By Joe Phelps
My journey toward a more lovable God and livable faith took a significant step forward in sixth grade.
Mrs. Seymour’s music class at Jefferson Elementary in Dayton, Ohio, in 1966 consisted of singing from a book of seasonal songs. Her introduction on day one: “with Seymour you sing more.”
It bored me, which only compounded my proclivity for getting into trouble. Either in response to or in anticipation of some misbehavior she slid my desk up against the desk of the nicest, most well-behaved girl in the class — Mindy Choades.
Mindy was tall, wore ironed dresses and was kind and quiet. I was a freckle-faced motor mouth who was only discovering that girls preferred boys who brushed their teeth.
So I was surprised when a few days before Christmas break Mrs. Seymour walked down the aisle of desks while we sang to Mindy’s and my tandem desks, leaned over, and said softly, “Mindy, you don’t have to sing these next songs.”
Mindy nodded, closed the songbook, and folded her hands.
“Why don’t you have to sing these songs, Mindy?” I asked.
“Because they are Christmas carols, and I’m Jewish.”
I don’t remember whether I said it aloud or simply thought it, but the words rushed to my brain: “Mindy Choades is going to hell.”
This teaching had been nurtured in my psyche for years by good and well-meaning preachers and teachers who loved God and loved me: No Jesus, no hope, no heaven, they said.
That night I tossed and turned as I cried and wrestled with God. How could God reject Mindy, who honored her father and mother and their teachings? How is this fair and loving? What fun is heaven if so many wonderful people are excluded? The whole enterprise was unravelling, until a quiet voice rose in my heart that responded: “Mindy is my child and I love her as much as I do you. You let me worry about Mindy.”
By morning I had discovered for myself that God is bigger, more beautiful and more understanding than we can ever imagine God to be.
For some, this realization is obvious. For them, God’s big love goes hand in hand with their experience of this big, diverse world.
For others, especially those of us steeped in particular religious environments where exclusivity is central to its message, the idea that God might be bigger than our particular faith is considered heresy. For this group, found in most religious traditions, it is non-negotiable that other religions are wrong in order for theirs to be deemed right.
When one approaches faith with a presumption of exclusion it is easy to find passages to justify this position. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” said Jesus in the Christian Scriptures, “no one comes to the Father except by me.” When read literally and exclusively, it sounds definitive: no way but me.
But what is this “way, truth and life” of Jesus?
Christian Scriptures portray Jesus’ way as being so united to the sacred love of creation that he embodied this truth in his own living, giving of himself completely and fully to reveal that the heart of God is inclusive and gracious. The way we find our path to God, Jesus was saying, is by humbly following the trail he blazed.
In this sense, Christianity has more to do with following in the way of Jesus than it does with agreeing to facts about him — facts which when lifted from their context become tokens of conformity rather than catalysts for transformation.
This is why a Baptist pastor, who is exclusively a Jesus-preacher, would encourage Jesus-followers to create opportunities for persons of various faiths to come together in candid conversation, a shared meal and an opportunity to experience each other as something other than “those people.”
Why listen to someone from “another team?” Because, ultimately, we are all on the same team. Our understandings of God may differ, but ultimately, there is one Sacred Center toward which all faiths move when practiced in humility and reverence.
Coming out of our respective ghettos to exchange ideas — to listen carefully to each other and to the spirit that flows between us, to discover the blind spots in our particular faithfulness — can only strengthen the vitality and compassion of our communities. Seeing the many ways the sacred is named and revered invites humility by those of us prone to forget that, as St. Paul reminded, “We know in part.”
Those convinced that their way has the sole grasp on truth will, of necessity, have to reject this invitation. They mean no offense; it’s just part of their basic religious construct.
But some will hear a voice, as that sixth grade boy did, inviting them to trust that “the Spirit blows where it will,” as Jesus said. Perhaps they’ll risk discovering that God is more beautiful and transforming than we ever imagined.
As reggae-rocker Michael Franti sings, “God is too big for just one religion.”
Afterward, we will return to our various spiritual homes, ever more committed to orienting them, in all their particularity, toward that One the hymnist described as “our eternal home.”