Early in my ministry, while working as a chaplain, I was called to a room where a person was dying. By the time I got there, the man’s pastor was already there, but since I did not have anything else to do at the moment I stayed to watch and see how others did ministry. It was interesting and very uncomfortable as the pastor gave the equivalent to a hellfire and brimstone sermon at the bedside. From calling the man a sinner to the images of hell this guy painted, I was almost in tears; the man’s wife definitely was. After the pastor left, I introduced myself, and the man’s wife just grabbed me, hugged me, and started crying. Here the man was dying, and the pastor made it sound as if it were happening because of God’s retribution of the man’s unfaithfulness. I was appalled, and ended up sitting with the woman for a long time as she calmed down. Though the man died the next day, their pastor was not invited back.
It is interesting how in so many traditions blame and judgment are the guiding principles for the exercise of faith. Lines like “if you only believed strong enough” or “God must like you” always get to me. I think about it in my own life; I am alive today because of a string of decisions and circumstances (including the draft during the Vietnam War) that started before I was ever born. That is another story, but to think that God either caused my afflictions or saved me from them is to miss the point altogether. Whether I live or die in this world, the only thing that really matters is that I am always alive in God.
As we continue with the final sermon in the Letter to the Romans, we see that Paul is imploring people to learn to live together. However, the only way we can live together is to look back to ourselves and admit where we fall short, and find ways to change. Moreover, we are called to accept others, walking with them in their journeys for the expressed purpose of lifting them up so they may get a glimpse of God rather then subjugating them to a theology or lifestyle. It is a fundamental refocus of religion: instead telling people what to believe, the role of the church is to ask the individual, “How can I help?”
This has great implications, because the quest of faith is no longer about being right, but it is a quest to find ways in which we can better connect with each other and with God. In other words, one of the main reasons that we need church is because it helps us to find ways to be lifted up, but when it goes the other direction, church can become a huge impediment to our relationship with God and to one another.
The base of the problem is we only know a small window of life, so it is easy to become judgmental when we look upon someone who is having a difficult time in life or is making some bad decisions. The problem is that when we do become judgmental we begin to lose sight of the most important thing, the person. For me, the most difficult thing that I heard from the pastor was that he was doing something he was trained to do, saying the “right words” and doing the “right things;” the problem was that though they might be right for him, they missed the mark for the needs of the family and left them feeling spiritually abused. His concern was more about being right then ministering to the needs and asking, “How can I help?”
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen