are moving and everything we do to that end is valuable.

That is the very foundation of faith.  It is the belief that God is working toward the renewal of all things, and by virtue of asking God to be the active and present center of our lives,  we begin participating in that renewal right now.  It is a life that looks like Jesus in everything we do.

And it is that reality, God’s power and victory over death demonstrated in Jesus Christ, which is the pinnacle of human happiness and joy… because life prevails and gives us meaning and purpose today.

Family and friends and relationships all matter.
Parties and celebrations and having friends over for dinner is a foretaste of how life will be one day.
Art and music and creativity is a reflection of what we were made to do and what we will continue to do at the renewal of all things.
Sunsets and mountains and shooting stars are a present glimpse of new creation when death is finally exhausted.
And yes, the smell of breakfast in the morning and sitting on front porches in the summer with everyone we love is just the beginning of how good life will be when Christ returns.

No more pain. No more tears. No more death. No more decay.

So live and breathe and act each day as if it matters, like it has some sort of importance or significance… because it does!

For in Christ’s resurrection… all things are made new…. even and especially you.

The World Would Be a Better Place If We All Died

I was watching a reality television show last night in which the contestant, who had been stranded on an island all by herself said, “Being in solitude for ten days makes you realize what things you really value.”

This was a very insightful and introspective comment.

All too often we become attached to and dependent upon so many inconsequential and non-life giving things that we lose sight of or take for granted those things that are of the utmost value and have the most meaning in our lives.

As I sit here and reflect, my wedding ring is a great symbolic illustration of this idea. My wedding ring means everything to me. It represents the commitment my wife and I have with each other. It represents the union we have that will never be broken. It represents the vows we took and depth to which our love will always endure and never fail. All of that and more in a simple ring. It’s absolutely beautiful.

Yet the truth is that on a daily, and even more indicting, a weekly basis… I don’t even think about my wedding ring. It has become so commonplace in my life that it can’t compete with the million other things I have going on in my life or the million other things that I think about on a daily basis. I would even be willing to say that these other thoughts and pursuits pale into comparison to the importance and significance of my wedding ring, yet I never think about it.

So does the fact that my wedding ring has been buried by my lack of attention to it take away it’s symbolic value and power? Absolutely not.

Does it’s symbolic value and power lose influence in my life on a daily basis when it is rarely (if ever) thought about over the course of my daily routine? Sadly yes.

It’s completely possible that the most important things- those things that we hold to be most dear, those things we hold to be most valuable, and those things that remind us of who we are, can become quite ordinary and even forgotten when having to compete with the clutter and interests of lesser things in our lives.

I have had this principle ring true for me over the last 18 months since I stepped down from leadership at our church and began a significant time of rest and flying under the church radar, which I have jokingly referred to as our “40 years of wandering the concrete desert of Columbus.” And little did I know how much I needed the desert to rediscover what is most important to me and what I value the most.

But it is in the solitude of the desert where God strips away everything- everything we think we are, everything we think we know, our attachments, our false identities, our idols, and those things that are inconsequential and non-life giving- and then reminds us of those things that God values.

The last year and a half caused me to ask a ton of questions about who I am and what I value as God began to strip away everything.

What’s the point of it all?
Why do I do what I do?
Does anything ever really change?
Am I wasting my time?
Does any of this even matter?
Do I matter?

Amidst the difficult questions, the seemingly aimless wandering, and the solitude of the desert, God had finally stripped away everything.  And it was in that place where I stood naked and alone with only God and God’s love surrounding me, reminding me of the one thing, the most valuable thing, that answers all of my questions… the cross of Christ.

Sometimes we need the desert to find our hearts and souls… and to remember who we are and what our purpose is. And no matter the endless circles and varied pathways we take in this desert life, the point at which they all converge is at the cross. For it is when we come to the cross that we choose to no longer go our own way.

But I really wish there was a way to write about the cross that isn’t weighed down by all of the religious baggage it has accumulated for so long. And I wish there was a way to introduce you to the cross for the first time without you thinking of it as a throwaway, anachronistic icon. Much like my wedding ring, the cross has become so commonplace, to the point of being lost as a ancient relic of another time, that it can’t compete with the million other things we deem as “important” in the 21st century.

I wish I could write about the cross in a way that isn’t shackled by religious baggage or buried by a mountain of inconsequence, but rather in a way that truly means something for you today and that impacts your life and your relationships. If I could do that I am certain that every person (Christ follower or not) would see the cross’ simple and symbolic beauty and importance… and how it has the power to transform individuals, families, and communities.

At it’s very core, the cross represents a confrontation and revolt against anything that puts us, rather than God, at the center of our own lives. Picking up our cross and denying ourselves daily is the pathway to holistic and abundant living in perfect union with God.

And why would anyone not what that?

Can you imagine what the world would look like if every person would pick up his or her cross, deny his or her self, and follow the selfless and other-centered way of Jesus?

Can you fathom a world in which we give up all of the gimmicks, fads, and self-help schemes and simply picked up our cross daily and denied ourselves?

Can you envision a world where entire communities are redeemed and look to the interest of everyone else in grace, humility, mercy, and love… by simply deciding to pick up our cross and deny ourselves daily?

Can you comprehend a world in which real power is demonstrated by sacrificing ourselves in grace, humility, mercy, and love for the sake of others by picking up our cross and denying ourselves daily?

The cross is the power of God to put to death and then bring to life- first in Christ and then in us.

To put to death curses and bring to life blessings.
To put to death impatience and bring to life patience.
To put to death indulgence and bring to life self-control.
To put to death hostility and bring to life compassion.
To put to death blame and bring to life mercy.
To put to death neglect and bring to life care.
To put to death excuses and bring to life honesty.
To put to death busyness and bring to life balance.
To put to death pride and bring to life selflessness.
To put to death hard-heartedness and bring to life kindness.
To put to death negativity and bring to life positivity.
To put to death resentment and bring to life forgiveness.
To put to death division and bring to life unity.
To put to death labeling and stereotyping and bring to life seeing the beauty in every person.
To put to death complaining and bring to life praising.
To put to death entitlement and bring to life contentment.
To put to death brokenness and bring to life wholeness.
To put to death bitterness and bring to life joy.
To put to death war and bring to life peace.
To put to death hatred and bring to life love.
To put to death defeat and bring to life victory.
To put to death my kingdom and bring to life the Kingdom of God.

That is why the world would be a better place if each of us would pick up our crosses and die.

There is so much of me… so much of us… that needs to die. And so much more that God wants to bring to life in each of us.

The cross of Christ is so much more than a nice symbol, a holy representation, an obscure necklace piece, or an optional wall fixture in a church building.

The cross demands blood and sacrifice. The cross promises that there will be pain. The cross beckons you to come and die.

For without death… there is no Life.

The cross is the very pattern and shape our lives should take demonstrated by Jesus Christ. And that is the pattern and shape for a new and better humanity… the pattern and shape of a new and better world.

What is keeping you from denying yourself and picking up the cross of Christ daily? There is no better time than to begin it than today. See how your life, your relationships, and the world around you begins to change.