I attended a dinner party with some of my co-workers two weeks ago. One asked me about the book I was writing and I told her: it’s a series of seven fantasy novels using imagery drawn from The Bible. She asked me if I was religious and I said no. She then expressed surprise at the difficulty at the research involved with such an undertaking when I wasn’t religious. I tried to express that, while I have no religious label I can apply to my beliefs, I have a vibrant spiritual life, but it wasn’t something I could put into words and the conversation shifted. That conversation got me thinking about our desire to understand our fellow human beings and how labels help or hinder that process.

In my opinion, labels hinder the process. I can say “I’m a Christian” but that word carries with it so many different belief systems and countless examples of mistreatment and hatred, old and new. Not that I wish to say that because some Christians have not positively represented Jesus’ character that all fail to do so. “Christian”, while accurate, doesn’t describe all I am and all I believe. “Christian” is broken down into different denominations like Methodist, Lutheran, Charismatic, Pentecostal, etc: perhaps to negate confusion but, for me, it has the opposite affect. I never belonged to a denomination when I attended Church in the modern understanding of the word: services on Sunday, sometimes Wednesdays, being involved in the choir, etc, so none of those labels have ever applied to me. The dinner party made me ask myself; how do I describe what I believe when someone asks me? When I used to internet date (yes, I had dating profiles-don’t ask) there was a box I could check to describe myself as “Spiritual but not Religious”. What does that mean? I suppose I could use it, if applying a label to myself is absolutely necessary, but what does it really say?

It’s been ten years since my foot was first placed on my current life path. I was doing everything right, I thought. I was heavily involved in a Church. I attended at least two services a week, I adopted the proper worship postures during the half hour or so devoted to worship before the sermon, I listened to the sermon attentively, took notes, studied, and served the church in whatever capacity I could. Why then was I so miserable? I constantly felt like I was falling short of the Glory of God, that there was some deep character flaw the kept me from living the successful Christian life like all those around me.

I’m simplifying, I know. I’m sure no one’s life was as perfect as it looked but I can’t deny Church seemed to work for them in a way it didn’t for me. I was desperate to stop feeling despondent and, in an attempt to drum up the joy I was supposed to be experiencing, I listened to as many teaching tapes I could get my hands on. Good old Joyce Meyer: I was listening to one of her teachings-so long ago I can’t remember which one-and she said something that caught my attention. She was describing everything I felt and then she said; “if God is telling you to leave your Church, listen.” Could that be it? Was it okay to leave my Church?

Everything I’d been taught said it wasn’t. If I didn’t belong to a Church I was forsaking the assembly, a big no no. No Church meant I didn’t tithe and was thus robbing God, another big no no. Maybe I could leave my current Church but find another one. I was sure that was what God was telling me. I began attending another Church and met wonderful people whom I liked and enjoyed being around, attended home bible studies where I did learn a few new things, and started auditioning for the choir. In less then three months the uncomfortable, depressed feeling returned. I hung on for a year and then one day couldn’t take it anymore. I walked out of the Church and never returned.

I attended one Church after that and my ears bled after the ‘worship’ service. Since I’d need a healing line to restore my hearing if I attended too often, and healing lines hadn’t worked out all that well for me in the past, I stopped attending Church altogether.

It is not a popular decision. Some wonderful, loving Christians I’ve spoken with since then have been genuinely concerned for my spiritual well-being. I can see ‘backslider’ flash through their eyes and then they invite me to their Church. I appreciate the concern because I know it comes from a place of love but it also comes from a place of fear. I know because leaving a formal Church terrified me. What if I was backsliding? My life was not mistake free. Didn’t that prove leaving Church was the first and biggest mistake? What if I was one of those falling away in the latter days? So what, I asked myself. Anything is better than constantly feeling beat down and miserable. Isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? I prayed a prayer. It went like this.

Father, I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing but I need something new. I put my life in your hands and trust that, no matter what, you have a hold of me. Whatever happens to me from this moment on is your concern.

I have not set foot in a church building since. It was the right decision for me because I’ve never been happier. God has honored the trust I put in Him and continues to do so, despite what my life might look like to those outside. My spiritual life is worth anything I may have sacrificed and any misunderstanding and yes, judgment, I might experience. And so, how do I express that to others? Is there a label that defines me as free to walk alone with God? Do I even need a label? And, what makes me so sure my co-worker was interested anyway?

I can’t be and I know I have a tendency to over think. But, the dinner party raised an awareness of how we humans use labels in our attempts to understand each other. A problem arises for me because no label fits 100%. I am a Christian who doesn’t attend a building called church. I read the Bible but don’t agree with most of the interpretations of scripture flying around today. I practice Yoga but don’t align myself with all the spiritual beliefs that go along with it-some, a lot, but not all. I am a vegan but perhaps ‘doing the best I can to be responsible and considerate in my day to day life’ is more accurate. No labels define me. I live both in and outside of the boundaries labels imply.

I believe I never see something but what I need to address it my own life which raises the question: how do I label others? Do I slap labels on people, box them into a place in my mind, and then claim I understand them? I hope not. I hope I look at others and see that they are all unique and that I can have no true understanding of them as long as I continue to label them. I must give them the freedom to live beyond such interpretation as I demand that right for myself.

How about you? In what ways do you strive to cast off the limitations a label has imposed on your life? I would love to hear about it.

End note: I borrowed the title of this post from “Lay My Love” by Brian Eno and John Cale