Left: Mark, B. Gene, Rob, Sandy and Dorothy Grace;
Upper Rt: Elmer Grace; Lower Rt: B. Gene Grace
Last Wednesday I promised that I would attempt to unpack the stories that I shared under the title “My Name Is Mark and I Am an Evangelical.”
I’ve been up and down and all around on that prospect, mainly because I do believe so firmly that we- and by that I mean mainly me and a few other religious folks I know- display the disconcerting tendency to say too much about the stories we put out.
Being An Evangelical Means I Have Trouble Leaving Well Enough Alone
Especially when it comes to our religious stories. We call ourselves a people of the book, but what that usually means is that we think we own the Book and we are more than happy to tell you what it means. Down to the last jot and tittle. And never mind the parts that tell us that no human being can track God’s mind. We are very happy to read the Divine Consciousness for you.
I don’t think it used to be that way. At least it isn’t the way that I remember it. I remember a time when my branch of the Evangelical family, the Texas Baptist branch, was able to tolerate some disagreement among ourselves about what the Book might meant.
We might not agree with one another on finer points of Scripture but we were focused on obeying the parts that were clear. For instance, that part that says, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these (giving water, food and clothing) you have done it unto me.”
I am hopeful that with the dying out of the old bulls and the coming on of a new generation of Evangelicals, we may actually be finding our way out of that parched, wilderness of sibling rivalry, where everyone was competing to show they were God’s most beloved and trying to get the rest of us to line up and just let them tell us what to believe.
In my growing up years I witnessed good women and men defamed by the Evangelical version of the Great Inquisition. I saw careers ruined by religionists of low morals and worse motivations because someone’s words could be made to sound or look suspicious.
If you think I am still more than a little bitter about that phase of our proud Evangelical history, you would be absolutely right. At one point it drove me out into the wilderness, into nature in an attempt to find some place where God wasn’t being used as a billy club by a bunch of arrogant, bilious heresy hunters.
And that bitterness has made me harder, less forgiving than I ought to be. It has made me more suspicious and less gracious than I would have others be toward me. I want to make sure that people don’t mistake my loyalties, that they understand exactly what my stories mean.
To that extent I have made it harder on myself- harder to let the sovereign mystery of God’s grace unfold in my life as God intends it, because I seem to try to catch every last divine act and pin a meaning on it before it can hit the ground.
“I have seen the enemy,” as Pogo once said, “and it is me.”
On the other hand,
Being Evangelical Means that I Believe God Is Using Me To Bring Good into this World
This is the experience that keeps me coming back to church with people who sometimes make me mad enough to spit nails. Some days I would rather build a little chapel in the wild wood where just me and my version of Jesus could commune.
Mark Grace with Dorothy Grace
Giving a devotional for the W.M.U.
Actually I tried that and discovered that I have the ability to fight with myself when no one else is handy.
“I have seen the enemy . . .”
I know that many people who do not call themselves Evangelicals think that this belief is the height of arrogance. To believe that God would actually stoop to communicate with an individual human being, a puny, imperfect, superstitious and grandiose pip of a mere mortal.
More people trying to tell me what God can and cannot do.
However, I hold this conviction more strongly than at any other time in my life, and I do so on two counts.
The first is a matter of philosophical conviction that is derived from amazing advances in and elaborations on biology, evolutionary theory and quantum physics. Science has advanced to a point at which there is a consensus on some very simple yet elegant ideas, for instance the idea that we are all involved in the web of life. Some scientists even say we are part of a web of consciousness that reaches far beyond our individual selves and is influencing and influenced by forces that are cosmic in nature.
I call those forces God. I focus my awareness and understanding of them in the historical presence of our Creator and Redeemer, right here, present with us, bringing anyone who will into service of eternal good. Salvation, if you will.
The second reason I hold this conviction is because of what I have both experienced and witnessed in my life. No matter how many Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens the unbelieving world throws at me I know in whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that He will keep that which I have committed unto him against that Day when all things shall be well, all things shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.
I know it with the kind of warrant that the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga writes about so clearly, with the knowledge produced by a faith that God planted in my heart and which I have activated by responding to God’s loving movement toward me.
I know it because Gene and Dorothy Grace nurtured it in my imagination and in my heart and because Creation echoed the truth of those Bible stories I learned. I know it because hundreds of ordinary women and men like Mari have pointed me in the right direction with the supernatural strength that came, they told me, from a Savior who died and rose for them and for me. And for you.
Being Evangelical Means that I am Honor Bound Not to Make Your Decisions For You
One of the things that I think is a little sad about the post-denominational age is that no one knows history any more. I know. History is so, well, passe. So there and then.
But the truth is that my faith has strong roots because I know my history. I have roots that call me to humility and repentance because of the sins of my spiritual ancestors, Southern Baptists, who believed they could be Christian and buy and sell fellow human beings. Their sins make me very aware that I am subject to the same kind of sinful nature that wants to own others and to direct their lives for my comfort and benefit.
I also have roots that call me to defend the absolute liberty of every human being’s conscience before God.
I will not coerce or manipulate you into believing what I believe. My Mennonite forebears suffered and died for their belief that salvation only comes by the free will decision of one human being who gives themselves to God. And in doing so they helped focus an unquenchable light upon the Scriptures’ teaching that each of us has the same privilege and responsibility.
For me, being Evangelical, at least being a Bible believing Baptist, at any rate, means that I will not force my religious practice upon you.
Why? Because salvation isn’t a matter of how the majority votes or acts. Salvation does not come from a nation or the practices of a political party or the “traditions” of a group of human beings.
Because if love means anything- and Holy Scripture teaches us that we cannot say we love God if we do not love one another- it means that I will seek to treat you in the same way I hope you would treat me. I will not force you to stand and observe my religious practice because I do not want to be forced to observe yours.
Neither will I force laws upon you that give my religion an advantage over yours.
Because I believe that love is the only possible way I can persuade you that this Way is the true Way. Anything else is counterfeit.
As usual, I would love to read your comments. I know that I haven’t said all that should be said, and there is even a remote chance that I have said some things that need to be challenged, corrected even. Leave a comment!
Photo Credit: www.crosscards.com