The Spiritual Journey Part 1: Construction (Receiving the Building Blocks of Faith)

We all have beliefs, ideas that we hold to be true and that matter deeply to us. I have beliefs and you have beliefs. Like me, you have beliefs that underlie the way you live, relate to other people, the decisions you make, and how you understand whatever is happening in the world around us.

And just as we all have beliefs, we can also have our beliefs challenged at times. Sometimes we experience such a significant challenge to our beliefs that we find ourselves disoriented. Maybe our beliefs begin to shift or change in light of something new we learn or something we experience.

Even though I am a Christian, not everything I believe has remained static for the last three or four decades. Our beliefs don’t all remain precisely the same for our entire lives. Some beliefs deepen, others we discard.

I’ve been reading A.J. Swoboda’s new book After Doubt, and in it he talks about the different stages of faith or the spiritual journey. He describes them as construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction. While reading his description of the spiritual journey, I realized that I saw myself. I thought to myself, “That’s how it was for me!”

Over the next few posts, I am going to talk about these three stages of faith. Of course, the spiritual journey isn’t neat and tidy or easily quantifiable. To divide it into 3 “stages” is somewhat artificial. At the same time, it is a helpful template to understand our experience of faith and belief.

So, the first stage is this: construction. Or think of it as receiving the building blocks of faith.

In my case, I was raised as a Roman Catholic. And in a lot of ways I assumed the beliefs of a Catholic without ever really thinking through those beliefs. I was taught to pray the Lord’s Prayer, so I prayed the Lord’s Prayer. I was taught the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, so I accepted that understanding of the Eucharist. Etc., etc. For years, it never occurred to me to think about or practice my faith any differently.

After all, this was the faith of my Mom and all of my extended family. Being Catholic and being a Melanson went hand in hand. Church was part of our spiritual DNA. In an important sense, I was born Catholic. But it means that for the first several years of my life, I accepted uncritically the faith and spiritual practices that were given to me. I was receiving the building blocks of faith.

Not that I didn’t have or ask questions, but any questions I had during this stage were almost always about how things within the Catholic tradition worked, like “Why don’t priests marry?” “Why do we do things this way?”

And there’s nothing wrong with this stage. Everyone goes through it; everyone has to go through it. While each person born into a religious tradition eventually has to make the decision to own their faith (or not), initially we need to learn the ropes, take the first few steps with the help and example of people already on the journey. Our faith has to begin somewhere, usually because of someone.

It makes me think of 2 Timothy 1:5. The apostle Paul is writing Timothy, and says this: “I recall your sincere faith that first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and now, I am convinced, is in you also.”

Timothy, then, grew up with a believing grandmother and mother–and they are the ones who spiritually nurtured Paul’s protege and planted the seeds of faith. Those early years gave Timothy the building blocks of faith. He would have to grow and mature as a believer, but this is how it began for him. And so it is with every person of faith.

As a Dad (not to mention a pastor!), I often think about how I might be failing or succeeding in instilling faith into my children. I want them to become people of strong, personal faith. And I sometimes get these little glimpses that tell me much of what they believe they only believe because I and my wife believe it. To some extent, they’re a little more like parrots than songbirds. They are repeating what they’ve heard, not singing their own tune. They are receiving the building blocks of faith.

Honestly, there are times when I have to remind myself of where I was at their age. Because you have these worries as a parent. Am I doing a good job at teaching and modeling what it means to be a Christian? Or do I simply assume I am? Somewhere in the back of my brain there are insistent questions: “What if they reject what I’ve tried to teach them?” “What if they walk away from God and from the church?”

And the truth is, they might. At least for a time. That is, faith cannot always remain inherited faith. As the saying goes, “God has no grandchildren.” Whenever a person is raised in a Christian home, there comes a time when they have to make their faith their own. That will be as true for my kids as it was for me.

Although we all receive the building blocks of faith, religious or otherwise, each of us has to do something with those blocks. The spiritual journey of coming to hold our beliefs begins with construction.

Take a moment right now and think about your core beliefs. How did you come to believe those things? If, like me, you believe that Jesus was raised from the dead and that he is the Son of God, where did you get that belief? How did you receive the building blocks of faith? Who passed those building blocks on to you?

