While at my nephew’s wedding reception, I had the chance to visit with one of my older brothers about the church we both grew up in. Theologically, we have both moved past where some of those good folks might be comfortable. It’s not that we deny the virgin birth of Jesus or his bodily resurrection — we haven’t moved that far and never will. We still uphold the Bible as the inspired, authorative Word of God. We still believe Jesus is the Christ and no one comes to the Father except through him. We love the church. We believe in missions.
Honestly, from the larger Christian perspective, we haven’t moved all that far. But I know my heritage and I know many of the churches I once worshiped in would be hesitant to hire me as their preacher (which, when you think about, might not be a bad hesitancy!).
There was a time in my younger days as a pastor that I had an arrogant attitude towards such people. In my mind, I had “progressed” beyond that, beyond them. When I thought of them being “stuck in their ways” I felt a mixture of sadness and pity, both of which served to mask an underlying feeling a pride.
But God is merciful and I no longer feel that way. Truthfully, I haven’t felt that way in nearly 20 years.
Whenever the topic of my home church comes up, it’s hard for me to speak of the Sunday school teachers, youth sponsors, preachers, elders, regular members, camp volunteers, senior saints, and so many others without getting both nostalgic and teary-eyed.
It’s not that I remember an especially deep, intellectually stimulating Sunday School lesson. I don’t. I should have paid more attention. But I do remember feeling loved and valued. It was evident in their behavior and demeanor, even when one of them escorted me out of class for being disruptive and deposited me in my parent’s lap.
From the age of 14 on, I took notes on nearly every sermon. Today, I remember bits and pieces of a handful of sermons. Put together, they would make a really strange sermon. But what I remember most is getting the chance to pal around with a preacher who told me he believed in me, that “you could do this.” Why he said that to a squirelly 14-year-old kid I have no idea — other than God, compassion, and perhaps a little humor.
Many of my fondest memories are the most bland. They are of the regular, ordinary, quiet men and women who never taught a class, led worship, or preached a sermon. They were just there — every time the doors were open — and they talked to me, smiled at me. I didn’t know it at the time but they were building a culture of stability that allowed a kid like me to grow and thrive. My guess is that they didn’t know they were doing that either. They were just being the church.
When both of my parents went through the final stages of their lives, I saw the church at its best in full technicolor. Words can’t begin to describe those feelings. In many respects, those days and weeks, visits and meals, cards and encouragements, were responsible for the thawing of my pride.
It’s not that theology is irrelevant. It matters (well, some of it does and some of what we call theology doesn’t). Beliefs are important. Truth is real.
But actions matter, too. Maybe, in some way, they matter even more. Maybe it’s why we have verses like …
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. — James 2:12-13
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? — James 2:14
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. — 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” — John 13:35