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This has been difficult to write. The link at the bottom will take you to the transcript of a talk I gave at a conservative church in the Okanagan in early November. I personally hate labels like “conservative”, “liberal”, “progressive”, etc., because I think they can be terribly reductionist. People are far more complex than the labels we assign to them, maybe especially when it comes to our spiritual journeys. Nobody gets to where they are for no reason. We all have experiences and stories that have moulded and shaped us into the people we are, including the things we believe. I think sometimes we have a tendency to turn people into two dimensional characters when none of us are. We are where we are because we got here, and getting somewhere always involves journeying.
I also hate labels because we often use them to pass judgment on people without openly saying “I’m passing judgment on you.” They create walls instead of bridges. They exclude and divide rather than unite. They draw lines where none should be. I wish more people would use labels to edify rather than tear down. I often wish this of myself.
Having said all this, I suppose labels can help us to know who or what we are dealing with, so, for lack of a better descriptor, I use the word “conservative” to describe the church where I spoke. By no means is this meant to be derogatory and I have no intention of drawing a line between me and the people of this congregation, as if to suggest I am better than they. But we do have different beliefs and I suppose those distinctions must be recognized.
At the end of my talk, a woman asked if I was open to questions. To be honest, I was unprepared to answer any in such a public forum. I am an introvert by nature. After 20 years of speaking in churches, I still get nervous before going up. I have never felt worthy to stand in front of people sharing the things that I believe God has called me to testify. Maybe it’s because I don’t have the qualifications of a pastor or maybe it’s because I am simply no better than anyone else. Whatever the case, I am not someone who revels being in the spotlight. The people who know me best know that, at heart, I am actually quite shy.
In any case, I (reluctantly) agreed to take questions. But what followed was anything but a question-and-answer session. In fact, the woman who raised her hand and spoke out had no question for me. Instead, she told me that I was promoting man-made ideologies and theories. She insisted that the Bible is the infallible word of God and that I shouldn’t give up on that truth because of “an upset”. She was incredulous and stunned that I could preach what I suspect she thought was essentially heresy. To be honest, I pretty much shut down as soon as she referred to the greatest loss of my life as “an upset”. Whatever words followed didn’t even register anymore. When she finished speaking, I simply said “Thank you” and left the floor open for others to speak. I was waiting for someone to ask me a question since that is what I agreed to, but none came from the men who took the lead of this woman. One by one, they backed her up and shook their heads at me. I only have vague recollections of what everyone else said because I was in complete shock over what was levelled at me in the beginning—and I couldn’t believe all of this was happening in the first place—, but I am told that the Spirit of Prophecy was quoted and that someone insisted the Bible is the only way we can know the difference between what is right and what is wrong, and that it is, in no uncertain terms, what we need to prepare for the second coming of Jesus. After each person spoke, I responded by saying “Thank you”.
As I stood up there nervously taking in the scene in front of me, my husband got up from the back and walked slowly to the front. As he came closer, I was afraid that he would speak up and start rebuking all these people. The last thing I wanted was to incite an argument in this congregation. My eyes darted between his approaching figure and the seemingly hostile faces that stared into mine. But as soon as he stood next to me, he said nothing. Instead, he ended up by my side with his arm around me, wrapping me in the safety of his presence. We knowingly looked into each other’s eyes and then faced the crowd before us, and, together, we stood there, holding our ground as people from our own faith tradition condemned the message I had just shared.
When the church finally went silent, I said “Thank you” one last time, walked down the steps, and sat back down. My face and neck were hot, mostly from the heat of the stage lights, but also because I was so incredibly …. angry and heartbroken all at once. I was angry because the spirit I felt as I stood in front of everyone is exactly the reason why so many people leave or reject the church. Arrogance. Closed-mindedness. Rigidity. Accusation. Condemnation. It was the same spirit I read about in the Gospels that called for the crucifixion of Jesus. I wanted to shout from the depths of my soul, “You brood of vipers! Why do you shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces?!” But I didn’t. Instead, I stood there quietly and let them tell me why I was wrong. Sometimes wisdom requires turning the other cheek.
However, whatever anger I felt inside didn’t compare to the overwhelming and profound sadness in my heart. As soon as I sat back down, my mind immediately went to Jesus weeping over Jerusalem and I couldn’t help but feel as if His life—His sorrow—was playing out in mine. Right there. Right here, in the twenty-first century. I had come to proclaim that Jesus alone is above all, even above the Bible, and there I was feeling the lash of my own people just as Jesus did. It was remarkable. I wept openly where I sat—yes, with tears and everything—as some compassionate souls crowded around me after the benediction to give me comfort, a sign from God that I was not alone and that He was present. They thought I was crying because of how I was treated. Little did they know that I wept because I could feel Jesus weeping over Jerusalem all over again.
