One of the great blessings in my life is that I grew up in the same city (Fort Worth, Texas) where all four of my grandparents lived. I was the first grandchild on my mother’s side, and I saw my maternal grandparents regularly. I called them “Mamaw” and “Granddaddy.” When I was three, my younger brother Matthew was born. He was a cute little scamp and everybody loved him — including me (most of the time).
As he got a little older and learned to talk, Matthew started calling our grandmother “Honey.” That’s what she often called him, so it made sense for him to call her “Honey” in response. He began calling our grandfather “Peep-Eye” because that was Granddaddy’s version of the “Peekaboo” game that countless grandfathers have played with grandkids over the eons.
This development hung me up. My brother didn’t use the right language. He didn’t call our grandparents the right names.
Even though Matthew and I had very similar experiences of consistent and unconditional love in our interactions with our grandparents, we used different language to articulate and relate to them.
I tell that story every year at the Austin College Muslim Students Association Interfaith Dialogue Dinner. Somehow the recognition that different people use different words to articulate their response to consistent and unconditional love seems relevant in the context of interfaith dialogue. My experience with Matthew leads me not to reject the ways others articulate their understanding of unconditional love just because they don’t use language that is familiar or authentic to me.
I think our lives as Presbyterians in a rapidly changing and increasingly diverse world might be similar to my experiences with Matthew and our grandparents. We know people, neighbors, who use different language to articulate their experiences of, and response to, unconditional love of God.
The Bible contains a wealth of valuable language that can help us think about how to live faithfully and lovingly in a diverse world where many of our neighbors don’t think about, talk about, or worship God the same way we do.
In Genesis 9:16, God tells Noah “ When I see the rainbow in the sky, I will always remember the promise that I have made to every living creature.” This divine promise is made to every living creature — no exceptions. The Book of Ruth is about the exemplary faithfulness of a woman who was very specifically not from the chosen nation of Israel. She was a Moabite (Ruth 1:4, 22; 4:10). Yet her courage and devotion are celebrated. Forget the big fish. The primary lesson of the Book of Jonah is in God’s chastising of Jonah for his anger at God’s decision to spare the Ninevites. After Jonah complains to God for not destroying a city full of people who were not like him, he pitches a fit because God sent a worm to destroy a vine that was providing shade for Jonah. Then, in Jonah 4:11, God asks him: Don’t you think I should be concerned about that big city? God’s mercy and concern are not limited to people that Jonah likes or approves of.
There are abundant resources for Presbyterians — both within and beyond the Bible — that remind us that God’s love and attention are not limited to any particular community. They remind us that God’s care and promises apply to “every living creature.”
There is a sentence in the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) that is one of the documents in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Book of Confessions and seems especially useful for us as we think together about religious pluralism and what God thinks of people who don’t worship like we do.
“[A]lthough God alone knows who are [God’s], and here and there mention is made of the small number of elect, yet we must hope well of all and not rashly judge any [one] to be a reprobate.”
As we consider how to live out authentic Christian faith in a multifaith context, Presbyterians will do well to follow the guidance to “walk humbly with God” (Michah 6:8). Let’s let God be God. Let’s spend our time and energy seeking to be instruments of God’s gracious, merciful, patient and abundant love whenever, wherever, and for whomever we can.