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If God Is LoveRediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World
By Gulley, Philip
Why Beliefs Matter
When I was younger, I thought beliefs were a private matter. I had the right to believe what I believed, and others could believe what they wanted. As long as people didn't force their beliefs on me, I was happy to allow them to think things I considered ridiculous. Beliefs weren't dangerous. It was attitudes and actions that caused harm.
In the summer of 1986, I discovered this was a naive belief. That June I was hired to pastor a small rural congregation. I'd been studying theology in college and was eager to put my newfound knowledge to work. That church allowed me to preach, visit the sick, and learn why the world won't be saved by a committee. They also taught me why beliefs matter.
My first couple of months with them went well. It was the proverbial honeymoon -- we each proclaimed our fondness for the other loudly and often. There was, on both our parts, some give and take. They preferred their hymns aged like a fine wine, and so I didn't suggest they clap their hands, buy a drum set, or sing lyrics projected on a screen. They discovered I was soft-spoken and bought a new microphone rather than insist I shout. We thought any other differences were minor and easily resolved. In the third month, we found we were wrong.
I can't remember my exact words, but somethingI mentioned in a sermon caused an elderly woman in the church to wonder whether I believed in Satan and hell. She approached me after worship and began questioning me. Lacking a well-honed ministerial radar and eager to prove my theological sophistication, I answered her questions directly and honestly. This was before I learned that answering theological questions directly and honestly is generally a bad idea, and that ministers go to seminary precisely so we can master the theological language necessary to bewilder people when pressed to provide answers they might not like.
I told her I didn't believe in Satan. Nor did I believe in a place where people were endlessly tormented. I then told her she was perfectly free to believe those ideas. I patted her hand and turned to speak to someone else, never realizing she and I differed on far more than Satan and hell. I believed then, and I believe now, that faith is a matter of inward conviction, not outward compulsion. She believed strict conformity was a requirement of faith. If I'd known this, I might have noticed the whispers during the pitch-in dinner after worship. Instead, my wife and I left church that day grateful God had called us to such a warm fellowship, unaware I'd soon feel its heat.
That week I immersed myself in my studies and sermon preparation and the next Sunday morning arrived at church brimming with excitement. It was Palm Sunday. I planned to speak on how quickly the crowd went from cheering Jesus to jeering him. It turned out to be a timely sermon.
The head elder approached me as I entered the church. "We're not holding church this morning," he said. "We'd like to meet with you instead."
A minister with a sermon in his pocket being an unstoppable force of nature, I told him we should worship before meeting to talk. This also gave me time to figure out what I'd done. I quickly eliminated all the usual pastoral indiscretions. I hadn't had an affair with the church secretary. We didn't have one. I hadn't visited the local tavern. I couldn't afford to drink on what they were paying me. I hadn't used church stamps for personal correspondence. I had no idea why they wanted to speak with me, but suspected anything that would cause them to cancel worship on Palm Sunday must be serious.
The head elder reluctantly agreed to postpone our meeting until after worship. When the last hymn was sung and the closing prayer offered, I filed downstairs with him and sat at a folding table in the church basement. The elders were grim-faced.
"This is an awkward matter," the head elder said, "but I'm afraid we're going to have to let you go."
I asked if I had done something wrong.
"There have been concerns raised that you don't believe in Satan and hell," he said.
"That's right," I said. Then, eager to display my theological prowess, I asked if they wanted to know why.
They declined my offer to enlighten them.
I began to panic. The job didn't pay much, but I was concerned that being fired after only three months might not look good on my résumé. "I do believe in the love of God. Isn't that enough?"
I realize now what I didn't understand then -- beliefs matter. Beliefs are not harmless. They have the power to shape our world, for good or ill. Some beliefs unite us in a great and common good, while others divide us, reinforcing prejudices and diminishing our humanity. Religious beliefs are especially potent, shaping how we think of and act toward God, others, and ourselves.
I'd thought the idea of Satan and hell negotiable. They didn't. They considered a belief in a demonic personality and eternal damnation essential. They thought those who didn't believe in hell were deceived by Satan and destined for the lake of fire. Fearing I'd lead them astray, they fired me, giving me fresh insight into the origins of that expression.
After the meeting, I walked out to the car where my wife was waiting.
"What happened?" she asked.
"It's good news."
"What is it?"
"We get to sleep in next Sunday."
We drove home and ate dinner, then I lay down on the couch to take a nap. The phone rang later that afternoon. It was an elder from another small rural church near our home.
"We'd like you to come be our pastor," he said. "Are you available?"
"As a matter of fact I am," I told him ... Continues...
Excerpted from If God Is Love by Gulley, Philip Excerpted by permission.
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