A couple of days ago, I wrote about my experience with an independent pentecostal church in the late 70s early 80s. This church still exists, under a different name, and with another pastor. From everything I’ve heard, it has changed. As you might guess, I have not been back since I was a teenager, and I have no connection with them at this point.
Of course, things often fall into place in unexpected ways. Yesterday, I saw a post on Facebook about the death of a person I knew when I was in Fredonia during college. He was a good guy who began attending the independent Pentecostal church because he was related to the pastor.
Here’s the post, written by the pastor:
It would be difficult to express how much this bothered me, partly because I lived under this kind of teaching for years and have experienced how damaging it is.
Of course, for the follower of Jesus, we should look at and experience death differently than those who do not know Jesus. We do have hope! We believe they are in paradise with Jesus! We do have faith that we will see them again.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:13 Paul writes about believers who have died and says,
“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind….”
If the passage ended there, then it would be difficult to argue with the message of this post. But it doesn’t. Paul ends this sentence with these words:
“who have no hope.”
The message is not, “Don’t grieve.” The point is that our grief is different because it is mixed with hope.
We can celebrate that one close to us is with the Father. But we must not deny our sadness…our grief.
I don’t know how the writer of this post is processing their loss privately. BUT the message they are sending to their congregation is that there is no place for grief…only celebration. If you are sad, stuff it down as deep as you need to because to express your sadness, grieving and lament have no place for the “Faithful Christian.” They may cry privately, but in public, they will put on a mask and deny what they are actually experiencing. They will model this behaviour to those they lead.
Gordon Fee, a theologian, describes this type of theology as “Triumphalism.” and write that triumphalism focuses on the glory of the Christian life while denying that suffering is also part of it.
Triumphalism has no place for grief, or lament or sadness. It denies the “faith” that if you “get saved, your life will be amazing!” To express those sentiments is to question God.
In that post from a couple of days ago, I wrote this:
First, I can add one positive to this experience. This is the church where I learned to expect God to be active in my life. That I could pray, and God would respond. (Of course, the twisted side of that was that God’s action was dependent upon my behaviour and capacity to believe enough.)
That is also part of triumphalist theology. If you prayed, and God didn’t answer, then YOU must have done something wrong. You must have a secret sin. You must not believe as you are supposed to. “Why didn’t you get healed? Because you didn’t believe…you are not just sick, you are a bad Christian as well.”
Another critical point of this, which I heard a lot, was, if you seek out the help of a counsellor or a psychologist to deal with your emotions, then you deny what Jesus did on the cross. (And I know that wasn’t just this church because I heard it from people who came to the Ithaca Vineyard from other churches as well.)
As I mentioned, this is what I grew up hearing. At one point, I started asking questions. “What am I supposed to do with all the stories of suffering in the bible? What about Hebrews 11? What about the Psalms? What about Jesus…a man acquainted with suffering. Come on, there is a whole book in the bible called “Lamentations.”
But this type of faith has no place for those questions. It either puts a “glory” spin on it or ignores it.
A couple of years ago, I came across the book Raging with Compassion, by John Swinton. It is an incredible book dealing with the problem of evil.
Following the Omagh bombing in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, which killed 28 and injured 220, he attended his church the following Sunday, and noting, was said about this tragedy…not even a prayer was offered. Reflecting on that experience, he wrote this.
Something was seriously wrong with our church, and despite the fact that I had been attending there for ten years, I had never noticed it. It seemed that we had no capacity for dealing with sadness. As I reflected on the way in which my church worshipped, its emphasis, its tone, its expectations, its expressed hopes, I suddenly understood clearly that there was no room in our liturgy and worship for sadness, brokenness, and questioning. We had much space for love, joy, praise, and supplication, but it seemed that we viewed the acknowledgement of sadness and the tragic brokenness of our world as almost tantamount to faithlessness. As a result, when tragedy hit, either directly at home or at a slight distance as in the Omagh bombing, we had no idea what to do with it or how to formulate our concerns. Because we had not consistently practiced the art of recognizing, accepting, and expressing sadness, we had not developed the capacity to deal with tragedy.
Again, I had no intention of revisiting my time at this church so soon…but stuff like this does so much harm to individuals and to the church as a whole.