My maternal grandfather was a devout Christian. A deacon and a Sunday school teacher, Granddaddy Stoune routinely studied his Bible, said grace over every meal, and always attended worship services at the Baptist church where he was a second-generation member, sitting attentively just yards away from the pulpit a few pews back. He also kept in his study a copy of the Book of Mormon, which he curiously dabbled in on occasion. Learning about Grandaddy’s quiet research of a different religion in my adult life perplexed me. I thought he always had it all figured out; that he had it right. What was he looking for?
My paternal grandfather was a devout Catholic. Steeped in a rigid commitment to Catholicism inherent with his particular Mexican culture, Grandpa Mack went through the motions of attending Spanish-speaking mass, observing the rituals of Catholicism with unquestionable discipline. So, when his Presbyterian wife Beatriz, whose proud Spanish lineage led her down a different path of Christianity, went behind his back and gave their sons permission to attend the church of her denominational upbringing one morning and he found out about it, Grandpa Mack marched down to the Presbyterian church, pulled his sons out of that worship service, spanked them for their defiance, and marched them into Catholic mass right across the street. When I learned about that in my adolescence, I wondered what was so wrong with Grandma Bea’s church. What was Grandpa so afraid of?
In much the same way that Scripture hits differently each time we revisit it with every changing season of our lives, those glimpses into my grandparents’ pasts have unfolding lessons for me that become more powerful over time. What they consistently teach me is that a life of faith is fluid, that it is meant to be challenged or it will become stagnant, and that it is not meant to be understood with any degree of human certainty, because being right all the time is exhausting. Making sure we are never wrong in our faith brings a weight of protective anxiety that chisels away at the soul, even as we are sure that we are saving it.
Jesus instructs his followers, “Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30). And throughout Scripture, the stories of God and the prophets and Jesus of Nazareth reveal the uncontainable Spirit of God breaking every yoke of oppression, which, in turn, sets captives free. A life of faith that gives witness to that Spirit is not made to be burdened by anxious rules of its own design. It is made to be set free from getting everything absolutely right so that it can guide the soul that practices it to love more freely. After all, when we breathe our last and we are reunited with Jesus in glory, do we think he will give us a quiz to make sure we got our theology right during the years God gave us, or will the Good Shepherd ask us, “Did you feed my sheep?” and then invite us to follow him into Paradise and tell him all about it?
I’ve preached over a thousand sermons, and I still don’t have this life of faith all figured out (thank God). But one thing I’ve learned from those years of preaching is that nothing makes someone angrier than a sermon that challenges their certitude. In retrospect, when someone waves their finger in my face to admonish something they heard in the message (what someone hears from a sermon is seldom what the preacher actually said), I see Grandaddy Stoune’s faithful curiosity that understands God to be bigger than the confines of any religion hiding under a layer of fearful defensiveness. When I get that note expressing anger or disappointment over what someone took from the sermon, I read between the lines Grandpa Mack’s apprehensiveness toward any alternatives to his understanding of faith.
I’m thankful for both of my exemplary grandfathers and the faith they sought to carry out on this side of eternity. I’m grateful to God for being able to carry the faith they taught me forward, taking on the yoke of Jesus, and focusing as best I can on the foundational message that is not meant to be controlled by Christians, Mormons, Catholics, or Presbyterians, but to set us all free to live as unabashed reflections of the Creator God in whose embrace everyone is held: Love one another. Don’t be afraid to do that…ever. Within the parameters of the religion to which you adhere and the faith gifted you to practice, love with all that you are and leave the rest to God.