I went up in response to a revelation... I had been entrusted with the gospel for the un-circumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised ..." -- Galatians 2:2, 7
Paul frequently makes a distinction between the circumcised and the un-circumcised. In those days, the "circumcised" were the Jews. They already knew God. They were what we would call "church-goers" today. The "un-circumcised" were the Gentiles. They may not have believed in, or even known of, the God of Abraham. They are like the people outside the church community. God wanted these two different groups of people to have different messengers. I never thought too much about why, until recently.
Last week, I was leading a Mission Camp for young teens at our church and was preparing the lesson for a day in which we would make a meal for a local shelter. I wanted to talk to the kids about the significance of breaking bread together and I remembered Henri Nouwen's book, "Life of the Beloved," which is organized around how Jesus shared bread: the bread was always taken, blessed, broken, and given. I read this short book again, and prepared my lesson. Reading the book again, however, reminded me that the whole reason Nouwen wrote this book was for a friend and his companions, "who no longer [went] to churches or synagogues and for whom priests and rabbis were no longer the obvious counselors." His friend asks, "Can you speak to us with the same conviction as you speak to those who share your tradition, your language, and your vision? .. Speak to us about the deepest yearnings of our hearts, about our many wishes, about hope ... trust ... love. ...Speak to us about ... God." (pg. 21-22) So, like Paul, Nouwen felt called to speak to a group of very secular people about God.
Unfortunately, Nouwen failed to realize how his most basic assumption, that God exists, would be a stumbling block for his friends. Nouwen could not doubt God, of course; his whole life was inspired by the knowledge of God's love. But this assumption was just too advanced for his friends. They needed to start at a much more basic place, like: Who is God? So, while "Life of the Beloved" conveys deep insight for those who already believe in God, it failed to speak to the unchurched people Nouwen was writing to. Nouwen failed to grasp how wide was the gap between unbelief and belief.
This gap is a part of my life. There is such a variety of belief and unbelief in my own family. But normally, my awareness of it stays in the background. However, this week, I was continually reminded of it. Nearly every day someone asked me why my children weren't involved in the Mission Camp, or whether they will be involved in Vacation Bible School, and whether my oldest son will attend the youth retreat in July. They see that I am very involved in church, especially with youth faith formation, and they see that my children are rarely involved with me, and they are puzzled. They assume that my children all believe in God the same way I do. But, they do not. And since they do not, church activities are not always the greatest place for them.
The church, like Nouwen, assumes a belief in God. Of course it does -- it was founded on the belief in God. But, unfortunately, because of this assumption, the church does not speak to all of my children. While all of them are quite willing to help me at church in other ways (as my assistants for example), being a participant just reminds them of how different they are from everyone else.
I should say "almost everyone else" because I have a sneaking suspicion that there are others who feel like they do, but are better at hiding it. After all, we don't ask people if they believe in God before they are
welcomed to participate in worship or other church activities. We welcome everyone. And we encourage our youth to invite their friends, some of whom I'm sure may not belong to another church.
Clearly, people come to church for all kinds of reasons, not necessarily out of faithfulness to God. Some might come for the fellowship. Some of our youth come because their parents make them. Some adults also may come because of external, societal, pressures. Certainly those who attend church only at Easter and Christmas fall into this category. And yet still others might come because they are searching for answers to their questions about life, like Nouwen's friend.
Can we, the ones who believe, be open to and accepting at church of the ones without belief? Can we be open to their most basic questions? Do we encourage such questioning?
The other day at Vacation Bible School, amidst everyone talking about how "God's love helps us stand strong," one of the preschoolers asked, "What does God even DO anyway?" It was clear that this little boy felt out of the loop a little bit. I was glad he had the courage to say what he wanted to say.... but, preschoolers are pretty good at that. It gets a little harder when we get older. But if we don't ever ask our most basic questions, what is the likely result?
Perhaps, the result is similar to what happens frequently to kids in math. For many kids, it's a big leap to go from arithmetic to algebra. Suppose a young girl has a question... something basic, like "What is a variable?" But everyone else seems to know what's going on already. So, afraid to stand out in the crowd, or of looking dumb, she doesn't ask her question. And she falls further and further behind. Until, eventually, math is the last thing she wants to think about.
I think that sometimes happens to people when it comes to God.
I wonder what would happen if there was a place for beginners of all ages at church, not just preschoolers. What would that look like? Or what if we just didn't assume that everyone at church believed in God the same way?
Paul, apostle to the outsider, says that he did not come preaching the gospel with lofty words of wisdom. He came preaching only Jesus Christ, and him crucified. He didn't start with God, he started with Jesus. He described these early lessons as like milk for a baby. Only later did he feed them meatier topics about God.
Clearly, for some people, the idea of God is just too far removed from
their experience to be easily understandable. Maybe that is why we have
Jesus. Through Jesus, God has come down to earth. Through Jesus we can think about God in a way that speaks to us as human beings. And so, through
Jesus, we just might be able to teach someone about God.
Dear God, you bless me daily with your guidance. Please help me to be a blessing to all those around me. Love always, Pam