Or to put it another way: how did your journey of faith begin?

Next time we’ll take a look at what is called deconstruction.

John MacArthur and Andy Stanley: Two Pastors on COVID Restrictions

I recently listened to an episode of the Q Ideas podcast (dated October 1, 2020) which featured two very well-known US mega-church pastors who have had very different approaches to COVID restrictions: John MacArthur and Andy Stanley. One pastors in California and one in Georgia, which may not be an insignificant factor in their ways of dealing with the situation. I appreciated aspects of each perspective. Whichever pastor you agree with more, I think it’s fair to say that each is acting on personal conviction and is endeavouring to lead and pastor their church with wisdom in order to love their neighbours. You can either listen to it below or go to this link.

“Homemade Worship” for Mother’s Day

During today’s “Homemade Worship” my beautiful wife Alisha shared some thoughts on 1 Samuel 1:1–17, where we meet Hannah. Her thoughts are based on notes her late mother wrote in the margins of her Bible, which makes it extra special. I share some thoughts on 2 Timothy 1:3—6 and 3:14—15.

What really makes “Homemade Worship” special is that it involves our whole family. Even if you can’t see them! So when you hear boomwhackers, shakers, or other kinds of percussion, that’s usually one or more of our kids playing off camera. So while it’s a little messy and imperfect, keep in mind that we’re not professional YouTubers (which, yes, is really a thing in case you didn’t know). Our present technology has its limitations. In fact, the video below lacks sound at the beginning because, well, I forgot to set the mike up properly. And I didn’t take the time to edit the video to take that bit out. Maybe later I’ll try doing that. But despite all the flaws we have fun and hopefully those who watch are blessed.

Because our province is in lockdown until the end of May, we will be doing “Homemade Worship” for at least the rest of this month. We go live on YouTube Sunday mornings at 11:00am on the YouTube channel for Temple United Baptist Church. You’re welcome to join us.

One Pastor’s Perspective on Christians and Government

Note: I’m sure there will be Christians who disagree with this post. I would be grateful if this were part of a larger conversation rather than a monologue. If you have a different, and biblical, way of thinking through this issue, I’d be grateful to hear from you. Or if you want clarification on something I’ve said, I’d welcome that too.

Over the last year churches have had to deal with restrictions on gathering because of COVID. Depending on where in the world you live, your church has been unable to meet in person for long stretches of time or only if those attending adhere to certain guidelines. Where I live in Nova Scotia, Canada, we’ve been able to meet in person since last July if we socially distance. Though due to a significant rise in COVID cases in our province, we are currently on a two-week shutdown.

Am I going to insist, despite our provincial government’s policy, that our church gather in person anyway? I am not. And even if I were inclined not to follow our government’s mandate, there’s a very good chance that I’d be alone in church on Sunday. My congregation, perhaps because they are largely older, are particularly cautious.

But we are already aware that there are churches who have refused to follow any of the guidelines. The claim is that doing so would be a violation of not only their specific convictions but actual biblical teaching. Furthermore, restrictions on faith gatherings are sometimes being characterized by those who refuse to abide by them as discrimination or even persecution. 

The question is whether or not this a fair assessment of the situation. Or to put it another way: when and on what basis can people of faith legitimately engage in the refusal to abide by such government mandates? 

And before I get to what my understanding of this is according to Scripture, let me underscore the fact that I am not an expert of any sort when it comes to the issue of church and state, what the Bible says about governing authorities, and when believers and other citizens can and should responsibly engage in civil disobedience. What I am about to say is based on my current best reading of Scripture. To that end, I am open to being corrected if I am misinterpreting Scripture or misapplying it. However, anyone who seeks to correct me would need to convince me of their interpretation of Scripture and not simply assert that their position is more sound than mine. 

One passage we need to consider is written by the apostle Peter:

Submit to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the emperor as the supreme authority or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good. For it is God’s will that you silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good. Submit as free people, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but as God’s slaves. Honor everyone. Love the brothers and sisters. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

1 Peter 2:13-17

Perhaps the first point to make concerns the form of governmental authority which was in place at the time Peter wrote these words. That is, we’re not talking about a democratic government system to which we are accustomed. People in Peter’s day didn’t vote for their emperors or governors. Not only that, but the authority in question here is Emperor Nero, a corrupt and violent leader who, according to the ancient historian Tacitus, burned Christians alive.

