Signs of Grace

This morning, on my walk to work, a cool Spring breeze was blowing on my face.  Bird songs filled the air.  All of a sudden loud chirp dominated the music, like the voice of a soloist rising above the softer voices of the choir.  I looked up above me and saw a cardinal, all dressed up in the red mating feathers of Spring, not more than six or seven feet above my head.  I stopped and looked straight up at the bird, bright red against the light green buds of the tree.  Something changed in my heart.  As I walked on, the words and tune of an old hymn played in my mind.

This is my Father’s world,
And to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings
The music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world:
I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas–
His hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father’s world:
The birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white,
Declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world:
He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass,
He speaks to me everywhere.

This is my Father’s world:
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the Ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world:
Why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King: let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let earth be glad!

(Maltbie D. Babcock, 1901)

Humming the tune in my mind, I walked down Grace Street toward my office.  I saw a rabbit, some ten feet from the sidewalk, sitting warily as I passed.  The cardinal, the rabbit, are signs of grace.  And this old song was for me a wonderful expression of my response to that grace.

I know that for some the image of God as Father is extremely problematic.  And for that reason it makes it hard for them to sing this hymn.  Too often Christians have used the image of God as Father to reinforce patriarchal domination.  We in the church, calling God “Father,” have assumed that God is a man, using this assumption to imply that men should rule over women, that men are stronger than women, that men are superior in all sorts of ways to women. This is all nonsense.  God is not male and female.  God transcends our gender divisions.  And as Christians, we should be working for justice, not reinforcing structures of oppression.  Unfortunately, patriarchal Christianity pollutes the metaphor of God as father, making it hard to appreciate old hymns like the one that came into my mind this morning.

But there is something deeply true in its words.   If we are open to the music sung by the natural world in which we live, we can be lifted into the arms of the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.”  This “One” is beyond our limited concepts of human relations, not in some impersonal way, but in a “trans-personal” way.  And when “the wrong seems oft so strong,” this hymn points us to One who is, in a way that transcends even this metaphor, our loving parent.

Too often, Christianity has told us to look away from the world in which we live.  This hymn reminds us that the world around us God’s creation.  It sings of God’s creative love and power.  Islam teaches that the everything in the world, including plants and animals, are muslim.  That is, they submit to God.  And for that reason, they are signs of God for those who would but understand them.  This is a teaching that Christians, like me, could benefit from listening to.  After all, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it”(Psalm 24:1), and “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 10:1).  There are songs being sung, signs on display, that point to our God.

I am deeply disturbed by the wrong I see all around me, and I have reflected on it in recent posts.  But this morning, I stop to thank and praise God for the signs of grace I encounter as I walk down the sidewalk, for the songs of love that I hear, for the birds, the squirrels, the rabbit, the breeze.  My brothers and sisters in God’s family.  Praise be to God, the one to whom we all submit.

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I Doubt It!

When I was in college, I had a friend with whom I would share my doubts.  We were both members of an evangelical campus group, but we also had skeptical minds.  My skepticism emerged particularly when I read the works of Christian apologists claiming to demonstrate the rationality of Christian faith.  While some of my friends were encouraged by such arguments, my reaction tended to be “I doubt it.”  It wasn’t that I wasn’t a Christian.  It was just that I didn’t find the arguments convincing.  My Christian friends accepted the arguments, it seemed to me, because they reinforced their beliefs, not because the arguments were good arguments.  And so, when Brian and I would sit and talk together, I’d suggest that someday I’d write a book called, “I doubt it,” critiquing the ideas and arguments of Christian apologists.

It’s been over 30 years since my college days, and I haven’t written that book.  But I’ve done a lot of thinking about doubt. and the discouragement and depression that can sometimes come with it.  Through those years, God hasn’t let me go.  I’m still a Christian, and I’m still a skeptic.  My inner life doesn’t tend to be very peaceful.  My mind raises lots of questions, especially about God, about the kinds of things that happen in the world, about the church, about all sorts of things that make me wonder about my faith.  For good or for bad, my mind usually doesn’t come up with answers.  Just troubling questions.  In various ways, things that Christians say or do or believe don’t seem to make sense, or are just plain wrong.  Things in the world don’t seem to suggest that God is in control, or that God even cares.  Christians have used the Bible to support slavery, war, racism, violence against women and children, and all sorts of evil things.  Sometimes churches seem to do more to support structures of evil than to promote justice and peace, shalom.  All kinds of things make me skeptical of this faith I call my own.  Can I really believe this?  Do I really want to identify myself with that?

