Faith

Holding up my hand

Following up on Monday’s post about my search for a new church, I want to reprint this post, which explains how I learned not to look to the church, but to God himself, for my faith. It’s long, but I think worth the time.

On my first day of Kindergarten, my mother walked with me the half mile to school so I’d know the way. I felt anxious about the long walk but reassured that Mom was taking me there. When the time came I held my hand up for her to grasp and we left our house. In the warm September sun we walked uphill past the houses that curved along our narrow street. She led me along the Secret Sidewalk, a shortcut between some houses that emptied onto another street that led down the other side of the hill. As we passed the synagogue, Mom explained how Jews in our area walked to services there every Saturday. As we passed a patch of little sumac trees, Mom warned me not to touch them because they were poisonous. As we passed a wooded lot, Mom warned me to stay on the sidewalk because the hippies liked to hang out in there and she wasn’t sure they were safe. As we rounded the corner and passed the Church of Christ, Mom said that I was not to join the other kids if they shortcut through their property. I took in everything Mom said, fascinated and excited by how much there was to know about this walk to school. When we reached the corner across from the school, Mom explained how to watch and listen for the crossing guard. The guard gave the okay, and we crossed and walked up to the school. Mom left me at the door with a kiss, a hug, and a promise that she’d be waiting at that door when school let out. I felt secure as I walked inside.

Route to school

On my own twenty years later, I felt alone and lost. I wanted a path to follow that would work better than what I had come up with. I felt sure God would have that path, so I wound up in a Methodist church. In time, the pastor sprinkled water on my head and I was in. I did things I thought I should do as a Christian: I attended Sunday school and services every week, I tried to quit swearing and always be honorable, and I helped with the youth group. I enjoyed the people and socialized heavily with my Sunday school class. But I struggled with God, whom I expected to judge me, eyebrow arched and lips pursed, each time I slipped up. And I didn’t understand the church’s rituals. For example, every couple months we took communion. We read puzzling texts from the hymnal and then lined up to eat a little wafer and drink a sip of grape juice. But I didn’t know what it was for! I used to pray, “Lord, I don’t know why I’m doing this, but I pray that you will bless it anyway.” God and church weren’t making sense. In time, I became disillusioned with church politics and fell away. I used to blame the Methodists, but something the pastor said to me many times comes back to me now: “Each man must find his own path to God.” I sure wasn’t searching so I might find; I guess I expected the church to show me.

One day, the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on the door and promised that my Bible could be an open book to me, giving me accurate knowledge of God and His standards for me and for His people, the true Christians. I was nervous because of the Witnesses’ notoriety, but the fun young couple who came to study with my wife and I soon melted those reservations. Steve, a slight man who bobbed and twitched with nervous energy, enthusiastically shared his knowledge. He dove relentlessly into his Bible looking for verses that answered our questions. In counterpoint, Jessica sat like a reference librarian, placid and poised with a heaping gob of thick blonde hair usually pulled up into a bun and glasses perched on the end of her nose. She could clarify in ten words anything Steve said in a hundred, but she always quietly let her husband speak. My wife and I enjoyed their company and our study. We became very excited and encouraged to find that the Bible could be our sole guide to living a life worthy of the name Christian. At last, here’s the path I didn’t find in the Methodist church! It would be all spelled out for me! I could put on Christ like a new suit of clothes and leave my troubled life behind! But it troubled me that the Watchtower Society’s theology and doctrine didn’t always add up. Finally, Steve couldn’t explain a particular doctrinal point to our satisfaction, and we began to lose our confidence. A succession of church elders came to try to explain. Finally one elder brought it all into focus for me when he said, “Look, just come to services for a few months, and then you’ll understand and it will seem natural.” In other words, he wanted us to become a part of their culture, and then we would naturally do whatever the Watchtower Society asked of us. That seemed flat wrong. We ended our studies with Steve and Jessica, and since we were now apostates they couldn’t see us anymore. We missed them.

