Onward Christian Turtles…


The Sunday morning adult-ed class I teach at WFPC is currently looking at a text called “Christian Doctrine.” It’s a really good book written by the late Dr. Shirley Guthrie (a brilliant man who was one of Rebekah’s professors at Columbia Seminary). But it’s somewhat of a deep dive and I’m having to digest it in small bites.

The content is about the words and ideas we use so routinely (like, Reformed faith, Trinity, Salvation, Redemption, God is love, and a whole lot more…) yet have seldom thought about – at least not unpacked to the extent that we are clear on what they mean and – especially – what the scriptures teach us.

I am learning a lot, and we are enjoying some rich and productive conversations. Interestingly, we always seem to be in synch with Rebekah’s sermons, and this past week was no exception. We are going through the “What is God like?” section, looking at “the attributes of God.” And we are deep into an ongoing dialogue about Love and Justice.

Love and Justice:

What I want to share this morning is a hugely important point I often return to in my blog posts. We must guard against limiting who God is by reducing the Almighty to a simple projection of our own ideas. Here is what the author wrote about love as an attribute of God (well, a small part of what he wrote):

“To say that God is love does not mean that love is God. We do not discover what God is like by analyzing and then deifying our own ideas and experiences of love. Such a God would be an idol. It is not our understanding of love that defines God but God’s action toward us that defines what real love is…” – Shirley C. Guthrie

It was with all this in mind that I opened our class in prayer. Then, as I was praying, I heard myself ask God to help us always remember that, while doctrine is interesting (and even important), it is the practice of love and justice that matters.

“When I prayed that,” I said, “I couldn’t help but remember the following story about my dad. He was a leader in the Baptist Church, but he wasn’t that comfortable speaking. So he tended to quote hymns when he was praying or to help communicate a point.”

Onward Christian Turtles

The occasion was a contentious church business meeting of some sort and people were arguing about pointless details at the expense of some initiative of love and justice. We had just sung the hymn, Onward Christian Soldiers, and it included this well-known verse:

Like a mighty army
moves the church of God;
Brothers, we are treading
where the saints have trod;
We are not divided;
all one body we,
One in hope and doctrine,
one in charity.

So my dad stood up and he started to speak:

“Like a mighty turtle
moves the church of God;
Brothers, we are treading
where we’ve always trod;
We are all divided;
many bodies we,
Very strong on doctrine,
weak in charity.”

You could have heard a pin drop. My dad’s words ricocheted around the room until they had landed in – or maybe bludgeoned – the hearts and minds of everyone there.

1-IMG_E4575The class I lead at Wake Forest Presbyterian Church isn’t about getting everything right in terms of a systemized doctrinal framework that can explain everything about God. My class is about understanding more so that we can live more authentically in the light and tell the God-story through expressions and actions rooted in the Jesus-quality of love.

“Humble in our Doctrine, moved by Charity.”

In love (charity) and because of love – DEREK

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