I Chose the Tears


#1

An autobiographical post I shared on my blog today, a story about my first sermon and how I began to move from belief in ECT to UR:

When I was in middle school I was given my first opportunity to preach a real sermon. For the last year or so I had been giving, from time to time, the short devotional reflections for the gathered church at the end of our Wednesday night bible classes. At the start of our Wednesday night gatherings everyone, young and old, would go to their respective bible classes. But before we dismissed for the evening we’d all gather in the auditorium, sing a song or two and then listen to a short devotional thought. These were the mini-sermons I’d been giving.

Those went well enough that I’d finally been given a chance to give a full sermon during our Sunday night worship service. On Sunday evenings the die-hards of the church would return to the building–twenty to thirty of us out of the hundred or so who came to Sunday morning worship–for second worship service. There would be a song service and a sermon and the Lord’s Supper for those who weren’t able to take communion that morning. The sermon was a regular sermon, 25-30 minutes in length.

When you’re in middle school filling 5-10 minutes with cogent biblical reflections is a challenge. Filling 25-30 minutes with cogent biblical reflections is, well, like climbing Mt. Everest.

So in the week or so leading up to the sermon I began to ponder what I might talk about for thirty minutes.

The Sunday before my sermon I happened to grab a tract from the case in the auditorium. Do you know what tracts are? Tracts were huge in my church tradition. Tracts were little polemical pamphlets on aspects of church doctrine. They often had an evangelistic slant, the idea being you could hand a tract to someone you were wanting to evangelize or who had a question about what our church believed about a given subject. To this very day if you go into an old-school Church of Christ you will find tracks displayed in the auditorium. Some dating back to the 1950s. When I see these displays in churches I always take the time to look them over. They bring back a flood of memories.

The tract I picked up on this particular Sunday was entitled “What is Hell like?” It was written by a well-known fire and brimstone preacher in our movement. I’ve never heard this preacher preach, but in our tradition his sermons about hell and damnation were legendary. From what they tell me, Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” had nothing on this guy.

Anyway, I took the tract “What is Hell like?” home and read it. And it, well, it scared the hell out of me. The tract was basically a list, describing point after point, and each point packed with proof texts, just how hellish hell was going to be. A place of darkness. Pain. Relational separation and loss. And, the kicker at the end, it would be forever. Forever, as in, forever.

By the end of the tract I was shaking. To this point in my life I’d never heard a hellfire and brimstone sermon. So this was my first exposure to the genre, even if it was in written form. Still, it had a huge emotional impact upon me. And to this day I remember my very first thought after finishing the tract:

“People need to know about this. They need to be warned.”

My concern wasn’t for myself but for everyone else in the world. It seemed, to my young mind, that people were running off a cliff, blissfully unaware. And I felt the overwhelming urge to stand at the edge of the cliff and warn them.

“Stop, go back!” I wanted to scream. “Don’t you know how bad hell is going to be?”

This urge to warn others was so strong that I decided on the spot that this would be the subject of my very first sermon.

And so that’s what I did. I wasn’t very creative in my sermon preparation. I just dutifully copied down the points from the tract along with the Scripture references and wrote “What is Hell like?” at the top of the page. I’d announce the topic of the sermon, read each point along with the illustrative texts, and then conclude with the invitation.

If people needed to be warned, I was going to warn them.

And so it was that I stood before 20-30 members of my church, my beaming parents among them, and declared the subject of my first sermon.

“Tonight,” I started, “I want to tell you, to warn you about, what hell is going to be like.”

I’m sure it caught some by surprise. Why, after all, tell a group of people who have come to church twice in one day about the terrors of hell? I was clearly preaching to the choir on this one. Still, I felt the urge to warn. And this was my chance. And so I began the sulfurous litany:

“First, hell is going to be a place of darkness. If you have your bibles turn to…”

Bibles came out, pages flipped, and we read about how dark hell was going to be. The list continued. Point for point I went on, like Dante in the Inferno, taking my audience through the terrors of hell.

And then something happened to me.

And this is what was so strange, emotionally speaking, about the whole experience. Like I said, I wasn’t worried about myself going to hell. I wasn’t in mortal terror. And nor was I angry, a red-faced fire and brimstone preacher yelling at a depraved and wicked humanity.

I wasn’t sacred. I wasn’t angry.

I was sad. Very, very sad.

And so halfway through my sermon I started to weep. Hard. I described each terror of hell with tears rolling down my face. I was crying so hard I could hardly speak.