This makes it all the more curious and perhaps alarming that Peter uses the word submit. The word means to “place ourselves under” or in this case to live according to the governing authorities. As one commentator notes, “there could be few rulers indeed whose claims on loyalty would be sustained by less personal merit” than Nero. Why, then, would Peter exhort his readers to submit not only to the authorities generally, but Nero specifically?

For Peter to tell believers to honor an emperor such as Nero, the standard for civil disobedience must be especially high for those who claim allegiance to Christ. Indeed, the exhortations in 1 Peter are meant to emphasize that Christians are also called to be law-abiding citizens and that their compliance with the governing authorities is one component of their witness to the gospel.

Peter is not the only New Testament writer who writes of the relationship between believers and the governing authorities. Quite possibly the pre-eminent passage on this matter is written by another apostle, a contemporary of Peter’s:

Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the one in authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath but also because of your conscience. And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s servants, continually attending to these tasks. Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor. 

Romans 13:1-7

Much like Peter, Paul emphasizes the duty of Christians to be good citizens. But Paul goes further here than Peter by saying governing authorities are instituted by God. He refers to the state as “God’s servant.” Those who resist governing authorities are “opposing God’s command.” 

Whatever else we say about the relationship between Christians and governing authorities, we have to contend with what both Peter and Paul are telling us. If a Christian holds the conviction that they need to disobey a particular law or mandate of the government, they need to have an especially compelling reason to do so. 

Perhaps we can put it this way: The most fundamentally compelling reason is if Christians are being forced to choose between obeying God and obeying the governing authorities. In such cases, Christians are obliged to disregard the governing authorities. 

In Acts 4:19-20, Peter and John were told under threat not to tell people about Jesus anymore. While these were religious and not governing authorities, how Peter and John responded is instructive and important. This is what they say: “Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

Let’s stop and think about this for a moment. The authorities were asking Peter and John to stop telling others about Jesus. Peter, John, and other followers of Jesus were compelled to share this good news with anyone who would listen. Not only that, they were expressly commissioned by Jesus prior to his glorious ascension to do precisely that. So even if the governing authorities of the time had made such an act illegal, the disciples of Jesus would have been compelled and even obligated to proclaim Jesus anyway. 

In any case, Christians, I think, can engage in civil disobedience or be non-compliant with a mandate or law that would either (1) contradict what we are clearly taught in Scripture and/or (2) prevent us from sharing the good news of Jesus with others. So, for instance, a governing authority cannot force a believer who is a medical doctor to perform abortions. Abortion, being murder, violates the clear teaching of Scripture. The government also cannot reasonably expect Christians to obey a law that would prevent them from telling others about Jesus. Jesus commands us to tell other people about him.

For our part, those of us who are followers of Jesus have to be willing to accept the consequences of our decisions. What was true of the early disciples, like Peter and John, and is also true, say, of Christians in China today, also has to be so with us. If obeying God and following Jesus means being arrested, so be it. Let’s not forget that the apostle Paul wrote a number of his letters while imprisoned. John had his vision recorded in the Book of Revelation on Patmos, an island to which he had been exiled.

Now, as far as I can reasonably tell, none of the current COVID restrictions prevent me from obeying what Scripture clearly teaches or from telling others about Jesus. In other words, I can very easily live out my life as a follower of Jesus even while abiding by the current guidelines put in place.

Now, whether the guidelines are reasonable in themselves, or absolutely necessary, is beside the point. Rather, if a Christian or a church chooses to ignore them, they need to look outside Scripture for their reasons.

But what might someone say in response to this? For instance, what Scriptural support might one give for violating the restrictions on gathering in person? 

Here is an example to which some may point. In Hebrew 10:23–25 we read this: Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, since he who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.

The author of Hebrews recognizes that believers need spiritual support and encouragement to persevere in their faith. Living as a follower of Jesus requires community. Those who neglect Christian community are at risk of being much more spiritually vulnerable. And so the author exhorts readers to continue meeting in order to encourage one another.

