31 December 2010

Mercy, Not Justice

Recently, I went to pray with the family of a deceased elderly patient. I'd met one of the children a few days previously when I went into the room to introduce myself to the patient and this particular (middle aged) child. The patient was polite but firm, no that patient didn't need a Chaplain. So, here I am a few days later with all the children praying with them upon the - not unexpected - death of a parent.

"Tell me about your parent" I asked. The children told me that the parent had been angry with God on account of the tragic death of another one of their siblings a number of years ago. Then one of them asked me a question that I've been asked once before in my short tenure as a Chaplain: could God accept their parent into heaven if that parent had been angry with God over the death of that child? And then one of them said "We want you to pray for mercy, not justice."

Justice? I passionately believe in God's justice. But I'm not so sure that God's justice has a lot to do with the "sending to hell" of a person whose heart is broken. And that's what I said: "I don't think that God condemns a person to hell for having a broken heart." Now, I have no idea if this particular individual was "going to heaven" but I'm certain in my own heart that they aren't going to be "sent" to hell against their will for not being able to get over their grief.

I also noticed that, when I said that, all the children started crying and they all thanked me afterward.

Here is one place where I think popular notions of salvation and what it means to be a Christian do Jesus and Scripture a disservice. Popular Christianity has turned "faith in Jesus" into some kind of an intellectual assent that has nothing to do with Justice. So, we name people as "just" who assent to certain ideas about Jesus. And they don't even have to actually try to change their lives according to Jesus' teachings; all they have to do is assent to certain ideas about him. And we name as "unjust" people who don't assent to certain ideas, even those whose heart is broken. And we are certain that such people are "unjust" even if they visit the sick and imprisoned and feed the hungry.

This accounting-version of what it means to be a Christian also does a disservice to the concept of "Justice". Any honest reading of Scripture on the subject of "justice" will demonstrate that the biblical concept of justice is not some kind of complicated, abstract, doctrinal mental Olympics. Scriptural justice is very similar to plain, straightforward, everyday justice: don't harm others. Don't steal, don't exploit, don't take advantage just because you can. And it's also more than that: God's people are called beyond the don'ts into the realm of the do's: Do help, do give a hand up, do empower.

Faced with an unjust person whose soul cries out to God: "I harmed, I killed, I stole, I was self-centered, and I'm proud of it. I don't want anything to do with repentance and I don't want anything to do with You. Eternity in Your presence would be hell" I believe that God will grant the person's wish to be outside of the Kingdom for all eternity.

I do not, however, believe in a God who sends a broken-hearted parent unwillingly to eternal torture on grounds of "justice".

If God's mercy is ultimately smaller than the best mercy that we humans can conceive of, then ours is indeed a very small god.

27 December 2010

Blogging on blogging / blogging on chaplaincy

I notice that a number of bloggers who I read are currently writing apologetics about not having written much lately. Some are contemplating stopping blogging all together. Some are vowing to blog more next year. And one of my favourite bloggers seems to periodically vow off blogging for a specified period of time but then seems to find that he has so much to say that he can't help himself and a flurry of posts appear.

So here is my blog on my blogging.

I haven't been blogging a lot. But I'm not contemplating giving up. And I'm not going to vow to blog more in the near future either.

A good part of the reason is my new "job". Or rather the Clinical Pastoral Education Chaplaincy training that I'm doing at a very large hospital near where I live. The job, you see, has a way of putting things in perspective. By "things", I mean mainly life, faith and theology.

Theology is actually very important in Chaplaincy, because if you don't know what you believe, it's hard to help other people sort out what they believe. And it's hard to set people in the right direction if you don't know what you believe about God. "Does God forgive me?" "Am I not getting better because I don't have enough faith?" "Why did God let my newborn baby die when she didn't do anything wrong?" These are big questions. And they are difficult questions without easy answers.

Maybe that's why historically the church has liked to keep its eyes on the kind of theology that tries to count how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Will 5-point Calvinists get into heaven? Does God really love Arminians? Can God save those who hold a Christus Victor theology of atonement instead of a penal substitution model?

Don't get me wrong. I still love theology. But some of the more esoteric stuff strikes me as not having anything to do with real life and real faith and the kind of relationship with God that sustains a person through a long illness. Oh, and by the way, the "Accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour" model also doesn't really cut it either.

The wonderful thing about being a chaplain is that I get to see real, genuine miracles every day. I also see real, genuine people of deep, deep faith being told by God "Your loved one will not receive a healing or a cure; it's her time to come to me." And it's inexplicable why some people get the miracle and others don't. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.

Oh, there is one other dirty secret of Chaplaincy. Non-Christians get miracles too. People of other faiths and people of no faith. God actually does appear to be as merciful as the best mercy that human beings can conceive.

So that's the background to why I'm not blogging much. I'm still taking this all in. My faith in God is rock solid. My faith in the church and in platitudinous theology not so much. I feel like I'm going through a "dark night of the words". I can't describe the kind of faith that I think really gets us through the crises. But I think I know it when I see it.