“Here, take this. I don’t need it anymore.”
I looked down and in my hands was a cassette tape of the new Sister Hazel album. My friend explained that he was giving away all of his secular music. He had come to the conclusion that being a real Christian meant ridding oneself of the influences of a secular society. Movies. Books. And music. So, he had decided to give away all of his tapes and CD’s that were not specifically Christian artists. Michael W. Smith. Newsboys. Steven Curtis Chapman. All OK. Sister Hazel. Not OK. So, he thrust the tape into my hands, and I took it, not sure what else to do.
Before I was back to my dorm room, my mind was racing. Specifically, I had two questions. One, what kind of Christian did my friend think that I was if he thought the real Christians don’t listen to that kind of music, but he gave it to me. Second, was he right? He wasn’t the first of my friends to make this decision. At a small Baptist liberal arts school, there tends to be a lot of students making these radical faith-led decisions. But, I doubted that listening to Sister Hazel would really lead me down the road to perdition. Did that make me a bad Christian? It threw me into a bit of a tailspin by the time I got back to my dorm room.
I set the tape on my dresser in my room and looked at it, no idea what to do with it.
Maybe you have had a similar experience. Maybe it wasn’t Sister Hazel. But I am guessing that somewhere along the way, you have heard a message about what “real Christians” are supposed to do or believe.
Real Christians don’t listen to secular music.
Real Christians go to church every time the doors are open.
Real Christians don’t play cards.
Real Christians don’t “drink or chew or hang around with boys who do.”
But along the way, with these messages washing over us, we have a doubt. We say to ourselves, “I believe in God and want to follow him, but I don’t know if I think that.” Or, maybe we used to believe one thing, but now we question that practice or belief.
And then the head games begin. We struggle with the fact that we doubt, wondering if that means that we have a weak faith, or that we are not good followers of Jesus, or that we are not “real Christians.”
The Christians in the congregation in Rome found themselves in a similar set of head games.
Paul usually wrote to churches that he knew, most of which he had started. But he had not visited the Roman church, but sent the letter to the Romans as a way of preparing them for his visit. This passage must have been a natural for Paul and the Romans, but it feels rather foreign to us. Whether or not we should eat meat? Or celebrate on a certain day or not? It makes a little more sense when we understand the context. Basically, the church was divided between those who thought that Christians should observe the Jewish laws as a part of their faith, or those who thought that Jesus had freed them from such laws.
When Paul talks about celebrating certain days, he was likely talking about certain Jewish holidays that had been observed before they became Christian, and so many believed that they needed to continue to observe them.
The same is true with food laws. It seemed that there were Jewish Christians who did not want to disobey the ancient kosher laws. So when they went to the Roman market – a place not known for its adherence to kosher law – they didn’t know if the meat they were buying was safe. Had it been prepared correctly? Was it cooked kosher? Or was it sacrificed to a pagan idol and then sold on the market, which would violate the Jewish commandment about worshipping graven images? To be safe, many Jews and Jewish Christians basically became vegetarians – if they didn’t know where it came from, better to not eat it. Meanwhile, other Christians thought that such rules and regulations were silly, many of them Gentile converts who had never eaten kosher and weren’t about to start.
So, they made it clear what to believe:
Real Christians are vegetarians.
Real Christians are unsullied by pagan idols.
Real Christians live according to the calendar set forth by God.
Let the head games begin! Those who did not live in such ways began to doubt their faith. “Is this what is required for the real faith?” And it caused a real divide in the congregation, creating division and resentment and anger within the Church of Christ-followers.
Paul heard of these reports, and wanted to address them. Now, it doesn’t take much reading of Paul’s letters to see where he comes down on this issue. From his earliest letters, Paul takes to task those who try and add extra requirements to the faith in Christ. Those who require circumcision or festival observance or kosher laws. He saves back no venom for those who add a set of expectations to the faith, those who would require that converts change their lifestyle before they can accept the free grace of Christ. For Paul, converts do not need to change their way of life to follow the traditional patterns before they begin to follow Christ. And he is never short on anger who try to tell converts, “before you become a Christian, you have to give up your way of life and live like we do. This is how we follow Christ, so you have to follow Christ the same way.” Nothing gets Paul angrier!
So, you would think he would do the same for the Roman church. But he doesn’t. He takes a different tack. He chooses not to wade into these issues. Perhaps it is because he doesn’t know the parties involved. Perhaps as he starts to get a little older, he understands the value of why some people hang onto the traditions of their youth. Regardless, the anger we expect from Paul isn’t there.
