During a recent trip to the grocery store, I bumped into a former parishioner from a former church. I had not seen the man in many years, but I had heard long ago that he, along with his family, had left that other church not long after I did, and had started attending an evangelical church. I wasn’t surprised to hear the news, as he and his wife had always bristled at the more liberal theological bent of the United Church of Christ.
When this former parishioner spotted me, he made something of a beeline for me. Something about the sparkle in his eye made me think that this was not going to be just a social visit. He asked me about my kids, who were quite young the last time he saw them. Now my daughter is in college. I asked about his family, and his growing list of grandchildren.
Then, he asked if I was still involved in church life, and I informed him that I am serving as pastor to a Congregational/United Church of Christ church about a half hour away. That’s when the tone of our friendly conversation took a turn.
He told me that he had changed churches and, after much prayer and study, had become aware of the waywardness of the UCC. And, now he wanted to help me see the error of my ways.
He was very blunt. In fact, he shared his deep concern that, if I didn’t change the direction of my faith, then the consequences would be dire. On the last day, he informed me, “When it’s your turn to stand before Jesus, he’s going to say to you that you’ve done some good things, but that ‘you did not know me, so go away.’”
I responded by telling him that, while I was glad that he had found a faith community that was meaningful to him, I was unlikely ever going to agree with his approach. Yet he persisted, calmly but determinedly quoting Bible verse after Bible verse and insisting, though there are some places where Christians may disagree, there are certain other places where there can be no debate—and he was very clear on the difference. There are “basics” that must be professed, otherwise one ought not consider oneself a Christian, and should be prepared for a dreadful eternity.
I did my best to remain respectful, but I offered to him that, though it appeared that he had scripture on his side, it seemed problematic for any Christian to be making some of the judgments he—and presumably his church—was making. To worship God, I told him, is to know that I am not God and therefore, I cannot know all of the dimensions in and through which the Divine operates.
He nodded and paused. And, then started in on scripture again, especially the part about correcting error (2 Timothy 3:16). I, in turn, said something about the problems in treating the Bible so literally, especially since it was not written in English and that the languages of the Bible are so different from English.
I wasn’t surprised that he remained doggedly attached to his approach (clearly, he had found something truly compelling), yet I was still taken aback by his perseverance. He seemed unwilling to end the conversation without some sense that he at least planted a seed that might eventually turn me from my waywardness.
Although I could have walked away at any time, I continued with the conversation. I stayed not only to be polite, but because I had liked this guy when we were at the same church together. I had been especially drawn to his gift of music. I had known even then that he struggled with a looser interpretation of the Bible. He was clearly someone who liked definition, but yet he was a good man with a powerful gift.
And, that was how we finally got to an end. Somehow, I managed to turn the conversation to that gift of music, and how I still remembered a few times when his music especially touched me.
The conversation ended respectfully, although I am sure he was disappointed that he had not made much headway in my stubbornly non-literal approach to the Bible and had not done much to keep me from an unpleasant eternity. It was certainly not the first time I had found myself in the midst of such a conversation, yet this one seemed particularly sad.
What is that they say about the relationship between Americans and the British? Two peoples divided by a common language. And, Christians have something similar. We are various peoples divided by a common book. It’s sad that we cannot find some common ground, or at least some path out of thinking that our way is right and all others are wrong. Or, if we believe others to be wrong (as I think of this man, and his church, after all), that we do so without making the leap to believing that they are damned for all eternity. There’s an important difference there. One that all Christians ought to ponder in more meaningful ways.