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Free to Love

Thoughts from the Porch

“When men and women get their hands on religion, one of the first things they often do is turn it into an instrument for controlling others, either putting of keeping them ‘in their place’. The history of such religious manipulation and coercion is long and tedious. It is little wonder that people who have only known religion on such terms experience release or escape from it as freedom. The problem is that the freedom turns out to be short-lived.” (Eugene Patterson, The Message – Introduction to the book of Galatians)

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I often tell audiences when I’m speaking that I’m “recovering Church of Christ”. People that live here in the “Buckle of the Bible Belt” usually know exactly what I mean – a fundamentalist evangelical Christian upbringing (If you’re unsure what that means, think of Southern Baptists on steroids).One was held to certain, often impossible, moral standards and judged harshly when one strayed from the established norms of church law. It was no wonder that when I moved away from home at the ripe old age of eighteen, it wasn’t long before I found release from the constraints of my upbringing. I reveled in my newly acquired freedom.

Sadly, freedom slowly turned into a self-made prison: walls of addictions, guilt, and shame (another story for another time). In desperation I turned to the God of my youth and cried for release. Ironically, the God of my youth hadn’t changed. Only my perception of Him had. Grace, something I had only heard about in abstract theological discussions, became real.

My wife and I share a common love for the Lord even though we have denominational differences. We have the common community of recovery. While not everyone in recovery finds their Higher Power to be the God of our home, many of our friends share our Christian faith. It’s become a “church”, or community in many ways.

Her beliefs and doctrines are important to her while mine have taken a different direction. Thankfully, her denomination didn’t inflict the spiritual, of more accurately, religious abuse that fundamentalist Christianity did. It still works for her. For that I’m extremely grateful.

Over the last couple of years, she’s wanted me to explore her denominational beliefs and hopefully provide answers to some of my questions. We’ve invited a couple of young men from her church into our home each month. We’ve shared good conversation and I appreciate their energy and commitment to spread the good news Jesus brings. However, they have been unable to answer some questions I feel essential to discipleship.

Perhaps it’s their age. “Elder” typically means one of “greater age”. Their name tags may say elder, but their age says different. It doesn’t make them wrong. Their experience hasn’t led them to an answer. Besides, some of the best wisdom has come from young folks. Out of the mouth of babes, you know…

They’ve asked older members of their church to talk to me, but even they have been unable to answer my questions. What they see as divine revelation doesn’t jive with my experience. Mind you, I’m not trying to be difficult.

I appreciate the values we share – a love of God and a love for others. I don’t understand why it’s necessary to inflict a set of rules and doctrines to make one part of the “in” crowd. Before anyone thinks I’m being critical and judgmental of another denomination please know I am overjoyed by their work for the marginalized. They support family and a relationship with God. It’s just different methodologies.

That’s not what I see in Jesus. Following Jesus has led me into a life of freedom I only dreamt of. He has truly given me an abundant life. My newfound freedom comes with the responsibilities associated with “loving God with all my heart, mind, and soul and loving my neighbor as myself”. Maybe that’s why self-control is one of the fruits of the spirit…

The question they find so difficult to answer is this: Why would anyone who has found complete freedom in Christ submit to the heavy yoke of rules and regulations? Laws, doctrines, and a formula for self-proclaimed piety aren’t what make me right with God. Grace is what makes me right with God. In fact, the Apostle Paul called such people promoting the law as “contemptible” (Galatians 6.13).

Paul puts the question far more eloquently than I ever could:

“How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off top please God? Or was it by responding to God’s Message to you? Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God… Does the God who lavishly provides you with His own presence, His own Holy Spirit, working things in your lives you could never (Emphasis mine) do for yourselves, does He do these things because of your strenuous moral striving or because you trust Him to do them in you?” (Galatians 3.2-3,5 The Message translation)

I wouldn’t trade the freedom I’ve found in Christ for anything. I also know that freedom brings a huge responsibility. I never want to settle for what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called ”cheap” grace – to “continue in sin so that grace may abound” (Romans 6.1 RSV). My responsibility is to love God and love others. Jesus said if I do that everything else will take care of itself. Simple, but difficult at times. Some people are simply hard to love. Do it any way…

When I live God’s way, Paul says this incredible thing happens.

“He brings gifts into our lives, much the way that fruit appears in an orchard – things like:

  • affection for others
  • exuberance about life
  • serenity
  • a willingness to stick with things
  • a sense of compassion in the heart
  • a conviction that holiness permeates things and people
  • we find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life
  • able to marshal and direct our energies wisely”

(adapted from Galatians 5. 19-21 The Message

It’s no wonder that Paul says to go on and “live creatively’ and “never tire of doing good”. I’m a simple guy. I can’t think of a simpler way to live. If my missionary friends can answer this question, then maybe I’ll give it some consideration.

Until then “live creatively”, my friends…

3 thoughts on “Free to Love”

  1. I’d love to hear the answer. I know that any group has governing traditions, whether political, religious, or civil. I’ve come to believe that a life of discipleship brings a new freedom and with it the accompanying boundaries of loving God and loving others.

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