Friday, March 11, 2011

The Divine Romance: I Keep Falling In Love With Him, Over & Over Again

Waterloo, Ontario

Good evening. Wherever you are I hope you are doing well on the cusp of another weekend.

Tonight I want to talk about religion and romance and how they often intermingle (in more ways than when someone yells "Oh, God!" in the throes of passion).

The last couple of days I have been re-visiting my past, specifically my important teenage years. During those years I was into everything Christian. I wore Scripture-carrying t-shirts, a wooden cross necklace. I was part of a thriving Christian Students Network (CSN) at my high school (East Elgin Secondary School in Aylmer, Ontario). I went to Sunday School and church every Sunday, and to youth group Bible study on Wednesday night, then a fun youth-group activity on the weekend.
But above all, there was the music. Along with my older brother Dave I listened to almost solely Christian music. There was Christian rock, Christian rap, Christian heavy metal, Christian pop, you name it we listened to it.

And then something funny happened when I became a teenager. My parents enjoyed listening to Southern Gospel music, groups such as The Torchmen and The Nations. But most of all, the Gaithers took hold in our house. If you're not familiar with Bill and Gloria Gaither, they are gospel singer-songwriters who have penned countless popular gospel songs. Years ago they began to put out videos and CD's featuring dozens of Southern Gospel singers.

Although I preferred Christian rock, I began to really enjoy the Gaither videos, a bunch of older people sitting around a piano singing gospel songs. There was something about the feeling in or behind the music that tugged at me. What's more, when we'd go and visit my grandparents, Harry & Betty Vannatter, we'd inevitably end up watching a Gaither video. This is one of my fondest memories. I didn't remember my grandfather being someone who cried, but I specifically remember one day being over at their place and we were sitting on the couch, he and I, watching a Gaither video. The theme of this particular video was Heaven, and as the singers, gospel music legends really, sang about "going home," I looked over and there was my Grandpa crying. I'll never forget it, and it wouldn't surprise me if I was crying too.

So the last couple of days I have found myself digging out a couple of Gaither CD's that I still own and listening to them. And something struck me as I listened to them again. First, it touched a part of me that hadn't been touched in quite a long time. I'm 32 now, but I felt (and feel - I'm listening to it right now in the coffee shop on my Blackberry) like I'm 16 years old again. Secondly, it strikes me how romantic of a view of Jesus that many of the songs have. In many of these songs it seems that Jesus is not only Saviour and Lord, but he is somewhat of a Lover.

This isn't too much of a stretch, considering I grew up being told that we should have a "personal relationship with Jesus," and "Jesus should be #1 in your life." Christian rock songs that I listened to talked of this kind of relationship with Jesus.
It was all very romantic. I thought I was supposed to pretend/believe that Jesus was like a real person in my life, only he was invisible, (which would become problematic later on). I remember in high school english, a good friend of mine doing a presentation about having a relationship with Jesus. She placed a cloth over a table, put down cutlery, plates and glasses and sat down, leaving a spot for Jesus.

Back to the music for a minute. Let me give you a few of the Gaither song titles or lyrics:

"Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, there's just something about that name. Master, Saviour, Jesus, like the fragrance after the rain."

"The longer I serve him the sweeter he grows. The more that I love him more love he bestows. Each day is like heaven, my heart overflows, the longer I serve him the sweeter he grows."

"I am loved, i am loved, I can risk loving you. For the one who knows me best loves me most."

Another couple songs that aren't Gaither tunes:

"I keep falling in love with him over and over and over and over again. He gets sweeter and sweeter as the days go by, oh what a love between my Lord and I, I keep falling in love with him over and over and....you get the point!"

I don't think we can discount how strong of a pull songs like this and beliefs like this have on countless numbers of people. Indeed, as many Christians like to say, "it's not just a religion, it's a relationship."

So why don't I have this kind of a relationship with Jesus anymore? Well, briefly, the first couple of beliefs that I didn't accept anymore were 1) That there was a Hell, and 2) That there was only one way (Jesus) to God. But another problem was this romantic relationship. I tried for years and years having this kind of relationship with Jesus. I would talk to him, on my knees sometimes. I thought I knew what he wanted from reading the Bible and going to church, and I'd find myself endlessly on my knees asking/almost begging for forgiveness when I thought I had offended. But it turned out to be a dysfunctional relationship, because there was one glaring problem: I couldn't see him! And often, he wouldn't answer back! And much of it was based on guilt.

I believe there are other ways to be a Christian and not need to have such a romantic relationship with the person Jesus, but this is how I grew up, and after 20 some-odd years, I had had enough of pretending to have this relationship. I was also bitterly upset by something else that happened.

As I stated previously, I had been taught that I should "make Jesus #1 in my life." I believed that all the way up to going to Bible college. And then I met a girl, someone I really really loved. And see, that was a problem. I started to feel guilty; and I mean hugely guilty, not just a bit of discomfort. You see, I thought that I might be loving this girl more than I was loving Jesus, and that just wouldn't do. I tried to shake off this feeling, but nope, it remained. And thus, my relationship with this girl crashed. It was just another straw in the bale that broke the camel's back for me. I didn't realize this hugely important point: That when we love others, we love God. There wasn't a separation there.

So do I believe today that there is a place for romance in our relationship with God? Yes I do. Personally, the man Jesus does not hold any real romantic notion for me. He is an important figure in my life even now, but I believe he lived and died 2000 years ago. While his spirit lives on as does everyone's when they die, the person is history. Of course I know some reading this will vehemently disagree with me, and that's ok. I also want to say that I know having this kind of emotional relationship with Jesus simply works for many many of my friends and family.

I believe that the Divine Reality, or God, is all about relationship. We experience God when we love others. Love is active and operational, not stagnant or dormant. When we touch our lovers face, when we caress their back, when we kiss their lips, we are experiencing God. And what is God? God is Love.

So it doesn't bother me at all to refer to God in a personal way, as long as I don't pretend that I'm having a human relationship with someone who doesn't exist as a person anymore. I have no problem referring to God as Father or Mother. And I suppose I could refer to God as Lover or Partner, though I prefer Mother these days.

Our relationship with God should never be dull and lifeless, and nor should it be something apart from the rest of life. If viewing God as a Lover helps us do that, then so be it. Amen.