I went to church this morning–a Seventh-Day Adventist one. I’ve not visited one of those in a few years. Churches in general can be pretty cold. People just shake your hand, then they walk away. And that was true of this one as well. One thing I liked about it, however, is that the pastor stood at the doorway and shook people’s hands after the service. That’s important! And I don’t see it at that many churches. A lot of times, pastors look at me like I’m some kind of freak! At least this one invited me out to lunch.
I declined his invitation for a few reasons. One is that the church service took up all of my morning, so I wanted the afternoon for myself. Another is that the lunch was not within walking distance of my apartment, and I didn’t want to rely on someone else for my escape route. A third reason was my social anxiety. And a fourth reason is a fear I have of Seventh-Day Adventists–that they will make me their project and try to convert me. When I visited an SDA church in New York, a woman said about me to someone else, “He is a searcher” (wink, wink), which to me meant, “This guy’s now our official project for conversion.” But I didn’t tell the pastor all of these reasons today. I just said I needed to get home.
The sermon was all right. It was about Mary being afraid when Gabriel spoke to her. Personally, I thought she was afraid because seeing an angel is scary, but the pastor listed a bunch of other reasons: she was afraid she’d have a bad reputation as a loose woman, etc. He said that we don’t have to fear the consequences of following God, which may relate to some people, since he mentioned those he knows who’ve suffered for doing the right thing at work. But it didn’t relate to me all that much, since I’m not sure if I serve God these days, or even what service to God means.
The pastor also said that the only way to overcome fear is to have Jesus in your heart. But how do I know if Jesus is in my heart? I said the sinner’s prayer years ago, but I still have my phobias. Part of me dislikes it when Christians act like Jesus is the answer to everything. Does that mean Jesus isn’t doing his job when Christians see a need to take medications for anxiety or depression? At the same time, strangely enough, the sermon gave me a sense of inner peace and contemplation. I’m not sure why or how, but at least it got me thinking about the issue of Jesus in my heart.
One thought I had on the walk home was this: my church background did not exactly promote assurance of salvation. Garner Ted Armstrong always liked to tell the story of the Ambassador College student who was asked point-blank by his professor, “Do you have the Holy Spirit?” The student stumbled around and finally exclaimed, “I don’t know!” Ted said that a better answer would have been “I hope so.”
But why couldn’t the student have just answered “yes”? It’s not pride for a Christian to say that he has the Spirit of the living God inside of him. Paul said that Christ lived in him (Galatians 2:20). He told the Philippians that God was at work in them (Philippians 2:13). Ephesians 1:13 states that believers have been sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. Why couldn’t the student have unashamedly answered “yes”–not “I don’t know,” not “I hope so”? Is it pride to trust God and take him at his word?
As far as James Pate goes, though, my answer pretty much is “I don’t know.” There’s a lot of darkness inside of me, believe it or not!
When I got home, I listened to an excellent sermon by Elisabeth Elliott for my I Samuel quiet time. It’s called A Contest of Wills. Her thesis was that God loves us and wants the best for us, whether that corresponds with what we want or not. She also said that God is not so interested in answering our questions as in our holiness–our becoming like Christ. I’ve heard this stuff before, and I doubt it will convince my non-Christian readers, who have also heard this stuff before.
But there’s something magical about it when it comes out of the lips of Elisabeth Elliott. For one, she sounds like a real person, not a happy-clappy evangelical. Whenever I’ve listened to her, she’s always struck me as rather aloof and cold, yet with a wry outlook on things (somewhat like Tim Keller). She’s an introvert and a very organized person, but that’s not a turn-off at all, for it may be what leads her to speak her convictions with thoughtfulness. Plus, the issue of theodicy is not an abstraction for her, since one of her husbands was murdered, and another died of health problems.
So I was really blessed listening to her this Sabbath, and perhaps some of you will be, too.