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Warning Signs

I was warned, this afternoon. Me and a few hundred others who had gathered for a funeral. Me and a few hundred others who sat, silently, grimly, in a cavernous and spare sanctuary while a stern man in a black suit stood in an elevated pulpit and admonished us with grave fingers wagging. I was warned that death was coming for me and unless I renounced the ways of the devil and repented of my worldly pride and attachments, that my fate would be a fiery and tortuous one. I was told that there was nothing good in me and that I could never stand before the righteous judge of the earth. I was told that God has his elect and we must never question God’s ways. I was warned to keep watch for the temptations of Satan because Satan likes to provoke criticisms and doubts during times of death.

And for a moment—just a tiny moment—it was exhilarating. I felt like I was at a revivalist tent meeting from the nineteenth century where itinerant preachers rode around scaring the hell out of people. It felt confrontational and urgent, like there was something vitally important that hung on my response. It felt like death was an existential crisis that demanded something from me—that I was invested in a cosmic struggle with my very soul hanging in the balance. It felt like the preacher’s eyes were going to bore a hole right through me! Say what you will about preachers and theology like this, at the very least they pay human beings the ironic (and probably unintended) compliment of occupying a rather exalted place in the divine economy.

But the moment passed. Rather quickly, as it turned out. There’s only so much scolding in God’s name that I can take. Especially at a funeral. Eventually, I want to hear about the Jesus who wept at Lazarus’s tomb, who somehow prayed for mercy for the very sinners who were snuffing out his life. I want to hear about how death is a defeated enemy, about how God is close to those with tear-stained eyes. I want to hear about the Man of Sorrows well acquainted with suffering, about the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep by name and who walks with them even through death’s dark valleys. Eventually, I want to hear something like, Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

I recently read Not in God’s Name by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In it, he remarked that not a single soul had ever been saved through violence, that it was impossible for salvation to come by force. You can force people to “convert” or to mumble a few words, perhaps. You can force people to be baptized or to recite certain prayers or whatever. But this is all fiddling with externals. Force is utterly useless when it comes to actually changing human hearts and minds. Violence can make people fall in line but it can’t touch the soul.

In the same way, it’s impossible to frighten someone into loving God. Even with death. You can stand up in front of a group of people and wag your finger and tell them that death is coming for them. You can talk about hell and Satan and renouncing this or that worldly pleasure or performing this or that religious duty. You can hold before people the most severe and dreary theology imaginable and you can probably even convince them (and yourself) that it’s true. But none of this is likely to move someone one step closer toward the love that God actually desires. Love is not the sort of thing that you can be scolded into. Obedience, maybe. Duty, respect (of a sort), compliance, conformity. Probably. But not love.

To produce love you need a different set of tools. Actually, maybe just one. Love requires, well, love. It requires being confronted with the beauty of a love that hunted us down before we were ever interested, a love that would pursue us to the ends of the earth, a love that forgives seventy times and then keeps right on forgiving. A love that is perfect in response to our imperfection, and which casts out all our fear. A love that says, “It is finished” and invites us to cease our fearful striving.

A love that holds out wounded hands to grieving sons and daughters and wives and mothers and says, I know this hurts because I have felt the sting that pierces your heart; but believe me when I tell you that death is not the end, and that all shall truly one day be well.

30 Comments Post a comment
  1. Neufeld John H #

    This is so sad and misguided. Recently I chatted with a relative who is one of those who does not attend church anymore. He also told of a funeral of a family member that he simply described as “totally disgusting.” Warning and scare tactics won’t win people over, nor does a service like that address the issues of sorrow, loss and hope. Thank you!

    June 8, 2016
    • I hear many stories from people who, so far from being “scared into the kingdom,” were convinced by precisely such tactics that they wanted nothing to do with the church.

      June 9, 2016
  2. Howard wideman #

    Rabbi sacks speaks wisely. Sorry about the funeral experience. I heard a preacher open with, my prayer is to say nothing to distract from this fine christian woman’s life. He should have immediately sat down because it was all church rules and discipline for the rest of his sermon. Sad

    June 8, 2016
    • I can think of a lot instances where I find myself thinking, “oh, you should have stopped talking five minutes ago… or ten… or twenty…” 😉

      June 9, 2016
  3. I feel like it is our duty to warn each other, but it’s all about our tone.

