Practicing Christian…believing Christian?

I was recently at a retreat where our presenter, Jane Vennard, talked about the way she described herself in the forward to her book Fully Awake and Truly Alive. Her description intrigued me, and I’ve been thinking about the meanings of the descriptions she used.

She describes herself as a “practicing Christian” rather than a “believing Christian.” A first response might well be, “Then how can she describe herself as a Christian?” But as I’ve thought about those words, the more sense they make…and are words that I want to claim as my own descriptors.

While others might have different reactions to the choice of words, here’s how they strike me.

Describing oneself as a “believing Christian” has been the default for many of us for many years–and is perhaps the simplest way of defining oneself. That means that there’s a specific list of beliefs that we agree with. It doesn’t necessarily require anything other than saying, “Yes, I believe that…I agree with that.” It allows me to sit comfortably in my pew (or chair) on Sunday morning, nodding my head in agreement, and then going back home until the next time the church doors are open.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing to identify as a believing Christian…but I think it’s incomplete.

To be a “practicing Christian” is harder. It’s not that there is a specific list of beliefs that I have to agree with. Rather, my focus is on trying to emulate the example of the one we call the Christ…being with people…listening to them…bringing healing when possible…sharing good news…and all the other things that Jesus did when he walked on this earth. Beliefs may (or may not) grow out of these actions–but if I am working at being a practicing Christian, then my relationships with the people I meet will certainly have more in common with the kinds of ministry Jesus brought.

Ideally I can be both a practicing and a believing Christian…if my beliefs call me to actions that emulate the One whose name I claim. But if it comes down to a choice between them, I will choose to be a practicing Christian because I think that is much more in line with the challenge given to us in Matthew 25:31-46 (this is The Message version):

When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.”

Then those “sheep” are going to say, “Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?” Then the King will say, “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.”

Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, “Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—

I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.”

Then those “goats” are going to say, “Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?”

He will answer them, “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.”

Sounds of silence…

When I was in college, I loved a song by Simon and Garfunkle–“The Sounds of Silence.” In it, silence was presented in a negative way…as a cancer that grows…as something that separates people.

But silence can also be a profoundly powerful experience.

I just returned from a weekend contemplative retreat…an opportunity to use silence as a way of “going deeper” in a community that is taking a spiritual journey together.

We had opportunity to come together and share with each other verbally–but we also had significant time to choose not to have to speak. That didn’t mean we ignored each other…far from it! We discovered there are other ways of communicating, ways that often say more than our words do.

When we did talk, we discovered that taking time to intentionally consider our words meant that what we did say had the opportunity of being more meaningful.

But perhaps more importantly, we had the opportunity in the silence to listen for the voice of God…a voice too often drowned out in the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

And we heard that voice in many ways…in the songs of the birds…in the gentle breeze…in the smiles and hugs we shared with each other…and yes, even in the words that came to our minds as we intentionally listened for them.

 

Easter Monday prayer

Risen God–
We have just celebrated a day of new life…new hope…
of love…unconditional love.

And yet…
around us we see hate…
fear of “the other”
that says it is fair and right
to murder and destroy.

The risen Christ
says that life conquers death…
that love conquers hate.

Give us strength
to live that way…
to be living examples…
to bring comfort to those who mourn…
and peace to a war-torn world.

Help us be Easter people.
Amen.

Why do I write?

There are several answers to the title question, and they change from time to time. However, my current reason for writing this blog is to give folks a different perspective of someone who claims to be a Christian from the vocal view that seems to dominate so much of our society today.

While I realize that there are different ways of understanding what it means to follow the one we call Jesus the Christ, I find some of the current interpretations in direct opposition to the teachings of the Jesus I know.

That Jesus was inclusive. His circle of friends and followers included people that other religious people thought should be excluded for various reasons. Even some of his own disciples weren’t particularly fond of some of the others!

He was willing to challenge the status quo and to upset tradition. Quite often people said to him, “Well, Moses said…” in an attempt to keep things the way they were. And his response was “Well, yes, Moses did say…but say…”

He didn’t hold grudges. Even when he was dying a cruel death, he forgave the ones who put him on the cross.

And when he was asked what the most important law was, he said it was the law of love. Love of God, love of others, love of self. Everything that I read and understand about Jesus is captured in that perspective.

And because the Jesus of inclusivity, of reconciliation, of continued growth is the Jesus I choose to follow…the form of Christianity I believe he asks us to follow…I choose to try to live through the lens of love. Do I always succeed? No…but I keep trying.

And because that Jesus of inclusivity and reconciliation is the one I choose to follow, I want you to know that I believe there is a place at the table for you. We may have some challenging discussions…we will not always agree…but you are invited to join with me in this journey of living life through the lens of love.

Bridging the gap?

Individuals in many faith traditions are struggling with this question: How do we share and worship together in our diversity, still holding to our own personal beliefs while engaging with others who may believe differently? How do we build bridges? This guest post articulates those concerns. I share the desire to bridge the gap between myself and others whom I like but have significant disagreements with…but I also find myself wondering if that is still possible.

