It’s Not Religion; It’s Relationship

The Catholic kids came in from recess red-cheeked, smelling of sweat and grass, and their lunch bags had no desserts in them during those long weeks before Easter.

“My mom made me give up candy,” they’d say morosely, and I understood that Catholic was about giving things up, about a confirmation class called CCD (which they called Celestial City Dump), about plastic baggies of crinkle cut carrots.

At our church we said things like, “It’s not about religion, it’s about relationship,” and Catholicism was quintessentially religious with its liturgies and sacraments and saints.

We were dismantling the responsive readings, trading the hymns for worship choruses and electric guitars. We, who had a direct line to the Almighty had no need for confessionals. We who had Christ had little use for his Virgin mother.

In high school, a reporter from the Daily Herald called to interview me about the latest See You at the Pole event, and I mentioned my recent missions trip to the Dominican Republic. “Isn’t that a Christian country?” she asked me. “Well, it’s Catholic…” I said, and she was silent while she processed the unspoken judgment, as clear and loud as if I’d shouted it.

But how was I to know? This Jesus thing is all bliss and journaling and worship ballads until you put a little Depression on it. And then, it’s like a wall and an ending, and you who used to raise your arms high above your head in worship can barely lift them from your sides.

I spent my own Dark Days reaching for a Relationship that I could no longer seem to access. God was somewhere, and I could not get to him.

What I wanted most in those days was an intermediary. I wanted to sit in a confessional and have someone else speak to God on my behalf. I wanted to hold a rosary, to count the beads, to feel them sure and simple under my shaking fingers.

And it would be like saying of marriage, “It’s not about commitment, it’s about love.” Well yes. And no. Sometimes it’s that piece of paper, that promise that keeps you going.

You fold the laundry, you vacuum the living room, you stand side-by-side at the kitchen counter, chopping vegetables—tasks and routines, steady and predictable. Beads on a rosary. You commit. You wait for it to feel like love once more.


I meet a woman in a coffee shop, and she tells me, “I grew up Catholic, and I had no idea about anything.” She is fresh from the tanning bed, and her skin glows holy.

“Now I go to this church where they read the Bible. I’m actually learning,” she says, laughing, and I am reminded that we are all on our own journey. We are flip-flopping, her and I. I am craving liturgy, the feel of ash on my forehead, the quiet mystery of stone saints.

And she needs it straight and simple, a shot of Jesus to the soul. The pastoral anecdote, the statistic that I’ve heard a hundred times before, worship, loud and spirited– these things are for her.

Someday, I will need them again too, because faith is like this, spiraling round and round toward the hidden heart of God.

It is religion and it is relationship. It is mystery and understanding, silence and prayer. Not one of us has it all exactly right. We take what we can from each other, we learn where we’re at.

We are counting the beads in one moment, tossing them wild before His feet in the next.

41 thoughts on “It’s Not Religion; It’s Relationship

  1. As usual, you take thoughts straight from my head and put them on paper so well. How the HECK do you do that???

    I almost cry – not really, but internally – when I encounter the “I hate religion” and “It’s not about a religion” stuff – EVEN THOUGH I’VE USED IT MYSELF. I cry, internally, because I feel even more doomed. What the HELL is this “relationship” thing? From when I first came to Christ – very childishly and without a formulaic prayer – at 11, until age 39 when I crashed emotionally so badly and convinced myself that I wasn’t even saved at all (even tho I see this now as a further mistake), there was MUCH emotion to my “relationship”, but since, well, I can’t find it.

    The insistence that “religion” is evil makes me feel doomed even further.

    The number of times that it crosses my mind to just give up is ever increasing. My son became a Christian last year at age 9, and I am so delighted by that, but I have virtually nothing to offer him in a “discipling” mode. I feel like a Christian failure of the highest order, and it seems that turning to rituals would be much more peaceful, yet much (most) of the influence around him would scream loudly against that.

    I’m not a fan of the “I hate religion” idea, even tho the video was on the site that I helped “build”. I think the issue is horribly blown out of proportion over semantics.

    Great post, again.

    1. OK Bernard, I will confess up front. I hate religion. Of course, I have a narrow definition of the word: “What man made up in order to reach God.” I hate it to the extent that it keeps people from God. I don’t use the “relationship” idea much these days, though I have in the past. Your post is a beautiful thing for its perfect process. You said…

      “The insistence that “religion” is evil makes me feel doomed even further.”

      Perfect feeling. In fact when God gave the law (religion) that was the point…to make us all feel doomed and seek something different. How cool is that? And then you went the perfect distance when you said…

      “The number of times that it crosses my mind to just give up is ever increasing.”

      Go all the way there now – total surrender, desperate dependence on the mystery of His grace, having come to terms with our abject failure, the distance between us and God. We don’t fight giving up, we do give up, you know – cease striving. However religion helps us get there is good.

      It’d be preaching to the choir for me to talk about our becoming dependent upon the rituals or saints to save us. But how cool is the mysterious, miserable, magnificent, and melancholy plainness of every day? With Jesus.

      1. For me, I think the allure of the ritual, the “religion” piece is that it gives it to me fresh. To my ear, liturgy sounds like poetry and invites me into the mystery and beauty of Christ in a new way.

        Much of the evangelical world I grew up in was highly independent and personalized. It was “my faith,” Jesus was my “personal savior.” I like the way some of the older religious traditions make me feel a little less alone, a little more connected to a thousand generations who have been pressing toward the Light in their own flawed, honest ways.

        Not as a way to try to hoist myself up to God in a series of rituals or actions, but as a way to recognize my own desperation and make room for him.

      2. Hi, Neal 🙂 Thanks for the thoughts. Personally and respectfully, I don’t agree with that definition of the word “religion”. I’m not a fan of picking our favorite definition and saying that’s the only one that anybody should use. It’s like telling me that a zebra is black. Yes, there’s black there – but there is also white. A chameleon may be green, but it can also be red. Words don’t always have hard and fast definitions that we can nail down and proclaim as “right”. Christianity is a religion. Period. We believe that SALVATION is through Jesus Christ, and that no amount of religious practice will result in salvation outside of faith in Christ, but those are RELIGIOUS beliefs. I don’t see anything so evil about that 🙂

        1. Thanks for the happy faces. I get your heart and completely agree, especially about words and their definitions. My heart with Jesus is settled, so my eye is on those whose hearts are not settled. The world I live in is so confused by those things some (you and Addie, perhaps) are finding refreshing. You have a base, a foundation, so springing from it with new expressions is beneficial, while for those without the same foundation, it could, in fact, be deceptive, or at least empty and falling short. The rituals and works, for those who’ve never found Jesus in grace, by faith, leaves them short of Him and perishing. I can give you a list of names of real people, hundreds of them actually, who are in such a condition and my heart breaks for them since they have settled for religion and not yet found the real thing.

          1. Loved this, Neal. If we begin from grace, those added bits of ritual can help expand and deepen. But if we try to make the rituals The Thing, we come up empty every time.

          2. There’s a ton more that I’d like to take the time to say, but words fail me and I’m behind on a bunch of stuff like crazy 🙁

            I guess my point here is that SOMETIMES I think the only way to maintain our sanity and the integrity of said “relationship” is by virtually being ritualistic and allowing things that saints over the years have written and “established” to minister to us in our own inability to properly pray and worship. By no means can the religious acts replace the intimate connection with the Saviour, but in the dark night of the soul, my experience tells me that it is better to cling to the Saviour with the assistance of others than to fall into the pit alone. By no means are religious acts valid for salvation, but I believe they are often sources of hope and intimacy for those who already believe.

