Another foundation-setting post. This was actually written as an assignment for a class in late 2011. It’s much longer, much more personal, and more in-depth with regard to where I’m coming from theologically, and I thought it would pair nicely with the more basic Statement of Faith…
It’s a grey, rainy day as I sit at my favorite second floor library hideout to begin writing this assignment to summarize my core beliefs about how God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are part of my life. I stare out the window, watching the water streaming down the clay tile roof just outside, landing in a leaf-littered copper gutter below, and my first thoughts are about just how unexpected a life it’s actually been.
I was born to two teenagers who hastily dropped out of high school to get married when they learned I was on the way. Raised in a household that started out “housing project poor,” which over time became a comfortable, average small town life. Unlike most of the neighbors, though, our immediate family was not churchgoing, not even at Christmas or Easter. The details of my Christian faith were fleshed out more by “A Charlie Brown Christmas” than anything else.
From my youngest of times through high school graduation, I was always the smart kid in school – always at the top of the class, the one people expected to be President some day, or at least rich and successful in some way. It’s an image I came to share myself. At the same time, I was almost completely without a social filter. Even at a very young age, I had quite strong opinions about life, politics, society, current events, issues of justice (although at the time I’d have simply called it “fairness”). If I disagreed with someone, they undoubtedly got to hear my opinions about how to correct their poor, benighted understanding of things. Thinking back on some of the things I said to people, confident in the belief that they’d be grateful for my corrections, I’m amazed I actually survived to adulthood. This embarrassing memory is probably why today I have such a visceral reaction when I encounter fresher, younger versions of the inexperienced fool I once was, who exhibit that same sense of arrogant self-righteousness. It’s probably the simple fact that someone didn’t strangle me when I was younger that enables me to be gracious to them now (and sometimes grudgingly even at that).
Against all probability, I became a Christian while in high school. My entry into Christianity was originally through a very conservative Evangelical, even Fundamentalist strand of the faith, and now I added another topic of discussion I could be insufferable about. I remained in that mode throughout college – the late 1970s and 80s were good years to be part of the Evangelical Born Again. Eventually though, cracks in the mortar of that experience began to appear, as I began to befriend people very different than myself – people from urban upbringings, who had no commonality with what I saw as the really American, really Christian small-town origins; Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists; gays, bisexuals, & lesbians. I remember a long, gut-wrenching conversation with a gay friend who asked me about my faith, and my belief that his sexuality was a choice that he could change or that God could “correct” for him. “Do you really think,” he asked through only partly contained tears, “that I would actually choose this life – where I’m hated, persecuted, spit on, beat up? A life where I’m told I’m so worthless that I’ve already tried to kill myself twice? If this is really a choice, don’t you think I’d have chosen differently?” I sat there silently, with no real answers for him and only questions for myself.
Another time, I remember a gathering of Christian students in someone’s dorm room, and everyone was introducing themselves and offering their personal testimonies of how they were born again. Finally, one student – Brian – quietly said, “I’m not sure I have anything I can share with you. I never had one of those lightning-bolt experiences like all of you seem to have had. I’ve always been a part of our Lutheran church, and I was baptized as a child and went through Confirmation, and my faith has just sort of always been there, growing over time.” Later that evening, after Brian had left and most of us were still there, I listened as the others talked about him – shocked and appalled at his apparent spiritual blindness, and they actually plotted a course of action designed to open his eyes and to lead him onto the path of becoming a “real” Christian. I walked out of the room disgusted, and while not actually renouncing my faith, it went dormant for a long time. My experience across the full spectrum of Christianity was about nonexistent. I didn’t know any other avenue to express or practice the faith that was beginning to take hold within me, but I knew that this was definitely not it.
So for the next dozen or so years, I focused on being the smart, successful person I thought I was supposed to become. I did all the right things; I set everything in motion that was supposed to lead to the American Dream. I became established in my profession, got married, had two wonderful daughters, bought a house. I started my own architectural firm, at an almost unheard of, ridiculously young age, and against the odds, was relatively successful at it. I even joined a church – not one like the Evangelical places I’d worshiped before, though. I picked a nice, respectable, somewhat stuffy Presbyterian church in an affluent suburb, one which I figured would look good to potential business associates but where I could just fade into the crowd and which wouldn’t ever place any real demands or challenges on the life I was shaping.
But things didn’t really proceed as planned. With the passing of another dozen years, the firm collapsed from lack of business. The marriage is over. The house is in foreclosure and the retirement savings have been completely wiped out paying off business and personal creditors. I’m 51 years old, and I’m starting life over almost completely from scratch.
But not completely from scratch, since while things were still going well, I did manage to reconnect with my faith. The stuffy, undemanding Presbyterian church ended up being anything but. I found a place to practice and express my faith which didn’t insult my intelligence, which challenged and enlightened, and which welcomed questioning and diversity of specific beliefs. It wasn’t anything like the rigid, judgmental strand of faith that had driven me away before. That tradition always had an answer – a clear, black-and-white one, if not an always thoughtful or intellectually satisfying one – for every question I’d had back then, and for every question that my experiences were leading me to ask now.
