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Praying for the Demise of Religion
Published on Monday, December 12, 2005 by the Cleveland Plain Dealer
Praying for the Demise of Religion
by Rev. Kenneth W. Chalker
 

I have heard the line many times: "Rev, I want you to know right upfront that I'm spiritual - but not religious."

This distinction is a 21st century American mantra: spiritual - but not religious. It could be on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker. Truth be told, in the wake of the recent United Methodist Judicial Council ruling mandating the reinstatement of a United Methodist pastor who had refused church membership to an openly gay man, I would be one of the folks wearing the T-shirt.

I have been a parish pastor in the United Methodist Church for 31 years. This calling continues to be a marvelous, enriching and energizing spiritual experience. Among other things, it has made me deeply spiritual and leads me to pray daily for the demise of religion.

While sharing in the lives of people, I have had numerous encounters with the Holy, Infinite One. I have witnessed resurrections, liberations, high moments of justice and mercy, and life-changing acts of forgiveness. I have seen healings that restored broken hearts, fractured minds and shattered spirits. I have seen people who were sinking in turbulent waters suddenly walk on those waves as a result of renewed faith. I've seen waters part, revealing reliable paths to places of promise. I have seen bramble bushes of confusion and pain set ablaze with a Holy presence revealing messages of clarity and hope. I have heard angels sing of holy births even as death appears to close the eyes of cherished friends.

Because of wonderfully hopeful things such as these, I believe what all world faith traditions reveal. Namely, that God is Spirit and thus never captured in a picture, idea, book or creed. Rather, the Holy One is always mysterious, awe-inspiring, hope-raising and fear-relieving. Encounters with the Spirit are at once and always an amazing grace.

Religion, however, is what Satan devises as a way of confusing faithful people. Holy wars, suicide bombings and other religiously motivated killings prove the point.

Those of us who exercise our spirituality by attempting to follow in the footsteps of Jesus are very much aware that when Jesus was around religious people it made him nauseated. I believe that is why Jesus always enjoyed eating with sinners. It was the only way he could keep his lunch.

In these religious times, church organi- zations are forsaking their initial spiritual impetus and going over to the dark side. Employing labored, amplified heavy breathing, they have become religious institutions. Like most institutions, religious ones are very much interested in preserving their various ways of doing things. That is, in large part, why there are judicial councils. Their job is not to keep the faith. Their job is to keep the rules and make folks think that "the rules" and "the faith" are the same thing. Most often, they are not.

While the decision of the United Methodist Judicial Council purports to protect a pastor's right to ascertain a person's readiness to affirm the vows of membership in the church, it does nothing of the sort. The decision does what religion so often does: It sanctifies acts of hidden prejudice and self-righteousness.

Wonder of wonders, there are many, many clergy and laypersons who serve in and give life to many, many churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and prayer rooms. They are those who each day open the doors of such places in marvelous ways. They welcome folks in. They step out into the streets to help others. They transform communities and daily work to make things better. They relieve suffering and amplify - as well as enable - rejoicing. Such faithful people reveal that the Spirit is alive and active in our midst. They also know that judicial council terms come to an end and prejudices will one day pass away.

In the meantime (and sometimes the times are very mean), institutional religion continues to be a mind-numbing reality. In all cultures, it preserves the status quo in ice. That is why religious folks often seem to be the "frozen chosen" rather than ones warmed by the fire of the Spirit with tolerance, acceptance and love, and set ablaze with a passion for justice.

Putting people out is a coldly religious thing to do. In the end, the rooms from which people have been excluded become empty. The temperature is turned way down to save expenses. Not much is going on in those rooms, but at least they are neat and orderly. Current judicial councils, like all of them over time, very much like it that way. Among other things, the thermostats in their rooms never have to be reset and the chairs need never be moved for their small, bi-annual meetings.

Rev. Chalker is pastor of First United Methodist Church of Cleveland, Ohio.

© 2005 Cleveland Plain Dealer

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