belief

Unlearning

By Rev. Mindi

My twentieth high school reunion is coming up this summer. I’m unable to attend due to cost, distance, and time… but it’s also difficult for me to go because I am in touch with so few of the people I grew up with, and in reality, much more time has passed between then and now than the time I spent with my classmates, even the ones I knew from elementary school. Still, I have fond memories and there are people I will miss being able to see again. As I look up in my office, above the commentaries and Bibles and theology books, I still have a short stack of books from my high school English class: Jane Eyre, Siddhartha, and The Little Prince, among others. I have kept a couple of notebooks of writing. I haven’t looked at it in years (maybe since high school, I can’t remember), but I haven’t thrown it out yet. There are some things I am still holding on to, after all these years.

It’s been thirteen years since I graduated seminary and there are very few books and notes that I look back to from that time. I do still use the Biblical commentaries I had to purchase (at $75 each!) and occasionally I scroll back through the pages of notes for sermons and Bible studies (and notice how much I doodled in the margins), and sometimes I go back to look at books on church history or brush up on some theological concept, but other than that, there’s not much that I look back on. Prior to my last move, I finally recycled most of my school notes, and culled some of my books.

In these thirteen years I’ve had to unlearn some things. I’ve had to unlearn concepts around church structure and organization. I’ve had to unlearn the idea of Sunday School as our society transitions into a new era of education and worship. I’ve had to unlearn ideas of stewardship as we move into an era in which most people my age cannot tithe ten percent and most of us, regardless of profession, have student debt up to our eyeballs. I’ve had to unlearn much of what was taught to me as the norm for many years

When I think of what I have learned in seminary that I wasn’t taught, for me it was the value of friendships in the community of faith. My seminary friends were the ones I could confess my secret doubts with, show off my beginning guitar skills to, and discuss my future with because most of us were heading in a similar direction. Though we’re scattered across the country, our paths cross more often than not in clergy circles, denominational gatherings and conferences—and also, thanks to social media, we have been able to stay connected.  My seminary friends were the ones I could share my fears and hopes and dreams—and also share my questions, my skepticisms, and my struggles. Those were the friends I could truly be myself with.

“The church is where my friends are. The church is where I can be myself. The church is where I belong.” This was not a seminary student who told me this, but a churchgoer who recently decided to be baptized. I know not all churches are like that, but I realized that the congregations I have felt the spirit of God most poignantly are the ones where I could laugh among others, where we could tell jokes and be serious in almost the same moment. Where I could be myself. For this person, this church is where they could be themselves, where they were accepted, where they were loved exactly for who they are.

Maybe it was because I was an awkward teenager, but I never felt like I fit in when I was in high school. I’m sure many other people feel the same. Sometimes, I wonder if church can feel like a high-school reunion: we are going back to something that doesn't really connect with who we are now. When I found the place where I could be myself, I felt that I was at home. I felt that in my home church. I felt it in seminary. I still feel it on retreats with colleagues, and lately, I have begun to feel it within my own church again. I share my still-sharpening guitar skills as I miss chords but try to play anyway. I share stories of my own faith struggles. And what happens is that others begin to share their stories, too, and weren’t afraid of saying or believing the wrong thing.

Diana Butler Bass said in Christianity After Religion that we have to switch from the old pattern of “Behaving, Believing, then Belonging” to “Belonging, Behaving, then Believing.” Again, this is something we have to unlearn from seminary and from church tradition. It’s something you can’t teach, but you know it when you experience it: when you belong somewhere, you can be yourself. By finding a place where I can be myself, I am not only a more authentic minister, but a more authentic child of God and follower of Jesus. And in turn, I have found the church to be a more authentic body of Christ in all its diversity.

“The church is where my friends are. The church is where I can be myself. The church is where I belong,” the churchgoer told me. What are we doing to usher in that sense of belonging? What are we doing to bring about an understanding of authenticity, of a place where we are free to be who we are, with all our questions and doubts and head-scratching? 

The Move from Believing to Knowing

By Brian Carr

I had a roommate in college who was obsessed with Nutella. For those of you who don’t know, Nutella is essentially chocolate flavored peanut butter. He would put it on almost everything he ate – from toast to pancakes to apples. He always talked about how good it was and kept insisting that I needed to try it.

For a while I just trusted his opinion that it was good and never actually tried it. If people would ask me about Nutella, I would tell them that it was good simply because I had heard that it was good. I had no experience to base that statement on, and so I would never passionately defended Nutella to anyone who disagreed with me. 

