Undoubtedly many, if not all, of us have found ourselves in a situation, in a conversation or in a relationship that touched on the very core of a fundamental part of our belief system; those moments caused us to check on what we believe in – define it, discard it or alter it. If you haven’t had one of those moments yet … you will.
I’ve come across those “forks in the road”, those moments in our lives that make us ask, “What do I believe? What are my values? What is the true self? Is this the direction in which I want to go with my life?” Case in point, my political views.
When I was younger I was a staunch conservative. I identified myself by the tenets of “right wing” politics with a stubbornness that bordered on arrogance. Maybe that’s a function of my youth and inexperience in life. To me, everything was black or white without much gray. If you didn’t believe as I did, there was something wrong with you. Now I’m older and perhaps a little wiser. My experiences with people, events and alternative thoughts have broadened, my political edges have softened quite a bit and there’s a lot more gray in the world. Recently, my spiritual beliefs and faith underwent a similar re-examination. I had to take a look at my faith and assess its core values.
I am Christian and as many of you know, I am a part of a wonderful, inspiring, challenging, sometimes goofy but always loving family of faith called Hopesprings Community of Faith in Bangor, PA. I first attended the gathering several years ago when I was young in my recovery from addiction. My history with “religion” was spotty and bland; I wanted and needed something more. In my recovery process I was searching for a deeper, more personal relationship with God as I understood Him. I didn’t understand God all that well at that point except that God loved me, never gave up on me (even when I was at my most despicable) and saved me from teetering into the abyss.
I began to question the old rules and dogmas, crafted and honed over millenia, and in which I was raised. They felt wrong, constraining. They felt like chains and weights that made it difficult to move closer to God. Now I understand that society creates some rules – guardrails, if you will – to keep us within a range of acceptable behavior. The rules are necessary to prevent chaos and to protect us from ourselves and others. But sometimes the rules hog-tie us and keep us from seeing the underlying value the rule was designed to promote; especially so when we elevate form over substance. So it was with me and “religion.”
So, I “stumbled” across Hopesprings one Sunday morning still hungry for something more. It felt like I had walked into an alien world. Here was a group of people – inked, young, old, beaten, successful, broken, mending – joyous and loving on others and the community! Michael began the lesson that Sunday and by the end of the gathering I was in tears – Niagra Falls! This happened again and again, even today with Jonathan as the pastor, week after week. This was no aberration. This is what I was looking for – a community who believed in only two “rules”: love God, love others; here was a family who practiced those fundamental beliefs in real life, on the streets of the community, in small ways with lots of love.
Two rules – love God, love others. So, is this what Jesus meant when he told Matthew, Peter and others “Follow me” (Matt. 9:9; John 21:19, 22)? I mean, the very definition of “Christian” is one who follows Jesus the Christ, right? What does “following” entail? What does it look like in real life?
Now I can complicate the hell out of making a PB & J sandwich and I know that something as deep as my faith can be made very obtuse, twisted and overly complicated. But Jesus was anything but complicated although we do a really good job of making His message complicated. Case in point – the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The scholar knows the rule of “love your neighbor” and Jesus confirms this. But the scholar is uncomfortable with what this is asking him to do and he attempts to incorporate exceptions to the simple rule. “What do you mean when you say ‘neighbor’? Who is my ‘neighbor’?”
I am no Bible scholar and I don’t have to be in order to determine what “following” looks like in reality. I can look no further than the way Jesus lived His life. In all matters, the bedrock of His actions and His words was this: loving God and loving people, without exception! He was unconcerned about their socio-economic status; unconcerned about society’s opinions of the poor, the sick, the nameless and the voiceless; unconcerned about the rules that got in the way or obscured the people from connecting with God.
He not only broke the rules but chastised those who created the rules to bog down the people’s hearts and bodies. He repeatedly called out the elite and the pious who elevated following the letter of the law but refused to acknowledge or show mercy to the unfortunate. He shined a light on the hypocrisy of those who claimed to be religious on the outside but whose hearts were black and cold on the inside.
Act justly, love mercy and walk with humility (Micah 6:8); love God, love others (Mark 12:30-31). Simple, easy to understand “rules” to live by. For me, this is what it means when Jesus says “follow me”. Don’t overcomplicate this – when He says “follow me” He’s saying “Watch what I do, listen to what I say, see how I treat others and do the same thing. I lead by example” This is the way to live a life of connection with God and others. Don’t get caught up in the rules that will weigh you down and prevent you from acting justly, being merciful, being humble or serving your neighbor.
So many “Christians” seem to get tied up and entangled in the rules. They equate “Christianity” with a straightjacket of rules – rules about what music to listen to, rules about what clothes to wear, rules about what prayers to say, rules about what sect to belong to, rules about what TV shows to watch … and the list goes on. Too often they treat others who don’t fit in their box as “less-thans”, flawed in some way. They can be judgmental and arrogant thinking that their way is the “true” way. The same could be said of political parties, other religions and cultures. They can be harsh and unforgiving. They seem to fail to consider where they would be if God was as unforgiving, impatient and unmerciful as they were. In short, a lot like me in my youth.
So what brought all this on? I was presented with a situation that forced me to examine what my faith was all about. I had to look at my values, my beliefs and ask “Who am I? What’s important to me? What am I made of?”
This wasn’t a life or death struggle that prompted these questions. It was a simple meeting in a principal’s office to discuss ramifications of an occurrence at school. This was a meeting where I learned very clearly the difference between law and order, rule-bound, harsh Christianity and the merciful, compassionate and sometimes uncomfortable version of Christianity. I learned that some people’s interpretation of Christianity can be focused on being judgmental, unforgiving, harsh and lacking in patience; what was even more frightening was how they seemed completely comfortable with calling themselves Christian while justifying their rigidity.
I’m all for there being consequences for one’s actions and, in this case, there were. What I was not at all comfortable with was these “Christians” who gave up on my son, who failed to see the potential in him, who saw him as one who should not expect much in his life as he will not be successful, who gave up because things got a little hard. They quit on him and in the process quit on Him; they effectively said that God was not able to do good works in him. Their lack of faith in God was both blatant and astounding!
Where would we be if God have up on us? What would it look like if God threw up his hands and said “This is too hard. These people keep screwing up. I don’t have the patience for this anymore?” What if God got tired of pursuing us? How hopeless, desperate and bleak would our lives be? I shudder to think of where I would be if God had given up on me!
Well, I don’t subscribe to that nonsensical version of Christianity. I am a member of the merciful, just, loving, forgiving and graceful family of the Christ; he has infinite patience and never gives up the chase. The God of my understanding is one of love, mercy and forgiveness.
Follow Him, I will, to the best of my ability.