Let’s play “Famous Firsts”! I’ll give you 10 questions, and you give me 10 (right) answers (or as many as you can!). 

  1. Who was the first African-American Supreme Court Justice?
  2. Who was the first runner to break the four-minute mile barrier? 
  3. Who was the first actor to speak in a “talking picture”? 
  4. Who was the first president to appear on TV? 
  5. Who was the person who developed the first diesel engine? 
  6. Who was the first person to win two Nobel prizes? 
  7. What was the first food ever microwaved? 
  8. Who was the person who first reached the South Pole AND the North Pole (that’s right, the same person was the first to reach both poles!)? 
  9. Who was the first person to reach the summit of Mount Everest?
  10. Who was the first pedestrian hit and killed by a car?*

About question 10. . . . You’ll have to excuse me for asking such a morbid question. In an age when so many people are struck by cars each year, it is hard to remember that someone had to be first. But there was a first; and even though the coroner said he hoped that “such a thing would never happen again,” there have been plenty others. But the story is in the details. The first pedestrian to die from getting hit by a car was named Bridget Driscoll. The date was August 17, 1896. The Anglo-French Motor Carriage Company was offering free rides to prospective buyers so they could get the feel for this amazing new technology. Now, we take test drives by ourselves today; but since the automobile was brand new, they felt it was safer to have their own driver behind the wheel. But even a trained driver could not save Driscoll. Apparently, Driscoll was crossing one of the streets in a four-way intersection. To her right, two cars, one moving south and one moving north, went by. She watched them enthusiastically from a safe distance as she crossed her street. But those cars had blocked from sight a third car that was now coming straight at Driscoll. According to Wikipedia, one witness described the car as moving at “a reckless pace, in fact, like a fire engine.” Now, it takes the average person about a quarter of a second to react to something after they see it. Not only that, but the average person can run 8 miles per hour, jog at 5 miles per hour and speed walk about 4 miles per hour. Driscoll, however, panicked and could not escape the oncoming car; and as a result, was struck and killed, even though the car was moving at the incredibly slow speed of only 4 miles an hour. But I guess, to Driscoll, it all happened too fast.

The path from Stage 1 faith (“Receptive Faith”) to Stage 2 faith (“Concrete Faith”) and then to Stage 3 faith (“Ecclesiastical Faith”) also happens quickly. One moment, you accept everything your parents tell you (that explains why we don’t ask a lot of questions about Santa Claus even though, technically, he is breaking and entering; and if he can get in, why can’t others?); and the next moment you’ve figured out all on your own that good behavior brings blessings and bad behavior brings pain and misery (or worse, the dreaded, “we’re not angry with you, we are just disappointed” – ugh!). That’s not really true, you don’t figure it out all on your own. Your view of God (Is he a loving God filled with grace and laughter? Or is he a harsh God who is always angry, always distant and never satisfied, but always wants more; and when he doesn’t get it, he punishes us quite severely?) is shaped to a very large extent by how our parents interact with us. The more loving and warm and gracious they are, the more loving and warm and gracious our view of God is (say it with me: how is parenting an overwhelming job? Let us count the ways!). But somewhere early on, we supplement our receptive faith (“I believe what my family believes”) with this concrete faith (“God rewards my good behavior”). 

Now, lots of people get stuck here and perceive God to be a cosmic killjoy or sheriff or worse. In Seinfeld, George was an atheist unless bad things started happening. When bad things came at him like cars speeding down the highway, he was sure God existed because he was sure God was out to get him.  Far too many people believe like George. They start out believing in God, but can only conceive of God as a grumpy old man out to get anyone who breaks the rules. And after a while, that view of God grows old. And so, many people jettison their faith and call it quits right here. In keeping with my building analogy, these people could care less about moving on to stage 6; they, instead, jump out the window right here. Faith is not something they need in life, especially if God is going to be cold and angry all the time. 

But even if we understand that God is far bigger than that, we often find hidden in our subconsciousness this fear that if we sin, God will drop the hammer on us. Where did we get this dread? It’s a remnant of Stage 2 faith. Now, we may try to escape this idea that God will bless us if we obey and crush us if we disobey, but it is hard to do, especially if our parents were demanding or distant or if we could never please them. For some of us, this unhealthy fear of God developed in us in Stage 2 will never totally be eradicated.

