Shaping Faith

I’ve been reading articles on a newly re-visioned website,, that I certainly hope will become a popular gathering place among people seeking a simple and grace-filled exercise of their faith.  I deeply respect the honesty, faith and scholarship of the featured writers as well as the positive way they present their ideas, even if I may differ on some of them.  The recent focus has been on “People Who Shaped Our Faith.”  I suppose everyone has stories of how they came to be of the religious conviction that they are, or are not, or are no longer.  I recently spoke with a friend who is a lapsed Catholic and presently considers himself to hold no religious beliefs, owing at least partially if not largely to the dark actions and unkind deeds of those who would claim to be the followers of the Prince of Peace.  I assured him that not all Christians are like that.  But I do understand his reasoning, having seen the same kinds of things.  He and I, however, have taken different paths at that particular fork in the road.  Where some may reject all issues of faith, others may seek to understand the reasoning for what they behold, and seek for a genuine experience of what they see as having become a twisted and polluted expression. 

As I think about those that had some impact on shaping my faith, I cannot help but consider the obvious ones: my parents and grand-parents who set examples of diligence, caring, and true devotion to something they could not see, but by their faith knew to be real and true.  I recall the story of how my grandmother, Lecta, had quoted from her hospital bed, very near the end of her battle with breast cancer, the words of Paul, when he said, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4.17)  That is faith, to stare into the jaws of your own mortality and find peace.

My mother, Fay, never seemed to get too deep into doctrinal issues.  Having been the wife of a preacher for most of her life, she knew more of those arguments than most, and had seen churches at their best and worst.  But aside from church issues, she was to me, the most shining example of what a true Christian must be: she epitomized love and concern for people.  She genuinely cared about them, and showed it by caring for them.  Even when people were unkind, she soldiered on, doing what she knew to be right.  Her life was exactly as Paul wrote in Philippians 1.21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”  Her passing was indeed a gain for her, but a great loss to this aching world.  I miss her every day, but she is always with me.

Of course, my father, Max, has inspired and shaped much of who I am in terms of faith.  I was a religiously rebellious youth, not the kind prone to trouble in the earthly sense, but troubled in the spiritual sense.  Despite the frequent, constant teachings, I could never make sense of the issue of faith.  But perhaps one of the most important things he ever did for me was to suggest I read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.  I avoided it for a while, but when I found a copy in the bargain bin at the Vanderbilt Bookstore, I surreptitiously purchased it, and made myself read it.  It took time to internalize the message.  But when I saw, as my father eventually taught that religion, faith, and Christianity are not about law and punishment, but about love, I made a commitment, and I as have previously reflected, I never looked back.

Through his trials and difficulties as he has studied and evolved in his own understanding, I have witnessed a transition toward a deeper understanding and embrace of that most elusive property of the Christian experience—grace.  He has found a voice in sharing his faith far beyond the confines of a legalist’s pulpit. 

When I came to Martin, I placed membership with a small group in the next town west, and was practically adopted by Harold and Bettye Jenkins.  Bettye remains a beacon in my life, showing me the quiet dedication and deep understanding that a life of Christian service affords. She surprises me with different views from time to time, and I find her take on issues to be refreshing, thoughtful, and filled with just good common sense.  She is eminently practical, and I find myself needing that sort of grounding.

Her husband, Harold, was a banker for many years, but had on occasion taught classes and preached for area churches.  He was a wealth of Biblical knowledge, and a man of broad views and understanding, having converted to this church from another faith heritage.  He reminded me of the encouraging comment he was once given by a famous preacher, that there won’t be anyone in Heaven or hell who shouldn’t be there, that God is just and merciful and that he will have the final say, not those of us here with limited understanding.  As his health deteriorated, his mind grew dimmer, but I recall a few months before he passed away, he told me how fortunate he believed the congregation was to have me there.  I was touched and didn’t know what to say, thinking that it was far more fortunate to have him.  I led the singing at his funeral, and I sang some of his favorite hymns, including “Count Your Blessings,” perhaps fitting for a banker, but more so for a gentle man who truly believed he was truly blessed.  I can’t sing that song without thinking of him.    

