November 18, 2010
Growing up in a typical Baptist town, I went to a very theologically dense church. At age 12, I was attending systematic theology classes with the youth group and asking for Calvin's Institutes for Christmas.
We spent several years studying Romans in the Sunday service, analyzing each verse to emphasize the justice of God and depravity of man to the extreme.
One can imagine what that would do to a budding intellectual. I essentially lived with no concept of a spiritual relationship until I was 17 because it all seemed like a crusade for truth, as if it were something to be contained and staunchly conformed to.
Instead, my religion consisted of a heavy defense of the Reformed regime, eager to argue with all my 'normal' Baptist friends; keep in mind, this was happening in middle school.
When my classmates were talking about altar calls and Super Bowl parties, I was learning about Jonathan Edwards and memorizing my MacArthur Student Bible. Needless to say, I was a strange kid.
Thankfully, my parents saw fit to change churches for my high school years. There I had an incredible youth pastor and another beloved mentor who shaped much of my understanding of the Father.
Together, we embarked on a journey repairing this wounded soul tainted by legalism. They taught me much about mercy and showed me what that looks like.
Through big hugs and shared tears, they illustrated wholehearted surrender to a God of grace, and were patient enough to let me learn it through my own questioning.
With several years of distance between that snotty Calvinist kid and a now half-Presbyterian college student (at a Baptist university), I can appreciate many aspects of both sides of my theological upbringing.
In some ways, I learned deep truths about the attributes of God, and the importance for both reverence and boldness. The other side of that coin, unfortunately, was that it gave me the arrogance to believe that I could actually fully comprehend the Creator through my own understanding.
My Christianity was reduced to Biblical 'truths' that had no resonating power within my life, because they did not culminate in acts of love.
This is why I now struggle with many zealous, perhaps dogmatic claims about the nature of God and what His Word says about how we should live—and how those manifest themselves in political and congregational issues.
I fear that for those of us raised in the Church, it may become easier to expect theology to be sufficient when 'sharing our faith.' It may seem like enough to pass along Bible verses when someone is seeking answers that words will not provide. And it may cause our good intentions to come off seeming callous, hollow and condescending.
When faced with real life experiences—especially the ones that make us question the Father—how are we as Christians to respond?
Is it enough to read the Bible and be told that "God has a plan"? I have not typically found that to be very helpful; in fact, I have almost never been able to recall any reference that someone shared with me in the midst of my suffering (except for Psalm 46:10, but that’s another story for another column).
Rather, I have never forgotten their presence in the moment I needed them; I have clung to the memories when there were ears to listen, arms to fall into, and shoulders to capture my tears. And I have owned the few comforting words that flowed spontaneously from their lips with a genuine passion—words that I would argue come straight from the Father as well.
Can Scripture be a great source of consolation? Of course.
I have also sought many verses to form a stable foundation when nothing else makes sense. But above all else, these words must contain the abundant life within them that give us our reason for believing—and if that is not evident through our actions, we should never expect anyone to find anything sacred in our faith.
I share all this to humbly suggest that we be cautious when speaking words of ‘truth’ in this world. We must be careful never to sound like “resounding gongs” or “clanging cymbals,” but simply stretch out our hands in love and humility.
And we must see that our lives reflect the power of what we believe so that they may not even have to hear us speak. Peace be with you.
“Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds.” St. Francis of Assisi