Sobering words define a young priest's life

As sermons go, it was not the kind of pulpit performance that -- when it was given -- created a buzz in the pews. The young Catholic priest's voice was flat and subdued, his face calm but not expressive.

After all, he was only a year or so into his priesthood and preaching was still rather new to him. On this day he was working with a sobering text from the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus looks over the city of Jerusalem and weeps, knowing that death and destruction looms in the future.

So that was what Father Kenneth Walker preached about, in a sermon captured on video that has gone viral on the Internet in the days after he was gunned down, at 28 years of age, by a burglar at Mother of Mercy Mission parish near downtown Phoenix. He talked about forgiveness and the need for people living in a sinful, broken and violent world to realize that they may not have much time remaining to get right with God.

"God is all merciful, but he is also perfectly just," he said. "He will not prevent something from happening, if we bring it about by our own choosing. Nevertheless, God gives time and opportunity to repent before he lets the consequences fall upon us."

The Bible and church history are full of cases in which God warns people to flee wickedness, he said. In some cases, saints and martyrs suffered and died while God gave a wayward land more time to repent.

"We are in a similar situation today, since we are now living in a world that is increasingly rejecting Christ and casting him out of the public forum," said Walker. "We have grown far too attached to our own knowledge, our technology and our worldly pleasures -- such that we have forgotten God and what he has done for us."

Look around, he said. These are troubling times for Catholics who strive to practice the ancient traditions of their faith.

An earthy reality in the words of Pope Francis

There is nothing unusual about a Catholic leader urging priests to draw closer to their flocks, to focus on day-to-day issues that bridge the gap between pulpit and pew. Still, it caught Vatican insiders off guard when Pope Francis, a week after his installation Mass, used a somewhat pungent image when discussing this problem.

"This is precisely the reason for the dissatisfaction of some, who end up sad -- sad priests -- in some sense becoming collectors of antiques or novelties, instead of being shepherds living with the smell of the sheep," he said. "This I ask you: be shepherds, with the 'odor of the sheep,' make it real, as shepherds among your flock, fishers of men."

At this point, "it's safe to say everyone in the Catholic world knows that line, if they're paying attention at all," said Father Robert Barron, president of Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake near Chicago. He is also known for his work as founder of the Word on Fire media ministry and as an NBC News analyst.

It's easy, when talking about this pope's back-to-basics style, to stress his life in Argentina, growing up in the home of immigrants from northern Italy. But when considering his preaching, said Barron, the key is to remember his experience at the parish and diocesan levels. While Pope Benedict XVI speaks with the precision of an academic comfortable in European classrooms, Pope Francis has spent much of his life preaching in slums.

"When you look at him in the pulpit you just have to say, 'This is a preacher in a parish.' He's going up there with notes, not a formal five-page text" the Vatican press officers distributed in advance, said Barron, in a telephone interview. "Every now and then you catch him looking up with a kind of twinkle in his eyes and you can tell he's enjoying what he's doing, what he's saying."

Recently, the conservative journal First Things collected a few "vivid images" drawn from early sermons and remarks by the Jesuit pope. For example, the pope has warned Catholics not to focus on temporary things and, thus, become "teen-agers for life." On another occasion, he said some Catholics complain so often they could become "Mr. or Mrs. Whiner" or end up with faces resembling "pickled peppers."

Other sound bites in this list included:

* On March 14, Francis used a bit of policy wonk lingo: "We can walk as much as we want, we can build many things, but if we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the church, the bride of the Lord."

* It's crucial for Catholics to live their faith, not just talk about it privately, the pope said in mid-April: "When we do this the church becomes a mother church that bears children. ... But when we don't do it, the church becomes not a mother but a babysitter church, which takes care of the child to put him to sleep."

* While some insist on talking about faith in vague terms, Francis reminded an April 18 audience: "When we talk to God we speak with persons who are concrete and tangible, not some misty, diffused god-like 'god-spray,' that’s a little bit everywhere but who knows what it is."

* Stressing the importance of Easter, he noted: "Efforts have often been made to blur faith in the Resurrection of Jesus and doubts have crept in, even among believers. It is a little like that 'rosewater' faith, as we say; it is not a strong faith. And this is due to superficiality and sometimes to indifference, busy as we are with a thousand things considered more important than faith, or because we have a view of life that is solely horizontal."