These were obvious choices for mention in this topic.  But included in this list are three men of faith with whom I have been at least marginally associated, and whom I have admired.  And perhaps less expected from a middle class white man, born in the ‘60’s and raised in the South, all three of these men were African-American.

First, I think of Richard Harris, who placed his membership with the congregation where my father was preaching in South Carolina.  I did not know him well, nor did I know him for long.  But I recall that he once inquired as to my intentions regarding the faith, as I was in my rebellious youth phase.  I got away from him as quickly and politely as I could, but the encounter stuck with me.  He was not rude or obnoxious about it.  He gently asked a question to which I was neither ready nor intellectually able to respond at the time.  He was an old man, and as happens too frequently with men of that age, death came quickly and unexpectedly, and I never had the chance to get to know him better.  But I saw faith and gentleness in the man. 

After I had been in Martin for several years, I came to know a man who placed his membership with the congregation that had become my home.  Harold Milligan had a seasonal lawn care business, where he mowed lawns and planted gardens.  But his true passion was preaching.  Harold apprenticed himself to the preacher in the congregation to learn the preacher’s craft.  He was put through the exercises of memorizing verses, learning the proof texts to be instant, in season and out of season as Paul instructed Timothy.  Personally, I think his best work was early in his presentations to us.  I recall one where he was absolutely himself, where he fell into the lyrical cadence of the Black preacher.  I was mesmerized by the presentation.  Once that genuine expression was pressed out of him, he became more of a flat, two-dimensional but darker-skinned copy of the typical preachers for my tribe. 

I may not have agreed with Harold on every point, but I deeply respected his faith.  I have never seen a man of deeper faith.  Why do I say that?  When Harold Milligan was diagnosed with stomach cancer, his health deteriorated rapidly, perhaps as a result of his poverty leaving him at the mercy of a healthcare system that was more worried about money than people.  The last Sunday he was able to attend the worship service, he weakly took to the pulpit, and with quiet voice spoke his last sermon.  He concluded with, “Don’t you worry about Brother Milligan.  I’m going to be all right.”  And I believe he is more than alright, comforted in ways this world never afforded him.

Finally, Barry Barber was a man who placed his membership with us only a few years ago.  Barry was in a wheelchair, paralyzed as a result of an accident some years earlier.  His body was wracked by the ravages of immobility; he developed diabetes, and ultimately, a rapidly spreading cancer.  The chemotherapy he was taking made him sicker; his mouth was often dry, which meant that he was no longer able to lead songs for the congregation.  But before that happened, I recall he led with strength and feeling that no one in our little group had ever mustered, nor has since been able to approach.  His body was broken, but his mind was amazingly sharp.  He had questions and insights that I looked forward to when I taught the Bible class.  I respected him deeply. 

And then he was gone.  The cancer took him, far too young.  I have no doubt that he was ready.  But I was not.  I cried for Barry as I had cried for Harold, these strong men who were neither well-known nor powerful among society, but who towered as giants in their faith.

As I think about my own journey of faith, I can see elements of all these people internalized in my very soul, present if not fully expressed at this moment in time.  I see glimmers of the resolution of my grandmother, the caring of my mother, the vision of my father, the common sense of Bettye Jenkins, the wider world view of Harold Jenkins, the gentleness of old Bro. Harris, the dedication of Harold Milligan, the peace of Barry Barber.  I may never attain full expression of any of these attributes.  But that will only be my fault for not exercising them at every opportunity. 

Each one of these wonderful men and women has deeply shaped my faith.  But if truth be told, there have been so many others.  To be surrounded by people of faith is to be influenced by them.  Like a river tumbling rough rocks into smooth round stones, or the persistent effects of wind and time smoothing the raw edges of a rocky peak into a gentle dome, our teachers and guides and fellow travelers shape us.  We are individual flames kindled from borrowed sparks.  Because of the glow of others, we can shine, and in that sharing, we have hope that we can continue that chain of faith and hope and love.                    


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: