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by Al Maxey

Issue #703 ------- September 12, 2016
He who begins by loving Christianity more
than Truth, will proceed by loving his sect or
church better than Christianity, and end in
loving himself better than all.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

Reflecting on Belonging
Is it to a "What" or a "Whom"?

Walter "Walt" Whitman (1819-1892), long considered to be one of America's most influential and innovative poets, essayists and journalists, often called the "Bard of Democracy," was cursed with, as most "leading lights" are, a committed cadre of critics who never missed a chance to attack this man and misrepresent his message. On one occasion, Whitman responded, "I hear it was charged against me that I sought to destroy institutions, but really I am neither for nor against institutions" [from his work "Leaves of Grass," published in 1900]. Whitman truly believed that the brotherhood of individuals transcended the distinctive boundaries of institutionalism, with its attendant restrictive and often exclusive rules, regulations and rituals. He favored love over legislation, believing institutions tended to be influenced more by the latter than the former. Although he certainly addressed the ills of institutionalism during his life, his real focus and purpose was to advance a sense of belonging and brotherhood resulting from mutual love and respect among men, rather than expending his energy on institutionalism itself (to which he largely remained indifferent, being an activist neither for nor against). Therefore, immediately following the above quote, Whitman stated that his primary intent was to establish throughout the land, "without edifices, or rules, or trustees, or any argument, the institution of the dear love of comrades." Such an "institution" as this, he believed, would be far more worthwhile in the quest to establish true brotherhood within one's society.

When considering Whitman's focus, I can't help but think of what James (the brother of Jesus) similarly said about the nature of genuine "religion." When men hear this particular word they most often think institutionally, yet James called us all to a much simpler, and far more personal, perspective: "This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world" (James 1:27). When we today think of "church," we, in like manner, have a tendency to think of institutions rather than individuals. "Church," therefore, becomes, in our minds, more of a place than a people; it's somewhere we go more than who we are while going forth into the world about us. When institutional rules and rituals trump, and even trample, intimate individual relationships, then we reflect the almost certain reality that we have embraced a religious institution rather than our fellow redeemed "called out ones." We have opted to serve a system rather than our Savior and fellow saints. We then inevitably, and quite tragically, begin separating from one another over our many cherished party preferences and denominational distinctives, rather than uniting with diverse disciples in Him as Family. When our teaching and preaching is filled with "patterns pertaining to practices," and condemnation of those who dare to differ with us, we have fallen before the idol of institutional forms and formalities, and in so doing soon fall victim to the conviction that all who walk not with us, therefore also do not walk with Him, and are thus forever damned.

Part of the "problem" here (if I may employ this term) is an inherent desire within the heart of most within our species which is perhaps best characterized as "a longing for belonging." Although there are always exceptions and anomalies, the majority of humans, regardless of age, gender, race, culture, or social standing, seek acceptance by others. We want to belong to something or someone; we want to know that our lives matter to more than just ourselves; we want to experience the intimacies of genuine fellowship with those of like heart and mind. We seek a cause greater than ourselves to which we may devote our lives, and, yes, even a Being (variously perceived) before whom we may bow, and to whom we may belong. Although the outward expressions and manifestations of these longings vary dramatically among peoples and cultures, they are nevertheless quite common to our species.

Narrowing our focus to the universal Family of God the Father, we seek by faith to belong. We long to cry out, "Abba, Father." We desire to walk in fellowship with Him, and in a manner worthy of His calling. We seek to transform ourselves, with the aid of the indwelling Spirit, into the likeness of His Son. We want simply to belong. Over time, however, men have a tendency to lose sight of their original objective; they lose focus, and the result is their "belonging" is more to a what than to a Whom. I have heard far more of my spiritual siblings declare, "I belong to the Church of Christ," than, "I belong to Christ." What I have also heard, from those with the former focus, is increasingly vicious criticism and condemnation of those who do not belong to their particular religious affiliation. If one does not belong to their group, then one does not belong to "the Lord's Church," for there is only "one true church," and they are it!! Note the picture of the banner at the beginning of this article (which I found on Facebook in a "Church of Christ" group). The members of this Facebook group were declaring how "proud" they are to "belong" to the Churches of Christ, for, they proudly proclaimed, it, and it alone, was/is "the one true church." Everyone else in the world is going straight to hell. Why? Because they are not part of "the one true church." And, of course, this is the "Church of Christ" church. And even more specifically: the non-instrumental, no Sunday School, women silent, KJV only, no kitchen or fellowship hall "Church of Christ." Little is ever said about "to Whom" they belong, but much is taught about the party particulars and patterns of the "what" to which they pledge their allegiance.

I would like to make an emphatic declaration here: I do not belong to any denominated (named) religious group or church; nor do I have any desire to "belong" to such. I belong to HIM. I most certainly associate with, and work and worship with, brethren who share a similar background to mine, but I do not equate these named groups with the universal Family of the Father. I belong to NONE of them, although I may associate with several of them. I am not limited to a "what," for I am set free by belonging to a "Whom." I do indeed cherish some of my religious traditions, but I do not regard them as Truth. They are personal preferences, not divine imperatives! This frees me to be gracious, loving and accepting of fellow believers who may cherish differing traditions, for my focus is no longer on "what," but is rather on "Whom," we mutually cherish. Frankly, I find the above pictured banner offensive, for it favors faction over Family. It is a prideful party proclamation of exclusivity. WE are "the one true church," and all the rest of you out there are going straight to hell. That godless mindset was pounded into me from the pulpit as I grew up in this denominated group, and it took a while for me to rid myself of this sectarian poison. I now abhor that mindset with all my being, and will never, ever endorse it again. Our spiritual identity is not tied to any named group of believers with a set of cherished, chiseled-in-stone traditions; our identity is not derived from belonging to a "what," but is based on belonging to a "Whom." I am Thine, O Lord! Nothing more; nothing less. It is to HIM I belong, and that belongingness has set me free to associate and affiliate with, eat with, pray with, work with, worship with, and love ALL others who belong to HIM. All of those who are saved by grace through faith BELONG TO HIM, and they are my brethren whether they look like me or not! To all my spiritual siblings, I issue a call to lay aside this foolish quest to belong to a "what." Yes, keep and cherish your traditions, but cease proclaiming them as Truth. They are not. Instead, may we all rally around this eternal reality: It is to WHOM we belong that matters. I don't belong to the "Church of Christ," I belong to the Christ who is head of the church (the universal One Body). Whom ... not what! May more and more disciples come to discern this distinction!

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Alaska:

I'm sure that your latest Reflections (Issue #702: "Black, White and Gray: A Tribute to Fred D. Gray, Attorney") conveyed a message long overdue in our brotherhood. Brother Gray certainly deserves all the recognition he can get. What amazed me most as I listened to Bro. Gray's firsthand experiences during the classes he taught at Pepperdine University, and during the speeches he gave at both Pepperdine and Lipscomb University, was a core-humility and a servant-heartedness. Clearly gifted, Fred Gray glorifies God in his approach to the social evil that was, and still is, racial discrimination. I like the way you brought up-to-date his relevance. Blessings to you in your ministry!

From a New Reader in [Unknown]:

Brother Maxey, I have been reading your Reflections articles on your Archives web site for quite some time now, and I find them very informative and thought-provoking. I would appreciate being added to your mailing list. Thank you very much for all your efforts.

From a Reader in Tennessee:

About three lessons into my upcoming class on Biblical Anthropology I plan on talking about the creation account in Genesis 1-2. In the course syllabus I included a disclaimer that states, "The instructor does not endorse all that these authors teach on any one given subject with regard to Biblical Anthropology and the Nature of Man. Neither should the student feel compelled to agree with the instructor or these authors on the subject under consideration." Hopefully, this will help anyone who is uncomfortable with new information. During this upcoming class I plan on discussing your article "The Great Belly Button Debate" (Reflections #233, which also appeared in John Clayton's periodical "Does God Exist?"). I strongly agree with you, and think you made a very strong point that God is not a "great deceiver" with respect to the physical evidence of the creation. What attracts me so much to your Reflections is that you are consistent in stressing context and in your definitions of terms. Please pray that all who take this class will be open-minded. Unfortunately, we know that there is a very legalistic congregation here that will be "spying out our freedom," and who intend to try discrediting this class on social media and from their pulpit. Par for the course, sadly! On a different, but similar, subject: my son is in his final year of law school. We have some really good discussions on hermeneutics. Sometimes he has to bite his tongue when he hears the teachers at his congregation proclaiming what they do. Starting when he was very young, I would give him articles to read by Carl Ketcherside, Cecil Hook, Leroy Garrett, Edward Fudge, and, of course, Al Maxey. Being educated in the law, one can readily see how illogical CENI and the Law of Silence are!

