In some of my classes I ask the students to reflect on how they have learned think of God as they grew up and how their views of God have changed through their lives so far. These student reflections always give me insights into the minds of young adults today. Not surprisingly, some write about how they learned to think about God as an old man with a beard. Others write about God as a being who always watches them. Many students these days seem to think of God’s constant presence positively; God is always there when they need help. But others describe God’s ever-present vision more negatively, as if God is watching to make sure we humans don’t do anything wrong. God is the combination of a cosmic Santa Claus and cosmic police officer. God keeps track of “who’s been naughty and nice” and is ready to punish those who have been naughty. I am not surprised by the fact that students report that they learned these images of God as children. But I am quite disappointed when they think these images are the way their churches encourage people, including adults, to think about God. Frequently, my students say they’ve left their childhood faith behind because they can’t believe these things about God anymore.
Listening to my students has convinced me that church members, (mainline or evangelical, Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox) are often “frozen” with an elementary school understanding of God. It’s as if that’s all Christianity has to offer. Within the church there is no room to grow past simplistic views of God. So, if you grow and change, your only option is to leave.
Recently, one of my student’s wrote something that really caught my attention. This student, a conservative Christian active in his church and Christian group on campus, wrote something like this: “Since the time that I learned about God, my view of God has not changed, and it never will.” My heart sank when I read his words. I know what he means. He is trying to express the firmness of his faith. He does not want his beliefs to be “blown about by every wind of doctrine,” or by the “empty philosophy” he hears from his professor (me). He sees this attitude as a virtue. He could even cite chapter and verse! To some extent, I understand.
I am saddened nevertheless. This student is shutting off his mind and heart to the Spirit of God. He is saying that nothing could make him change and grow in the way he thinks about God. But the way we think about God should change! As we learn more and more about the world through science and experience, as we grow as Christians, as we struggle with suffering and experience joy, I would hope that our understanding of God would be always changing. As we encounter the very real complexities of our world, I would hope that our faith could help us see that God is bigger than we had thought, big enough to be the Lord of the real world. If not, why should we hold on to God at all? Wouldn’t it be better to follow the example of the students who leave religion behind?
As I teach my courses (philosophy and religion) one of my objectives is to get students to think in new ways, to examine their assumptions, and yes, to think critically about their own beliefs. I am not trying to destroy their faith. I am trying to help them be open to intellectual and spiritual growth. I am, in short, trying to help them change. This is what God has called me to do. So, it is discouraging to hear a student say that he or she will never change. I am even more discouraged when I think that this attitude is reinforced by the churches and fellowship groups which some of my students attend.
Why do young women and men tell me they have left behind the faith of their mothers and fathers? One reason is that the God in whom they have been told to believe is not worthy of their belief. Until we start to grow in our own understanding of the mystery and greatness of God, until we see that God is way more than a cosmic Santa Claus or an omniscient police officer, the church will continue to be left behind by those growing up in today’s troubled, difficult and complex world.
Christians believe that God does not change. That does not mean that we should not change, even in our beliefs about God. We can never fully understand God, so we always have room to grow. When we grow in our way of seeing God, it is not God who changes, it is us. That is a change we should welcome. It is the work of the Spirit of God transforming our minds and renewing our hearts.
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.
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.
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.
A parable of grace.
Over the last eight or nine weeks, I’ve been walking to work. It’s starting to get warm now, but one day in the heart of the winter, with the wind blowing in my face, God gave me a parable about grace. The mile and a half to my office every morning and evening gives me some good exercise. But some days it’s hard to get myself out of the door and on the way. It’s not just the cold. My brain has a tendency to pull my spirit down into depression. For some reason it pulls the hardest in the morning. It takes me a while to get motivated for the day. My heart is cold. But most of the time I manage to get out the door and start walking.
Once I’m walking, its almost always a bit better. My spirit starts to rise. My mind thinks of this or that. I trudge down the sidewalk, adjusting my pace to fit in with the kids on their way to the middle school. About half way, I pass the school. That’s when I see the crossing guard. The same one almost every day. We always wave to each other and say ‘hi.’ That’s just about all we know about each other, that we both happen to be at this particular place at this particular time just about every weekday. Once we ran into each other somewhere else and she recognized me. “Hey, you’re the guy who walks by the middle school every morning, aren’t you?” A brief exchange of minor information about ourselves. Beyond that, it simply a daily smile and ‘Morning.’ By this time my spirit’s feeling better. Half way to my office, interacting with others, putting a smile on my face.
A few more blocks and I turn up toward the small university where I teach. By this time, I’m feeling better. I’m almost there. Almost to my office where I can turn on my computer, make myself another cup of hot tea, and think about what’s coming my way that day. Sometimes, as I walk, I even manage to mumble a prayer in anticipation of the day or in thanksgiving for the fresh wind on my face. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t every day, or very long, that I find myself praying. But sometimes I do.
Interestingly, the last street, the one that takes me to my office is “Grace Street.” Not long ago, toward the end of the cold days of winter, I looked up at the street sign and it struck me, “Grace Street.” I thought about that. By the time I get to Grace Street I’m feeling fairly good. But then I thought some more. I thought about how I walked out of my house, even though I didn’t really feel like it. I thought of the crossing guard’s friendly smile that helps to take the chill off. I thought of the transformation that takes place in my heart every morning. I thought about how God’s grace was at work, and continues to be at work, even when my heart is cold and my brain tries to pull me toward depression. I thought about the fresh air, the blood moving in my body, the smile along the way. God’s grace. And I realized that all along, not just for the last few blocks, but all along, all my life, in fact, I’ve been walking on Grace Street. My walk is only possible because of grace. It is the fresh air of God’s grace that keeps me going. I hope in this blog to share the journey on Grace Street with you, and that you will share your journey with me.