On the first Sunday of Lent, driving home from church, my husband and I discussed the church calendar and the liturgical traditions of many Christian denominations. Jordan and I come from incredibly different traditions and backgrounds, and we bring different tales of caution to the table.
It seems in my experience that we often look back on our childhood faith with one of three attitudes:
1. Romanticism: with rose-colored glasses and deep nostalgia, we reminisce of the good old days and wonder how the church has fallen into such decay and disrepair today. We lose sight of some of the flaws in our traditions and some of the areas in our faith that were slightly out of sync with scripture and promptings of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We associate our early experiences of faith entirely and completely with feel-good, sentimental tradition and inflate the warm fuzzies into our very own idols.
2. Cynicism: Some of us sincerely had horrrendous experiences in certain churches, from church leaders, teachers, or parents who have subscribed to specific bands of faith. We may find it difficult to divorce the church and God from our experience within a church. As a result we might have switched denominations; we consider our new-found brand of faith to be far superior and enlightened to the denomination or faith that we were forced into as a child. Another response to this spirit of cynicism, which is probably far more popular among the millennial generation, is that we simply dump God along the side of the road. Our early understanding of God is one that we either despise as incongruent with the true desires of our hearts, or our early experiences in the church are entirely contradictory to whom we actually thought and believed God to be.
3. Assimilation: Sometimes after we have teeter-tottered our way between hating God, hating the church, and questioning reality in general, God in His grace leads us to a place of peace: Peace with our experiences in church (good, bad, and downright ugly), peace with the actual God who is (not the “god” that we projected or experienced at the hands of not-so-great people), and peace with our journey.
Some of us are familiar with the Buddhist parable of three blind people examining an elephant, and each one describing the elephant based on his or her location of examination. Sometimes, it seems that denominations and various perspectives in the church operate in such a way. While I am not advocating a universalist view that all roads lead to God, I am asserting simply that we learn from one another. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me.” John 14:6. Don’t worry. I know that I’m using an analogy that was designed to dissolve Christianity’s truth and set up a picture that ties all religions to the same end. I am not advocating universalism. Jesus is the way to God.
What I am saying is this: We have so much to offer one another. While some of us really have come to understand the personhood and character of God the Father, others of us have a deeper grasp on Jesus, and others still have experienced the Spirit in profound and deeply life-changing ways. We grow together as we learn from one another. Assimilation allows us to let God shape and mature our understanding of God in His fullness without throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.
Each Christian tradition has bits of human fallenness in it. We all come with our broken, unworked-out parts as we engage in the Body of Christ. Thus, each tradition can warn the others about potential blind spots to avoid. Each tradition in the Body of Christ also hosts incredibly instrumental and unique vantage points. As the church universal, we all have precious gifts, perspectives, and experiences with the almighty God to share with one another.
As Jordan and I shared of our experiences of Lent, I shared with joy my growth as I have come to celebrate the liturgical cycle and the observance of the church calendar. My faith has come to life as I have experienced Advent, Lent, Eastertide, Christmastide, Pentecost, and even ordinary time. Maybe it is the fact that I am not entirely structured, and I need structure to hem me in, so that I don’t go careening out into disarray. Maybe it has less to do with a shift in my rituals and more to do with the shift in my heart as God has healed many of my broken places. Whatever the cause, I have come to celebrate and find deep joy in some of the more Orthodox traditions of Christianity.
Jordan, on the other hand, shared an experience that I did not expect. He had practiced and followed the liturgical cycle his whole life, but never really understood what it meant until he began to mature in his faith as a young adult. It was mere ritual with no life-giving spirit. As he has come to know Christ and the Biblical place of tradition and church sacraments, he has come to experience the true nature of God within the traditions.
I appreciate his perspective. I didn’t think about our tendency as humans to create idols out of everything, even a calendar that helps us orient our lives around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. If we don’t guard our hearts and motives, we tend to slip into the Bermuda Triangle of the idolatry trap.
Both Jordan and I grew up with a foundation of faith established strongly in our lives. God in His prevenient grace has drawn me and my husband closer to Himself both through and in spite of our childhood experiences in the church. We also have grown and matured in our faith and have much more sanctification to look forward to as we grow deeper into Christ. We come with gifts for one another in our traditions and also with warnings. We share the different facets of the elephant of Christianity (don’t cringe!) with one another, allowing each other to establish a more rounded and well-developed image of God.
This is what the church was made for. We are not the same. Our traditions are not the same. Thus, we can grow together as we share with one another our experiences, traditions, and Biblical study. No one owns a corner on the market. No one has totally figured God out. The minute with get our heads swollen with the arrogance to say that we are without a doubt right on every aspect of theology, we are destined for a fall.
The point of this post is two-fold:
1. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is wasted in the life of a child of God. Even the worst, most painful, most tormenting experience can be used to refine our hearts and bring God glory. This does not mean that God authors evil. It absolutely breaks His heart, and He weeps with us and over us when we suffer, especially at the hands of church-people. But God is greater than the most despicable form of evil. God is able to use our broken, redemptive, messy, human, and Divine experiences throughout our lives to shape us into His image. Nothing is useless in the life of a child of God.
2. We as the world-wide church, across denominational barriers, are better together than we are when we are separated. The enemy is winning when we are divided by our petty differences, whether they seem crucial or tangential. The disciples in the upper room were gathered together on the day of Pentecost when the Spirit descended on the body of Christ. They weren’t split up in different houses worshipping in different locations, based on what form of worship was the most comfortable for them, or what type of teaching suited their learning style better. They met the Spirit together. We meet God when we are gathered together with people who are different from ourselves. Let’s take little steps out of our church comfort zones and enter into conversation with people a bit different from us. It is worth it.