Friday, June 10, 2011

Personal Spirituality or Organized Religion?

I'm a big Al Kooper fan. Who's Al Kooper? He's just the guy who defined Bob Dylan's sound on the song "Like a Rolling Stone” with his signature Hammond organ riff (he also plays guitar and other instruments). He's also the guy who founded Blood, Sweat and Tears (but left the group after their first album, "Child Is Father to the Man”).

Al also played many concerts and recording projects with Michael Bloomfield, whose guitar playing influenced a generation of up and coming guitarists, including Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, you-name-’em. Okay, enough bio info…I’m a BIG Al Kooper fan...can you tell?

Al wrote a song that expresses his own take on faith, spirituality and religion, "Living In My Own Religion." I think it reflects the attitude of many people today concerning "organized religion". Here are some of the lyrics:

I wish that I could put into words
How much you mean to me
And I wish that I could tell you
How much you have helped me
To live my life so unselfishly, Lord
My parents raised me up
To always live inside your shadow
But I must admit there were times
Some times when I would stray

But now I'm living in my own religion
And it's there that I shall always stay…

My friends may call me up on Sunday morning, saying:
“Come along with us to church & we will pray...”
No no you see I'm already in my House of Worship
And it is there I believe I'll always stay
So take me as I am
With my love of God intact
And I will serve you Lord
Til I've sung my last song
I will praise you every morning
And I will thank you God each night
And though some may scorn me
We both know just where I belong
My house will always be my church
You know my temple is my mind
And I will worship You while others misunderstand

Cause I'm living in my own religion
That's what I'm doin' now ... etc.

Living In My Own Religion by Al Kooper. Lyrics ©2001 Rekooped Music (BMI). All rights reserved.

I can't fault Al for having his own personal faith, which he describes with sincerity and beauty in the song. He expresses a true longing for and passion for God. Many people today resonate with this, they hunger for this.

His faith is genuine. But as much as I respect that, I have to also observe, he's not describing Christianity (and to be fair to Mr. Kooper, he never claims to be). Every one is entitled to their own religious views, but too many today think this is compatible with Christian faith. It isn't.

Christianity is very different from a private, personal spirituality. The practice of Christian faith, being a disciple or follower of Jesus Christ - requires group participation; it's not a solo project. Jesus never intended for anyone to live cut off from community; the church is called 'the body of Christ' throughout the New Testament. So we start with connection to Jesus as our "head". Jesus calls the church to fulfill the mission first commissioned to another community, Israel, God's people in the Old Testament (or old covenant).

Here's a statement from the old (pre-1968) Methodist Service of Christian Baptism that clearly defines the importance of the church:

The church is of God,
and will be preserved to the end of time,
for the conduct of worship
and the due administration of God’s Word and Sacraments,
for the maintenance of Christian fellowship and discipline,
the edification of believers
and the conversion of the world.
All, of every age and station,
stand in need of the means of grace
which the church alone supplies.

Christianity is not a solo performance. The only way we can fully engage and connect with God is to engage and connect with other human beings. Just as we are born physically into families, which nurture and shape us, we are born spiritually into a family to be nurtured and shaped into followers of Jesus Christ.

As the above paragraph from the Service of Baptism says, nurture and growth happen as we engage with God's "means of grace" - worship, God's Word and Sacraments, fellowship and spiritual disciplines. These are disciplines we practice both individually and corporately - and God's grace is experienced in meaningful ways through both private and public disciplines. 

Here's another important biblical principle: Al doesn’t just need the church; the church needs Al, and his gifts (and every person’s gifts)! God, the Holy Spirit gives each believer gifts to serve the body of Christ. When we don’t get connected, we miss the opportunity to use our gifts to serve the mission of Christ through his chosen “instrument”, the church. We miss the blessing and growth that comes from serving, and others miss the blessing of our serving them with our gifts.

Solo instrumental music is beautiful, so is a solo vocal performance. But the performance becomes so much more powerful when we add other instruments, or a whole choir of voices. In a worship music setting, when we observe the group interaction, it’s much more likely that God will receive the glory than when we’re focused on an individual soloist's performance.

That's why I always end these blogs with the phrase, "stay connected". Connection is Christian faith in action through interaction. 

I hope to see you this Sunday in worship (unless you're a member of another church, then be there this Sunday!). God's grace will meet you in that corporate setting, to connect you with God and others. Your life as a disciple of Jesus will advance and become more significant and meaningful because you worshiped with others.

Because this isn't just your or my own spirituality, "my own religion" as Al sings. It's the faith that has been proclaimed, nurtured and passed down through the ages by the church, the body of Christ, encouraging and serving every generation in his name!

Stay connected,

Pastor Mike