My childhood home

Not daunted in finding God’s sure path for us, we found the Church of Christ. Dedicated to following the New Testament pattern for living a Christian life, they looked only to Scripture for their authority and not to any man-made organization. Since part of that pattern required baptism by immersion, my earlier baptism by sprinkling didn’t count. The preacher dunked me, my sins were washed away (he was sure to point out), and I was in. We did things we thought Christians should do: My wife taught Bible class for children, I created a Web site for the church, and we faithfully attended twice on Sunday and every Wednesday evening.

On the one hand, I felt secure in the standards for Christians that the Bible seemed to spell out. Forgive. Love your wife as Christ loved the church; that is, sacrificially. Do not divorce, except for adultery. Give as you purpose in your heart, as you have prospered. Above all, do not forsake the assembly of Christians. I just had to do these things, and others the Bible specified, to be right with God. This was the way I was looking for.

On the other hand, I felt secret shame that I could meet few of these standards well and consistently. I didn’t feel good enough. Truly, because of how much I missed the mark I often doubted my salvation. I compared myself to all the longtime members, most of whom grew up in that congregation, who seemed to be able to do all of these things. Seemed. Much later I saw how many of them had the same secret shame I did. Shame’s brother is fear, which led to members interpreting the Bible ultra-conservatively to be on the safe side. Hairsplitting doctrinal discussions were common. I remember a discussion with a fellow about church leadership. The Bible says that an elder should have children. My friend asserted that a man with only one child should not seek the eldership, just to be safe, because God might really have meant two or more children. “Oh, come now!” I said. “If you had one child and I asked how many children you had, would you say, ‘I don’t have children, but I have a child?’ How absurd!” Yet he held fast to his fear-based conclusion lest he find himself hellbound.

But I loved those people. They showed my family love during a particularly painful and difficult period of my life. Several men stepped up to encourage me, pray with me, and study with me. Several women reached out to support my wife through the crisis. But a year or so later, fear seemed to seal shut the doors of that love when the elders learned that my family’s past history ran afoul of the church’s teachings on marriage and divorce. The elders considered our story, reviewed Scripture, and then met with us to say that we had no right to each other. They were grave yet deflated as they delivered the message; one elder in his 70s looked physically ill. I felt guilty that this had burdened them so. But our situation had become serious because the church’s teachings spoke of separating and never remarrying. I was distraught. I had hoped for help keeping my family intact, but all these elders could do was tell me their interpretation of Scripture and withdraw awaiting my decision of what I was going to do. When you live by the law, you die by it too.

I didn’t understand the Bible the same way the elders did over this matter, and so we left the Church of Christ. We eventually settled in an independent Christian Church. Shortly after we settled there, one of the elders from the Church of Christ called to ask where we were attending. When I told him, he gasped, said, “Oh! Jim, you were taught better than that!” and quickly hung up the phone. Soon we received a letter signed by the elders telling us that by joining a denominational church, “denominational” meaning “any church other than the Church of Christ,” we had left the faith. Members there were not to associate with us except to help restore us to the faith. As far as they were concerned, we were apostate, no longer Christians.

God disagrees.

Shortly after we started attending that little Christian Church, I had this strong sense that my family belonged there. I heard a voice gently whispering, “Join here.” Today, if I may be so bold as to say so, I recognize that as the Holy Spirit guiding me. I followed that guidance, but I didn’t understand it. This church didn’t fit the approved pattern I learned about in the Church of Christ. They took up special offerings. Women led singing and sometimes read Scripture to the congregation. A piano and a guitar accompanied the singing, and some members clapped and raised their hands with the music. They celebrated Christmas. These practices were forbidden in the Church of Christ and made me uncomfortable. But I was determined to stick with it because I felt God led my family there. I allowed that my service to him might not be about certain worship doctrines, and that he’ll make use of a church even if it has recently added an electric guitar and drums to worship services. I took the uncomfortable step of letting him lead me without knowing the way first.