However, let us be clear on this. Nowhere does this passage describe in detail how such meeting together should take place. Prominent pastors who have ignored gathering restrictions on the basis of this passage (but surely not only this passage?) seem to be interpeting it through the lens of how people in their particular cultural setting expect the church to gather. 

However, the writer of Hebrews wasn’t speaking about Christians gathering by the hundreds, much less thousands, in a modern church facility. Indeed, the early church met in one another’s homes. Pastors and others who conclude that they can gather their people in such large numbers in violation of government authority in our current situation cannot do so based on what we read in Hebrews. Put simply, we can apply this passage in Hebrews without having to gather together in large numbers in our modern church buildings.

Of course, I’m sure it’s possible someone can make a case as to why churches ought to be able to meet in large numbers despite COVID. My main point here is that it’s very difficult to do so on the basis of Scripture, from a specifically Christian perspective. 

At least as far as I can see, taking into account what the New Testament says of our relationship to government as instituted by God, alongside the apostolic example, means that, generally speaking, Christians can in good conscience abide by the COVID guidelines without the fear that they are disobeying God and his word. I think the burden of proof lies with those who posit otherwise.

What I want to say, too, is that I think those of us who are Christians need to be able to distinguish between obeying God even if it means disobeying a given law and fighting for religious freedom so that laws which put us in that position do not exist. We may or may not be able to change an existing law or how the governing authorities act towards people and communities of faith, but we should not conflate obeying God with the exercise of political power for the purpose of protecting religious freedom. 

It’s not that we shouldn’t work to ensure that citizens, whether Christian or otherwise, have the freedom to worship and live according to their beliefs and conscience. We certainly ought to do so. However, in an increasingly post-Christian culture we need to be prepared to follow Christ whatever law our government puts in place. While having religious freedom is always ideal, it’s never a guarantee. Plenty of Christians around the world know this all too well.

These are strange, challenging, and often confusing times. Christians in good faith are reaching different conclusions about how to follow Christ and the dictates of their consciences. Each of us is responsible for applying the teaching of Scripture to our everyday lives—including in our relationship to governing authorities. May we all exercise due diligence in this process, because though we are all called by God to live as responsible citizens, we are all also accountable to him for the manner in which we do so.

To All My Pastor Friends . . .

So, here we go again. We Nova Scotian pastors are facing two weeks of lockdown, unable to gather in our church buildings.

And, of course, we hope and pray it is only two weeks.

Some of us will go online again to provide worship either with recorded messages or livestreamed services. My family and I might try and live stream on YouTube like we did on Facebook live last year with “Homemade Worship.” Especially if this lockdown extends beyond two weeks.

Some of us will easily roll with these changes. Others of us might be frustrated. Some might simply disagree that it’s even warranted. Those in our congregations will be of varying opinions.

And maybe after a year of various COVID restrictions, news coverage, media saturation, and debates with family, friends, and neighbours in person and on Facebook about masks and vaccines you’re feeling a little weary. Maybe exhausted.

Just a few thoughts, especially if this extends beyond two weeks:

One, know your limits. You can’t do everything. You can’t be all things to all people. Pastors are not super-heroes who are supposed to bear the entire weight of the church and its ministry on their shoulders as if they were the Hulk or Super-Man. That attitude and approach will kill you. Ask others in your church to help keep connected with those in your congregation who might be most vulnerable or fearful or lonely. This is even more true the larger your church. Pastors are called to equip the saints for the work of ministry, not to do all the ministry on their own (Ephesians 4:11-13).

Two, you need rest too. Give yourself permission to take a Sabbath from all online activity. Turn off your phone, even for a few hours. Take steps to give yourself a break from being constantly available. That we find this to be such a challenge is a symptom of how poorly we have managed our smartphones and other devices. Have a nap. Go for a walk in the woods or on a local trail. Read the novel you haven’t had time to pick up. Jesus invites us to rest (Matthew 11:28). Maybe listen to him?

Three, learn from last time. We’ve been through this before. What worked and what didn’t last time? What might we do differently?

Blessedly, God remains on his throne. He’s not only got the whole world in his hands, he’s got you. And he has your congregation in his hands also. So, count on that, put your trust in him, and move ahead as best you can. Whatever else happens, Jesus is still our risen Savior. Because of that we’re going to be fine.