Through the first quarter century of my existence I lived two separate lives, going to great lengths to keep my religious world separate from my secular world. Schoolmates, co-workers, neighbours, acquaintances learned next to nothing about the churched Brian.
Part of me was shy, part of me was weak, but most of me was embarrassed. I felt like people from other backgrounds wouldn’t understand rigid church attendance, tight morals, and strong beliefs.
I was right.
And that was my problem: I couldn’t reconcile my religious life with the rest of my life. Sure, some friends were spiritually curious but my knowledge of hymns and Arminian theology wasn’t exactly a riveting alternative. I had been taught that the world needed saving but the people I met in it weren’t nearly as needy or awful as I was told.¹
what I learned
As a twenty-something I remember taking a series of courses at our church designed to teach and disciple christians. It lasted about three years and involved weekly homework, memorization, discussion, prayer, etc.
It was good I suppose but at some midway point I began to wonder why I was doing it. Sure, it made me feel like a knowledgable, dedicated christian but … how was it helpful in the real world? I began to realize I was embarrassed by my christianity because somehow I knew in my soul that my version was okay for me but was impractical to ‘outsiders’. And thus indefensible.
That is a major thorn in the side of evangelicalism. We are expected to share this wealth of faith with others but for all our talk about spreading the good news of Jesus, it’s mostly bad news and even less Jesus.
Of course there is nothing wrong with having beliefs or being firm in them. But what beliefs are we talking about?
In some strains of evangelicalism swearing, dancing, alcohol, and skipping church are so frowned on that they are essentially sinful. But we have lots of other baggage too. I have evangelical friends who vote Conservative, love gospel music, believe in six day creation, disapprove of anyone gay, and assume everybody else should too. Other evangelical friends don’t have those values but they have acquired a whole new set that are just as presumptuous.²
We are rightly taught the biblical principle that the road to life is a narrow road; that the gate to life is a narrow gate.³ Yes, I suppose it is but I think we have muddied the idea of what ‘narrow’ means.
We think the gate is narrow because of the huge baggage of sin and guilt other people carry. But I have come to believe the gate to life is also narrow for we who are unwilling to leave behind our christian baggage: the good old days, correctness, performance, self.
I don’t believe Jesus is as narrow as our beliefs and traditions make him out to be.
He is much narrower than that.
Jesus wants us to be so narrow that we only have room for things that are life-giving: peace, patience, generosity, forgiveness, etc.
You want to talk narrow? Try leaving aside your comfort because someone needs your help. Try the narrowness of forgiving your enemies and praying for them. Or try the narrowness of keeping an opinion to yourself in order to understand how somebody else feels.
That’s Jesus narrow.
Last week we had landscapers on our property upgrading the front of the house. Perhaps because of the long covid isolation I found myself happily chatting each day with the workers. By day two I realized something: I relate to unpretentious, everyday folks.
The pandemic has reminded us that, in a world where politicians and billionaires and megachurches fight for relevance, it is actually drivers, cleaners, trades people, care givers, medical personnel and the like who turn the wheels of our world. You know, blue-collar people.
And maybe that’s the problem – christians often have a white-collar approach in a blue-collar world. We think people want our faith to be impressive, convincing, fully assembled – but maybe they are looking for a faith that is practical, worthwhile, in-process.
“You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.” – Jesus, in Matthew 5:14-16, (NLT)
Did you see that?
Let your politics shine? No.
Let your church shine? Nope.
Let your opinions shine? Nuh uh.
Let your highly evolved theology shine? Heck no.
Your good deeds.
There’s very little baggage to good deeds. You just do them.
A wonderful woman passed away recently. Most of you do not know Evelyn Belsher but believe me when I say the world is poorer without her: a talented, caring, joyful woman. She was memorable as a cook, a baker, a seamstress, a musician, a mom, grandma … you get the picture. She was exceedingly kind to our family and she would always find a way to speak to me and learn how I was doing.
Yet at her memorial service she was remembered consistently for two common things.
She loved Jesus.
She made everyone feel special and cared for.
I know both of those to be true about her. She had talents but mostly her life was graced with the best ones: Jesus and caring. Or as Jesus suggested, loving God and neighbour.
For people like that, narrow gates are easy to slip through.
~ ~ ~
¹ An exception to this was my dad who often said, “People are good” – his experience that there are more good people around us than we think.
² Where am I now? Well, a lot of processing has helped me to see the world differently. For one thing I’ve been able to integrate faith into the whole of my life until it feels natural. I feel no need to hide or prove anything to anybody – that’s God’s job – freeing me to be me.
³ Matt 7:13-14