If the doors of St. Luke’s were open, we were there. While the men had their meetings and the women worked their sloppy-joe magic in the church kitchen, we kids played in the bowels of the church basement, losing ourselves in exploration, ping-pong, and hide-and-seek. We were (fairly) careful not to disturb Mrs. Scheffer’s felt board and puppets. And it was awfully fun to play the old pump organ downstairs in the Primary Room.
What I loved about church was the tradition of it all. Choir. Consistory. The annual Laurel Gathering and subsequent Hanging of the Greens at Christmas time. The Litanies. The Creeds. Confirmation. Baptisms at the marble font. The fascination with the huge stained-glass window at the front of the sanctuary depicting a larger than life Christ, tenderly hefting a sweet lamb across his shoulders. The same precious songs, sung at the same time every year. The comfort and tradition of it all mark some of my fondest memories. And I’m sure the Bible posters of Scripture and the ancient stories that surrounded me had some subliminal effect on my heart.
In that warm old church, I learned about the “nice-ness” of Christ, and that truth was an eclectic assortment of humanistic thought woven throughout the most palatable and tenable claims of Christianity. At one time, I thought Christ could walk on water because he had achieved enlightenment. Some who were raised in the church believed that the only relevant part of the Bible was the New Testament, and of that, the Gospels, and of those, only the parts that Jesus said, and from them, only the ones that talked about love. That narrowed Jesus down to a nice, tolerant, wise philosopher of a friend.
I grew up in a liberal church.
The Story of a Great Love
As I got older, though, that tradition became familiar. Going to church was a comfortable habit. An expectation. A compulsory exercise. It eventually had no effect on my character. I was numbed by the familiarity and blindly ignorant to the fact that the words I sang, and the creeds I recited, told the Story of a great Love.
Kindness was the creed. Tradition was the god.
In my early twenties, I left my childhood church to attend an ultra-liberal church in the same denomination. Sunday after Sunday, my husband and I listened to sermons about social justice and equality, and a switching of gender and pronouns when referring to God (Mother God created the world, and she is tolerant and loving).
Several years later, in God’s providence, a curious thing happened. I began to wonder. I began to feel restless. I had questions. My Bible had to be understood — for what it said, not for what others said it said.
My focus during sermons became razor sharp. It was as if I had put my head up for the first time and looked around. Things started to make sense. These rituals, steeped in tradition, perpetuated by habit, unwittingly pointed me to a Truth that I’d never seen before. Something foreign to my past experience in church. A relationship. A reality.
We eventually left that church. And when we did, one woman said to me, “I’ll never understand why you people think God wants us to worship him. After all, we as parents don’t expect our children to worship us!”
No, of course, God is not like “an old woman seeking compliments,” as C.S. Lewis would say. He welcomes us out of our thinnest traditions in order to get us deeper into his word, inviting us to greater and greater levels of delight in him as we enter deeper worship of him.
Know the Whole Story
My desires for him grew stronger, but they were not born out of tradition, some emotional need, or the remnant of other exhausted avenues. This belief is born first of a calling from a loving Creator, and then from a thorough examination of the absolute facts. Those facts are undeniable — if you’ve done your research.
Francis Turretin, a seventeenth-century Reformed theologian, wrote,
True religion . . . demands the knowledge and worship of God which are connected together inseparably (as in the sun, light and heat can never be separated from each other). So neither can that knowledge of God be true unless attended by practice. Nor can that practice be right and saving which is not directed by knowledge.
God inseparably links light (truth) and heat (affection). He calls us into deeper truth in order to experience himself more greatly, in all of his character and words and actions.
To admire Jesus instead of actually believing and loving him is ridiculous if you have really studied him. The famous trilemma of Lewis calls for an answer from all of us:
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg — or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool . . . or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. (Mere Christianity)
Christ is fully divine (that is light), and he is worthy of all our praise (that is heat). They are inseparable.
But if you only admire Jesus as one prophet among many, or a wise teacher, or someone who is kind and loving only, you don’t see him. Not the Jesus who quotes the Old Testament and claims to be the One in its many prophecies. He claims to be God. He asks his followers to eat and drink his flesh and blood. Jesus tells of a place of fire, worms, darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth. And Jesus absorbs within himself the wrath of God for sinners like me, who through faith, have been delivered from the judgment of a holy God.
If you are fond of saying that Jesus was a good teacher, a kind figure, make sure you know the whole story. Simply admiring his kindness falls woefully short of beholding his glory. Pray to God earnestly that he would open the eyes of your heart to see the radiant glory of Jesus Christ that pulses in the pages of Scripture (Ephesians 1:15–23).
Does God want to be praised? Of course he does, and he does so because he wants us to feel the love and worship he puts inside of us, the fuel of a bond with him through the Holy Spirit that is truly profound. But before we can worship, we must see, and the seeing is a gift of his marvelous grace.