How to Live Faithfully in a Culture, and Church, That Isn’t!
There was a day in November of 1989 when my life changed irrevocably. It was a change of culture like nothing I had ever experienced. I had grown up in a safe middle class american home. I was living in a wonderful subdivision in Tucson Arizona. I had been in college for a couple of years, though I wasn’t doing well in school. All my friends were college students and apparently headed toward wonderfully successful careers and lives, at least that was my 21 year old impression. And I was floundering. Uncertain. Confused. And possibly just a little scared. I knew I needed discipline. So I joined the United States Marine Corps. And life changed. My culture shifted. And yes, that’s a massive understatement. I’ll never forget that experience. I’m sure it still impacts me today more than I realize.
In the middle of the night we arrived in San Diego California. We boarded a large ‘school’ bus, were told to keep our eyes down and not look around. We drove around downtown San Diego, stopped at the train station to pick up some more recruits, and made our way to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. Everything was pretty calm to that point. Then we arrived at a place that will forever be etched in my memory, the receiving barracks. A very loud man got on the bus to give us instructions for how the rest of the evening would progress. We got off the bus as quickly as we could and found our places on some yellow footprints that had been painted on the ground. We were taught how to stand at the position of attention and received a lecture on life according to the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. And then, they shaved our heads, took away our clothes, gave us new clothes, and proceeded to usher us into an entirely new way of life; a new culture. The next thirteen weeks were about assimilating into that new culture; about finding our new identities as Marines.
As I’ve once again been inundated with stories of changing culture I’ve been reflecting on that time from my past. As a young man I professed faith in Jesus Christ. But I have to admit that during my years in the Marine Corps I did an awful job of living as a Christian. I’m not sure that I’ve ever done a great job of living out my faith in Christ. In a very real sense I allowed my faith to be redefined by the culture in which I was living. I have some distinct memories of a few other Marines who didn’t seem to make the same mistakes and compromises that I indulged. They maintained their faith and commitment to Christ while living in a culture that didn’t necessarily embrace that faith or commitment.
When I consider the condition of the United Methodist Church, and of Christianity in general in the United States, I find myself concerned for our collective future. Incredible change is taking place both in the surrounding culture and inside the church. It seems that we daily hear of changing sexual standards; what was unthinkable a generation ago is common place today. Same sex marriages are being legalized in most states. Abortion is rampant. Progressive theology is pushing us toward universalism and openly denying the uniqueness of Christ for salvation. There are those, even some bishops, who are pushing for the standards of the surrounding culture to become the standards of the church. All seems to be in chaos. Culture is shifting and the church is in conflict about how to react. And I am wondering if what I learned many years ago might be helpful for us in the UMC today. A couple of young Marines figured out how to be Christian in a culture that didn’t necessarily embrace that commitment. I think there are some lessons for the faithful in the UMC we can learn from them.
- Know what you believe. It is no longer acceptable to be just culturally Christian. We need a renewed commitment to authentic, passionate, doctrinally sound, Christian belief. Perhaps, a new catechism is in order. I’ve been reading “Key United Methodist Beliefs” by William Abraham and David Watson. A great book for every Christian to read. Each of their chapters ends with a Wesleyan Catechism, a tool for teaching the basics of the faith. I’m always surprised when I meet people who have been life-long members of the church but who cannot articulate our foundational beliefs. If nothing else, memorize the creeds! Teach them. Preach them. You have to know what you believe before the surrounding culture dictates your belief.
- Anticipate the pushback. And there will be pushback! Those who do not share traditional, historic, doctrinally sound Christian belief are increasingly intolerant towards it. It may be minor pushback in some cases and quite extreme in others. But it will come. If you learn to anticipate the pushback you will have a means to endure it and persevere in the faith. If you are unaware that the pushback is coming, if you are surprised by it, then fear finds an inroad to your soul. The pushback can derail your faithfulness if it is unanticipated. It’s easy to say ‘don’t take it personally,’ but there is a bit of truth to that advice. The pushback says more about those who are pushing than about you. In many cases we will need a good case of thick skin!
- Look to the future. This too shall end, granted, it may not be in our lifetimes, but these days will end. This is not the first time the faithful have been tempted to comprise with culture. This is not the first time aberrant theology has attempted to redirect the church. And it’s probably not the last time it will happen. But we have hope and faith in the God who created us, in Christ who redeemed us, in the Spirit who indwells us; that God alone will dictate the future of the Church. It may be tough in the interim for us to remain faithful in a culture and church that are increasingly unfaithful; but faithful we must remain. And remember it is not history that dictates truth it is God who is in control of history; and it is God who holds the future of the Church!
So remain faithful. Do not compromise the faith. Speak up for the Truth of the faith; speak up in love. If you wish to move forward through these days of changing culture, you need to know what you believe, anticipate the pushback, and look to the future that God has already secured. And let me encourage you to not surrender the fight. It would be easy for those of us who hold to traditional beliefs and doctrine to simply leave, run, start something new, but now is not the time! That time may come, but it is not now! Contend for the faith once delivered to the saints. Even if no one else you know will speak up…stand up and speak the truth in love!
What are your thoughts …
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Grace and Peace, Rich