My elementary school

In hindsight, I can see that God wanted me at this church for what was to come. My marriage didn’t survive, and I was dragged through an extremely difficult divorce. Not only were church members a great encouragement to me, but both ministers were personally involved praying for me and encouraging me. The senior minister, who grew up in an ultraconservative church similar to the Church of Christ, taught and modeled a great deal about moving away from doctrinal legalism to grace, love, and a personal relationship with God. They helped meet my physical needs by letting me move into the church’s vacant parsonage while I worked through the divorce. I have even been on three mission trips because of this group, which has taught me deep lessons in service and in being served. These Christians helped me stand firmly through everything that has happened while also encouraging me to grow spiritually.

Trying to find and follow the ready guide, the list of things I must do to live successfully and in God’s good graces, failed me. I tried my best, but I always fell short.

You see, I missed the lesson when Mom walked me to school on my first day. The lesson wasn’t that I needed to strictly heed all of the things she told me about along the way. Knowing about the sumac and the woods and the crossing guard were useful and important, but not crucial. The crucial lesson was in the simplest and most automatic thing I did on that walk: I held my hand up for Mom to take. I trusted Mom to guide me to school. I didn’t know where it was, how to get there, or what dangers I might encounter on the way. I didn’t have to worry about it because Mom knew the way and she led me there.

I trusted Mom because she had proved herself trustworthy in my early years. Babies naturally seek to trust, but grown men are wary. Grown men even forget that trust is an option. I sought rules and regulations because they seemed sure. It took crisis to reduce me to surrender where I could finally hear God’s voice and take that first tenuous step toward trust. As my trust grows, I am learning that as long as I hold up my hand, God will take it. He will lead the way, and He will tell me useful and important things about living. I will find life fascinating and exciting, and I will reach my destination safely.

Standard
Faith, Personal

Faith map

Last year I wrote an entry here called “Holding up my hand,” in which I compared my faith journey to my mother walking me to school on my first day of kindergarten. It’s my favorite entry here, but because I wrote it shortly after I started this blog, few people have seen it. Since I get more than ten times the traffic now (a whopping 300 visits a week which, I’m sure, has WordPress.com scrambling to expand its server farm), I thought I’d shamelessly try to drive more traffic to that post.

The map below shows how I walked to elementary school as a boy in the 1970s. My family lived in a little neighborhood of small, cheap prefab homes on the southeast side of South Bend, Indiana. As my mom walked me to school on my first day of kindergarten, she pointed out all of the interesting things along the way. My story is about what faith is made of, and how it’s not made of the interesting things along the way. So now when you read “Holding up my hand,” you can refer to the map for easy reference!

Route to school

In the 34 years since that first trip to school, the properties my old neighborhood have become rentals, most houses with peeling paint and yards full of weeds and brown grass. Young families still live there, though. Children still take the Secret Sidewalk and pass the synagogue on their way to school, but the hippies are certainly gone (as is the woods on that corner) and the Church of Christ is now the Living Stones Church. I hope mothers are still holding their children’s hands on their first day.

Standard
Faith, Personal

Holding up my hand

On my first day of Kindergarten, my mother walked with me the half mile to school so I’d know the way. I was a little anxious about meeting so many new children, but only a little anxious because I felt tremendously reassured that Mom was taking me there. When the time came I reached my hand up for her to grasp and we left our house. In the warm September sun we walked uphill past the houses that curved along our narrow street. She led me along the Secret Sidewalk, a shortcut between some houses that emptied onto another street that led down the other side of the hill. As we passed the synagogue, Mom explained how Jews in our area walked to services there every Saturday. As we passed a patch of little sumac trees, Mom warned me not to touch them because they were poisonous. As we passed a wooded lot, Mom warned me not to go in because the hippies liked to go in there and she wasn’t sure they were safe. As we rounded the corner and passed the Church of Christ, Mom said that even if the other kids wanted to cut through their property as a shortcut, I was to stay on the sidewalk. I took in everything Mom said, fascinated and excited by how much there was to know about this walk to school. Finally, we reached the corner by the school. Mom explained how to watch and listen for the crossing guard. The guard gave the okay, and we crossed and walked up to the school. Mom left me at the door with a kiss, a hug, and a promise that she’d be waiting at that door when school let out. I felt secure as I walked inside.