I THOUGHT that Nutella was good, but I did not KNOW that Nutella was good. 

When it came to Nutella, I was only living in a world of half-truths. And then I tasted Nutella. And my eyes were opened to a wonderful aspect of this world that I had never truly known. 

Isn’t this true about many things in our lives?

I could talk to you about what it’s like to fall in love – when your heart races, when you feel butterflies in your stomach, when you get nervous and excited all at the same time when you think about that person. But do you know what it’s like to fall in love after hearing me talk about it? Does my defining and describing of love really let you FEEL love? 

Of course not. You need to fall in love for yourself to truly know what it feels like. 

God works the same way. 

Once again I could testify to what it’s like to experience God and to truly feel loved by God, but what good is that if you have never experienced it for yourself? How can you know the freedom that is found in God simply because I told you that I found freedom in God?

There is belief and then there is knowing. 

Belief happens when you listen to the experiences of others. I believed Nutella was good because my friend told me it was and I trusted him. But knowing happens when you’ve experienced something for yourself. Once I tried Nutella, I KNEW it was good.

I moved from believing to knowing. 

One of the more popular stories from the Bible is the story of the woman at the well. After the woman’s encounter with Jesus, she runs to tell all of the Samaritans in her town about him. They believed what the woman had told them about Jesus, but they had yet to find out for themselves. After Jesus visited the town, the Samaritans exclaimed “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

The Samaritans from this story moved from belief to knowing. 

They believed what the woman had told them about Jesus because of her passionate conveying of the story. But they did not know Jesus until he came and lived among them. They finally got to experience Jesus. And this moved them from belief into knowing. 

But how do we go from belief to knowing?

There was a woman who was driving her car on Christmas Eve and the roads were especially slick that night. As she was driving, she drove over a sheet of black ice. Her car swerved out of control and she started to spin. The car barely stopped before crashing into a tree.  She immediately began thanking God for being there with her and protecting her.

So do we need a near death experience?

There was a man who was addicted to heroin. He eventually became broke and homeless trying to feed his addiction. One night he broke down and began cursing at God and wondering why his life turned out this way. As he lay there sobbing, God whispered in the man’s ear, telling him that he was loved. 

Do we need to hit rock bottom to have God talk to us?

In Exodus, Moses was having a conversation with God and asked if he could physically see God. God told Moses to hide his face and after God walked by, Moses would be able to turn around and see the place where God had just been. 

Do we need to catch a glimpse of God?

I was with a friend on the beach and as we lay there in the sand, the sunshine hitting our faces, the waves crashing in front of us, she looked at me and said “This is where I truly feel God.”

Do we need a beach and waves and sunshine?

I was seeing my Christian counselor one day and talking about all the ways in which I felt like a failure. As I sat there on the couch, I began to cry. Immediately the room filled up with a presence I couldn’t explain and it felt like someone gave me a great big hug. 

Do we need failure and a hug?

 A man has a conversation with his friend over a cup of coffee. They discuss their lives and joys and sorrows. The man leaves feeling fulfilled and connected and purposeful.

Do we need coffee and a friend?

The Samaritans were able to live with, eat with and share community with the physical Jesus. That is how they came to know Jesus and to know God.

So do we need to hang out with Jesus once or twice? 

Which of these is the best way to experience God?

The answer, of course, is “yes.”

Or to put it another way, “all of the above.” 

Or to put it another way, “and then some.”

To argue that God can only be experienced in a very narrow and specific way is to argue that Nutella can only be enjoyed on toast. It cheapens the experience and takes away all of the glory and wonder. God cannot be squished into a box with nice, neat boundaries, and neither can the experiences you have with God. The number of ways in which you can experience God are as limitless as the stars in the universe. 

The problem is that sometimes we miss the fact that we are experiencing God. How easy it could have been for my friend to not recognize God’s presence on the beach that day. How easily I could have brushed off my hug as just a psychological part of my breakdown. How easy it could have been for the Samaritans to have missed the powerful presence of Jesus. 

Many experienced the presence of Jesus and did not recognize who Jesus was or how Jesus could open their eyes to love of God. The Samaritans could have spent time with Jesus and STILL missed the presence of God that surrounded them. 

But they chose to be aware and ready and willing. And it helped them move from belief to knowing. 

The profound is not the only way to experience God. Sometimes it’s the small, everyday things and interactions that can open us up to the presence of God. 

A smile, a conversation, a sunset, a prayer, a song, a rainbow, or a hug.

God can be experienced in all of those things.

And those can move US from belief to knowing.