Anyone who has lived in a minister's house knows that middle-of-the-night telephone calls often bring bad news. But for many pastors there is one kind of call that is uniquely painful. There are times when the shock of death is easier to handle than questions about eternal life.
"It happens like this," noted the Rev. J. Gerald Harris, who became editor of the Southern Baptist newspaper of Georgia after 40 years in ministry. "A grieving widow would call and say with a broken heart and with tears in her voice, 'Pastor, my husband had a heart attack last night and we took him to the hospital, but he was dead on arrival. I can't believe it has happened, but we need your help. I know he was not a church member, but we would like for you to preach his funeral.' "
The pastor says "yes," of course. Then, while talking with the family, it often becomes apparent that the deceased was not a believer or may even have been someone who -- by word or deed --flaunted his status as an unbeliever. Others may join the church, then walk away for decades.
This is awkward, noted Harris, for clergy who believe salvation is found through faith in Jesus Christ, alone. It's one thing to step into the pulpit and preach on the mercy of God and to speak words of comfort to a grieving family. It's something else for a pastor to go a step further and do what loved ones may want him to do -- openly proclaim they will be reunited with the deceased in heaven.
Harris said he started receiving calls and emails soon after he wrote about this subject in the Christian Index, in part because this dilemma pivots where the minister draws a theological line, a line that many liberal Christians no longer believe needs to be drawn at all.
There is no question, Harris stressed, that pastors should provide comfort and care for families in these circumstances. Obviously, there is no need for preachers to speak words that would cause grieving relatives pain. However, he also is convinced that it's wrong for pastors to deliver messages they sincerely believe are not true -- to embrace the doctrine of "universalism," which proclaims that all people find eternal salvation, no matter what they believe or how they live their lives.
This is tricky doctrinal territory, as Sen. Barack Obama learned during a June 10 meeting with clergy behind closed doors in Chicago.
While other conservative leaders asked Obama about controversial social issues, the Rev. Franklin Graham -- son of evangelist Billy Graham -- asked an openly theological question: Did the candidate believe that "Jesus was the way to God, or merely a way."
Later, Obama told Newsweek that -- in a candid, personal answer -- he replied: "It is a precept of my Christian faith that my redemption comes through Christ, but I am also a big believer in the Golden Rule, which I think is an essential pillar not only of my faith but of my values and my ideals and my experience here on Earth. I've said this before, and I know this raises questions in the minds of some evangelicals. I do not believe that my mother, who never formally embraced Christianity as far as I know ... I do not believe she went to hell."
In the end, Harris said, it's all but impossible to ignore this kind of doctrinal division. However, pastors do have options when handling these situations, other than delivering sermons that violate their own consciences.
In many Christian traditions, funeral rites consist of hymns and prayers that place more attention on the words of scriptures than on a minister's message. But if the family insists on a sermon that focuses on the deceased, he said, pastors can suggest that a friend deliver this message. In some congregations, loved ones offer eulogies during gatherings -- fellowship meals, perhaps -- following funerals.
"These questions aren't going away," said Harris. "For many people today it's not enough to be tolerant of other people's decisions and religious beliefs. Now they want a kind of positive tolerance, they want you to accept and praise other people's beliefs. You have to be willing to say what they want you to say. ... "That just isn't possible, for a lot of us."