QUESTION: When I was a child growing up, I remember being told a lot about “hell, fire and damnation” in our Sunday school classes. Frankly, I was very frightened because I was sure any small indiscretion on my part would send me to hell. For that reason, I didn’t attend church as an adult. I do believe in God and Jesus and I pray. Although I didn’t attend church nor send my children to Sunday school, one of my daughters began taking her family to a local church. Recently, I was talking to her about what my grandchildren are being taught in Sunday school, and she said the “message” has considerably softened.
Has doctrine in Christian churches changed to accommodate the image of a loving Father who cares for his children instead of an angry, revengeful God?
~ Inquiring Grandmother
Dear Inquiring Grandmother,
I should hope so! Otherwise, I wouldn’t be in the ministry. But let me back up a moment and say that there are certainly churches which preach the hell fire and damnation message which you heard as a little girl. So, Inquiring Grandmother, should you feel the need to go to church – and I hope you will! – scope out various churches and find one in which you feel comfortable.
Now having said that, let me also add that the Gospel message is a two-edged sword. Even Jesus himself says that he has come to bring not peace but a sword. The late Reinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian who died in 1971, said that the job of the minister is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable! As far as I’m concerned, there is the Gospel message in a nutshell.
So find a place where you feel “the spirit of God is surely in this place;” find a place where you feel that you can rest in the arms of the Lord. But also be prepared to do something for the Kingdom, to paraphrase a spiritual my choir sang last year. In my opinion, people shouldn’t be scared into church – but once there, they shouldn’t fall asleep, either!
Hope that helps.
Dear Inquiring Grandmother,
Here’s some good news: the message of a loving God has always been with us! From the beginning of Christianity, we have stated our belief in a God who forgives and offers new life. Countless followers of Jesus have lived into his teachings over the centuries – wisemen and wisewomen who have found truth in his model of inexhaustible, inclusive love, and transformation in his invitation to allow what is broken to be made whole again.
Your childhood church is not the only one that adopted the shame-based, scared-straight approach to communicating the breadth and depth of God’s love. One can still find churches that offer this with all of the heated pulpit-pounding of olde tyme religion. One can even find it coolly delivered on well-lit stages with great sound systems. I have little doubt that even the most fiery preaching is intended as love, for to save someone from hell is love, right? But you are not the only person to wonder that if love feels like bullying, is it really love?
As adults, we often identify a soul-hunger for more spiritual nourishment than our childhood beliefs can provide. It sounds like your daughter discovered that in herself, and went looking for a faith community with pastors and mentors who could help her get to a deeper level. As a believer yourself, your openness to what she shares could turn out to be an invitation to you, too. All faith communities are not the same, and many of us are radically different from your childhood church. I promise.
QUESTION: Until 10 years ago, my father drank heavily and spent time in prison for felony DUI because of his numerous arrests and accidents. When he left prison the last time, my mother told him she was going to leave and take me and my brother with her. My brother and I were in our teens at the time.
My father immediately began to attend AA meetings and has been sober ever since. Now I’m in a relationship with a wonderful man and I’ve not told him about my father’s past. Should I? Our relationship seems to be getting serious, but there is a reluctance within me to share this part of my life.
You are not responsible for your father’s behavior. It’s understandable you don’t want to share unpleasant details of your life with casual dates, but as a relationship becomes serious you should feel comfortable talking about everything. I don’t think you should approach the subject as a confession, it should just be part of you and your man getting to know each other better. Did your mother actually leave your father or did the thought of losing his family make him change enough to maintain his marriage? In any case, your father is part of your life and it’s likely he will be around as your relationship develops. Your boyfriend will quite likely find out about his past anyway. The information should come from you. Sharing this information will give your partner insight into how your values were formed. His reaction to the information will give you insight into his values. I think your family history of substance abuse is akin to your philosophy of handling money, your political views and your feelings about child rearing including whether or not you want children at all. These are all things your and your man should be discussing before you discuss marriage.
Your wonderful man might have some relatives with not so wonderful behavior himself. If he’s the right one for you, honesty will strengthen your relationship.
It’s difficult to answer your letter without knowing all the facts but instinct says that, “honesty is always the best policy.” First of all, do you have a relationship with your father and, if so, have you talked with him about this? Alcoholism is a disease that affects many families. There is often a great price to pay for everyone involved as a result. That your father has found sobriety is important and fortunate. He has also paid a very big price already. His experience might be very helpful to you in this regard.
If there is not a relationship with him, it might be important to check your motives as to why you are uncertain about telling your friend. Writing out the feelings around this helps many people and/or sharing with a trusted friend might help you find some clarity. Praying is very helpful, too.
And my last thought on this is that timing is very useful. When, and if, you decide to tell your friend, choose a time and place to share with him that is comfortable and easy. If he cares for you it won’t matter what your father did and, if he does care, he might not be the right person for you. I send you blessings and a free heart.