Virtual Voices

The love criterion

Faith & Inspiration

I was asked to give a talk at a church with which I have little in common. The person who asked me to speak is the nicest guy you'll ever meet, but the denomination is not one with which I feel an affinity, especially on matters of ordination, doctrinal understanding, and liturgy.

What's more, they invited me to speak, which reminded me of Groucho Marx's dictum, that he refused to join a club that would have him as a member. I caught myself doing that thing I despise in other Christians, the narrowing of Christianity to my particular strain of it, which renders people in all the other strains suspect.

But I went to speak, and they welcomed me, and I realized that not a one of them had given a moment's thought to whether my particular beliefs about communion or propitiation or church order align with their own. They saw me simply as a brother, and treated me as such, and I was humbled.

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After my talk, a gentleman came up to me. I had spoken about suffering, about the burden of it and the sense sometimes that we cannot get free of some afflictions no matter how much we rage or beg or pray. He hinted at his own suffering, and told me how he used to take a baseball bat to a tree in back of his house and bludgeon it, as if that tree was the cause of all his grief and pain.

"I came to this church," he told me, his eyes watering, "because they had a pancake breakfast. And they accepted me. So I stayed."

On the continuum that is worship, we find man-ordained practices at one end and Christ-ordained practices at the other, and I suppose we all imagine-should we think about it-that our churches are near the latter end. I suppose it's also probably the case that a good many of us are not as well equipped as we might think to discern the difference. So I can't say with confidence where this church falls on that continuum, except to say that on one criterion-that unavoidable command that we love (which is only and can ever only be action, not sentiment) one another-this church has something I've not seen in every church I've gotten to know: It has people who say that they were unwanted elsewhere but loved here.

So it occurred to me that perhaps I really don't have so much in common with this church because I don't think I can name a single soul who would say that he was rejected elsewhere yet loved by me. I figure rather than concern myself with how many stars on the Christian rating chart a church ought to receive, I would do well to work on just this one thing for the rest of my days, which is to love others. I don't suppose there is any knowing God-and certainly no loving God-otherwise.

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