What about Belief Systems?
Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting
Pastor Bob Henry
September 22, 2019
1 John 4:7-8, 12
7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
Last week I started this sermon series by asking, “Can Quakerism be Saved?” and I emphatically proclaimed that not only should it be saved, but that it has a vital and distinctive roll in our world today. I also talked about how Christians and Quakers have too often bought into a system of beliefs that is grounded in fear of not being right or having all the answers.
This morning, I want to explore further how that need to have “correct beliefs” has led many people (including myself) away from looking for and continuing to explore the deeper meaning that guides us. Leading us too often to point fingers, hunker down, and build walls instead of living out a life of love, grace, and peace.
Let’s begin with something from Brian McLaren in his book, The Great Spiritual Migration. He says that for many Christians (and I would include a great deal of Quaker Christians as well) only one thing really matters and that is having correct beliefs. He goes on to say,
“Based on the priorities of many Christian leaders and institutions, we might conclude that Jesus said, “By their beliefs you shall know them,” or “This is my command, that you believe the right doctrines,” or “Behold, a new systematic theology I give you.”
Or that Paul said, “Though I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not the right theory of atonement, I am a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.”
Or that James said, “True religion is this: to have the right concept of spiritual authority.”
Or that John said, “God is a doctrine, and those who have the correct beliefs know God and abide in God.”
In spite of the fact that no such statements can be found in the Scriptures, you can take this to the bank: when it comes to Christianity in many of its forms, have the right beliefs and you are in. Orthodox. Certified. Bona fide. Legit.
But as important as beliefs are, they are not the essential, unchanging, defining feature of Christianity.”
I cannot count the times as a pastor I have been asked, “What is the correct belief about this or that?” or “What does the Bible, as the final authority, say is the right belief?” or “I am pretty sure you are wrong, because I was taught…?”
We have a hunger for being right, don’t we, especially as it pertains to God and the Bible. And yet, understanding God and the bible are so much more complicated than we know or understand. Most of the time my answers today are more in lines with, “What has been your experience? or “Here is what I have learned about God and the Bible over time, but I may be wrong?” always allowing opportunity for us together to explore and seek that of God within one another.
Sadly, those adaptions of scriptures from Brian McLaren I read are too often reality for many people of faith and churches out there. Instead of bringing hope and possibility for life as we know it, they are allowing their belief systems to become judgmental, guilt-producing, and creating an heir of superiority among their faith communities.
Actually, entire doctrines, statements of belief, and theologies have been created because “correctness” at some point began to replace faith. And in just saying that, there is irony. Correctness is as the dictionary puts it – “the quality or state of being free from error.” But faith, as the bible says, is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” There is quite a difference in these views, one creates absolutes and determined outcomes, while the other opens a door for possibility and ongoing revelation.
Even the Jesus we encounter in the Gospels wasn’t all about right words or correct beliefs. Often he challenged what they believed, answered with questions, and even broaden the beliefs (to be more inclusive and understanding). The Bible shows that Jesus was interested in what we do, the fruit we bear, the houses we build on firm foundations, the way we work for the will of God. Jesus was a picture of what our scriptures said last week, what we were to keep at work for - this faith and love. When we take a closer look at the actual scriptures which Brian McLaren reworded, you will see how instead of system of beliefs Jesus was emphasizing a way of life rooted in LOVE. Just listen to them again as they appear in the Bible.
· “By their fruit you will recognize them.” Matt. 7:16
· “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” John 15:12
· “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35.
· “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” I Corinthians 13:1-3
· “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27
· “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” I John 4:8
There is a lot of love going on there…and not much correctness of beliefs.
Most of us entered or awoke into organized religion at some point in our life – if that is not your story, then be thankful for your journey. For many of us, somewhere early on in that process we were taught things that shaped our system of beliefs. Don’t get me wrong, some things were good foundations and helped us continue to grow and learn, while other things were confusing and even caused Dark Nights of the soul or crisis of faith as we explored.
From as far back as I can remember, I was taught, and even taught my own kids, the bedtime prayer…
Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake.
I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.
Along with this kind of haunting prayer, I was reminded each year that I was baptized to keep me out of the fires of hell and safe as a child of God.
Around second grade, I remember a conversation with my mom that became so engrained in my mind that I still today remember exactly where I was when it happened. We were looking at the beautiful clouds over Fort Myers Beach, Florida on vacation, when my mom mentioned that she could not wait to see Jesus coming on a white horse through those clouds someday. A beautiful thought, but also a bit worrisome as I continued to read more about what this would entail – everything from separating sheep from goats, escaping or rapturing from an earth that was already going to hell in a handbasket, judgement, swords, blood, and an assortment of other theories about end times.
