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“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Hebrews, 11:1

This reading on the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost took me suddenly back to a small country church in Pulaski, Tennessee.  My mother had sent me south to escape the claustrophobia of our one-bedroom apartment in Baltimore.  I lived for three months that summer on the farm where my grandfather was born, just down Puryear Hollow Road from another farm where the Puryears’ pretty granddaughter lived.  She was 15 like me, and she invited me to go with her to Vacation Bible School.

Admittedly I went for the girl, but soon I was reading and hearing a story for the first time that set my heart on fire.  I found myself staying up late at night devouring the epistles of St. Paul.  They all made such perfect sense to me.  I found within them a self-evident wisdom.  I knew the precepts and values that were advocated within those letters, and the message of humility, service, charity and love in the Gospels, were true.  This was where my faith began.  I believed.  

Today, forty years later this month, I still have the black, leather-bound Bible, Revised Standard Version, embossed with my name in gold leaf on the front and signed with the well-wishes of members of the Greenwood Church of Christ.  The little white church still sits upon a hill in the countryside, just outside Pulaski.  The faithful still gather there to sing, a cappella, Love Lifted Me.  Today, I still believe, and I recite the Nicene Creed in the Episcopal Church as an expression of that sincere belief.  But there are, as well, some things that I and others didn’t believe then and don’t believe now—things that shouldn’t be impediments to anyone’s faith or a source of misconception about what Christianity means.

No, I do not believe that the letters Paul wrote to the churches of Eurasia or the remembrance of Mark, Luke, John and Matthew in the Gospels represent the unerring, literal word of Almighty God or a verbatim transcript of the life and words of Jesus, anymore than I believe that the clergy who speak to me from the pulpit today are incapable of missing the mark.  But the fundamental message—the Gospel of love that is at core of what the people of God were saying then and are saying today—is true, and I believe we improve ourselves and others by striving to grasp the meaning of all the rest.

No, I don’t believe that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, but I do believe, as do the many Nobel Laureates, scientists, senators, justices, and presidents who have said the Nicene Creed down through the ages, that God is the “maker of Heaven and Earth,” and the one by whom “all things were created.”  As to how he did it, exactly, I’ll get back to you on that as soon as Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin figure it out.

No, I don’t believe that God intends to condemn anyone who doesn’t bow and scrape before him to a lake of fire or turn non-believers into pillars of salt, although I am sure it served the good intentions of a lot of paternalistic, old Jewish men to say so at the time.  I don’t believe the pilot in my airplane is going to vanish in the rapture while others are “left behind” to glide slowly to a fiery death.  I believe in Our Father, Who Art in Heaven, and as a father myself I can tell you that there is no insult, no blasphemy, measure of disrespect or indifference, no depth of disbelief or distrust, that could separate my children from my love, much less condemn them to eternal damnation.  I’ve heard my share of the teenage “I-hate-you-I-hate-you-I-hate-you’s,” and I can tell you it was all just utterly without effect.  (Well, not really.  There was some laughter once their mother and I were alone.)  Because I am confident that God’s love for his children is infinitely greater than the love of any Earthly father, I am equally confident that he means to bring all his children—Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Pagan, Atheist or otherwise, gay, lesbian, straight or what-have-you—to a better life with him.  As to how, exactly, Christ accomplished this by his death and resurrection, or why it was necessary that mankind be redeemed at all, I’m going to join the pope in punting on that question with the same answer he gives to two billion Catholics in the Roman missal every Sunday: “This is the mystery of our faith.”

In the forty years since I first heard the Gospel, faith has really gone out of fashion in the Western world.  This is indeed a great sadness, and I fear for the America that my children’s children will know.  With so many churches preaching either a false, self-centered gospel of wealth and prosperity or arrogating to themselves the authority to judge others on behalf of a vengeful, punitive God, it is a wonder that faith survives.  Yet it does, and somewhere in that fact lies the still, small voice of God.