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May 6th – Phil The Baptist

I have to admit that in my past I have not always been as gracious towards evangelical Christianity as I could have been, too often letting the extreme views of American televangelists shape my own biases and prejudices. So today I thought was a great day to pry open my mind and cross the threshold of a Baptist church to worship with them.

This would be a first, and I was nervous.

The church was impressive. The greeters were friendly and welcoming. There wasn’t a spot of dirt or clutter anywhere. The bulletin boards, signs, and artwork all spoke to me of a community that was organized, focused, and knew what it was all about. And the seats, WOW!! There was no “uncomfortable pew” in this place.

The worship space was about two-thirds full when the service began. The people around me looked no different than the people I would find at Northwest, a mixture of all ages, some looking thrilled to be there, some not so much.  The first 20 minutes of worship was music, led by a band whose drummer could give Ringo Starr a run for his money. The lyrics were heavy on words like “slain”, “blood” and “sacrifice”, which were a little harsh to my ears, but the tunes were inspiring, rhythmic and contemporary. At one point I almost found myself swaying (but I’m way too United Church to have lifted my hands in the air) I was enjoying it, and I was getting into it, and then….

Yeah, you guessed it, the sermon began.

There is an old saying that a minister will never enjoy a sermon once he or she becomes a minister because they will always be thinking about what they would have said. Probably true. But when the words came tumbling out of the preacher’s mouth, I could feel the theological curtain between our traditions begin to close.

Let me try to explain.

The sermon was about how to live a life that is pleasing to God. It was very heavy on the “don’ts.” The theology behind the message gets to the very heart of how our different traditions understand God. At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, the evangelical tradition understands God as a Being completely separate from us (all knowing, all seeing, all powerful). We therefore relate to God as we would to a king, or sovereign, or parent. Because God is completely separate from us, our main goal in life is to build a relationship with God. We do that by following a path that evokes God’s blessing and avoids God’s punishment, with the hope that in the end, we will be accepted into God’s heavenly kingdom to forever be with him. Again, I know this is an oversimplification.

How do we live a life that will get us in the door of heaven? That was what the sermon was about.

According to this thinking, we get into God’s good graces by following God’s commandments, and not getting involved in anything that will anger God . The pastor then made a verbal list of all activities that will anger God; idolatry, pornography, drunkenness, lewdness, any sexual intimacy outside of the bonds of traditional marriage (one man and one woman), reading books, or watching movies, or shows that give us impure thoughts. It’s a long list. Based on that list, would you find yourself on God’s Christmas card list? As I looked around, I wondered how many people fell short. I’m guessing 100%, including the guy in the pulpit.

I get the message, and there is surely truth in what he says. Many of those kinds of activities can have negative consequences, which we all know. But the point is, the message behind them is that the focus of our faith journey should be defined by the word, “DON’T”. And so long we DON’T we will stay in God’s good graces, and achieve the reward at the end. And I’m guessing that for some, that can make life seem like a pretty bleak and serious, and sombre experience, while I am sure others appreciate that kind of clarity, focus and direction.

At least that’s what I took away from the sermon.

In the Progressive Christian tradition we have an entirely different starting point. We don’t see God as a being completely separate from us, but rather we understand God as the life-force, energy, or spirit in which we live every day. In other words, we are never separate from God, because we are living within God, as God is living within us. The theological word for this is “panentheism” (God in all things, and all things in God). Our main job therefore is not to please God, but rather to reveal God. And we reveal God, at least I believe, when we open our hearts/minds/senses/lives to the presence of goodness around us, and deepen our relationships of love with each other and with the created world. We reveal God when we build and sustain communities of justice and compassion.

According to Progressive Christianity, our job is not to earn a reward at the end of life, but to make sure that we are creating a fair and just world where all can enjoy the reward already given to us, which is the gift of life. We do that by following Jesus invitation to “be light and salt in the world, not hiding, but brightening and seasoning”.

Which one is biblical? They both are. So which one is right? That friends, is sadly the question that builds walls rather than bridges between our traditions.

I couldn’t help but think that maybe we do a disservice to both traditions when we worry about who’s right and who’s wrong. As I looked around me in the Baptist church I saw people who probably needed to hear the message that was preached today. No doubt there were people there who have struggled all their life with issues and addictions that have kept them from building healthy relationships with others, including God. Sometimes before people can change, they need the reality of their life mirrored back to them, sometimes harshly. Before some can “DO”, they need to face up to the “DON’Ts”.

And far be it from me to suggest that we should dishonour that path if it is bringing life and renewal to someone.

On the other hand, I think we in the Progressive end of the spectrum need to share our message with equal passion and commitment. If we believe, as the Bible says, “God Is Love” we need to focus our attention on creating churches, homes, communities, lives that are grounded in peace, justice and loving-kindness. We can’t do that when we are living in judgement of other’s ideas and traditions.

I’m glad for what I learned today, not only about the Baptist church, but about myself. I leave with a greater understanding and appreciation of their tradition, and a renewed commitment to my own tradition and faith journey. And I will take a very important message back to Northwest….