In my Junior Year at South Catholic High School, I won the Religion Award. That year I scored in the 99th percentile for all religious studies. I won a lot of kudos from Sister Marguerite and Father O'Keefe, our school principal.
On top of that, I was the Head Altar Boy at Saint James Parish, my Episcopalian home church. My life outside of the classroom (and the altar) was quite different than what my religious prowess seemed to demonstrate. I'm not saying I was into anything crazy. I was green, and too afraid to do anything really stupid.
But I was caught up in the regular high-school dramas of partying, trying to appear older than I was, and doing stuff I later told my own kids not to.
Put it this way, I was way more religious around Father O'Keefe than I was hanging out with my homies. You know who you are.
I guess you could call me a religious hypocrite. I towed the pious line whenever I needed to, but my heart was far from the Lord. In my foolishness, I satisfied myself with a Religion Award, although I had no real relationship with the God of my religion.
What I mean is I could have aced any religion test given that year. I believe I may have answered a question or two incorrectly all semester long and wound up with a 99 instead of a 100 for my final grade.
But if God himself had given the tests, I would have failed miserably. When it came to exercises like loving God and loving my neighbor as I love myself, I was an “F” student. Even my working with disabled children who attended our high school after-care program was done with my own benefit in mind. It was just another tick on my scholastic checklist.
These are the limits of religion. We can all follow a code of conduct—or a textbook—even to the 99th percentile, and still not know God.
It blew me away years later when I read in the Bible that Jesus confronted the same issues in his day. There were all these religious scholars who understood the letter of the law—they would score in the 100th percentile on Biblical knowledge—but they didn’t care at all about people.
Jesus reserved his strongest criticism for these folks. He called them out because they equated holiness with religion. In their math, the guy with the most Religion Awards was the one nearest to God. When, in fact, their religion was their largest barrier from God.
It certainly stopped them from recognizing the Son of God. It barred them from interrupting their ceremonies and traditions to serve their neighbors. They even used it as an excuse not to take care of their aging parents. They preferred the public recognition of donating their money to the temple.
They looked down on ordinary people as “sinners” and therefore unworthy of their care or of God’s love. They eventually condemned and killed Jesus because he showed acceptance and forgiveness to anyone who would ask; especially to seemingly “bad” people.
Religious people are still pushing people away and even killing them in the name of religion. I was glad the day I discovered that my Religion Award was meaningless without love in my heart—love for God and for people.
Jesus didn’t die to give us all a new religion. We do a good enough job of creating our own. Just look at all the things we worship and you’ll easily see it.
Jesus died to set men free from those shiny objects so that we could worship the Father in spirit and truth. And we demonstrate our love for Him by loving each other.
I think we hide behind religion because it’s much easier to earn a Religion Award than it is to reach out to someone who is different from us. It’s more convenient to shout from a distance, than to get up close and personal. Who needs to understand anyone when we already have all the answers?
I wanted to include a picture of my big award with this post. I searched, but couldn’t find it. I remember now that I used it for many years as a prop for one of my sermons about vain religion. I must have misplaced it.
I used to hold it up to the congregation and say, “You’ve got to avoid empty religion like The Plague. It’s a trap. Take it from a guy who got the award. It’s absolutely useless!”
I'm tempted to write a few more paragraphs, but I don’t think I can improve upon than that.
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