Formula or Friendship

I am fond my father-in-law, but I am pretty sure I would not have wanted to be a student in his class.
An observer, yes, a student, no. My father-in-law, Paul, is a retired schoolteacher. I love to hear his stories, and it’s a good thing seeing as he likes to tell them. He seemed so pleased when I became a part of the Benson clan. At first, I thought it was my charm, but I soon found out that in me he had a set of new ears for all his familiar stories. He’s had quite a life, that one. Early on in my marriage to his son, he’d launch into one of his tales, and one by one, I’d notice everyone else in the family slip off, and soon there I was, his captive audience.
One of the many subjects he taught as a schoolteacher was Algebra. Not one of my strong suits. God must have decided I could do without that ability. But Paul’s mind is both logical and artistic. It’s a unique pairing. Paul has a different idea about how to teach kids to work Algebra problems.
I remember a story he told about the start of each new Algebra class. Early on, concerned parents of students struggling to understand the subject would invariably call him for a meeting. I felt their pain. Paul would agree to meet with the parents, and during those meetings he always told the parents the same thing. “Your child does not have to understand how to do algebra to work the equations. I don’t really care if they understand it or not.” You’d have to know Paul to appreciate this. I can guarantee he said it with a straight face: One, because he has a pretty good poker face, and two, because he meant what he was saying.
It’s his belief that if a student just learns the algebraic formulas and follow them, they’ll be successful without ever needing to understand the principals behind them.
And you know what? He’s right. Most eighth graders have not developed enough brain capacity to comprehend the abstract nature of Algebra. In all honesty, this forty-something year old woman doesn’t comprehend the abstract nature of Algebra either.
It may surprise Paul that I remember that story. I remember a lot of his stories. That particular story made me think of something. It made me think of how we sometimes treat our relationship with Christ. For many of us, it’s a formula. We may not understand the reasons behind the formula, but if we perform it correctly we believe we are “good” with God. The formula is different for different people.
For some of us, this formula-faith we have began a long time ago.
In some faith traditions, you prayed a prayer, walked an isle, filled out the card, and got “voted” in. Formula faith. For others like me, as expected, you attended a series of classes at the appointed age, were confirmed into the church, a few drops of water on the head, and you were in. Formula faith. I remember, during those classes, my pastor giving me several small books about the Bible to keep. I was so proud of them. I put them up on a shelf in my room as evidence of my attendance of the classes, and my acceptance into the kingdom. I can’t say I actually ever read any of them, but they sure made me look all Christiany.
No wonder we’ve grown accustomed to a formula for our faith. As we grow older, the formula becomes a part of what we do as Christians.
For some, it’s praying a certain number of times a day or week. Maybe it’s attending a certain number of religious services a week, month, or year. Perhaps reading a Bible verse a day, doing one kind deed per day, or listening only to music with Christian lyrics fit into our formulas well. We serve on a committee, or lead a Bible study. We wear crosses around our necks, and put fish stickers on our cars. For those “over-achiever believers” their list is a combination of all these. I’m not saying that I believe there is anything wrong with any of these things. There isn’t. It’s when they make their way into a formula, or onto a list to be checked off, that it becomes problematic.
Christ doesn’t want to be the answer at the end of a formula followed.
He desires a close, personal relationship with us. It’s what he gave his life for. Relationship. The relationship humans shared with God was broken in the garden, and Jesus made it possible again by dying in our place. There are not too many people walking around that I’d sacrifice my life for. Granted, I’d miss you, for sure, but give my own life? That’s a big deal. The biggest. Yet that’s what Christ did for us. That act alone deserves more than a formula. It deserves intimacy and devotion.
We serve a risen, living, Savior. No other world religion makes such a claim. I remember an old hymn from my childhood. The chorus says, “He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own. The joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.” That describes a relationship. Not a formula.
Let’s throw out our formulas, and open our eyes and hearts to a friendship with the one who gave His very life for it.

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