(If you did not read that title in the voice of Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, please go back and read it correctly.) This is a love letter to ancient religion.
Last week, we started our church service by reciting the Jewish Shema. That's all it took to reduce me to tears.
It wasn't the words I was speaking (though I believe them with enormous joy and conviction) that evoked an emotional response, but the act of speaking them.
The physical act of forming the words that so many other believers have formed before me, feeling them on my lips. 33 words that have launched a thousand prayer services and affirmed the faith of millions. As I spoke, I felt connected to the church - the body of Christ - in deep, solid, tangible way, as if we were all holding onto the same thick, heavy rope that runs through time.
I love the rich, ancient tradition of Christianity. I love old hymns, written prayers, the apostle's creed, responsive readings, and prayer positions.
There is beauty in the depth of the Christian faith. The gospel is simple, because God's not hiding, but the story - the whole story - is layered and nuanced and complex. It is epic.
The story of God is like all the best stories: it is most beautiful when it's complete. Sure there are pretty parts, meaningful parts, and you don't have to know the whole story to get the gist, but the more you dig in, the more likely you are to catch the foreshadowing, the allusions, and the symbolism. Everything is illuminated by everything else, and, when you start catching glimpses of "the big picture," it thrills you.
"Oh, so THAT'S why they call Him 'the Lamb.'"
"Oh, so THAT'S why the tabernacle was such a big deal."
"Oh, so THAT'S why we say 'Hosanna.'"
"Christian-ese" is a cheeky term for words that "church people" use that "not-really-church-people" think are weird. Words like: repent, Trinity, sanctification, born again, walking in the flesh, and living by the Spirit. I don't use a lot of Christian-ese because, while theology is hugely important, there's a way to talk about it without making it sound cult-ish to people that didn't grow up in Sunday School. (It's the same reason I choose not to get lost in circular theological debates. Nowhere in Scripture do I see Jesus caring about those things, instead I see him condemning them. An overly-academic or argumentative discussion of things "Christian" is a trap. For believers: a distraction to keep us occupied in our self-involved circles, and for non-believers: a turn-off, because if that's what Christianity is, well, ain't nobody got time fo' dat.
But this is a love letter.
Just because Christianity has a jargon of sorts, and just because there can be a bit of a learning curve, doesn't mean that it's not worth learning - eventually.
"Amen" is more powerful when you know in your heart that it is an expression of agreement and expectant faith - that it can be translated as "So be it!" ("Oh, so THAT'S why we say 'Amen' after prayers, and sing it at the end of the Doxology, and shout it when somebody says something our souls agree with. 'Yes! So be it!'")
On Sunday, after we recited the Shema, we sang a song that contained the phrase "the veil was torn."
I love that, because I happen to know those parts of the story (what the veil is, why it was there in the first place, and what would have happened to someone who tried to sneak behind it), I know what that seemingly cryptic phrase means.
I know that the torn veil speaks of God's desire to be close to me; it speaks of the intimacy I can have with Him. It means that I don't need a translator, an ambassador, or an intermediary to go to God on my behalf. It means He hears me when I pray. It speaks to Jesus's authority; it means that His work on the cross was complete. It means that the forgiveness He offers is complete.
I love that I can sing the phrase "the veil was torn" and all of that wells up in my heart and I am moved by the power and the love of God. I don't need a sermon; I just need a phrase.
Just because something is ancient doesn't mean it's obsolete. Sometimes it means that this ancient thing has stood the test of time; that it is enduring and perpetually relevant because it cuts to the quick of what it means to be human. I believe that Christianity (not the songs we sing, or the hot-button social issues, or the soapboxes, but the Bible and Jesus) is this kind of enduring, perpetually relevant, ancient thing. It connects with us on a level so deep that it doesn't change with the centuries or the cultures.
If the thought of ancient religion makes your eyes roll or your stomach churn, I challenge you: press in a little deeper to the ancient tradition of Christianity. Not the empty orthodoxy or the religious dogmatism, but something really significant and enduring. Try fasting, or memorizing a little piece of scripture, or praying in a new worship posture.
I promise, it won't be long before you feel like you've picked up that steady, heavy rope of faith - and that it is guiding you, grounding you, and connecting you to the great cloud of witnesses who've gone before - leading your right into the presence of God.