For years, it was not unusual for my family's dinner table conversation to end up discussing some point of Scripture. Maybe that is to be expected when my mother spent much of her adult life studying and teaching the Bible, and three of her children went to conservative Bible colleges - one becoming a college professor and, for awhile, a college president; one a missionary; and one a school teacher married to a pastor who eventually became a hospital and then a hospice chaplain.
By the way, I was not one of those. I was the fourth child.
One such discussion sticks with me. My mother, who I'm not sure even graduated college and didn't become a Christian until she was married and had three of her four children, and my oldest brother, who earned a Ph.D, a Th.D, and is a New Testament scholar of note, were disagreeing over the interpretation of some scripture.
My sister-in-law, fully supporting her husband, finally said in exasperation, "But Mom, Rick has his doctorate!"
To which my mom - in one of those moments of pure inspiration that I'll never forget - calmly looked at her and said, "And I have the Holy Spirit."
I don't want to sound self-serving here. But I have been commended by many people for being so honest about my faith as my family has gone through this "situation." Quite frankly, I don't see anything to be commended for; I don't know how anyone can get through living day-to-day - much less something nearly as catastrophic as this - without hope, without faith.
Recently I read the biography of Steve Jobs, the genius behind Apple. His belief ran toward Eastern mysticism, and for most of his life he didn't believe in God. However, in the last year of his life, knowing he was dying, he told a friend that he was "fifty-fifty" on there being a God, because he was having a hard time believing this life is all there is, and that there wasn't something more out there waiting for us.
If I didn't believe ... well, I'm very aware of my own humanity; enough to know that if I really believed this life was all there is, my life would be much different. I'd be much more selfish, much more out for personal gain and constantly seeking my own satisfaction because, well, why not? What could possibly be the use of me suffering or sacrificing for the good of others when, in the end, I'm just stone cold dead? Why should I care about creating a better life for other people or even leaving a legacy if I'm just going to wind up being dust (in the wind)?
Sorry, but I see no point in being altruistic for the sake of altruism.
But if indeed there is Truth (which I believe there to be) and a God who created me for His purpose (as I believe there is) and this life is really about not just getting us to the next one when we'll stand before Him, but all the cosmic implications that the Bible says the way we live our lives here on earth have -then I realize there is more to this life than living and dying, more than just trying my best to not worry and be happy. There is more to this life than, well, "me."
And C.S. Lewis (among others) would argue that the simple fact that so many humans seem to be instinctively aware that there must be something more out there, some kind of afterlife, something like God, is proof enough that such a thing exists; otherwise, how would we even be able to conceive of such a thing?
I don't want to drag too many innocent people into this blog, but one of the hazards of being part of my life is that you never know when something you do or say will creep into my writing.
My sister was telling me about a friend of hers who was reading my blog and said something like, "When did your brother become such a man of faith?"
Now, admittedly, even in my own family we tend to think of my oldest brother as the "man of faith,'' because he's made his living teaching and preaching and writing about "the faith."
And I've had the "secular" job - working and living in what was laughingly referred to as the toy department of daily newspapers, the sports section. I had a wonderful life getting paid to go to ball games and then telling about my experience in some form or fashion. It was fun, and I was apparently pretty good.
But I guess being a sportswriter does kind of brand you. When I sometimes share my political ideas in my blogs, people who disagree will often come back with, "well, you are just a sportswriter."
Once, when I was serving as a Deacon at a Baptist Church in East Lake at a church the legendary football coach Bobby Bowden grew up in and kept his membership in for as long as that church remained open, Coach Bowden and his son Tommy came by the church. I happened to be there.
Now, Tommy and I had known each other for years. He was the receivers coach at Alabama and I was the beat writer, and I had found Tommy to be a great teacher of football. In fact, much of the reputation I earned for being able to explain the intricacies of what happened in a football game were due to Tommy. In those days, no other reporters went to assistant coaches very often, but I made a point of spending more time with assistants than I did the head coach because the assistants usually knew more about what was really going on. Tommy - and later my good friend Woody McCorvey who became receivers coach after Tommy - would take the time on Saturdays after games and often again on Sunday afternoon to break down Saturday's game with me and allow me to share insight into the chess match that occurs between opposing offensive and defensive coordinators during a game.
