Have you ever found religion hard to watch? For one thing, most faith communities use language that is quite obscure -- it makes sense only to those on the "inside."
Very few of these communities make any real effort to define their terms or behaviors in a way that makes guests feel connected. There are also many mysterious elements to worship and practice, and a truly good mystery should always offer clarity by the end of the story.
It can be uncomfortable to witness the affection of others toward God, especially the demonstrative types where people's inhibitions seem to dissolve as if melted by an emotional defroster. On the other hand, our eyelids can get heavy within a congregation who recites liturgies with all the enthusiasm of Ben Stein calling roll in economics class (Bueller, anyone?).
Unfortunately, the use of spirituality as a show is not a new concept. It was during the Middle Ages that the Christian church became an unrivaled public spectacle. A century after the Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of his empire, it was the church and not the coliseum that drew the largest crowds.
"Relics" began traveling around the known world with great fanfare. People were lining up to see the bones of a saint, a holy cup from a holy table and even ancient hair follicles, which we can only assume would have tested drug free. Most people simply ignored the fact that multiple vendors were offering the same sanctified items, even though each was purported to be the original.
Extravagant fairs became annual events throughout Europe and even the liturgical festivals of the church began to coincide with what would be forerunners to modern trade shows. These religious flea markets often blended Christian imagery with pagan celebration, and the result was a lot of money changing hands while the hearts of the people remained unmoved. Most cities were glad to host these events as they provided a significant economic stimulus that could help a struggling market find its way back into the black.
This type of pageantry would easily find its way inside the church. One story, for example, tells of an oft-visited church in Paris where the image of Jesus was reported to come alive. In fact, one can still visit this parish-turned-museum today at Cluny where the crucifix is operated by a spring, iron rods and pedals the preacher worked in order to make Christ's head, eyes and tongue appear to move.
Is this really how faith is meant to be displayed? Sometimes it feels like artificial exhibitions of faith are the only kind we ever see.
The truth is that this type of showmanship represents the minority in most faith communities. In reality, many people find it very difficult to practice their faith, whatever it may be, in front of others. There are others, however, who find it difficult to practice their faith in private. Most of us, if we were to be honest, are still trying to figure out how to practice our faith in either arena.
In Jesus' teaching, the purpose of spirituality is never attention.
It is certainly not meant to be religious. The purpose is to open a part of our hearts and minds that can only connect to something -- or better yet to someone -- Divine.
In Matthew 6, Jesus gives a number of instructions on practicing faith that were deliberately countercultural to the religious traditions of His day. He said, "When you give to the poor ... do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing." He said, "When you pray ... go into your room and close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen." He said, "When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting." This type of faith, according to Jesus, will connect us to God in a way that is not wasted on self-serving applause. The reward offered to us will be just that -- a fresh encounter with the One who is above all, through all and in all.
Think about it like this: We all have cell phones these days. Many of us have more than one. I even saw a third grader sporting a pretty pink Blackberry® at my son's school the other day.
With every cell phone comes its charger, and nearly every phone has a different charger. You can go to the store and pick up a number of different types of charging adapters, but only one will fit your phone. Most major airports have charging kiosks with multiple charging options strategically placed near their bars and restaurants. Even still, there is a good chance that your particular adapter is not on the menu.
Our phones are made with ports that are meant for only one type of input. The Spirit that God has given to each person works in the same way. We have a "spiritual port" that human inputs or adapters just won't fit. That port is meant for the Divine, and we can't receive the appropriate charge from anywhere else. That's the problem with practicing faith for show or only to achieve the approval of others. Eventually, our battery life percentage will be pushing zero and we are not plugging in.
The question I must continually ask myself is -- what is my end game when it comes to practicing my faith? Applause is short lived. Ambition will leave you flat. Pursuing good grades on our religious report card will always lead to failure. We should make it our goal to be pleasing to God, both in front of others and by ourselves. Just as without faith, it is impossible to please God, true faith makes pleasing God its highest aspiration.
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