Tuesday, January 5, 2010

How do I know I'm not a wingnut?

Earlier that school year, I had given a talk for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship's large group meeting. In it, I talked about how my little brother, when he was a toddler, was a great helper. He would offer mom Oreos that he had sucked on, before all his teeth had come in. He would follow her down to the basement when she did laundry, and she would let him crawl into the dryer to pull out the last couple of socks. Mom thought my brother's soggy Oreos were gross, and it was inconvenient for him to pop in and help with the laundry; Mom could have gotten the socks more quickly. However, my brother helped with eagerness and love, and that's the way we help God, we aren't terribly useful, but that's not what is most important to God.

At another point that year, my brother was put in the psych ward; he was experiencing onset of juvenile bipolar disorder.

Shortly after the time I sat up all night, talking with non-Christians, James came to me after an InterVarsity large group meeting, I guess it would have been about ten on a Thursday night. James was one of the other leaders in the fellowship. He told me that he felt called to prophesy to me. He spoke in tongues, and then would translate into English. He told me that my brother would get better and would get back to being so sweet and helpful.

The problem with James' prophesy is that I have more than one brother; I had told the story about helpfulness about one brother, and had asked for prayer for another. James was no prophet; God would know which of my brothers is which. James had similarly approached other members of the fellowship, offering to prophesy to them. Sometimes he encouraged them, sometimes he told them that God told them to give to James' church.

Around that time, I had broken up with my girlfriend. A couple of weeks after that, after church, Brenda, one of my friends from church, told me that she wanted to talk with me about something. It was private, she said, so we went to the nursery. She told me that I was wrong to have broken up with my ex, that we were supposed to get back together, and that she, Brenda, was supposed to be a mediator for us. I asked her how she knew this. She was timid about saying it, but she said that this was how God was leading her.

On the way home, I thought about whether I had made the right decision, to go through with the break up, and I was sure that I had, I had had no second thoughts until then, even. I only reconsidered because I wanted to respect Brenda.

I spent the rest of the day being mad at Brenda and trying to find appropriate Bible verses. When I was trying to figure out whether to go through with the breakup, I was conscientious. I was concerned about doing right, about making the right decision. I prayed for a couple of weeks. I fasted one day, but I got very hungry, so I took a break to go to KFC, but then I got back to fasting the next day. I talked to some close, wise friends that I trust.

Brenda told me to get back together with the woman that I'd broken up with. She said that God told her. What would it say about God, if he didn't make his will clear to me while I was praying and fasting, but, instead, told Brenda a couple of weeks later?

The Eucharist
During the summer I spent in Philadelphia, we would visit a different church each Sunday, to see a profile of urban churches. The night before we visited The Church of the Advocate, Don and I were up late talking. We sat in Brian's living room. (Brian didn't have air conditioning, so he compensated by having a powerful ceiling fan. Don and I would make jokes about decapitation occurring if the ceiling fan jostled loose from its mount.) We knew that the eucharist would be celebrated at church the next morning, and Don and I weren't sure if we should take the elements.

In the Presbyterian church that I grew up in, we were taught not to take communion at a church that isn't in our denomination. At that point, Don and I both thought that communion is a remembrance, a symbol, but that Jesus isn't materially present in the bread and grape juice. (We both came from churches that would use grape juice instead of wine.) We had been taught that, when communion was observed with an understanding that Jesus is actually being eaten and drunk, it's as if Christ is being crucified again. Jesus died once for all, he doesn't need to be killed in every church every Sunday morning. There were other ways in which we were suspicious of the Episcopalians, they seemed too Catholic. Also, didn't they split from the Catholic church just because the king of England wanted a divorce?

We talked about it, and we prayed for wisdom, and we decided to partake of the eucharist the next morning. This was a big step for us. A year or two before, I had visited an Episcopal church with my dad and we abstained from the eucharist, this was when I had gotten the ideas I did about Episcopalians.

Granddaddy wasn't religious. I suppose he thought that some sort of God existed, but I don't think he went to church regularly. He was a good person, though. He dropped out of school so that he could get a job; his parents had trouble making ends meet, and he wanted to help out. At a yard sale, he found a set of the Harvard Classics, "The Five-Foot Shelf of Books". He read some of them. That was his education.

He was notably scrupulous. He sold insurance, and wouldn't make dishonest deals. Mom has memories of lying in bed, before she would go to sleep: she could hear Granddaddy sitting at the kitchen table, counting coins. He didn't make as much money as the other insurance salesmen, and so he lived frugally. His customers trusted him, though, and would consult him after he retired, to make sure they weren't being cheated.

He was a friendly person; when he moved into a new neighborhood, he went from door to door, saying, "Hi, I'm Floyd Stewart, I'm your new neighbor."

He painted portraits of important people, judges and politicians and so on. Sometimes they'd offer to pay in cash, so that he wouldn't have to pay taxes on that income; he'd refuse, or he'd pay the taxes anyway.

He was a smart person, a good person, but he wasn't religious.

He died a couple of years before I was born. I never saw him. I visited his grave once.

When I was a kid, I wondered if I would ever see him, I wondered if he was in heaven. Of course, there's no way to know, for sure, who is saved and who isn't, but I didn't think that he was. We didn't know of Granddaddy repenting of his sins and asking Jesus to save him; being good doesn't save you, a relationship with God does.

Granddaddy didn't have to give up much to become a Christian, his only vice was smoking cigarettes. Why wouldn't he want to become a Christian? Why wouldn't he want a relationship with God?