Crocus

On my own twenty years later, I felt alone and lost. I wanted guidance, a path to follow, that would work better than what I had come up with. I felt sure God would have that path, so I wound up in a Methodist church. In time, the pastor sprinkled me on the head and I was in. I did things I thought I should do as a Christian: I attended Sunday school and services every week, I tried to quit swearing and always be honorable, and I helped with the youth group. I enjoyed the people and socialized heavily with my Sunday school class. But I struggled with God, whom I expected to judge me, eyebrow arched and lips pursed, each time I slipped up. And I didn’t understand the church’s rituals. For example, every couple months we took communion. We read puzzling texts from the hymnal and then lined up to eat a little wafer and drink a sip of grape juice. But I didn’t know what it was for! I used to pray, “Lord, I don’t know why I’m doing this, but I pray that you will bless it anyway.” God and His church weren’t making sense. It was easier to just have fun with my friends from Sunday school. In time, I became disillusioned with church politics and fell away. I used to blame the Methodists, but something the pastor said to me many times comes back to me now: “Each man must find his own path to God.” I sure wasn’t searching so I might find; I guess I expected the church to show me.

One day, the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on the door and promised that my Bible could be an open book to me, giving me accurate knowledge of God and His standards for me and for His people, the true Christians. I was nervous because of the Witnesses’ notoriety, but the fun young couple who came to study with us soon melted those reservations. Steve, a slight man who bobbed and twitched with nervous energy, enthusiastically shared his knowledge. He dove relentlessly into his Bible looking for verses that answered our questions. Every week for a year, he and his wife, Jessica, drove to our house in a succession of $500 beater cars to study with us. In counterpoint to Steve’s nervous energy, Jessica sat like a reference librarian, placid and poised with a heaping gob of thick blonde hair usually pulled up into a bun and glasses perched on the end of her nose. She could clarify in ten words anything Steve said in a hundred, but she always quietly let her husband speak. My wife and I enjoyed their company and our study. We became very excited and encouraged to find that the Bible could be our sole guide to living a life worthy of the name Christian. At last, here’s the path I didn’t find in the Methodist church! It would be all spelled out for me! I could put on Christ like a new suit of clothes and leave my troubled life behind! But it troubled me that the Watchtower Society seemed to have the right to interpret Scripture for us. Some of their theology and doctrine didn’t add up. Finally, Steve couldn’t explain a particular doctrinal point to our satisfaction, and we began to lose our confidence. A succession of church elders came to try to explain. Finally one elder brought it all into focus for me when he said, “Look, just come to services for a few months, and then you’ll understand and it will seem natural.” In other words, he wanted us to become a part of their culture, and then whatever the Watchtower Society would ask of us, we would do naturally. That seemed flat wrong. We ended our studies with Steve and Jessica, and since we were now apostates they couldn’t see us anymore. We missed them.

White crocus

Not daunted in finding God’s sure path for us, we found the Church of Christ. They were dedicated to following the New Testament pattern for living a Christian life, and they looked only to Scripture for their authority, not to any man-made organization. Since part of that pattern required baptism by immersion, my earlier baptism didn’t count and I was baptized again. So the preacher dunked me, my sins were washed away (he was sure to point out), and I was in. We did things we thought Christians should do: My wife taught Bible class for children, I created a Web site for the church, and we faithfully attended twice on Sunday and every Wednesday evening.

On the one hand, I felt secure in the standards for Christians that the Bible seemed to spell out. Forgive. Love your wife as Christ loved the church; that is, sacrificially. Do not divorce, except for adultery. Give as you purpose in your heart, as you have prospered. Above all, do not forsake the assembly of Christians. I just had to do these things, and others the Bible specified, to be right with God. This was the way I was looking for.

