Trusting God In The Consequences

I think I understand why people find it so difficult to change their minds and why they are skeptical of others who do make changes like that. It is because they believe that the change they are considering or the change they observe in others requires the repudiation of all that has gone before. In most cases, however, that is simply not true.

It has certainly not been true of me. I grew up and began my ministry in Baptist Fundamentalism. I no longer identify with that community in any official or institutional sense, but I retain some of the convictions which I developed there, and I have some good memories. True, I have shed the tendency to judgmentalism and legalism which was (and is) too often part of that tradition. But I have maintained a love for the Bible, which was instilled in me back then, and I genuinely appreciate the depth of devotion to their beliefs, even if they are a bit skewed, for which Fundamentalists are rightly known.

When my view of the parameters of the Kingdom of God expanded beyond the limits of Fundamentalism, I found a home in non-denominational Evangelicalism.  The character of the faith I observed in Evangelical Christianity was less strident, less doctrinaire than that of Fundamentalism, yet its roots were still firmly planted in historical orthodoxy. That balance is important to me even now.

The blog post I wrote on January 23 was titled “My Debt To Anabaptism,” and it described my pilgrimage from mainstream Evangelicalism to the Mennonite Church as well as the elements of belief and practice from that tradition which had the greatest influence on my life and ministry. My view of the importance of the Kingdom of God, my ongoing appreciation for the character of radical discipleship, and my commitment to biblical nonresistance all took shape and began to develop during my quarter-century among Mennonites.

All of these traditions have contributed something important to my life experience. They have all helped to make me who I am today. I come to Anglicanism out of an admixture of Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism (which also included exposure to the Charismatic Renewal), and Anabaptism, and I am richer for the experience. I’m grateful for the diversity which my pilgrimage reflects. I believe my preaching has been enriched, my teaching enhanced, and my pastoral gifts honed through my association with believers from a wide variety of traditions and communions.

I have changed my mind on some issues. And yes, I have concluded that I can no longer embrace some of the beliefs and convictions which I once held. But I don’t repudiate any tradition with which I was formerly associated (although my attitude toward Fundamentalism comes close, on occasion).

There is a down side to a pilgrimage like mine. It can be very lonely. It can lead to confusion and suspicion on the part of those who can neither understand nor accept the scope or the nature of the changes which I feel God has directed me to adopt. And each time I have moved from one communion to another, I have been required to develop a completely new network of colleagues and associates. My old networks have not transferred to my new contexts. Further, since I came to each new home from outside the tradition, I have sometimes been regarded as an interloper. The process of gaining trust and building relationships is time-consuming and, for an introvert like me, emotionally exhausting.

Has it been worth it? If you had asked me that ten years ago, my answer would have been an unequivocal yes. My transitions, first to Evangelicalism and then to Anabaptism, were relatively smooth, although not totally without some loss and pain. Still, the benefits far outweighed the sacrifice. This time, however, things are very much different.

In the first place, the cost of my transition to Anglicanism has been far higher, both materially and emotionally. Moreover, my moves to mainstream Evangelicalism and later to Anabaptism both resulted in numerous opportunities to use my gifts in vocational ministry. I felt genuinely needed. More often than not since moving to Anglicanism, I have felt superfluous. I have a theory about why that is, but I’ll save it for a later post. In the meantime, has it been worth it? The best I can say at the moment is that it’s too soon to tell.

So, I’ve talked about the down side of changing my mind. Is there an up side? You mean in addition to the incomparable satisfaction of knowing I have been faithful in responding to what I believe to be the movement of God’s Spirit in the depths of my conscience? Yes, at least in these ways.

First of all, I am far more tolerant of those who disagree with me than I used to be. In many cases, I have been where they are; I have held many of the beliefs which they now hold with such fervor. I understand the attraction, and who knows? They may be right. In any event, I cannot disparage their positions without bringing judgment on my own earlier motives and discernment.

And further, I hold my own current convictions far more lightly and, I hope, more humbly than I used to. If I was wrong once, or at least not completely right, I can certainly be wrong again. These days, there are far fewer hills on which I am prepared to die than I once imagined.

It is really difficult to make substantive changes in our fundamental beliefs. Believe me, I know. I also know, however, that sometimes the sense that God is prompting the change is so strong that the only appropriate response of faithful discipleship is to make the change and trust God in the consequences.

