I was touched during opening worship at GA last Saturday afternoon by an endearing scene that took place out of the view of most folks in the hall. A mother and toddler were standing together in the wide, smooth concrete expanse between the edge of seating and the convention hall walls about 25 feet from my seat. The little toddler would not be still, and his mom wisely let him stand behind the stroller, grasping its back and pushing it forward as he expressed the energy God so mightily worked within him. Of course, this little boy could not see anything but the back of the stroller as he pushed it for all he was worth. Naturally, he didn’t know where he was going as the front wheels of the stroller turned in sharply changing directions. This could have become problematic but for the fact that his mother was hovering behind him (without his apparent knowledge) close enough to be able to lay her hand on the stroller handle whenever it began to swerve into errant territory. He was free to follow his heart’s desire, with regular correction from his mother to keep him going where she wanted him to end up. So it is with the church and God.
Interestingly, at the end of that worship service came this charge and blessing: “Eternal God, You call us to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with courage, not knowing where we go, but only that Your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
That has led me to the uncomfortable question, “How do we know that God’s hand is hovering over the handles of the stroller that we are pushing, whether the stroller of our individual lives, of our congregational communities, of our denomination?” Can we assume that since we belong to a certain group, even one that uses theologically correct language and has a long, storied history, that God is like that loving mother who watched over her active toddler, and that whatever we do in our decisions and activities, God will be there to correct our swerves and stumbles?
I can’t remember how many dozens of times here at GA I’ve heard it declared that God is with us, guiding us unerringly by His Spirit in what we are doing. It makes me wonder what gives us such assurance. In Jesus’ day the religious rulers, both priestly and lay, regularly claimed that those who followed them were following God. Jesus disputed those claims. Obviously, it’s not enough simply to assert that God is with us. And to repeat the mantra ad nauseam may lift our spirits, but it doesn’t establish the reality. So how do we know whether we can have confidence in God’s sovereign, beneficent hand upon us or not?
The key of course rests in whether our relationship with God is real or imagined. Are we children of God or impostors? None of us sinners is a child of God by nature (Paul makes it clear in Eph 2 that we are by nature “children of wrath”, “having no hope and without God in the world.” So how do we become children in God’s family, sure that He will shepherd us through life? Reformed theology, anchored in the Scriptures, teaches clearly that our status with God changes when we are linked in true faith to the only-begotten Son of the Father. In and through Jesus Christ, the true Son, we are adopted as sons and daughters into God’s family. This life-giving personal relationship with Jesus Christ manifests itself in our love and devotion to him. It is intimately connected to our desire to live under and in obedience to his will. How do we discover that will? Through his word (which in the Sermon on the Mount we discover to be the culmination of all God’s prior revelations). In John 14:23 Jesus promises, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” He assures the disciples of the Father’s love in 16:27: “The Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from the Father.”
Reformed theology has always maintained that true faith in Christ can be measured by increasing pleasure in and obedience to the Word of God. Believing this, we logically conclude that assurance of the Father’s love depends on our proper relationship with His Son, and our proper relationship with Jesus depends on love that is evidenced by our desire to grow in obedience to His Word. Now of course in this world none of us is always obedient to the Word of God, written and living, but we all can tell the trajectory that we are on over time. If the Scriptures are becoming less and less central in our lives, that should set off the alarm bells. If our hearts are yearning to drink deeply from the Word and live out the truth we find there in daily partnership with Jesus, then we should be encouraged.
One of my deep concerns for the PCUSA arises from the observation that the Bible is strangely absent from General Assembly deliberations, both in committee meetings and on the plenary floor. Sure, the Word is read in worship, and sermons are preached, but apart from formal times where one would expect the Word to be proclaimed, biblical input is a rare oasis in an unrelenting desert. Even allusions to Scriptural truths are few and far between. In many committees, quotations from the Bible are actually scoffed at, and those seeking to provide such input are demeaned, treated as “unsophisticated fundamentalists.” If at our national denominational gathering such is the stance we take to God’s Word, what does this indicate of our relationship with God?
It doesn’t matter how passionately we declare that God is with us, how often we recite the religious mantras of peace, justice, inclusion, love, grace, faith, concern for the poor and marginalized and disenfranchised, how proud we are of being Presbyterian, how entranced we are with social concerns, how enthralled with what our Reformed ancestors accomplished; if we have deserted the Word of God at the center of our life together, if we have no passion to grow in “the whole counsel of God” (see Acts 20:27), we are betraying the absence of a true relationship with Jesus Christ. If that is absent, we are not abiding in the love of the Father. If we are not in His love, there is no divine hand hovering over the handles of the stroller we are so assiduously pushing. Should that really be the case, then in spite of all our claims that God is with us, the stroller of the PCUSA will end up in the ditch, or even worse, over the cliff of destruction. May the Spirit of God hear the prayers of the faithful, and restore to us a true love for Jesus Christ and his Word.