Essay, Faith

On reconciling belief

At church we’ve been having a discussion about whether baptism is necessary for salvation. I should say, the elders have been having that discussion, and I’m an elder. Where I go to church, we elders and the pastor are the church’s leadership. So it’s important for us to align on such matters.

St. Joseph Catholic Church

We elders all come from different faith traditions. The various branches of Christianity all follow God and Jesus, but there are so many branches because we don’t agree on all doctrinal points.

In my church, the elders have historically agreed on key doctrinal points. Crucially, we have also agreed that only a few points are key. When we don’t agree on non-key doctrinal points, we come to agree what we will teach on them so there is unity.

Over the last few years a couple elders have stepped down and a couple new elders have come on. It’s reopened some formerly settled doctrinal points. We recently realized that we might not agree on whether baptism is necessary for salvation.

There is no doctrine more central to the faith than that of salvation. It’s how we access God’s waiting forgiveness of our sins, and it’s how we are joined with him forever. We need to get this one right.

Brazil, IN

I’m in a Restoration Movement church. You know us as the Churches of Christ, independent Christian Churches, and the Disciples of Christ. We believe that a person must make his or her own decision to follow Christ. We link baptism to that decision (in different ways, as I’ll explain in a moment). Therefore, we don’t baptize infants.

If you decide to follow Christ in one of our churches, we’ll ask you to publicly confess your faith: “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, and I accept him as my Lord and Savior.” If you’ve never been baptized, or if you were baptized before you could choose for yourself, we will baptize you. It’s quite a spectacle, as we dunk your full body into a pool of water. Bring dry clothes.

(We believe that baptism, by the way, is a sacrament any believer can administer. I baptized one of my sons. Read that story here.)

North Liberty Christian Church cornerstone

The Bible says in Ephesians 2:8-9 that we are saved by God’s grace through our faith in him. I believe that you’ll hear this preached in every Restoration Movement church. We agree that we must confess our faith to be saved.

We are not all aligned on baptism’s role, however. Some of us also say that unless you are also baptized you can’t access that saving grace, for the act of baptism washes your sins away. Acts 2:38 is usually cited in support. Some of us say that baptism it is a necessary step of obedience to God, but in itself does not accomplish salvation. The rest of us say that baptism is nothing more than an outward sign of the grace you have received, and a public declaration of your changed mind and heart.

This is tricky stuff. Many learned and earnest people have carefully and prayerfully studied the Bible on baptism’s role in salvation, and yet my faith tradition is still divided by these three positions. I hew to the middle one: we are saved entirely by grace through faith, but baptism is a necessary step of obedience.

St. John Lutheran Church

I’m just a man serving as best I can, fallible and imperfect. I’m always open to looking at scripture again, and again, and again. My study and prayer, as open-minded and -hearted as I can make it, has certainly expanded, refined, and outright changed my understanding of other doctrinal matters many times. But this is where I stand today on baptism.

We said goodbye to my mother-in-law not long ago. She was 90; her time had simply come. She and her husband are deeply faithful Catholics. I had little contact with Catholicism before marrying their daughter Margaret. I watched firsthand how the beliefs and traditions of the Catholic faith comforted this family through this loss. The funeral mass was powerful. The priest was fantastic. He modeled Christ at every moment, with every turn, as he helped this family grieve. He materially helped me grieve as a non-Catholic. I’ve never been to a funeral that so thoroughly helped a family say goodbye to a loved one.

Christ Lutheran Church cornerstone

My mother-in-law was baptized as an infant, before she could choose. I know that there is a path of preparation in the Catholic Church, that a young person at a certain age can choose to continue, to be confirmed. My mother in law chose confirmation.

She deeply loved God and Jesus. She obeyed and served to the best of her ability throughout her life.

I don’t find the Catholic pattern in the Bible. But do I think my mother-in-law is saved? Oh my goodness, yes. She was a human being with shortcomings, but I saw every one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) in her. She belonged to God. It would be a miscarriage of God’s grace and justice if my mother in law is anywhere other than with God in his Kingdom today.

Woodruff Place Baptist Church

All of us who try to figure out what God asks of us misinterpret or misread something somewhere and believe — and therefore act — wrongly. I’m highly suspicious of anyone who says they’re certain they’re right, or that they know the one proper way to think, believe, or act.

Yet I have to believe something, especially when it comes to crucial matters like how one is saved. I have come to believe that salvation is by grace through faith, chosen freely, and that baptism is a necessary step of obedience to that saving grace. But I cannot bring myself to criticize any soul who earnestly follows God and, thoughtfully and prayerfully, believes and practices something different.

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Faith

New pastor

West Park Christian Church

Our church’s longtime pastor retired, and we found a new pastor. The ease with which we found this fellow was not a given. We were quite worried that it would take months or years. In our fellowship of churches, the independent Christian Churches, there is no central governing body that issues new pastors, as the Methodists do. When a Christian Church wants a new pastor, they have to advertise the job just like a company does. Frankly, there isn’t much interest in little urban churches like this one. You’re not going to build a big career here. You have to want to do this difficult service.

