A Reluctant Struggler in Church

At the Presbyterian church this morning, I learned about St. David, a sixth century bishop who came to be regarded as the patron saint of Wales, which is in Great Britain.  He had a strenuous monastic order, which upheld a strict diet.  And St. David would sit in cold water so that he wouldn’t be distracted from hearing God’s voice.

I also learned about William Williams, an evangelical Calvinist in the eighteenth century who left the Church of England and preached the Gospel in Wales.  He wrote the hymn, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.”

The lesson of the sermon concerned God being with people, as he was with St. David and William Williams.  Our text was Nehemiah 9, in which the post-exilic Jews confess their sins and narrate their history, which, at that point, includes Abraham, the Exodus, Sinai, the wilderness, the Conquest, and the Judges, and the events that led up to exile.

This morning was odd and cozy at the same time.  What was odd was that I was wondering how I as a scholar of religion (or someone on the road to becoming such) should react to the things that I was hearing.  As we read Nehemiah 9, I thought about the scholarly argument that Nehemiah 9 was late and has the Sinai story, which is absent from earlier summaries of Israel’s history, showing that the Sinai story was late.  I looked at the wilderness story and thought about Martin Noth’s argument that the wilderness was inserted to connect the Exodus and the Conquest.  As the pastor talked about the pillar of fire guiding Israel, my mind turned to John Van Seters’ evidence that other ancient Near Eastern gods were surrounded with a lot of fanfare.  I was doubtful that St. David and William Williams even represented a similar brand of Christianity, which made me think that Christianity is different at various stages of history, and that it can even have diversity in particular periods of time.  When a lady gave a testimony about how she went to the hospital and learned that she did not have bacterial pneumonia, and how she praised God for that, I wondered in my mind about those who did have bacterial pneumonia: Where is God in their lives?

But there was also a pull for me just to sit back and enjoy the service—the Scripture, the sermon, and the testimony.  But, for some reason, part of me felt obligated to enter into “critique mode” in my mind.  I don’t want to forget about historical-criticism.  I have to remember this stuff for my comp and my scholarly career!  I feel that I should bring my education into how I look at Scripture, otherwise I’ve spent all these years learning things, only for them to pass out of my mind!  Plus, I fear that “just believing” or committing myself to a particular belief system will lead to me not having much to discuss with people—since, if I’m saying the same thing that everyone else is saying, why would anyone be interested in what I have to say (though, sometimes, saying the same thing that others are saying is a way to fit in)?  And, if I commit myself to a particular belief system, wouldn’t I be bored, since I’m closing myself off from learning other possible ways of looking at things?

I then thought about William Williams.  He committed himself to a particular belief system.  What did he think about as he went from one city to the next to preach the Gospel?  How did he entertain himself?  If he had the answers, what would he think about?  Maybe he prayed to God, as if God were a friend. Perhaps he prayed for people, or for his mission, or he noticed nuances in the life of Christ, which demonstrated Christ’s goodness.

The cozy part came because I enjoyed listening to the stories, reading the Nehemiah narrative about God’s care for Israel, and hearing the testimony.  I myself have had experiences in which either God is taking care of me, or I’m just lucky.  I feel happy and grateful either way.  If I thank God, I wonder why God doesn’t take care of everyone that way.  Can I be thankful, without feeling guilty, or having a state of mind that “I have mine”?  But if I see my good fortune as just luck, then I’m vulnerable in the world.

I took communion this morning.  A lady noticed that, the last time we had communion, I left the service early, and she wondered why.  She asked me if I was going to take communion this Sunday.  I said that I may not, since my faith has its ups and downs.  Her response was that we should use anything that helps—that communion can actually help our faith.  I liked that response because it made communion about helping me where I am, since God loves me.  The Armstrongite view of the Lord’s supper (according to my impression) was that one had to be spiritually “good enough” to take it.  And that’s probably the approach of churches that have a “closed communion”—such as conservative branches of Lutheranism, or the early Puritans.

I was reluctant to take communion because I felt that my commitment to Christianity was rather weak, and I remembered Paul’s statement in I Corinthians 11:30 that those who took the Lord’s supper in an unworthy manner became sick, and even died.  I thought about George Washington, who did not take communion at his church, feeling that this was the honest approach.  I told God that, even though my faith wavers, I was taking communion seriously as I partook of it—respecting it at the very least as one religion’s celebration of God’s love.  I guess I was doing communion so that I wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb by not doing it!  That’s also why I drop a little money into the offering plate.  People may gasp when they read this, but, personally, I don’t worship a God who will strike me dead on account of that!  My God is different.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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