What Really Matters (July-Aug 2010)

By Matt Dabbs

What Really Matters

Sara Barton
07/07/2010 – When I was asked to edit an issue of New Wineskins, therefore, I knew that I wanted to invite young thinkers to contribute to the theme, What Really Matters? Every writer who contributed to this issue (besides myself) is younger than thirty. Our conversations over email, through Facebook messages, and in text messages, have been what I hoped they would be. They have been centered on what matters in the lives of those who profess Jesus as Lord in our postmodern world. They have been about loving God and loving others. . . .

I was walking in the woods behind my house recently, praying, singing old hymns, talking to Jesus; and it occurred to me to contemplate what I might say to him if Jesus was actually physically there with me in the woods. What would I say if he walked with me and he talked with me?

With that thought, I realized that I spend much, maybe most of my time in prayer and conversation, wrestling with questions regarding church life. My life is centered on church activities and has been for most of my life. I’ve loved the church since I was a little girl. I spent several years in Uganda, serving with a church planting team, and I currently work in ministry and teach religion at a Christian college. Sometimes I actually wonder if I spend more time than I should thinking and praying about church instead of actually being the church. As I spend countless hours seeking guidance about church conflicts and theological discussions, I realize that I must, above all, listen for the Spirit’s response about what really matters to God.

I wish I could physically meet Jesus in the woods for just a moment, see his face, and hear his voice. There is a difference in being spiritually present and being physically present. Both are realities, but in God’s mysterious wisdom, he invites us into in a spiritual reality instead of giving us a physical one. I actually hope that if I physically met Jesus in those woods, I would be so overcome with his presence that I would fall to my knees in worship. I would probably embarrass myself if I tried to enter a theological discussion.

But, all the same, I am a curious soul, and if I could ask just one question of a physically present Jesus, what would it be? Would I say, “Jesus, what do you think about women preachers?” or, “Jesus, what worship style best glorifies you?” Would that be what it all comes down to? Maybe if I had only one question, I would try to squish a variety of inquiries into the one opportunity. How could I include all of it – miraculous healing, tongue-speaking, communion observance, best preaching practices, house church versus institutional church, big church versus small church, loud bands versus simple singing, leadership roles, gender roles. Hmmm, could I fit all that ultimately matters into one question if I really tried?

Perhaps I could ask, “What’s the greatest doctrinal issue?” or “What’s the greatest rule? “. . . . or, I’ve got it, “What’s the greatest commandment?”

Oh wait, somebody already did that.

In Matthew 22, Jesus was asked what’s ultimately at the center. That’s what those old Pharisees were up to when one of them inquired, “What is the greatest commandment?” Perhaps they had all been sitting around discussing how they could fit all their theological concerns into one big question opportunity. Maybe they had been trying to figure out how to get the answer that would apply to their myriad of questions about what really matters. They had likely been trying to catch Jesus in a doctrinal riddle of sorts, so some legalist came up with this question, “What is the greatest commandment?”

Jesus answered their riddle with this statement: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.” He said that all the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments. I wonder if I would stand there, a bit deflated, a bit puzzled perhaps, with those old Pharisees thinking, “Well, that’s an evasive answer.” All the doctrines? All the worship wars? All the issues that cause our comfort or discomfort in worship? All the answers to our questions about church? It would be a bit disappointing– an uncomfortable moment for sure –if I spent my one Jesus question, and I didn’t even get the answer I was after.

It’s uncomfortable that these words are Jesus’ definition of the greatest commandments when we’re trying to figure out what really matters. As I consider the heart of the matter concerning theological discussions and disagreements in our churches, I have to remind myself that they all hang on two commands about love. If you are feeling a bit unsatisfied, uncomfortable, perhaps frustrated with the love direction of this doctrinal conversation, then you’re in the same place I am and in the same place as the original askers of the question – “What is the greatest commandment?”

Jesus is, uncomfortably, about love. Being his disciple is, uncomfortably, about love. The church questions that seem so overwhelmingly large for our very human congregations seem much more complicated than a “love answer” implies. Living out the love-answers Jesus gives for our life questions is no easy task. It’s a continual challenge which provides us no feeling of utter conclusion until he comes to heal our lives and relationships. Jesus is the love-answer to our questions. In the meantime, however, we must let him be the mysterious answer. That’s faith.

I have spent my life trying to navigate a path through a myriad of life questions, ultimately concerning my role as a disciple of Jesus Christ. That’s the idea for all of us, don’t you think: navigating this mysterious life the best we can with eyes of faith that do not waiver from looking to the example of Jesus, regardless of what difficult questions may arise? We are called to examine life and scripture with our eyes on the Lord, not simply in light of what we’ve always been taught.

This issue of New Wineskins originated from my ongoing conversations with young Christians where I teach religion and writing courses, at Rochester College. We often talk about what really matters when it comes to church. My students and I often discuss and write about what matters in our faith and how we must go deeper in our quest to love God and our neighbors. One thing is sure: the generation of twenty-somethings with whom I share life care deeply about what matters to God. Sometimes it seems to me that they get a bad rap from older generations. I’ve heard their generation referred to as wishy-washy when it comes to their beliefs about doctrines. I’ve heard them characterized as disloyal because they will leave a congregation or denomination because of church conflict. I’ve heard it said that churches cannot count on them to volunteer for such activities as teaching Sunday school because they are not committed to regular attendance. I’ve detected skepticism regarding the way in which the generation approaches reading scripture. These are obviously stereotypical characterizations, but they exist in differing levels in congregations literally around the world.

As I converse with my young friends, however, they blow all these stereotypes to bits. As we discuss what really matters, they continually challenge me to examine my faith down to the very core. They will not settle for anything less than what is central to faith in Jesus Christ. They teach me what matters. For example, they do not care about erecting boundary lines between themselves and other believers; they care about destroying barriers between all people, something they remind me is central to the life and death of Jesus. Additionally, contrary to the opinion of many, they do not favor one specific worship style above another; they are able to find God’s presence in a wide variety of approaches to worship. One topic we discuss in my freshmen Bible class is that mature Christians are able to worship in a myriad of styles according to the practices of local congregations around our city and our world. Young Christians have also taught me that they do not want to waste time living in the past regarding sectarian arguments. They don’t want to relive or restudy what they see as marginal issues. They don’t want to joke about denominational stereotypes or generational preferences. They want to get to the center of the gospel, loving God and loving others. They want to explore what really matters.

When I was asked to edit an issue of New Wineskins, therefore, I knew that I wanted to invite young thinkers to contribute to the theme, What Really Matters? Every writer who contributed to this issue (besides myself) is younger than thirty. Our conversations over email, through Facebook messages, and in text messages, have been what I hoped they would be. They have been centered on what matters in the lives of those who profess Jesus as Lord in our postmodern world. They have been about loving God and loving others. I invite you to explore the conversations with us through the discussion feature at the end of each article. I invite you to learn from our young thinkers and writers as I have. Together, let’s contemplate the greatest commands in Matthew 22.New Wineskins

 

Sara BartonSara Barton teaches religion and composition courses at Rochester College in Rochester Hills, Michigan. She holds degrees from Harding University and Spring Arbor University. She and her husband, John, have two children, Nate and Brynn.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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