Saturday, March 31, 2012

In Search of "Holy Ground"

"Take the sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground."
- Exodus 3:5, NKJV

   With all that I have experienced over the last two weeks, along with their accompanying realizations have brought me to a point where I think I can understand what has been happening inside me. Given all that has transpired in my spiritual history since childhood, I think my mind and heart are longing and searching for a true, safe and personal "holy ground" on which to meet with God.

   Over the last couple of years, I have come to realize that I am essentially the product of the influence of five different Christian groups and their church environments - the Mar Thoma, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal/Charismatic and currently, a rather unconventional Mennonite church. I must honestly admit that sometimes I really don't know what that makes me - a hybrid, an accident, a freak, an anomaly? I will admit that it sometimes causes me consternation and confusion in my communion with other sincere Christians, and on occasion even my walk with God. With the kind of personality that I have, experiencing disunity and conflict in the Christian community causes me personal distress. Sometimes, looking back on troubling experiences across this spiritual terrain makes me feel frustrated and angry to the point where a lump forms in my throat, a tightness grips my chest and I want to cry.

    Much of this was not necessarily by choice, but simply the result of following the decisions of my family as they shifted congregations over my growing years. With that came an exposure to differences in doctrine, teaching, church structure,  understanding of true infallible authority - the Scripture or the Church, interpretation of Scripture, claims, counter-claims, arguments, divisions within churches that lead to splits, false teaching, and a myriad of other experiences that led to personal angst and turmoil. I should express at this point that I'm not bitter or ungrateful for all that I have journeyed through; I have learned much, gained a perspective that helps me relate to different congregations and been blessed by God through all, but I also know at the same time that I struggle to understanding why it had to be so. And with that question comes a struggle to figure out the right way for me to approach God. But let me start at the beginning.

My paternal grandfather's parish church
Image Copyright: Salem Mar Thoma Church
   My family originates from an apostolic-era church in India that traces its origins to the first century, and the arrival of the Apostle Thomas in India, and now carries his name - the Mar Thoma [1]. I have written in some detail in earlier posts about some of my childhood experiences in that church, where my late paternal grandparents used to attend, and the imprint that it left on me [2-3]. I am hoping to visit my late grandfather's little Mar Thoma parish when I visit India on vacation next month. Although I spent very little time in the Mar Thoma church environment (only visiting it with my grandfather during summer vacations in India), the impression of "sanctity" with which it imprinted me was not too different from that of the next two churches that were quite foundational in their influence - the Anglican and Roman Catholic.

Holy Trinity Church
Image Copyright: Gulf News
   When my family moved abroad when I was about three, we began regularly attending an Anglican church called "Holy Trinity", which was foundational in my spiritual formation as a child. It was there that I first started going to Sunday School, learned my first lessons about God, the stories of the Bible and received my first Bible (a little children's Good News Bible with a yellow hardback cover and beautifully illustrated). I learned to start reading the Bible for the first time on my own as a child, not really understanding what was going on, but finding the stories fascinating. I remember the kindness and dedicated efforts of my Sunday School teachers, many of whose names and faces I still remember. 
Rev. Dennis Gurney
Like my grandfather's Mar Thoma parish, Holy Trinity imprinted me with the sense of "sanctity" in my approach to God, as I witnessed their formal and traditional, yet reverent and meaningful liturgy that was derived from Scripture. It didn't seem that way to me as a child, yet I appreciate and understand the spirit and intention behind it as I look back on it now. With it's soaring triangular roof and silent sanctuary, it awed me as a child, yet the presence of the pastor who ministered there (Reverend Dennis Gurney) gave it a warm and comforting feeling at the same time. Holy Trinity was my first definite encounter with the notion, idea and person of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the message of the Christian faith - creation, sin, judgement, Christ, His Cross, death and ressurection as a child. Though the time had not come for the power of the Gospel to penetrate my heart there, Holy Trinity Church faithfully sowed the seed, placed a Bible in my hands for the first time, taught me to immerse myself in it, and kept the ground of my heart ready. 

