Sunday, May 16, 2010

Understanding -- and applying -- the 'Gospel'

On this date in 1979, weeks before graduating from Wilkinsburg High School in suburban Pittsburgh, I received Jesus Christ as Savior and LORD during the school district picnic at Kennywood, an amusement park in the suburb of West Mifflin. In short, I became an evangelical Christian.

That had been brewing for some years, ever since I was immersed in a very strong church and had believers all around me, but it took my parents' impending breakup -- although it would be 4 1/2 years before it actually happened -- to push me over the edge, so to speak. With that "decision" (although in fairness, God came after me hard and left me no alternative), I was assured of heaven and enlisted in the "army" to bring the whole world to Christ.

In the circles in which I ran, evangelism and mission work were the primary Christian activities, and those who went away on trips were held up as the most "spiritual." Beyond that, the "normal" American evangelical lifestyle was, for men, going to school, getting a professional job, marrying a godly partner, having kids and voting Republican.

Thirty-one years later, however, my view on what a Christian should be -- and do -- has changed. I have never been on a mission trip and don't anticipate going and am not aware of anyone who has "gotten saved" because of me. I'm still single and and childless and, though today I think of myself as non-partisan, my politics do lean Democratic. So have I failed? I don't think so.

What happened? Well, eight months after my conversion I was attending a suburban Atlanta church which focused on politics to the exclusion of any spiritual goals (my first encounter with what we call today the "religious right"), and my spirit became queasy. Only finding another church just off the campus of Georgia Tech, where I was attending, revealed to me just what the problem was -- a lack of true trust in God.

Then and there I found my focus -- only later did I realize that my primary spiritual gift was prophecy (which has been known to get me into trouble from time to time, even costing me friends). I see attitudes in the church that shouldn't be there and try to address them. As for career -- I started out as a engineering major -- I finally realized that I had no aptitude for science and mathematics and turned to writing, which fits me quite well.

So what does this have to do with anything? It was in working on a letter to the editor to the Post-Gazette back in 1986 that it hit me what the "good news" was about: Reconciliation. We often talk about the "atonement" for sin that the death of Jesus Christ paid for and that "those who believe in Him will have eternal life" (John 3:16). But before that, we have to admit that there is a breach between not only creator God and fallen man but among people themselves -- what Billy Graham has preached for over a half-century but many of us miss because of our focus on the afterlife.

As a result, as I began to suspect in the early 1980s, following Jesus also means feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, standing up for orphans and widows and encouraging the oppressed. It can mean ministering to the homeless, fighting racism, working with addicts or any other things which might be the outgrowth of a relationship with Him. It means making this life as close to the Kingdom of God as possible -- the Hebrew term "shalom," which roughly means "a comprehensive peace" -- and sacrificing your own plans and dreams for the sake of that Kingdom. At the church I attend, I see all those things being manifest and, while not everyone is called to do these things, those that do shouldn't be seen as less "spiritual."

As Jesus' "Great Commission" says, "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you [emphasis mine]. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

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