I started a new job some years ago as a Youth Development Worker at an Anglican Church. I had moved to a new city, knew no-one and for some reason was trusted with developing the youth work offered by this local church. I thought I knew what I was doing, I was in my early 20’s, had completed a degree (in engineering) and done a little travelling so I was clearly ready to develop the best youth work there has ever been. That was of course the plan in my head, it wasn’t necessarily going to work out that way.
The church had started running a youth group some months earlier, Saturday evenings were spent with young people gathering together enjoying a film, perhaps a games console, some pool, hanging around on the grass, playing games and being generally fun. The church wanted to introduce some kind of faith or Bible teaching so that this wasn’t just a fun group but a space for young people to develop in their faith. Trying to have a conversation after a carefully selected film hadn’t really captured people’s imagination (without knocking their efforts, who really wants to discuss matters of faith when you’ve just spent your Saturday evening watching a film with mates?).
We started a new group; it was midweek and it was designed as a space to talk faith. I would cook up some jacket potatoes or pasta and the young people provided the fillings or toppings. I had no idea what would happen or if anyone would come, but they did. We enjoyed our first meal together getting to know one another as we prepared the meal, ate and then cleared up. I had one question for the young people that day, it was simply,
“What do you believe?”
Being in church I anticipated certain answers. Sure, enough one after another they each said things like,
“I believe in God.”
“I believe in Jesus.”
“I believe God created the world.”
We were nearing the end, with most people having made these kind of agreeable comments. A girl bravely spoke up and said,
“I’m not sure what I believe.”
There was a pause and I assured her that this was okay. She went on,
“I mean, we have been taught about God in church but we have been taught all this other stuff in school that makes sense too. Evolution makes sense. So, I don’t know if I believe in God or not.”
I could tell she was nervous saying this and other faces suggested they were interested to see and hear my response. Again, I assured her that this was alright. I appreciated her honesty and I think it’s better that we are honest about what we believe than to pretend.
One after another the group all backtracked on their previous answers.
“I’m not sure either.”
“No, I heard something that confused me so I’m not sure.”
It was liberating. The group stopped pretending to all hold belief they had been told by church, parents or family members and were free to be themselves. They didn’t have to agree with what they may have heard in Sunday School or what they learned in Religious Education, Science or Humanities lessons. The honesty of that one girl transformed that group. The weeks and months that followed allowed us to talk freely about different beliefs and understandings. We laughed about some church traditions that are quite strange and funny stories of half-truths from childhood as parents and Sunday School teachers tried to help us to learn huge concepts and important biblical stories (I mean just read the biblical accounts of Jesus birth and then watch for all the additions in any church or school nativity).
In Psalm 78 Asaph tells of the story of the Israelites experiences of God miracles, their forgetfulness, sin, and returning to God when the going got tough. In verse 22 we are told “they had no faith in God, and did not trust his saving power” and in verse 32 “they did not believe his wonders”. Like snobs we can laugh at the mistakes of the Israelites, we can think ourselves better than them, but if we are honest, we are not. Most of us would be right there with them doing what we think is right, choosing to listen to those who support out beliefs and way of life, ignoring those who challenge it. But, it’s reassuring to read in the Bible that not everyone believed, we can learn from this.
It has been said a lot recently about the strange, different and historical times we are living through. Covid-19 come crashing into our lives causing disruption globally and locally. For some people faith has been reassuring (“I trust God is in control”), for others their faith has been shaken (“Where is God?”). It is a chance to be honest and consider what we believe.
I was in a meeting this week (conference call not in person) discussing disability, a division between theological and practical outcomes and purposes was being discussed. This is a false dichotomy. Theology is often confused to be academic study, whilst it can be this, theology is simply what we think about God. (Theo is the Greek word meaning God and ~ology comes from the Greek words logos meaning word, therefore theology most literally means ‘words about God’ or ‘the study of God’). What we believe has consequences on what we do and what we become. Believe in an angry God seeking vengeance and you will end up afraid and making others afraid. Believe in a compassionate and loving God and you will find yourself seeking justice and having empathy with others. On the issue of disability, if you believe it is caused by sin or a lack of faith for healing then you will project a message that disabled people need to be fixed. If you believe that disabled people are made in the image of God that leads to disabled people belonging in your life and you in theirs, but also raises questions about whether God is then disabled (or at least how you define disability). So, ideas have consequences; ideas about God have consequences. For me, the real division in our discussion was not theological versus practical but about audiences we seek to content with and outcomes we are aiming to achieve. Some will be theoretical or academic, others will be pragmatic, experiential and practicable – all include theology. What we believe will underpin what we say and what we do, what we believe about God is demonstrated in the way we live our lives, the things we say and do (and those things we do say and do not do).
In the gospel of Mark (8:27-29), Jesus asks his disciples “who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”
So, in all honesty, what do you believe? What do you believe about God? What do you believe about Jesus? What do you believe about the Holy Spirit? What do you believe about the Bible? What do you believe about creation? What do you believe about humanity? What do you believe about good and evil? What do you believe about redemption? What do you believe about the Church? What do you believe about future hopes?
When you know what you believe about God, how does that show in how you live? What do you believe about life and death? What do you believe about disability, abortion, euthanasia, punishment, restoration, healing, relationships?
This is going to be my theme for the coming weeks, exploring and examining beliefs. We have a chance to consider who we are and what we believe in a time of huge social change so that when restrictions lift, we can be honest about who we are and how we present our beliefs.
What do you believe?