Sister Fosca Berardi
   It was while the Anglican church was imprinting me with the foundational lessons of the Christian faith that I was also simultaneously being imprinted through the influence of Roman Catholicism at the school that I spent all my school life in - St. Mary's Catholic High. An international school run by Italian nuns, I have fond memories of them for the kindness and affection that they showed to my mother and I. Sister Fosca Berardi, the headmistress, was an elderly lady crippled by polio as a child. Yet she faithfully served there for 30 years with dedication and sincerity; I remember watching this little nun with a mix of curiosity and admiration as I saw her limp across the school grounds to her various duties and classes that she taught, wondering at her courage and determination. She loved my mother, and always had a smile for me whenever she saw me. Sister Josephina was the nun who I was probably closest to; she ran the school bookstore and always had a smile and present for me when I used to come around to visit her during my kindergarten years. I think it was from her that I sensed the most love and affection, with her bright blue eyes that lit up when she saw me, and warm smile. Of all the nuns that watched me grow up from kindergarten to the end of high school, I think it's her that I probably miss the most.
Sister Josephine
  I believe it was at St. Mary's that I had my first encounter with conflict within the Christian faith. Going through the instruction of the Catholic Cathecism in religion class over many years, I understood the perspective and approach of Roman Catholic theology quite well by the time I left. It also led to a lot of debates and occasional arguments with my Cathecism teachers, some of whom didn't seem to have answers for the questions that I asked. In the process, I realized the fundamental issue of authority that divided both sides - is Scripture the only and infallible authority through which God speaks to all people within the church and to which all believers must absolutely submit, to derive it's doctrine and teaching? Or does the church itself possess infallible authority given to her leadership to interpret the Bible and decide on matters of faith for believers? The implications of both are tremendous; is is from this that all differences across the Protestant-Catholic divide flow - understanding the Gospel, justification, salvation, grace, sacramental theology, holiness, righteousness, the relationship of faith and works, and much more. Although I understood the perspective of Roman Catholic theology, my heart clung firmly to my Bible and remained trusting the Scripture as my only reliable guide.
   But as much as my immersion into Roman Catholicism brought me into my first experience of conflict, it also had much good that it imprinted me with, as I have come to realize [4]. Apart from it's reinforcement of "sanctity" and reverence in my relationship with God, it also challenged me with "the need for a robust moral theology, relationship of faith and reason, historical rootedness, emphasis on catechesis and spiritual formation" [4]. I think God is once again challenging me with those things today.

Baptized in India
   When my family decided to move to a Pentecostal/Charismatic congregation in the midst of my school years, I followed them. It's here that my experience gets muddled, and my greatest confusion begins. When the seed of the Gospel sown by Holy Trinity finally bore fruit and I came to saving faith in Christ as my personal Saviour during a summer vacation in India, it through a cousin of mine who gave his life to Christ in a Pentecostal church and led me to salvation too. It was my cousin's Pentecostal pastor who baptized me in a river in India, some years later. But after that, I don't really know how to describe the next 17 years of my journey through the Pentecostal/Charismatic congregations that I was part of, and it's probably this that causes me the greatest turmoil. I find it extremely difficult to concisely summarize what I heard or learned; I seemed to be spiritually "afloat" for a lot of the years  spent in various churches. There was very little theological instruction, but lots of emphasis on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, faith, healing, miracles, overcoming obstacles, experiential demonstration of the power of God through signs and wonders, prophecies, speaking in tongues, dynamic speakers, and everything else that accompanied them. There is no doubt that I saw awesome evidence of the miraculous power of God, in both my own life and the life of other believers. However, conflicting teaching, woolly theology, and lack of clear biblical exposition and preaching meant that my heart and mind were still not solidly grounded in a clear understanding of how to read and interpret Scripture, understand and walk with God, address the "tangible dimensions of our world", and wisdom for understanding the issues of life. And thus it was when crisis and shock hit my life, that I had no firm foundation to understand how to understand and deal with them. The last straw came five years ago, after which I backed out, and went looking for something theologically robust and concrete in my walk with God. I doubt if I would be comfortable going back.

   And thus it has become that I have spent the last five years at a rather unconventional Mennonite church. The gracious and merciful hand of God brought me here, knowing that I needed to be grounded in systematic and methodical teaching through the Scripture. He has helped me sort out some of my questions, clear misconceptions and grow in maturity. I still have a lot of questions, angst and issues to struggle through and find answers for. I know that what I need most is to know Scripture well, and am striving with all my effort to gain the necessary tools that I need, to build a strong and immovable foundation from which I can navigate through life. Though some clarity has come, there is still much that remains unanswered. I know that Willingdon is not the "perfect church" or "true church"; there is no such thing as a "perfect" church anywhere on this planet. I also don't know if it is God's will for me to stay here for the rest of my life; I am becoming more willing to surrender to Him and consider that He might have something different in mind. Like any other church, Willingdon contains a body of broken and sinful people who need the grace of God and the good news of the Gospel, just like everyone else. And among them, I'm the one who probably needs it the most.

   I used the term "holy ground" in this post to describe what I am searching for - a place of spiritual truth and certainty in my mind and heart, where I can meet God without being plagued by theological confusion and doubt, and worship Him in Spirit and in truth. With the history and influence of these five different congregations within Christianity converging in my life, I am trying to sort through the good and significant lessons that each has taught me, and figure out how I can integrate them - Scripture as my only reliable guide, yet preserving reverence, sanctity, deep and meaningful liturgical worship, piety, devotion, faith and reason, catechesis, spiritual formation, the charismatic power and gifts of the Holy Spirit, robust moral theology, and other important aspects of each. Is this even possible? I don't know at the moment, but I want to find out. And I think I know where to start - Holy Scripture. 
- The Wisdom Seeker