Instead, he says basically, “don’t pass judgment on those who choose to eat meat, or on those who choose not to. Don’t judge those who follow the ancient feasts, or those who choose not to. Whatever you do, honor Jesus and give thanks to God.” In other words, you be you. Practice your faith in ways that are meaningful for you. If it is helpful for you to honor Jesus and give thanks to God by abstaining from meat, do that. If it doesn’t matter to you, then don’t do that. Or if it helps you to observe the Jewish feasts, then you should. If it doesn’t, then you shouldn’t. And, by all means, don’t try and force someone else to live their faith the way that you live your faith.
Instead, he says, “let all be fully convinced in their own minds.”
You have to figure out your own faith, he says. We will each be accountable to God, so it is up to us how we choose to follow God. Of course, some ways of following God are better than others. And some ways run counter to the life and teachings of Jesus. But there is a lot of wiggle room in there. You can eat meat and be a real Christian. Or you can choose not to eat meat and still be a real Christian. Either way is living according to the essence of the faith. Examine your life and discern how God is leading you to live.
Paul’s openness, and Christ’s love and acceptance, were at the heart of his message to the Romans. Don’t get caught up too much in the non-essentials. Don’t give up your faith simply because you doubt it. And, by all means, don’t let these things divide us. For the life and the love of Christ calls us together, as we grow, mature, and learn who he wants us to be.
Which leads us back to doubt. When we sit there in our dorm rooms, or in our prayer closets, or our Sunday school classrooms, and we doubt, and we question, and we struggle with what we thought was the only “real” way to be Christian, we think that we have failed as Christians. But what if that was the best way to live out our faith?
Listen to what Gregory Boyd says. He writes about how “painful growing out of old, cherished beliefs can be, which is why we sometimes fight tenaciously, and often irrationally, to resist letting them go, or even letting go of our certainty about them. And yet, if we want to continue to grow, and if we are genuinely concerned with believing the truth, there is no way to avoid this pain. Indeed, having the courage to embrace the pain of doubt and to face unpleasant facts, as well as to embrace challenging questions and to live with ambiguity, is the hallmark of a mature and responsible human being.”
I think the process about which Boyd speaks is what Paul was getting at when he told the Romans to “be fully convinced in our own minds.” Is it okay to doubt? It is required! Required to become the “mature and responsible human being” that Boyd speaks of. Required if we are to be “fully convinced in our own minds” as Paul exhorts. To assume that there is only one way that we can be a “real Christian” is to place limitations on God’s grace, and become a gatekeeper to Christ’s love.
So, it is okay to be a Christian and eat meat sacrificed to idols, or listen to Sister Hazel!
Which is the lesson that I eventually learned. That cassette was still sitting on my dresser when I went to our Thursday night campus ministries celebration: “Campus Praise.” I can still vividly remember sitting on the steps of Giddings Hall, in between the huge brick columns. The speaker that night was a local minister by the name of David Olive, and I clearly remember the core of his message: “as you continue through your college career, there will be parts of your faith that you question, or doubt, or even stop believing. But that doesn’t mean that your faith is dead. In fact, it means your faith is alive. It means that you believe that God is transforming and changing you and deepening your walk with him. Don’t be afraid of doubt, but embrace it. It just may save your faith.”
That night, I went back to my dresser and I picked up that Sister Hazel cassette. And I popped it in the tape deck and listened to it. And it was…okay. Not my favorite album of all time. But also not the catalyst to throw my faith off the rails forever. But because of the message that night, I was able to celebrate my friend for the decision that he made in the way he chose to follow Christ, as well as understand that my faith didn’t necessarily require that same decision. And most importantly, I was able to understand that God’s love for me wasn’t going to be thrown off the rails that easily by any decision that I had made.
It helped me understand that sometimes doubt just may save your faith.
Ken Block tells a story from his childhood. Over and over, he saw this public service announcement on TV about a woman who ran a homeless shelter. He was taken by this old black female minister – Rev. Williams – and the way that she cared for those in need. It didn’t matter what their race or religion or orientation, or if they were a prostitute or drug addict. Her goal was to give people a warm place to sleep and get back on their feet.
Young Ken was amazed at this woman: “you mean she helps out people she doesn’t even know?” Eventually, Ken got older and started a band. But he never could shake this woman or her homeless shelter from his head. The band would send monthly donations to the shelter. They would write songs about her. As a matter of fact, they even named the band after Rev. Williams, but he used the name that everyone called her: Sister Hazel. (And now you know the rest of the story.)
Sometimes, doubt may just save your faith.