    June 9, 2016
    • Tone is so often crucial, isn’t it? Particularly in the context of grief and loss. I think the content of the warning often needs to be recalibrated from some of its cruder forms, as well, but I’m certainly not suggesting that death cannot be an occasion for people to be confronted with pretty important existential questions that we all must address.

      June 9, 2016
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Sacks is wrong. Violence is intrinsic to the salvation story. Violence is the best understood most tangible evidence of man as a “fallen animal”. His lower, more base form. A reflection of his, “true” nature apart from a relationship with God most high. Even through relationship with God, violence comes. It must come. It is the cross that must be carried. The crucible that must be conquered.

    It was so, for the Lord Jesus. And so it will be for you and I.

    June 9, 2016
    • Nope, Sacks is absolutely correct. He’s not talking about the violence of the cross, he’s talking about human violence against other humans in the imagined service of religion. Genuine conversion is a decision of the will and can never be achieved by violent means.

      June 9, 2016
    • Paul Johnston #

      Fair response, Ryan. My perspective assumes but does not explain that it is only through a right understanding of the violence of the Cross and for that matter the uses of violence ascribed to the Father in the Old Testament and ascribed to the forces of Heaven in the Book of Revelations, can we understand what violence truly means and how, if at all, it should be applied within the human realm, by human beings.

      To suggest as you clearly do that ( and you cite Rabbi Sachs as source)…”that not a single soul has been saved through violence” is clearly false. Such a statement is an affront to the Cross, the Resurrection and to the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

      As to the more particular assertion, “Nope, Sacks is absolutely correct…..He’s talking about human violence against other humans in the imagined service of religion”…

      Sounds good, on the face of things but really requires a conversation about what violence is and isn’t before we would proceed. Where does discipline end and violence begin? Does God appropriate what many might regard as violent (read inappropriate) force in the execution of His will? Does the Lord Jesus Himself appropriate violent imagery in His advocacy on behalf of salvation? What exactly is a, “refining fire” that is referenced repeatedly throughout scripture?

      If your assertion that Rabbi Sachs, or anyone else for that matter, is not talking about the violence of the Cross when they are articulating what they believe to be the truth about violence, they simply do not know the truth about violence.

      They are to be ignored.

      June 10, 2016
      • As I already explained, when I say that “not a single soul has been saved through violence” I am referring to the rather unremarkable—and, to my mind, transparently obvious—truth that genuine conversion of the heart, mind, and soul cannot be coerced. You’re free to parse the statement however you wish and to write off or ignore whomever you wish, but that’s all I’m saying. Try to imagine compelling a child to love and honour you as a parent. It simply doesn’t work. The kind of relationship God seeks, the kind of relationship that we were created for, does not come that way.

        June 10, 2016
  5. Janna #

    I’m pretty sure I was also at the funeral you are talking about. I grew up in that church. What you talked about is why I left. Just to let you know, that funeral was much less grim than others I have been to. You should go to a wedding.

    June 9, 2016
    • Wow, hard to imagine much grimmer.

      For me, one of the saddest parts was the almost complete absence of anything resembling the celebration of a human life.

      June 9, 2016
      • Janna #

        It’s a very Calvinist church. This world is all bad, only Heaven is good. The trouble is, you have to be part of the elect and that was decided long ago by God. This life doesn’t matter and being a good person (as John was) doesn’t matter. It’s a hard doctrine.

        June 9, 2016
      • Yeah, I’ve never been able to muster much appreciation for some of the more severe expressions of Calvinism. Well, truth be told, I find even the more moderate forms incoherent 🙂 . It’s always seemed to me a theological system that renders human lived experience a rather perverse charade.

        June 9, 2016
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Calvin was an Apostate whose legacy leads others into Apostacy. Calvin’s and Luther’s upset with the Church was often a legitimate expression of the Word of God.

    Their remedies were not.

    June 10, 2016
    • Sometimes partial remedies are the best we can hope for as we imperfect souls make our way to the peaceable kingdom.

      June 10, 2016
      • Paul Johnston #

        If we really have the power of the Holy Spirit behind us, we should hope for more. Much more. ☺

        June 13, 2016
      • I take ironic heart from the fact that the churches the apostle Paul was writing to mere decades after Pentecost were filled with the same Spirit we are, and they seemed just as plagued by division and confusion and sin as we are. Nothing new under the sun, and all that…

        June 13, 2016
  7. Owen #

    Yessir! Thank God.

