On The Road: A New Section

I just got back from church a couple of hours ago, and I want to gush a little bit about this one particular aspect of the almost countless circumstances that have me so incredibly content with where I am and what I am doing with my life at this moment. I have, throughout my life, been more blessed than it seems possible to have been by a consistent presence of amazing communities of faith which have welcomed me openly into their midst and provided me with a comfortable yet challenging place from which to explore what it means to believe in God. Somehow I have managed to encounter them pretty much everywhere I have lived, and it has made an enormous difference in my spiritual growth and general life experience.

Back in high school it was the B.R.I.D.E.S. (Bible Reading In Da Evening Sistahs)--the covenant group of amazing women (which started out with our two fabulous leaders and four freshmen girls, and by our senior year had grown to a group of thirteen passionate seekers of truth) which met a couple of hours each week in the Brides Room at my childhood church. Then in college I found Tacoma College Ministry, a fellowship group which provided a number of my most meaningful friendships, along with Trinity Presbyterian Church, a place of remarkable and inspiring sincerity, openness, and faith. I studied abroad in England for a semester and was immediately welcomed into the Meeting House group, a circle of deep, thoughtful, and loving askers of questions led by the marvelous chaplain Gavin Ashenden. I moved to Seattle and found Bethany Pres and the College Age Fellowship, and made many more dear friends, lasting connections, and spiritual developments. And now here I am in Princeton, and I think I have found yet another church body of which I am excited to become a member.

It's called Westerly Road, and it's a half-hour walk through some lovely tree-lined streets from my house to the church. I first attended about a month ago, in the company of Jessica Lee, my friend from Bethany back in Seattle who is now also here in Princeton studying at the seminary, and who, like me, was in the process of searching for a new church to call home now that sh'e'll be living out here for a while. During my first visit, I was struck by the friendliness and authenticity of the people leading the service. And I found the sermon engaging and thought-provoking.

At the time I was wrestling (and actually, I still am) with the proper balance between focus on God's saving grace and our acts of faith/obedience/repentance, particularly with respect to the question of salvation. A while back I read Brennan Manning's Ragamuffin Gospel, which is a really incredible book, and whose central message, at least as I understood it, totally blew me away. It had to do with the idea that we are truly saved solely by the grace of God, and that nothing we can do--not even failing to "accept" it properly, whatever that means--can prevent us from experiencing that grace. I don't know for sure that that's what he was trying to say, and I know a lot of Christians who will virulently object to that idea. I don't know whether I myself believe it's true or not. But it was such a radical rethinking of the way I had ever approached grace and salvation, and Manning made one specific point with respect to this line of thought, which was: "That would truly be a gospel."

And he's right. I mean, really, what if it were true that we didn't have to worry, not only about making sure never to sin in our lives, which seems to be quite impossible, but also about whether or not we have prayed the right prayer or repented in the right way or believed in God or accepted Jesus as our Saviour at the right level in our psyche? Because, as relatively lenient as these requirements may seem in comparison to the type of total perfection in thought and action Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount when he talks about lusting being adultery and name-calling being murder, they are also disconcertingly subjective and undefined. I mean, what does it mean, precisely, to "accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour"? I have never been entirely certain. And if you don't know what it means or looks like to have done so, but you believe that that is required in order to avoid hell or death or some other terrifying fate, then you will live in a constant state of fear that you have not met the obscure requirements. I think it is this fear and uncertainty that causes so many Christians to behave in ways that are tragically damaging, desperate, and devoid of love for their fellow human beings.So, anyway, I am compelled by an idea that offers peace and comfort and hope rather than terror and desperation and aggression, and interested in exploring it more. And the more I think about it, the more I realize how many sermons in my life I have come away from with all sorts of ideas about new ways I can try to make sure I am doing what I need to be doing in order to be saved, and how few (if any!) I have come away from with the reassuring reminder that God has so loved me that He has already provided for my salvation, and that nothing I do can get in the way of that. So if that really is the gospel of Jesus, well, nobody seems to be talking about it, at least not in my hearing.

I was in a place of being very conscious of this idea when I first attended Westerly Road, and so as the pastor spoke I was actively examining the things he said to determine whether, ultimately, he seemed to believe that salvation comes through God's grace or our response to it. And I felt like there was, at least, an addressing of the tension between the two ideas, which I appreciated.