From a Reader in Alabama:

Al, we really enjoy your weekly Reflections. Have you done any on homosexuals?

  1. Special Request of my Reflections readers
  2. Reflections #305: "The Nature/Nurture Dilemma: A Reflective, Respectful Response to Saints Struggling with Homosexuality"
  3. Reflections #668: "Letter to a Homosexual Couple: How Would Our Lord Have Us Respond to Those Engaged in an Anti-Biblical Lifestyle?"

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Al, I am about to begin teaching the Minor Prophets. What books would you recommend for my study of this topic?

From a Reader in Alabama:

"Black, White and Gray" was another great article! I can't believe this is the first I've ever read about this great man of God. Thanks for writing this piece about Fred Gray. I'm sending you a little piece I wrote. Yes, indeed -- one must do the right thing! You never know but what some person, even a total stranger, might witness you standing up for justice, and then take that image with them into eternity. I really hope I meet in Paradise the two little girls I wrote about, and finally learn their names. By the way, this is also my first attempt at writing a haibun. Here it is:

Dreaming - the second-hand store
found: a purple dress,
courage eternal, renewed

From a Reader in Texas:

What a wonderful article "Black, White and Gray" is!! At 84 years, I was raised when there was segregation in everything. I know this has had an effect on my life. Today it is the black "culture," more than the color of skin, that disturbs me. I am a minority today in Houston. I feel like my country has betrayed white people with immigration laws bringing all people and cultures into our country. At the same time, I know God is still in control, but I struggle with the way things are going. With all the "gay" things going on, and the total immorality of most in our nation, maybe God is bringing His justice upon America. Your article helps me to remember that there are godly people of color. Cline Paden said that maybe God is bringing the Muslims to us because we did not go to them.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

I didn't know anything about brother Fred Gray, but this Reflections on him brought back some memories. My parents were born and raised in Kentucky, as was my older brother. My younger brother and I were born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. My dad was one of a few men who planted the Church of Christ in Omaha. At that time, folks were coming from Bellevue, Nebraska and Council Bluffs, Iowa and the surrounding areas, including black folks. After a while, the outlying areas accumulated enough people to start their own congregations. This included the black folks, who started the "colored" congregation in their area. As I remember, they did it on their own accord, as opposed to being forced out. The men of that black congregation asked my dad to come teach a class on singing. I always thought that was strange! I don't recall ever seeing black folks needing to be taught how to sing! I must have been six or seven years old when this was taking place. Just sharing, brother! I do so enjoy your Reflections, Al, as well as the readers' comments. Blessings to you and Shelly.

From an Elder in Texas:

I heard that Rosa Parks attended a Church of Christ when the bus problem arose, and that the preacher at her church did not want to get involved, which opened the door for Martin Luther King. Any truth to that?

From an Author in Florida:
(This brother forwarded my article "Black, White and Gray"
to those on his mailing list, and he wrote the following to them):

Forwarded is a Reflections article about Bro. Fred Gray. This article was written by Bro. Al Maxey. Some of you are familiar with Al's work and his writings. Others of you are not. Whether you agree or disagree with Al's writings, you will definitely be provoked to think. However, I don't believe any of you will disagree with the tribute Al pays to Bro. Fred Gray. Fred has attended at our congregation and has also spoken here. His is a life of accomplishment, and this tribute serves him well. Enjoy!!

From an Elder in Michigan:

Al, I am so blessed by your powerful ministry, and I pray for Blessings and Spirit Guidance for you and Shelly.

From a Reader in Barbados:

I put off reading this last Reflections ("Black, White and Gray") for a considerable period since I was working on a number of projects. However, I mentally decided that when I did read it that I would pore over it, and in so doing I have been so inspired. I was not aware of the significant input that this saint in Christ has made to the civil rights movement. Thanks very much for this eye-opener. Again, it is a demonstration of what a man in the hands of the Lord can do, especially against all odds.

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