I (Pastor Shannon) am asked frequently, “What kind of church are you?” To answer this question, I have decided to put together a five-part essay that might help our family to communicate our beliefs a little easier to those who ask.
We are a church that takes seriously the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
A Christian is someone who is devoted to the kind of life Jesus led. The Gospels are full of stories that speak to what was important to Jesus. An image of God as parental was something that he fearlessly proclaimed even though the notion was alien to his audience. Our church seeks to understand God through the teachings of Christ by using a father / mother metaphor. This shapes our view of the kind of support and nurturing we might get from God as we grow through the journey of our life. Justice was important to Jesus as well. His ministry recognized that the powerful and impoverished existed together in his generation. Realizing the natural suspicion of these two groups he taught the radical diplomacy of love. Though there is much work to be done, we hold that the best justice is always rooted in the hope of reconciliation.
Jesus was a true egalitarian. His treatment of every social, political and economic class was consistent. When he invites all of humanity to his banqueting table it teaches us that there are no second class citizens. Life is more than gender, class, race or religion. Life is what is generated when our love (i.e., search) for God is manifested through our love (i.e., service) for humanity.
Please note what is missing. Though we are a church that believes Jesus is the Son of God, and through the sacred texts say this was accomplished through the incarnation, we don’t pretend to understand it. A strict adherence to such a mystery is not as important as following the example of his life. For example; proving beyond a shadow of doubt that Jesus was or was not God does not affect my commitment to his life and teachings. Our faith does not stand alone upon the apologetic of Christology.
We have seen and tasted the good fruits of his life. There is much more that could be written on this subject. Let me sum it up by affirming that the best of Christianity is found not in dogma, but in child like obedience to the Nazarene.
We are a church who believes that all people who look for the God of peace and love find their home in the kingdom of God.
The Bible is full of metaphors and stories that deal with God’s desire for communion with mankind. The prodigal son, the lost sheep, the woman at the well, are just a few examples of God seeking humanity, and mankind’s restlessness apart from him. We believe like St. Augustine, that mankind has a God-shaped void that can only be filled by God. A large part of my type of evangelism is helping people see that the goodness of God is never far from them, and always available for them. The good news is that God is good.
This type of evangelism is quite a different variation from the standard fare gotten in many Christian circles. I don’t think that people of other religions are necessarily doomed, and I don’t think people of our religion are necessarily saved. I believe, like many in our church, that religions are artificial boundaries created by man. God is bigger than any one religion. What I suspect is also what I’ve experienced; people seeking a good, loving, and just God find him. Similarly, those seeking a vengeful spiteful God find him too. I suppose it is comprised of what you are wanting at the time. I preach Christ because I’ve found that my need is supplied by his teachings of pro-active peace and love.
You may then the light of Christ’s teachings can certainly save them. The stakes are much higher when we talk about heaven or hell. Because we have never been to either place, it is presumptuous to speak dogmatically on them. I have experienced heaven and hell on earth, and to that end the gospels have tremendous impact. I think it is a misuse of scripture to categorically condemn those of a different faith. It is important to remember all humanity labors under the burden of limited understanding. In the end I choose to believe that God is not willing that any should perish.
We are a church that has respect for the scriptures as a tool that shapes our faith in God.
As an American it is impossible to deny how influential the Bible has been to our identity. Politicians quote it to inspire hope or fear depending on their agenda. Pastors quote it to augment their particular brand of theology. Regular folks read it daily for a myriad of reasons. It has become a lens through which many people try to make sense of an uncertain world. The scriptures boast a revelation of future events that give the reader a sense of, living outside of time. As a race we wonder about our purpose, we query if there is a divine plan, we seek to know where we fit, and the Bible speaks to all of those deep quests of mankind.
I’ve often made the Bible analogous with a microscope. The purpose of a microscope is to help us see things that the naked eye could not behold. In other words it is a means to an end. The scriptures are not God but they can help us see God. When we read the stories that detail personal struggles of faith, it reminds us that our present difficulties are not insurmountable. When the prophets cry out against national abuses, we can be challenged to put a mirror on our own nation and ask how we measure. The book is at least a revelation of man’s desire to know the Divine.
The more pressing question might be; “How does God use the scriptures to speak to me?” Before we can answer that, we must first discern our presuppositions about the scriptures. One view is that they were inspired, God breathed, as the Apostle Peter states. I and many in our church hold to this position. Yet, I’m afraid there is even more clarification needed with that concept. I don’t take it to mean that the writers went into a trance like state and were overpowered by God. Nor do I believe that they were always secretaries dictating the exact language of God. There are precious few times when even the writers of scripture believed they were speaking the very words of God. When they did I pay particularly close attention, (Ten Commandments and the like). Much of the holy writings are stories about events, and contain a certain moral, or lesson to be figured out by the reader. The accuracy of the particulars of those events, are not exclusively the means we use to substantiate the truth of the story. For instance, the gospel writers disagree as to the color robe Jesus wore at his trial. We don’t feel the need to defend that discrepancy because they concur on the main point. Jesus had a trial. That tension does not discourage authenticity but in fact validates it. One would expect insignificant variations in the story from author to author. The inspiration is found in the point of the story.
