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Thinking Out Loud

The Hidden Beginning

by Michael Jinkins | Oct 23, 2017

Hidden BeginningDriving along wooded byways, it is not unusual to come across a sign that says something like "Caution: Hidden Entrance Ahead." And, sure enough, I have periodically been startled by the appearance of the hood of a pickup truck peeking out between tall hedges as I careened around a curve.

Consider this essay as such a signpost on the byways of Protestantism.

Warning: Hidden Beginnings

If there is anything we tend to miss as Protestant Christians it is the hidden entrances and beginnings of the faith we hold. This can be taken to extremes.

When I was a boy, I went to my pastor to enlist his help in working on the Boy Scout's God and Country award.* My childhood pastor was a fine man and a very good minister, and I have admired him all of my life. He read the material I gave him on how to earn the Protestant award, but then he told me that there was a serious problem with the award. He said something to this effect: "Mike, we aren't Protestants. We aren't protesting against anything. Baptists go all the way back to the beginning of the church. Even when the church strayed from time to time, there have always been Baptists." Then he gave me a copy of a book that taught that Baptists can be traced through a "trail of blood" through the history of the church, not only back to Jesus, but to John the Baptist.

Now, however wonderful my pastor was, his doctrine was, of course, simply historically inaccurate. "The trail of blood" was a mythology. What we call the Baptist movement today dates from the English separatists of the seventeenth century, not from the first. And although I never stopped admiring my pastor, it was decided that I couldn't proceed with the God and Country award because there wasn't an appropriate award for our church.

The "trail of blood" mythology my pastor taught had one thing going for it, however. It did try to connect the Protestantism of today (and I apologize, Brother Bob, but Baptists are Protestants, too) with the centuries of Christianity that went before the Reformation. Among the problems we face as Protestants today, one of the gravest is the inclination to think that "our church" (in my case, the Presbyterian or Reformed branch of Protestantism) began in the sixteenth century when, in fact, the reformers themselves were very clear that they were reforming the Christian Church which was already then sixteen centuries old.

When, as a seminary student, I was introduced to the full spectrum of the church's history, I was astonished by the range of experiences, beliefs, and wisdom that poured out of the abundant treasure chest of this (our!!!) rich, rich church history. Suddenly, I saw that the saints, sages and scholars of the Ancient Catholic Church, of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and of Roman Catholicism all around the world were our ancestors and our conversation partners just as much as were the Protestant reformers. And, in time, I came to realize that through the gift of faith, I also could say to my children, "We were once slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand." (Deuteronomy 6:21)

I suppose I've never gotten over the astonishment of that experience. It has only grown.

What a gift to realize that Gregory of Nyssa is as much a part of our Christian family tree as St. Paul, John Calvin or Elizabeth Johnson, or that John Bunyan can be read alongside Lady Julian of Norwich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And what an opportunity to draw upon the insights of Abraham Heschel as well as Thomas Merton. Christianity didn't begin in the sixteenth century with a German Augustinian teacher named Martin Luther. It began in the life and teachings of a Palestinian Jew who never ceased being a Jew. And the faith our founder represents, despite our worst efforts, is about breaking down the walls that alienate us from one another and from God, not about reinforcing them or (God forbid) erecting new ones.

As I am writing these words, in anticipation of various Protestant celebrations around the world that will culminate in late October, it is actually still summer, and I am sitting not in my office on the campus of a Presbyterian seminary, but in a small room in the Retreat House of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit outside Conyers, Georgia. I am the guest of this community of Cistercian monks who spend their lives seeking to praise God, to work faithfully in their fields and in the chapel, and to live according to a set of disciplines that are more than fifteen hundred years old. They have welcomed me graciously and allowed me to pray beside them in the choir and to receive the blessing of their abbot at Compline each evening before we retire. They and their brothers at Gethsemani Abbey have taught me to learn from some Christian ancestors who were, until meeting them, only vague names on the pages of history books, ancestors like John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus. And they have taught me practices of faith that can nurture the "prospective aspect of redemption" of which I wrote in the previous essay.

Today, as I watch the soft rain fall on the garden below and the wooded hills beyond, I am reminded once more of the vastness of the being of God to whom our little ways bear witness. If our Protestant Christian faith works to make our minds broader and our hearts more generous, then it has performed well its function as a doorway to faith in God. But if it closes us off into ever smaller ways of believing in ever smaller gods, thus making us smaller of mind and heart, then it and we have failed.

As we celebrate the Reformation, I think this is worth bearing in mind.

The world, after all, is not waiting and longing to hear about the history of our various denominations; the people of this world are waiting and longing to hear about the way of life that lies beyond the hidden beginning of this faith.

So, let's do enjoy the celebration of the Reformation by all means. Everybody loves a good party. But remember, this celebration pales in contrast to the one we get to have every year on Pentecost Sunday!

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* Now, parenthetically, I just want to say something about the Boy Scouts of America, even at the risk of chasing a rabbit into the tall grass. I loved scouting and was active in it from Tenderfoot to Explorer. I am an Eagle Scout. Order of the Arrow. I learned some of the most fundamental lessons of life from scouting. I learned reverence, tolerance, and openness to people who are not like me. There were gay scouts in our troop and they were respected. They were friends and fellow scouts. I learned respect for the faiths of others also. That's ultimately what the God and Country program was all about: teaching us religious literacy both of our own faiths and the faiths of others. I have grieved in recent years at the struggles this organization has had in finding its way back to its own core values, and I continue to hope that it will not fall victim to the polarized politics so common in so many corners of our society.

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