Tuesday, August 15, 2017

This I Believe

A little more than 10 years ago I wrote an Essay for This I Believe.  I was 27 when I wrote it (which is why the age group says 18-30).  I had been serving in ministry full time for about a year.  I was thinking about my essay this morning because I remembered writing that the truth is seldom if ever black and white.  I said, "Why, the most annoying question asked by children, becomes the most important question to ask because it leads me to discover ever more shades of gray."  So I looked it up on thisibelieve.org and read through it.  My belief has drifted a bit since then, but I will also say that I still believe what I wrote.  Today I would add that the truth in the middle is a moving target--that the intersection of always and never doesn't exist in a single place.  It ebbs and flows.  Still, the truth is somewhere near the middle.  That holds up.  (If you want to read the whole thing, you can view it here.)

I missed the mark a bit more elsewhere in the essay.  I did not remember writing this: "Maybe this is why the term 'extremist' is sometimes used as a derogatory term, implying that a person who ignores context in favor of a simple answer exists in a slightly different world from the rest of us."  Twelve years ago I was either a master of understatement or I didn't understand extremism.  It's not a slightly different world.  It's an alternate universe.  No, it's an alternate reality.

It's an ugly reality, too.  It's an unchristian reality that maintains one set of people is better than another.  I'm talking about the neo-nazis and the KKK and the white supremacists, yes.  But to be clear I'm also talking about people like James Hodgkinson who took it upon himself to bring justice to members of Congress who were playing baseball and the crusaders who decided to go and "save" everyone in the Middle East.  Let me be perfectly clear.  I am not suggesting in any way that there is violence "from many sides."  Actually the opposite.  There is violence from one side: the side of hate.  The side that preaches injuring someone or even killing them is somehow good for them.

But you already knew that.  People everywhere are getting in line to denounce the hate groups.  It's oddly chic at the moment, which is in itself disturbing.  The dirtier truth just under the surface is that a frighteningly high number of people are denouncing extremism out of expedience while many of them, in their hearts, sympathize with the overall cause.

We throw the word "believe" around willy nilly.  We say we believe in things.  WC Fields famously joked, "Everybody's got to believe in something.  I believe I'll have another beer."  Much of the time when people say, "I believe..." what they really mean is "I think" or "I hope" or "it might be that..."  Like so many words in our language, it has been overused--abused even.  Its overuse has obscured its raw power.

Belief, true belief, leads to action.  It's most obvious in the world of policy and politics.  It is belief that compels someone to get on a bus and head to Washington to go to an inauguration...or to go to a protest the next day.  It is belief that compels someone to blow up a building...or to run into that building while it is on fire to rescue anyone left alive.  It is belief that compels someone to stand up and be counted or sit down at the front of the bus.

Paul and James both struggled with belief and action in their letters (they called it faith and works).  Action is the outward sign of an inner conviction (ignoring for a moment the effect that repeated action can have on your belief!).  It's not that works save you.  It's that if you're saved you'll do works.  While I might want to remove some of the salvation language from that idea, it's nevertheless true that action springs from belief, not the other way around.

Just last week, this is what we said in our worship services at Decatur First UMC.  It's a part of the statement of faith of the United Church of Canada:

We are not alone, we live in God's world.
We believe in God:
   who has created and is creating,
   who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh,
   to reconcile and make new,
   who works in us and others by the Spirit.
We trust in God.
We are called to be the church:
   to celebrate God's presence,
   to love and serve others,
   to seek justice and resist evil,
   to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope. 
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

This is one of my favorite creeds.  I love it because it says we believe exactly one thing: we believe in God, a creator who came to us in the form of Jesus to reconcile us to God and make us new--and that God works in us and others by the Spirit.  There's a lot of room under that umbrella for us to disagree on a lot of things without falling apart.

But the best part is that it doesn't stop there.  It goes on to say what kind of action come from this belief.  We will be the church.  We will celebrate God's presence.  We will love and serve others.  We will seek justice and resist evil.  We will proclaim Jesus.

So it's decision time.  Like Indiana Jones, it's time to ask yourself what you believe.  Not what you think.  Not what you hope.  Not what you dream.  What you believe.  And, just as important if not more so, what of your actions betray that belief.

1 comment:

  1. John,

    Well reasoned and well thought out. I am also struck by the third verb or "action word" with God as the subject in this creed: God creates, God comes and God reconciles. Extremists are from a different world (viewpoint) but not a different Maker. They are not "these or those" people. They are us. And each of us as individuals and as the church is called to reconcile. Honestly,I don't know how we do that while we are practicing all of the other verbs for which we are the subject in this creed. But I know it begins, continues and ends with seeking God's direction.