I thought each of these experiences were about growing my faith (and in some ways they were), but instead I sense now that they were actually creating for me a system of beliefs – a structure – a container to fit my religion, my faith, and too often even my god. And like I said last week, this would have some unintended consequences…such as…my understanding of a violent and wrathful God that wanted to punish sinners, a God that would judge us ultimately by what we believed – even if we didn’t act on it, and that there were right and wrong beliefs that had different consequences.
But then in 1988 as I was wrestling with the barrage of constant news and vitriol around the Aids epidemic and Ryan White (who was just a year older than me), a made for T.V. movie by the name of “Go Toward the Light” aired in primetime. (On a side note I think that title is rather fitting for someone who later become a convinced Quaker.) The evening it aired, I had finishing my homework and had decided to hang out in our basement and watch some TV alone.
If you remember, last week I mentioned that the whirlwind around Ryan White caused my first Dark Night of the Soul (or what some might call a crisis of faith), but looking back I am pretty sure it was intensified by this movie.
Before Linda Hamilton really made it big as a lead in Terminator 2, and after Richard Thomas (who we all knew as John Boy) finished up The Walton’s and found his new gig as the lead in a plethora of made-for-tv movies, they took on the role of playing a young couple facing the realities of life with a child diagnosed with Aids – I am assuming based loosely on the life experiences of Ryan White. I can still sense the feelings I had watching that movie. Up until that night, I don’t remember ever crying during a movie. Here I was a 15-year-old bawling my eyes out, my body shaking violently as I wept. I felt angry. I felt confused. I felt doubt. My system of beliefs had no way to help me process or even explain what I was being asked to face and wrestle with within this movie.
Here was a fictious child in a movie dying of aids. Fictious parents struggling with what to do. Yet the biggest problem I faced was not dying or suffering – there was something more. This child and his family were portrayed as being Mormon.
Now, it was hard enough to watch and try and understand the Christian Church’s response to Ryan White, but adding this Mormon twist changed things enough that I theologically went into a tailspin. Here were some of the thoughts whirling through my head…
· Mormons aren’t saved.
· This kid wasn’t baptized, and after losing the battle to Aids went straight to hell.
· Did he or his family deserve this punishment – did he get Aids because he did not believe correctly?
· How unfair that this boy was raised in a Mormon home? Did he ever have a chance to know the truth of Jesus? Boy, am I glad I was raised in a Christian home.
· Could Jesus still save him?
· If God was about forgiveness and love – why did this seem so cruel.
After trying to pull it together at the conclusion of the movie, I came upstairs and started a conversation with my mother. She had to have seen that I was crying just by looking at my face. She asked if I was ok, and then she got a full-on regurgitation of everything I was struggling with… Thankfully, my mom didn’t try to answer my questions, she admitted this was hard and simply comforted me – I cried more. And then she asked if it would help if we talked to one of our pastors. I remember having her write down some of the things I was wrestling with to ask our pastor, but thinking back to his response it seems even more confusing.
He said something like this: This is a difficult subject. Yes, what you witnessed is confusing and sometimes doesn’t fit our categories. He went on to explain how loving and gracious God is and that he was sure that there were times when God saved people because of his grace. This boy would probably be one of those examples. It is hard, because we don’t know what God knows.
For months – even years – this all would haunt me. And honestly, even though I have grown, become more educated, and more developed in my understanding of faith…I still struggle with these thoughts. What I do know is that at that time, my faith was based on a system of beliefs, specific theologies and dogmas about God that for the first time did not have nice and neat categories.
And folks, I want to be totally honest, if you didn’t notice, I am a pastor…my vocation is all about belief systems and how people hold the “right beliefs,” organize them in the “right systems,” and pass those systems onto the next generation. But like that night in my basement, I continue to encounter problems and questions with my beliefs. To be honest, overtime some of my beliefs I have had to migrate from and some I have had to migrate toward.
There have been times when I have thought, “It is not safe for me to say what I actually believe – especially as a pastor.” Yet looking back, I often did that out of comfort, lack of courage or understanding, or simply to try and protect my family and myself. Many of you have shared similar stories with me, where stating what you believe or didn’t believe has cost you relationships, friendships, and even jobs.
