In a recent sermon series called “New Wine”, my church’s pastors presented the history and practices of several traditions in Christianity. Assuming we had attended only one or maybe two types of churches throughout our lives, they wanted to broaden our exposure to a variety of ways to connect with God. Sermons included discussion of charismatic spirituality, contemplative spirituality, social justice spirituality, evangelical spirituality and incarnational spirituality. As I listened to the messages, I realized that I too had more experiences with some traditions than others. Still, as I reflected on the material later, I discovered I had encountered God through a variety of ways at different points in my life, and if I could just learn to train my eyes, I could have a broader understanding to allow me to look for him in new and unexpected ways.
For example, when I was asked recently if I had ever had a charismatic experience -- whether a vision or physical healing through prayer -- I balked and decided that I had only read about such experiences in books -- in the Bible, of course, but also in The Heavenly Man by Brother Yun (a Chinese Christian’s experience with persecution and God’s saving grace which reads, according to the book cover (and I agree), “like a modern day Acts”) and even in Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (which we read for book club two months ago in which he describes his mother’s miraculous recovery from being shot in the head, which she attributes to God watching over her).
But, as I considered the question further, I remembered that I had a recent vision in a dream. It was a nightmare, actually, in which one of my sons drowned in an unfamiliar pool. I woke up understandably shaken but also confused because this non-swimmer was always so careful around water -- fearful in fact, and I couldn’t understand how this could have happened, even in a dream. And yet, a couple of weeks after having this nightmare, while my family was in the hotel pool at the church retreat, I felt my mommy-spidey sense tingle, reminding me to do a headcount and scan around the pool. I panicked when I couldn’t quickly spot the son from my dream. I frantically scanned again and then realized that I hadn’t recognized him because I had been searching for his blue floatation vest….which he had taken off. I found the vest first, on the side of the pool, and found my son second, nearby and playing on an inner tube with some friends near the steps of the shallow end. Enraged by the irresponsible risk he had just taken, I made him leave the inner tube and get back in his floatie, reminding him that he did not yet know how to swim and we would be continuing with swim classes in the spring where he could work on that. I let him play then but walked away shaken. Would I have felt that spidey-sense if I hadn’t first had the dream? Perhaps. But I will also pay more attention to my dreams in the future.
Continuing with the series, when a pastor introduced contemplative spirituality as a way to practice stillness and becoming attuned to the presence of God, I also initially felt it wasn’t for me. I didn’t want long periods of silence. I wanted an active faith. And yet, I reflected on the benefits of the women’s retreat I attended this past September, and I knew I would really benefit from another weekend retreat. I also recalled the restorative feeling of taking a long walk along the bike path near my house. And right now, when I feel like winter is hanging on just a bit too long, I can’t wait to start running again, free of ice and snow, to feel that sheltered quiet as I leave behind all sounds save the blood pulsing in my ears and the wind rushing by. (N.B. The wind rushes by because it is frequently windy; my running pace is way too slow to create the wind itself.) And in all of these situations I appreciate stillness. Through nature and exercise I can rest and consider the mystery of God. I can imagine working on this vein of spirituality in these moments, as the sermon suggested, so I can learn to see God in all things.
When another pastor introduced the idea of social justice spirituality, I realized I approached the idea almost as an oxymoron. How could my pastor pair the fierce outpouring of human efforts towards justice (because what first comes to mind are secular, angry protesters at rallies) with the quiet servitude of seeking God’s justice? In the end though, practicing this form of spirituality involves beginning by noticing injustices around us and then moving to act with compassion for those in our sphere of influence, while trusting God to set all things right in the end. As a pastor from Chicago once put it, “I am not called to do everything. But I am called to do something.” I think of that in the context of how I respond to what I’m reading and to the needs in my community and the world, and it gives me the peaceful determination I need to continue working towards justice.
