I recently saw a bumper sticker that read "I have no problem with God – it's his fan club I can't stand." I've pondered that statement since then, wondering what exactly it is that triggers that response. The best I've been able to come up with is something I've heard often, drawing a distinction between spirituality (good) and religion (bad). To some people, religion means blindly following the leader, without thinking things through for oneself. They look at all the things that are done by rote, the rituals that are repeated over and over, and conclude that the people participating in such things do so in a superficial manner, and that there is no real meaning in what they do. Being spiritual may be OK, these people think, but religion is for sheep with no minds of their own.
Well, I'm proud to count myself among the members of God's fan club, because I have a whole different take on the things that these skeptics think differentiate religion from spirituality. First of all, I don't mind being a member of the flock – not when the flock is under the care of a shepherd like mine. What comfort there is in being part of a beloved family, tended by a loving father, knowing that each individual sheep is as important to the shepherd as every other! Far from being mindless, I've spent a great deal of time thinking about what I believe. I'll admit that my beliefs aren't always logical, but I think that believing things that don't seem to make sense is part of what faith is all about. It doesn't take any faith to believe something that can be scientifically proven, does it? If I can't prove it, but know it to be true anyway, that's faith.
My automatic responses to certain phrases don't feel mindless to me. When my pastor says "God is good" and the entire congregation responds with "all the time," I feel an immediate and strong connection to everyone there. Joining in that response reminds me that I'm a member of that particular flock, that I belong. Recitation of memorized prayers is a powerful experience for me. The Lord's Prayer connects me directly to Christ, who taught us to pray using those words. When I recite the Apostle's Creed, I am grateful that someone, long ago, was able to put into words the mystical, wordless feelings I have. The prayer of confession we normally include in our worship gives me a starting point to confess my sins and shortcomings. St. Francis's prayer brings me back to what's important. (Hint – it isn't me!)
And oh! those rituals! What could be more powerful than participating in something that has been performed basically unchanged since Jesus Christ himself first performed those actions two millennia ago? On Maundy Thursday of this year, I allowed my feet to be washed, just as the disciples allowed Jesus to wash their feet the evening before his crucifixion. It wasn't the first time I had participated in the ritual, but it felt very different this time. I had always thought of it as an act of humility on the part of the washer. In the homily that preceded the washing, Daniel made the point that it is in fact an act of love. As he washed my feet, I was nearly overwhelmed by the love I could feel in his heart. The most beautiful part was that there was a profound sense that Christ's love for me and for his disciples and all his children was included in the love I was feeling. In washing my feet, Daniel symbolized Jesus' washing of his disciples' feet, and his love symbolized Christ's love. That's the beauty of ritual. It becomes much more than it appears to be on the surface.
My favorite, hands down, is the sacrament of Communion. There are layers upon layers of meaning to it. Again, it repeats the act of Jesus offering his body and his blood to his disciples the night before he was crucified. What an act of love and reassurance that was! Knowing he was going to die, he sought to show them that he would always be with them. By accepting what appears to be nothing more than a morsel of bread, I am accepting his body and making it part of my own body. By accepting what appears to be juice, I am accepting his blood and making it part of my own life's blood. I am taking Jesus into myself and making him an integral part of myself. For a moment, at least, I feel like we are one, inseparable, indistinguishable. I am deeply humbled by the thought of the millions and millions of people who have participated in this same ritual, becoming one with Jesus, over the past two thousand years. I am connected to the spirits of all of those bygone believers, and to the hearts of the believers who are still living and still partaking of the Lord's supper. Their faith strengthens my own, as I hope that mine strengthens theirs. I am nothing without them, and we are nothing without God.
So, yes – I'm proud to be in his fan club!