This past Sunday I was given a simple task: go out into the world and share my faith.
I can feel some of you hovering over the “Back” arrow that promises escape from what will surely be a harangue about why my faith is the best faith ever there was, and how you need to getcha some of it. Please bear with me. I promise: no brow-beating, and I will attempt brevity (the former being much easier for me than the latter).
This task, which I was assigned along with the rest of the congregation during the Sunday sermon, should be an easy one to fulfill. Sharing our faith is central to the message of the Gospel, and is reiterated ad nauseam in Acts and Paul’s letters. It’s a mission laid out in our Baptismal Covenant and in the conclusion of every service. In fact, as much as it is drilled in, over and over again, the sharing of faith should come so easily and naturally for a Christian as to make the mere mention of it in a sermon inanely superfluous. “I want you to go out into the world this week and breathe. Breathe in. Then breathe out. Repeat.” Amen, Captain Obvious.
Of course, it is not that obvious. And, for many of us, it certainly is not that easy to carry our professions of faith out the front door of church after Sunday service. Now, making outward demonstrations of faith in church: that’s easy! I’m an Episcopalian. We cross ourselves, kneel, sit, stand up, bow, sit back down, ring little bells at seemingly awkward moments, swing a giant ball of burning incense around until our eyes burn and parade up and down the aisles in robed processions that can make newcomers wonder just what the heck they’ve walked into. For me, this liturgy is home. It establishes a beautiful rhythm in which I can get lost in communion with God. If you have that same experience with the Almighty in an auditorium featuring a live band and a laser-light shown – Mazel Tov! Sincerely, that’s awesome, and you should be there. But, whether it’s in traditional liturgy or jamming to a praise band, we’re not shy about showing our faith. In the sanctuary. On Sunday morning.
But, tell us to take our faith out into the world and share it in our everyday lives and some of us commence to squirm in the pews. And, by “some of us” I mean the great mass of Christians who have become uncomfortable with the contemporary usage and political appropriation of the word “Evangelical.” There’s nothing wrong with that term: its original meaning is at the heart of the movement to follow Christ. And, I wouldn’t presume to make value judgments on any congregation that describes itself as evangelical. As Christians we all should be evangelical.
For many, however, the outward appearance of “big E” evangelism has more to do with a political movement than with walking in the footsteps of Christ. This is just a personal observation, and maybe it applies only to me (though I doubt it). But in response to calls for evangelism many of us today shy away from the term, and are content to politely keep our mouths shut outside the safe confines of church.
Why do we do this? Why is this so hard? If faith is so wonderful, and having God in our lives so absolute in its benefit, why do we bottle it up within us? There are a lot of reasons, most of which are painfully self-evident for anyone who’s left the church and perhaps even faith, or seen loved ones do the same, over the ways in which Christians sometimes abuse God and their neighbor in the name of religion.
The common perception of “sharing faith” among those not already ensconced in a church, or those who have left church, is of a relentless, condescending brow-beating. The righteous thumping ceases only when the victim either submits to conversion or, more likely, is driven away from organized religion, if not faith altogether. Christianity, in this exchange, often is portrayed as an exclusive club – a ticket to the last lifeboat, in which we (the elect) may repose in comfort whilst our neighbors drown in a sea of fear, disillusion and our own purse-lipped judgment.
Sound appealing? I don’t believe it should. But, browse the comments section of any article or social media post dealing with Christianity, the church or faith in general and I think my point bears itself out. In the context of a subject that should only be about God’s unconditional and unwavering love, we drag out the worst vitriol found in contemporary discourse. Sure, there’s the intermingling of comments by professed atheists. I pray my only response to you is of love and respect. But, what of other Christians? What do they have to say about their brothers’ and sisters’ affirmations of faith? More often than not, it is not a message of love.
Any perceived difference in interpretation of Scripture, liturgy or theology draws out a wave of condescension, spite, anger and ridicule emanating from and aimed at otherwise sensible men and women who profess to follow Christ. The gamut of reasons cited for this outflow of bile is immense. It ranges from deep-seated differences in theology and historic enmities to such weighty and theologically important topics as the kind of music to be played on Sunday. Often the most negative lashing comes from those who have attained some position or title in Christianity, and thus feel empowered to strike down, in the name of Christ, anyone who does not agree with their every point of interpretation in matters of faith. Seen from the outside, this form of evangelism – and it’s the form most likely seen by those not in church on Sunday – does not feel like a warm welcome home. It feels like we’re trying to drag people off the street to take sides in our ecumenical domestic disturbance.
How, then should I profess my faith? As a writer my first inclination is to write it out. But, aside from this post, I usually feel like I have to sneak faith into the subtext somewhere, out of fear I’ll lose my reader if I slap them in the face with a crucifix on page one. Resolving that fear in my writing is something only I can achieve. But, how should I profess faith without worsening the trend in division, exclusion and judgment we see in evangelism today? As with all questions, Christ provides the answer:
“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22: 37-40 NRSV
Christ knew we wouldn’t all agree. Even those who literally walked with Him couldn’t agree on the Law, questioned him, themselves and each other, and fell away in times of trouble. He knew He was sending them out to carry the Living Word into a world of non-believers, a world in which they would be ridiculed, persecuted and martyred. And with what weapon did He arm them, and us, for these trials? Love. Unconditional. Unqualified. Universal. Love. For all.
There is no litmus test for this Love. We’re not called to love those who agree with us. Or those who love us. Or those who share our world view, our values, our liturgy, our faith. We’re called to love. And in that simple act we live out God. Where He takes us from there, and who He calls into faith – that’s up to Him and His perfect plan and timing. We are merely to love and let His will work through us.
If this kind of radical, unconditional love has not been your experience with church, you are not alone. But, there are communities of worship in which all are welcome: all walks of life, all orientations, all stages and styles of belief, disbelief and doubt. If you need help being introduced to one, I’d be happy to assist in any way I can.
So, in response to last Sunday’s altar call, I offer only this. I will love. I will do my best to break down the barriers in my heart between me, God and my neighbors. I will work to love those who hate me. I will strive to see God and myself in everyone. Yes, even them, whoever them may be. I will be imperfect. I will fail. And when I fall short, I pray, with grace, I will get back up and love again.