Sunday, July 31, 2022

Churches of the Silver Valley: Grace Evangelical Free Church, Osburn

(Part eight in an ongoing series.)

What does it mean to be a Christian? 

In the church I grew up in, it meant going to Mass every week, regularly confessing your sins to receive absolution, frequently receiving communion, and trusting in the guidance of the priests, the examples of the saints, and the church magisterium.

In many churches I've visited over the years, it doesn't mean much more than having faith in Jesus so you can to heaven when you die. 

In yet others, it means indignation against others who fall short of perfection while glossing over one's own shortcomings.  

All those things popped into my head when I listened to a series of sermons on the Grace Evangelical Free Church's website a week or so ago. The topic of the series was righteous anger, and I was prepared to hear the kind of fire-and-brimstone bellowing from the pulpit that's so typical of what I've encountered over the years from evangelical preachers. 

Instead, I heard Pastor Nick Hoffman thoughtfully explaining to his congregation why he was angry about all the injustice in the world. He was angry that people are mistreated for looking different, that sick people can't afford life-saving medicine, that so many of us are so hard-hearted toward the less fortunate. 

What I heard actually made me feel bad for making assumptions. This is the message people need to hear from the churches, I thought. If, instead of pointing fingers at what we deem to be others' immorality, the church instead called us to be better people in Christ's name -- being his hands and feet in a world that sorely needs it -- maybe the churches wouldn't be emptying out. 

Over and over and over, scripture tells the faithful to help the poor, the widows, the less fortunate, the sojourners, the strangers among us, the "least of these." And yet so much of what I hear, in church after church, is either a narrow focus on abortion and homosexuality -- i.e., focusing on things that other people are doing that we think are wrong, rather than tending to the log in our own eye and treating others mercifully, as we would want ourselves to be treated -- or a tendency toward antinomianism, excusing our own bad behavior because we're so depraved that we can't do any better, and anyway, your faith in Jesus has already saved you, so what does it matter?

Even the Catholic Church expects people to live out the Corporal Works of Mercy to the extent they're able. The Corporal Works are all based on what Christ expected of his followers as spelled out in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25. And yet not once, in all my decades in the Catholic Church, can I recall a priest actually giving a homily on the Corporal Works of Mercy.

And so we end up with a world of believers who are puffed up with pride, getting angry at people instead of for them, or who are so focused on the next world that they forget about the needs that exist in this one. I'm not even talking about so-called "works-based salvation," which doesn't really exist anyway. I'm talking about living out one's faith with mercy and love, leaving an impression on others so that if you're the only Bible they'll ever read, they go away heartened rather than repulsed. 

So it was with all that in mind that my daughter and I went to visit Grace Evangelical in Osburn today. 

Turns out the church didn't have its usual worship service today. The last Sunday of every month is a prayer service, with congregants seated in a circle to share their praises and offer their prayer requests. The sanctuary was a smallish part of a much bigger building that housed a sizable community hall. On one end of the sanctuary was a stage; on the other, a big stained-glass window that I noticed wasn't visible from outside the church. I felt as if there must be a story behind the window if it's walled in from the exterior, but I didn't ask.

After being greeted by many of the 15 or so other folks in attendance, we wandered back to the kitchen area, where the kiddo got herself a brownie and some water. Pastor Nick shook my hand and invited us into the circle, where he started things off by picking up an acoustic guitar and leading us in song. 

Before he started us singing the old hymn "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," he remarked on how important it is for us to go to God first with our troubles, not as a last resort -- which I thought was an appropriate lead-in to a service that was going to be focused on prayer. It does seem that a lot of people resort to prayer in desperation, only after they've lost all other hope.

I admit I've never been good at praying, as I don't really understand it, except as a way for us to submit ourselves to God's will. When I used to pray for an end to my health problems and nothing happened, the lesson I took away was that prayer wasn't for getting what we wanted, like asking a genie for a magic wish, but for coming to terms with whatever is inevitably in the cards for us. To that end, I learned that there was little point in begging for mercy when you're suffering, or really in asking for anything at all. After all, an all-knowing deity would already know how my life is going to play out, and it's not like I'm going to change his mind. "Not my will but yours be done," as Christ himself said.

Nor could I really relate to the thanks I heard today in prayer -- for example, from a couple who expressed their gratitude to God that they endured a long drive through oppressive heat without breaking down, while they passed other folks whose cars didn't make it. All I could think was, why didn't God help the other people too, instead of letting their cars break down in triple-digit weather?   

But that's my own theological struggle, and it has no bearing on Pastor Nick and the commendable way he presents God and Christ to his congregation. You can tell a lot about a pastor and his mindset by what he says even outside of a preaching context, and when I listened to him lamenting the existence of a tent city out in Spokane, where people have been forced out of housing by the cost of living, while others with mental health struggles were forced onto the streets after the system failed them, all I could think was, this guy really gets it. You can sneer at the bums while being content that you've got yours, or you can imagine yourself in their place, thinking about how you'd want to be treated, and try to help in whatever way you can.

He also commented on how lots of people come into the Valley to turn a profit without thinking of those who live there, which is something that hits home for me, as I see houses just down our street in Wallace being flipped and turned into B&Bs by owners who don't even live here and thus never integrate themselves into the local community. They take the money they earn from investing in a property here but don't put it back into the local economy. Meanwhile, the local cost of living goes up and home values increase. The latter is nice if we ever wanted to sell, but it creates a situation that's not so great for those who are finding everyday life too expensive for them to remain here. The rich get richer, and the poor have to find somewhere with a lower quality of life just so they can survive. 

Why are situations like this not the focus of those who follow Christ? Why do Christians not challenge a system that rewards greed and lays ever heavier burdens on the poor and working class? Shouldn't this be our focus, rather than fixating on others' personal sins and obsessing over a heavenly reward? Why do so many Christians look less like the Good Samaritan who stopped to help an enemy and more like the "holy" men who walked on by and offered nothing?

I'm not saying I'm perfect, or that I couldn't do more than I do. I'm just wondering why this isn't the baseline, the starting point, for living an authentic Christian life.

In any event, it's clear that Pastor Nick backs up his words with actions, as his church is an active participant in the local food banks -- he lamented at today's service that hunger isn't part of the current news cycle yet remains a pressing social problem -- and I saw in the bulletin a mention of Hope Pregnancy Center and Hospitals of Hope, which respectively offer crisis pregnancy services and medical assistance to the needy. 

And you know what? Any church that uses "Micah6:8" as its Wi-Fi password tells me everything I need to know about where that church is coming from theologically. That's long been one of my favorite Old Testament verses outside of the books of Proverbs, Wisdom, and Sirach. This is what it says, if you're unfamiliar:

What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. 

Pastor Nick wrapped up today's service by sharing the passage from Matthew 6 (ah, smack-dab in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount!), in which Jesus tells his followers not to make a personal show of praying in public to be seen and heard -- tell that to the street-corner preachers haranguing people with their bullhorns! -- but rather to seek out God in solitude and humility, praying sincerely from the heart. The passage led directly into the Lord's Prayer, which we prayed corporately to end today's gathering.

Now, I could tell you that the Evangelical Free Church is a merger of two other evangelical church bodies and that its membership numbers are climbing, in contrast to the sharp decline in mainline Protestant churches. That's all interesting data. But this is one case, in my mind, where the preacher takes on more importance than the denomination or its particular theological stances. 

If I haven't made it clear, I'm thoroughly impressed with Pastor Nick and his idea of what it means to be a Christian. People tend to turn Jesus into either a dour moralist or an anything-goes hippie, when I think both are distortions of what he taught. In my experience, few people can separate him from either modern political divides or their own personal convictions, trying to fit Christ into their worldview rather than letting Christ transform them. Because the thing is, you can be compassionate and charitable without being a woke authoritarian, and you can adhere to a life of personal responsibility and restraint that serves as an example to others without being a cold-hearted right-winger. After all, part of what it means to be a Christian is to align yourself not to the ways of this world but to Christ, who doesn't change with the political winds. 

It's nice to be reminded that there are still some followers of Christ out there who seek him outside of a contemporary political and social binary. There's a reason his teachings have survived for 2,000 years, even as nations and empires and political movements come and go. Those things are ephemeral. Truth and goodness, on the other hand, always endure.

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