These letters are in response to questions from a pastor who is seeking an outreach mission pastor in Canada. His questions related to information available on my web site.
I do not have permission to reprint his questions but they are valid concerns for someone looking for a ministry partner.
First, and most important, is the clear understanding that as an academic I separate "belief" and "faith", just as I distinguish between “truth” and “fact”.
What I, and you, and everyone else "believe" is based on our knowledge, experiences, and how we interpret all of this information. Many of us believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as the three persons in one God. We further believe that Jesus the Nazarene is the Messiah foretold in the Old Testament. Many others believe something else, based on what they have learned and experienced. This does not make their beliefs "wrong". I believe that the path to redemption is through Jesus. And I believe that I have an obligation to bring this message to others. And the way to bring others to Jesus is to provide them with the Word and to have them experience the love and acceptance of our Christian community. Beliefs, therefore are intellectual, residing in the head, so to speak.
Faith, on the other hand, is spiritual, based in the heart, if you will. Faith can be shared but never taught. Faith must be felt deep in the core of one's being. Faith transcends knowledge, experiences, and beliefs. Faith is sometimes associated with trust. But it's more. Trust is of the world; I trust that the bank will give me back my money when I ask. Faith is that God will provide me with everything I need, even if what He provides is pain and suffering. Faith allows me to go on in the face of danger. I'm reminded of one time in Viet Nam when everything I knew and believed was useless and only my faith carried me through. Close combat does that.
So, yes, what we believe is true, at that time, based on our available information, our knowledge, and our experiences. I can't think of a more destructive way to gather people to Jesus than to tell them that everything they know about God is wrong. They must be offered Jesus at a personal level, first by experiencing Jesus' love through our actions and then through knowledge of his teachings in the New Testament. Because I believe that Jesus is the redeemer, I have an obligation to teach that to others. More importantly, I have the task of “showing” Jesus in my daily life choices. And I have faith that through my efforts on behalf of Jesus, more people will be saved. Yes, I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God. However, I also believe that the Word has been mistranslated, misinterpreted, and therefore, misunderstood for thousands of years. Other than as a genealogical record and a collections of teaching stories, the Old Testament is of little relevance to Christians today. Jesus brought with Him a New Testament designed to replace the Old and offer a new way of living. Gone is the hateful, vengeful God and here now is the God of love and salvation. Gone are the days when only the elite got to worship in the temple and here are the days when everyone is welcome. We no longer need to fear God because we are taught that God is our father. We are encouraged to have a close personal relationship with God, through Jesus, and that God loves us.
I have absolutely no trust that what a pagan Roman Emperor decided 1700 years ago are the only writings to be considered divine after multiple committees debated for over a year and settled on what can only be described as the least common denominator of doctrines.
I look at my three study bibles and see three translations, each saying the same thing, differently. And each interpreting what is said in it's own way, based on what the authors want me to believe. The truth is no one really knows what the original gospels said. We are reasonably sure that what is included in the New Testament is only a small part of the available writings about Jesus and his ministry. And, God in His infinite wisdom is bringing some of these other writings to light in His good time. What these writings say and who wrote them is speculative, but must be explored.
In the meanwhile I have faith that the word of God is revealed to me exactly as God wants me to hear it.
Coincidently, I am currently reading THE LOST YEARS OF JESUS, Documentary Evidence of Jesus' 17 Year Journey To the East. 1 I believe that each of us has an obligation to read everything available about Jesus and his life, no matter how incredible they seem. WHY? Because it is these writings that our detractors will use to discredit our faith. We must know what these writings say in order to be a competent witness of Jesus and his teachings. Knowledge is never a bad thing. However we must place that knowledge in context. I don't have a problem with someone providing evidence that Jesus traveled and studied in the East as an adolescent and young adult. I can see similarities in the teachings of Jesus and those of the Buddha. The more I learn about what others say about Jesus in the East, the more convinced I am that they have it backwards. Jesus was more a teacher in the East than a student. I don't have a problem with others believing that Jesus' message is based his teachings on Eastern philosophies. I don't take issue here because I believe that Jesus influenced Eastern thought and not the other way around. I don't have a problem wondering, as some have suggested, if God sent his Son to earth more than once. Perhaps the Buddha was, in fact, an earlier presence of God on Earth. No one really knows for sure. And who cares? It doesn't, in any way, change what we know of Jesus in Palestine, his life there, and his teachings and commandments to us, as his disciples. It doesn't shake my faith that Jesus is God, come to us in the form of a man to bring us to salvation.
Yes, we believe what we believe and have faith in God. However, we can never know the intent of God. But we must consider everything and put it into context. Someday, something may come to light that puts everything I believe in doubt. That is the day I look forward to. That is the day I can put everything I have learned to the test. On that day, what I believe will be challenged. But my faith will not be. My faith in God is not dependent upon anything worldly.
You are correct to question my statements about the absurdity of requiring others to have the same beliefs as do I. I think I have addressed this in a previous paragraph. May I simply say that I believe Jesus when he says, with authority, “I am the Way”.
At the risk of sounding trite, I was raised a Catholic, probably the least Christian of Christian religions. And, as a result, I am critical of what passes for Christianity today. It is my observation that most people who claim to be Christians aren't, that they are delinquent in their attempts to demonstrate a life based on the teachings and commandments of Jesus.
Jesus commands us to care for one another. That's pretty much it. Feed the hungry, treat the sick, shelter the homeless, comfort the weary and protect the children. And do all of this in our own neighborhoods. Jesus sent His disciples out to the people. He did not require the people to come to him. He never suggests that there are exceptions. He doesn't address any “why” questions about someone needing assistance. He doesn't say help only those you feel deserve it. He simply says to help those in need. To me that means helping those who's life choices I find repulsive, dangerous, and/or politically incorrect. And Jesus never said, nor do I believe He condones, withholding our assistance from anyone who rejects Him.
I also have contempt for any organized church that excludes others for any reason. I take issue with church buildings being empty 95% of the time. I question the practice of paid clergy. (I understand the need for it, but I sometimes wonder if salary and benefits gets in the way of a pastor confronting the members when required.) And I find it offensive to see mega churches, “feel good” auditoriums, which seem designed to be money generators and houses of glory to man, being promoted as the 'new Christianity'.
I hope these responses answer your questions. I have, in good faith, been as forthright as possible. My beliefs and faith are “out there” for anyone to read and scrutinize. And I will be posting these clarifications on the blog this afternoon, again for everyone to see.
Now I would like to learn more about you, your church, and it's mission. Do you have a web site? A published Statement of Faith for your ministry? Does your church welcome everyone, without exception. Do you, Mark, measure up to my expectation of a Christian as I have outlined here today? It is you, after all, that is asking for help.
I look forward to your response.
Peace and love through Jesus.
ps: I am seeking a pastor or chaplain position in Maine. E-mail me