I grew up in a small evangelical denomination called The Standard Church (as did some of you) and I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on what that has meant in forming my values, views, life and memories. I frequently reminisce about the songs, the people, the buildings, the sights and the sounds and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Without getting into the nuts and bolts of that journey, the bottom line is that it has been significant in both the positive and the negative.
On the positive side, a great deal of my religious foundation has come out of growing up in church, and I’ve learned about prayer and Scripture and hypocrites and saints and the most of us in between. On the other side of the ledger, there was a sense of rightness that often became exclusive and narrow’. In all fairness, it is a social trait that most human groups experience but becomes most distasteful in overtly religious or anti-religious settings and to it’s credit, the Standard Church eventually recognized this and began to move beyond smallness in it’s later years.*
However, as my theology has unfolded over the years I have come to realize how big God is. It seems He’s not Standard or Baptist or Charismatic or Lutheran or Anglican or even Protestant. He’s not Catholic or Orthodox or Buddhist orMuslim or…. well you get it. He’s God. He’s spirit. He’s Other. Bigger than what we use to measure Him with. And all the goodness of His Creation seeks to find it’s own natural place and resource to worship Him.
Unfortunately we humans (both religious and non) try to keep God in a box that allows us to be comfortable with ourselves and our own small view of Him. But God transcends human institutions and confounds our theology and challenges our doctrines with great regularity; just read church history. Christianity, as a religion, has historically given itself permission to critically examine and reorganize itself. And like any refining, that’s both painful and healthy.
Jesus was (and is) the ultimate ‘critical examiner’. He frequently challenged religious self-righteousness in areas that were considered established and sacred. For example, in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus annoyed the authorities by allowing his disciples to skip the valued tradition of ritual hand-washing then attacked their obsession with traditions that have nothing to do with their hearts.
Christianity has argued for centuries over such traditions as sacraments, baptism, liturgy, ‘backsliding’, tongues, demonstration, sexuality, spiritual warfare, church government, church and state, Israel, leadership hierarchy, millennial-ism, etc. (the entire silly list is much longer) but that only seems to make them less important in my opinion.
Isn’t it interesting that God clearly accepted the ancient Hebrew offer to make sacrifices then turned around and said things like, “To obey is better than sacrifice” or “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” or “offer your bodies as living sacrifices”. He directed Israel to build a portable Temple in the years after their exodus from slavery and later He reluctantly agreed to let Solomon and Herod built permanent ones. All the while He was saying that he had no need for a building since he doesn’t live in, or even need, buildings. He is, after all, God.
Was God contradicting Himself? Of course not. The lesson, I think, is that God will always have another thing to teach us, another place to take us, another divine purpose, something more beyond ourselves, another way to stretch our standards. Could it be that God is so beyond us that true seekers will always be challenged and sifted and refined and redefined in their lives? I think so.
I guess what I’m saying is that, at the end of the day, I am very capable of being wrong about God in any number of ways. And so are you. We can only see God through a dark piece of glass and most faith issues would be better off to fall under the broad topic of friendly discussion rather than to be lowered to some form of self-righteous finger pointing.
Already I can feel the hordes of paranoid critics (two of you) gathering to question my fuzzy, relativistic beliefs. That’s fine, but if we’re so sure that we know the answers, then he becomes a small, comprehendible God – our narrow, comfortable version of Him.
Another blogger wrote this recently, “We’re dealing with approximations at best when we talk about God. We can study the Bible all we want, but at the end of the day we’re just talking piles of dust and spit trying to define a deity that we can only see in a mirror dimly … At a certain point we bump into our limitations and the likelihood that we have been wrong about God in some ways. We have to decide whether we’re willing to stick with God even if he dashes parts of our theology to bits, even if he appears unreasonable, intolerant, or too inclusive.”**
You see, I’ve come to the humble place where I know that there is not much that I know. And I love it because that’s how big God should be. Beyond me. Beyond us. And our doctrine doesn’t have to be perfect or even more correct – in fact it can’t be. This makes the miracle of grace so much more fantastic and mind-bending – the God of the universe knows and loves Brian. And you.
The same blogger wrote this and it expresses my thoughts perfectly. “This is why Christianity is about more than an idea or a belief. Christianity is about an encounter with the living God. I’m talking about those moments when the hair rises on the back of your neck because you can sense God’s presence and hear him speak to you. Our theology helps us seek God out, but at the end of the day, our time in God’s presence where we hear from him make up the substance of daily discipleship for all of us. When Jesus speaks of the final judgment, his criteria is whether we knew him.”
Wish I’d said that.
* The Standard Church merged with the Wesleyan Church a few years ago