    June 10, 2016
  8. Love this, thank you for sharing

    June 10, 2016
  9. Paul Johnston #

    Human understanding, especially when brilliantly espoused, must still be understood to be only partial and always biased. Partiality and bias mistaken for truth will always lead to worse outcomes then partiality and bias recognized. The subtle violence of suggesting forgiveness without encouraging contrition and a Spirit of repentence is more harmful then an angry offer of forgiveness that demands it.

    June 13, 2016
    • I’m confused. Who do you suggest is committing this “subtle violence?”

      June 13, 2016
  10. Paul Johnston #

    Much of the post modern church. It’s disordering of priority. Style over substance.

    Yes the quality and character of our expressions can always be improved,always should improve but if we reject the substance of the Word because we allow it’s style to offend us we do violence to the greater intentions of the Spirit for our lives.

    Many church elders are disgusted by the licentiousness of culture as it offends the Holiness of God. They are right to be offended. It is always time to talk about what a right Spirit formed conscience allows and does not allow, a believer to take part in or affirm

    We would do better to ask why an elder would be so moved to speak so harshly then to be offended or encourage others to take offense to the harshness.

    June 13, 2016
    • We would do better to ask why an elder would be so moved to speak so harshly then to be offended or encourage others to take offense to the harshness.

      Sometimes. Sometimes it would be better if they just stopped speaking. Sometimes pharisaical devotion to “substance” could pay a bit more attention to “style” (to borrow your terminology).

      June 13, 2016
  11. Paul Johnston #

    With regard to your’ “ironic heart” comment, Ryan. I have to tell you, trying to encourage you to see beyond your own perspectives gets exhausting. Perhaps you are right, I should move on.

    My spiritual adviser thinks I should but I say, “You have to read this young man. He is brilliant. If he ever finds the courage to speak for God, then just about God, he could be a special voice.”

    And she asked me, “Is it his calling? Have you asked him?” and I said, “No,on both counts.”

    “He seems to caught up in his own sense of unworthiness and in spite of his faith has a clear and obvious suspicion of the supernatural.”

    “As for not asking him about his calling, it is a hard question to ask. Making an already mostly awkward and surreal relationship even stranger, I think.”

    “In any case, I’m pretty sure I know the answer so why push the envelope?”

    “So I thought I was called to help him along.”

    “And what of the fruit?” she asked me.

    “Not so bad.” I said. “But not at all what I thought it would be. My faith continues to deepen. My “yokes” easier to bear. My understanding of the Lord’s presence and the real “feel” of it, have never been more true or certain to me.”

    “As for, Ryan. I’m less certain. He has been at times prolific. Perhaps in response to the urgings, perhaps not.”

    “What is clear is that he continues to resist/ be offended by, my encouragements. I’ve certainly made a very good effort to be less outwardly confrontational/offensive but not with any real change in the character of our relationship on a Spiritual level.”

    “One of you isn’t ready, maybe both. Maybe you have taken on a project that God has not called you to undertake?”

    “Maybe I have.”….

    Thank you for all the gifts of the Spirit I received through this space, Ryan. I encountered the Lord in a very powerful and meaningful way here. I will always be grateful.

    I’m sure I will read you from time to time but for now it seems right for me to stop.

    HIs Peace be with us always. 🙂

    Your friend in Christ,


    June 13, 2016
    • I’m quite confused as to how the comment you refer to could lead to this response, Paul. I was pointing to biblical, historical, and theological realities to shed light upon some of the perspectives I had offered in the post and in subsequent comments. I cannot understand how this could lead to your comment about me not seeing beyond my own perspectives (an assessment that grieves me, I must say). I simply don’t understand.

      I regret that you have found your engagement here frustrating or exhausting. That has not been my intent. Throughout the decade or so I have spent blogging, I have tried always to respond with integrity and good will to those who choose to invest their time and energy here. I can assure you that I am not and have never been offended by your comments. When I “resist,” it’s simply because I don’t agree with you. We see things differently on some matters, but that’s ok. We both cling to Christ, which makes us brothers.

      At any rate, I wish you well. I truly appreciate the many kind words you’ve offered over the years as well as the challenging ones. Thanks for reading and responding.

      June 13, 2016
  12. Larry S #

    This is starting to sound like a parishioner complaining that their pastor/priest isn’t “spiritual” enough.

    June 17, 2016
  13. owen #

    still as good a read a year later

    June 10, 2017
    • Many thanks for reading, Owen.

      June 10, 2017

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