When I was a young boy we went to a Methodist church in Phoenix, Arizona every Sunday. And although we were there Sunday after Sunday, pretty much every week, without exception, I can’t tell you with any certainty anything the minister ever said except for a joke he told one day:
“What do you get when you cross a Methodist with a Jehovah’s Witness?”
Being 10 or 11 years old at the time I doubt I knew what a Jehovah’s Witness was or even, really, what it meant to be a Methodist.
From what I could tell Methodist theology centered on choir music and a frequent practice of rolling the culinary dice by having yet another potluck. The only biblical lesson I took away from attending so many potlucks was that I could Hope there would be something edible and Love when I found something good, but I didn’t go into them with a lot of Faith. I still don’t, to this day – the word “luck” shouldn’t be affiliated with food. Would you eat at a restaurant called “Do You Feel Lucky”?
Because everyone else was laughing I most likely laughed, too, but without really understanding why, at the answer to the minister’s joke:
“Someone who knocks on a lot of doors but doesn’t know what to say if anyone answers it.”
Although I can’t tell you with any certainty anything else that minister ever said (or even what his name was), and still can’t, to this day tell you if there is a “method” to being a Methodist, I do know that going to church week after week after week, sometimes willingly and sometimes being dragged, possibly kicking and screaming, had an impact on me that I didn’t realize until I was in my twenties.
I can’t really tell you, exactly, when I started truly believing in God.
I hear people tell great, inspiring stories that remind me of the scene in The Blues Brothers when Elwood (Dan Akroyd) has a great awakening when a shaft of light illuminates him while James Brown sings and dances and the congregation does back-flips down the aisle. That sounds fun, but I doubt that happens for most of us and the only flips I ever did usually resulted in a painful belly-flop in a swimming pool.
I can look back now and see formative moments in my journey. A friend introducing me to Amy Grant music in the early 80’s. A retreat I got invited to at a Catholic church camp. Leaning into my mother’s side or holding my father’s hand while we sang “Silent Night” by candlelight around a luminaria-studded courtyard on Christmas Eve. A moment one cold December morning when I was driving to work and a burst of trumpets from “Angels We Have Heard On High” sounded at the exact moment the sun peeked over the horizon.
Standing in front of the Army recruiting office after so much of my life had fallen apart and whispering “I don’t know what’s next – You show me” and discovering a wonderful job with the military Chaplaincy. Doing essentially the same thing 5 years later after getting a medical discharge for a broken foot and discovering a fantastic career with the YMCA. Saying “I don’t know – You pick for me” while I was single and finding the amazing wife I now have.
When I read the news lately I often see dismay at how “Evangelicals” are supporting the behavior of a President and party whose actions seem so decidedly anti-Christian. I must admit I share that dismay – I watch their actions and read his tweets and think to myself that if that is what it means to be a Christian then I don’t want to be one.
Technically speaking, I am an “Evangelical”. My family and I now belong to a church that has it right in the title. I’ve been a member of a lot of churches on my journey to where I am right now: Methodist, United Church of Christ, Assembly of God, Baptist, the amalgamation of denominations that gets squished into what can essentially be called “Army Protestant”. I got baptized by the African Gospel congregation and, for a time, was a very active Roman Catholic. And now, today, I belong to an Evangelical Lutheran church.
Evangelical simply means “Good News”.
What does that mean to me?
It means that I am certain that there is a God that loves us, plain and simple. I’m certain because I’ve experienced it, not because I got some piece of theological minutiae exactly right or followed a formula correctly or wore certain clothes and certainly not because I passed judgment on some other group for their sexuality or gender or nationality or reproductive decisions.
At the root of my faith is just the simple good news that when I set aside my ego or fear or anger or judgement or selfishness, when I open my arms instead of closing my fists, when I trust instead of trying to control, good things happen. I experience the “fruits of the Spirit”: Love. Joy. Peace. Patience. Kindness. Goodness.
One of the great ironies of faith I’ve discovered is that winning doesn’t come from fighting but from surrendering.
My faith doesn’t move me to knock on your door and tell you who you should be or what you should believe or how you should behave.
My faith moves me to work on myself, sometimes daily, to get rid of anger or greed or lust or jealousy. It calls me to forgive and be honest and open and admit when I’m wrong and be willing to accept new information that may not fit into the mindset I’ve built around something. It calls me to serve, not to be served.
My faith doesn’t move me to do all these things so that someday I can go to Heaven.
My faith moves me to get out of the way so that Heaven can come here.
“Love seeketh not itself to please, nor for itself hath any care, but for another gives its ease and builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.” – William Blake