Anyway, I ran into Tommy in the parking lot of the church, and he says, "What are you doing here?"
"I go to church here," I said. "In fact, I'm a deacon here."
"Well," Tommy said, laughing. "I guess anybody can be a deacon."
To which I said, "What have I ever done to make you think I shouldn't be a deacon in a Baptist church?'
Tommy, by the way, is a strong believer, as is his father. Tommy's brother Terry, who I also became good friends with, used to tell me that he didn't think Tommy would stay coaching football forever and thought Tommy would eventually become an evangelist. I think that's why it wasn't difficult for Tommy to walk away from Clemson when the time came.
Terry would even say, "You know, Ray, Tommy is like you are. You probably understand that part of him better than I do."
I've always been a fan of the Bowdens.
I'm getting way off track here.
The point is that no, I'm not a theologian. I certainly don't consider myself to be an example of any thing other than a man very aware of his "fallen-ness" who is also aware that he's become a child of the resurrection, which entitles me to take part in that future resurrection.
I do read the Bible, and ponder it, and wonder about it. My brother ("the man of faith") Rick once told me that he thinks I do have an unusual perspective on interpreting Bible stories, and I took that as a compliment (which I think is how he meant it).
I will also say, the older I get the more I realize how important it is to understand context when reading the Bible - understanding the verses that lead to a particular passage and those that come after it, or the audience that the passage was directed at - and to always remember the people in the Bible were human beings - try to read about their lives not as "heroes of the Faith" but as ordinary people who find themselves in situations where they wind up doing extraordinary things, but with the same fears and worries and concerns that most of us have.
I was baptised when I was still in grade school, and I remember thinking, "When I go to school tomorrow, will they be able to tell there is something different about me? Will I look different? Will I talk different? Should I dress differently? When I'm at football practice, should I not hit the other guys quite so hard? Should I throw a Bible verse into my ordinary conversation? Will people see me and say, 'He looks like he's been raised from the dead!'? "
When you are a "man of faith,'' how does it show?
The truth is, it doesn't - at least not immediately, not for most of us; particularly those of us raised in essentially Christan-influenced culture. Paul was writing to the people at the church in Colossians who were really caught up in trying to demonstrate that they were changed, that they were different, that they were "religious," and Paul said, basically, "all that stuff you're doing is really cool, but it doesn't really have anything to do with Jesus. It's just being religious."
Paul (in Colossians 3) talks a lot about Baptism, about throwing off the symbolic old clothes they wore before Baptism and put on symbolic new clothes compassion and being kind to people and humility and gentleness and patience. Support other people and forgive and, above all, love.
Those are not the kind of clothes you just put on and wear comfortably and naturally right from the get-go. It takes time to get comfortable in the new get-up.
For some of us, it takes longer than others.
The story about my brother and my mom is not to suggest a disregard for education. I absolutely am in awe of people like my oldest brother who have studied Scripture in more detail than I ever will, who can read original manuscripts in Greek and Hebrew and have spent their lives truly studying as well as trying to live out what they learn.
Simply "having the Holy Spirit" is not - generally speaking - enough to complete understanding of Scripture. In fact, that's where so much error tends to come through. I heard a very popular preacher once say, "Now, you're going to have to bypass your intellect on this one and trust your emotion." I couldn't disagree more. I don't think the Bible ever asks us to put aside our brain. In fact, the New Testament says to study to show ourselves approved, to be able to give a reason for what we believe. Yes, we're warned about trusting in our own understanding, but to go into something "bypassing your intellect?" Then why did God gives us brains?
Realistically, the majority of us remain framed more by what we don't know than what we do, which means we still have so much to learn. Many of you who read this do know much more, have a much deeper understanding of Scripture, and have or hopefully will help me learn to wear my symbolic "new clothes" that Paul talks about as comfortably and naturally as you have learned to wear yours.
But I will say this: I have the Holy Spirit.
Not that it makes me the smartest man in the world. But if I listen to that Spirit, I've got a much better chance than by leaning on my own understanding.
That was the core of the Protestant Reformation: read the Bible for yourself, diligently seek to understand it, and God will reveal himself to you.
Of course, it helps to have a theologian in the family for the more difficult parts.