In short, I’ve been thinking about darkness, doubt, and skepticism for a long time.  I’ve read books about the nature of skepticism and how to overcome it.  I’ve read apologists and Christian philosophers.  Sometimes, I’ve wondered if sin is the problem.  If I could just overcome my favorite sins, I’d no longer doubt.  Recently, I’ve been reading several books on living with experiential darkness, doubt and depression.  And I think I’ve found some insights.  One particularly helpful idea came to me from Addison Hodges Hart’s little book, Knowing Darkness: On Skepticism, Melancholy, Friendship and God.  Hart suggests that skepticism is not the opposite of faith, that it need not be viewed as the enemy of faith.  Skepticism helps one remember the limitations of human reason and knowledge.  It challenges one not to settle for easy answers.  It holds out for truth.  “Skepticism,” he writes, “within the context of Christian faith is, I believe, a good thing. . . . It is a faith open to questioning God, examining his ways, complaining to him, and even expressing exasperation at his silence.  It is a faith that admits sorrow and sadness and mental darkness, one that places melancholy before God in a place of legitimacy, as well as a sense of humor. . . . this is the kind of faith we find in the Bible itself” (page 23). What these words have helped me see is that skepticism is part of my faith, not opposed to it.  Perhaps I am a person for whom faith without doubt is impossible. Doubting (what Hart prefers to call skepticism) is an aspect of “how I do faith.”

And I don’t believe this is because of my sin.  Yes, I am a sinner.  I am well aware of that.  But doubt is not a punishment for sin, nor it is just the natural outcome of sin.  Certainty is not a reward I can expect once I get my life totally together.  No, skepticism is a gift from God, a gift that can be used in many ways, to build up the body of Christ, to help discover truth, and to understand and love others.  Skepticism reminds us that our limited ideas and concepts are never adequate to understand the God they point to.  And while I sometimes find myself in the dark, whether intellectually or emotionally, I am coming to believe that God is still there, walking with me whether I am aware of the divine presence or not.  “Though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”  Sometimes my mind yells out to God, “I doubt it;”  sometimes my heart protests, “Where are you?  I feel so cold!”  Even in those times, I will look up at the street sign and remind myself, whether I feel it or not, that I am walking on Grace Street!

Drawing Circles Around God

Why is it that, as Christians, we like to draw circles around God? When I was a senior in high school, I had a fairly typical evangelical experience with God. I started thinking of my relationship with God in personal terms, as one of friendship. I got involved in a high school-age Bible study group and then, when I went to college, in an evangelical fellowship group. It was a great time of spiritual growth. My Christian friends and I felt God’s presence in our lives in ways that we hadn’t in the traditional church, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant. While the churches were filled with “nominal Christians,” we were “real Christians.” If someone had asked us if we were “born again,” we would have known exactly what they meant and said, “Yes.” To be born again set us apart from others who went to church and did religious things, but weren’t really Christians.

Several years later my wife and I were working for an evangelical campus ministry organization. Our task was to guide Christian student leaders in fellowship groups on various campuses. I remember discussing the religious faith of faculty members, basically asking, “Is he/she a real Christian?” At one small liberal arts college, for example, there was a professor in the Religion Department who had taught at an evangelical Christian college. He left his previous position (perhaps he had been forced to leave) due to doctrinal differences. He was a universalist. He didn’t believe God would send anyone to hell. He could talk the evangelical lingo better than anyone else on campus, but was he a real Christian? Similarly, I remember thinking about a Roman Catholic sister who encouraged a group on one of the Catholic campuses where we had contacts. Was she a real Christian?

I see it in my life even now, too. I am excited by new ministries and experimental ongregations doing new things, or ancient things in new ways, to interface with today’s culture, reaching people with the story of Jesus. It is so easy to say, “Look! See the Spirit at work! That is where God is, not in dying denominational churches.” But as an elder in my denomination, I sit on a committee that shares the struggles of small, rural congregations. Yes, they are struggling. They are losing the younger people in their communities, sometimes to “more evangelical” or more “contemporary” churches, sometimes to secular culture. They struggle to balance the budget and overcome personality conflicts. Sometimes it is hard for them to simply keep the doors open. But I have also come to see that a small, “dying” congregation is made up of brothers and sisters in Christ, who have been faithful through the years, being salt and light in their towns and villages. They are sinners like us all, susceptible to power fights and personality conflicts. But they are often prayer warriors, praying for God’s work around the world. They give faithfully to offerings to provide help to the poor. They send men and women, money and supplies, to help in times of disaster. They work for good in their villages and towns. But, finding it difficult to accept the rapid changes in our world, they fear that the church is dying. So, they, too, are sometimes guilty of drawing a circle around God. “How can you worship God when the worship service becomes more like a concert?” they ask. “How can those young folks with tattoos and piercings be Christians?” “How can you get to know your pastor when you watch the sermons on a big screen?” Quite simply, they have a hard time seeing God at work “over there.”

There are many ways of drawing circles: traditional denominations divisions, doctrinal disputes, different tastes in worship style, political differences, differences about what kind of lifestyle is acceptable for Christians to live. It is so easy to say, “This is the way the church ought to be. This is what it means to be a real Christian. We are right. They are wrong. God is at work here. Not over there.”

Why are we so tempted to draw lines between those we believe are ”in” and those we believe are “out.” I think it has to do with our own sin, our own need to assure ourselves that God is at work where we are. Confronted with others ways, we want to justify our own. But Jesus challenges us to change our way of thinking, to change our way of acting, in the face of otherness. One day, an expert of the law asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded with a question of his own, “What is written in the Law? What is your interpretation?” The lawyer knew his stuff. He reached into the Law and quoted the two commandments that Jesus himself is said to have identified as central: We are to love God with everything we have, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus commended the lawyer for his answer. But then, Luke says, the lawyer wanted “to justify himself,” and went on to ask, “And who is my neighbor?” In short, where can I draw the line? Who do I have to love? Jesus answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan.

You probably know the story. But think again about what Jesus did. The lawyer wanted Jesus to draw a circle. He wanted Jesus to say, these are your neighbors, these are the one’s you are to love. Instead, Jesus obliterated the circle. Jesus told a story about a man who was clearly outside of the lawyer’s circle. Samaritans, after all, were racially mixed (not pure Jews!), believed the wrong things, practiced the wrong rituals, and worshiped in the wrong place. They were clearly unacceptable to God, or so thought the Jews. How could they be his neighbors? But Jesus told a story about a Samaritan man who reached from outside the circle to meet the needs of a man (probably a Jew) inside the circle. Two devout Jews on the other hand passed by. Which of the characters showed love? Which character did Jesus suggest would “inherit eternal life”? Not the devout Jews! Then, get this, Jesus says “Go and do likewise!” Go be like a Samaritan!! Love beyond the circle. Love all those God brings into your lives, especially those in need. Jesus refused to draw a circle to limit God’s love, and ours. Instead he tells us to go outside “the circle” with love. That’s what characterized his life, too. Jesus hung out with those “outside the circle.”

So why is it that we work so hard to draw a circle, to define who is in and who is out? Like the expert in the law, we draw circles around God to justify ourselves. We find security in believing that we are acting the right way, believing the right things, doing church the way God wants. But it’s false security. Real justification comes from Christ. And Jesus calls us to reach beyond our comfort zone, ignoring our various circles, and seeing God at work in all kinds of ways. I sometimes hear it suggested that the church is dying. God’s church is not dying. It is alive and well, as always , wherever two or three (sinful people) are gathered in the name of Christ. God is at work in small, struggling churches. God is at work in mega-churches we hear about on the news. God is at work outside the church as well. God is at work among people that we Christians draw circles to keep out. May God forgive us and open our eyes to see.

No Entrance Exam

Several months ago, I had a conversation with a college student that left me distressed.  As a professor at a small Christian university, I have the privilege of talking to students about all kinds of things, including spirituality and religion. On this particular day, a student had made an appointment with me to discuss changing his major to religion.  The conversation, however, turned to much more important questions than what Sean should major in.  As we talked, Sean opened up to me about some deep concerns.  He had grown up in an evangelical Christian home.  His parents were very involved in a church.  Sean had gone through a period of doubting and rebellion, but in high school he got involved in a Bible study group that helped him reaffirm his Christian faith.  I could tell, though, that his time in college continued to be a time of questioning his faith.

Sean told me that he had become friends with another student who called herself a Christian, but who was a member of a church that many evangelical Christians would say is outside of the boundaries of historical Christian faith. I could tell that out of his conversations with his friend, Sean had developed a deep respect for her conviction and faith.  But it raised a question that was deeply troubling for him:  “What if she is right in what she believes and I am wrong?  Will I go to hell?  Lots of groups of Christians who claim to believe and teach the truth about God.  They don’t agree,”Sean worried aloud  to me. “What if my beliefs are the wrong ones?  What if I do not believe what I need to believe to get into heaven?”

