Wednesday, December 11, 2013


One of my favorite authors, Karen Armstrong, likes to tell the story of when Rabbi Hillel was asked by a Gentile to explain the entirety of the Torah while standing on one foot. The rabbi told him, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. The rest is just commentary. Now go and learn."

The Golden Rule.  It’s common to every religion on the planet, in whatever language they use. And all the other “rules” are commentary.  Jesus pronounces it in Matthew 7:12.

A while back I was elected to serve as an elder on our new church's session.  But first I had to be examined by their current session. And who should be on that session, but Chris Holloman. I’ve known Chris since he was in the second grade in Garland.  The awesomeness of this experience was that I had taught his confirmation class. I had sat on the session to examine Chris to become a member of the congregation.  And now he was examining me.  I love it when life comes full circle.  Thankfully, he didn’t ask me any hard questions. 

But one of the other elders did have a fairly complicated question.  And I’m not sure I understood even the question, much less the answer, well enough to explain it here.  It was something about Jesus’ dual nature as being both fully human and fully divine.  The answer I gave startled even myself. Here's basically what I said:

The more I study religion I have noticed the more simple my faith becomes.  And I’ve decided my beliefs can be found in two scriptures:  John 3:16 and Matthew 7:12.  Everyone knows John 3:16 but I only recently dusted off the Matthew scripture and found the Golden Rule.

I have come to the conclusion that everything else in the bible goes right back to those two scriptures. Everything else is commentary.

We can get bogged down in the nuances of our faith and miss the forest for the trees.

I spent many years in the forest of the finer details of faith:  Most of my friends came from my church congregation so there are very few things we don’t automatically agree on no matter how deeply we delved into scripture.  About the only differences between us was whether we should serve bacon or sausage at the Community Breakfast.

But I’ve been going to a multi-denominational bible study for a few years now and it’s fascinating to study the bible with people of different methods and understandings of how to worship God.  We’ve got women from every branch of the church—Baptists, Methodists, Disciples of Christ, Church of Christ, Assembly of God, Roman Catholic and a healthy dose of the local Pentecostal congregation.  We study together with the ladies from the drug and alcohol rehab--women who sometimes have had no background in church, women who have never picked up a bible, who think God hates them and who have never prayed before.  All the while in the background, music of love and compassion plays at a soft volume. We fall in love with each other and all the differences fall away.

One time the group discussed the concept of Dispensationalism. First, we had to figure out what it meant.  I was washing dishes in the church kitchen and turned  to Marabeth Russell, one of my mentors, and told her I wasn’t sure I understood the concept but I was pretty sure I didn’t believe in it.  She answered immediately, “No dear, you don’t.” And the matter was closed. The group agreed to disagree and we moved on.

One of the most interesting and honest conversations we had was the time we asked the Pentecostal women to explain the “speaking in tongues” thing.  They were startled that we asked them about it, that we listened to them and we were startled by their simple and gentle explanation. For this life-long Presbyterian it was a moment when I realized that all the differences between us are ancillary; nothing more than commentary.

Thomas Jefferson once took a bible and cut out all the things he considered to be what Christianity was all about then pasted them into what he considered the REAL gospel.  It’s called the Jefferson Bible.  Only Jefferson could think himself qualified to edit God.  It’s a great example of how even the best of us pick and choose what we take from the scripture.
I have come to this conclusion about religion:  We tend to over-think it.  We love God so much, we are so in awe of God’s power that we fall into the idea that “it can’t be that simple.” 

Considering that most of the foul conflicts in the history of humanity have been over religion and faith, maybe we need to tone it down a bit.  Christians can argue between themselves over the details:  intricate concepts we can barely pronounce, how we baptize people, who we should ordain as ministers, even the ownership of our buildings and how to hire a preacher.  But those details lay on the gravel frontage road of the faith highway. They are not the smooth surface that will get you where you want to go.

So I’ve decided my faith boils down to two scripture verses:  John 3:16 and Matthew 7:12.  No more.  No less. And if you think having only two scripture verses might lead to laziness you haven’t really read them.  The first verse calls us to an understanding of grace and the second verse tells us what to do with that understanding. They do not duplicate each other.  But, together they form the whole of Christian thought.  Love God.  Love your neighbor. All the rest is commentary.

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