Part 3: Lessons Learned

NOTE: This is part three of a five-part series about my faith journey over the last few years. You can find the first two parts here and here.

As I began to learn more about the Episcopal Church, I noticed that if I ever casually mentioned it to anyone who wasn’t Episcopalian, I’d hear all about how it was “Catholic lite.” But the more I read, the more I found the Episcopal tradition to be quite different from Catholicism. It seemed that most people just saw the collars, heard some words, and saw the worship style and assumed it was the same. They took a look at the cover of the book without bothering to read it. I, however, saw meaningful differences. But I digress.

I want to share some of the impactful things I learned through a couple of books, beginning with Welcome to the Episcopal Church by Christopher L. Webber. On the Bible:

“The Bible is not a set of instructions that can give us simple answers to all questions or a text with which to prove points. In the first place, the guidance the Bible gives was provided for a society very different from ours and still in the early stages of growing in knowledge of God’s love.

In the second place, any set of words is open to various interpretations…God, being ultimately responsible for both the text of the Bible and the nature of human beings, presumably understood that in creating both and made allowances. The authority of the Bible is not that of a dictator or rule book…If God had wanted us to have a rule book, surely a better one could have been provided than this. The Bible is something quite different; we go to it not to find specific words to answer our questions but to find the Word who created us and knows our need before we ask.”

On worship and theology:

“Worship for example, is inclusive, not exclusive, while theology, by its nature, excludes. Theology is concerned with defining issues and boundaries, with saying we believe this and not that. Worship, on the other hand, like great music and art, can be appreciated on many levels and in many ways. Art, music, and worship are difficult to define in words and it would be difficult to say that someone whose appreciation is different from ours is wrong. Worship, then, has the ability to unite, to draw us in and draw us together…

Theology relies on language in its attempt to understand religious experience, and those who worship God know how difficult it is to put that experience into words. God is always beyond our definitions.”

On the importance of reason, in addition to scripture and tradition:

“No matter how much some Christians may question reliance on human reason, they cannot avoid using their minds to do so. Neither Scripture nor tradition provides clear and certain answers to all questions; at some point, there is no way to decide among possible interpretations except through the use of the human mind.”

On “sin:”

“The attempt to identify sin with some outward enemy can also lead to such phenomena as racism, homophobia…and a negative approach to the world in general…sin lies in the misuse of good things rather than in the things themselves. The purpose of the spiritual life is to seek God’s glory rather than simply avoid sin. Nature has an inherent goodness that can be perfected by grace.”

On differences of opinions within the Church:

“Unity is not the same thing as uniformity, nor can it be imposed from above…Uniformity of opinion and vision might be more comfortable to some, but unity is made up of diversity. It is precisely in this clash of opinions and the debating of different visions that the mission of the church is clarified. A church without controversy would be a dead church.” 

I also read Episcopal Questions, Episcopal Answers by Ian S. Markham & C.K. Robertson. Here are some of my favorite parts, the first being about doubt and certainty:

“It is often said that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. When we think about God, we do so from the vantage point of humans. We are small entities in a vast universe; we are trying to work out what the source and creator of the universe is like. We should approach this project with some humility. Our vantage point does not permit certainty. We are called to think, struggle, and discern the truth about God and God’s relations with the world…we are all on a journey of faith. This journey will have many twists and turns. Sometimes our sense and experience of God will be strong; at other times, God will seem to be further away.”

On the inherent worth of others:

“We are made in the ‘image of God’ — often referred to in the Latin as ‘Imago Dei.’ Every person is special. It means that we are all required to treat people with dignity. They are extraordinary creations of infinite worth.” 

On the importance of social justice:

“If you had to identify the single most important biblical theme, then I think any fair observer would say ‘social justice.’ It is the primary theme of the Gospel (Jesus never mentions homosexuality, but talks repeatedly about the dangers of riches and the importance of the poor); it is the major theme of the prophets in the Old Testament (just look at Isaiah, Amos, and Micah); and it is a central characteristic of the early church (see Acts 4:33-35)…this commitment is firmly embedded in Scripture. The Church is called to be an agent of change in society.”

