Tales from the Mountain
While Dad grew up in Iowa, Mom was born in Flagstaff. Her brother died in a flight training accident over the Pacific in WWII and her parents died shortly after the war. We did have a number of cousins living in Flagstaff and, of course, we all went to the same church (it wasn’t Methodist). We weren’t supposed to go to movies or play cards but we did in our family. Sometimes we’d go to one of the cousins’ home for big family gatherings, which I remember as always being a lot of fun for us kids. Uncle Harold’s house was huge so we were there fairly often. He was kind of a strict sort of man. We called him ‘Uncle,” but he was really like a 2nd cousin to mom. I liked him, but he was a bit scary sometimes. When you least expected it, he’d confront you and in his big booming bass challenge me if I was saved and did I “really” know Jesus. That kind of confrontational challenge was always a bit off-putting and I never really knew how to answer, except to say, “Yes, I do and I am.” He’d smile and say, “Good” and walk away. Looking back, I think he just wanted me to be sure of my faith in Christ, but it sure scared me sometimes!
Years later, I married Valerie and joined the Methodist Church in Flagstaff where she attended, Trinity Heights. I already knew the pastor because he was the police chaplain, so it made sense and Valerie had friends at Trinity Heights.
At the first big family gathering after our wedding, Harold cornered me and asked, “Why did you go to the Methodist Church (he kind of choked on the word ‘Methodist’) instead of bringing your girl to First?” I explained it but he sure didn’t seem satisfied. Several times over the next few years, I’d run into Harold at different gatherings and he’d challenge me with, “When are you going to come back to a real Christian Church?”
Okay, I was pretty naive then, so I usually just said, I was happy at Trinity Heights. But one day when he confronted me, I could tell this was not going to go away and it didn’t seem this particular conversation was going to go well, he seemed really upset when he asked me again, “Why don’t you come back to a REAL Christian church and come home?” Implied in his question was the statement, “There’s only one real church and you’re not in it and you’re going to hell in a handbasket.” Somewhere deep within me that day, I mustered some courage I didn’t know I had, or maybe I was just growing in maturity as a believer, or maybe I was just coming to Valerie’s defense but out it blurted like an uncontrolled belch.
“Uncle Harold,” I started, “Why do you think Jesus only lives in one church? What I hear and learn is the same thing I’ve been hearing all my life; Jesus is God’s only Son who lived to show us the way, died on the cross for our sin, and rose from the grave on Easter morning. Jesus didn’t stop being my savior because I changed churches and it’s as real a church as First as far as I can see.”
Interestingly, I have no recollection of his response, maybe that’s because I realized it didn’t matter what his response was. My faith and how I respond to Jesus is what matters. He said,
“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.” (John 14:6)
Jesus goes on to say that we must obey him to remain in his love and our primary job is to love others (Note: that’s an action verb) but our life as disciples would be challenging and fraught with those who oppose us. (See John 14-16)
We may not always agree on some of the details of church, but our faith should always revolve around the heart of Christ serving and growing in faith, understanding God’s character of grace and desire for a relationship with us, and realizing that we have the presence, power, and passion of the Holy Spirit. One of the lessons I learned from Uncle Harold was to have confidence in my faith, but that lesson took many years to mature in me. The second lesson I learned was not to be arrogant that I had the only truth in the church. There are many churches because we are a diverse people and we need diverse church settings where we can live our faith together. The third lesson I learned from Harold’s challenge was to hold fast to the essentials, the heart of faith in God through Jesus.
~ Pastor John