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Something very ordinary but significant happened at Grace’s Sunday night gathering. We sang John Lennon’s Imagine boldly and prayerfully, if a little out of tune. This might not seem like much. Someone suggested we sing Imagine in light of the global terrorist attacks. It seemed right. We had just finished packing toiletry bags for the homeless, and we had shared bread and cup. Then, we found the lyrics to Imagine on our smart phones and began to sing, soulfully. Without hesitation, we sang the second verse:
Imagine there's no countries.
It isn't hard to do.
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too.
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...
Something in my heart broke open as we sang the words, “no religion.” I wondered how many “religious” organizations have sung these words with hope and expectation. For us there was no dissonance, just boundless hope for a peaceful world no longer divided by religion.
I don’t think of myself as a religious person (ironic, huh?). I also don’t think of myself as a spiritual person. I no longer fit into the church camp or the SBNR (spiritual but not religious) camp that sociologists have been tracking for years. If asked what I am, I might answer “a follower of Jesus.” But even that answer is too specific. I am mostly a follower of Jesus because I was born a white westerner. If I were to search for some other word I would chose faithful. Simply faithful.
What’s the difference between being faithful and being religious? Faith is a way of life, not adherence to a prescribed set of beliefs. Faith is a way of being in the world, not a way of belonging to a tribe. Religion provides you with a particular view of the world, determined by the religion to which you ascribe. Faith acknowledges all religious practices, whereas religions often deny the legitimacy of other people’s faith. When John Lennon wrote the words “and no religion too,” he wasn’t thinking of those who have a deep sense of the sacred, or those who love every person as a child of God, or those who serve the less fortunate as they would serve Jesus. He was thinking of angry, divisive, exclusive religion.
When I was in Seminary surrounded by Christians, I quickly realized I did not belong. Funny, considering I am a self-identified “lower c” christian who even believes in the resurrection (go figure!). Truth be told, I have much more in common with a progressive Muslim, Buddhist-Baptist (yes, I know one), and a volunteering agnostic, than I do with an orthodox Christian who is bent out of shape about points of doctrine or particular passages in the Bible. That sort of closed-mindedness builds walls, not bridges. Divisions, not faith, is what John Lennon critiqued in his beautiful song.
I stand in solidarity with my inclusive Muslim brothers and sisters across the globe who are Muslim for the same reason I am christian: it is the faith they were born into. As adults, they have embraced the faith of their culture, but not in a way that separates them from others. Rather their Muslim faith offers meaning and purpose to their lives, as my christian faith offers meaning and purpose to my life. Our differing faiths do not separate us, they unite us.
Terrorism, crusades, persecution, bigotry, violence and exclusion in the name of religion—these are not the result of faith. They are the narrow, hateful behavior of people who have more allegiance to tribe than God, of people who care more about being right than being kind. As an ordained minister and practicing christian, I yearn for the day when there’s no religion anywhere, but faith everywhere. Until then I will continue to sing, no religion, imagining with John Lennon a world where religion does not divide, but instead faith unites.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.