Armed with a perspective that searches for the point or principle of scripture, we can begin to look for an epiphany that speaks to our personal need, and the needs of our generation. The bible is true not because of its geographical, or scientific accuracy, but because it’s point resonates with my experience. Truth that is understandable must have a real world application. There is a sort of clinical research that occurs when I listen to the point, and then submit to the principle and experience a desired outcome. There is truth out there that I have not or cannot experience. The writers of scripture speak with great metaphor of things beyond the grave that cannot be known experientially. When asked to comment on those writings, I can say that the Christian faith has a heritage that believes life continues after this world. My longing for a better place or real justice allows me to find comfort in those writings. It does not mitigate my responsibility to help create a better place during my sojourn on earth. The Apostle Paul wrote that, we see through a glass darkly. The scriptures when used principally can help us bring light to a murky existence. In that sense they shape our faith in God.
We are a church that is aware of the high cost of following Christ.
Greg Allman has a line in one of his songs that laments the high cost of low living. Many of us who gather in fellowship at Stony Hill relate to that sentiment. What comes as somewhat of a surprise is the high cost of living graciously. The Gospel of John tells a story of a blind man who was healed by Christ. The religious leaders of the day were threatened of Jesus and his message. Defensive and offended they used an all too common technique to try and gain control. Using their power to intimidate and coerce, they threatened the blind man’s parents with putting them out of the synagogue. Now that might not seem like much to us, because we live in a society where there is a church on every corner. For them it meant losing their social status and protection from Rome. It would be as if they lost their national identity.
To live graciously is to invite all humanity to the banqueting table of Christ. There are no prerequisites, no background checks. Jesus invited the halt, the maimed and the blind. They were the outcasts of his generation. This kind of generous spirit confounded the morality of the day. Then, like now, the prevailing thought was that the goodness of God was reserved for the good. A spirit of vengeance masquerading as justice has caused some to line up on the opposing side of God. A good friend reminded me of the story of Jonah, a prophet too consumed with vengeance to allow himself to be God’s vessel of reconciliation. We run the risk of being “put out” when we invite all races, faiths, genders, and social classes to join us in our pursuit of God’s goodness. To live graciously is to find ourselves at odds with our self protective nature. The irony of the good life is that it is found in giving not taking. The illusion of control that wealth brings is too often shaken by an unstable economy, uncertain human behavior, and the unpredictability of nature. The life of grace is rewarded with the currency of peace in whatever circumstance we find ourselves in. When Christ taught us to love our neighbor, he was giving us the tool necessary to be free from malice, fear, and every dark thing that hobbles our soul.
When we count the cost of following the teachings of Christ we should remember that the morality and ethics that come from above may put us with some strange bed fellows. Courage is in order when the heavenly perspective intrudes upon the moral fad of the day. Jesus ran with sinners. Paul ate with the enemy. Barnabas befriended a murderer. When there is a need for the healing power of grace, my hope is that we will faithfully follow the example of Christ. There is a cost, but it is worth it.
We are a church that facilitates personal growth through faith, service, and friendship.
The core of our belief is centered on the hope that we can have lives of fulfillment and contentment. Christ defined part of his mission as providing an abundant life. Paul and the Apostles echoed that possibility in their writings. Those promises are intriguing and have caused us to explore the means to obtain such a state of wellness.
If any of us have been listening for the past 20 years, we have heard that wealth, power, and societal success are not necessarily the recipe for a good life. They may accompany an abundant life but are not prerequisites. We’ve all had enough Chicken Soup for the Soul to feel warm and fuzzy at more meaningful attainments in life. Piety, grace, and honest workmanship appeal to a side to our nature that is too easily crowded out by the glitz and glamour of notoriety.
We believe that our faith speaks to this dilemma. To the Church at Stony Hill faith is more than creeds or doctrines. Faith becomes the means by which we trust another value system. A system that elevates brotherly kindness, empowering the down trodden or human decency in the midst of conflict can be a hard sell in a me-first society. It becomes a sort of, try it you’ll like it, exchange. A life built upon the virtues found in scripture is a long and difficult journey, but we feel well worth the sacrifice. With each hard fought battle won, we experience the sweet fragrance of God’s grace. Thus our faith is strengthened.
A mind that has been disciplined to think a certain way will soon lose its foothold if there is no practical application. Our behavior augments our thinking style or value system. The Epistle of James speaks to the truth that faith without works is dead. When we put into practice through service any virtue, that trait is more likely to become a part of our character.
A changed mind with changed behavior carries us ever deeper in a fulfilled life. As we have hopes of personal growth, healed relationships, and fulfilled lives we find others with the same dream. Traveling a similar road is one way that friendships are formed and our resolve is strengthened. We have all heard, and perhaps experienced horror stories of poor behavior in church. In a way, this could be viewed as folks who are finding unhealthy means of fulfillment. Personally, I have found friend and foe in the church; I attribute this to the human condition. The good friends I’ve found in church have encouraged a courageous, positive outlook on life, that is consistent with the message of Christ.
This threefold approach to a fulfilled life has served us well, and we think it is a benefit to those on a similar journey.