My Grandmother, 3 Friends, and a Faith I Am Having a Hard Time Understanding Anymore
Because of illness, I now use a chair lift to negotiate beautiful hardwood steps that take me from the main floor of our home to bed at night and then from the 2nd floor back again to begin my day each morning. Recently my son-in-law [who lovingly helps me with this task every day and every evening] was away at a conference. So a wonderful and caring friend selflessly came over every morning and every evening to make certain I was able to get into, and out of, bed safely and to also negotiate the steps “lest I dash my foot and head against a hardwood floor.” Thinking about his and his wife’s kindness caused deep reflection.
In one sense my reflection has caused sadness and a broken heart…in another sense, I feel a sense of anticipation and hope at the possibility of sincere dialogue. The following essay is part of the “process” and I hope you will not mind walking this path with me.
Back in 1977 my grandmother [Grammer I used to call her] passed away. I was in the final months of my first “real” job—a position as youth pastor at a church in southwestern Ohio. It paid $100 per week. The news of her death was related to me in an insensitive way that still hurts after all these years. However that is another story for another day.
She died in Gary, Indiana however I drove to attend the funeral in Somerset, Kentucky [the ancestral home of my mother’s side of the family.] As a recently converted conservative evangelical Christian I was worried about my grandmother’s “eternity.”
In my mother’s adolescence she and my grandmother attended the Baptist church in Somerset. Apparently they ran afoul of the church authorities when my mother and her friends went roller skating in an adjacent town. She and my grandmother were called upfront during a public service and chastized for “worldly behaviour.” Strong-willed women both, they turned and walked out of the church never to return----until, ironically, my grandmother’s funeral.
I had never seen my grandmother attend any church or really give expression of a faith of any kind, other than perhaps a prayer [every so often] before a meal. So as I say I was worried. I had prayed for her since my own conversion a few years earlier. As we all gathered in Somerset I found an occasion to speak privately to the minister conducting the funeral service. I asked if he had any assurance of her salvation. He nodded understandingly and agreed to get back to me. The next day we spoke again quietly and he discreetly let me know that he found records of my grandmother’s baptism. And of course, he related to me, to be baptized she would have had to have professed some evidence of faith in Jesus. Ergo we could both rest assured in her eternal destiny. His words and assurances helped and my sense of foreboding lessened.
[[Note: You see, in the realm of conservative evangelical and fundamentalists, among whom I dwell, while there is certainly debate regarding “being saved” and one’s “eternal security,” still “inviting Jesus into one’s heart” at any point in one’s life makes the tension we feel at death and at funerals “easier,” and helps “cover over a multitude of sins.”]]
**Note #2…following from the first note above I really cannot stress enough how important “hearing the name of Jesus” and then “personally accepting Jesus” or “inviting him into one’s heart” is for conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists.
In the denomination I have served for over 3 decades of my life, the Christian & Missionary Alliance, hearing the Name of Jesus and accepting him into one’s heart is critical to our philosophy of missions and personal ministry as well as a guiding impetus to our missionary zeal. And I would add that this is true of many other conservative evangelical, fundamentalist, and non-sacramental groups. In our denomination we want to take Jesus to “as many as possible.” They must hear the name of Jesus and have the opportunity to personally respond. That is their ONLY chance to go to heaven. If they never hear the name of Jesus—we call them the “unevangelized” or “those who have never heard”—then their eternal destiny in hell is assured. We even have “teaching statement” to reinforce this belief. Personally I think the statement is largely indefensible which is why IMHO it was adopted in violation of our own Constitution & Bylaws, parliamentary rules, and contains only one general Scriptural reference within the entire statement. However here is a small portion:
-->We continue to adhere to what we believe to be the clear witness of Scripture that those who do not hear the gospel are lost as surely as those who hear the gospel and reject it. <--
The fact that nearly one-half of the population of this planet—over 3 billion people—will NEVER hear the name of Jesus makes this statement not only stunning in its exclusivity but heart-breaking in its starkness and judgment. And to not list one Scripture passage in its defense is incomprehensible from a denomination who claims Scripture as our ultimate authority, not to mention a denomination I love and cherish and have served most of my adult life.