On the other hand, I felt secret shame that I could meet few of these standards well and consistently. I didn’t feel good enough. Truly, because of how much I missed the mark, I often doubted my salvation. I compared myself to all the longtime members, most of whom grew up in that congregation, who seemed to be able to do all of these things. Seemed. Much later I saw how many of them had the same secret shame I did. Shame’s brother is fear, which led to members interpreting the Bible ultra-conservatively to be on the safe side. Hairsplitting doctrinal discussions were common. I remember a discussion with a fellow about church leadership. The Bible says that an elder should have children. My friend asserted that a man with only one child should not seek the eldership, just to be safe, because God might really have meant two or more children. “Oh, come now!” I said, “if you had one child and I asked how many children you had, would you say, ‘I don’t have children, but I have a child?’ How absurd!” Yet he held fast to his fear-based conclusion lest he find himself hellbound.

I loved those people, though. They showed my family love during a particularly painful and difficult period of my life. Several men stepped up to encourage me, pray with me, and study with me. Several women reached out to support my wife through the crisis. But a year or so later, fear seemed to seal shut the doors of that love when the elders learned that my family’s past history ran afoul of the church’s teachings on marriage and divorce. The elders considered our story, reviewed Scripture, and then met with us to say that we had no right to each other. They were grave yet deflated as they delivered the message; one elder in his 70s looked physically ill. I felt guilty that this had burdened them so. But our situation had become serious because the church’s teachings spoke of separating and never remarrying. I was distraught. I had hoped for help keeping my family intact, but all these elders could do was tell me their interpretation of Scripture and withdraw awaiting my decision of what I was going to do. When you live by the law, you die by it too.

I didn’t understand the Bible the same way the elders did over this matter, and so we left the Church of Christ. We eventually settled in an independent Christian Church. Shortly after we settled there, one of the elders from the Church of Christ called to ask where we were attending. When I told him, he gasped, said, “Oh! Jim, you were taught better than that!” and quickly hung up the phone. Soon we received a letter signed by the elders disfellowshipping us for joining a denominational church, “denominational” meaning “any church other than the Church of Christ.” Members there were not to associate with us except to help restore us to the faith. As far as they were concerned, we were apostate, no longer Christians.

God disagrees.

Narcissus

Shortly after I came to this little Christian Church, I had this strong sense that we belonged there. I heard a voice gently whispering, “Join here.” Today, if I may be so bold as to say so, I recognize that as the Holy Spirit guiding me. I followed that guidance, but I didn’t understand it. This church didn’t fit the approved pattern I learned about in the Church of Christ. They took up special offerings. Women led singing and sometimes read Scripture to the congregation. A piano and a guitar accompanied the singing, and some members clapped and raised their hands with the music. These practices were forbidden in the Church of Christ and made me uncomfortable. But I was determined to stick with it because I felt God led my family there. I allowed that my service to him might not be about certain worship doctrines, and perhaps I’m still to learn that he’ll make use of a church even if it has recently added an electric guitar and drums. I took the uncomfortable step of letting him lead me without knowing the way first.

In hindsight, I can see that God wanted me at this church for what was to come. My marriage didn’t survive, and I was dragged through an extremely difficult divorce. Not only have church members been a great encouragement to me, but both ministers have been personally involved praying for me and encouraging me. I have had lunch with the family minister every week for two years; what started out as a way to help me stay on course has developed into friendship. The senior minister, who grew up in a conservative church from the same family as the Church of Christ, has taught and modeled a great deal about moving away from doctrinal legalism to grace, love, and a personal relationship with God. They helped meet my physical needs by letting me move into the church’s vacant parsonage while I worked through the divorce. I have even been on three mission trips because of this group, which has taught me deep lessons in service and in being served. These Christians have helped me stand firmly through everything that has happened, while also encouraging me to grow spiritually.

Trying to find and follow the ready guide, the list of things I must do to live successfully and in God’s good graces, failed me. I tried my best, but I always fell short.

You see, I missed the lesson when Mom walked me to school on my first day. The lesson wasn’t that I needed to strictly heed all of the things she told me about along the way. Knowing about the sumac and the woods and the crossing guard were useful and important, but not crucial. The crucial lesson was in the simplest and most automatic thing I did on that walk: I reached my hand up for Mom to take. I trusted Mom to guide me to school. I didn’t know where it was, how to get there, or what dangers I might encounter on the way. I didn’t have to worry about it because Mom knew the way and she led me there.