I have heard Christians tell a story about people who are good but who aren't Christians. They say that good people that don't repent are using their own goodness to justify themselves, and that they should be looking to God, instead. They would say that people like Granddaddy don't bow before Jesus out of their own stubborn pride. I know, because I've told that story. Some sort of a story has to be told.

It's easy to tell a story as to why James and Brenda ought not be believed when they say that God is talking to them: they're wingnuts. That's the story. I could speculate further, maybe they want attention, they want to be seen as special, they want control. There are all sorts of stories we can tell about them.

It was harder for Don and me to tell a story about the Episcopalians. Don is a Baptist and I grew up Presbyterian, and we knew that there are very smart Baptists and Presbyterians and Episcopalians. Smartness shouldn't even matter. Jesus said in Matthew 11, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will." I think is a beautiful verse: when it comes to knowing God, there is no priority given to people just because they're well-educated. Does God care more about geniuses than the retarded? Does God prefer the people who could pay to go to Yale over the people having trouble getting loans to go to community college? What would it say about God if he preferred smart people?

Don and I could tell stories about non-Christians not believing in God because they want to do drugs or have promiscuous sex or simply because they want to be number one. We could tell stories about charlatan preachers of the prosperity gospel, who are clearly defrauding their congregations. I don't know what would motivate an Episcopalian to crucify Christ every Sunday if they knew that that wasn't necessary. We couldn't tell a good story about how the Episcopalians could be so bad. We all have the same Bibles. We all have smart people. We all have good people; The Church of the Advocate was a strong center in the civil rights movement. We all want to know God, or, at least, we say we do.

It's easy to distrust bad non-Christians, the drug dealers or the vendors of collateralized debt obligations or the people we're at war with, to say that they don't think that God exists because they don't want him to cut out their pleasurable yet evil behaviors. I have more trouble telling a story about why Granddaddy didn't want to be a Christian. It's very tricky to tell a story about how Grandpa, my dad's dad, who was raised a Lutheran, didn't want to become a Presbyterian.

I know how to tell some stories about denominations and other lines that Christians draw amongst ourselves. There's a story about anabaptists hiding in the bushes whenever Martin Luther would go for a walk by the river, so that they could anabaptize him against his will. It would have been for his own good. There's a story about the anabaptists that more people know of today, the pacifists, who gave up war in a reaction against the anabaptists who would deal with people they disagreed with by means of violence. There are stories about the old line drawn between the Oriental Orthodox and the rest of the church, over whether Jesus had two natures, one divine and one human, or one nature that was divine and human. Today, as the Oriental Orthodox are talking with the rest of Christendom, it seems as if we broke up over a translation error.

I can't tell every story, though. I don't think a story can be told about every doctrinal dispute. There are some things that people disagree about, like who Melchizedek was, that don't matter very much, and that's fine, but there are lots of good, smart, humble people who think that babies should be baptized, and lots of good, smart, humble people who think that they shouldn't; there are lots of good, smart, humble people who think that it doesn't matter very much. I have my opinions, but I don't think that any of the disagreements about baptism can be settled, arguing only from the Bible. You can tell that sola scriptura can't work because it hasn't.

After James and Brenda prophesied at me, I was thinking about this problem a lot. They're extreme cases, sure, but what I find tragic about their stories is that they are so confused that they don't know how confused they are. I didn't think that I was confused in the same way, but once I got to thinking about their problem, how one could be so confused that one can't know that one is confused, I didn't know how I could tell that I wasn't just as much of a wingnut as they are. Sure, I didn't speak in tongues or tell people that God was delivering secret messages to me, for me to pass out to others, but maybe I just found a way to be wrong that looks more polite.

If the Episcopalians are bad, cannibalistic, feasting wrongly on Jesus' flesh, and not only that, but so bad that they don't know how bad they are, how do I know that I'm not just as bad, in another way? James and Brenda seemed goofy, but the Episcopalians that I met were a bunch of very sweet grandparents; after church, we had cake and coffee together. Some are raising their grandchildren as if they were their own; they have a program at the Church of the Advocate for GAPs: Grands As Parents. Maybe the Episcopalians aren't so bad, maybe they shouldn't be blamed for crucifying Christ twice. But, the doctrine about what the eucharist is and means, does that doctrine matter? Saint Paul seemed to think so.

I thought about what it would be like to be a little kid in a church that was having a disagreement about something important. If Jesus treats little kids as if they are just as spiritual as adults, how would he show his love to these kids during a controversy? How would they wind up believing the right thing? Maybe the kids couldn't parse the Greek verbs necessary to figure out what the right doctrine is, but, hopefully, the kids would be safe trusting their parents or other wise adults, really trusting that God is working through them. I was confused, and I wanted to find some wise grown-ups.


  1. I was raised Presbyterian (PCA) and became a confirmed Episcopalian a little over a year ago. It was a big jump, but it was one I needed to make. You're right about the fact that we (as a denomination) do believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. However, I don't think any of the Episcopalians I know would assert that Christ is in some way being re-crucified through our celebration of the Eucharist. I'm not sure where this idea comes from. I would encourage you, if you're at all interested, to check out what our Book of Common Prayer has to say regarding the Eucharist. It might help to dispel any false ideas that you may have encountered about are denomination.

  2. Ryan, to clarify, the thoughts on the Episcopalian doctrine of the Real Presence were what I thought in 2003. Now, if I were to switch denominations (I'm a Mennonite, I guess, because I go to a Mennonite church) I would join the PCUSA or the Episcopal Church. Sounds like we've headed in the same direction. :-)

  3. The beliefs we end up with, and the ways we end up with them, are often mysterious. I'm beginning to be okay with that.

    I really resonate with this line from the OP: "Maybe I just found a way to be wrong that looks more polite." I'm okay with that.