Pastor's Blog

When I was a kid growing up in the Catholic Church, one of the parts of the service was the recitation of the creed.  Everyone would recite the same words together every week in unison.  I remember hearing the sea of voices all speaking together, especially the deep rumbling of men’s voices.  It sounded so strong.

I never thought much about the words or what they meant.  I took the creed for granted.  And saying the creed aloud in unison was just “part of the service” – a mindless rote performance.

I memorized not only the creed, but the entire mass.  By the time I was in 6th grade, I could repeat not only what I was to say as part of the congregation but everything that the priest said, word perfect, throughout the entire mass.  Sometimes when I was bored I did just that, and I’d feel my dad give me a little squeeze on the shoulder to let me know that was not appreciated. 

Then I’d just recite it in my head.

This is the danger of liturgical worship – mindless memorizing and saying words that you know without thinking about what they mean.  The ritual of repeating familiar words dulls the edge of their meaning.  Saying takes the place of thinking – something Jesus condemned as “heaping up empty phrases” (Matthew 6.7).

Evangelicalism was refreshing for me in its spontaneity.  You had to think about what you were saying when you prayed (though I discovered evangelicals engage in “heaping up empty phrases” as well) and the preacher preached from the core of his being what he believed.  There was a fire in evangelicalism that was lacking in cold liturgical worship.

But in our spontaneity and our individualism, we evangelicals seem to have spun off in different directions and we aren’t sure what should unite us – or if unity is even important.  Quite often we evangelicals almost despise uniting with others, priding ourselves on our differences, our uniquenesses, happy to multiply enemies as we multiply our own ideas as “the only true faith”.  And our definition of the “true faith” gets ever smaller and ever tighter.

But now a monstrous beast seems to be rising (maybe several beasts!) to threaten the faith of Christ.  These beasts aren’t particular about your view of baptism or predestination or the timing of the second coming.  Does your faith oppose or support their political and economic and social goals or doesn’t it?  If not, you are marked out as an enemy of the common good to be converted or dispatched.  And my voice alone in the wilderness seems small and pathetic.

Perhaps the need for rumbling basses and melodious sopranos to unite around a creed has come around again – not mere mindless repetition of religious jargon, but the constant reminder of what we all stand for together – the reminder that though we may be out of breath from fleeing the threats of Jezebel, we are not alone.  We stand for heaven, and for the will of God to some day be done on earth as it is in heaven.  We stand together.

We must know what we believe,
and we must hold what we believe in common with others,
and we must know that we hold it in common,
and we must know with whom we hold it in common,
and we must be convinced that it is imperative that we do so.

For most of the two and a half centuries of America’s existence, Christian ideas and values -- Protestant ideas and values in particular -- have dominated in the public square.  It’s only been in my own lifetime that Protestant influence has waned and weakened.

Protestantism tends to individualize religion, partly because that has been the nature of Protestantism from the start, and partly because the America Protestantism created encouraged a strongly individualistic approach to life.

Because Protestants were safe from external persecution, we all honed and fine-tuned our theological beliefs and we tended to split into more particularly defined churches and denominations, sometimes anathematizing each other and seeing each other as enemies of the truth.

We are now like a herd of antelope or wildebeest, successfully scattered across the savanna by the hyenas and lions that are working to pick us off in our isolated weakness.

We need to circle the wagons, as it were, and face a common enemy – the real enemy.  But that means we need to find ways to reconnect with each other, and we are so accustomed to disconnecting over particular beliefs, writing each other off and refusing to fellowship over differences that lack real substance, that we don’t know how to unite again.  We don’t feel right doing it.  Compromise has become a four-letter word to us.

There are times that compromise is dangerous.
But there are also times where compromise is necessary and is a part of reasonable love.

In my last blog I suggested that we will have trouble uniting over a common inner religious experience, that unity must be built around something external that we all choose to agree to. 

The important part about functioning as a community is not complete agreement about every detail, but about crucial central points.  There are things we cannot compromise on without destroying the nature and character of the Christian faith.  These are what evangelicals at the turn of the century called the fundamentals and that’s why they were originally called fundamentalists.

The problem was that groups started multiplying their fundamentals and that caused them to separate from one another.

We need to be able to somehow get back to fundamentals.  What is fundamental to Christianity – what must we hold in common without compromise – and what areas of thought and practice are secondary upon which we can differ?

I think that is a discussion that desperately needs to be engaged if we are to stand against the enemy that is prowling, stalking, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5.8)

The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy.  (Proverbs 14.10)

There is a sense in which each of us is an island.  No one can understand or share our internal experiences, feelings, or perceptions with exact precision.

If that is true, we ought not expect that of others.  More than that, if that is true, trying to maintain unity among people around internal experiences will not be a very successful venture.  Yet evangelicals often seem to want to do just that.

Being “born again” (to use Jesus’ terminology) or being “regenerated” (to use the apostle Paul’s) is an internal experience, a work of God inside a person.  And evangelicals often think that the thing that must unite us is sharing the common experience of spiritual rebirth.

But how can people unite around a common internal experience?  How can I be sure that what you experienced within you was exactly what I experienced within me?  And if we didn’t experience the exact same thing, how can we be sure which of us is authentically born again?

I’ve been in conversations where people questioned the genuineness of another’s internal spiritual experience. 

“I’m not sure that that person is born again.  It doesn’t sound like they had the same experience I had.”

You will never know whether they did or not.  Proverbs 14.10 says you can’t.

This doesn’t mean that rebirth cannot be truly experienced, or that internal experiences aren’t genuine or can’t be shared at all.  It only means that I have no way of assessing or judging with any certainty or precision your internal experiences or feelings, nor can you assess mine.

Because spiritual experiences are internal, they don’t serve well as a foundation for unity.  Things that create unity (or community) among us must be external to us – things that all of us can observe and grasp and agree upon together, like a creed or a statement of faith.

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