Wayne Dyer once said, “Flexibility, openness and softness are consorting with life. When you are rigid and you know the answer and don’t listen to other people’s point of view, you are consorting with death. Everything that is old and close to death is brittle and breaks apart including our thinking. So always stay flexible and soft and listen to others with caring.”
Softness is the last thing I think of when I think of the Church. Actually, that’s not true. Softness is not what I think of at all. In church, we are bred to be Christian soldiers, to see the Bible as a weapon, to see certitude of conviction as the tell-tale sign of a strong faith and doubt as a sign of a weak one. The legitimacy of our Christianity is measured by our biblicalism. We are taught (maybe sometimes in imperceptible ways and other times more overtly) that sticking to our beliefs and our convictions (even at the expense of relationships with people) is virtuous, and that we will be rewarded for this loyalty in the end. Views that deviate from the accepted teachings must be corrected. When someone dares to question the status quo (even in good faith), it doesn’t take long before they are “de-Christianized” in the same way we can dehumanize someone, and accused of being deceived by the Devil or following man-made traditions or catering to culture. So you better tow the line, lest God (and His people) spit you out for being lukewarm. Sadly, sometimes people are subordinate to doctrine, expendable compared to our precious beliefs. In short, the Church of my childhood and my adulthood has never been soft. It’s why so many of our communities are dying.
Look around you. Everything that grows—from the plants that dress the Earth to our own bodies—is flexible. It has to be because for something to grow there has to be room and space for movement, even if that movement involves letting go. In fact, one of the ways to tell if the wood of a tree has died is to see if it is hanging on to its leaves in the winter. Trees that are alive drop their leaves when they should. Letting go of its leaves keeps the tree from dying and opens it up for new leaves in the spring. The tree that hangs on to its leaves—that doesn’t know when to let go—can’t survive. It has to be flexible to live. At the same time, when something stops growing because it becomes rigid, it dies. The third stage of death is called rigor mortis, where rigor literally means “stiffening” in Latin and mortis means “death”. There is no life in rigidity. None.
Why do we think that faith is exempt from this simple reality? Why are we afraid to let go of fallible beliefs that stunt or destroy our spiritual growth? Why do we add burdens where none should be? Why is our yoke so terribly, needlessly heavy?
Why do we celebrate progress in every other area of our lives except this one? Why do we insist that keeping our belief systems just the way they are or, worse, bringing back the “good old days” is where life resides? It is not. Very plainly, that is where death lives. It is where death lives because when you impose the past on the present, the present dies and all hope for the future is lost. Anyone familiar with the sting of grief knows how carrying the past with a heavy hand into the present keeps us from moving forward into the future. The life of faith is no different. The past must be carried lightly, with open hands.
We cannot hold that a position once taken, an idea once advocated, is not, under any circumstances, to be relinquished. There is but One Who is infallible — He Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, p. 105, para. 2
Too often we ignore (or maybe don’t realize) the fact that we believe what we believe now because, at some point in the past, people had the courage to rethink what they believed and change their minds. Abraham did it when he left everything he knew in Ur. The disciples did it after they encountered Jesus. Martin Luther did it when he denounced the teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. This is not man-made ideology. This is simply the truth. We are a product of changed views, just as the Church of the future will be the product of the views we keep or change or let go of today. It is up to us to choose our beliefs wisely while faithfully engaging God.
Even so, the fact is having the “correct” beliefs is not the point of being faithful. The biblical witness about faithfulness is that faith involves a tenacious and unyielding trust in a Mystery we can never unravel but that always allows Itself to be revealed. When we commit our faith to doctrine and abstractions, we close ourselves off to the very thing that defines faith in the first place—trust in a mysterious God. At the same time, we close ourselves off to new revelations, new gems, to new light. The source of this light is not the Bible or the doctrines that we glean from it, but the One to whom it only points. Far too often, we conflate the two. For Christians, only Jesus is the light of the world.
For those dependent on doctrine, the prospect of trusting a Mystery filled with surprises instead of a Bible you can feel with your hands and turn into whatever you want can be unsettling and scary, but this Mystery lovingly declares that we should not be afraid, and that we can learn from Him because He is gentle and lowly in heart.
We have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn. God and heaven alone are infallible. Those who think that they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed.Ellen G. White, Review & Herald, July 26, 1892.
Jesus alone is above all, even above the Bible. The two are not one in the same. It doesn’t mean that we do away with the Bible; it just means that we have to learn to read our Bibles differently. As one Old Testament scholar puts it, we must learn to de-centre it.