But some of us move on to Stage 3. I’ve labeled Stage 3, Ecclesiastical Faith. Here’s my definition: “I believe what the important people around me, especially the people in my church believe.” Here, we start to chart out our own faith, but it is only a beginning step. We are still more passively receiving than actively engaged in deciding what we believe and how we are going to live it out. In this stage, we simply follow what our church does.  If we articulated a statement of faith for people in Stage 3, it would look something like this:

  • I believe what my church and my community believe. 
  • I feel God’s presence in my church community. For example, I feel God’s love and acceptance through the love and acceptance of my church. Or perhaps, we might say, I know I belong to God, because I belong to my church. 
  • I act in accordance with the beliefs and practices of my church community and feel God’s presence as I do (I know God and participate in his presence through my church and its worship and activities).

Welcome to the stage where many Christ followers call home. It is a good stage, an easy stage. You don’t have to think or wrestle or find answers for yourself, all you have to do is be a sponge and soak in everything that is going on around you. Not only that, but it may be exciting. You’re part of a group. They love you and accept you. You have answers for questions that may have come your way (you may even have answers for questions no one has ever asked you before). You feel good participating in all the rituals of the church. After all, it is your church. Matter of fact, it feels like a part of your family. 

I can look back on “my church” in Massachusetts.  I had friends there. I was accepted there. Each week, we were taught more things that I filed away as “my beliefs.” When I spoke about the church, I didn’t say “they,” I said, “we.” It was a great feeling. I belonged. I bet many of you could look back on your faith journey and identify your first church home, and I bet it reflected all that you believed. I loved my church so much that I grew hungry for more; and that is, in part, why I went to Bible college, not to learn new things, but to learn more deeply about the things I already knew. And my first year in Bible college was great. Everything they taught, I soaked in. I didn’t question anything. I was home. I was accepted. I belonged. And then, the bottom fell out. I had questions, and my church and my college didn’t have answers. And Stage 3 was no longer home.

Now, Stage 3 is not all bad; and so if this is where you are, rejoice and enjoy the ride. There are many benefits to having the safety of a church family. There is love; there is acceptance; there is community; there is purpose; and there is a clear sense of God’s presence. That’s not bad. It feels like home. 

Two things. First, even if you love Stage 3, everyone needs to take responsibility for their own growth. Don’t just go to church, soak it all in, and think that is all you need to do. Grow. Stretch. Learn. Read. Apply yourself so that you can cultivate your faith and make it rich and strong. Second, the road from Stage 3 to Stage 4 is a bumpy one, so buckle up. More importantly, make sure the relationships you form in Stage 3 are solid and good and supportive so that as you press on in faith, you don’t run over or hurt anyone in the process. For goodness sake, remember, when change happens, it happens fast; so look both ways before going anywhere. 

*Here are the answers to “Famous Firsts”:

  1.  Thurgood Marshall – If you got this wrong and have ever flown out of or into The Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, subtract an additional five points.
  2. Roger Bannister (1,400 athletes have now broken that mark!)
  3. Al Jolson (and the words? – “Wait a minute. . . . You ain’t heard nothin’ yet” in the movie, The Jazz Singer)
  4. Franklin Delano Roosevelt did it in April 1939.
  5. If you guessed a guy by the name of Diesel–Rudolf Diesel to be exact, you’re right!
  6. Marie Curie (for physics in 1903 and for chemistry in 1911). Way to go, Marie!
  7. Come on, you surely got this one right – it has to be popcorn!
  8. Pretty amazing, but Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was the first explorer to reach both poles. (He reached the South Pole in 1911 and the North Pole in 1926).  Way to go, Norway!
  9. In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary reached the summit, along with his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Nirgay (who was not only carrying all the supplies, but was responsible for showing Hillary the route his people had been taking to the summit for years). In other words, if it wasn’t for Nirgay, Hillary would never have made it. Way to go, Nirgay!
  10. See first paragraph above!