Ah, the good ole days of flannel boards and McGee & Me.
Flannel boards will always remain in the warmest parts of my heart and childhood memories. Nothing brought those Biblical accounts to life more than a cloth cut-out of a generic bearded Jewish man who could play the part of Moses parting the Red Sea, then less than a minute later he could be Abraham ready to sacrifice his son Isaac, or even Noah gathering all the animals on the ark.
And when the teacher was lazy or absent, we got to watch one of thirteen McGee and Me tapes, featuring Nick Martin and his crazy cartoon sidekick. Lesson learned- you CAN beat the bully in a skateboarding contest, if even he cheats. Also, if you sneak out to see a scary 3-D movie with your best buddy Lewis, you’re parents are going to find out and ground you. And of course, it’s never a good idea to try to impress your friends by telling them that your Native American Indian neighbor eats rabbits. Because he just needs a friend.
But eventually, my faith had to be able to grow beyond the entertaining and miraculous stories I heard each Sunday morning.
I admit. It’s not easy anymore for another human being to “challenge me” in my thinking, regarding my faith. I can spit out a hundred cliché Sunday School answers whenever I’m asked anything Christian related. Because for those of us who “grew up in church”, we do know all the answers.
At least all the answers for the questions we are tiredly asked again and again by Christian leaders in a church setting. You just can’t go wrong with “God”, “Jesus”, “the Holy Spirit”, “Heaven”, “good”, “bad”, “Satan”, “hell”, “pray and read the Bible”, “invite them to church”, or “tell them about Jesus”.
Typically, I don’t spend money or time on Christian marketed items. Books that generically tell me I need to stop being “downtrodden by the world” and “stand on God’s promises” to “expand my territory”. T-shirts that illegally parody business logos and make them “cute” by throwing in the name of Jesus. A sticker to put on the back window of my car that arrogantly boasts “straight pride”, picks fights with atheists and Pro-Choicers, or announces that God is Republican.
Besides, I think most Christians know by now that God has switched His allegiance from the Republican Party to Ron Paul.
Just kidding. Sort of.
But thank God, in the past two years, I have been challenged in my thinking, regarding my faith, more so than any other time in my life.
How? 1) I got married. 2) My small group from church read a book called The Hole in the Gospel. 3) I was asked an allegorical question about a bicycle.
Getting married to a faithful Christian has helped me to mature not just because of her confidence when mine is sagging, but also because marriage shows me how selfish I can be with my time and space. Two years later, I’m much more easy-going about stuff that only mattered in The World of Me.
The Hole in Our Gospel is the book that my Wednesday night small group (Bible Study) decided to read. Seriously, it is the most life-changing book I’ve ever read. The Bible is the most influential. But the Hole in Our Gospel has actually helped me to personally identify what the Bible and my purpose in my life are all about.
For me, my faith had always come down Ephesians 2:8-9 in the Bible: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, not that of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one may boast.
That Bible passage has everything a Baptist likes to hear, regarding one’s spiritual wellbeing: “grace”, “faith”, and “gift of God”.
It doesn’t say anything about helping other people, doing good works, or giving away our time, money, and energy. Because as long as we splice in “Jesus loves you, died for you, rose from the grave, and will give you eternal life in Heaven if you say this three sentence prayer…”, then we are fulfilling our duty as a good Christian. Get people to say a prayer and go to church. Get them to stop cussing, drinking, and smoking- because that improvement shows their “spiritual fruits”.
As a Baptist, I had always been leery of the phrase “works”. Because it had been engrained in my brain fibers that God’s salvation couldn’t be “earned”. I understood from the book of James (2:20) that “works” were necessary to prove that my faith to be sincere.
The problem is that I, along with many Protestants just like me, naturally had been led to believe that “good works” means “good behavior”; and “good behavior” is a list of things Christians don’t do- including watching R-rated movies (unless they’re war-based: What Movie Rating Does Real Life Get?) and drinking anything with alcohol (both vanilla extract and Nyquil are approved, fortunately- and though participants should keep it on the down low, drinking wine is permitted for special private events like wedding anniversaries: Water into Wine).
But what really opened up my mind was reading (and eventually memorizing) the verse that directly followed my convenient “faith is all you need” Bible passage. The next verse, verse 10, says, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared behforehand so that we would walk in them.”
Created for good works? Not good behavior? It’s a lot more serious if I truly take the words of Christ seriously when in the Gospel of John (13:34), Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”
And finally, it hit me: Oh, Jesus actually cares about people starving in poor countries, despite their “wrong religious beliefs” and “stupid civil wars” and “corrupt governments”.
As hard as it was for me to process, God cares just as much that I as a Christian do my part to physically help those people as He wants me to in some direct or indirect way (supporting missionaries) learn about Jesus.
That financially helping these random, dying, desperate people across the world actually equates in God’s eyes as me loving them as He loves me.
With that being said, I no longer believe that a person goes to Heaven just because they said “the sinner’s prayer” when they were at a Vacation Bible School when they were in the 5th grade. I believe, like Jesus’ half-brother James wrote in his book (2:20) that faith without works is dead.
And works means that I help people who are less fortunate (even if they themselves in deed got themselves in that situation), because that shows them God’s love, and I don’t necessary have to preach to them as I’m doing it. I just need to start by helping them.
True, no one can earn God’s love or salvation. Nor does believing in Jesus mean a person doesn’t go to hell. Jesus himself said in the Gospel of Matthew (7:21): “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter.”
So what is the will of God for us? What does He want us to do besides obey His law, read the Bible, pray, and tell others about Jesus? (All of which are “Sunday School answers” I referred to earlier.)
For a start, my wife and I knew it meant sponsoring a child named Gueslin in South America. So now we have this postcard hanging on our fridge with a picture of a sad-looking 5 year-old boy who I wish I could take care of myself. We send him money every month and pray for him and his family as we think about him.
We know that raising our own child (due in November) in our faith is what God wants. We know that helping anyone in need is what He wants. And we know that we can’t always wait for those opportunities to come to us. I’m working on making it a new obsession: Finding ways to help people. Because God likes that.
So where does the bicycle come into the picture? A few months ago someone showed me a Xeroxed copy of a bicycle and asked me: “Which tire is faith and which tire is works?
The back tire is associated with the power while the front is associated with balance and steering. Both are very important and necessary. But if a bicycle would only work if one tire was faith and the other was works, which tire should be the front and which should be the back?
I was actually asked this in a group of people. Half of us believed one way. The rest, the other way.
My answer: The back tire is works, the front tire is faith.
Because if faith is dead with out works, so is a bike immobile with no one to actually pedal the thing. The front tire only moves because the back one does.
And basically, if I’m actually understanding what Jesus said, loving God means loving other people the way He loves me.
I can’t rely on reading the Bible and praying to move me anywhere in my faith. That’s what steers me. Instead, I actually have to move my feet.