The Way We Believe, Part 2: Pencils and Sharpies

For part one of this series, click here.

A quick recap:
Faith, not certainty, is what we actually have available to us.
How we believe is as important as what we believe. 
We seek to hold our beliefs with both conviction and humility.

If certainty isn’t possible, but faith is what we actually have, then there are implications for the way we think about the contents of our faith. Are all the things we believe to be held with the same conviction or should we hold space for the possibility that they could change as we grow?

Here are a couple examples:

At our church we sing a song every Easter called, “I Know He’s Alive.” One of our music leaders co-wrote the song back in the early days of our church, and it’s been a staple on Resurrection Sunday since.  There’s a line in the song that says, “I know he’s alive, ’cause he lives in me.” Six or seven years ago, when I heard that line, I didn’t buy it. I thought that if the only way you “knew” Jesus was risen is that you’ve had some experience of the risen Jesus–whatever that means or looks like–then you really shouldn’t consider that a sufficient reason. I read books and articles on how we can be sure that Jesus really has risen. I had (what I thought at the time were) facts; I knew that he was  alive because of the evidence. Now, six or seven years later, I would say that there are no facts available to us. I wasn’t there to see the events that we are told happened play out. No video cameras captured the resurrection. Now, when we sing that line, “I know he’s alive ’cause he lives in me,”I think, “How else could anyone know?” The experience of the risen Jesus is all we have. Our stories and experiences of growth and transformation, that’s the only proof available to us. And even that “proof” isn’t unassailable evidence. It’s faith, it’s trust. As I’ve grown over the years that earlier belief that demanded proof has receded, and I’ve learned to see things differently.

This Sunday I am going to baptize my six-year old. A couple weeks ago he left a note on my desk that read: “Babtize pleaes Cohen.” So, we talked about what “babtizm”means, and why someone would do such a thing. We’ve always told him that God is with him, that in God he lives, moves, and exists. We’ve also told him how much God loves him and everyone in the world. So, I told him people get “babtized” when they become aware that God loves them and is with them, and they want to love God and be with God back. For six, and maybe ninety-six, this is enough. This Sunday will be a beautiful and emotion-filled moment as I get to baptize my boy, just like my dad was part of my baptism when I was eleven. But here’s the thing: three or four years ago, I’d have told him that he wasn’t ready. I went through a period of time where I was reluctant to baptize any children. I didn’t know it at the time, but my resistance came from growing up in church and seeing kids manipulated (I think it was well intended, I really do, but manipulation nonetheless), on the Thursday night of VBS for example, and made to be afraid. Fear was used to elicit the preferred response, namely that they would pray a prayer to accept Jesus. It was a win-win, because the church could report X number of salvations, and be assured that these kids would be safe if something happened to them. Transformation and becoming who God dreams we would become were lost in the desire for afterlife assurance. Again, well intended, and I appreciate so much about my upbringing and the communities that nurtured me, but this aspect is still detrimental to spiritual and emotional health. That’s sort of how I came into faith–afraid–and I’ve seen many others do the same. The God I knew loved me, but also terrified me. Anyway, this fear based faith isn’t good news, and it shaped my approach to how we process a kid’s request to be baptized. At MCC we don’t peddle in fear. We talk about God’s love and grace and acceptance of us, and how God wants to transform us into the people we could become. Then, one day, it dawned on me: when a kid wants to respond to this good news, and we tell them ‘no’, are we doing equal damage? Is the message that they hear from the people who represent God in their lives, “God doesn’t accept you, you aren’t ready enough?” Of course, that’s not any better than a fear based approach. So, I changed my mind. If there’s fear present we take time to talk about why we don’t need to be afraid, but we no longer overreact to the opposite extreme. My son, Cohen, has never been fearful. He approaches God with wonder and trust, knowing he’s loved and accepted. He doesn’t know it all, neither do I. His baptism will be an important moment on his journey, and there will be other moments, perhaps more significant ones, that will shape him as he grows and continues on his path. But this one matters, and I’m so thrilled to be part of it. I’ve changed the way I see the issue of kids and baptism over time.

The point is that we all have beliefs about how things are and should be, and too often we write all of our beliefs in Sharpie, as if they were a completed work. That’s why we call it “permanent ink,” right? Because we assume nothing about whatever it is we’re writing needs to change. But is that true about all of our current beliefs?

I bought a shirt at a consignment store several years ago. It was from a homeschool softball team. Awesome, right? Anyway, in the back of the shirt, on the tag, someone had written the name “Theresa.” This shirt was Theresa’s, but now it was mine. She used permanent ink, but there was a moment when that permanent ink was no longer reflective of who actually owned that shirt. 

My wardrobe choices in 2005 aside, the point is that we need to consider writing more of our beliefs in pencil. Pencil isn’t permanent, it can be erased and something new written in its place. A sign of health in a human being is growth. That’s true physically and spiritually. If we are growing, if we are open and aware of God, then our beliefs will change over time. It’s a necessary part of flourishing as a human being in the world, and living in tune with the Divine. 

Should some things be written in Sharpie? I think so, but not because we have them totally figured out for certain. We just don’t. The things I would write in Sharpie are things that I know I don’t have completely right, but I don’t think they are less than my understanding. I think they are infinitely more. 

So, for fun, here are some of the beliefs I would put in Sharpie:

God is love. 
Jesus came to show us this love, to make us aware of it and invite us into it.
If we give ourselves to this love, we can and will be transformed by it. 

I think whatever truth is present in those statements, God is infinitely better, infinitely more, not less than, my understanding of love. 

A few questions that might spur thought and conversation:
Have your beliefs changed over time?
What led to those changes?
Are you open to more change as you grow?
What would you, today, write in Sharpie?  Why?
What would you write in pencil? 

Tomorrow: The Way We Believe, Part 3: Believing Jesus

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