Searching for the Narrow Gate in Lancaster County

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Enter by the narrow gate, since the road that leads to destruction is wide and spacious, and many take it; but it is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
(Matthew 7:13,14 in the New Jerusalem Bible translation)

This brief passage from the Sermon on the Mount is not self-explanatory. Without context and interpretation, it exhorts the follower of Jesus not to take the popular, easy way of discipleship, but it seems to me not enough to look for the unpopular, hard way simply because it is difficult and lonely. I am not dismissing Jesus’ warning but acknowledging my need to think about where the lines might fall in my own life with the choices I must make and in the lives of the churches in our North American context.

The Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall recalls Martin Luther’s distinction between Christianity’s prominent way of thinking and making choices with its wide gate and attractive, well marked road and Christianity’s other way less often taken. Luther labeled the dominant way as the “theology of glory” which today we call triumphalism, and the unpopular “thin tradition” as “the theology of the cross” which is the way of humility, compassion, and non-authoritarian service. Pope Francis is shaking up the Roman Catholic Church by tending toward the humble way of the theology of the cross. Francis of Assisi stands in the tradition as another example of this never-popular but more faithful path of Christian discipleship.

The model, to be sure, is Jesus of Nazareth himself who eschewed power, prestige, and bullying authority. His was and continues to be the way of the servant.

After we retired and moved into Pennsylvania, my wife and I needed to find a church

After we retired and moved into Pennsylvania, my wife and I needed to find a church, a community of faith, with which to worship, learn, grow, and serve. Our search took longer than we had expected. We were looking and listening for this “thin tradition” – this attitude, posture, thought, and manner of the theology of the cross.

We heard much of awesomeness, power, authority, and glory and much of right and wrong but little of humility, compassion, understanding, and service. We heard answers that demanded acceptance but little regard for curiosity or puzzlement. We found ourselves surrounded sometimes by the frenetic and supposedly feel-good and sometimes by the bored (including the minister). We listened to the exhortations and judgments of those who knew they had arrived at the place of correctness and virtue. Finally, we found ourselves hearing sermons and prayers from the thin tradition of Christian faith – shared thoughts, stories, insights, and questions from faith’s harder road where certainties may be few but trust in God sustains belief and encourages hope all along the way.

Were the others bad churches and the one into which we are settling the truly good one? No, it’s not that simple. All churches are works in progress, and so are we ourselves. What I am discovering once again in a new context is that the narrow gate opens into a relationship of trust and willingness to keep learning and growing rather than a high road of certitude and present satisfaction. For me, the hard road is not the strict, guilt inducing, dishonesty encouraging path of the “straight and narrow” as people have envisioned and preached it but, rather, the human way of uncertainty and humility with ongoing need for cooperation, mutual understanding, and openness.

Meeting other people in their humanity requires me to see myself in my own.

Questions are harder than answers, and answers I must continue to examine are harder than the authoritative kind I must simply accept. Listening to people to understand them or else stand by them anyway is harder than judging them against standards. Trusting Jesus the Christ is harder than deciding to affirm the correct answers about him whether they make sense to me or not. Meeting other people in their humanity requires me to see myself in my own. Taking the harder road makes us vulnerable which is exactly what we hate to be but also exactly what puts us on the way of Jesus the Christ of God.

Actually, we found two churches that spoke to us from Luther’s thin tradition of compassion, humility, and service. The one we believe was not chosen for us (and so we did not choose) was said to be a very healing church for people in need of healing, which seems to me a strong recommendation, but we found ourselves drawn back to the other, and there we are.

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