What runs through these words is the new pope's desire to awaken in his listeners a "religious sense," a "religious sensibility" that insists that there is more to life in the real world than mere materialism, said Barron.

Pope Francis knows that "if you want people to act, you have to touch them at the level of the real, the earthy and the practical," he said. "As a pastor, he has used this language before. Now he is using these kinds of images again -- from the throne of St. Peter."

Words pastors fear saying to their flocks, part 2

Week after week, year after year, ministers rise to preach knowing their flocks expect them to deliver messages that are truly inspired by God or, at the very least, somewhat uplifting. After years facing United Methodist congregations in the Bible Belt, the Rev. Harold Bales had an epiphany about this duty -- although some might consider his candid vision a kind of ecclesiastical nightmare.

Imagine what would happen if a pastor stepped into the pulpit and said something like the following.

"Dear friends, in the past week I have prayed and prayed," said Bales, describing this scenario. "I have read my Bible, talked to other colleagues and read stacks of inspirational journals -- seeking a word from the Lord.

"Well, what I need to tell you is that I have heard nothing from the Lord this week. I was kind of wondering: Have any of you heard from Him?"

It's hard for clergy to imagine doing such a thing, said Bales, because most are afraid to be this transparent. Some fear that members of their flock will freak out and call their ecclesiastical superiors to register a complaint or, worse, to express concern that the pastor may be cracking up.

In addition to his years in what Southerners call "tall steeple" churches in cities like Charlotte and Asheville, N.C., Bales has also been on the administrative side of this kind of drama. He served as superintendent of Salisbury District in Western North Carolina and, for many years, was on the staff of his denomination's General Boards of Evangelism and Discipleship.

In other words, Bales has fielded his share of appeals from ticked-off church members, as well as having inspired a few such calls himself. A native of Knoxville, Tenn., he is now semi-retired, living in Kannapolis, N.C., and writing columns and bites of social media linked to his website.

The bottom line for many pastors, said Bales, is that they are afraid to level with their people -- person to person.

"Let's face it. Your people can run you crazy. But that's really not where ministers get into deep trouble," he said. "Through the years, I have been especially interested in all the ways that ministers struggle with their own humanity. You see, they expect so much out of themselves, which can be hard since their people keep trying to hold them to standards higher than the saints and the angels."

Try to imagine, he said, a pastor speaking these words to the faithful: "Dear friends, I am undone. My marriage is in shambles and things aren't going great with my kids, either. My emotions are wracked. I'm stressed out. ... You see, I'm prepared to minister to you, but who is going to minister to me?"

Or here is another one Bales tried to deliver a time or two: "Dear friends, I need more nerve. I need help, because there are hard truths I need to tell you. That frightens me because I yearn to be loved by everyone. I also crave success. So you see, I'm afraid of you. I'm afraid to tell you the truth."

All of this stress adds up and, thus, Bales said he has seen research indicating that every year another 18,000 pastors surrender and quit the ministry.

Yes, it's important for the faithful to pray for their ministers, he stressed. It's also important for them to know that clergy can feel isolated from the people around them and, thus, struggle to develop real, honest friendships. Like many lay people, pastors also get suckered into believing that "humor and delight, joy and pleasure are somehow unspiritual," he explained. When in doubt, it never hurts to tell your pastor a joke or to suggest that it's time to "clock out" and go get some barbecue.

It's also important to "respect how emotionally vulnerable a pastor can be. ... Those who give the appearance of great strength are very human and unless they are deluded about themselves, are subject to inner struggles and self-doubt," noted Bales. It helps to grasp the truth that "unless your minister is experiencing an occasional failure, he or she is probably not risking enough for God's sake."

Every now and then, he said, a pastor simply must have the freedom to say things like, "I don't know" or even, "Ouch! I was wrong."

Words pastors fear saying to their flocks, part 1

The powers that be in professional sports know that it’s easier to fire embattled coaches than to push powerful athletes out the door.

Pastors know that the same pattern usually holds true when push comes to shove in religious sanctuaries. The sad result is often a vicious cycle of fear, stress, doubt, despair, workaholism, frustration and fatalism.

In his book “Counseling Christian Workers,” the late Dr. Louis McBurney — a Mayo Clinic trained psychiatrist known for helping clergy in times of crisis — summed it up with one sad, exhausted quotation from an anonymous minister hurt by powerful people in his pews.