I’m sure the audience and my family thought I had lost my mind. Here for my very first sermon I had inexplicably picked “What is Hell like?” as my subject. And then I began to weep through the sermon, barely able to finish. I’m sure it all was very weird and disconcerting.

No doubt it was one of the stranger sermons ever preached at my church.

But looking back, I see now, more and more clearly, how that sermon and those tears were a pivotal moment in my spiritual development. A watershed. (Sorry for the pun.) Much of who I am today and what believe can be traced back to the tears I shed during that sermon.

And let me be clear again, because tears were involved, this isn’t a story about feeling theologically abused. Again, there was no fear or anger. None of this was internalized. Throughout it all I felt loved and cherished by God, my family and my church.

The tears were simply tears of compassion. If this was what hell was like, and if most people were going to hell, then I just felt to sad and sorry for the world. My heart was breaking. And so I wept for the world. They were tears of love.

And that was the turning point.

Somewhere deep within me I knew, a feeling I’ve never let go of, that there was no way I could reconcile the bullet points of my sermon with my breaking heart. Going forward from that sermon I knew faced a choice. I was at a spiritual crossroad.

On the one hand I could go with this list I was reading, this list of torture and horror and pain, and say “This is what God is like.”

Or I could go with my breaking heart, I could choose the tears. “This, this ache of love. This is what God is like.”

What is hell like? What is God like? I had a decision to make. And I made it that night.

I could choose the sermon or the tears.

I chose the tears.


#2

That is a wonderful story, Dr Beck! :smiley: I’ll head over to your blog to see the comments…

Thanks

Steve


#3

I agree. Thanks for sharing this, Richard! Lot’s of people seem to feel this way – I’ve heard them speak before, and they’re heartbroken that so many people are walking, heedless, into a never-ending future of fiery torment because, for what ever reason, they never prayed that magical prayer. I think the prayer is important – I do – but just repeating after the preacher because he’s put the fear of hell into you? Umm not so much maybe.

The thing that never ceases to amaze me is that I at least never put two and two together and asked how it could be that I, and these others, should be more merciful than God. Well, I guess I actually did put two and two together eventually with the intervention of the HS, but it sure took me long enough!


#4

Thanks for sharing that, Richard! I love that – that love weeps and hurts for the lost.

Sonia


#5

Interesting story Richard

There is perhaps a third choice you didn’t mention; outright jubilation that the wicked are getting exactly what’s “coming to them”. That attitude is actually very sobering to me - and chilling. The righteous standing on the walls of the city and cheering as God vents His wrath/fire in punitive punishment – while we’re “safely” inside. Seems instinctive to me that, with such an attitude, I may not BE so “safe” after all!!

What you are describing is empathy. That you could experience it at such a young age is, I think, the Spirit in evidence. (Don’t know enough child psychology to know at what age empathy is, or should be, developing…)

There is an eerie problem though that I’ve faced when discussing (arguing?) the merits of UR with believers who embrace ECT or annihilation. It’s a corollary of the “if none are lost, your evangelism will be tepid at best” criticism. Namely, if there IS no ECT hell, and all are saved as UR teaches, why the need for compassion & empathy? You simply cannot “mourn the lost” if you don’t believe they ARE lost.

And perhaps that’s a problem worth discussing in a future post (or this one)…

The question of God’s foreknowledge – the “openness of God” – comes directly into play. If God knows our future place in ECT, our eternal lostness, it seems strange He would mourn it – given He’s had so much time (indeed ALL of time) to “get over it”. Yet scripture is full of imagery portraying God as profoundly empathetic to our plight and suffering.

It’s instructive I think that “Jesus wept” – despite knowing the happy outcome of Lazarus. Likewise, it seems we who believe in UR, should cultivate the capacity to empathize with every incident of suffering that comes from sin. I believe God mourns it with us. We should mourn the estrangement of God’s creation, even though we know it will one day be reconciled.

Bobx3


#6

Thanks for sharing Richard. I too was raised in the church of Christ and preached my first 30 min. sermon when I was twelve. I did a couple of sermonettes on Wednesday night before that. And my first sermon was also about Hell, titled “Heaven or Hell, Where do you want to go.” I was not overwhelmed with compassion as you were, though. I was primarily concerned about doing a good presentation, even had a flannel board to which I added the scriptures I used to proof text all my points. I never questioned the doctrine of Hell. In fact, I used to pray asking God for a personal revelation of Hell thinking it would motivate me to be more evangelistic. It’s funny that in answer to that prayer for a revelation of Hell the Lord through scripture opened my eyes to see that there is no Hell (as in ECT), but that He saves us all. The answer to prayer is often much different than what one pictures when one is praying. Thanks for sharing.