I have thought about that conversation with Sean a number of times since.  In ruminating about it, I was reminded of a day, many years ago when I was visiting an independent Bible church.  I was reading their statement of beliefs.  I don’t remember the exact words, but I am pretty sure it said something like, “We believe that a person can (only?) be saved by believing in the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ for his sins.”  (I am pretty sure it didn’t say ‘his or her sins,’ but I suppose that is what they meant.  That statement struck me as wrong at the time, and it strikes me as wrong today.  The implication is that no one can be saved if he or she does not hold the correct doctrinal belief about Christ’s death.  Salvation, in short, depends on having the correct theology.  I would argue that this is unbiblical.  What is wrong about the statement is not the doctrinal theory of salvation that is referred to, although we could discuss that.  What is wrong about it is that it claims that one is saved by believing a particular doctrine, a particular formulation of Christian truth.  I can’t think of any passage in the Bible that suggests that heaven has an entrance exam in theology.  I know some, perhaps many, Christians will get upset when I say this, but I do not believe that anyone is saved by believing a particular doctrine or kept from being saved because they didn’t quite get their doctrinal beliefs in line.

Again, I remember many years ago reading an illustration of the nature of faith.  It went something like this: Imagine that you have fallen off a cliff and are hanging on for dear life to a shrub growing on the side of the rock.  A voice comes from below. “Let go of the branch.  I am on a ledge right below you.  I will catch you and keep you from falling.”  You hear a real voice.  You are not just imagining it or hoping there is someone there.  You can trust the voice and let go or keep holding on.  Trusting the voice takes faith.  Faith is not just hoping there is someone below and letting go.  It is responding to a real voice, trusting the person that is uttering the words of salvation. That’s something like what I remember about the illustration.  But take the illustration a bit further.  Just what does it mean to trust?  Does it mean having the right beliefs about who the person is? Not at all!  Faith is hearing a voice offering help and allowing the source of the voice to help you.  Imagine that I am the one holding on for dear life and it is my best friend who is calling out to me, but the wind is obscuring my friend’s voice and in my state of mind I don’t recognize the voice.  Imagine that I think it is a fireman or an emergency rescue person who has come to save me.  Nevertheless, I hear the voice and am confident that the person who is speaking with me is ready and able to rescue me.  So I let go.  What is my friend going to do when it becomes clear that I didn’t know it was her?  Let me go?  Push me off the ledge and send me to my doom?  Of course not.  Surely we will hug and laugh and rejoice that even though I was confused and mistaken, I put my life in her hands and she saved me!  And we’ll go back to our friends and family and party together because I am okay.

I didn’t have a very good answer for Sean as he sat in my office and shared his concerns.  I hope that the fact that I listened to his worries was a help in itself.  When students ask me questions or make comments, it is usually later on that I think of a response.  To be honest, that’s probably fine, because it’s the answers we find for ourselves that really help us answer our questions.  But I will say that Sean helped me think about my own faith, as students often do when they raise questions about such matters.  And the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that the God I believe in, the God I see in the Bible, the God who sent Jesus Christ into the world to save sinners, is not a God who gives an entry exam at the gates of heaven.  Jesus did say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the father but by me.”  Just as there are some Christians who get upset when I say there is no entry exam for heaven, there will be others (both Christians and non-Christians) who will get upset when I suggest its true that Jesus is the only way to the Father.  But what Jesus didn’t say is also important.  He said, “no one comes to the Father but by me.”  He didn’t go on, “and if you don’t quite get my name right, if you get confused about who I am, I’m going to let you go.”  No, the God of Jesus Christ is a God of grace.  The voice of God is calling out to all of us on this planet.  There is a lot of yelling going on in our world that makes it very hard to hear the voice.  Maybe we should quit yelling so people can hear God’s voice more clearly.  There’s a lot of suffering and pain that make it very hard to think straight.  Maybe if we can relieve some of the pain of others, they will hear God’s voice to them.  There’s a lot of just plain selfishness that causes us to hear the voice say what we want to hear rather than what God wants us to hear.  Certainly, we can be more open to learning from others, realizing that we might just have it wrong sometimes. In the meantime, is God going to let us drop if we don’t quite get it right?  I really don’t think so. The God of Jesus is a God of grace who is waiting, longing to catch us.  The New Testament claims that this God became a human being, suffered the most horrendous death to make it possible for us to come back to him.  A God who loves us that much is not going to let anyone who trusts the divine voice slip from the ledge, no matter how confused.  And one last thing: it says in the Bible that whenever Jesus catches one of us who would otherwise fall on down to death, there is laughter and partying in heaven.

I truly hope Sean will come to understand that God will not push him into hell just because he doesn’t quite believe the right things.  I pray that Sean will grow to see the incredible love of the God who will hold him in grace and continue to believe in him,  even when Sean is not quite sure what he believes himself.

Nothing But a Sinner

Grace.  In a previous blogs, I wrote that all my life I have been walking on grace street.  It strikes me that I should make something clear.  You may have taken me to mean that I think I am somehow special, that I have a special dispensation of God’s grace.  That is the opposite of what I mean.  I believe there is absolutely nothing that makes me better than other human beings.  Too often, Christians come across as thinking they are better than everyone else. No.  We are no better.  Being a Christian is, in fact, not about being better than others. Walking on Grace Street is about the love of God breaking into my life even when I resist, even when I rebel, even when I don’t act like I want God’s grace at all.

Baptism: Visible Sign of Invisible Grace

On a cold day in November of 1953, my parents, Bill and Fern presented their infant son, Roger, for baptism.  Bill, a minister himself, asked the conference minister to officiate at the baptism.  For the baptism, I am sure the Ebertz family were surrounded by a host of friends, faithful brothers and sisters in Christ who had served together with them in that congregation. Baptism, a visible sign of an invisible grace.

Of course, I don’t remember that day at all.  But looking back at an old minister’s manual from the time I can make a good guess what was said.  They promised to teach me “the principles of our Christian religion,” and to pray with me and for me.  The minister prayed, “Grant, O Lord, unto these thy servants, the grace to perform that which they have promised before thee.  And sanctify with thy spirit this child now baptized and committed in Christian faith to thee.”

And so, with water sprinkled on my head, I was baptized, “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” and received “into the love and care of the church.”  A visible sign of an invisible grace.

Over the last 7 or 8 years, I’ve thought a lot about grace.  The more I think about it, the more amazed I am at the gracefulness of God.   There are so many times when I have done stupid things and God has saved me by his grace.  I remember once, for example, when I was probably 8 or 9 years old.   I was with my friends.  One of us had found some ammunition for a 22 rifle and we were kneeling down on the sidewalk, hitting one of the bullets with a hammer.  The bullet fired.  By God’s grace, none of us was hurt.

Most people who know me think I am a “together” person.  But from the inside, my life often looks and feels like a mess.  There are times when the mess comes out.   Only through gracious forgiveness from others do I manage to go on.

Several years ago, some things happened that helped me see I needed some counseling.  I began going to a psychological counselor for help.  Those conversations helped me recognize struggles with depression in my life and helped me get medication that continues to help me deal with depression.  This, too, is a gift of God.  Grace.

What strikes me as I think about all these things is this.  All my life, whether I knew it or not, God’s grace has sustained me.  When I did stupid things, God was there, with his gracious love, whether I realized it or not.  In times when I thought I had messed up my life beyond repair, God’s grace came in the form of others who were willing to give me another chance.

God’s invisible grace.  Sometimes we feel it, sometimes we don’t.  That’s why we need sacraments.   Visible signs of God’s invisible grace.  Signs that remind us that God works even when we don’t see it, don’t feel it.  Even when we cannot believe God is real.   We are held in God’s loving arms, not because we do the right things, not because we believe the right doctrines, not because we have gotten our lives together, but because of God’s incredible grace!!

And so I’ve been thinking about baptism.  A visible sign of an invisible grace.  Whether its sprinkling of water on a baby, sprinkling an adult who has come to commit his or her life to Christ, or submerging an adult in the river, baptism is not about what we do; It’s about what God does.  Sometimes we see God at work.  But sometimes, life is dark.  As I mentioned before, I struggle with depression.  I also struggle with my own rebelliousness and sin.  But God’s grace is there because “nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

On that cold day in November way back in 1953, my parents brought me before the congregation to be sprinkled with water.  I certainly didn’t know what was going on.  But what is important is that God did.  I don’t remember the day.  But what is important is that God has remembered me.  It was a visible sign of the grace of God that has followed me all these years.  The street signs on Grace Street are also a reminder to me of God’s grace.  But in a much deeper way, my baptism – and every baptism, is a visible reminder of God’s wonderful grace.   Even when we don’t have a clue what is going on, the loving God is with us.  Even when we do stupid things, God is watching over us.  Even when we don’t feel any divine presence and don’t really feel like we love God, God is present and loves us.  Even when God is invisible to us, we are visible to him.