What Makes a True Believer?

I had a conversation with an older gentleman after church today. He told me about his experiences with other denominations while looking for a church. Hearing his story, I invited him to Pub Theology next week because the topic is “Christian Unity and How to Deal with ‘Those’ People” (we needed a catchy tag-line that people would remember).

The gentleman politely rejected the invitation because, as he put it, he had serious problems with the church. The faith that he had grown up with, instilled in him by his grandmother, was faith in God Almighty alone; no Jesus, no Mohammed, nothing else. I was puzzled that his belief in God included rejecting Jesus Christ. I knew that he had been baptized as an adult and had chosen to become a Christian of his own free will. How did that fit with his current beliefs?

I remembered an Episcopalian veteran I met during my Clinical Pastoral Education unit who, relating a conversation from his past, stubbornly asked me, “What does my belief in Jesus have to do with me being a Christian?”

I remembered a girl I once worked with in a confirmation class who admitted that she didn’t believe that Jesus was God. At that point, I figured, she was still working on articulating her faith and still had to work it out. But she was going to be confirmed while professing the Apostles’ Creed, a creed she did not hold.

All three of these people professed to be Christians, yet did not believe what I considered to be a foundational doctrine of Christianty—the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth.

And as I puzzled over these situations, I asked myself, “What makes one a true believer?”

Immediately, I began to wonder if that was the right question. I have spoken in the past about a needed shift from the narrow focus on doctrine to a broader focus on mission in the world. Strict orthodoxy, in my view, is not as important as the mission.

I have questioned my own beliefs in the past. The Trinity simply oozes of philosophical nonsense trying to make sense of itself. The Nicene Creed professes many statements with no explanations. Paul has a lot of great ideas, if you can wrap your head around them. How can I know I’ve gotten it all right?

Sometimes I wonder if I haven’t completely missed it all. What if Arius was right, and Jesus is not God? What if the Monophysites were right, and Jesus is not both God and human? What if the Bible is not as inspired as I believe? What if the Book of Concord isn’t the faithful explanation of Scripture that I confess it to be? What if Rabbinical Judaism has it right? Islam? A single change in history at any number of points would significantly alter Christian doctrine and what I consider to be orthodoxy.

My faith tells me that these are valid fears. It also tells me that there are no answers to these questions. It’s possible that I have it all wrong, but I trust that in two thousand years of history, God has been present and active in some way, guiding the church catholic. How deeply that influence and guidance reaches, though, I cannot say.

Still, I get through it. How?

I take comfort knowing that God’s own people didn’t have it right. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I have discovered a love for the Hebrew scriptures that I never knew I had. The Hebrew Bible is full of examples of the Israelites having the wrong idea—they followed other gods, they tried to contain God in a building, they rebelled in the wilderness, and so on. And yes, sometimes there is a price to pay for those mistakes. They lost their kingdoms, their homes, their land, and their religious establishment. But do you know what I find remarkable?

They are still God’s people. After everything that God endures at the hands of these people, a people chosen and loved, they are not abandoned. God loves them so much that they are never left behind. God comes back and picks them up, saying, “I want to try again.” Now that is faith, hope, and love if I’ve ever seen it.

I wholeheartedly trust that, being adopted as a child of God in baptism, God loves me the same way. I certainly don’t have it all together. I am a Trinitarian, Nicene, Pauline, Reforming, Lutheran Christian. I probably don’t believe all the right things—the ELCA is probably not a perfectly-orthodox church. I would be so bold as to say that the ELCA has many wrong ideas. I cannot hope to be perfect.

What makes me a true believer, then?

I am a believer because my love for God compels me to act out my faith in the world.

I am a believer because I trust that God loves me even when I am completely wrong.

I am a believer because I am able to “sin boldly”, taking risks and chances, trusting that when I screw up (and boy do I screw up), I can count on God waiting for me to realize my mistake and shame, holding out a hand and saying, “You learned something today. Come on, let’s go home and get back to the basics.”

Love and trust make me a true believer. The rest, well… that’s up to God.



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Reformation and All Saints Days

I know what the Lectionary says. The church year begins in Advent. The season of preparation is a great way to begin the new church year. But for the past few years, I’ve experienced the beginning of a new year on the night in between Reformation Day and All Saints Day.

For me, these two days represent the very best in new beginnings. For all of October, I watch the living creation wind down, preparing for its winter hibernation. The world seems to slow down and catch its breath after the exhilaration of summer. I feel like I do my best introspection and self-reflection during this time. And all the while, we crawl towards All-Hallows Eve.

Even as a kid, Halloween fascinated me. We all need a little legend in our lives. Halloween was even more poignant for me because it was the night before All Saints Day, which meant that we no longer had to be afraid of the dead. It was a day of celebration for the lives of our ancestors and the communion we share with them and all the saints. I have spent many All Saints Days remembering those who have died and finding solace and peace in those thoughts as I look forward to the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.

My friend Pilgrim over at this top of speculation gave a good argument for why he does not celebrate Reformation Day. I agree with him when he says that the celebration of the Reformation too often becomes about how we are different from the Roman Catholic Church and how we finally “got it right.” What’s ironic about these sentiments is that the Augsburg Confession, the most important identifier of a Lutheran church, was written to show how the Evangelicals were in line with, not opposite, the Roman church.

Secondly, Lutherans have prided themselves on being a reforming tradition. How quickly, then, we have fallen into the typical, pridefully human stance that what we have is the “right” way. The Lutheran church has not always remembered that it is a church devoted to constant introspection, renewal, and revitalization. It is a part of our tradition we need to reclaim.

That is why I always celebrate Reformation Day and All Saints Day together, as a pair, as the beginning of a new year. The month of October, with its natural invitation to reflection and meditation, brings me into a state of mind open to the deeper meanings behind the Reformation. I wind down to Reformation Day, not up to it. I examine who I am, what my life has been, and seek the renewal that comes from dying every night to Christ and rising again in the morning a baptized child of God–I seek to reform into a new person, not to reassert the old.

And then, on November 1, I celebrate with the church those who have come before us, those who have once and for all been renewed and reformed. The whole of October winds down to this solemn, but not sad, day. Having reflected on where I’ve been and celebrated where I am going, I can step out into a new life and a new year. Happy Reformation Day, everyone–and a solemn All Saints.