Summary: Having a religious heritage can either help us or hinder us in cultivating an authentic relationship with God.
I grew up with no religious heritage at all. As a lot of you know, my childhood was thoroughly secularized.
Although I was baptized as a baby, for the most part I lived in an entirely different universe than religion. My mom and adoptive dad believed that religion had a negative effect in people’s lives, so they did their best to shelter me from religion the way other parents might shelter their kids from violent movies. The only real exception was when my grandmother occasionally took me to church when I was a young child and when my parents attended a Unitarian church briefly when I was in fifth grade. Other than that our family avoided all contact with religion. Since my adoptive dad was an outspoken atheist, atheism became my religion of choice. By the time I’d graduated from high school I was religiously illiterate, had never really read the Bible and had no real idea what churches did. I came into a life changing relationship with Jesus Christ when I was 19 years old through my involvement in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. So when I started attending this church shortly after that my church experience was like a blank slate. This church is really the only church I’ve ever known.
But a few years ago I started learning that I had a religious heritage on my adoptive father’s side of the family. I learned that my great uncle and great grandfather were Methodist preachers who followed the gold rush from Ohio to Southern California, mining and preaching as they went. Then last year I came across a book written by George Peck, who was a Methodist pastor for 57 years in the 1800s.
That kindled a hunger within me to discover my religious heritage, to know my life was part of a larger story. I wanted to know that followers of Jesus Christ generations before me had prayed for my generation. I wanted to know that my ministry was building on a foundation that had been laid by a previous generation.
But I’ve noticed that a lot of people feel very different about their religious heritage. For many people, their childhood recollections of going to church are filled with painful, difficult memories. Whether it’s an intensely controlling pastor who ruled the congregation with a rod of iron or the nuns in parochial school who used physical pain to keep students in line, many people have bad feelings about their religious heritage. Some were turned off by hypocrisy, others by man-made rules, and still others by rituals that didn’t seem to make sense. Some people remember being scolded for asking honest questions or judged for voicing doubts.
And yet still others have positive feelings about their religious heritage. Some people’s earliest memories are of their mom and dad praying with them or reading Bible stories to them. They look back on their involvement in the church with fondness. For these people, walking into a church is like coming home, a place of safety and security.
Our church was founded in 1971, during a time of cultural upheaval in America. Because of that, Life Bible Fellowship Church was in many ways a reaction against religious traditions. Whatever traditional churches embraced we had a tendency to shun. So while traditional churches met in chapels with stained glass, we met in a converted chicken coop, a condemned school house, and eventually here. While traditional churches worshiped to 18th and 19th century hymns led on an organ, we worshipped to 1970s praise choruses strummed on a guitar. While traditional churches put on their Sunday best to come to worship, we dressed casually, telling people to come as they are. While other churches passed an offering, we put out an offering box to receive people’s tithes.
Yet after almost 30 years our non-traditions have become traditions of their own. For those of you who’ve grown up in this church, our non-traditions have become your religious heritage. Time and time again I hear of people who grew up attending this church who move out of the area struggling to find another church just like us. When we pass the offering--as we do occasionally--many people feel uncomfortable because that’s simply not the way we do things around here. Some of us risk become just as ingrained in our new traditions as prior generations were in their old traditions.
Now there’s nothing wrong with having a religious heritage and traditions in our lives. But many of our religious traditions become like a story I once heard about a couple who had been recently married. To impress her new husband, this recent bride decided to bake her family recipe for ham. As she prepared the ham, she cut the ends off, baked it, and then served it to her new husband. Her husband said, "This is a great dinner. I only have one question: Why do you cut the ends of the ham?" The wife answered, "That’s just the way my mom always did it." So the next day she called her mom, and asked her, "Why did you always cut the ends of the ham?" Her mom replied, "Well that’s the way my mom always did it." Still not satisfied with the answer, she called her grandmother and asked her. Her grandmother said, "Well the pan I had was too small for a whole ham, so I had to cut the ends of so it would fit. "That practice that made total sense had become a meaningless family tradition, passed on from generation to generation. If we’re not careful, the traditions of a person’s religious heritage can do that.