Experience Counts

In my first assignment as an associate pastor fresh out of seminary, I made a few mistakes (perhaps that’s an understatement). One was preaching social justice sermons to an affluent congregation that boasted some prominent executives of large corporations. While I felt what I preached was true to the gospel, it’s always helpful to remember your audience. That way you can tailor your sermon so as to maximize getting your message across and minimize the chances that you’ll be fired after the benediction.

Wanting to give counsel, one of the execs invited me to lunch. He shared a truth he gained from aging: “If you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative when you’re old, you have no brain.” This was his way of saying that experience counts. His experience, from decades in industry, taught him what he was trying to teach me: Open your eyes and come to your senses.

I recalled this while reading the story of the late Bishop Carlton D. Pearson, who recently died at age 70. He had been a leader in the Church of God in Christ denomination, and had his roots in evangelism, dating back to his connection with Oral Roberts University. A self-described “fourth generation fundamentalist,” he began questioning some things as he grew older. His experience led to writing a book titled, The Gospel of Inclusion: Reaching Beyond Religious Fundamentalism to the True Love of God and Self. Because he questioned a literal hell, and dared think God could be more loving than we can imagine, he was declared a heretic by fellow bishops in his denomination and suffered the consequences.

The bishop wrestled with reconciling a casting-into-hell God with a loving one. What once was a simple, it’s-in-the-Bible belief when he was young had to be challenged and ultimately changed as he grew older, gained experience, and listened to his heart. It’s similar to the journey Rev. Rob Bell took that led to his book, Love Wins.

So, within a faith context, what my well-intentioned businessman counseled could be flipped a bit. If you’re not more evangelical when you’re young, you haven’t taken the Bible seriously enough. If you don’t grow more progressive as you age, you haven’t listened to your heart as you’ve read that Bible.

Sure, that’s a stereotype. It points, though, to a solid spiritual truth: A person’s faith must grow and mature as they do. Jesus was a catalyst for this. He kept pushing back against the legalists of his day, saying it’s OK to heal on the Sabbath, forgive enemies, and celebrate a God who’s more a parent and less a coercive dictator. The Pharisees wanted to label him a heretic, just as a council had labeled Bishop Pearson. And Christians who broaden their experiences, such as forming relationships with fellow believers who identify as LGBTQ: Aren’t they following in Jesus’ footsteps?

Being more progressive doesn’t necessarily mean becoming less conservative. You can still uphold traditions and traditional values. It does mean, though, that you aren’t as quick to pass judgment (and, for United Methodists, disaffiliate). You soften the “us” and “them” mindset. That’s because as you meet more people and encounter broader understandings, you simply grow more humble. When you read the Bible from such humility, you’re amazed at the new, more liberating things you’ll find there.

Real heresy is when our faith, and our church, don’t wrestle with Scripture and let love win.

Experience counts.

7 thoughts on “Experience Counts”

  1. WOW! Just WOW!
    Pastor Greg, this will be forwarded to everyone I know!

    Isn’t it funny how welling meaning “Christians” can be the most judgmental!

    Thank you always, for your wisdom and insight. You are such a tremendous blessing to me, and so many others.

  2. The older I get the more progressive I become. My faith, I believe, makes me more “progressive” or “liberal”. I don’t like labels but it seems we cannot avoid them.

  3. I agree w Judy, great insight into our religion. Maturity is a wonderful blessing not allowed to all. I like to think I’ve pretty much decided to let others do the judging.

  4. I don’t know Judy, but I gadly join her, Bev and Jane.
    I was always uncomfortable thinking I had no heart when
    young and now no mind.
    Perhaps we gain a bit of wisdom wiith age.

  5. Pastor Greg, you speak eloquent words as always. We certainly are to be inclusive. Jesus taught that every day during his ministry. But what he also taught is that his followers should not follow the ways of the world but should follow the ways of his Word. Sinners have to be included in the church, just as we were and have been included in the church. That is where we are supposed to learn his true word and learn to repent of our sins.

    Your business exec was a wise man. We should only become so wise.


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