And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.- Luke 2:52
AS I’VE AGED, rather gracelessly I might add (I will not be offended if you ask me “are those bags under your eyes or suitcases?”), my devotion has begun to mature alongside me. To be honest this column began from some thoughts I had about faith after viewing Going Clear, a documentary that profiles the Church of Scientology and a handful of former members who have left the church. The documentary reminded me that the vast majority of us, throughout our lives, seek something higher than ourselves. I am no different. In the past half-decade, I’ve earnestly begun to hope that there exists something greater in this universe than a pasty, neurotic, rather narcissistic and self-indulgent thirty-something man-child.
We all seek out something to believe in. I think it’s important, whether it be the science fiction writing turned Scientology doctrine of L. Ron Hubbard or the gospel of Jesus or Muhammad, to sit and listen and try and understand what draws believers to the message. This is regardless of whether or not the basic tenets of that faith are, in the case of Scientology, jealously guarded behind a series of paid subscriptions or, in the case of Christianity, freely available inside the desk drawer of every hotel and motel bedroom between Bangor, Maine and Bakersfield, California.
We all will walk a journey of faith throughout our lives. As an example, my life would be vastly different if I was born somewhere between the Tigris and the Euphrates rather than in a place between the Mississippi and the Colorado. My faith would be immensely different as well if my parents were devout Muslims instead of back row Protestants. Would any of this make me less of a faithful person or any less godly? When people, including American presidential candidates, try and bucket entire groups of people who believe in the teachings of either Muhammad, Abraham or Jesus into separate yet broad categories they demean the fact that every single one of us is walking a journey of faith, and we are all at different points on this journey.
We all approach scripture with our own experiences and our own biases. There are prison inmates who spend every moment of their lives repenting a past indiscretion while there are supposedly faith-filled priests who rail to their congregation on the abomination of homosexuality and simultaneously commit unspeakable acts of perversion on young boys. Faith is not black and white. Some would have you believe that it is. Either you believe in God or you don’t; it’s that simple isn’t it? Yet the Scripture is quite literally more than black and white. There are some important words written in red.
On the journey of faith, you are to be endlessly tested. If you’re not, you’re probably walking down the wrong path. One may read scripture one way and another completely different. They’re reading the same words, but consuming those words with hearts and minds that contain vastly different experiences. There are countless Muslims who desperately preach and pray for peace and love and mercy while others wrongly call for Jihad. Are they not reading and preaching from the same book? Meanwhile, I read the Bible far differently now than I did when I was seventeen. I think it is safe to say that your perception of the Word likely varies, at least slightly, if you read scripture primarily on a scroll or primarily on a smartphone.
Let’s be frank. Throughout history, and even today, people have used and continue to use scripture to promote their own agendas, whether or not they are the agendas of God. Faith is a being. It is a living organism. Like a body, it can be filled with nutrients or poison. As the faithful, we are given a choice on which plate to eat and which cup to drink. The choice is up to us, and it is a very important one.
Faith is also far from effortless, but I think faithful people will often act like the act of their faith is effortless and that their individual beliefs are righteous beyond reproach. This often causes division: either you’re with us or against us. The Church of Scientology has devoted parts of its doctrine to how to handle those deemed a “Suppressive Person” (SP) who are considered enemies of the religion. Because of this, mothers have been yanked from their sons, fathers from their daughters, and people who have spent the bulk of their lives breathing in the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard have been cast out of the society with nothing more than the flick of the wrist. Entire civilizations have been decimated by acts committed in the name of God.
It’s far easier to draw a line in the sand than it is to reach across that line and build a castle together.
Recently, I spent a weekend with an exceptional group of young people looking to grow both their faith and their leadership abilities. The aim of this weekend was to ultimately improve a city. It was phenomenal. I took away much from the weekend, but there were a couple of things that really stood out to me. The first is that God wants to be pursued. He wants to be sought. He delights in our growth. The second was that for some faith isn’t simple. While some hear God’s voice daily, others do not. Have I ever heard God’s voice? I’m not sure, but there have been moments in my life where something inside of me has been coaxing me to make the right decision, the stronger, yet more difficult, choice. Often, sadly, I have failed to heed this call. Was this the Lord speaking to me, or was it simply my conscience? Maybe they’re one in the same?
Let us never forget that Jesus was a student before he became a teacher. I absolutely cherish a story in the book of Luke, which tells of a 12-year old Jesus who both terrified and impressed his parents when he left their side as they were traveling to Jerusalem. Afraid they’d lost him, Jesus’ parents began an exhaustive, three day search until they located him inside the temple courts, where he was wowing the priests with his knowledge of the Scripture. His parents found him, as is written in Luke 2:46 “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” Jesus’ parents likely were dumbfounded after they inquired to him, with imaginable exacerbation, why he was there, and he responded with all the rebelliousness of a pre-teen who can’t quite understand His parent’s concern: “‘Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my father’s house?’”
The story speaks not only of Jesus’ courage and intelligence but His curiosity as well. I can almost see Jesus, so engrossed in the discussion of faith, just wanting to be a part of it. Shouldn’t we all be that curious? Should, as we grow our faith, work to learn, to mature, and try to understand the beliefs of others? We may not agree with them, and we may push, as in my faith, to promote the gospel of Jesus, but as it is ultimately said in James 1:19: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
When you understand that the Messiah had to build His own knowledge, had to develop His own understanding, had to grow in both stature AND wisdom, I think it becomes easier to grasp that each and every one of us are walking our own path. We are, all of us, maturing and growing and developing our own values and faith. It’s when we align those values with the Word of God, our faith can truly mature and grow. As is written in Corinthians: “You are God’s field, God’s building.”
Documentaries, like everything in this world, have agendas. Even this column has an agenda. The agenda of Going Clear was not to extoll the virtues of Scientology. It was created instead to highlight the church’s flaws. It’s easy for outsiders to wonder what would cause someone to spend decades immersed in such a faith. But any of us who have never picked up a copy of Dianetics or sat through an auditing session cannot fully understand what it’s like.
In the documentary, you can see the genuine joy on the faces of former members recalling their first auditing sessions. One described his first session as an out-of-body experience. Inside the Church of Scientology, these individuals did find community and a shared purpose, and yet they also found deception. It’s almost painful to watch as they describe their shame and anguish at the discovery that they invested decades, dollars and devotion only, in the end, to be lied to and to be treated as pawns in Chairman of the Board David Miscavige’s unyielding quest for power and personal lust. What each of them felt, and it was plastered on their faces, was immense regret.
I’ve always met people who say they have no regrets with a mix of both envy and skepticism. I certainly have my fair share of regrets. Yet, one regret I hope to never have is to put my entire heart into something, to fully exercise my powers of faith and belief, only to find out I’ve been lied to. God makes a promise to each of his believers and I have begun to feel that promise in every chord of a worship song, every warm embrace from someone I serve with and every time I open my Bible to a particularly meaningful passage. Faith is truly a powerful thing.
You still likely will find me sitting at the back of church on Sunday. I likely will still avoid exercising my vocal range while others around me belt out a worship song. Yet, each and every Sunday, when I walk out of His house, I will feel a little more fulfilled than I did the week before. Faith is truly a powerful thing.