When I was in seminary, I will always remember one of my seminary professors critiquing the lyrics of the beloved Christian hymn, “He Lives.” First let me reprint them because as he recited it from memory he voice became more and more booming, and by the second to last verse he had his arms stretched out wide as he recited it….
I serve a risen Saviour,
He’s in the world today;
I know that He is living,
Whatever men may say;
I see His hand of mercy,
I hear His voice of cheer,
And just the time I need Him
He’s always near.
He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives
He walks with me and He talks with me
Along life’s narrow way.
He lives, He live, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives:
(and then he brought he arms into with his hands close to one another and said softly)
He lives within my heart.
It seemed to me a stunning critique of Christianity in the 1990s. There were huge problems in our world which Christians could impact if we worked together. And yet, we so often had reduced Christianity to our individual faith – all about our individual issues, individual problems, and personal life. In so many churches there was little to no communal message at all (the concept of communal sin, central in the Old Testament, was almost completely left out of contemporary preaching). So, I decided then and there not to do that. I believed (and I really still do) that the church needs to be a rallying place not only of personal support but of communal action. If we could only harmonize our actions, the impact we could have together would be significant.
And yet, more and more in our world today, I think we are losing our sense of an individual relationship with the God that I heard proclaimed growing up so often. Our God, who Scripture assures us knows us before we are conceived, who knows the number of hairs on our heads, and who not only knows how long each of us will be here but who has a plan for each of us (both here and beyond) does care about each of us incredibly. It’s no wonder people start thinking that they might as well just give time at a charity or get involved in some social or political cause if they think God is just concerned with macro issues – our planet, our country, our denomination, or even our church. Our personal lives are of great concern to him.
There simply needs to be a balance. And I do not help achieve balance by overemphasizing one part of the message to try to counter-balance others. When I focus too much on what the larger church, our denomination, the presbytery, or even my congregation – how am I helping the person searching for a job, the person tired of all the ailments she faces, the person who is surprised with a significant family issue, or the one who feels lonely or abandoned? How am I helping the person struggling with substance abuse, overeating, or controlling their temper? What of the person who is having trouble sensing God’s presence at all? If I am not underscoring that God is in the midst of that job hunt, dealing with that difficult student, or the child who never calls – how can I expect them to hear the message that God cares about us together as well?
What does it mean for each of us to be in relationship with God today? What should personal prayer life be like (and how will it make a difference)? How should Christians interact with other Christians, people of other faiths, or people of no faith? What is a spouse supposed to do when their spouse isn’t being very nice? What does it mean to be a Christian parent today? What does God expect of us in our retirement, our job, or in our neighborhood? What does my illness, my condition, my family problems, my debt, or my grades have to do with my relationship with God? How am I supposed to read the Bible when it is sometimes so difficult to read or apply to my life? What does it mean when what I have been taught to believe doesn’t jive with what I have learned in school or observed in life? These are but a few questions that I hope to dig into this fall.
I have not lost my communal interest, trust me. My actions in the community will not diminish. But in my message as a pastor this fall, in what I write and in what I say,I simply seek to make sure I am not leaving out a central, and perhaps most important aspect of our faith.
After all, it is no small thing but rather a profound truth that Jesus does live within our hearts.
Let us follow him,
What do you think?
Until next time,