These are, I have found, three of the most indelible arguments for leaving a church or not attending in the first place. Most people I talk to who are not involved in church whatsoever tend to refer to Christians as hate mongers. I’ve seen bumper stickers that say, “Lord, protect me from your followers.” How is it that the followers of the Prince of Peace have gained such a reputation?
When I was young, a spirited Bible thumper in church three times a week, I was given the impression that my peers would see the difference Christ had made in me by my actions. I was told not to drink. I was told not to smoke. I was told not to dance. I was told not to do just about anything that the rest of my generation was doing. I was given laws. This was the message of the Christian church: to be good – or to not be bad, creating the illusion of being good.
Service has become secondary in the church today, though it was the foremost call of Jesus. His message was one of peace, love, and servitude, but we have fallen back on old ways, the joy of personal liberation and responsibility exchanged for the comfort of outside structure.
It’s a shame really. I know some truly fine Christian people who are true men and women of faith. The Rosencrantz I wrote you about a few weeks ago, for example, is one such man of God. As a young man, Art Hallett would lead my youth group in song with a voice as smooth as vinyl jazz. But as much as his voice might be ordained by God as a blessing to His people, his heart is even more so. After recording a few albums of Contemporary Christian Music, an artist’s celebration of his path to joy, Art used the proceeds to start a ministry in the prisons of Florida. A few years ago, in the midst of a growing ministry, Art fell ill, leaving him bedridden, immobile, and no longer able to serve in prisons or in song. Doctors assumed years for a proper recovery, and like Job, Art was advised by friends to give up and die. But that man’s faith can move mountains, and seven months later, Art was strong enough to stand and sing a dear friend’s spirit on to the Great Beyond.
Art’s ministry is projected to be in ninety prisons by the end of the year, offering hope and counseling to men who are going to be back in your neighborhood within the next few months. He is teaching these wounded souls to love again. I don’t think it was an accident that he’s back on his feet. I don’t know why Art got sick, but I know why he was healed. Art’s example of faith and service is one that must be held high as a portrait of the substance of things hoped for and evidence of things unseen. It wasn’t Art’s beliefs that saved him. It was his faith.
Beliefs are the collection of ideas we pick up on the journey of life that help us to have hope. Faith is the reason we collect them. Belief is what we learn throughout our lives, that which helps put the Greatest Mystery of the Universe into a ten-minute presentation. Faith makes us want to share it. I’ve confused the two in my younger days. Put more faith in my collected ideas than the reason I was carrying them. Basically, my beliefs took my focus off of God and onto me.
One might see this as a matter of semantics, but to accept empirical facts or even learned behavior as a basis of faith, by definition, negates faith. It is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen. It is the realization that there is no way that I can truly understand it all and still be in this much of a mess. I have faith in things I know nothing of, what I can never truly comprehend and have no reason to believe. Some of us have a pretty good idea of what we think His plan is and have put the notion of God into a format that we can more readily understand. But the true realization of God is based on pure, blind faith, not the beliefs I’ve collected. In my life, I’ve often mixed the two up.
I put my beliefs ahead of love. I focused on living a right life by focusing on my own righteousness rather than the servitude I was called for. Though the message of Jesus was to serve your fellow man – to shelter the homeless, to care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned – I just chose to tell them about how my life became so perfect through the love of Jesus and how they could go to heaven when they died. My heart was in the right place, but my focus was off.
I saw it a lot in the church. People putting so much faith in their beliefs that they became Law, that which Jesus came not to condemn but to fulfill. Nobody truly explained to me that instead of looking for ways he was going to fulfill the Law in my life, I should have been watching the example of how he pulled it off in his own. The life of servitude and unconditional love for all who crossed his path, regardless of their sins against the Law and even himself, forgiving even the ones who would accuse him and nail him to a cross, this is the life of Christ.
He said he would teach us to be fishers of men so that we might be able to eat forever. Instead, the pews have been filled with hunters, torches and pitchforks leaning in the foyer for the next witch hunt. They are shameful aggressors who sacrifice personal happiness and shared joy for the vehement disagreement about what makes one happy and what gives one joy. And in the trenches of this battlefield are the casualties of war who were just trying to find any way at all amidst a cruel world of pride-ridden jackasses who won’t plow the field because there’s too much grass.
I was one of those jackasses – more interested in the future than the moment. Caring for others by telling them what I thought they should know for eternal salvation instead of meeting their needs right now. I think it’s a prevalent condition in the church today. Instead of compassion, there is opinion. It’s a widely held opinion as most popular beliefs are, but it is still an opinion. Instead of healing, there is judgment.
We have our foundations and ministries we send checks to and pray for – using them like car wash rag men – willing to pay a few extra bucks as long as somebody else does the work. I thank God for those rag men. Men like Art who are willing to answer the call of his beliefs through a God-based faith and give more love than most of us will ever receive.
This is an excerpt of The Rucksack Letters by Steve McAllister. Buy your copy of the eBook on Amazon.com.