I recently came across a great book at a local thrift shop which I picked it up for a dollar. It's called "Amazing Grace - A Vocabulary of Faith," by Kathleen Norris. I was a bit hesitant to grab it at first since it has a rave review from the Boston Globe! (A newspaper not known for advocating anything even approaching biblical Christianity.) It is also a New York Times Bestseller, and received from them the "Notable Book Award."
I must say I am not on the same page with everything she says, but she makes some very good points, is an extremely gifted writer, and her straying from the Protestant faith of her youth for 25 years, and then returning through Catholicism, only to embrace it once again because it helped her make sense of life -- makes for a very interesting and thought provoking read.
The theme of the book is taken from a line in Robert Robertson's hymn: "O to grace how great a debtor..." and this particular excerpt has to do with a truth regarding conversion which I wish more people would realize. The truth that in the New Testament conversion to Christ is simultaneously conversion into the fellowship of the Church. The faith is never meant to be lived in isolation from community, but lived out in and through a community of believers -- imperfect as that community of redeemed sinners may inevitably be. Enjoy.
"...Christian conversion is not a goal. Above all, it is not something one can strive for and attain for oneself, but comes only with the help of mentors. I found it helpful to name the men and women who all my life had listened, who had offered guidance and grounding when I needed it most. Often these were people who would be astonished to learn that they had nudged me gently, or not so gently, along the path of religious conversion. They had become what St. Paul might term my "cloud of witnesses," or communion of saints, but were not in themselves a community. And that, I finally realized, was what my conversion required...
[One] insight of Thomas Merton's, that "theology really happens in relations between people," was of great use to me when I began to consider, with much fear and trembling, that I would have to join a church. And that my grandmother Totten's church, just up the street from my house, would have to be it. Because that's where I live, and the Christian faith is best lived out among those who see us without pretensions, in the day-to-day circumstances of life.
It was not until years after I had joined that I finally felt I truly belonged there. But by then I had enough trust, enough faith in God to learn to examine even my negative reactions to religion for signs that my conversion was indeed taking root in me.
I had begun to comprehend that the Bible's story is about the relationship of God to human beings, and of human beings to one another, and that this meant that it is our friendships, marriages, families, and even church congregations that best reveal what kind of theology we have, who our God is. Or as Thomas Merton once put it, "because we love, God is present." That is the story."
I have often shared with my congregation the New Testament truth that conversion -- no matter how else one looks at it -- is conversion into the Body of Christ, the Church, and requires an ongoing commitment to involvement in a local body or congregation. A fellowship of faith where we can worship, learn, grow, use our spiritual gifts to edify and build up the body, give and receive encouragement, find accountability, and grow through seeking to love and relation-ally embrace people we may not particularly like at first (or ever)!
Sanctification, or growth in godliness, is nearly impossible in isolation from other believers (contrary to what we have come to believe in America). "Lone ranger Christians," or "home Baptists," who do not meet regularly with others to join in the work of furthering the kingdom are missing out on the many blessings of being part of a fellowship as well as living outside the will of God for His people (Acts 2:42-47 / Acts 4:32-37 / Romans 12:3-21 / I Corinthians 12:12-31 / Ephesians 4:1-16 / Hebrews 10:23-25 / I Peter 2:4-10).
The called are called into community - always. In fact, it's a truth so universally "taken for granted" by the apostolic authors that many verses in the epistles cannot be understood apart from the underlying assumption that the truth is written to the entire group as a unified whole and not just "individuals" within it.
So I admonish you, if you have strayed into an isolationist relationship with Jesus (for whatever reason), re-read the New Testament, reconsider what it says, and then like Kathleen Norris, "consider, with much fear and trembling, that (you need) to join a church." Or at the very least, gather with it regularly and consistently for worship, fellowship, service, and instruction.
"O to grace how great a debtor, daily I'm constrained to be." It is so true. And though we don't often think of it this way, part of that grace we are indebted to God for, comes to us through the interaction and fellowship we receive through our brothers and sisters in the church.
In Christ, Pastor Jeff