The School of Broken Hearts
When Debbie, our children and I were preparing to leave my first solo pastorate in a small town in central Texas, the wonderful woman who cared for our children each day while we worked wept as Jeremy and Jessica clambered into their carseats and we drove away.
She was sad at their leaving. She was sad that we were going to live in Britain and might never see her again. Her tears would have been natural to anyone who has grown fond of children for whom they cared for years. But her heart was also breaking because she believed, deeply and truly, that if our children died, God would send them to hell.
She was a member of the Church of Christ, an offshoot of the Campbellite movement that sprang from the Second Great Awakening in our country in the nineteenth century. Her church is not to be confused with the United Church of Christ (UCC), the roots of which run deep into the Congregationalist history of New England and is a sister-Communion of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Nor is her Church of Christ anything but historically related to the mainline denomination which we know as The Christian Church: Disciples of Christ, which began in the same Campbellite movement but became much more open and liberal-minded over the course of the twentieth century.
Our children’s caretaker was of the distinctively southern Church of Christ (which is so strong in some parts of Texas that local public school districts in their registration forms only have three choices for religion: Baptist. Church of Christ. Other.). This denomination (which rejects the idea that they are a denomination at all) take the privileges of local congregational control to extremes, sometimes denying communion not only to people from other Christian denominations, but to people who belong to other Church of Christ congregations. But among the most common beliefs of her church is the very deep conviction that members of Christian denominations like Presbyterians, United Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics, are all damned.
As Debbie and I backed out of her driveway, waving to her, watching her dab her eyes, we knew (for she had told us) that her sadness was tinged not only with anticipation of separation, but with grief that a family she loved, and especially two children she adored, would be eternally damned to hell by God.
I tell this story because it is so seldom, as Christians in our country, that we have the opportunity to experience the feeling of such profound exclusion. It tends to be reserved for people of other faiths, such as Hindus, Muslims, and Baha’i. But I highly commend that we Christians also attend this School of Broken Hearts* to feel for ourselves what it means for members of one religion to believe that God will damn adherents of another religion to eternal punishment because we do not share their faith.
This is a school that teaches the most profound empathy better than any other educational facility I know.
Over thirty-five years ago, I remember standing in a cocktail party in a Dallas suburb in the beautiful home of a brilliant and respected doctor who, with his wife, had immigrated from Lebanon. His family was very precious to me. His youngest daughter was involved in our youth activities. His whole family was active in worship and Christian education. He knew that I would be slipping away from the party a little early that evening to attend a Holocaust Observance which I had helped plan and organize with colleagues in the very active Jewish-Christian Interfaith organization in Dallas.
My host was quietly seething with anger, as he pulled me aside, poured me a generous glass of whiskey, and began to lecture me. His hatred of Jewish people, Jewish faith and Jewish culture, were woven into his own understanding of Christianity and culture. The views he espoused were terrible and frightening to hear. That conversation is etched into my mind. I loved him and his family, and his diatribe broke my heart.
I knew well and deeply admired the rabbis and congregations from synagogues in Dallas, both Reform and Conservative, with whom I worked closely. And I remember his fiery denunciation of these wonderful people, their faith, their history, and God’s covenant with them. He said he understood how easy it is for a young liberal pastor (like me) to get sucked into these kinds of well-meaning projects. But he warned me of international cabals and conspiracies, and assured me that our God is not their God.
Since then, as Bob Dylan says, “There’s a lot of water under the bridge. There’s a lot of other stuff too.” But some things never change. Hatred and exclusion and fear breed today like mold in dark damp warm places, just like they did thirty or forty or two thousand years ago.
I have come to think that belief in the God revealed in the crucified Jew named Jesus of Nazareth has a hard time coming to terms with the basic, but revolutionary, message of God’s grace at the heart of our own faith. We often forget that the very first big controversy in the church was about whether or not we (i.e., Gentiles) could become Christians without first becoming practicing Jews, because the church at that early point was entirely Jewish.
We also forget that despite the wonderful comfort we receive from the teaching of Jesus that admits us into what Karl Barth called “the open secret of the gospel” (that God is not only the Master of the Universe but Heavenly Father whom we can address in the very warmest terms as “Abba,” Aramaic for Daddy), the Bible does not limit the knowledge nor experience of fellowship with God only to us.
Thus, if someone like my host from that cocktail party many years ago, said to me, “I know you want to believe that people of whatever belief system can be accepted by God if they are personally good people,” they miss the ultimate point. God’s love and grace are the point, not our actions, or belief systems, or the rituals we find important as persons of faith.
Religions are human things. We make them. And Jesus didn’t die to make us religious. He died to make us whole, to share his life with us, to save us from the self-destructiveness and other-destructiveness of sin. What he shares with us is not a religious creed, but himself, and the very same Spirit of God, God’s own eternal life and love, that animated him to live the life he lived and to die the way he died.
Which is why, recently, I remembered that day when our car pulled out of the driveway on a black dirt farm in central Texas, and a very dear Christian woman wept, because she believed our little carload was driving straight toward hell. I thought then, and I think now, that it is absurd to believe we can be more gracious than God, or that God’s heart must shut itself to people whose metaphysical opinions don’t correspond with a particular set of religious views.
Why do I believe this is true?
Maybe it is as simple as this – if I may paraphrase that Scottish churchman, evangelist and founder of the Iona Community and that community’s international Interfaith network, the Reverend George MacLeod:
I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves, at a crossroads so cosmopolitan that they had to write his derisive title (King of the Jews) in Hebrew, Greek and Latin (or should I say, Hindi, Farsi and Cambodian). He was crucified at the town garbage heap, at a place where soldiers gambled and talked smut, where curious traders of a hundred different cultures and faiths walked by on their way to markets. He died there on purpose, so that all humanity might finally get the point: God is Love, self-giving, limitless, and without reservation.
Our very special mission as Christians isn’t to shut the doors to those with whom we disagree, but, in the name of Jesus Christ who has shared with us “the open secret of God’s grace,” it is to show to all the same love in which Jesus lived and for which he died.
*The School of Broken Hearts: This is actually the name of a school in South Korea where love and compassion for others is taught in the Korean Buddhist tradition. Though it often bewilders outsiders, some Christians there (and there are, incidentally, more Presbyterians in Korea than in the United States) often also identify as Confucians, Taoists, and/or Buddhists at the same time.