We continue with our journey through words in scripture and our faith that matter. Today the word is believe.
To get at this word I want to share a story about my first church in Massies Mill. Not far from the church was a notch of land along a tributary to the Tye River. There was a good strip of bottom land, a short dirt road separated it from three or four homesites on the hillside. The area was known as “Hippie Hollow” by the locals since the land had been bought and the homes built by young couples from the seventies who had moved to the county.
By the 1980’s the folks in Hippie Hollow were raising families and pretty well integrated into the community. I got to know most of the folks in the hollow coaching sports and substitute teaching. I enjoyed getting to know them and hanging out with them. In fact, it is through those connections that I met Susan!
I also thought that getting to know them might get them to come to church. One Sunday it seemed to work. Just as worship was about to start, Kim slipped into the back row of chairs. Kim and her husband were the one couple up in Hippie Hollow that did not have children. They were musicians and played a lot of old time music, often at the Boar’s Head Inn and even in Chesterfield schools teaching children about historic instruments and mountain music.
I was thrilled to see her come in. Maybe I could get the rest of the hollow and the church would start to grow, even look a bit more like the overall community. After the service we greeted each other warmly. I thanked her for coming and offered to visit. We set a time for later in the week. I was on a roll. Folks were excited. When you only have forty in worship, everyone notices when a new person shows up!
For the visit I took the little bit of printed material we had about the church and headed up to Hippie Hollow. Kim and Jimbo lived in a home they had built. It was wood and solid, but it was more of a story and a half box than anything. There was a loft where I presumed was the bed. The downstairs single room served as sitting room, kitchen and dining room. There were instruments everywhere and the walls were lined with shelves stacked high with books.
It was a pleasant visit. I enjoyed the conversation and the stories of how she and Jimbo met, travelled and what they did with their music. But no sooner had I shifted to her church visit than she dashed my hopes of bringing new folks into the church. As I thanked her again for visiting the church worship, she told me that it was her spiritual advisor’s idea. He was a Buddhist and he was guiding her on a journey of exploring her spirituality. When she told me she was “spiritual, but not religious,” it was the first time I had heard the now famous phrase. She told me his advice had been to visit a few different faiths and participate in worship. She planned to visit us about six times. And that is exactly what she did!
Jimbo never came with her, and we stayed friends. Their Boar’s Head group, Mandalay, even played at our wedding. But I was so stunned by what I had heard, I never recovered enough to ask too many questions about her quest.
I tell you about Kim because almost thirty years after that conversation, her journey has become emblematic of millions more people who claim they are “spiritual, but not religious.” And it is impacting the church in a big way. But what does it mean? As a church worker, my institutional dander can get up when I hear it. On the surface my mind hears Sunday golf, or hiking. Reading the paper or caching up with the family after busy week. Or “I Just can’t add one more thing to my schedule.”
So on that same superficial plane, I drill down and ponder just what new program can we dream up that will attract folks to church. What will get them to put down the paper, save the kayak trip until the afternoon? How can I get all the Kims out there to end their six-week surveys and find their “spiritual” center here, in church?
But frankly that’s not the issue. The root of the phrase “I’m spiritual, but not religious” is deeper, more complex and cannot be solved by the church’s longstanding problem-solving method, just find the right program! It’s called the “attractional model” of church growth. And it no longer works!
This is where our word believe, comes in. A dictionary defines the word as “Accept something as true; to have firm religious conviction; to hold as an opinion.”
We field tested this with the men’s breakfast and that is much of what we said.
The definition is significant for thinking about those outside the church. For twenty-plus years research has been showing that folks fall away from church, or never start, because of an assumption about “belief.” Belief is viewed as the intellectual content of faith. To believe, then is to have at the ready some sort of list, a rehearsal of ideas about God, Jesus, salvation and the church.
This comes from centuries of equating faith with belief. So that being faithful meant that one accepted certain ideas about God and Jesus. This movement in the western church started in the fourth century as the church began to coalesce as the one accepted faith of the Roman empire. The church began to write formal creeds, such as the Nicene. With that shift, we turned from belief in Jesus, to beliefs about Jesus. We moved from experiencing and following Jesus, to doctrinal stances that increasingly were to be defended at all costs, famously through centuries of Inquisition and stake burning.
Which brings us to the importance of this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. The visit was motivated by what Nicodemus saw of Jesus’ ministry. Their conversation is rich, full of word play. Is is not meant to be rushed through or used as an easy answer for understanding. Including perhaps the most famous in all of scripture, 3:16. Many know it and adore it from the signs at sporting events, but it is deeper than a mere formula for salvation. If anything, it is a formula for living. But more on that in a moment.
Nicodemus is trying to test how his beliefs about God fit with what Jesus does. When Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be “born from above” he does not intend it as a label for your Christian journey. It is a metaphor, but Nicodemus tries to put it in the literal categories he knows. Instead, Jesus is inviting him, and you and me, to see everyday life with God in categories that reshape the everyday. To be born again is what makes it possible to to see the kingdom of God and to begin to reframe our understandings of God. It is the beginning point, not the endpoint, of growth with God.
Jesus sets this frame because as he moves forward in the conversation he is showing Nicodemus what a life in faith can be. In John’s gospel, Jesus uses the word “life” to describe the gift he brings to those who believe. Often Jesus adds the word “eternal,” as he does here. And for Jesus, in this gospel, eternal life is a characteristic of the present life of the believer.
We see this throughout the gospel as Jesus applies the term “life” to his identity and current activity- he is “the bread of life,” that which “comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” In speaking of “eternal life” here, Jesus then is not speaking of immortality or of future life in heaven, but is using a metaphor for living now in the unending presence of God. “Eternal life,” is John’s way of talking about the kingdom of God – life lived according to God’s categories, in the here and now.
So when in the conversation Jesus gets to what has become a famous phrase, from the message:
“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed: by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.”
Belief here, is how people respond to God’s gift of Jesus. The community can respond to the gift of God with the gift of faith. Because God’s of Jesus is the gift of eternal life, to receive and welcome that gift is immediately to receive the life it offers. It is to live in the light of God’s grace.
Which brings us back to the Kim’s we all know who have given up on church because they are “spiritual, but not religious.” What is being claimed is a desire for the experience of Jesus. What they struggle with is the perception that religion means only doctrines about Jesus.
Jesus is on to them. His use of the word “believe” harks back beyond our modern use of the term as noted above: “accepting something as true; firm conviction.” Behind that lies the way the term was used in Jesus’ day, it meant “trust.” To trust in God to live as Jesus, God’s Son, was teaching.
As the creeds about Jesus developed, we began to give more credence, more emphasis, on what we say “about” Jesus, rather than trusting in Jesus. It became more important to say something, than to live in this life as followers of Jesus. Speaking “about” Jesus fits perfectly the modern use of believe. They are “firm convictions,” what we “think,” deep “acceptance” an our “opinions.” These are all constructs of our mind.
Yet if we add back the ancient aspect of believe, trust, we also add our heart. This is why the ancient approach, where Jesus was trying to lead Nicodemus, is so important for the church to embrace today.
I believe, remains a powerful and potent part of Christian faith. Yet if we are to open our hearts to trusting Jesus, we will find that we enrich the life we lead and we welcome the stranger who would come by night seeking to live in the light. People like my long ago friend Kim respond not to a formula for belief. But rather to lives lived and experienced in the light. So when you say believe, think trust.
Which is to say, the important question for us is not “What do you believe?” It is “How do you believe?”
Do you trust? To help us see that connection, today’s Apostle’s Creed substitutes “trust” for “believe” to offer a sense of context of the creed in the beginning of the way of Jesus.