As a result of that, and in the years since that time as I discerned a call to the ministry, the core issues of my faith have developed and matured far from where they began, and largely as a result of the sometimes rocky trajectory of my own life.
I’ve come to reject the idea of a limiting, restricting God that I was first taught about. I’ve always believed in a loving God, but I used to believe in a God who reserved that love in a special way for a particular group of people in the world – particularly, Christians. I was originally taught that our primary purpose as Christians was to evangelize non-Christians, to bring them into the fold and to keep them from suffering damnation and eternal punishment in hell. Even the “best” of the heathen, I had originally been told, were nonetheless doomed to unending painful suffering if they didn’t profess Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. I’ve since come to jettison that belief as incorrect in three particular ways. First, I am not a universalist, nor do I believe in complete religious plurality – that all religions are an equally valid path to God. But I do believe that the atoning, reconciling work of the Son, the eternal second Person of the Trinity enfleshed in Jesus, was meant for, and is being applied to, all people who live faithfully in accord with the beliefs that Jesus himself taught were God’s will for human existence. I believe it when Jesus says that no one comes to the Father except through him. But I reject what I believe is far too narrow a comprehension of how one comes to the Father “through” him, the eternal Son. I most certainly do not believe, as I once did, that this reconciliation is offered exclusively to those who on bowed knee have professed Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. I believe human reconciliation with God is more complex than that. I believe that this was the point Jesus was making in his comments to the Pharisees in Mt 21:28-32: “Which of the two [sons] did the will of the Father?” The one who professed with his mouth that he would obey, but didn’t; or the one who refused to profess obedience to his father with his mouth, but who actually did obey the father’s will through his actions?
Neither, frankly, do I accept that evangelism – or to be more accurate, at least evangelism as we have traditionally defined it – is our primary goal as Christians. Exposing people to the good news brought into the world through Christ – the Great Commission of Mt 28:16-20 – is certainly a very important charge, but I believe that as servants of God and followers of Christ, this must be done simultaneously and inseparably with living out the Great Commandment of Mt 22:26-40 – caring for and seeking justice for others; putting skin on the Great Commission.
Because of the evolution of my beliefs regarding evangelism – or more specifically, regarding how Christ’s atonement “works” – I no longer stress about the huge (and frankly, unfair) burden of evangelizing the entire non-Christian population of the world out of the fires of hell. I no longer have to lose sleep due to anguish over the supposed eternal suffering of my Jewish or Hindu friends – let alone the “Brians” of the world – as I did in my earlier days. I have come to believe that the most immediate significance of Christ’s teaching in the Great Commandment, and the rest of the gospels, is of far more immediate and earthly significance, rather than being a checklist of behaviors intended to earn us a golden ticket to heaven. And I believe in a God who is the very essence of love, mercy, and justice, and while I may not know all the answers about how God handles non-Christians, I know that however God does handle them, it is the most perfectly loving and merciful and just way possible – and simply condemning them all to hell does not seem to me to be merciful, loving, or just.
For that matter, I no longer believe in the idea that those who ultimately are not reconciled to God through Christ’s atonement are subjected to unending suffering for their actions during their earthly lives. Frankly, to believe in infinite punishment for finite acts of sin seems to me to be completely inconsistent with all of our understanding of God. I believe in a literal hell of some kind of punishment for the unreconciled, but I believe that such suffering is proportionate to the actual sin. This, I believe, would be the proper action of a God who is completely just.
All of my life’s experiences seem to have conspired to open and expand my understanding of the nature of God’s grace. I don’t believe that God limits grace to only a select group of specially selected people. Certainly, we see throughout the scriptures continual examples where God loves and is gracious, merciful, and loving to those whom had earlier been categorically ruled out as the enemies of God or of God’s people, or who had been restricted from full participation as the covenant people of God – the Ninevites forgiven in Jonah, the full acceptance of Ruth the Moabitess, and the baptism of Gentiles and eunuchs into the Christian faith, are just a few examples. Throughout my own personal experiences, as I questioned the judgmental “ruling out” of various people, whom I observed and, like Job examining his own life, found them to be just as good, and just as undeserving of being specially called out for their sin, as I am. I believe that God’s grace is extended to all humans, in equal measure and with equal love – and that refusing to see this, and trying to restrict who is, and is not, “worthy” of receiving God’s grace – is a result of simply not understanding the full depth of God’s grace actually granted to one’s self. It shows a lack of complete understanding of just how much we ourselves have been forgiven of by God.