The last tradition introduced was incarnational spirituality, and I was aware that I approached the sermon with cynicism. I had personal experience with how interpretations of communion can produce feelings of alienation and anger. While away from home one Christmas, my childhood family visited a new church for Christmas Eve services. When the pastor there made it clear that communion was only open to those who believed the bread and wine were literally Christ’s body and blood, I hesitated to partake. In the end, when my row was dismissed I decided to approach the table. I hadn’t yet heard much about the different interpretations of this sacrament within the church, and I was surprised by how angry it made my brother as he shared his strong opinions with my family after the service, basically feeling affronted that the pastor could suggest that communion was not for everyone. Several years later while attending my friend’s Catholic wedding I felt hurt and embarrassed when she, the bride herself, denied me the Eucharist, ignoring my outstretched hands and instead making the sign of the blessing on my forehead, labeling me a Protestant -- a good Protestant, but still someone outside the fold.
So when my pastor began to preach on this topic of incarnation and communion, I prepared myself to hear the same message I had trained myself to hear over the years -- that regardless of your interpretation of the sacrament, this table was for you. And yet, that wasn’t his message. For the first time in my memory, or perhaps in the first way I could listen and understand, my pastor explained that Jesus meant this bread and wine to be his body and blood as a joining of the physical and spiritual worlds. In receiving it, we take in the spirit of God and become the body of Christ. For the first time, someone was telling me that this table was more than a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins; this table was a gift of the spirit in order to have Christ within us. The gift I had felt denied by other churches was, it turns out, for me. I didn’t have to rest in my symbolic interpretation. I could accept this gift of communion as a gift from God to fill me with his spirit. I found that incredibly uplifting and cheerfully accepted the invitation into this tradition.
I learned so much from this sermon series about how to appreciate different flavors of Christianity and how to strengthen them in my own walk. But if you studied the list of sermon topics at the start of this post, you’ll notice that I skipped over one. The one that sticks out. The one with the “E” word. That is, evangelical spirituality. I was excited for this one. And we could tell the pastor was excited to preach about it, opening with, “This is us, guys!” I enjoyed listening to the history of evangelical tradition, about Swedish immigrants who originally called themselves “Mission Friends”, who wanted to study the Bible and use what they learned to love those around them. This was a great introduction, and at a certain point I expected the pastor to begin sharing how they and we could work to share our faith. But you know what? He didn’t cover that. He circled back to the importance of Scripture and Bible study because for those first evangelicals it was revolutionary. It changed their lives and remained a central tenet to their practice. The reflection questions that accompanied this sermon likewise focused mostly on challenging us to think about our own dedication to the Bible.
The Bible has always been important to me. From my first Children’s Storybook Bible to subsequent annotated Bibles, it has always been alive for me. And while I was raised in the Evangelical Church, I never imagined that other churches might not emphasize Bible study as much.
In choosing this sermon series, the pastoral staff of my church acknowledged that many of us are only exposed to one or two faith traditions, and since we all draw to God in different ways, we may feel far from God because we aren’t pursuing the faith tradition that works best for us. The sermons weren’t meant to argue that one tradition is better than any other. They all have challenges; they all have strengths. And perhaps there is something in each for each of us. But perhaps we are naturally lopsided as well, in that one tradition will draw us closer to God than any other.
For me, that tradition is evangelical. When my pastor read the original five characteristics of evangelicalism, I felt like I was reading a list of what gave me life:
I remembered the times when Bible stories had come alive for me as a child. I remembered sharing short Scripture lessons with high school friends through a periodic letter in the early days of email. And I acknowledged that to this day I enjoy talking with others about their faith journeys.
There are Christians around me who don’t enjoy labels. They don’t want to be called evangelical, even if they uphold all of the above characteristics in their lives. They perhaps don’t even want to be called Christian. But they want to follow Jesus, and they want to draw closer to him.
A church home is, I believe, a necessary vehicle for that goal, though we are blessed with choice. If you haven’t found a church home that draws you closer to God, keep looking. Consider that perhaps you haven’t yet found the method or practice that resonates with your soul. If you feel close to God today, take a moment to celebrate that and celebrate him. And if you feel far away, can I pray for you?
God, thank you for your reminder that you are the Good Shepherd who pursues the lost sheep.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.