Grandma Charlotte taught me unconditional love, and by example, modeled a Christian way of living. However, my relationship with God was cerebral and distant, and definitely conditioned on my performance. I did not feel close to God. If anything, my knowledge of the Bible only emphasized how sinful and unworthy I was. “When you have done all the things assigned to you, say: ‘We are good-for-nothing slaves. What we have done is what we ought to have done.’” (Luke 17:10)
In my 30’s I began attending University Presbyterian Church where Bruce Larson was the pastor. I learned that the singles group was planning a work mission to an orphanage south of Ensenada. I signed up. I was anxious to reconnect with the mission field and use my Spanish. But I was totally unprepared for the experience. First, was all the praying. Seriously, they prayed at the drop of a hat: for the food, for the trip, for the vans, for the orphanage, for our protection, for healing of sniffles and headaches. It just seemed unnecessary and presumptuous. Doesn’t God have more important things to attend to? I was completely out of my comfort zone. Next, they started praying for healing. Wasp stings, sore backs, sun burns, headaches. And finally, they prayed for the things I was asked to fix: washing machines, phone systems, walk-in coolers, electrical outlets. I felt out of place and didn’t share this degree of faith. Besides, I didn’t care for gushy Christians who prayed for every little thing.
But after a couple days, I saw things that I couldn’t deny. One of the vans miraculously avoided a disastrous collision. An eye swollen like a golf ball from a wasp sting was almost normal the next day. Two washing machines that would normally be junk, were fixed and running. Parts were found to fix the walk-in cooler. I had never experienced anything like this. I thought of Acts 17:27, “God did this so that they would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though he is not far from any one of us.” Here was this distant, angry God, who was now close to me, answering prayers, performing miracles, and messing with my view of the universe.
At the end of our mission, our group wanted to buy dinner for the orphanage staff. The only place available in the little crossroads village was the local cantina. I remember walking in. There was a long bar with half a dozen very hard, serious-looking men sitting at the counter, nursing their drinks. It was a scene out of the movie Desperado. They could all pass for cartel enforcers. Right next to them was a long table set for about twenty. As we all walked in, this group of hard-looking men looked us over. Slowly they went back to their drinks, but still keeping an eye on us. As we gathered around the table, we waited for everyone to come in before being seated. Finally, as the last person came in, I joked, “Let’s all hold hands and sing the doxology.” To my horror, that is exactly what they did…with all the cartel assassins watching us intently. I was embarrassed but also angry that they would take me seriously. But it did say a lot about their faith.
Returning to Seattle, I decided to meet with Bruce Larson. He was a fatherly, approachable man that seemed to have a level head on his shoulders. Certainly, he could clear up all these issues about prayer, unconditional love, miracles, etc. and answer all my theological concerns. I started out asking theological questions and asking for explanations. He responded by talking about Christ’s unconditional love, and how he is reaching out to us. How, though we are sinners, he embraces us with forgiveness and love.
But that wasn’t what I was looking for. I wanted some concrete, cerebral, rational answers. I left very disappointed. He did not give me the answers I was seeking. His answers were too simple. I felt like Naaman, the Syrian, who sought healing from Elisha, the prophet. I expect a deep theological discussion with complicated arguments and tight logic. Instead, he tells me to go bathe in the Jordan River seven times, basically giving me a pastoral brush off. (2 Kings 5:11-12) Not what I expected. I felt short-changed and disappointed.
Answers to prayer are seldom what I expect. Since then, I’ve learned that my relationship with God is really that simple. I need to focus on the essentials: His son, His love, my faith and relationship with Him. Simple is often best. (Acts 16:30,31) Much to learn. A couple years later, I sent a note to Pastor Larson, thanking him for meeting with me. I explained that over time I had tried to apply his simple message of God’s unconditional love. I resisted it at first, but over time I began to embrace it. I told him that I had become what I didn’t want the most: a gushy Christian. And yet, I still had much more to learn.
*This is the fifth in a series called Faith Beginnings.