This will seem like an odd way for a Christian minister to start a column on God, but I'm going to admit that I am an atheist to gods, who are unloving and unforgiving. Such atheism caused me to leave church in my teens (a long time ago) and not return for 20 years.
Like many Americans, I left a church because my experiences of Christianity at the time did not focus on inclusive love. Instead, I experienced judgment and exclusion, based on what seemed to be the worship of a God, who was unloving and unforgiving. Rightly or wrongly, the message I heard was "Believe as this church believes, or be damned. God's love is limited to those like us."
Although I am an atheist to gods of limited love, I am not an atheist. I am a theist. While I reject the existence of an unloving and unforgiving God, I passionately believe in an always loving and forgiving God.
In short, I believe in the God of love, the God of Jesus. I happened to discover that this is the God of Jesus when I decided one day to end my 20-year wandering away from Christianity by giving it another try (a step I highly recommend to anyone looking for a way to God).
One day, even though I was an avowed atheist to the angry God I left, I wandered into a church.
The church I was led to did not threaten me with hell if I did not believe as they did. They did not teach about a God, who was unloving and unforgiving; quite the contrary, what they taught was a 2,000-year-old way of understanding God is love. The essence of this way is a belief in that love; a belief that each person is loved; and a belief that we are all called to be love in the world.
That 2,000-year-old way of understanding God was, I learned, taught and practiced by Jesus and the men and women who were his disciples. It was written and shared in the Gospels and in Paul's epistles. It has been talked about and shared and practiced ever since by many churches and by many, many Christians.
See, the Bible claims "God is love," and that God's love is steadfast and forever. Moreover, the New Testament records - in no uncertain terms - that Jesus declared the supreme commandments are to love God and to love others, and that Jesus taught that those supreme commandments are to govern every moment in all of our lives.
After I found church again, I came to believe the love-centered way of Jesus' was a way to experience God and be saved - not from hell - but from the lesser person I'd otherwise be and the lesser world we'd otherwise have without relating to creation through love.
My beliefs eventually led me to seminary training and ordination, as a mainstream Christian clergyman, and to the honor of writing this monthly column about the God, who is love, in the Hometown News.
And that steadfast love of God stuff is good news for everyone, whether you go to church or not.
Steadfast means unwavering and fixed. The Bible calls it steadfast love (a whole bunch of times) and, for good measure, adds that it "endures forever." This literally means that whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever you are; you are unwaveringly loved right now and forever by God. No one can take that truth away from you.
And if, like me, you wandered away from church and are fortunate enough to go back and find a love-centered church, that truth can transform and save you - and the world - from what might otherwise be.
The Rev. Scott Elliott is the pastor at Riviera United Church of Christ in Palm Bay. Visit Riviera UCC's website at www.rivieraucc.org and his vlog at http://www.youtube.com/user/AGodVlog?feature=guide .