But we all know that this neighborhood needs this measly one-horse church if only to have someplace where people can come without crawling to the many vices easily found here.

While our new pastor didn’t have a heart for the urban mission when he first visited us, that flame lit while he got to know us. Bit by bit he’s bringing a more modern church experience to us. Frankly, it doesn’t work for me. But I’m not who we’re trying to attract. Millennials and Gen Zers make up more than half of our neighborhood and they aren’t coming to church. Our old-fashioned ways repelled them when they did visit.

What isn’t changing is how accepting we are. People come to West Park from any number of backgrounds and challenging life situations. We seldom know what to do that will materially help them. We’ve learned to just love them and let God sort their lives out later. Sometimes our acceptance and how we interpret Scripture create a bit of a tangle for us, but we’ve chosen to bias toward acceptance. It creates a space where people feel safe, and where they feel they can let their guard down and be who they are. That’s when the Holy Spirit can get in.

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Faith, Vintage Television

Channel 16, Father Hesburgh, and the Prayer for Peace

Kids today don’t know how good they have it, with Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network delivering animation to their living rooms 24x7x365. During my 1970s-80s childhood, we got cartoons on Saturday mornings and for an hour after school, and that was it. My brother and I liked animation so much that we’d rise early on Saturday morning to not miss a single show.

We started on Channel 16 because they aired the Japanese anime Battle of the Planets right after sign on. Channel 16, WNDU-TV, was our local NBC station. We had no idea how unusual it was that it was owned by the University of Notre Dame. All we knew was that during sign-on they played a recording of University President Father Theodore Hesburgh reading of the Prayer for Peace of St. Francis of Assisi.

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

I heard that recording so often that even today I can recite most of this prayer from memory. I haven’t heard that recording in 30 years until someone recently uploaded a 1985 sign-off that included it. Here it is!

I wasn’t raised in the faith. What I saw of Christians as a kid tended to repel me. (Here’s a story about how.) But hearing Father Hesburgh read this gentle prayer on those Saturday mornings gave me hope that perhaps somewhere people lived their faith in these ways. That’d be a faith worth following. When I sought God, I looked for him in people this quiet and humble.

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Faith, Photography

Hot dogs on Holmes Street

You might not think free hot dogs are a good way to meet your neighbors, but they worked fine for us at West Park Christian Church on Indianapolis’s Near Westside.

Church event

Our church is in the Hawthorne neighborhood, just steps off old US 40 and the National Road. Its houses were built in the first couple decades of the last century. Our building is on Addison Street, but our parking lot is on the lot behind us and it empties out onto Holmes Street. As cars and pedestrians passed, we called them in. Many stopped.

Church event

Rob, the husband of our youth pastor, manned the grill. Here he is talking to our lead pastor’s wife, Sue.

Church event

On the left is Wanda, who brought one of her friends. At right is one of our neighbors who stopped by with her children.

Church event

Jay brought his DJ gear and provided the soundtrack.

Church event

He has quite a nice little setup.

Church event

He and Phil (right) are our sound engineers on Sunday mornings.

Church event

Our little church has its challenges. We’re small in number and often lack enough people to carry out our plans. Sometimes we don’t collect a large enough offering to cover expenses. Heck, sometimes we show up on Sunday morning to find we’ve run out of communion supplies. Frankly, we count our blessings every time our worship service happens without any glitches.

But we are good at just being easy-to-approach people in our community. People find quickly that we are the most non-threatening, easiest to talk to Christians they’ve ever met. The hot dogs were just our clever ruse to let our neighbors find that out.

Nikon FA, 50mm f/1.8 Nikon Series E, Agfa Vista 200

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Faith, Personal

The sacrifice of thanksgiving

As we head into our Thanksgiving holiday tomorrow, here’s a rerun from 2013 that seems extra relevant now. There’s always something wrong in our lives and in the world. Sometimes it threatens to crush our spirits. Can we pause for a minute to reflect on what’s good and right, and be grateful for it?

I’m not by nature a happy person. That doesn’t mean I’m an unhappy person. I just don’t go around all day thinking sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns. I see the good and the bad.

I’m also a bit of a type-A personality. I have a considerable internal drive to make things better and to fix what is broken. I spend a lot of my time frustrated because I just can’t fix it all. Sometimes the problems are beyond my abilities, and frequently I lack the resources I need.

So you see where my focus is: more on the bad than the good. I’m aware of the good but I feel the bad.

The other day in some words in a psalm caused me to stop dead. From Psalm 50, verses 14-15 and 23:

Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and perform your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.

The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me.

sacrifice of thanksgiving? I know all of these words individually, of course, but strung together in that order I struggled to understand them.

So I asked, because this came up during Sunday school. And the teacher said, “One way to look at it is that you’re giving up ingratitude. But thanksgiving itself really is a sacrifice.”

It left me more puzzled than satisfied.

