I’ve been a churchgoer by choice even since I was a little kid, and even when my parents attended a church ten miles away from our home in Elburn, Illinois, I chose to be confirmed at a Congregational Church three blocks away.
That does not mean the search for God has been a straight line journey over the years. Not in any respect. During my high school years, our group of friends participating in an organization called Campus Life. There were weekly meetings in which teenagers gathered to discuss Christianity. The counselors were a committed group of Wheaton College exports with a mission to proselytize in the name of Christ.
At that age, I found issue with their brand of messaging. At one point a counselor pulled me aside for a discussion. “If you keep asking questions like that, you’ll never be a Christian,” he told me.
I chanced to meet that former Campus Life Counselor in a McDonald’s restaurant ten years later. He looked away when he saw me. I walked over to find tears in his eyes. We sat down and had a very frank discussion in which I told him that my questioning manner had actually increased my faith, not reduced it. I told him that if he felt he needed forgiveness from me, he already had it. But I also told him that it was not necessary. There was nothing to forgive.
As mentioned, during college my church attendance fell by the wayside other than a few chapel talks during the week. Mainly that was due to the long runs our running teams planned every Sunday morning from September through May. So many Sunday mornings were spent piling up mileage for cross country and track.
I attended an ostensibly Christian college where taking at least one course in religion was required. I took New Testament and got a C in the course. The manner in which the subject was taught did not interest me. Everything about the course was dry and dead. I am pretty sure Jesus himself would have gotten a C in that class, and then trashed the classroom in which it was held.
Late in my college years I met a girl who was taking religion courses and was fascinated with the Jewish faith. We began to explore those subjects together and she introduced me to a man named Richard Simon Hanson, who later in life read my book about religion and in turn gave me one of his unpublished manuscripts to use if I ever choose to do so. Currently, I am in the process of writing a book titled Sustainable Faith about reconciling Christianity to the Modern World in positive, constructive ways. His portion is titled Religion From Earth, and I need to get that work done because he is getting on in years and I want him to see how our combined hope for the Jude0-Christian world can work.
Somehow I feel that the world of endurance sports and faith go together quite well. There are famous quotations from the Bible that suggest this is true, such as:
[ The Need for Self-Discipline ] Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.
I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain.
You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…
Allegories and The Word
Of course, these are all allegorical references, comparisons between the race of endurance to the race of faith. The Bible is full of allegories, parables and symbolism. In fact these literary methodologies form the very foundation of all truth. Even the reference to The Word in the Book of John makes clear that The Word itself is a symbol for all truth. In actuality, the worst sin of all is to anchor The Word to some fixed notion that we’ve invented about God to own that narrative for ourselves, our religion or our politics. That’s an insult to how The Word is supposed to work in our lives…
John 1 [Full Chapter]
[ The Word Became Flesh ] In the beginning was theWord, and theWord was with God, and theWord was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. …
There is absolutely nothing literal intended about that statement. Yet there are people who anchor The Word by claiming that the Book of Genesis and its reference to “the beginning” is supposed to be interpreted as some sort of literal doctrine. That leads to all sorts of defensive, anachronistic doctrines that harm the faith and hearts of all those who abide by them.
If were are truly going to run the race of faith set out before us, then it does not pay to affix an anchor to our hopes and understanding. If you were to line up at the start of a 10K race wearing blinders over your eyes that prevented you from seeing anything in front of you, do you think you could run your best time? More likely you would stumble, be hesitant and fearful all at once. That is not what God wants for us, but it is what people who want to control others seek to do by placing literalism before all else in faith.
I have spent so many Sunday mornings pondering these issues in 58 years of faith and life. Many of those Sundays have been spent in the pews of a church. For 25 years, I was a member of a very conservative branch of Christianity. It was the synod in which my late wife was raised, and we had many close friends there. We were married in that church, and our children went through confirmation there. They dutifully memorized the doctrines of that organization and passed confirmation with flying colors. The pastor went to great lengths to compliment us on how well they did in confirmation class.
But my children were smart enough to realize the impracticality of that brand of faith. They had studied science and understood evolution as a theory that materially explains the origins and development of life on earth. That church tradition denies evolution.
So we ultimately migrated out of that church, and Sunday mornings are now spent listening to a Harvard Divinity school Ph.D who understands and preaches the reconciliation of faith and science and many other positively liberal principles that frankly hew much closer to the methods and ministry of Jesus Christ. Who would have had no problems with science, as he taught using parables deeply wrought with naturalistic principles.
Perhaps I’ve spent too much time on the roads thinking about these things. Some people have tried to tell me that it doesn’t really matter what people believe, so long as they believe. When I challenge belief systems some people take offense, calling me mean and intolerant, and worse. People really do not like to have their faith questioned.
But I’ve spent so many Sunday mornings trying to figure out why the world is so screwed up, and quite often it comes back to the fact that people that don’t like to have their faith challenged are often the very same people telling others what to do and how to live. They try to force their beliefs into society through politics or law.
So I’ve made a practice and a indeed, a life’s work to challenge those perceptions whenever possible. This sometimes earns me enemies on Facebook and even loses me followers on this blog on occasion, but so be it. Once I had a friend give me this piece of advice: “Don’t give people a reason to hate you,” and it’s certainly not how Jesus behaved. He gave many people reasons to hate him for challenging their misguided brand of faith and authoritative claim to special providence. That willingness to challenge the status quo was what ultimately got him killed.
It takes guts to challenge perceptions
So I think that whole “don’t give people a reason to hate you” meme is a stupid, chickenshit way to live. While I don’t think I’m right about everything, I also don’t think you can really learn where you’re potentially wrong without having the guts to speak your mind.
