What’s your perception of religious institutions? What’s been your experience of organized religion? What if someone asks if you’re “born again?” Do you get the oh-oh feeling?
I wonder how many feel the “church” has very little to offer or feel there is no place for them to be who they really are? I bet there are a lot of us who feel the church or organized religion or religious institutions are full of people who no longer think for themselves or who are not in touch with the real world.
I was not raised in a particularly religious family, but at one point my parents thought we should go to church. So we went for a few years. I probably was one of the few kids in Sunday School that actually read the Bible given to me.
Church wasn’t a great experience and the whole denominational upheaval that was going on in the 1960s was very confusing for an elementary school-aged person. But it was the beginning of my own dialogue with God. I remember telling God that since there was such a problem with the church, and I figured all religious institutions, and most people I saw in the church, God and I were on our own.
My next significant church experience came when I was in college. I dated and married a Japanese guy who was a third-generation member of an ethnic church. I was the only non-Asian person and didn’t have much identity apart from my Asian husband. Let me clarify that: I did have a wonderful relationship with the Issei (first generation) because I made the effort to speak Japanese with them and I honored their culture. With the clergy, however, my input was not welcomed because I didn’t understand the cultural mindset.
After graduating from college, we moved to Denver where my husband was going to graduate school to become a minister! I was not thrilled. I didn’t care so much about what he wanted to do with his life, but being a pastor’s wife was NOT what I wanted to do with MY life.
His first church internship was a horrible experience. First, we were a bi-racial couple with bi-racial children! As a pastor’s wife I was expected to play the piano for the services, which I did reluctantly. This was back in the day when the piano accompanied the organ. Go figure. I was constantly criticized because I played the hymns with too much rhythm and too much improvisation! I was also criticized for being too outspoken and too “worldly” in my dress. The kicker: being perceived as being independent, I was told I was usurping God’s chain of command!
While this was going on with the church, the graduate school decided they wanted to invite women into its program and asked me to be the first. “About time!” I thought. I was bored and up for a challenge so I agreed.
This male-dominated institution was not ready to allow a woman into its inner sanctum. Most could not separate their judgement about the role of women in the church from me as a person. Most were also not willing to open their thinking to other possibilities of theological scholarship challenging these notions. It was difficult and lonely being a pioneer.
While in graduate school, we divorced. Most churches in the Denver area were unwilling to open their doors to my two small children and myself, not because I was divorced, although that was an issue. The real threat I presented was because of my pioneering efforts for women in ministry. I had such high visibility, that they didn’t want me to be a negative influence among the women of their churches! Churches were splitting over allowing gays and lesbians to worship and ordaining women!
Because both my husband and I were in ministry, I was asked to take “a leave of absence” from ministry because I was a woman and, therefore, more expendable!
By now, the message I had been getting from the church was dismissive (I was too young); denigrating (I was allowed in because I was attached to someone who really belonged); perforative (I had half-breed children, didn’t fit the Christian woman mold, and I was the wrong gender for leadership); and abandoning (I was not welcome and expendable).
To make a long story short, my kids and I ended up in Massachusetts. I worked as a social worker for the military, filled in for the military chaplain, and did some contract work for the state. We were making our way from being homeless to barely surviving. We also attended a church that was both progressive and compassionate. We ate three meals a week at the church’s meal program, Our Father’s Table. We were the only family. Most were homeless, mentally ill, and addicts.
My church experiences had not brought me any closer to getting anything I needed. In fact, my experiences were raising more questions than there were answers.
There was another man who had a lot of questions. This was a man who had a position of power and prestige in religious circles. Yet he came as one who was spiritually seeking and intellectually honest.
Nicodemus was a powerful man in Jerusalem society – a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews. (You can ready the full story in John 3:1-21). He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the council of seventy men who ran the religious affairs of the nation and who had religious authority over every Jew anywhere in the world.
If ever there was a group that deserved the label “religious fanatics,” it was the Pharisees. They were a select group, never numbering more than 6,000. Each had taken a solemn oath before three witnesses that he would devote every moment of his entire life to obeying the Ten Commandments as a way of pleasing God.
The Pharisees took the Law of God very seriously. They sought to apply the Ten Commandments in every area of life. Those commandments, of course, speak about worshipping the true God, avoiding idols, honoring parents, refraining from lying, adultery, and various other sins. The Commandments are written in a rather general way. The Pharisees, however, liked to have things defined in very specific terms. So a group of people arose within the Pharisee order called the Scribes. It was the Scribes’ job to study the Law and spell out how the Ten Commandments applied to every specific situation in life.
Once you understand the rigid, legalistic system of the Pharisees, it’s amazing that Nicodemus would come to Jesus at all! The Pharisees regarded themselves as spiritually and morally superior to other men because of their inflexible adherence to the Law of God.
Nicodemus came to Jesus at night and said,
Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.
This is an amazing statement. He is admitting that the Pharisees, who vehemently oppose the spiritual freedom Jesus represents, know in their hearts that Jesus really is a teacher from God.
None of the members of the Sanhedrin could work miracles. This was something new in Nicodemus’ experience. But even more alien to Nicodemus’ training and experience was Jesus’ reply:
I tell you the truth, unless a person is born again, they cannot see the kingdom of God.
According to everything Nicodemus had been taught, being accepted by God depended entirely upon adhering to an exclusive body of rules and regulations. Jesus’ reply challenged that.
Jesus sensed in Nicodemus a deep hunger, a spiritual emptiness. Here was a man doing his best to obey what he thought God wanted. Yet, he had an empty and unsatisfied heart that led him to seek out Jesus by night at the risk of disapproval of his colleagues. Nicodemus wasn’t getting what he needed as a powerful, prestigious, religious leader. Nor was the legalistic, regimented religious institution he had devoted his life to even addressing his real needs.
There was something about this Jesus that was drawing Nicodemus outside the safe, secure circle of absolutes and answers. The emptiness of his religious experience was leading him to explore outside the boundaries of the familiar to the unnerving reality of life.
Got everything you need? Asking ourselves this question is the beginning of a life-long quest. I’m on that quest and I suspect that because you’re reading this, you are on that quest. I do know this: it’s not about a particular philosophy or a body of moral teachings. It’s about a Person. I look forward to our dialogue as we journey together.