Behind the lectern and the platform seating area of the little Seventh-day Adventist church in Debary, Florida, is a quite striking stained glass window. I had seen it once or twice before, but had never really looked at it till that afternoon memorial service four days after my father's death.
My task was to present a family summary of his life. What can you say about a lifetime that will fit nicely into a few minutes?
I kept turning back toward the window behind me, and each time it spoke to me of my father and his life. After all, it had not been so many months since he had shown me through the new church, the construction of which had consumed so much of his energy. There were many details of the structure that bore the very personal imprint of his direction.
The church sign facing the street shows three angels, designed to remind all passersby of the messages in Revelation, chapter 14. I knew that my father was not backward about explaining their significance. Proof of that was in the wonderful article the editors of the local paper put together on his death, without any reference to the family. The article told how in his regular visits to the editors my father had explained the meaning of the angels and the Advent hope that they proclaimed.
Inside, the church is airy and light. Hanging from the ceiling are a number of Tiffany shades. My father pointed them out as his special choice—in fact he had donated them to the church. And in spite of his red/green colorblind vision they are a feature of the interior.
But the stained-glass window was what he spent the most time talking about. He told about discovering the artisan who crafted it. He explained why they had chosen the scene portrayed. He waxed eloquent on the effect when the light shines through it.
And as I paused momentarily in my presentation, I thought about the drama of the past few days.
Only a few weeks have passed since I wrote the last editorial and this one. Some readers might remember that last time I used as an opening illustration my father's remembrance of international contacts which included many from the Muslim world. I was able to take a proof of that last editorial to the hospital and share it with him the day before he died. It surprised me how engaged he was as I read it. He made several suggestions for change and I was able to incorporate them into the final version.
But he wanted a bit more. It was good, he said. But maybe it didn't go far enough. "You need to present Christ," he said.
I did give him the standard view of how Liberty is defending the right of all to believe or disbelieve, and that we need to be careful not to offend and impose a particular view. I can't say he was over-convinced. "You need to present Christ," he said.
Many decades ago I discovered a book by Stanley Jones, a pioneer Christian missionary to India. For years Jones endured ridicule and, worse, silence as he attempted to introduce Hindus and some Muslims to Christianity. His efforts seemed futile and at one point he suffered a nervous breakdown and returned for a time to England. He persisted and back in India continued to hold public discussions of faith.
The turning point came in a discussion with a Brahman leader. "I don't care for your faith," the man said. "I don't care for the Christ of your creeds and doctrines. He has no relevance here." Stanley Jones then proceeded to present the Christ of the Indian Road, as his book was titled. He sketched in the figure dressed as a holy man, wandering the dusty roads of India, caring for the poor, bringing comfort, healing, and hope.
"Ah," said the Brahman, "I think I could love and serve the Christ of the Indian Road." It was the beginning of a powerful witness to Christ in India.
Our last issue of Liberty contained some very graphic images of civil strife that derive from religious antagonism. The Western world is ready to react violently to what it sees as a global threat from, variously, Islamofascism, Islamic fundamentalism, Islamic extremism or global jihad. Within the United States Christian activism is ready to storm society and purge schools, government, judiciary of infidels. Oh, what violence has been done in the name of religion in the past, and what readiness we see in our world today to repeat the past!
Again I looked back to the stained-glass window in that little church. I knew the scene from an illustration in a book my father loved to read. It was The Desire of Ages—a narrative history of the life of Jesus Christ. On occasion it moved him to tears as he read it to our family. The illustration was Christ on His knees in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before religious men, including one of His own followers, declared Him heretic and worthy of death. In the garden He prayed that God's will would be done among men; and that He would be able to see the moment through. He was wrestling through the very establishment of His kingdom—the one He could tell the Roman governor Pontius Pilate was "not of this world."
"Present Christ" seems to me to contain an antidote for most of the religious violence that lurks so often in our present state. We surely need doctrines and facts and the other trappings of faith—but these are not faith. I believe that Christianity would better flourish and less offend other belief systems if there were more Christ in what we shared. Christ did not impose—He was. Perhaps we need to look into the pictures of our various faith figures more often and work more to exemplify them. I write that as one who believes Jesus to be the Son of God—but I am convinced that a Buddhist who seeks to find the man Buddha among the added trappings of tradition will find a good beginning to true enlightenment, and that a Muslim who is similarly willing to peel away the sharia and accretation within the ummah will likely find a Muhammad truly seeking the will of Allah. I am not into comparative religions at all; but we all have spiritual yearnings, and they are all too easily turned aside to religiosity. We need faith and charity.
There are some of my colleagues in the religious liberty work who think it a denial of religious liberty principles to pre-sent faith. I hope they are wrong. Because I know that we are seeing what the poet Matthew Arnold, in "Dover Beach," called the sea of faith receding to "a dull retreating roar." Defending religious liberty must involve seeking the return of faith—for all; and without compulsion by individual, church, or state power.
Correction: Last month's editorial referred to the coming of the Fifth Imam. It should have been the Twelfth Imam.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."