The Fifth Vow

January 9, 2005

Do you submit yourself to the government and discipline of the church, promising to promote its purity and peace?

This may be the easiest of the five vows for me. Having fessed up that I want to follow Jesus, it’s crystal clear to me that I don’t want to do it alone. And I like being offically unalone – that is, part of organized religion. And after being a teacher, there’s no question in my mind that choosing to what authority you will submit yourself is one of the most vital freedoms. Yeah, I’m a sub for sure.

All of that would make sense to any number of people, but they would balk at the particular institution I married today – with every good reason. So I want to think a bit about all the good reasons there are not to be a Xian, and why they haven’t proved to be good enough for me.

Today, my daughter was baptized and I was received into the church as a new member. I’m sitting in my living room, recently vacated – most of the guests from the celebration brunch left, Georgia went to take her nap, and Marlene went out with Kyle and Cori, the remaining guests, to have a beer. It’s quiet. I’m listening to music created by a friend of mine, who joined us for the brunch today with his wife. His name is Ted Reichman. [http://www.tedreichman.com/] He’s a very good musician, and I really enjoy this album. The music carries a lot of sadness, but seems itself supported by a hidden source of joyous vitality.

It’s probably no coincidence that I should see Ted today, of all people. If the conclusion of my first – fatally flawed – effort to become an evangelical Christian, back when I was a freshman in college, could be reduced to a single moment, then it can be traced back to a moment late at night in the spring of 1989, when I was looking at Ted Reichman as he slept, and thinking about our friendship. I was watching Ted sleep because it was a sleepover at a friend’s house. Our whole gang from summer camp, people I had known since before high school, had gotten together to hang out. Matt and I were home from college on spring break, maybe, and we wanted to catch up with everybody. We ended up doing some catching up with each other as well.

Matt was the first of my old friends to really engage me about my newfound faith, to challenge it in effect. We took a walk that night along the streets of a suburb of Boston, and one last time I attempted to defend to him my decision to become a Christian, not very well of course. There were two fundamental facts that I couldn’t acknowledge, even to myself, that undercut my position. First, I wanted to be a Christian in large part because I believed that God alone could make me a better person. Second, it was silly to try to share that “gospel” with Matt, because I considered him a very good person. I wanted to be more like Matt – but I’d chosen a path that brought me directly into tension with Matt’s agnosticism, rationalism and Jewish worldview.

We got back to the house and most of the others had fallen asleep in their sleeping bags in the basement. I was walking across the room, maybe after using the toilet or something, and passed by Ted. I looked at him, and thought: you’re talking about a religion that says that if we were all to die tonight, Ted would go to hell because he doesn’t believe in Jesus. You may not know all the answers, but you know one thing: you would never serve a God that would condemn Ted to hell. You would never serve a God who looked at the human race as two mutually exclusive sets of winners and losers, and saw Ted as a loser. And now that you’ve followed the premises of this religion out to their logical conclusion, you’re finished. It’s over. Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t go back.

Poor Ted. I used him as a lever, to pry myself out of the trap I had found myself in. Of course, it only worked because I loved him. And I had no real excuse for loving him. Not that he didn’t have many attractive qualities – a dry sense of humor, eclectic and generous propensities for music, a great writer – but those weren’t the reasons I loved him. And it wasn’t just about loyalty, simply that he was my friend and I had to stand by him. It’s something very hard to describe. You know, it’s a premise of Xianity that everyone has a God-sized hole at their deepest center. I definitely saw that void at my own center – and I could sense it in other people around me. I could conceive of how they might possibly, someday, have need for a savior. Ted seemed more whole, somehow. For some reason, he struck me that night to be the unwitting carrier of some rare quintessence of unbroken humanity. I simply could not conceive of him needing Jesus. A God who didn’t love him as I did, just as he was, was not a God I could understand.

And I very much needed to understand my God.

So I went to sleep, and in the morning I woke up to experience a foretaste of the depression I was to struggle with throughout my twenties. Wow, was I a miserable bastard that morning. The irony was that I’d felt miserable when I’d converted to Xianity, too. It didn’t seem fair. Surely out of these two decisions, the latter reversing the former, I should have been able to feel good about one of them.

But what I want to know is: what’s changed since then?

Today I joined a church that teaches (over and over again sometimes, like today) that apart from Jesus no one can be saved. That apart from him there is no love, no justice, no chance of seeing the kingdom of God. And I came home and had friends over for brunch to celebrate my union with this Xian community. And Ted and his beautiful wife come over to share in my joy. And while I wouldn’t be so foolish as to say out loud the things I just wrote about Ted – for it would be foolish to idealize him or pretend he’s not a sinner in the sight of God – I still can understand what I felt back then.

There’s some disconnect somewhere. I couldn’t go to Ted and say, with a straight face, “I’m praying that Christ reveals himself to you and that you become part of his church.” I couldn’t even go before God and pray that prayer with a straight face. And why should Ted be exempt from such a witness? Because he appears to be very fortunate in his marriage? Because he’s a talented and sought-after musician? Because he has good taste in movies? Because he’s a Jew? No. Not at all. None of these will do. There’s only one answer that makes any sense, and that’s that it doesn’t make sense to share the gospel with Ted because it doesn’t make sense to share it with anyone, because it’s a lie.

And yet I don’t believe that either. I have no desire or need to let go of the gospel of Jesus Christ, in spite of the contradictions. So again I ask, what’s changed?

There are probably a lot of factors, and I don’t know which if any is most decisive.

I don’t feel the same need to understand God as I did then – because I trust him more now.

To pass judgment on Xianity by focusing on the doctrine of hell and the final judgment is to pick up the stick by the wrong end. Xianity is prayer, community, worship, study, service as well as doctrine. And the doctrine of hell becomes toxic when we abstract it from the rest of what we are taught about God – his passion for justice, his action in history, his abundant mercy, his sovereign rule over all time and space. In fact, one key implication of believing in God’s judgment is that I remember to leave the judging to God – there is no place for me to speculate, on any basis, over who is doing what after death.

It’s easier for me to admit now that Ted isn’t made of sterner stuff than I am. God has been generous with him, since before he was born, and he certainly seems to me to have been a good steward of all he has received, but it’s not for me to say that he is somehow above the need for salvation.

And my relationship to the church plays a role too. Stanley Hauerwas has written that while the Protestant attitude towards theology is often, “Tell me what is the minimum number of propositions I can affirm and still be considered a Xian?” there is an alternative take on it: “Wow, look at all this great stuff we get to believe!” The difference in perspective when you start taking your role in a larger community into account is striking. When I was in college, theology was a burden because I was terrified of being caught with my theological pants down. Nowadays, I feel like I have less to prove. I don’t do this all by myself – I don’t even believe in Christ all by myself – we are doing this together. Michael Card sings:

forever we’ll have one another
because we belong to the Lord
and so we belong to each other
and that is our greatest reward

Paul indeed wrote of one of the churches he was encouraging: “And what is my great reward? Is it not you?” You plural, of course. He valued the earthly community of Xians, flawed and in need of encouragement as it was, more highly than some future heaven. When I try to do the same, I stop worrying about telling Ted he needs Jesus, and the absurdities of that notion which I’m unable to shake. Living out the gospel in community is a heck of a lot more important (and more fun) than talking about the gospel. And if the church isn’t a place where, I can honestly say, I want to be, why waste time worrying about why someone else should want to be there?

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