Never Half-Hearted (A Bit of Bio, part 1)

I am the oldest of five children.  My father served in the Marine Corps in WWII and worked as a printer for the Charleston, WV, newspapers while I was growing up.  My mother was a homemaker in every sense of that term, a godly, hard-working woman whose example and influence shaped my life during my formative years and continues to affect me to this day.  She died in 2007 at the age of 82, and I still miss her every day.

My parents instilled an ethic in me, the essence of which is captured in the text of a sampler which hung on our dining room wall. It said…

If a task is once begun, never leave it ‘til it’s done.

Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all.

I have tried to live my life according to that motto.  I have sometimes been wrong-headed, but I have never been half-hearted.  That has characterized my Christian commitment as well.  As a youngster I determined that, if I was going to be a Christian, I would be as good a Christian as it was possible for me to be.  Only later did I come to realize that that was exactly what Jesus intended and expected me to be, and that the biblical term for that kind of devotion was discipleship.

In 1966, while I was a senior in high school, I sensed a movement of God’s Spirit within me which I identified as a “call” from God to devote my life to Christian ministry as a vocation.  My tradition had taught me that, while you could choose to become a doctor or a lawyer or a mechanic, you had to be called to the ministry.  I now believe that those other occupations are legitimate callings too, but I remain convinced that ministry as livelihood should be undertaken as a response to God’s call, truly a vocation and not merely a job.

More than forty years have passed, and I have never doubted the genuineness of that call.  It has been regularly affirmed by the people of God and confirmed through life experience.  With Paul I, too, can say that “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry.”  (I Tim. 1:12 KJV)

Upon graduation from high school in 1967, I enrolled at Appalachian Bible Institute (now College) in Bradley, West Virginia, and graduated with a diploma in Bible and pastoral studies in 1970.  Given my upbringing in conservative, evangelical (read fundamentalist) Christianity, I had seriously considered only colleges in that tradition, and ABI was a logical choice for a variety of reasons, not least of which was its location just sixty miles from my home in Charleston.

At the time of my graduation from Bible college, my career-path was influenced by three basic assumptions.  First, I assumed that my three-year Bible college diploma marked the end of my formal education.  Second, I assumed that the primary context for my ministry would be the pastorate.  And third, I assumed that my commitment to fundamentalism was unassailable.  In each case I was wrong.

More anon.

What’s In A Name?

In his book, Soul Survivor, author Philip Yancey describes the great Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy, as engaged in a “relentless pursuit of authentic faith.” Few will ever compare me to Tolstoy, and I am not altogether sad about that, but I would not mind sharing that description. For most of my life, I too have been on a relentless pursuit of authentic faith.

My parents were Christians, and I followed their example, embraced their faith, and was baptised as a child. During my teen years I asked, of my parents and my pastor, many of the typical questions about the existence of God, the merit of non-Christian religions, and the meaning of life which adolescents often ask. Although I found many of their answers inadequate and unsatisfying, I never really doubted that there were adequate answers, and I assumed that I would eventually find them.

I envy those persons who are fortunate enough to have been born into the “right” tradition. Folks who are certain that the beliefs they inherited from their parents require no testing. That their group’s history is noble and superior to other traditions, whether they know much about their history (or anybody else’s, for that matter) or not. Folks who have never experienced the wrenching emotions and almost physical pain which accompany the dreaded but unavoidable conclusion that what you have grown up believing may not, in fact, be totally true. And that you are forced, by dint of growing convictions, to repudiate earlier beliefs and, yes, to change your mind.

It must be immensely comforting to make the sojourn from cradle to grave without having to wrestle with new ideas or to explore, and later embrace, a new pattern of belief which will, invariably, be misunderstood and misinterpreted by family members, former colleagues, and friends.

Unfortunately, I have not been so blessed. Several times over the course of my life I have had to abandon some long-held assumptions and, at the risk of permanent damage to personal relationships, to admit that my earlier understanding of truth had undergone a major revision, to change my mind, and to adopt a new heading.

I had to do that when I moved from fundamentalism to a wider, more inclusive, more grace-full evangelicalism. I had to do it again when I concluded that modern American suburban evangelicalism had become too much like the culture it was supposed to bear witness to. And I had to do it yet again when I was drawn into the beauty and mystery of the liturgical tradition in Christian worship.

It has been a “relentless pursuit,” and it’s not over yet. Thanks for joining me on the sojourn. Buckle up. It may be a bumpy ride.