Friday, June 1, 2007

Do you know where you will go?!

One thing I’ve been struggling with at Sandy Plains is how preoccupied many people are with heaven, hell, the devil, and “getting saved.” My first Sunday, as I sat towards the back of the sanctuary, I heard one woman share a prayer request during our customary prayer-request time. She asked for prayers for the husband of a friend who had passed. Apparently, he died sometime early in the morning, just a day or two before. She shared concern for her friend, who said that her husband “wasn’t saved.” She tried to comfort her friend by saying “You don’t know that. The Lord could have been working on his heart between the time you went to bed and the time he passed.”

Other members of Sandy Plains have shared some the same worries about “un-saved” relatives and friends. As I believe in the extraordinary healing power of Jesus Christ, I too share worries about friends who don’t know that power. I see God as the power to transform lives, to heal our broken places, to make us servants so that we can be instruments in bringing the just kingdom of God to fruition here, in this realm. Yes, here, at Sandy Plains, in Pembroke, Robeson County, eastern North Carolina, God’s will be done, “on Earth as it is in heaven.”

So, sure, I get a little concerned when people don’t know Jesus…but I don’t usually think about it in terms of an eschatological location. I’m more concerned when the church down the road sponsors a drama like Judgment House, which seems designed to scare the hell out of people. This can’t be good. Around these parts, it seems that many folks are far more concerned about eternal this-or-that than they are about here-and-now discipleship.

I’ve thought about a couple of explanations for this kind of “scary as hell” thought.
• One, I think, is economic. The area of Sandy Plains has been, historically, an area with a low-income population. Perhaps a preoccupation with the next life, where there will be streets of gold and a mansion for every believer, comes from conditions of great need. Why wouldn’t the hungry be ready for the heavenly banquet?
• Another reason might be the kind of denominational influence in the surrounding community. I pass at least four or five Baptist churches of the free-will/fundamentalist variety on the way out to Sandy Plains. I’ve been told that there are tons more of these fundamentalist-type-churches than Methodist-type churches in the area, and folks are influenced accordingly. Everyone has family members and friends who go to other churches.
Well, I don’t know what to think or do about it all. Maybe I shouldn’t do anything. After all, it is certainly not my place to correct theology at a time of intimate need. It seems like the nice thing to say is that “there’s room for both of these views” or to try and find some middle ground. I most certainly wouldn’t pass judgment on something as important as one’s eschatological outlook, but I must disagree with it, even if silently. So far, I’ve been keeping my mouth shut about the issue, but I’m sure that sometime soon someone is going to ask a question that’s too direct to get around. What will I do then? In the meantime, I suppose I’ll pray for grace.


Leah Skaggs, M.Div. '09 said...

I know what you mean - it is not just easier for the poor to imagine that life after death will be easier - I think the well off folks also see it as an out for living into God's Kingdom. If you know you are're good to go - no need to make any huge changes in how we live now. It is frustrating but interesting. CH 13 and 14 seem to be haunting me here in Cedar Grove too.

Anonymous said...

Stuart, I think probably many of us are dealing with this in one way or another. It's personal for me as well, as an ex-Baptist anglo-catholic. So there's a danger of me seeing myself as somehow more "advanced" and wanting to push them along. That's a false image, but there's also a sense in which I do want to share with them, to the extent that I can, the fullness not of my theology but of Wesleyan theology.

I've encountered the emphasis on "getting saved" at least twice. First, it was in a Wednesday night Bible study on Romans. Rather than challenging what people meant by "salvation" I tried to suggest that Paul was not trying to outline the precise mechanics of salvation (i.e., the ordo salutis in theologial terms) but rather a way of assurance--faith in Christ. Which is, in many ways, an ecumenical doctrine insofar as it says, we can't look at a person and say, "you don't have your doctrine straight," because it is faith in Christ that is the mark.

The second instance was when I got the VBS curriculum from the two people running it. It comes from Standard Publishing, which is an old nondenominational but very much old-style Protestant tent-revival "get saved" theology. There was a section in the beginning on leading kids to salvation in Christ, which is well and good except that it made salvation into this knowledge-based (read: Gnostic) phenomenon that happens whenever you choose it.

Thankfully, after consultation with my pastor, I am under no compulsion to make these kinds of arguments, and I don't intend to. These kids are already baptized. The point now is not a one-time conversion moment (because that has already happened) but the living into the promises of baptism and the continual appropriation for them (yes, personally) of the life of the Church.

I suppose I might be devious in this, but to me it makes a lot of sense to teach the children (in VBS, in my children's sermons) good theology (whether or not they know it as theology) than to try to rework the potential bad theology of adults.

I guess we just have to pray for the grace to know when and what to say, because the kind of "you're wrong!" confrontation is not going to work, nor is being "right" or "wrong" the point.

Stuart Harrell, M.Div., '09 said...

Sam, I totally agree. Being "right" or "wrong" doesn't really get us anywhere, does it? But maybe those teachable moments will come, no? Does waiting for those moments mean I'm still harboring, somewhere under the surface, of a me-right/you-wrong notion? Gee, I hope not.