Brad King, a professor at Ball State, has started a “collaborative letter-writing project” called “Faith, Fully,” in which he is accepting letters from people of various faiths and worldviews across the nation to answer questions posed monthly by Brad. Both Josh Holowell, New Life’s church planting apprentice, and I have agreed to participate in the project. Some of the letters will eventually be chosen for inclusion in a book that “explores how Americans think about their own faith, or their own lack of religion.”
The first question posed by Brad was this: “How do you describe your faith, and how do you trace its roots?” The copy below is my response to this question, and I will plan to post my future responses to future questions here. If you want to read the other letters received, go here.
My name is Bob O’Bannon. I’m a pastor. To you that might not sound strange, but to me it does. Even after 12 years of leading New Life Presbyterian Church in Yorktown, Indiana, it still startles me a bit to hear someone address me as “Pastor Bob.” One reason this seems strange to me is because of my very unremarkable past – I wasn’t quarterback on the football team, didn’t do very well on the SATs, and overall didn’t get involved in anything. Growing up in Carmel, Indiana, I just wanted to play basketball, listen to music, and hang out with my friends. Never even considered being a pastor. People might have described me as a follower, but not a leader. The thought of speaking in front of people filled my heart with horror and dread. Now I lead a congregation and speak to hundreds of people every Sunday. That’s strange.
The other reason it is strange that I am a pastor is because I happen to be acquainted with the duplicity, lovelessness, and self-centeredness of my own heart. If the people of the church where I serve were granted a view into the inner workings of my soul, they would not be blamed for suggesting that I look for another line of employment.
But the truth is that I am a pastor. I have come to peace with this odd fact for a number of reasons, the most central of which is the fact that it is a demonstration of the grace that is at the heart of the Christian Gospel. Grace is a little different than mercy – “mercy” is not getting what you deserve; “grace” is getting what you don’t deserve. And that’s the way the Gospel works. The Bible is full of examples of how God in his grace has chosen to employ the most unlikely people to do his work – Abraham was a liar, Moses was a murderer, David was an adulterer, and Paul was a terrorist, but God lifted them out of themselves, turned their stony hearts into flesh, and commissioned them for his glorious purposes. And that’s what he did for me.
So yes, I’m a Christian. I try to avoid terms like “evangelical” (too political), “conservative” (too misleading), or even “Protestant” (too broad). By “Christian,” I mean that I believe the best account of reality is given to us in the Bible, which tells us that God created the world upright and good; that men, women and children – who retain the image of God and are thereby all worthy of respect and dignity – have rebelled against their Creator and collectively plunged the world into various forms of suffering, injustice and disorder; that God in his love has initiated a divine rescue mission by entering into history from the outside some 2,000 year ago in the person of Jesus Christ, living a perfect life and dying a sacrificial death on a cross to secure payment for sins; that Jesus is distinct from all other religious leaders in that he was resurrected from the grave, triumphing over the most formidable enemies of the human race (sin, evil, death and the devil himself) and proving his claims to divinity; that people benefit from Christ’s life, death and resurrection not by moral effort but through personal faith in him, and then seek to live as devoted followers of their Savior in the power of God’s Holy Spirit and under the direction of the Scriptures; and that Jesus has promised to return one day, when he will bring history to a close, avenge all wrongdoing, fix everything that has been broken, and wipe away every tear of those who have trusted him.
This is what Christians call “the Gospel,” and this is how I would describe my faith. I didn’t understand everything I just described when I became a Christian about 35 years ago, and I know I have a lot more to learn in the years ahead. To the best of my knowledge, I became a Christian when I came to understand that my religion, morality, ethnicity, political views, church involvement, good intentions or social activism would never be enough to cancel my sins and make me acceptable to God. Only Jesus could do that.
Some would call me liberal because I like beer, watched all of “Breaking Bad,” and listen to bands like St. Vincent, the Smiths, and My Bloody Valentine; others would call me conservative because I believe the Bible is historically and theologically true, that hell is a real place where some people will go, and that Jesus is the only hope we have to escape it. I suppose there is something to be valued in not being easily categorized. As Flannery O’Connor wrote, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”
Thanks Brad for initiating this fascinating exercise. I’m looking forward to learning from the rest of the “Faith Fully” participants and to sharing my own perspective on the broken and beautiful world we are all navigating together.