One person was rather noticeable at my mother’s funeral. He was a young Black man — the only one there.
Afterward, I introduced myself. He explained that he had come to support my father. My parents had been part of a small, interracial congregation. This young man was a musician there. Once when he was playing a solo, my father stood up. He explained to me that in the African-American tradition to spontaneously stand in worship was to express awe, gratitude, and agreement — that it was a powerful, holy moment. An older, white man standing up, alone, in church, as a gesture of appreciation, meant so much to this musician, he wanted to comfort my dad in his time of sorrow.
I think of this story when I stand up — especially in worship, but also in other moments of reverence. Although I have never stood up alone and spontaneously, I do like to stand. Probably it has something to do with using my body. Participating fully. Feeling inspired, maybe even a bit courageous. Bold, or at least willing.
At the same time, when I stand to recite a creed — typically the Apostles’ or Nicene — I also recall conversations with good people who’ve expressed their discomfort when a creed appears in worship. These reservations come especially from younger people, often those asking questions — seekers, skeptics, deconstructors, ex-vangelicals.
To stand and say a creed feels like pressure, conformity. The open, welcoming atmosphere in worship inexplicably flips to acquiescence. Fall in line. Space for doubt is suddenly replaced by rigid doctrine.
And pretty odd doctrine, at that. “Begotten, not made…”? “Proceeds from the Father and the Son…”? How am I supposed to confess it, when I don’t even know what it means?
I get it. I don’t want to be a hammer pounding flat any nails that dare to rise above uniformity. But let me try to explain why I want to stand up, and why, even with questions and reservations, standing and joining in a creed can be meaningful and beautiful.
I’ve often said that if you don’t have questions about a phrase or two as you’re reciting a creed, then you’re not paying attention. But the creeds are bigger than the sum of their parts. They aren’t a checklist, a true/false test, or a menu.
When I say a creed I think of myself being joined to Augustine of Hippo and Hildegard of Bingen. I am aligned with Boniface and Corrie ten Boom. I am standing with Orthodox Christians in Ukraine, Anglicans in Hong Kong, and Lutherans in Bethlehem.
Do we sometimes imagine that we are the first and only person to have questions or doubts about the claims of Christianity? Probably almost all the people that we stand with have had similar wonderings. We aren’t joining ourselves to an army of automatons. Rather those around us are genuine, thinking people, who share our faith and our doubts.
The four friends who carry their paralyzed friend to Jesus is a wonderful story. That’s the way I understand the creeds. During those times when we are paralyzed, unable to respond or frozen in doubt or despair, our friends carry us to Jesus. The next time, it may be our turn to carry the cot and declare on behalf of our paralyzed sibling, “I believe…”
Sometimes, I accept things simply because people that I love and admire accept them. When I’m reciting a creed, part of me might be saying, “I don’t really know if I understand or agree with everything here.” But another part of me, usually the louder voice, is saying, “I want to believe like and be like Monsignor Romero and my mentors and my grandmothers.”
In other words, creeds — or actually following Jesus — are more about community, being part of something bigger than ourselves.
I wonder if these concerns about conformity and acquiescence don’t owe a bit to habits learned from our modern society — individualism and rationalism. Might we be overly enamored with our own cleverness? Or maybe we could say that sometimes we are a little too earnest. Despite our best intentions, part of us still acts like we must have all the right answers, a perfect score.
And more than we know, we’ve been trained to emulate the rugged cowboy who refuses to go along, the noble fighter who knows better than everyone else. We, alone, are the final arbiter of all that is true and good. If we don’t understand and one hundred percent agree, then we must disavow. No doubt there is a time to stand apart, even at cost. But might we be overreaching for these heroic turns when there are also luminous moments to be joined to something beyond ourselves?
More and more we hear appreciation for “mystery” in our Christian faith. Phrases like “he descended to the dead” or “was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit” might be some of those mysteries we treasure. We don’t have to have absolute clarity about them.
I’ll stop now. I worry I’m slinging shame on those with honest questions and doubts. I don’t want to be just a different version of the hard-nosed fundamentalist shouting that “asking questions only leads to hell!” When I stand up I’m saying that I want to be part of something bigger and older than myself, beyond my logical categories and parochial perspectives.
Lately, I’ve found much wisdom and solace in these words from Karl Barth: “All those who have to contend with unbelief should be advised that they ought not take their own unbelief too seriously.”