I was fairly religious as a child. I grew up in the “Bible Belt”. True to my Baptist roots, I went through the ritual they refer to as “being saved” at the age of 12. Like many, I drifted away from the church during high school and college, but after a somewhat traumatic personal experience, I (as the Baptists would say) “re-dedicated my life to Christ” while in college. I earned a Bachelor’s degree from Hannibal LaGrange College and then a Masters degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, pastoring churches in Missouri and Texas along the way. I attended Southwestern Seminary before the conservatives took over in the mid 90s. At the time, Southwestern was the largest Protestant seminary in the world. Before this rather hostile takeover, students were encouraged to think freely and ask hard questions - which I did. As a pastor, I continued to ask hard questions, and I struggled with much of what I saw behind the scenes. The theological inconsistencies, the judgmental attitudes, the institutional politics and the hypocrisy of people in general became problematic, to say the least. I soon became a pastor with more questions than answers. One of the first things I questioned was why most of the church’s money stayed inside the church to maintain the institution, rather than going outside the church to help the poor. Spending most of our money on institutional maintenance, as most churches do, seemed very inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. A wise old minister made an astute observation years ago. He quoted one of the first disciples of Jesus who said to a poor cripple man, “Silver and gold have I none, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus, stand up and walk.” The minister went on to remark that, today, the church can no longer say to a cripple man, “stand up and walk,” but it does have plenty of silver and gold. Unfortunately, most of that “silver and gold” stays in the church, and that became an issue for me. If we know anything at all about Jesus and his first followers, we know that sharing one’s possessions with the poor was a major priority. According to the Bible, Jesus instructed his first followers to sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor. They actually tried something like that in the first years following his death. Obviously, most modern churches have conveniently overlooked this major part of Jesus’ teachings – but I couldn’t. Not only did I question the church’s relationship with money, I also questioned the whole idea of creating a place where people could come together for a couple of hours on Sunday morning to feel good. Don’t misunderstand. There’s nothing wrong with that, and a lot of people need that. The problem is, there’s nothing about that in the teachings of Jesus. Yet, for most Christians, that is the primary way they follow Jesus – they “go to church”. It gradually became clear to me that my main job was to coordinate, orchestrate and facilitate this Sunday morning gathering. People expected a pleasant atmosphere, good music, an interesting sermon and childcare. Instead of helping people become more like Jesus, I ended up being a marketeer, a fundraiser and an entertainer. Again, there’s nothing wrong with any of that, as long as you call it what it is and don’t equate it with following Jesus. Obviously, as a minister, I did other things which were important. Occasionally, I was able to help people financially using a small fund set aside for that purpose. I did a lot of counseling. I conducted funerals and weddings. I tried to be there for my parishioners during times of crisis. Thankfully, seminary gave me the basic skills I needed to help people in need; but that role was always overshadowed by administrative duties and the need to increase attendance on Sunday morning. I finally conceded that this whole enterprise we call “church” had little to do with the primary teachings of Jesus, who obviously never envisioned the scenario that plays out in most churches every Sunday morning. Because of this and numerous other inconsistencies, I knew I could no longer make my living as a Baptist minister. I no longer believed what I was being paid to promote and defend. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just wasn’t what it claimed to be. Feeling extremely frustrated - even exploited in some ways by the institution - and after a lot of painful soul searching, I finally decided to resign from the church. It was a risky move, but the only path I could follow in good conscience. My family and I were more fortunate than many who take similar risks in that I soon found another way to make a living. During my years as a pastor, it had become absolutely clear to me that “God” was far bigger than my conservative, evangelical theology. After leaving my Baptist roots, I started exploring more liberal branches of Christianity. The differences were refreshing and even healing to some degree; but even in those larger, more inclusive tents, “God” was still too small. I continued to serve other churches in various ways, met many intriguing people and made wonderful new friends. Still, I kept finding myself disenchanted with institutional Christianity. I kept finding as much, if not more, honesty and truth outside the church than inside. But it was hard to let go of something I had given so much of my life to. It was hard to leave things that were familiar and safe. And, what if I was wrong? I had been assured by more than one that I was “going to hell” for forsaking my evangelical roots. For me, much of the difficulty was separating Jesus from the religion that bears his name. I had spent so much of my life studying, trusting, following and believing in Jesus. It may sound silly to those outside the church, but I had fallen in love with Jesus. There was no doubt in my mind, and I am still convinced, that his teachings changed my life for the better. But who was Jesus? I’ll discuss this in more detail later, but I finally realized that being a Christian and going to church was not the same thing as following Jesus. Ultimately, I was able to let go of the church’s Jesus. I discovered a far more authentic Jesus outside the church. With Martin Luther King, I could finally declare, “Free at last, free at last - thank God almighty I’m free at last.” The Jesus outside the church was not threatened by science, history, other religions, psychology or philosophy. The Jesus outside the church was far less judgmental than the church’s Jesus. The Jesus outside the church was free from the selfish and exploitive fear mongering that dominated the church’s Jesus. Conservative Muslims, Jews and Buddhists would do well to re-examine traditional versions of their respective founders. Religion always betrays its founders and makes them less free. Mohammed, Abraham, Moses, Buddha and Jesus were all about setting people free from religion, not creating new ones. They were a threat to the religions and the politicians of their day. Why do subsequent generations keep returning to the religious and political slavery their forefathers left behind? In the years that followed, I continued exploring philosophy, psychology and various branches of science. I began to meditate regularly and pursue a simpler lifestyle. I gradually broke free from the religious brainwashing that had dominated my life for so long. Ultimately, I reached a place where divisions between secular and sacred, religious and non-religious, spiritual and natural no longer made sense. I started seeing everything as “sacred”. I realized that everything and everyone deserve honor and respect. Everyone and everything belongs. Unfortunately, humans are still starting churches and building temples - still judging and dividing. “God is here, but not there”. “God is with us, but not with them”. I’m reminded of a verse in the Bible, “the Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands. Heaven is God’s throne, and the earth is God’s footstool.” As an ancient Taoist wrote, “The God that can be named is not God.” Whatever mystery the name “God” tries to point to - that mystery is far bigger than all our churches, temples and religions. But people keep starting, building and promoting churches and temples, especially in America. For me and millions of others, religion may have had some value - I’m not sure. I think the bad in religion always outweighs the good. John Lennon was probably right to imagine “no religion, too.” Either way, there comes a time when we need to move on. People still ask me today, “Where do you go to church?” I often smile and say, “I graduated.” There comes a time when we need to wake up, break free and move on from the division, the hypocrisy and the exploitation that religion so often embodies.