Thursday, September 13, 2007

Bumping up against other Christians

My faith journey has taken me down the Lutheran path. I started on this path because my mother and her family were Lutheran. I know I’ll stay on a Lutheran path because of the strong emphasis on God’s saving grace and because Lutherans are comfortable “living in the tensions” of life.

Looking back on my faith journey, I can see that there were some strong influences that occurred when I bumped up against other traditions.

I was raised in a church in Milwaukee with year round Sunday School and a strong memorization program in Confirmation class. I am grateful for what I learned! However, there was no mention of spirituality or putting faith into practice. In fact, in my confirmation classes, we recited. We NEVER discussed the meanings of the passages, nor did we question anything. [Is this really how it used to be elsewhere or was this an extreme case???] The term Frozen Chosen could have applied to this church. I was never taught that other churches were wrong, but somehow I got the strong feeling that we were a “little more right.”

I had a strong faith, nevertheless, but untested.

My first memory of encountering another tradition was when my neighbor invited me to a Christian youth group she attended. This group still exists as VCY America, a Christian radio network. I still remember hearing the sermon on John 3:16 and the altar call. Of course, I didn’t know about altar calls. We were asked, “Who needs Jesus in your life? Raise your hand.” Of course I needed Jesus in my life; what would my life be without Jesus? My friend made be go forward because I had raised my hand. I was flustered, to say the least. Maybe I even felt that I had been “had.” I didn’t understand that they were really asking people who had no faith to step forward in faith.

This might seem an odd recollection to put forth in a Reconciliation Carnival, but I think it sets the stage for some of my later thoughts.

Ten years later, I was in a new place with a new job and a new roommate. It was a very down time for me due to my father being in his last illness, among other things. The Lutheran pastor invited a few people from several churches to a Bible study that was to be discussion, not a class. He wanted to study with a group of faithful people from various denominational backgrounds without being the leader. This was a rich and heart-opening experience.

Our slightly different takes on some verses and our different prayer styles enriched our time together. The most important lesson I learned was about putting faith into practice and serving others even when it costs us something. I was greatly served by a couple in that group at a difficult time. I also read some inspiring books about prayer and praise that were new concepts to me. Later I was married by that Lutheran pastor in that church, even though I had moved back to Milwaukee.

After we moved to our present location, I was invited to join an informal Bible study in a senior citizens housing apartment. This also was a group with a mixed background, denominationally. I found it a joy and blessing to study with Christians who had been through the valleys of life and come out the other side with great faith. My daughter tagged along to these meetings when she was a preschooler. She learned a great deal about prayer just from observing these faithful older women.

A few years later after I had a health crisis [minor on the grand scheme of things, but important to me.] my faith became pretty “thin.” I was invited to a study group of young mothers which hired a baby sitter to watch the kids while we studied. This group met at the Baptist church, but was “independent” and mixed. The woman who invited me was of Baptist background, but she was the long time organist at my Lutheran church. She knew the Bible at least as well as any pastor I’ve met and had a gift for leading small groups. Later our pastor encouraged her to begin studies, and she went on to become rostered by the ELCA. Another woman in the group was raised on an Indian reservation because her father was a Baptist mission pastor. She had a gift for taking a Bible passage and showing us how we could put it into practice in our daily life.

Again I felt that having people of mixed denominational backgrounds lead to a richness in our discussions. Our prayers were “enlarged” by our various styles. I learned about some faith-life disciplines that I hadn’t yet encountered. I learned anew that our faith is in Jesus, the son of God, who saved us. That this binds us, no matter how differently we might express some of the points of doctrine. I also learned that sometimes when we think we aren’t agreeing, we may be just using different language to express the same thing. I’ve learned those groups that so easily ask, “Are you saved” teach their people a sincere desire to spread the Gospel. I’ve learned that some of the meanings of the words used when one talks about “being saved” varies by denomination and culture.

I’ve also been visited many many times by the Jehovah Witnesses, one woman in particular. During the first few visits, 30 years ago, I quickly found out that my Bible knowledge had no depth. I had memorized a lot of verses and doctrinal statements, but I didn’t know “why” I “believed” them. I was challenged! I read books about some doctrinal issues, and I read about the JWs. I now view the visits of the JWs as a mission field which steps right into my house. I tell them about how God is working in my life.

Windows to View God

About 18 years ago, I was in a class taught by H. George Anderson. A metaphor he used has been very meaningful to me. He said something like: Doctrine should not be a hoop that one jumps through in order to belong to a church group. But rather, good doctrine is like a window which helps one see God more clearly. I have expanded this metaphor based on what it is like to view a mountain, which represents God.

When I first saw the mountains, say, across the plains of Montana, they were small and distant, but they were real and enticing. When I was finally closer, I was in the foothills, which at times hid the view of the mountains. I came around a curve, and then I saw one very large mountain. I drove closer to where I could get out and hike. By then I could no longer see the peak, only the road and the path and the trees rising up the mountainside. I walked up through those trees, until I was above the tree line. Finally the peak again came into view. What a magnificent view, but how limited. I could see just one side of the peak. I could not see much in the lateral directions because of the trees and I could not see the base of the mountain.

Each of our doctrinal “windows” allows us to view God, but God is too big to be seen wholly and understood wholly. Some of the windows give a view of God from the north, some from the south. Some are wide picture windows, but God is quite distant through that viewpoint. Some windows are narrow, but hold a closer, more limited view. There might even be an aerial view, but from that vantage point, the contours are flattened out.

In my life, I’ve learned more about God because for 30 years I’ve had the privilege of attending a midweek Bible study with people of a variety of denominational background who know that loving the Lord is central to their life. I’ve been able to appreciate several views of God beyond that of the Lutheran doctrinal window. Praise God!

1 comment:

And what do you think?