  2. I grew up believing there were only two kinds of people: Lutherans and Catholics. We were Lutheran Brethren, so we escaped the boring, hollow liturgies of both but still had to suffer through certain hymns and responsive readings; there was a point in my life when I couldn’t wait to shake it all away for something more relevant. I didn’t know what to do with my Catholic friends because they were more about the ritual than the heart, or at least that’s what was insinuated.

    Now I live surrounded by old Catholic cathedrals, mostly unused, that leave me breathless in the same way they leave others cold. I been slowly waking up to the beauty of the ritual, the discipline, the sacred, the old. We all have so much to learn from each other.

  3. The old “my strain of Christianity is better than your strain of Christianity” argument always makes me think of the “follow the shoe / follow the gourd” scene in Monty Python’s “The Life Of Brian.”

    One person’s heresy is another person’s orthodoxy.

    Personally, I was raised Catholic, but I gave it up for Lent one year.

    1. Laughed out loud at your last line, Dave. (And I’m ashamed to say I’ve never seen Monty Python — I know, I know — but I’m sure it’s an apt metaphor.)

  4. At our Bible & Beer group last week we talked about “church”—what it means in a lowercase and capital C sense, corporately and personally, and why we bother at all. It was interesting to discover that almost everyone, as a young adult, had sought out a church experience that was very different from the one they grew up with. I think that’s telling. It’s not just rebellion, or abandoning the “wrong” for the “right,” it’s about wanting to see the whole picture, taste the entire meal.

    Also, I completely get this: “What I wanted most in those days was an intermediary. I wanted to sit in a confessional and have someone else speak to God on my behalf.”

    1. Can I come to your Bible and beer group? Will you mock me if I have Pinot instead? Such an interesting insight–I love this idea of “tasting the entire meal.” Lovely.

  5. This is so true. As with so many things it’s both-and, not either-or.

    Have you read “Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail” by Robert Weber or “Facing East” by Frederica Matthewes-Greend? Those are two (of many) books my wife and I devoured when we went through a similar transition/hunger for depth and liturgy and connectedness that we weren’t finding in evangelicalism.

    Yet as you note so wisely, at the same time there were cradle catholics and orthodox and mainline episcopalians, who were passing us in the opposite lanes of the spiritual highway, ecstatic to encounter the evangelicalism that we were so weary of because they were tired of (what seemed to them to be) rote liturgy unconnected to their real, everyday life and saying things like “I never knew religion had any kind of personal dimension to it” or “when I talked about this oppressive sense of personal guilt and responsibility that I had, all the priest told me was to lighten up or to go to counseling or do more penance – I never heard about grace and personal forgiveness of sin.” Both-and is almost always better than either-or.

    1. Thanks for the book recommendations, Karl! I’ll have to add them to the giant list. 🙂 Love this idea of passing one another on the highway and the truth of “both-and.”

  6. Wow. Brilliant post, thank you.

    For me, I still cringe at the word ‘religion’ and I also would define it as the above commenter does, as ‘man trying to reach God’.

    I related to your lonely, lonely experience of being the only depressed one in a field of happy clappies. I think your analogy of marriage is supremely helpful. Relationship rather than religion is still the most helpful descriptor for both marriage and faith, but there are times when the feeling isn’t there and the communication is failing, and you need those daily rituals to keep things ticking over until the feelings and communication return. For marriage, you need to carry on sleeping in the same bed, eating together, pushing through the misunderstandings and awkward silences until things loosen up and gel again, and the feelings of love return through doing the acts of love. For faith, the disciplines, the rituals are (for me) those things that keep you going – reading the Bible when it seems like nonsense, listening to worship songs because I can’t sing them, prayer without words because I can’t formulate them.

    1. Thanks Tanya! I love how you expanded on the marriage analogy. “Pushing through the misunderstandings and awkward silences…” Beautiful and apt description of what it sometimes is like in a faith journey, in ANY relationship, including the one with Christ.

