From Rev Dr Tom Nibbe
A number of years ago I attended a synod pastoral retreat of rostered persons from all over Northern California and Northern Nevada. The invitation was given for Holy Communion on the south shore of the Monterey Bay at a certain beach where we were to meet at 5:00 a.m. I arrived on time. The bishop had not assigned a person to share the morning prayer. He asked me on the beach to lead the group in prayer. It was early in the morning, and I have sort of a cornball approach to worship at such an hour...so being called on during the service I prayed.
Lord, help me to be the person my dog thinks I am. Amen!
In a true spirit of congeniality the Bishop kind-of liked the prayer, and said, "You know I've never heard that particular wording in a prayer before. I don't know what the occasion may be, but I'm going to use that one myself sometime."
I thought of those who had died and continue to give their lives for the freedom I now have to listen to those fireworks knowing that our republic is secure and safe. Then, I reflected on demonstrations, and coronavirus, and unemployment, and politics, and the awesome fact that we are as divided as a nation as we were in 1861.
In a time of pandemic and intolerance and great uncertainty in multiple areas of our lives as Americans...I paused...and I thought to myself... I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, ONE NATION, UNDER GOD with liberty and justice for all...again, once again...thankful for the wisdom of Walt Whitman and President Abraham Lincoln who reminded me...in trying times to keep my focus clear...striving as an American to keep the vision focused upon "our better angels" to provide increasing "a more perfect union".
We have a great nation, I thought. As we honor God -- God will honor us...in addition to being a citizen of the United States of America, I was glad to be considered a citizen of the Kingdom of God in Christ knowing that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. I re-committed my life to humble service...at that moment...as I had back in July of 1956 receiving the Pro Deo et Patria (for God and Country) scouting award.
Dear Lord, today, I will remember that I don't have to hide behind being right all the time. I don't have to justify what I want and need with saying something is "right" or "wrong". I can let myself be who I am...having a sound mind and a solid knowledge of the Scriptures to form and guide me. Amen.
The life of faith is not about "being right about everything under the sun". It's not about making oneself dominant over others who may have a different slant on things, even in the Spiritual realm. That means however that we need to have "our ducks in order" and have a firm foundation in Spiritual matters and other issues of life. That is the reason I have always put a great deal of emphasis upon Bible Study in church life, rather than placing priorities upon the latest book on the secular market to talk about during church events and schedules...or something else which substituted for God's Word. The Old Testament suggests, "...my people perish for lack of knowledge..." I've learned that I need to be faithful to Scripture to be faithful to myself and to others. That may seem strange to say for some, but it really has proven true and pragmatic for me.
When we come into a life of faith, we do not become "cookie-cutter" Christians. I have known so many of them. I remember a man who was brought to Christ through our fellowship, but yet, chose a more "dynamic" church to live out his life of faith. He set up an appointment, and during that appointment, he complained, "They won't let me do the things I want in my life. I feel like I'm losing myself, rather than finding myself..."
His complaints I thought were well founded. You don't give up everything good in your life because you choose to follow Jesus. A life of true faith is about allowing ourselves to be who we are. It is, nevertheless, understanding what it means to have balance in our life. It is also understanding that others -- as myself -- have heart and mind. We are all fully human. I like the notion of Dr. Martin Luther of being "simultaneously saint and sinner". It is about examining the validity of that sense of balance. At the times of being with Dr Billy Graham, he used to say so often, "The Christian life is a matter of two steps forward and one back."
Often we can test our concept of what truth is in our dialogue with others. Another important aspect of truth is the notion not only of transparency, individuality, and sense of personal taste, but also within the context of belonging to a trustworthy community of faith.
The corollary to this wisdom is that "abundant life" is about accepting others as they are also and being tolerant (to a fault)...but nevertheless...being able to bear testimony while embracing biblical truth, without seeming to be superior in dialogue. It is such a shortcoming with so many religious folk to have all that good biblical truth and not have the common sense of chewing on it, digesting it, and being able to share it in a congenial way with others.
You don't have to be German Lutheran theologian, Dr Wolfhart Pannenberg, to embrace truth and share it. Do what you can do. Be yourself. There is room in the universe for what you have to say...how you chose to live...how you provide room in the universe for others.
One important way we love others who differ from us is to hear them out. The Lord Jesus Christ, in this regard, suggests, "Love the Lord our God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment and the second is like unto it, love your neighbor as yourself...All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
The way to love others who may or may not agree with us is to embrace them and their experience of life. Unlike many religious persons in our midst, the way of Jesus was to get on the same level as His hearers -- to embrace and love those wanting to dialogue with Him. Not only to hear them out, but to allow the dialogue to be a positive experience -- and --make the commitment to have it be so.
Now why am I talking about this? Because, so very often, you and I are inclined to be intolerant of others and their beliefs, and in the process, we build walls instead of building bridges. I'm not talking in this regard to encourage a radical surrender of Scriptural principles...a so-called liberal approach to faith dialogue. I am conservative in this regard. However, I have learned you can catch more bears with honey than with vinegar.
