Thursday, January 19, 2012

Thank you, Jeff Bethke

This video has been making the media rounds lately - it's by a young man, Jeff Bethke, who says he loves Jesus but hates religion. Given my views on being religious, you may be surprised to know that I actually kind of liked this video.

I don't agree with huge parts of it, such as the silly notion that Jesus came to abolish religion (and here's an excellent defense of why not). But in general, Jeff Bethke makes a very important point that should cause us Christians to sit up and take notice. You see, I've met so-called "Christians" who practice a sort of rigid, legalistic piety, yet lack any kind of compassion for their fellow man. I've seen people forget that it is God, not we, who is in charge of doing the judging. And, I'm ashamed to admit, I've seen myself act like that kind of person.

When I was in college, I knew a girl who I quickly came to dislike. She was a real party girl, going out and getting drunk seemingly every night, and never attending church. Although I don't think I ever spoke to her, I privately judged her rather harshly.

Years later, this girl and I happened to attend a Campus Ministry retreat at the same time. I was surprised when I saw her name on the list, because it seemed unlikely to me that she would be interested in practicing her religion.

She changed my life that weekend. Without going into too many details, I discovered that her mother had died very suddenly only a week before I met her. What I had interpreted as shameless behavior was this poor girl's attempt to dull the pain she was feeling. All the time that I was judging her, she was privately bearing a dark and heavy grief, and reacting to it in the only way she knew how. She needed understanding and friendship, not judgment and condemnation. When I realized the truth, I was in shock, and I don't think I've ever felt more ashamed of myself.

Mother Teresa once said, "If you judge a person, you have no time to love them." How easy it is to forget! When we focus too much on the rules and regulations of our religion, we easily fall into the trap of judging how other people measure up, when really we should only ever think about how we measure up. We have to remind ourselves again and again that it is God's place, not ours, to judge.

What is the purpose of our religion, after all? It is first and foremost about love. Our God is Love. The world will know that we are Christians by our love - not by whether we eat meat on Fridays, wear a scapular, or can quote from the Catechism. I am reminded of Therese of Lisieux, who was glad she never had time to read serious books of theology because "They would only have got in the way." Knowing doctrine matters too, of course, and has its place. But when we focus on those things at the expense of loving other people, we miss the whole point of our faith. We emphasize the letter of the law and ignore its spirit.

Teresa of Avila liked to remind her followers that "Christ has no body now on earth but yours; No hands, no feet on earth but yours." Put in a more modern light, we are Christ's PR team. What kind of a job are we doing at representing Him if this is what people think of religion?

That's why I liked this video, and am grateful to Jeff Bethke for making it. I don't hate religion; in fact, I love it. I don't think Jesus came to abolish religion; in fact, I think Christ established the Catholic faith to carry on His work here on earth. But I think those of us who devoutly practice a religion can use these little reminders to live with love and not with legalism. Thank you, Jeff Bethke, for helping us all to wake up a little bit.

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