Some time ago, it finally occurred to me: All that matters is that we love God with all our soul, heart, and mind, and that we love our neighbours as ourselves. In sum, the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. Everything else—and I mean everything—really, truly is commentary. Why do we balk at the simplicity of it all?
Love is not complicated, but we make it so. We make it about following rules and customs and tradition, and we throw the Bible in there too. Jesus showed us how to love God and to love people. When Jesus thrice asked Peter in John “Do you love me?” and then told him to “Feed my lambs”, “Take care of my sheep”, and “Feed my sheep”, I doubt He meant that Peter should say or do anything to condemn or exclude or to place rules and fundamental beliefs above people. By my reading of the Gospels, the feeding and taking care of Jesus’ lambs and sheep involves being beacons of radical love, justice, and mercy (just as Jesus was here on Earth)—and that this is what matters to God. Through Jesus, God has modelled what loving people looks like. It means showing up for them, being there for them, risking our own interests for them, dying for them. It means creating an environment where they feel safe. I hope one day more people can say that about the Church. I hope one day more people can say that about me.
Which brings me to this.
So what if I no longer believe that the Bible is the word of God, but that Jesus, and He alone, is, as John testifies? So what if I believe that Jesus is above all? So what if I believe that the Bible is not infallible or inerrant? So what if it is no longer the authority of my faith? So what if Jesus alone is my centre? What is it to you? I choose to follow Him. To listen to His Voice in the wilderness. To carry my cross, even if it means enduring the scorn of my own people. To walk through the narrow gate of flexibility and openness that leads to life.
All of this may sound like heresy or even foolish. Well, I guess you can say I choose to be a fool for Jesus.
So, without further adieu, here is the transcript from a talk given by a fool for Christ: Faith Out of Ambiguity.
To be clear, I did not give up on the Bible as the infallible word of God because we lost our daughters. It is not as simple as that. Losing our girls was my wilderness experience and finding Jesus at the well with life-giving water is what, over time, made me give up on the Bible as the infallible word of God. Only God is infallible, and only He is inerrant.
The Spirit of Prophecy is a series of books written by Ellen G. White, one of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
I don’t agree that the Bible is the only way we can know right from wrong. There are countless people who are not Christians who know the difference. It is insulting to our non-Christian (and Christian) friends to say that they are bereft of morality without the Bible. Let’s also not forgot those living in the time before Scripture was even written. What of Abraham? Isaac? Jacob? The Law is written on the hearts of all people.
Jesus says “You brood of vipers!” to the Pharisees in Matthew, Chapter 12, verse 34. He says, “Why do you shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces?” in Chapter 23, verse 13.
The story of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem is recorded in Luke, Chapter 19, verses 41 to 44.
Wayne Dyer was a self-help author and motivational speaker. He passed away in 2015. The quote above is taken from the following conversation: https://www.drwaynedyer.com/press/conversation-dr-wayne-dyer/. For the religious whose hackles go up because the words “Tao” and “Zen Master” pop up, try not to let those words distract you from getting wisdom and understanding from this conversation. There is much to learn from people who think and believe differently from you. (Thanks to my friend Melissa for pointing me to this quote.)
Hebrews, Chapter 4, verse 12 says that “the word of God is alive and active” and that it is “sharper than any double-edged sword”. First, the author of Hebrews is not speaking of the Bible as we know it because it didn’t even exist when this was written. He is speaking about the work of God through Jesus. Jesus is “alive and active”. Second, the word of God is not a weapon that we wield. Jesus is like a sword because He pierces us, judging the “thoughts and attitudes” of our hearts.
In John, Chapter 8, verse 12, it is recorded that Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.“
In Matthew, Chapter 11, verse 29, it is recorded that Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
In Matthew, Chapter 22, verses 37 to 40, it is recorded that Jesus said: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.“
In Galatians, Chapter 5, verse 6, the Apostle Paul says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” A fantastic summation of all that matters. One of my favourite verses.
In John, Chapter 21, verse 22, Jesus said to Peter, “If I want [the Apostle John] to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”
In 1 Corinthians, Chapter 4, verse 10, Paul says, “We are fools for Christ”.
To the people of the congregation that is the subject of this post: I empathize with your anxiety over what I shared. I have been there before. My hope is that this post does not inflame tensions, but opens up an opportunity for you to look closely at the things you believe with humility so that the work of Jesus may prosper.
Comment Rules: This post contains some content and reflections that may be disagreeable to some. By sharing online, I recognize that I am making myself vulnerable to all sorts of responses. If you disagree with any of today’s content and wish to comment, you are welcome to do so, but please be respectful. – J.
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