Often one of the unintended consequences of a rigid system of beliefs is a false sense of belonging. We are accepted for what we believe or profess to be true, instead of who we are with all our questions, wondering, and baggage. Personally, I think this is what keeps people coming to many churches – especially mega-churches – with little commitment or spiritual growth – just a common set of beliefs (which often not everyone agrees with but acts as if they do – most of the time because they have never been allowed to question, explore, or doubt).
Brian McLaren takes this further and says our system of beliefs have too often become “primary markers for belonging, allowing religious gatekeepers to gain an almost” “superpower” in our world – a power to excommunicate or expel those that do not follow the same system of beliefs. Throughout its history, the Church has spent so much time testing compliance that we too often have completely forgot about loving and forgiving, and even caring. As long as you have the correct answers, vote for the same party, hold the same sexual orientation – you are in and accepted – but question or step out of line and you are backsliding, unhealthy, unworthy, and need to be excluded from the ranks. Folks, that is what describes a cult not a life of faith in love.
For years, I literally spent hours debating with people about their views of God, the church, and especially the Bible – simply to help me judge if they were “in or out,” “right or wrong,” or “saved or unsaved.” And I thought my job in ministry was, that if I believed them to be wrong, then I needed to prove them wrong, or impose my right system of beliefs on them. Seldom, did I take the time to get to know the person, to acknowledge their journey, to pause and work to see that of God in them. I and my church simply wanted compliance and correctness. There were times when I wondered if my denomination or tribe was going to end up being the only people in heaven – that I would later learn is called denominational supremacy.
At First Friends and among Quakerdom, my hope is that we are providing spaces for people with questions. Space for people wondering and wandering. Space for people with spiritual baggage, people who have lost faith, and people who are simply needing love, encouragement, or a fellow journeyer to travel with. My hope is that at First Friends ALL people would find a place of open doors, possibilities, and opportunities for further exploration.
I so wish my 15-year-old self would have had First Friends to help dialogue, explore, and be a safe place to question – and ultimately even migrate. I might have found a different Jesus, a different God, a different way of expressing my faith 30+ years ago. And I might not have had so much fear of getting it wrong or that God was going to punish me if I did. Instead, I may have been able to shift from that rigid system of beliefs to a way of life that was based on love as I see it today. Freer to explore and experience God in new and life-giving ways.
We at First Friends have such an important ministry to offer here in Indianapolis with so many people becoming dismayed by the church, the bible and God. We have an alternative to offer – not another system of beliefs to adhere to, but rather a way of life to live together. Yes, it has values and beliefs (we may just call them S.P.I.C.E.S. or testimonies), and yes, it is clearly centered on the life and ministry of Jesus, but most importantly it is a place where belonging is not about gatekeeping and correctness – instead to belong means you are part of a way of life rooted in love and supported together!
At the close of Phil Gulley’s book, “Living the Quaker Way,” he provides what he titles, “A Quaker Way Altar Call.” I love that he uses that terminology, because it is a more tangible way of seeing the shift or migration we are called to make as Quakers to this way of life together. Phil says,
In times of moral confusion, living the Quaker way has provided clarity and direction.
When I have been tempted to believe material gain will bring me joy, its clarion call for simple and centered living has cheered my heart.
When I have thought violence and war appropriate solutions to evil and injustice, the Quaker way has reminded me of the power of love and reconciliation.
When I have played fast and loose with the truth, it has taught me to walk the straight line.
When I have been selfish, it has made the joys of community all the more real to me and saved me from self-absorption.
When I have treated some people as lesser, the Quaker way has reminded me of the deep esteem in which God holds all people and has empowered me to work for the good of everyone.
It has reminded me that God speaks to all and through all.
It has taught me to listen more, speak less, and seek the happiness and well-being of others insofar as I am able.
Living the Quaker way has, in every sense, made my life a deep and present joy.
I believe it can do the same for you. For I believe you and I are not all that different, that we struggle with the same problems and challenges common to all. Whether you formally join a Quaker community is secondary to me, as it would be to any other Quaker. It is your embodiment of these ideas that I encourage, for the good of your life, for the good of your soul, for the good of this world. With those hopes in mind, I invite you to walk and to live this Quaker way.
So let’s get moving or maybe I should say – let’s get living the Quaker Way!
Queries to ponder:
· What “beliefs” about God, the Bible, the church, do you struggle with?
· Why is it so hard to move from correct beliefs to a life of love?
· At First Friends, how can we continue to create spaces for exploration, question, and doubt? And how are we modeling the Quaker way and life rooted in love?