The clergy in Forest Park, organized as the Ministerium, are being confronted with a big decision-how to respond to the presence of a non-Christian church in the village.
To date, the religious leaders in town have been very ecumenical. They have worked together in the CROP Walk, youth day camps, and vacation Bible schools. Pastors have stood side by side leading worship on Thanksgiving eve. They have found common ground even though their theologies ran the gamut from very liberal to quite conservative.
But not since the Muslim congregation Dawoodi Bora Jamaat left Forest Park many years ago, have local churches and their leaders had to figure out how to respond to a congregation that did not confess Jesus Christ as Lord.
With the arrival of the Center for Spiritual Living that has all changed. The center’s two pastors, Mike Gerdes and Margo Ruark, are somewhat like Unitarians in that they welcome people from all faith traditions into their fellowship. They believe that Jesus was a great teacher but not the Son of God, at least not in the way orthodox Christians do.
The conundrum for the Christians in town is how to integrate tolerance with integrity. Do you accept them without reservation into the religious community? Do you say that, because we believe differently, there are some things, like worship, which we cannot do together?
Some clergy in town-I’ll call them the Liberal Love Faction-are all for accepting the Center for Spiritual Living without reservation. They cite verses like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” When they ask themselves “what would Jesus do,” they refer to the time when Jesus said about the Roman centurion, a pagan, “not in all of Israel have I seen such faith.”
Other Christian leaders-I’ll refer to them as the Conservative Truth Faction-believe that, of course, Christians should be respectful of non-believers, but the First Commandment forbids worshiping other gods. They quote Jesus declaring, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” When they ask themselves “what would Jesus do,” they remember the time Jesus told his disciples, “Those who are ashamed of me, of those will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father.”
This is not just a “hypothetical.” It’s very real. Pluralism is here to stay, and we had better figure out how to deal with it in a creative way.
I worry about the Liberal Love Faction. As the saying goes, those who don’t stand for something will fall for anything. Tolerance is not part of the biblical vocabulary. It’s only recently that tolerance has become a politically correct “self-evident truth.” A seeker once asked me, “What’s wrong with worshiping more than one god … you know, cover all the bases?” I responded by asking whether he had tried to be in a serious relationship with more than one woman. The Islamic terrorist and the Ku Klux Klan have shown us not that not all spiritual paths lead to the same place.
I also worry about the Conservative Truth Faction. In this very political season, I heard a friend quip, “We should elect a teenager president, while he still knows everything.” Just as adolescents can project a rebellious arrogance, the conservatives can slip into a judgmental self-righteousness, which really springs from defensive insecurity. Being a newspaper reporter has forced me to use my ears more than my mouth, to invest more energy into hearing the truth of what the other person is saying than into proclaiming the truth I believe. The result has been that the truth I believe has been confirmed. At the same time, I’ve learned many truths, which have enriched my own faith.
At a Chamber of Commerce luncheon years ago, a Jewish man was sitting at my table. When I asked him how he felt about the prayer I had just prayed before the meal began, he replied, “I was with you all through the prayer until at the end when you said ‘in Jesus’ name.’ When you said that, I couldn’t say amen.”
I’ve already welcomed the pastors of the Center for Spiritual Living into the community. I hope that they felt some love from me, and I admit that I learned some things from them. I will be glad to participate with them in the CROP Walk, but, because I believe differently than they do when it comes to ultimate Truth, I won’t be able to say amen to their prayers.
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.