I have kept this close for a while now, these feelings and thoughts haunting my waking hours and shading how my eyes see the others in my life.  I was once asked by a friend and fellow Christian, to give space for their beliefs and interpretation, to not let my own view push theirs out or away.  I agreed with the validity of the point and their life experience and have attempted to do so over the last few years.  We have engaged on a number of topics and have found many points of agreement, even as we continue to disagree on many others.

However…

As our country and our shared faith has undergone tremendous change and stress over the last few years the gulf between us has continued to grow, despite (or maybe because of) our efforts to keep the bridge open and together.  I do not claim, nor can I know for sure their thoughts, and do not mean to put words into their mouth or intentions behind the actions I see, that is for them to share.  But for myself I am feeling less and less like there is room in our relationship for my way of being and believing.  As we have shared it has seemed (to me) to become less about listening to each other and more about being pressed to agree.  It does not matter who started it, I’m not even sure I could say for sure if I had to, and both of us are guilty of it at times.  But as their position has solidified, the ground between us has continued to move us apart and now, when I stretch out my hand, our fingers no longer touch and I can’t help but be saddened by that fact.  And wonder what has happened and if it’s even possible to cover the distance any more.  And this friend is not the only one this has happened with.

Social media has may positives, but in so many ways, I am not convinced it does anything to improve our lives or our communities.  I have trouble reconciling the people I see on Facebook with the people I see in church, at work, on the street.  For several, including the one mentioned above, I have to wonder that if they really believe what they post, how on earth do they tolerate being around me?  And then that questioning filters into how I interpret our physical interactions… and I wonder.  I also question how I can continue to be an ally to the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, and still want to maintain “peace” with those who refuse to see how our actions continue to hurt people of color, the LGBT+ community, etc.  Am I really an ally then?

Martin Luther King Jr’s words continue to haunt me – “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

I no longer wish to be silent but I do not know what words to speak.  My prayer is that whatever words I use, may they be spoken in support of justice and love, of the Shalom of the peaceable kingdom, and of the worth of each person, even if those words require me to speak up in ways I find uncomfortable or even scary.

What…and where…is church?

I’m probably like a lot of you. I grew up at a time when talking about going to church meant going to a specific building on Sunday morning for Sunday school and a preaching service…possibly returning on Sunday night for another preaching service…and also maybe on Wednesday night for a prayer and testimony service. Then there were also special weeklong preaching series…church camps…youth camps…etc., etc., etc.

That was what…and where…church was.

But as I’ve gotten older–and as our society has become less overtly religious–I’ve had to face some questions. Is that the only way to experience God? Are there other ways to “do” church? What does “church” really mean? And I’m sure you can add your own questions to the list.

While I still appreciate Sunday morning preaching services, I’ve also become aware that Sunday mornings are difficult for many people. Families with young children…those who work all week and for whom Sunday is the one day they can sleep in…families with children involved in sports activities…

Yes, we can say that it shouldn’t be that way–but it is. And if we ignore that reality, we risk losing any opportunity of ministering to a large group of people.

So what if we put aside our own personal biases for a moment and think outside the box? Where…when…how can we do church?

What about sitting together around a meal? After all, that’s where Jesus did a lot of ministry…

What about playing games together? Sometimes that casualness allows people to be more open in their sharing…

What about just visiting? or going to an event together? or cleaning up a street or neighborhood? or…or…or…?

There are so many ways and places “church” is…if we’re willing to be open to them. What are some ideas you have?

 

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

These last few days have seen a lot of discussion and commentary over a viral video of a confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial. What was initially thought to be a simple situation has–in some ways–been shown to be more complex.

But there is one element of the situation that I think needs to be discussed–the concept of respect. One definition of respect is due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others…and that seems to have been missing all the way around.

Yes, there is the right of free expression–and that seems to have been on full display in the initial interactions between the small group of Hebrew Israelites. Then entered Nathan Phillips, an elder of the Omaha tribe.

There are many videos of the situation, from several different perspectives. There have been many responses and analyses of what happened. What was in the minds of the individuals involved? The two individuals involved have each given statements sharing their perspectives. They disagree, but that is not unexpected, given that each of us involved in particular situations respond according to our backgrounds and expectations.

But what if respect had been at the foundation of the interactions? How might things have been different?

Well, obviously, first of all the Hebrew Israelites and the students wouldn’t have been throwing taunts at each other, raising the level of tensions!

When Mr. Phillips approached–from his perspective seeking to defuse the situation–he still might have been met with confusion from a group of teenagers who weren’t sure what he was doing. But respect would have suggested stepping back and trying to understand–not meeting him with actions that have been identified as offensive by many Native Americans.

Respect would have suggested that the chaperone(s) (who were meeting the students there for a bus ride back) would have stepped in and told the students to knock it off…to do their part in defusing the situation.

For all of us, respect demands that we take a deep breath. We are a community…a world…filled with diversity. For us to get along, to ensure that we can continue to live on this world in safety, requires that we be willing to have a regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others. In other words, to follow a simple commandment that is found in the sacred writings of all the major religions:

golden rule poster