We may come in contact with a Muslim man or woman, for instance. Often, we think to ourselves, this person's thinking is foreign to mine. No. Look at the person's humanity. Embrace them for the moment. Embrace them hopefully for the dialogue. Be sure you have embraced God's Word beforehand. Relax. Be yourself. God doesn't want you to tell that person you are "right" and they are "wrong". Don't be so religious. Be yourself. Know your point-of-view. Do the loving thing in dialogue. The Scriptures suggest that when you open your mouth the Holy Spirit will fill it with divine grace and truth.
Having swallowed and digested truth, and allowing the weight of that truth to magnify our our personal experience of life, we absolutely need to be exposed to knowledgeable dialogue with others. One of the greatest little books I have ever read is a book by Reuel L. Howe, entitled, The Miracle of Dialogue. It arrived in my life at just right time. The suggestion of Dr Howe's book is that it is not only important to be ourselves and have a truth we own, but we need to be able to articulate it in such a way that what is on the inside shows on the outside. You don't need to be Saint Peter or Saint Paul. Just be yourself. There is a place in the universe for what you have to contribute. But let me say -- you need to chew, swallow, and digest those things the Lord places before you. You say you don't have your PhD in Systematic Theology from Oxford or Harvard! There is a specific need in the Kingdom of God for your particular knowledge and wisdom to share.
One important aspect of being ourselves and being able to express "what's inside" is personal openness. I love to return to Romans 7:15-25 to observe the great transparency of Saint Paul, as he expresses, "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do ---I do not do --- but what I do --- I hate to do. And if do what I not want to do I agree that (God's) law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself that do it, but it is sin persistantly living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me --- that is --- in my sinful nature....because I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot seem to carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do...NO! ...the bad things I do not want to do...this is what I keep on doing! Now...if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living within me that does it. So I find this to be a principle at work. When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. In my inner being, I delight in God's law, but I find another principle at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law in my mind and making me a prisoner..."
It would be a sad thing if the story for Paul ended there. After a powerful confession, Paul resolves this issue of truth in his life with this understanding of undeserved favor from God through Christ (Romans 7:24) "What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God --- through Jesus Christ our Lord."
It is not the weakness of others that I focus upon, but upon my own weakness and insufficiency, as Saint Paul would say, that Christ Jesus would rescue me...and make me His tool to bring about peace, and joy, and love (as respect at times) in others' lives.
After a person discovers truth for herself and himself...and I encourage the backbone of truth to be a firm knowledge of sacred Scriptures...that element of self-knowledge provides a powerful sense of "being on solid ground" in conversation with others...and of course with one's self, the so-called "inner conversation".
In this regard, the Lord suggests in the Old Testament, "My people perish for lack of knowledge". First of all, we try hopelessly to work out the difficulties of our lives by trying to figure out things for ourselves, and failing miserably, rather than grabbing on to the "good stuff" (also known as the "God stuff")...that is...the wisdom of God's Word.
Now I mean that in a very profound personal sense. This is not the preacher in me speaking out. It is the testimony of an imperfect man who has been saved by the blood of the Lamb, so to speak, but also by the power of the wisdom of God's Word. I have a quotable-magnet attached to my refrigerator which proclaims, "Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself." I could not have come this far without the influence of a Christ-centered, Bible-based influence in my life. I would recommend it to anyone. That being said, I am confident in saying that it would not have happened without the community of faith and those who loved me...and as well...those who didn't like me very much...that reflected the transparency of Saint Paul's confession in that passage from the Philippians letter.
This concept can be difficult for many of us if we have lived in communities which function on the "right-wrong" justice scale. That is --- the person who is right is okay... the person who is wrong is shamed...all value and worth depends on being right...to be wrong means annihilation of self and self-esteem. I got an earful last week from a lady who had been raised in a conservative Christian denomination. Get this! She had converted from that denomination to Judaism claiming, and I quote, "I had to go this direction because this synagogue reflected the teaching of Jesus more clearly and in a more straightforward way than the church I had attended." In my lifetime I never thought this sort of transition could happen. I had thought that only the opposite could. I'm telling you, we're going to held accountable by God! That statement caused me to re-think this whole business of faith in our lives and also the business of personal witness.
In the focused life of faith we learn how to strive for love in our relationships, not superiority over others. Indeed, we may need to make decisions about people's behavior from time to time. If somebody is hurting us, we need to stand up for ourselves. We have a responsibility to set boundaries and take care of ourselves. However, we do not need to justify taking care of ourselves by condemning somebody else. We can avoid the trap of focusing on others...instead of focusing on ourselves.
In the life of faith we learn that -- what we do -- needs to be right only for us. What others do is their business and needs to be right only for them. It is tempting to rest in the superiority of being right...and in analyzing other people's motives and actions, but it's really more rewarding to just go ahead and look deeper...at times...together.
Some people say, a person cannot be a solidly-grounded human being these days and live in a diverse population and make an impact when it comes to sharing one's faith. You know, I disagree with that. The bottom line in coming to terms with this issue has to do with sticking around long enough with a person who really has no faith, or as I have noticed, a person who is into religion that they think is faith --- who are from a Christian background or not --- and allowing the Holy Spirit to give just the right encouragement, insight, or solution --- that will draw them into a closer relationship with the Living God.