“There’s nothing wrong with my church,” said this pastor, “that wouldn’t be solved by a few well-placed funerals.”

The Rev. Gary Brinn has heard clergy offer variations on that line, with the most common being that, on occasion, “pastors get to bury their problems.” It’s the kind of blunt talk pastors share when privately talking shop. It’s not the kind of thing they would say to their flocks, not even to the angry goats in the pews.

“You would think the one place people would practice some manners and show some understanding would be in church, but too often that just isn’t the case,” said Brinn, who leads the Sayville Congregational United Church of Christ, on the South Shore of Long Island. “Sometimes you just want to say, ‘Have a little kindness, folks.’ “

Recently, Brinn went toe to toe with one “bushy-bearded rogue” after this year’s late-night Christmas Eve service. In this case, the once-a-year churchgoer wanted the pastor to know that the service — which blended Christmas hope with the sobering realities of Hurricane Sandy and the massacre in Newtown, Conn. — was one of the worst services he had ever attended in his life.

The pastor turned the other cheek. Later he turned to his computer, pounding out a commentary entitled “Secrets Your Pastor Can’t Share in a Sermon” that went viral. While many readers posted outraged online comments, said Brinn, in a telephone interview, his email in-basket was soon full of sympathetic letters from clergy.

Among his dark secrets, Brinn noted that clergy — usually experienced, seminary-educated professionals — wish their parishioners would remember that:

* Offerings are not tips exchanged for entertaining sermons, “nor are you paying for services rendered. Your stewardship, bringing your tithes and offerings to the community in which you worship, is a spiritual practice that comes right out of scripture. … Failure to give appropriately is a spiritual problem.”

* Clergy struggle to work 60 hours or less each week. Even on Sundays, he noted, they’ve “been ‘on,’ like rock concert ‘on,’ all morning. I’m smiling and being social, but I’m actually fried. … You know that important thing you needed to tell me as you shook my hand and headed off to brunch? I forgot it, along with the important things eight other people told me. Sorry, I didn’t mean to, but you better write it down, send it in an email, or leave me a message for when I get back in the office.”

* Truth be told, clergy care more about “the regulars. I know I’m not supposed to, but I do. You know, the ones who show up in the pouring rain, there for every fundraiser and Bible study. When a perfect stranger shows up demanding the rites of the church and treating me like I’m an unfortunate prop in their personal movie, it’s a problem. … I’m having serious theological qualms about this, I’m just not telling you.”

* Clergy work for a bishop, a vestry or another source of authority, but they ultimately must be able to confess that, “I work for God.” Yes, it’s hard to please everyone, but an honest preacher also must be able to say, “If I stop challenging you, you’ll know that I am either exhausted or scared. Neither is good for you or the church you love.”

Brinn said he didn’t worry that members of his small congregation would misunderstand this candid shot over the pulpit.

“I really wrote this piece for all of the pastors who don’t have the freedom to be this honest in their pulpits,” he said. “Way too many pastors try to bury their problems. … I am convinced that 75 percent of American clergy are terrified of their congregations.”

NEXT WEEK: Why are many clergy so afraid of their flocks?

Thundering new voice for Southern Baptists

A New Orleans preacher, preaching to a New Orleans crowd, can expect a few "Amens!" if he quotes lyrics from Billie Holiday's bluesy "God Bless the Child" while talking about God's love for sinners who get saved. But what if he's preaching at the pastors' conference before the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention?

All the people said, "Amen!"

What really mattered was that the preacher was the Rev. Fred Luter and his turbo-charged call for salvation and social change was one of the dramatic scenes that preceded his election, by acclamation, as the first African-American president of America's largest non-Catholic flock.

But there was more to this event than its symbolism, coming 167 years after the convention was formed to defend the rights of slaveholders to be missionaries. Also, his election came on "Juneteenth" -- June 19th -- when many African Americans celebrate the emancipation of the slaves.

In his only sermon during the gathering in New Orleans, Luter challenged Southern Baptists to face the blunt realities of life in a diverse and urban society. For starters, Southern Baptists in pulpits and pews must face their own sins, so they can truly identify with the lost.