I trusted Mom because she had proved herself trustworthy in my early years. Babies naturally seek to trust, but grown men are wary. Grown men even forget that trust is an option. I sought rules and regulations because they seemed sure. It took crisis to reduce me to surrender where I could finally hear God’s voice and take that first tenuous step toward trust. As my trust grows, I am learning that as long as I stick my hand up, God will take it. He will lead the way, and He will tell me useful and important things about living. I will find life fascinating and exciting, and I will reach my destination safely.

Standard
Faith

Merciful invitation

It’s easy to get a bad impression of God as you leaf through the Old Testament. God said that the natural consequence of sin — of falling short of what God wants from us — is death, just like overeating’s natural consequence is getting fat and not paying the rent’s natural consequence is eviction. It’s just that every time somebody fell out of line in those days, it seemed like God was right there to fry them to a cinder or give them a terminal illness. Even when the consequence of a particular sin didn’t bring quick death, God’s actions seemed really harsh. For example, after David’s affair with Bathsheba, God killed the son the union produced. Clearly, God wanted his people to trust and obey him, and he handed out heavy consequences when they did not. But what does not leap out at you from the Old Testament is how God could show mercy and even have something of a soft spot in his heart for his people when they sinned.

Consider that when the Israelites were afraid to trust God and cross into the Promised Land, God wanted to wipe them all out. But Moses asked God to pardon them, and so instead God sentenced them to wander in the desert for 40 years. And then God provided for them out there, making sure they had plenty of food and even keeping their clothes from wearing out.

Also, Abraham negotiated with God, who wanted to torch sinful Sodom and Gomorrah and all their people, asking him to spare those who did right in God’s eyes. In the end, God promised Abraham that He would not burn the place if at least ten people there were righteous. (There weren’t even ten there, it turned out, because God pretty quickly turned on the heavenly flamethrower.)

King David actually counted on God’s inherent merciful nature. 1 Chronicles 21 tells that David ordered a census of his kingdom, Israel. This was a sin because it let David take pride in the strength of his army rather than remember that God directly allowed Israel to win its battles. God was not happy. In verses 11-12, God gave David a choice of consequences: three years of famine, three months of being swept away by enemies, or three days of God bringing disease and destruction. David’s personal sin was going to have serious national consequences, and each choice seem to be more violent and severe than the last. You might think that David would choose the first or second consequence becaue they could not possibly be as awful as what God would do directly. Yet David chose God’s direct punishment. In verse 13, David said, “Please let me fall into the hand of the LORD, for His mercies are very great. But do not let me fall into the hand of man.”

David knew God. He certainly knew the stories of his people, where God’s mercy played out time and again. David also knew God personally. He often heard God’s voice encouraging and guiding him. He knew from experience that God couldn’t suffer sin and that sin had natural consequences in peoples’ lives. Finally, he knew from God’s laws for Israel that God loved his people and wanted them to do well and enjoy life. So David knew God’s mercy, and he chose wisely.

God began to wreak destruction on David’s kingdom just as He said He would, killing 70,000 men with disease. But just as God’s angel was poised to utterly wipe out the capital city of Jerusalem, He hesitated and said, “It is enough,” (verse 15). God pulled back. God’s consequences were plenty severe, but God didn’t do everything he could do — perhaps not even as much as famine or invasion would do.

All along, God has known that people are imperfect and sinful. Even when we do our best, we still fall short a lot. And while the consequences of our sins is still death, God has stopped burning us to a crisp and instead lets our natural life spans play out. Jesus took on that burden for us when he suffered and died. This was always the plan, and it is the most powerful display of God’s mercy. This mercy is already extended to Christians. If you’re not a Christian, it’s available to you today if you turn to Jesus, believe in Him, and are baptized so your sins are forgiven. And then you never need worry.

Standard