So, let’s come forward in time almost 40 years and return to where we were in the essay. I wanted to share with you thoughts about 3 of my friends. Two of these 3 are husband and wife. And the husband is the kind gentleman I referred to at the beginning of the essay—the one who took my son-in-law’s place for the weekend. If you could meet him and his wife you would instantly love them. They are kind, caring, thoughtful, loving servants, wonderful parents, they are faithful to each other, soft-spoken, humble, giving, accomplished, and I could go on and on. They are more like “disciples of Jesus” than most disciples of Jesus that I know. However there is a problem—they have not made a personal commitment to Jesus. They have no animosity toward Jesus—in fact they would embrace many of the teachings of Jesus. However they embrace the beauty and truths of other faiths. And their view of “God” is neither systematic nor of a personal, anthropomorphic entity.
In the universe in which I live, while we conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists may admire such people, they are clearly not “saved” and thus they will go to hell. We dismiss them by misusing such passages as Isaiah 64:6—all of our righteousness [and their righteousness] is as filthy rags…or Acts 4:12—that there is salvation in no one else…that there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.
Please do not misunderstand my point. I do not doubt the truth and veracity of such passages. And I might add neither would my two friends, especially regarding the passage in Isaiah. In their humility they understand how “fallen” they are and that all of their “good deeds and efforts” still fall far short of a “heavenly” or universal ideal. My struggle is in the ungracious way we quote and apply these passages. For me, my two friends are like the Canaanite Woman and the Roman Centurion of whom Jesus said, “I have not found such faith, not even in Israel.” If I may adapt his words, “I have seldom found such expression of faith—of what Jesus calls us to, not even in the Christian church.” However, in our exclusivity—unless they accept Jesus into their hearts and are “saved”—their eternal destiny is settled—conscious, eternal torment in hell.
Not so, however, of my third friend. I encountered this friend recently via a Facebook post. Apparently this person had experienced a situation that upset them…and they shared their dismay in a post. Their language was full of expletives, was crude, ungracious, unforgiving, and vulgar. Please understand I really am not offended by swearing/expletives. My wife would want you to know I do not use that kind of language, however I am telling you the words, in and of themselves, do not offend me.
I just think as followers of Jesus that perhaps we should try and reflect kinder and gentler language. And I should hasten to add that crudeness, vulgarity, ungraciousness, and lack of forgiveness does wound my conscience, and I think it does not best reflect our Lord. However, in conservative evangelical and fundamentalist circles, if my third friend were to die tonight my friend’s eternal destiny in heaven is secure. Several years ago there was a public commitment of their life to Christ. And this person ministered for Jesus in the church. Since that time there have been “issues,” disagreements, and a type of “falling away.” Worship services are seldom attended. And “fruits of the faith” are not as clearly seen these days. However my friend clearly “accepted Jesus” … my grandmother “accepted Jesus” … my other two friends, who clearly evidence “fruits of the Kingdom,” have not. Heaven awaits the first two individuals…hell will be the domain of the final two.
And I have to tell you that my heart, my conscience, my sensibilities, and my soul cry out in this vacuum of exclusivity and narrow understanding of what salvation and being a follower of Jesus means. Certainly the Kurie Elaison [Christ have mercy] must be more gracious, more forgiving, more inclusive, and more engendering of kindness and trust and invitation than we as Christian movements have communicated and reflected. I am personally finding it harder to recognize the faith that changed my life decades ago. And the merciful Lamb of God “who taketh away the sins of the world”…the one who “giveth light to every person”… and the one who “leaveth the ninety and nine and findeth the one lost sheep” is being obscured in exclusive language and pious “litmus tests.”
It is interesting to me that our denominational teaching statement regarding the Eternal Destiny of the Lost sits 2 sub-sections above our statement on Human Sexuality [which was originally written to give Biblical guidance regarding the issue of abortion but has been expanded recently to deal with birth control and to clearly exclude practicing gays and transgender persons from the kingdom. It also forms the foundation to clearly prohibit our ministers from officiating same-sex and transgender weddings or civil unions. The Human Sexuality sub-section will be the topic of an essay in the near future…as will be yet another sub-section that excludes Masons and other members of Secret Societies…and another section denying eldership and ordination to women.]
It deeply concerns me when we as a group legislate out of fear and when our Biblical interpretations are largely censuring and proscriptive in nature. Such language and ideals place us on sorrowful and discouraging journey that is largely different from that of Barnabas when he journeyed to Antioch in Acts 11. His task was to instruct new believers in the faith. And rather than censuring and proscribing he rejoiced and encouraged the new believers to remain true to Christ.
I have kept you long enough…if you have read this far, thank you for your kindness and grace……may your evenings be kind.
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