As I was driving around yesterday, searching for my now six-year-old nephew's birthday present (happy birthday, Josh!) an old resentment (to borrow from AA's jargon) resurfaced. I saw a car which looked like a car that I often saw in the parking lot of the church I pastored, and it dredged up old and evidently still bitter feelings.
I could judge those feelings, and my attachment to them. I could describe in detail why it is unhealthy to hold grudges and resentments. But that wouldn't help. As unhealthy as it is to carry such feelings around, it is equally unhealthy to label them and judge them. I don't need to pass judgment on my experience, I need only to experience my experience, experience the rising and falling of these emotions, and then try to let go of them.
When I was a pastor I didn't often give altar calls. This is not because I was not evangelical. In my own way I am very evangelical. Each week I told my congregation that what happens inside the walls of our church is meaningless unless it carries over into our lives outside those church walls. Each week I told my congregation that inside the walls of the church, in the experience we call Sunday worship, we encounter the grace and peace of God. As part of that experience, I told them, we are called to be agents of that grace and peace outside the safety of the walls of our church, bringing each person we meet into contact with that grace and peace.
The altar is a place in which Christians (and members of other religions) have traditionally experienced God. As such it is an appropriate place to encounter God, and ought to be used as part of the worship service. However, the altar has also been abused by those for whom religion must always be tied with guilt. The altar has been used as a weapon against sinners, and as a false antidote to sinning.
My own experience with the altar is checkered. As a fundamentalist teenager, motivated by guilt and fear, I responded to every altar call that I ever heard given. But responding to those calls, those nudges by the Holy Spirit, never took my guilt or fear away. All it did was subconsciously communicate that the grace of God was not sufficient for me. That the last time I responded to it was not enough. It help create a cyclical addiction to a particular kind of guilt-and-fear-laced religious experience.
As a pastor, chastened by my own unhealthy experience of altar calls, I vowed to do them only when I could do them right. Of course, this supposes that there is a right way to do an altar call, and that I would some day (but not today) have access to that absolutely right way. I was quickly disillusioned of this, and decided to give sporadic altar calls, checking against all of the abuses of them known to me, while also assuming that I would mess it up in my own way, and that would have to be OK.
One of my last Sundays at Mt. Zion UMC, just before I discovered just how deep the divide was between me and my congregation, I gave an altar call. With my own unhealthy experiences fresh in my mind, I decided to place a kind of check on the call. I said:
Do not come to this altar because you are afraid of hell. Instead come to this altar motivated by a desire to authentically encounter the presence of God in a real way.
No one responded, and I didn't think much of it until the next week, when we were scheduled to have our Charge Conference.
A Charge Conference is supposed to be meeting over which the District Superintendent presides, and in which all of the official church business for the year gets done. People are appointed to serve on various committees, the pastor's salary is set, the state of the building and the parsonage is accessed, the church finances are examined, etc. It is an extremely important meeting for the life of the church, and it is decidedly not the time to air complaints.
However, for this Charge Conference a faction of the church, motivated by a desire to get rid of me, literally stormed the floor and took over the meeting under the threat of physical violence. They then, claiming they had been told to do this by God, aired their list of complaints against me. At the top of their list, sure enough, was my final altar call.
In their vindictive rant they quoted me as having said:
Do not come to the altar if you are afraid of hell.
The difference between that and what I actually said was just one word, but that one word makes all the difference in the world. They claimed that I was intentionally excluding the entire church from the altar, because I disagreed with them about the wrath of God. They claimed that I wasn't really interested in saving souls, because in cutting out the threat of hell I was removing the only motivation to seek God.
[note: at this point my writing was interrupted by a pillow fight with my one-year-old son. He grab a pillow off the couch a clobbered me with it, then started giggling. I had to get him back!]
For them fear of God - not the awesome respect for the Holy, the Other, the divine, but real terror of what God might supernaturally do to them if the stepped out of line - was the fuel for their religious machine. I have before called their God the whack-a-mole God, the God standing over and above humanity, with a supernatural mallet, waiting to bash our brains in if we stick our head up.
As their pastor I tried to give them a different vision of God and a different experience of religion, but they rebelled against that. And now that I'm not their pastor I can't have any control over the way that they see me, the way that they describe me to themselves and others. I can't challenge their misrepresentation of what I said in that altar call, and I can't challenge their misinterpretation of my teachings.
My emotional response to this is teaching me that, just like them, my machine needs fuel. And just like them, my machine is run on an unhealthy fuel. If guilt and fear drive them, then the need to control, the need to be understood, drives me. And just like with them, this fuel drives me to the edge of hell.
The fear of God - again, not the awesome respect for God which is sometimes characterized as fear - and the fear of eternal damnation lead to an unhealthy religious expression, a cyclical pattern of behavior which makes no sense to those outside it.
I was once on that cycle. Now I am on a new cycle. Now, rather than being motivated by an existential dread I am motivated by a need to control, a need to be right, and to be seen as right. And so when I think of the lack of control I had and have over that congregation's interpretation of me; when I think of my inability to make them understand me, what I was trying to teach them, and why I was trying to teach them what I tried to teach them; when I think of the fact that their misquoting of me will stand forever unchallenged; I feel resentment. The same resentment I used to feel toward the God who I thought consigned people like me to eternal damnation.
Life is full of all kinds of hells, and there's no place like hell.
But that's not how the story has to end. If hell is an irrational pattern of behavior based on unhealthy ideas, then the way out of our temporal hells is to break that cycle. That cycle is still broken by the grace of the God who tells us not to take ourselves or our mistakes so seriously.
Both of the errors presented here; the tendency towards fear and the need to control come from a lack of faith. We experience these things because we do not trust God. We either do not trust God to be good, or we do not trust God to be God. In doing so, in either case, we really fail to appreciate that God is God, and that we are not God. God's will, unmitigated by our fear or desire to control, is the operating principle of the universe.
To realize that is to experience heaven, to rebel against that is to experience hell.
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