In my formative years, I developed quite a lot of rituals and rules to regulate my religion. Part of that came from growing up in a religious environment, but a large part of it came from my need to feel secure and safe. There were prayer patterns that I followed, lines that I vowed never to cross, and obligations that had to be kept or the guilt would come knocking.
These days there is much less of this external religious structure in my life. And paradoxically, I know that I am closer to being a friend of God than I was back then. There are less rules to follow and more questions that roll around in my head. Questions that ask...what is real? what is lasting? what is valuable? I am not as concerned with what is right, but more interested in truth that is embodied in a person: authentic, transforming, and challenging. There are less obligations, less guilt, and less predictable patterns.
There are two "problems" that have accompanied this gradual change. The first is that this reworking has removed any tidy structure that is easy to follow and which promises to keep me safe from the big, bad world if I only stay within its boundaries. There is no longer a symmetrical fence outlining expected behaviour, constructed from straight and evenly spaced boards hewn by precise man-made machinery. There is no rigid line that clearly demarcates me as "us" and others as "them." There is now only a wild and untamed tree, not straight or static, but twisting and growing and very much still alive. Every day it changes slightly - here a branch falls off, there a new one sprouts, and some days the roots come up and move things that I thought were immovable.
The second "issue" is that there is no longer a sure road to follow that guarantees my comfort and safety. Life has become a dangerous and unpredictable mess. Faith doubly so. Jesus is the most stable person I know and yet, that is not as reassuring as it sounds because I have no idea what he will toss my way tomorrow. I only know that he will not leave me. All those years I have spent nailing him down to a set of guidelines really were a waste of nails. He will not be reduced to regulations.
Ask me to describe my faith, my belief, my love, my religion and I have to search for words. My responses are different every time as I try to find something remotely accurate to describe this solid, yet moving place where I rest my spirit. I cannot boil it down to the ten commandments or the great commission, both of which are man-made designations which add a certain importance not necessarily found in the original texts.
I have friends that like to identify strangers or remote acquaintances with a short, telling description. That guy with the mole. The lady with a gap between her teeth. I have always found this habit slightly annoying. While useful in some instances, how can we reduce someone to one trait, prominent only in the eyes of a casual beholder? I have made a new rule for myself and some of my friends: We are only allowed to use a description once. If we refer to a particular person a second time, we must think of some other feature (assuming we don't know their name) to describe them. We have to get past our initial and inadequate impression of the person.
I guess that's the same way I feel about God. How can I come up with just one phrase that describes our relationship? And so, my answers to questions of faith might look like this:
1. What do you believe? I rely on a person, not a set of dogma.
2. Do you believe in God? We all believe in a god of some sort. We all worship that which we believe brings us power. If you are talking about surrender, that is another matter altogether.
3. What kind of church do you go to? I don't know if one can really "go" to church. Church is a fellowship, an interaction of people, a bringing of oneself to a community to participate and engage with other people, something not individual but joined. It is a body of different parts alive because they are one with God and with each other.
Ask me these questions tomorrow and my answers will be different because I will be at a slighlty different point in my progressive journey with God. This is the nature of a living entity. Jesus cannot be reduced to a final answer.
This is a photo of a tunnel on the climb up Diamond Head, a volcanic crater on Oahu.