By Steve Lower
I have opinions about most everything. Here I am going to explain my opinions on religion and God.
I am going to separate God from organized religion, because to me they are not the same thing. God is the creator of the universe and humankind; organized religion (i.e., churches) is a creation of humankind. Personally I consider a belief in God to be spiritual while the church is the religion.
My late wife Kathy and I were both (and I still am) spiritual people, and we both had serious problems with organized religion. She was raised in the Episcopal Church, which has rites similar to those in to the Catholic Church, while I was raised in the Lutheran Church. When I say, “raised” in the churches I don’t necessarily mean it was a family affair; for both of us religion was a personal decision. Kathy was spiritual and believed in God from an early age, and was ridiculed my members of her family for her beliefs. My faith came a little later, and while my family stated a belief in God there was no effort to worship or even pray as a family.
Before Kathy and I met she had attended services at various churches, making the change from the Episcopal Church to more fundamentalist churches. Her growing reservations with organized religion developed as a young woman after seeing church leaders trying more to control her and other congregation members rather than teach the gospel. Such things as having to wear an ankle-length skirt all the time (in church and out) or never cutting your hair seemed to her to have no place in church. My growing reservations started as a teenager due to the things I saw in my Lutheran church that suggested some people did not live the life they preached.
The problem with organized religions is that people, some of whom obviously don’t believe in what they are doing, run churches. Religion, whether Christian or otherwise, has long been used to exert political power. The Christian era is full of wars that have been fought over religious ideals, even though all sides were praying to the same God. Treasures have been amassed at the expense of the poor. Whether any of these religious leaders past or present believed in God in the beginning and in what they were preaching to laypeople is hard to say, but if they had they must have been seduced by the power that was entrusted to them, the power that they weighed over others.
Once Kathy and I were married in 1977 we tried various churches together, mostly after we had moved to Oklahoma City in 1979. We generally didn’t stay with one church very long because we always saw the same thing – the churches were more interested in things other than the supposed purpose of the church, leading the congregation in the worship of God and the teaching of His word. Too often the accouterments of a particular church were obviously more important than the teaching of God’s word.
And there are so many examples of clergy who must not believe what they are preaching, must not believe in God’s word and the Ten Commandments. Not much has changed since the Middle Ages when clergy and wealthy individuals could buy indulgences and absolution from sins from the church, whereas the common people would be doomed to hell for committing the same sins. While it was then, as it still is, against the rules of the Catholic Church for priests to marry, they could buy an indulgence to keep a concubine in their quarters. And given the ongoing scandal today of so many Catholic priests whom like to molest young boys, how could any of these clergy really believe in what they preach to the common people? How could they demand that the common people live their lives according to the rules of the church if they themselves do not? The clergy have a lot of power both within their churches and in the community, and they don’t always use that power in the way that it was intended.
One blatant example from Kathy and my own experience was an Assembly of God church we attended in Oklahoma City for a while in the early 1980’s. One Sunday a nationally renowned evangelist was the guest minister at this church. Soon after he turned out to be the same man who had introduced Jim Baker to the “secretary” (who had another line of work on the side) for a clandestine tryst in a hotel room. Of course, at that time Jim Baker was married to Tammy Fay Baker and they still had their television ministry empire. It became obvious that this visiting evangelist didn’t believe what he was preaching; otherwise he wouldn’t have done what he did. Likewise, Jim Baker wouldn’t have cheated on his wife like he did either. We all make mistakes in life because we are all human, clergy and lay people alike. But mistakes that are repeated time and again as a pattern of behavior are a different matter.
Beyond the misbehaving of the clergy there’s also the problem of power struggles among factions within any given church. The official viewpoint of the church can change for the entire congregation if a new faction gains control, even though it may not represent the beliefs of the congregation as a whole. While such power struggles are common in any kind of organization, whether religious or secular, you’d think that the leaders of a church would rise above base human nature for the good of the congregation, but often don’t. I’ve known people who had attended the same church for many years only to feel compelled to leave because the religious viewpoint of the leaders had changed when a new faction gained control.
Even if some clergy and others do not believe that God exists, do not believe that there is a heaven and a hell, and that there is no evil – Satan and his followers - in this world, I have no doubt of God’s existence, and of heaven and hell. A number of things have happened to me during my life that have proved undeniably the existence of God. And heaven is where I intend to be reunited with Kathy.
Once I was by myself after Kathy’s death in June 2001 I did make an attempt to go to church with friends so I wouldn’t have to worship alone. Starting on Easter Sunday 2002 I attended an Assembly of God church near Stillwater, Oklahoma for several weeks. At first the church excited me, but the usual disillusionment soon set in. I soon found the same problems that Kathy and I had encountered together in past searches for a church we liked. The minister talked much too much about money, and how they were building this bigger, newer church, and what it is worth. I discovered talking to others that the minister wanted the church tithes from members even if the member family was stretched financially – income to the church, with its building program, was more important than the welfare of the family.
As happens much too often in organized religions the pursuit of ever-increasing amounts of money necessary to support the structural and numerical growth of the ministry comes at the expense of the real reason for the church – the worship of God. The final blow to my trust in this church came when a woman congregation member was chastised by the minister for not blindly obeying her husband in all things; she had some serious issues with the way her husband was treating her, issues that other people recognized as valid. I realized then that the minister was not following the true teachings of the God as put forth in the Bible. I quit attending that church.
Another incident of note in this particular church was that during the time I was attending services in 2002 the former youth minister was serving time in prison for having sexual relations with both an eleven-year old and a fifteen-year old girl during the same period of time. This man was married with children of his own. While neither this church itself nor the church minister are at fault for what happened, it demonstrates that one of the ministers, a person in power, obviously did not believe in God or His word or in what the youth minister was himself teaching others. During the same period of time that he was preaching God’s word and fulfilling his duties as a minister in this church he was also having sexual relations with these young girls.
If he had believed in God he wouldn’t have done what he did because he’d know that he was incurring God’s wrath for his actions and he’d know the penalty that God would have waiting for him. To me this was a classic example of the person who worships God in church on Sunday, then lies and cheats and, in this case, sleeps with young girls for the next six days.
Anyway, Kathy and I both realized that if you really want to worship God, to truly learn God’s word, you had to get away from organized religions. That was when we decided to go our own way and worship God ourselves, in our own way, on a one-to-one basis. Our home was our church. And if we wanted to study God’s word with others, a small group of like-minded people, who all have the same goals of learning and understanding God’s word, is the best way to worship Him. And I am still that way now.
The discussion on religion reminded me of another subject – listening to God. Unbelievers won’t understand this, but I know that many fellow believers will.
At the risk of being branded a “kook” at best or crazy at worst I’ll state for the record that I “listen” and pay heed to what God and His angels tell me. This does not mean that I hear voices; rather, it’s the feeling you get, a premonition if you will, when you are “told” that a car is about to pull out in front of you, giving you the split second necessary to prepare for it. It’s what some people would call a “sixth sense.” This is listening to the voice of God and his angels, to His warnings, His recommendations, and the “God is my co-pilot” phenomena. I know when God is trying to talk to me, trying to convince me of something, and I learned a long time ago to pay heed to these advisories from God. Kathy was also a form believer in listening to God because she, too, had a lot of experiences during her life that told her that God and His angels were with her.