On scripture:

“It is not enough to read a verse of Scripture on its own, divorced from its setting in the larger passage. Sadly, there have been many times in the history of Christianity when people have wrenched a verse from its context and used it to justify otherwise deplorable acts such as slavery, racism, even crusades and inquisitions. Even in less extreme situations, it is far too easy either to take a verse that supports our own biases or to react against a too-easy fundamentalist approach by dismissing all of Scripture as irrelevant. No, we choose to do the harder work. This means considering the passage surrounding a particular verse.

…While affirming the way that Christians before us have comprehended the Word of God in relation to their time and place, we must also ask what God might be saying to us now in our own context…God can do a new thing if we are willing to let go of our own presuppositions and dare to approach both Scripture and our own situation with fresh eyes.

…Everyone looks at the Scriptures through a lens of some kind.”

On diversity within the church, including diversity of opinion:

“The work of discerning ‘what is of God’ is hard. We need the range of perspectives. We appreciate the wisdom of those who push the question: What is the biblical basis of this or that innovation? We appreciate the insight of those who push the question: How can we further the work of justice in today’s society? Naturally, this can look messy at times. If you look at the church in Corinth and read behind Paul’s letters to that congregation, then you will see messy is the norm. And messy can be good. We would rather all stay together in conversation than keep aspiring for a purity where other voices are excluded.”

On the Bible and the “Word of God:”

“For the Episcopal Church, Jesus is the primary Word of God. As we shall see later, the Bible is the Word of God because it points to the primary Word, which is Jesus. It is from the Incarnation that we learn what God is like. It is the primary disclosure of the nature of God to humanity.”

That is a lot to digest, I know. And it’s only the beginning. Next, I’ll talk more about what I’ve learned, specifically by actually [gasp] regularly attending services.


Christians: You Are Pushing Me Away

In recent months, I’ve become more thoughtful and inquisitive regarding my faith, or lack of it. I’m still on that path. It’s a challenging one. It’s an internal struggle. Mostly. That said, many “Christians” sure aren’t helping me on this path.

I’ve been listening to Christian music more often. It’s typically positive and uplifting versus a lot of the crap on the radio. Between the music, these stations sometimes have 30-second or minute-long sound bites from pastors offering advice and whatnot. It’s usually also pretty positive. But a few days ago, as I’m driving to work, one of the pastors starts talking about how we can’t redefine marriage and it’s between a man and a woman and blah blah blah. And I’m reminded that, even if I agree with this pastor or this radio station or other Christians on 99.9% of everything else, I clearly disagree on this point.

I occasionally attend a young adults ministry at a popular local church. At first, I was skeptical. It’s like going to a concert — flashy, polished, loud, etc. And I see all of these people just doing what they’re being told to do — raising their hands, for example — and it seems like it’s lacking meaning and the very authenticity that they’re all so quick to toss out as a buzzword. But, over time, after looking inward, listening to the words of the songs and sermons from the various pastors, I grew to like it. Sure, I still think that many in the audience are there for the show. And as a media person, I understand how much the whole “performance” can influence attention spans, adrenaline, make people feel all “warm and fuzzy,” etc. But it’s not my job to judge these people. It is my job to focus on me. What matters is that get something out of it.

A few months ago, a church panel had a conversation of sorts on topics young people may have questions about, but which aren’t typical sermon topics — things like abortion, abstinence and of course homosexuality/gay marriage. I was actually interested to see if they had anything different to say than what I’ve heard my entire life. They didn’t. In fact, the lead pastor brought up a psychologist or psychiatrist from a conservative Christian university to talk about it. The pastor talked about how even people with “same-sex attraction” in his life had problems with their fathers in the past or didn’t have fatherly figures. (I love my dad, by the way. He’s amazing.) The pastor even quoted a recent reputable study that talked about gay suicide, but indicated that the suicides were happening because gays were clearly struggling with conflicting emotions inside because they really knew it was wrong and against God’s will. This is not at all what the study said. Needless to say, I lost a lot of respect for this pastor. Again, I was reminded that — even if I agree with 99.9% of everything else this pastor has to say and believes about Jesus and Christianity — I clearly disagree on this part. He would consider me misinformed. I would consider him misinformed.

As I mentioned, I’m still working out some stuff regarding faith. But for the sake of this post, let’s say I agree with a majority of what this church preaches or what that radio station plays. Let’s say I agree on all the basics of Christianity. But I disagree on homosexuality. Why, then, does it matter? If I agree on most other things — the key things like salvation, who Jesus was/is, how we should treat others, etc. — why can’t I just agree to disagree on what the Bible says about homosexuality and leave that between me and God?