  7. Love this post, Addie. Growing up semi-Catholic, I was always so confused as to why Catholic, to many, was not synonymous with Christian. I swung the “other” way, just like the person you alluded to in your post. Since going to both polarities (or so it seems), I am searching for where I belong. Keep posting; love reading your blog!

    1. Thanks so much Carolyn. I empathize with the “searching for where I belong” business in a religious landscape of so much polarity. Thankful for the way the internet helps us find those stuck in the same place. 🙂

  8. It is so interesting how we evolve; how our lives take shape…I was that girl in school who told her Catholic boyfriend (who eventually became my husband despite me) that he was going to hell because he was Catholic and really didn’t believe in Jesus…..and now 17 years later, I am craving liturgy and sacred texts, saints and old hymns…..

    Beautifully written….having both-religion and relationship-that’s possible, right???

  9. Words straight from my chest, Addie. Love this: “…faith is like this, spiraling round and round to the hidden heart of God.”

    Oh, and I’m sure when I was interviewed for See You at the Pole, I probably said the exact same thing about Catholics. (I’m sure we had the same life.)

  10. This is exactly what I needed to read today. There are times when I crave the comfort and familiarity of religion, where I feel the need to pray a long-ago written prayer or hold a cross in my hand for comfort. And there are days when all I want is the joy of relationship. Why is it so hard to find a balance between the two?

  11. This is so refreshing. I was raised evangelical also, and also went through a period of believing that Catholics were in the same bag as everyone else who believed differently than I did – not saved, and headed for hell in a handbasket.

    Thank God he cares more for who we are and how we find and listen to him than what we believe.

  12. I’m imposing ashes tonight in our service. I first did so only three or four years ago. Having never even seen it done, let alone felt the spiritual smudge quite that way, I was made nearly breathless by the death sentence we pastors pronounce on Ash Wednesday. “Remember, from dust you came, and to dust you will return.” This year, at the advice of an Anglican friend, I will add the phrase, “Repent, and believe the good news.”

    1. I think it’s so cool that you did that, Lee. I went to 8am mass with my neighbor because I wanted to experience it myself. I love the phrase you added to it, and this idea of taking the old sacred traditions that connect us to each other and adding something of our own to them.

  13. I do think it is about relationships but relationships need a frame work to operate within if they are going to be strong and long term. The beauty of relationships; the interaction, the newness, the loyalty, the honesty, and more make them so worthwhile but within them are wrecks that threaten them and the wrecks must be cleaned up if they are to go on. The frame work is what provides structure to how we need to handle the good, the bad, and the ugly in relationships so that they can continue to bless one another.

  14. LOVE this.

    I shall never forget, though it was ~18 years ago now, a sermon that David Johnson preached during my brief time attending Church of the Open Door. I can’t remember which text he used, but he talked about how some Christians worship through liturgy, and far from that being an empty thing, it is rich with meaning for them. Others are more into experiencing the Holy Spirit like a mighty rushing wind. Some find their highest good in studying the Scripture. Others focus on seeing Jesus through the eyes of the poor. The point of the passage (whatever it was) is that one group should not look down on the other. And, Johnson opined, sometimes…the liturgists could use a little mighty rushing wind. Sometimes people need to put down their Bibles and experience serving Jesus by serving the poor. (“If you’ve done it unto the least of these my brethren, you’ve done it unto me” and all.) So SO good.

  15. I love the picture you paint here and at the end of your book, of our “faith journey” being like a spiral into the center, the heart of the thing, rather than the more familiar analogy of a road. How many times have I been cautioned not to go from one ditch to another on this road, paralyzed with fear that I’ll overreact to the excesses of something that hurt me and end up just as stuck only in the opposite ditch. Liturgy instead of speaking in tongues. Intellectual discussion instead of emotional display. Whatever it is that my soul craves. The road implies one right direction. One straight line. Right and wrong. What a new and beautiful thought maybe it isn’t a road at all, but swinging and spiraling in and out getting closer and closer to the truth.

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