In my last post, I promised that there would be a part two. So this is it, the sequel post which is deeply personal for being so irrevocably public and out there. Oh well, I’ll count this towards living dangerously and vulnerably (ha!). I promise a what-I’ve-been-up-to-and-actually-doing post is relatively soon in coming.
Like I said, it has been my experience as a non-denominational member of an American Christian congregation that even as a church, we are supremely focused on the individual and what we’re getting out of religion or God, what we’re doing, and even how we can serve or give (yes, this is often fueled by genuine selflessness, but I would be willing to bet it is just as often fueled by a desire to feel good or even stop feeling guilty). We preach grace and wholeness in Christ, but we either take a universalist approach (ex: it doesn’t matter what you believe or even where your heart is truly, you’ll probably end up in heaven) or a fairly works-based approach, even if this approach is often thinly veiled with guilt-tripping messages about how actions show your heart.
For the sake of this post, I’m basically going to ignore the first approach and focus on the second, as I personally have much more experience with the second experience (but if you want to talk about Universalism and Christianity with me, I’d be happy to).
This will probably make the most sense if I first explain where my heart has been over the past several weeks. To sum it up: my internal dialogue has been very, very harsh. Towards others, yes, but most of all towards myself. Then, at the end of every day when I open my Bible to possibly have time with God, this constant negativity in my head caused a huge load of guilt because just the fact that I did not censor my thinking, this affected how I treated others throughout the day which caused frustration with myself for making the same mistakes day after day after day and feeling insincere in my repentance to God because in the back of my head, there was always that voice reminding me that I had “repented” for the same things every day that week, and I was likely to make the same mistakes tomorrow. Unsurprisingly, this lovely little internal cycle was quite effective in making me close my Bible as soon as I read the allotted passage and having a lack of wanting to spend any time actually talking or listening to God, because He is God and He knows every nasty thought I’ve ever had, and I am so unworthy of even being in His presence, and I can feel guilty just fine by myself, thanks.
Last Sunday, my roommate and I got thoroughly lost on our way to (class-mandated) church. My first English church service since I left the States for Africa. We had wandered around for a little over an hour, it was early and I had had little to no caffeine, I got blisters from my shoes, and I was thoroughly pissed at our lack of directions by the time we finally reached the door of the chapel an hour after the service had started.
the Anglican church we attend on Sundays
I proceeded to fight tears through the entire half hour of the service that remained. Not due to anger, but due to being ashamed of my own pettiness and being overwhelmed by the simple beauty of the service and the majesty of the words we spoke and sang in the little chapel designed to fit maybe fifty people. I was struck by the liturgy, which as a long-time non-denominational member is something that, while respected, is still quite foreign to me. The idea that hundreds of thousands of people had spoken and heard these same words for hundreds of years overwhelmed me. The fact that the theme of this service was not just arbitrarily picked by a pastor who had a maybe-Spirit-inspired-maybe-not opinion of what he wanted to talk about with a “practical application”, but a theme that is central to the Christian faith itself.
I also fought tears because the grace of God begun to slap me upside the head with a better understanding and desire for the unity of the church and the believers. With a re-realization of who Christ is and was, and therefore how powerful His blood is in covering my sins, and a re-realization of how much God loves me. That my sins are not, contrary to what I seem to believe, more powerful than God’s grace. I had the realization that He does not meet me at the end of every day just waiting to communicate to me how disappointing I am and how guilty I should feel to be making the same mistakes daily and still claiming the name of Christ, but eager to forgive my sins-even though I will never go through any significant portion of my life living perfectly and perfectly in God’s will-so that He may dispose of my nastiness and proceed to have a loving relationship with me.
And then the week that followed went by fairly similarly to the week proceeding it. In fact, somewhere in that time span, the little voice in my head had me fairly convinced that I was just flat-out a bad Christian. Not exactly progress.
This morning I went to church with a cold after a pretty late night. The sermon was on Matthew 7:13-27 (if you don’t know it off the top of your head, may I suggest that you go to biblegateway.com and read it really quickly). As we read straight through the passage the first time, I admit I got a bit of a sinking feeling in my stomach. I have heard this passage preached several different ways, often associated with the idea that you need to check yo’self to make sure your “fruit”, your actions are reflecting someone who is really a Christian, and not just someone who’s fooling themself. Good. More guilt. Just what I need.
And then I was (pleasantly) shocked. That was not how this passage was preached at all. Instead of focusing on the idea that it’s all about your actions, the pastor pointed out that those who are “rejected” did the deeds. They were emotionally invested in their religion. They cast out demons, for Pete’s sake. The Father doesn’t say He never knew of them, but that He didn’t know them. Intimately, and in a relationship. The difference between the authentic and inauthentic Christian, the pastor claimed, is complete surrender of your will to God’s and grasping exactly how much of a big deal the grace of God is. How you can never deserve it, but it is there over and over and over again because even if you deny it, you are human and you will need it over and over and over again until you are six feet under. That Christianity is not a religion of what you know or what you do, but of what your heart truly desires above all else.
Full disclosure: I have been hyper-involved in church for years partially because of messages about how you need to use your talents and your life is to be one of service if you want to claim the title of Christian. I got the message that God has blessed me with talents and time, so I need to stretch myself to the limits of how much I can serve. And while I have been enriched in so many ways due to the people I have been blessed to serve and serve with, I would also say that in other ways it has been somewhat detrimental in my personal walk with God, if only because of my justification that getting up early in the morning for worship practice after a late night of homework so that I can pursue the bigger plan of service God has called me to is enough service and God-time for one day or that years of being guilted into taking on more has given me entirely too much practice in the realm of guilt and dwelling on my actions and on “doing” rather than “being”.
Yes, I desperately need the grace of God, and the new mercies that He promises every morning. But what I so often forget is that I actually have been given the grace of God and His steadfast love that never ceases! And that bestowal of grace and love changes everything.
“The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
His mercies never come to an end;
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in Him.”
The LORD is good to those who wait for Him,
To the soul who seeks Him.”