Many times, I think I can. And so I ignore this obvious difference and continue to try to learn from the church or from other Christians about other Christian things. But then it comes up. And the problem is that this one thing we don’t agree on is something so engrained within me and mainstream Christians seem to think they need to scream their opposition to marriage equality or to “the gay lifestyle” so loudly.

I grew up in the church. My ideas on things have changed dramatically from then to now. I’ve learned that there are far more opinions out there regarding Christian doctrine than just the one narrow-minded group of people I grew up around. That said, one key thing has never changed from my understanding of this faith: You love your God. You love your neighbor. And your primary goal is to bring others into your faith and share Jesus’ love with them.

Given this, why are people spending so much of their time on such a divisive issue? I’m not saying all churches should come out in favor of homosexuality or gay marriage. I’m not saying pastors should preach based on the whims of the world. I know a lot of people will read this and think that’s what I mean. It’s not. But far too often, we all pretend like we have all of this stuff figured out. We pick and choose which parts of the Bible we believe literally and which parts of the Bible we say needs interpretation based on the context in which it was written. We do this with tons of scripture. Even the people who say generic things like, “I believe in the Bible exactly as it is written” and don’t believe that it is a living, breathing document open to interpretation actually do interpret and read into things based on their understanding, education and perspective. Nobody follows it as literally as they claim.

Jesus didn’t hang out with the religious people. He hung out with commoners. Prostitutes, even. And he didn’t spend his whole time fighting against these people. He didn’t spend his time coming up with worldly ways to stop these people from living their lives. He spoke of love. He taught people about who he was and who his father was. He talked about loving God. Loving your neighbor as yourself. He spoke of redemption, not division. Healing, not demeaning. Shouldn’t the priority for Christ’s church be telling people of his love for them, not singling out one group of people and telling them how sinful they’re being? They say their priority is bringing people to Christ, but in many cases, their actions suggest otherwise.

As a teenager, I spent a lot of time thinking about my sexuality for obvious reasons. I prayed about it. And I have peace about it. I am comfortable with who I am and who I love. I don’t have a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I’m doing something wrong in God’s eyes by being in a loving, committed relationship with a man. In fact, I’m beginning to feel more spiritually whole than I have in a long time. More comfortable praying. More comfortable asking questions. More comfortable having doubts and working through them. More comfortable talking about it. More comfortable seeking answers in multiple places. And I feel less condemnation for asking questions. For having doubts. For seeking answers in multiple places. Where did I feel all of that condemnation in the first place? The church.

If Christianity is true and one day I stand before God, maybe I’ll learn I’m wrong about being gay. Maybe he will say, “Actually, Kyle, despite that peace you felt in your heart, simply being gay is a sin.” Do I know with 100% certainty that it isn’t? No. I’ve researched it. I’ve read scriptures and point-counterpoints on them, etc. But I do know that it is NOWHERE as important or relevant to salvation or being a Christian as mainstream Christians make it out to be. And that’s the point! Some Christians think dancing is a sin. Or playing card games. Other Christians would laugh at those notions. Some Christians put a heavier priority on baptism. Others take communion more often and consider it more important. But they’re all Christians. They’re all united under Christ. They consider themselves children of Christ.

Far too often, we’re scared to admit that we just don’t know. Maybe we think we do, but we really don’t. All I can do is continue my personal spiritual journey and keep constantly reminding myself that Christianity isn’t about the church. It’s about Christ. But it would sure make it a lot easier to seek him and clear up doubts I have if churches and so-called Christians weren’t screaming at all angles about how bad being gay is or how bad gay marriage is. In other words, it would help if the people who are so quick to loudly call themselves Christians would actually take a long, hard look at how Christ acted and actually act like him.

No one is perfect, but we should strive to be more understanding of others and to be better, Christian or not. At the end of the day, regardless of what you think is a sin and what isn’t, Christians are taught that all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. So we should strive to love more and condemn less. I’m reminded of what has become one of my favorite scriptures:

“If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith to say to a mountain, ‘Jump,’ and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give all I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.” – I Corinthians 13:1-3

Love God with all your heart and soul and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. People seem so focused on what God has to say about ‘gay’ that they’ve forgotten the greatest commandments of them all. And Jesus makes these points pretty darn clear.