My Current Image of God… (or at least one of them)


Ok… another paper for my Images of God class:

Images of God
Personal Faith Tradition Images

My personal faith tradition is somewhat eclectic. Although lived primarily within a broad, Wesleyan holiness context in the Pilgrim Holiness Church, a precursor of the current Wesleyan Church; and then the Church of the Nazarene; my familial faith roots are somewhat ecumenical although strongly evangelical. This fact became a family joke. My grandparents, on my father’s side, were especially so. Grandma Williams was raised Quaker. Her maiden name was Maris, and the Maris clan has had a strong Quaker faith foundation going back to George Fox. The original Maris progenitors to emigrate from England to this country, George and Alice Maris, were contemporaries to Fox. In fact, they also were religiously persecuted:
“the husband had had his goods distrained and sold to the value of twenty pounds sterling, equal to four hundred dollars now, and had been imprisoned eight months, for the crime of permitting a religious meeting to be held at his dwelling house, without having the services conducted by a priest of the State Church.” 1
Grandpa Williams was raised Baptist. They were married in a Methodist church, Grandma Williams eventually became a Pilgrim Holiness pastor, and were attending a Church of the Nazarene when my Grandfather died.
A stronger influence on my early faith learning than doctrine, was evangelicalism, primarily because Dad was an evangelist. However, just to say Dad was an evangelist isn’t a full picture. Our whole family travelled with my father as he held revivals throughout the United States, and infrequently in Canada. Dad preached in over 30 different denominations, and frequently stated that if you took all of the symbols out of a church which communicated denominational affiliation, you couldn’t really tell the difference in the experience. Dad and Mom also withheld their support of strong legalistic tendencies within both the Pilgrim Holiness and Nazarene denominations. This was especially so in the manner they raised my siblings and me. Dad frequently received criticism for not following strict dress, and behavioral requirements for his wife and children. Although these requirements were unwritten, they were nonetheless “enforced” by a culture of shame and superiority. Dad’s openness to the independence of his wife and children, was to be a source of personal and professional difficulty for him when, in the 1970’s, my mother became involved in the Charismatic movement. Because the Church of the Nazarene of that time had an informal suppression of certain expressions of spiritual experience inherent within the movement, especially the gift of tongues, Mom’s outspoken witness of the joy she was experiencing in her newly-found freedom brought severe consequences to Dad’s ministry. My dad’s response to Mom’s experience, was one of both disagreement with some of her beliefs, yet openness to her experience. He maintained his doctrinal independence, and upheld her freedom to follow God.
It was in this context I came to personal faith. Partially due to this, I believe, I have been open to other faith traditions and expressions than those I have experienced. Dad used to say that “everyone has to hack out their own way” through their faith journey, and I have tried to allow others that freedom. That leads me to the images of God in my tradition. I suppose the over-riding image would be the graphic of the Church of the Nazarene.2  The image contains fire in the upper left-hand corner with a dove descending. The meaning of it ties in with both the baptism of Christ, and the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples gathered in the upper room together. The graphic implies the purity and holiness of God, symbolized by the fire, descending on disciples of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, symbolized by the dove. I confess that the issues I have had with both the meaning, and the denomination itself has less to do with the symbol, and more with the expressions of “holiness” which I saw in the church. While the symbol expresses well the doctrine of the Church of the Nazarene, it also expresses the experience of the Charismatic movement. Is holiness expressed in the manner which my parents… and me, by association… were treated? Not in my judgment. The image which better describes my experience at that time, would be of fire in the lower part of the image, symbolizing destruction, with a black crow ascending after feeding on the carcasses of dead traditionalism and the people robbed of a faith which is open to Spirit innervated and energized re-imagination of fresh expressions.
To be fair, the current leadership of the denomination seems to be seeking to return to the original meaning of the symbol. There is an openness to what God is doing and saying in the world today. However, as with the Charismatic movement, there is resistance in the ranks. While I could recount examples of this, I will instead say how glad I am that the leadership seems to understand the transition our world is in from one cultural and historic epoch to another, and are looking for ways to re-interpret the denominations doctrinal distinctiveness to emerging generations.
So where does that leave me….
I have had a growing dissonance with the denomination’s stand on sanctification as a distinct, separate work of grace and experience; as well as the definition of “Christian perfection.” I have found little in my personal experience and in watching the lives of elders in the tradition to believe in the practical reality of experience of these two doctrines. The teaching seems too concrete to be true in the fluidity of life. I also am not convinced in the scriptural evidence which is sited to back up the beliefs, to my own satisfaction. The doctrine of sanctification as historically preached in my experience, seems curiously similar to the spiritual construct of “being filled with the Spirit” as taught by Pentecostals, as well as the term “accepting Jesus as Lord” as communicated in some Baptists circles. To me they are semantics which communicate a similar spiritual crisis experience separate from initial “salvation.” I have come to see that my walk with God contains many crisis experiences, many infillings with the Spirit, and more process that structure. In fact, I would say that the structure is more fluid than concrete. The deeper I get into relationship with God, the less certain I become; but the more responsive as well, as if in a real relationship. I find the Spirit working in my intuition, but also in my blindness, as well. I also keep coming back to the same lessons, again and again. As my life changes, I fight the same habits of responding or assertively acting in the world. I also find, however, that I hear God speaking and see God acting all around me; especially when and where I least expect God. The image which seems to resonate with my experience most recently is that of Wind. Knowing from where it comes or to where it goes is quite beyond me, yet I feel its presence.

1) From the website: http://www.lindapages.com/family/maris.htm

2) http://nazarene.org/files/docs/Manual2005_09.pdf

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