I’ve also come to have a far deeper appreciation for the experiences of those who are the “others” in our society and other societies around the world. I have enjoyed the very comfortable, affluent life in this country, and I’ve had much, if not most, of it taken away from me. I played life by conventional wisdom’s rules, expecting one outcome, only to experience a completely different one – putting me in a place where much of society would consider me a failure, someone of lesser value, marginalized. Many might look at my own current circumstances and think that surely, this is the result of my own actions – if I’d just played life by the rules, I’d have been able to elevate myself out of my difficulties. I must be lazy, or stupid, or both. That’s the retributive justice that Job’s three friends believed in. It’s what our world largely believes in. Earlier in my life, it’s probably what I believed as well. But I no longer have the luxury of believing that way. I know my own circumstances, and I know that many others have endured the same types of things, and far worse. These personal experiences have changed my understanding of how we are to truly live out the Great Commandment in the world. I believe that we must take far more concrete actions to help bring Christ’s love, and a more just existence, to the lives of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the unjustly suffering. This has become a core belief which cannot be superseded by concerns about maintaining personal or social economic status quo or appeals to national economic interest. In fact, my own painful experiences served to point out to me just how much I had made idols of social standing, financial status, and material wealth and possessions – things which I’d quite clearly come to idolize, but which I could have never seen – or at least admitted – until I’d had them taken away, and been forced to reflect on what their significance had come to be in my life.
Christ calls us to care for every manner of the oppressed and marginalized in this world, and if we are not doing this, then I do not believe we can truly be in communion with Christ himself. In essence, in participating in the sacrament in this manner, we have brought our offering – ourselves – to the Temple, while having done nothing to first make peace with our aggrieved brother (Mt 5:23-24). It is the very act of human reconciliation and justice, in all of its various forms, that I believe to be our primary earthly charge as followers of Jesus Christ. This charge to us unquestionably plays out at least in part in the political realm. I’ve always accepted this, but in the past my assumption had been that Christian political expression would always be conservative in nature. Through my own life experiences, as well as more in-depth theological study, I’ve come to believe that the liberal-conservative divide is much more ambiguous for Christians. I’ve discovered that as I personally try to live out my faith in the political realm, my opinions range from extremely conservative on some issues, and just as extremely liberal on others. As I’ve come to understand that the key is to honestly try to adhere to the gospel, as opposed to simply maintaining a (literal) party line. And evening that, I now see where Christians can, and do, vary widely in good faith as they try to apply the very same Christian and moral, ethical, social values – that the ends may be agreed upon, while the question of the best means to achieve those ends are arguable. My larger point here actually has little to do with politics, and much more with the application of that same understanding to the life within the church. Just as the Presbyterian congregation provided such crucial nurture for me while accepting a wide range of particular belief, so must, I believe, any congregation remain open to those differences – political, social, economic, racial, sexual – in order for us to truly discern the moving of the Holy Spirit among God’s people. I believe that for our individual and corporate faith to remain vital, and continually being reformed – Christians with very different applications of the faith not only can, but must be in dialogue – and not merely in dialogue, but in communion with one another while sharing the common mission of our common Lord.
The unexpected twists taken in my life have unquestionably caused me great personal turmoil. But in another way, I’m actually grateful – almost joyful – for having endured them. Not joy in the traditional sense, but a more deeply seated joy and gratitude, in having been shown that God does indeed remain with us through all of our days, good and bad. Having endured these things has profoundly changed the way I understand my own faith, and by extension, both how I understand the nature and mission of the Church, and where and how I’m being called to help lead it; as well as how I can offer pastoral care within a congregational setting. Having experienced a broad range of personal and professional highs and lows, and some of the best and worst of family life, I believe that the Holy Spirit has led me, guided me, strengthened me to be able to be a much more effective pastor and leader. Shortly after I became a Christian, I thought that I sensed a call to the ministry. But through a number of ways, I came to believe that God was telling me no, that I was to become an architect first, and that some day that would change and I would enter the ministry. I didn’t understand that answer at the time. And there were a number of years that I forgot about that answer to me, and another handful of years that I tried unsuccessfully to forget it. I’ve come to believe that had I gone into the ministry when I first thought about it, I’d have been a terrible pastor. I’d likely have adopted a dangerously exclusive, rigid, and judgmental theology and leadership style. I’d have been ill-equipped to understand many of the common real-world catastrophes that people go through, which now I’ve also gone through. As a pastor, I would likely have continued to be as insufferably self-righteous, intolerant, inflexible and opinionated as I was when I was younger. Now, I have come to see that there is indeed, as the hymn says, a wideness in God’s mercy that all too often, Christians only pay lip service to.
It’s now several days since I began this paper. I’m sitting in the same library hideout, staring out the same window at the same roof beyond. The clay tile is dry now, and the gutters are empty. In reviewing this paper, I realize that I’ve not discussed many theological particulars that might be required in a more technical theological statement of faith. But as I think about the convergence of my theological studies with the experiences of my life, I think that what I’ve mentioned in this paper are truly those core issues to my faith – the absolute immeasurable grace given by a God who is not merely loving, but who is Love itself – and given to all of God’s created humanity equally, through the cross of Christ. The command of Christ that we love God with all of our being, and our neighbor as ourselves, with all of the implications of justice that entails. The understanding that we are part of the reign of God that is already partially initiated in our world, and that our primary earthly charge is to fashion our existence as closely as possible to its ultimate reality. The humble acknowledgment of the Holy Spirit’s nurture, encouragement, and guidance through the world’s experiences to shape our faith, to take us to newer, deeper levels of understanding of God’s ways; and thereby forming us to be more effective and gracious pastoral leaders. These are the primary, non-negotiable points of my faith.