But as I studied it and thought about it, I came to see that just because something is always wrong, and some things are very wrong, it is a sacrifice to set it aside for awhile and be grateful for what is good and right.

This helped me realize that I had lost touch with something important. A dozen years ago, my life fell apart. And as I put my life back together, the bad days and bad things dwarfed the good. I had to search hard for the good. They were usually very small things, and they were always very few in number. But I looked for them, because finding something good in every bad day was the knot at the end of the rope to which I clung.

My living room in the morning

One small thing for which I am frequently surprisingly grateful: the morning sun streaming through my front windows. I love how the warm light plays against the wall.

Thanks to a lot of hard work over the past several years, there’s way more good than bad now. But I’m still that guy who wants to fix and improve things – and often that’s all I can think of.

It’s hard to sacrifice it and offer up thanksgiving to God.

Perhaps that’s why it’s a sacrifice. When things are truly going poorly, when the biggest thing I have to be thankful for is mighty small, it can really hurt to thank God for it. And for some reason, at least for me, when more is right than is wrong it’s easy to focus on the wrong. It is still surprisingly hard to thank God for what is good.

And a sacrifice – you should feel it. Otherwise it’s not a sacrifice.

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Faith, History, Photography

A model for living the faith: Father McDyer and alleviating poverty in Glencolmcille

Christians get a bum rap these days as being bigoted and small minded. Perhaps it’s because some high-profile people who claim to follow Christ behave that way. Perhaps it’s because many people experienced a rule-based, condemning Christianity as children.

glencolmcilleirelandmap

Glencolmcille. Imagery © 2016 Data SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO Landsat. Map data © 2016 Google.

But most Christians I know go quietly about their faith. The ones who live it out are involved in the lives of others, especially others in need. That’s what our faith is supposed to be: simply but actively passing along to others the love God has for them.

When Father James McDyer was assigned in 1951 to the remote Irish parish at Glencolmcille (Glen-column-keel) in western County Donegal, he found a people isolated and in poverty. Little paid employment was available. There was no industry, no electricity, no running water, and hardly a paved road. The rural people of Glencolmcille scratched out whatever bleak livings they could.

McDyer, born 1910, grew up in County Donegal. He knew this life. He saw many of his neighbors emigrate out of Ireland looking for better lives. It was part of a great outmigration; scores left Ireland in the early and middle 20th century.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

The folk village at Glencolmcille shows the conditions the people lived in when McDyer arrived. These thatched-roof huts, some original and some replicas, contain furniture and home goods typical of 1950s rural Ireland.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

To an American, “1950s” calls up images of suburban ranch houses and station wagons, televisions and refrigerators, freeways and skyscrapers.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

These simple dwellings and plain possessions are more in line with an American concept of the frontier eighteen fifties.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

McDyer set to work improving the peoples’ condition.

Irish farm life was largely confined to the family. McDyer saw that bringing people together, under common causes and in support of each other, was the key first step. He led them in building a community center, which volunteer labor completed in 1953.

He then worked to electrify Glencolmcille. He spent many of his days traveling, speaking to government officials to move his goal forward. Here he met stiff challenges, as the Irish government was heavily focused on attracting multinational corporations as the way to bring Ireland out of economic depression. This left no resources for rural areas. He was not above manipulating the system to meet his ends, and meet them he did, as electricity came to Glencolmcille in 1954.

McDyer also worked to create a municipal water supply and to pave the roads leading to Glencolmcille. In the early 1960s he spurred the creation of local industry in the form of industrial and agricultural cooperatives that processed vegetables and fish and created knitted goods. Finally in 1967, recognizing that tourism should be a vital part of Glencolmcille’s diverse economic portfolio, he led the creation of the Glencolmcille Folk Village.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

The Folk Village continues today as a tourist attraction. For a few euros, you can tour the impeccably maintained huts.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

One hut is a school. Pupils here wrote on slates until the early 1960s, when inkwells finally arrived. By this time, of course, American schoolchildren were moving away from fountain pens to ball-point pens.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

One hut is a typical home, another is set up as Father McDyer’s home and contains his personal possessions, and yet another is a general store and tiny pub. Together, they are a microcosm of centuries of rural Irish life.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

Before and after McDyer brought such life-changing improvements to Glencolmcille, the people certainly enjoyed a beautiful place to live.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

Hills and cliffs overlook the coast with its beaches. A horseshoe-shaped lagoon empties into the Atlantic Ocean. But surrounding natural beauty doesn’t feed families. McDyer’s efforts lifted Glencolmcille’s families out of abject poverty.

Glencolmcille Folk Village

James McDyer died in his sleep in 1987, leaving behind a region much improved, a people in much better condition.

This, then, is what a Christian, what Christianity, is supposed to do: seek the marginalized and help them improve their condition — and through this, help them meet and know God. Such gifts are not often given in this world. That these gifts are attached to a person doing God’s work, that they ultimately come from God, is what attracts people to the faith. It is the experience of God’s love and gifts on earth, and it is compelling.

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