I've been back two times since then, and each time I have felt that the sermon was thoughtful and meaningful and pertinent, and focused on the aspects of faith I have come to believe are truly important, rather than superficial if not completely counter-productive or even ungodly injunctions towards condemnation and exclusion in response to certain arbitrary moral/behavioral precepts. A couple of weeks ago they started a series on the Ten Commandments, and the perspective the pastor is taking is that these ten commandments are simply an expansion of the two great commandments Jesus discusses in Matthew 22: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" and "Love your neighbor as yourself." Which is a perspective I embrace, and it's been interesting to hear how he makes these links.

Today we looked at the second commandment, which is "You shall not make yourselves an idol in the form of anything on heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them and worship them." The first thing the pastor did was talk about how this commandment differs from the first, which is "You shall have no other gods before me." I always did have trouble seeing the distinction between the two, and wondered why they were considered two separate commandments. But he pointed out that the second commandment doesn't just say not to make idols representing other gods. It also advises us not to make idols of the Lord Himself. We should not try to represent Him or understand Him through some human-made constructions, because inevitably we will distort His nature or leave out some essential aspect of His being.

Then we looked at Colossians 1:15, which says "[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation." And the pastor pointed out that the Greek word here translated as "image" (oh, yes, he referred to the original Greek--which earns major points in my theological book) is actually the word from which we get the term "icon." So, basically, we're not supposed to make images of God, but He understands that we have a lot of trouble getting an idea of something we can't look at or hear or touch, and so He made us a representation that fully enfleshed Himself. The sermon went on to discuss ways that we turn Jesus into a manmade icon by failing to take into account all aspects of who he was and what he did, picking and choosing from among them instead. Which was a very interesting and thought-provoking perspective.

I don't agree with everything that is said in the sermons, but that's actually something I appreciate about them. They're not filled with meaningless platitudes that everyone would agree with. They are making definitive claims about what is true and what our response to that truth should be. And I am engaged and able to examine what is being said and determine when I agree and when I don't, and why. What's even more exciting, is that today the pastor actually invited the congregation to a Q&A session after the service! This is something I have always wished to see incorporated into a church service. (I tend to be pretty conscious about what aspects various churches do and don't include in their services, and how they approach them. It often says a lot more than you might suspect about the church's underlying beliefs. This is something I'll probably pontificate on at greater length in a future post...) Anyway, today it was just me, the pastor, and one other member of the congregation at the Q&A session, but I got to ask something that I had been wondering about during the sermon, and the pastor had some really interesting things to say in response and additional background to provide, which was great. And mostly I just find it encouraging that this church is one that believes the opportunity to come together and discuss and ask questions about a sermon is important to offer.

Another fun aspect (although this is a slightly less vital one as far as my opinion about a church is concerned) is that the past two Sundays I have been there, the pastor has thrown a mini vocabulary lesson into the middle of his talk. :-) Last time he explained that the individual segments of aggregate fruits like raspberries and strawberries are called drupelets (he was comparing the Ten Commandments to an aggregate fruit, saying that they are so interconnected to one another that you can't pluck one apart separately from the others like a grape off a bunch, and decide to uphold it while discarding the others. Rather, the individual commandments are like drupelets, and if you try to pluck one you will, as he put it, "end up making a mess of all of them. And yourself.") And then today, he explained that the word "toady" (which means sycophant or flatterer) comes from the days of medicinal charlatans who would have a person eat a toad (which were believed to be poisonous) and then "cure" them in order to prove their legitimacy.

The point is, the sermons I have thus far experienced at Westerly Road have hit me in ways that were intriguing and inspiring and somewhat unprecedented in my church-going experience. They have also held my attention from wandering more reliably than have most sermons in my past. Although I suspect this is largely a result of the ways I have, over the years, grown in understanding and spiritual maturity, and become closer to God and more attuned to hearing Him speak and less distracted by other things that are going on in my life, rather than being in any way a critique of the pastors who delivered those past sermons, many of whom were incredibly wise people I deeply admire.

Bottom line: I am really happy to have found this place, and I am looking forward to the ways God will continue to guide me into a deeper and fuller understanding of Himself and my place in creation through my involvement with the church and its members.


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