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.

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Faith Explorers Welcome

Recently, I was talking to my friend Jennifer.  Among other things, we started talking about religion.  Jennifer grew up in one Christian tradition and is married to a man who grew up in another.   A few years ago, they started a family, and like many couples, decided to get more serious about church.  Jennifer grew up Roman Catholic and her husband grew up Protestant, so they’ve found a local Episcopal congregation in which they feel comfortable.  I’m not sure how we got onto it, our conversation wandered to our beliefs, and questions, about God.  As long as I’ve known her, Jennifer has displayed an inquiring, questioning mind.  She thinks deeply about things.  The domain of religion and spirituality is no exception.  When it comes to God, she has lots of questions.  So, in the course of our conversation, she asked me an interesting questions:  “Is it right for a person who is not sure what she believes about God, or even who is pretty sure she does not accept a standard Christian view of God, to say the creeds during worship?”  A very interesting question.

Jennifer’s question took my mind back to a chapter in Barbara Brown Taylor’s wonderful memoir, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith.  In chapter 14, Taylor recalls her experiences in the months following her decision to leave the parish ministry and become a professor of religion.  For her entire life to that point she had lived and breathed in the world of church.  As she stepped into her new life, she discovered a different side of reality, a side she not paid attention to before.  She also began to explore her beliefs more honestly.  Suddenly, things she had preached about and taught became objects of questioning and sometimes doubt.  “Freed from defending the faith,” she writes, “I began to revisit what faith really meant to me and found that much of the old center did not hold.”  Her view of faith changed.  “I had arrived at an understanding of faith that had far more to do with trust than with certainty.  I trusted God to be God, even if I could not say who God was for sure.”

Taylor found herself wandering off her “old spiritual map.”  But in the process she discovered something else.  She discovered “people at the edge” of “the spiritual landscape.”  I love the way she describes these pioneers.  She writes,

“ . . . All we had to do was step outside the Church and walk to where the lights of the sanctuary did not pierce the darkness anymore.  All we had to do was lay down the books we could no longer read and listen to the howling that our favorite hymns no longer covered up.  There were no slate roofs or signs to the restrooms out there, no printed programs or friendly ushers.  There was just the unscripted encounter with the undomesticated God whose name was unpronounceable – that, and a bunch of flimsy tents lit up by lanterns inside, pitched by those who were either seeking such an encounter or huddling in their sleeping bags while they recovered from one.  These people at the edge kept the map from becoming redundant.”

Taylor’s words express my own wandering and wondering thoughts as a Christian.  Sometimes publicly, but sometimes just in my mind and heart, I wonder whether I can accept all of the doctrines and formulations of the church.  Sometimes I feel like one who is exploring the edges; sometimes I feel like one who is just plain lost.  Taylor’s honesty about her own exploration frees me and affirms me.  “According to the Bible,” she writes, “both the center and the edge are essential to the spiritual landscape. . . “  And a few pages later, “If my time in the wilderness taught me anything, it is that faith in God has both a center and an edge and that each is necessary for the soul’s health.”

I don’t know whether I helped Jennifer answer her question.  I suggested that when the congregation recites the creed, it is affirming the faith of the gathered church as a whole.  It is not so much a claim by each individual that he or she holds unwaveringly to the dogma of the creed, as an opportunity for God’s people as a community to affirm the “center” of their faith, the story that forms them as a community.   And so I encouraged her, as a part of the body of Christ, to recite the creeds with all of us, some of us at the center and others at the edge, in whom and through whom the Spirit is at work.  As Barbara Brown Taylor would remind us, the church needs the center, but it needs the edge as well.   In today’s world, I am convinced that the need to be open to the edges, to the explorers, is desperate.  It is as we welcome those at the edge that the church will survive into the future.

Leaving Church is a great book.  If you find yourself exploring, read it.  Since writing Leaving Church, Taylor has also published An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. Although I have not read it yet, Taylor’s brand new title, Learning to Walk in the Dark has got to be good.  What a perfect title for explorers.  Check out the Barbara Brown Taylor website at: http://www.barbarabrowntaylor.com/.