Jesus encouraged and taught his own disciples by challenging their perceptions and asking them to answer hard questions. Sometimes they earned an admonishment or correction for their troubles.
The only times Jesus really backed them down was when his disciples asked to be granted special favor for their service to God. He appreciated their intentions but had to explain that the right to sit at the Right Hand of God was not in his power to grant.
Sadly, that method of seeking favored status in the eyes of God is how so many Christians lay claim to authority these days. It is the single most damaging feeling of entitlement that none of them likes to admit because it exposes their ulterior motives. Some of these are anchored in the love of money, others in social advantage and racial superiority.
The race of life
This is how I believe God works in our lives. God is real to me because I’ve put effort into examining how and why spiritual experiences come about. I don’t pray for specific things very often, but pray instead for the presence of mind to recognize grace as it exists and where it occurs. When I pray, I pray in acknowledgment that there is a source for that grace, one that is bigger than our material perceptions.
We cannot know for certain what (if anything) comes after this life, but we can know what a dose of heaven and help feels like on this earth. That “kingdom of God” is good enough for me. If embracing that operative and call for hope in this world somehow results in some eternal benefit well that would be lovely. But laying claim to heaven by some calculation of our own is like expecting to never run in the race of life and still be granted the prize at the end.
I also don’t need the promise of a thousand virgins in the afterlife to want to live a good life or follow the way of God. That reward-oriented brand of of faith is shallow and stupid. All Christians or Muslims andanyone that thinks they need a big gift in heaven to life a good life on earth are a greedy, selfish band of misfits who don’t deserve our fealty or respect.
That applies to the often manic protection of the image of Allah or “the prophet.” Killing people for drawing a picture proves the stupidity. If your God is that fragile and weak, they are not worth worshipping.
All desperate attempts to prove ourselves to God are foolishness. These instincts beget wars and intolerance and repression. They have also been used to perscute people whose instincts and orientations are quite natural, biological and fiercely human.
We need to recognize that even our most holy scriptures are lost on the truth when it comes to some of these subjects. It’s a clear fact that Christians have abandoned many practices that no longer have merit in this world. Yet too many believers still cling to practices and prejudices that are borne of fears desires to repress feelings or thoughts that really do not harm anyone.
Instead, we should all seek to appreciate the organization of the universe and the grace it presents. This does, however incorporate the very real presence of evil in this world. But I believe that the call to resist evil with the power of love is our main purpose in this world. The supernatural is, to me, an absolute product of love.
These are commonalities we all can share, and they do not conflict with the material explanations of science despite the contentions of stubborn creationists whose science of denial does more harm to the kingdom of God here on earth than it does to honor God in any respect.
Somehow there are many of us who see no conflict between the fact that human beings descended from apes and evolved intelligence that enables us to conceive the supernatural instincts of love. What’s so hard about that? Why are people so stupid and stubborn they cannot find their way to enlightenment and appreciation about the facility of human intellect and emotion?
Evidence of absence
While browsing through a running journal to study my own mentions of God over the years, I found the passage below. It was written on January 1, 1983. I was living near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where I’d been transferred from Chicago in a corporate consolidation that did not pan out for the company. That meant finding my way socially in a strange city. I was far from home with a need to find all new friends, which accomplished while training with a sponsored running team. That meant all my Sunday mornings were spent doing long runs with a group of runners far more talented than me. It was a difficult yet exciting time. I was trying to make sense of being 25 years old and tossed about a bit by life.
Yet I was also on the cusp of accomplishing the best three years of running in my life. It began with those long training miles with the Runner’s Edge team in Philly. My 10K PR had finally dipped under 32:00 and it was my goal to take it all the way down to 31:00 in the next year or so. Some could say that was a bit self-absorbed.
But God was still not far from my mind.
Running Journal Entry January 1, 1983
“I ran a very relaxed but determined two hours today. Most of it was 6:30 pace with the late middle miles faster and the last three very slow, because I became light-headed again. This feeling did not hit me until probably fifteen minutes past one hour of running, when I picked up the pace on the flat shoulders of Route 252. The entire route went: Paoli Pike to Sugartown Road, Sugartown to Goshen, Goshen to Grub (Or Grubbs Mill) to intersection of Barr & Whitehorse, Whitehorse to 252–One lap around local golf course, up to Route 30 on 252 and several dizzy laps around the cemetary and park. Ran from 1:55 yto 3:54. This got me all over the stigman, somewhat, of two hours but I learned precisely at what point and what pace the ire of fatigue too over.
It is and was a beautiful, warm winter day with a cool breeze from the northwest. Wore GoreTex top, two t’s and a pair of Luther sweats. Oregon’s (adidas) felt good. Strangely, my knee problem, tendinitis around the outside of the joint, is eradicated. Knee felt quite fluid going up stairs. I was locked out when I got home! Climbed the house to get back in.
God gave me a helluva an illustration today. Some guy walked into a door today while staring at me. ‘Don’t let the fascination with life occupy your better senses.’ He seemed to be acting the fool, or needing sympathy or something. But his eyes were so fixated, and with all those people watching. “He comes in here quite often,” the manager says. “And he seems like a sedate guy.” There you only resolution, Christopher, on this, the beginning of a New Year, and you’d already begun in the Old Year. Let or make the balance of activity come and you won’t walk into any closed doors. Happy New Year! Artist • Painter • Writer • Runner • Lover. Believer in a God who gave you joy and love on Earth.”
And so it has gone throughout my life. Always trying to assess my own intelligence and attention against the demands of life and the expectations of God. So many Sunday mornings have been spent in consideration of these ideals. Perhaps you’ve spent a few Sundays thinking about these types of things as well.
And if not, such is the pity, for Sunday mornings are excellent for such endeavors.