From time to time, friends will say that I seem like a reasonable sort of person. That’s usually followed by something like, “So why do you believe all that crap about God and Jesus and going to heaven?”
That’s usually the opening for a good conversation about what “all that crap” means. Usually, they’ve been influenced by news and popular media which has an extremely limited presentation of Christian faith, with spokesmen (and yes, they are mostly men) who are against LGBTQ people, climate change, any scientific advance, abortion, medical assistance in dying, and so on. These right–wing commentators have given Christianity a sad reputation as people who stand against everything that the modern world has come to value.
Honestly, I don’t buy into “all that crap”. Christian faith is so much richer than the nonsense which they spout. Sometimes when they speak, I imagine God weeping copious tears.
To be fair, those people do represent one end of the spectrum of Christian faith. But they certainly do not speak for all of us. Christianity is not some monolithic group which can be described in such simplistic, ways. There are many different approaches to living a Christian life. I am among those Christians who value using our minds to think about modern issues in modern ways. We understand that the Bible was written in a time long before any of our modern preoccupations.
For example, the society of the time was tribal and limited and localized. Today we can travel farther in a single hour than most people then would have travelled in a lifetime. We know in an instant what happens on the other side of the world. We’ve stood on the moon. We understand about viruses, and that they are not demonic possession. I can write this column without having to copy it laboriously on papyrus or parchment and deliver it to the editor without leaving home.
Just as life evolves, so does Christian faith. I try to share that perspective in these columns. Many people approach me in delight, saying “I didn’t know you could think about it that way!” It’s a breath of fresh air for them.
Here are four things I think are true of Christian faith.
First, Christianity is not about getting to heaven. It’s a profoundly this–worldly kind of faith which has to do with how we live in this life. Jesus taught that the great commandment was not just to love God with all that we are, but “to love our neighbour as ourselves”. Neighbours, by definition, refers to those who are different from us. They think differently, act differently, believe differently, live differently, and followers of Jesus are called to learn to love them with compassion and justice.
That’s one of the reasons I’m a Christian. It helps me learn to be a more loving and compassionate person.
Secondly, I pray. Many are uncomfortable with the idea of praying to God to do something in the future with the expectation they will receive a literal answer. I don’t exercise this kind of petitionary prayer. While there are those who believe that God sometimes does singlehandedly bring about results, cure people, stop evil, and so on, I don’t believe God needs prayer to get him off his butt and do something.
For me, prayer is part of my relationship with God. Rather than being constant requests for help, prayer is that kind of communication which opens my being to the being of God in the world. Praying helps me learn to be attentive to God’s presence as I walk in the world. Prayer is about paying attention to whether I walk well in my journey through life. When I pray, I engage with life more fully, and learn to identify with those who are hurting.
There are also other kinds of prayer — expressing my gratitude; acknowledging that I have failed to be loving and compassionate; being mindful of what goes on around me. Prayer takes many forms. When I pray, I try to find a time or space to sit, be still, and reflect. I try to listen to the fullness of life going on all around me. Sometimes I do this with music, or poetry, or a particular painting. Often, I pray while I am doing needlepoint. It’s a form of reflective listening, meditation, and communication.
Thirdly, while it’s true that you don’t need to go to church to be a Christian, becoming part of a community does help us go deeper in our faith. A community holds us accountable so that our words and our deeds match. A community encourages and helps us. We “see the face of God” in others and learning to love our neighbours happens more naturally in community. We can’t be like Lucy — “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand!”
Finally, just being a “good person” or “not hurting anyone else” isn’t enough. I often hear people say that they don’t need to be a Christian because they already have it more or less figured out. Basically — don’t be a jerk, try not to hurt others, and be kind.
But that’s a kindergarten way of life, and I hope I’ve grown a little bit since then. Robert Fulghum was wrong when he titled his book, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”. A kindergarten way of life isn’t enough for adults.
Part of maturing is learning to be stretched to think of others, to empathize, to grow in our ability to show compassion, to be challenged in our opinions and beliefs. Jesus challenges me to imagine what it’s like to be the neighbour, the outsider, the marginalized one, and then to act on that imagination.
These four elements are part of how I understand Christian faith. They give me life and hope and joy. Now the challenge is to go out and live it.
Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook