FAITH VERSUS THE GOD WHO IS "I
Lutheran Church Celebrates Bicentennial.
Smith Creek Regular Baptist
Church Observes 250th Anniversary.
Lindale Mennonite Church
Hits 100th Birthday.
In my role as a religion
editor/reporter for the Daily
News-Record in Harrisonburg,
Virginia, researching and writing about
church histories and the religious past
of the Shenandoah Valley is part of my
job. Most of the Valleys oldest
congregations were started by first- or
second- generation Europeans who migrated
here by way of Pennsylvania.
Though the British
Empires long arm did extend this
far, Anglicans had less motivation to
venture west of the Blue Ridge Mountains
than their freedom-seeking brethren. Thus
those who sought such libertythe
Anabaptists, the Quakers, the Lutherans,
the Presbyterianswere not much
bothered by the edicts imposed on the New
World by the Church of England.
After reading of the
Valleys early settlershow
they left home for the unknown to live
according to their consciences, learned
the hard way that their Indian neighbors
were not to be pushed around, broke their
backs clearing virgin land for gardens
and houses and cattleI found it
easy to idealize their courage and faith.
And I wonder, as the
religious persecution eased, as the
wilderness was tamed, and as the settlers
began aging, if these early pioneers
themselves became tame, complacent, with
only their memories to remind them of the
adventures they once lived walking hand
in hand with God. For a people or a
person who can point to a collective or
personal past in which God has been real
and faithful and miracle-working, it is
so tempting, once life has settled down,
to slide into a backward-looking
religion. A religion based on a
miraculous experience or revelation or
blessed time that is now in the past.
A sentimental faith.
dwells on what God did yesterday. I am
still moved at the mercy of God that
forgave my youthful crimes against him,
my loved ones, friends, enemies, and
strangers. I weep at the great things he
has done. And I sometimes long for
yesterday, when all my troubles seemed so
far away because he was so present.
Yesterday, for me, was
the streets of New York City suburbs. I
came to Christ raw, untrained in the ways
of religion. I knew how to divide a pound
of pot into ounce-sized bags for sale,
could shoplift an elephant, and used the
"F" word twice in each
sentence. I harbored much bitterness, was
always lonely, and could not cry. I
subjected my body to drug abuse,
promiscuous sex, and sleep deprivation.
The night I met Christ,
it all came pouring outall the
pain, all the hatred, all the sadness.
For the first time in my life, I felt
loved and forgiven and clean. The next
few years were filled with daily miracles
of deliverance, providence, and
revelation. I slept, ate, learned,
played, cried, lived with Jesus. He made
me into a much better version of me than
I had ever been capable of. The
culmination of all this was my move from
New York to the Shenandoah Valley, where
just about everyone (or so it seemed) was
a Christian. Life was so different; God
had called me out to a new place. His
presence was so with me all the time.
Then I learned about Christianity
as a religion; I became involved with
church; I settled into a life routine.
Now I, like the religious people all
around me, became complacent.
When our faith is of
the sentimental sort, we "pray on
yesterdays faith" (to use
musician Ben Arthurs play on
words), but without yesterdays
was for yesterdays challenges. When
my faith is based on yesterday or last
year or last decade, I am off the hook
for today. It may be an act of the
subconscious to keep me from dealing with
the deeper issues of transformation and
sanctification that surface as I
"mature." The obstacles that
confront me today, from without and
within, cannot be faced with
Recalling the miracles
of the past and the things hes
brought me through is futile unless the
memories are incentives to believe that
God is still interested in me, still
active in my life, still working out his
plan for me, today.
God made this clear to
the Israelites when they wandered through
the wilderness after their sensational
exit from Egypt. He gave them fresh food
every day, calling it "manna."
His people were to gather it from the
ground every morning. If they stored some
for the next day, it rotted. They had to
depend on God to be "I am"
God provided the manna
yesterday and the day before that. That
gave them reason to believe he would do
it again today. Yesterdays manna
was for yesterday. Like the Israelites, I
must gather it afresh each day.
On a larger scale,
denominations, ministries, and spiritual
movements often operate on
yesterdays faith, losing their
relevance as the world changes or as the
adherents age. We see this in the many
churches attended by only the elderly.
The church members point back with a
sentimental feeling to a time when it all
meant so much. So lets keep doing
it that way.
In my interviews with
these folks, the name of Jesus rarely
comes up. Theyll talk about former
ministers, building programs, and the
church member who made the pulpit, but
they dont say anything about God,
his faithfulness, his saving grace, his
This type of church is
often unequipped to help members who face
personal difficulties, because while it
holds the form of religion, the
supernatural power is gone. Many
denominations were founded on a
revelation that over time has become
overdeveloped theologically and
experientially, in preaching and in
practice, while other relevant truths are
ignored. In this case, sentimentality
fosters an obsessive devotion to the
founders, long dead, and their idolized
God is not a yesterday kind of
guy. God is not an old man (or woman).
God is always now, forever.
Sentimental faith is
often accompanied by someday faith.
When we hear Gods
voice today, telling us to apologize to
our spouse or send $200 to a missionary
or tell the truth or quit work to raise
our childrento trust God in some
way todaybut we dismiss it or put
it off or flatly refuse, then we risk
losing the ability to hear him.
"Tomorrow I will be stronger in my
faith" or "It can wait" or
"God understands I cant do it
because of my weakness, which I will
eventually overcome." Someday, we
think, my faith will be like yesterday.
says over and over in Hebrews 3 and 4,
"when you hear his voice, do not
harden your hearts." Doing so, he
says, will result in "an evil,
unbelieving heart, leading you to fall
away from the living God."
Leaving us with an
empty shell of an old religion.
God does not reveal
himself to us as "I was," or
"I will be." God is "I
And we are, too.
Harrisonburg, Virginia, is a religion
reporter for the Harrisonburg Daily
News-Record. Her column, "Rural
Pen," appears in the paper each