After all, everyone is "an ex-SOMETHING," he said. Sin is sin and forgiveness is forgiveness.

"The Gospel can save a gang banger. The Gospel can save a crack addict. The Gospel can save a child abuser. The Gospel can save a street runner. The Gospel can change a rebellious teen-ager. The Gospel can change an unfaithful spouse," he shouted.

"The Gospel can change you and the Gospel can change me. How do I know it? Because, ladies and gentlemen, I haven't always been preaching in a pulpit. I haven't always been preaching at the pastors' conference. At one time I was too mean to live and not fit to die, going to hell and enjoying the ride. But one day I heard the Gospel and the Gospel changed my life."

The young Luter's life in New Orleans was shaped by a broken home and his rebellion ended with a bloody motorcycle wreck. This dance with death inspired his move into part-time street preaching in the Lower Ninth Ward and eventually into the ministry. Under his leadership, the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church grew from 50 members in 1986 to 7,000 two decades later.

Then Hurricane Katrina demolished the church and its community. Luter stayed to rebuild, with the remnants of his flock sharing space for a time with the predominantly white First Baptist Church of New Orleans. That partnership grew and it was First Baptist's pastor, the Rev. David Crosby, who nominated Luter for the SBC presidency, which traditionally consists of two one-year terms.

Today, Franklin Avenue Baptist has about 5,000 members and is rebuilding again, because of its rapid growth. Meanwhile, 36 of the 110 churches in the New Orleans Baptist Association are majority African American.

Nationwide, the SBC's membership totals are down 2 percent in recent years -- a slide that have been much worse without rising numbers in predominantly black, Latino and Asian congregations. Today, whites make up 81 percent of the national convention's nearly 16 million members, with African Americans at 6.5 percent and other ethnicities combining for 12.5 percent.

Looking at the bigger picture, Luter stressed that all Americans -- regardless of race -- are wrestling with a blitz of social changes that are shattering many families and communities. Thus, his sermon addressed a litany of hot issues, from sitcoms to politics, from racism to gang violence, from adultery to pornography, from homosexuality to abortion.

"Oh my brothers and my sisters," asked Luter, "what is it going to take to change our lives? What is it going to take to change our morals? What is it going to take to change our culture, our community and our world? ...

"Only the Word of God -- not the Republican Party. Only the Word of God -- not the Democratic Party. Only the Word of God -- not the U.S. Congress. Only the Word of God -- not the U.S. Senate. ... Only the Word of God can change the mind of a murderer. Only the Word of God can change the heart of a racist. Only the Word of God can change the desire of a child molester. Only the Word of God can change a gang member. Yes it can! Yes it can!"

Titanic sermons, a century later

The White Star Line publicists pulled out all the stops when promoting the Titanic and its sister ship the Olympic, even claiming in one brochure that these giants "were designed to be unsinkable." By the time Titanic put to sea, this language had evolved into a boast -- reportedly shared with passengers -- that "God Himself couldn't sink this ship."

Thus, when the liner sank on April 15, 1912, preachers on both sides of the Atlantic were among the first commentators to raise their voices in judgment, as well as consolation. Newspapers promptly printed many of these sermons.

One fact gripped preachers more than any other: In an age a great power and wealth, the Titanic carried only 20 lifeboats for its 2200 passengers.

This was a deadly form of pride, said the Rev. William D. Moss at the Washington Heights Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. But it would be wrong to condemn only the businessmen who built the Titanic and plotted its course.

"Yonder where the ruthless deep yawned to receive its unwilling and innocent victims, the law of life exercised its ancient prerogative that whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. ... In the tragedy of this hour we have witnessed the wrong-doing not of one man or a body of men, but of the age," proclaimed Moss.

"The fact is driven home to us today that as an age, as a nation, and as individuals we lack moral vision. We worship success. We worship money. We worship luxury. We worship display. We worship the material. We worship the ephemeral. We worship self-interest. We worship competition. In other words, we worship speed. … And so this tragedy of the ocean has its daily counterpart on the land."

The moral messages captured in these sermons were completely different than the vision offered in 1997 by Hollywood director James Cameron. His "Titanic" blockbuster portrayed the doomed ship as a symbol of the corrupt values of an old-fashioned culture that would soon be conquered by science, social change and the sexual revolution.

For the preachers of 1912, the Titanic was the ultimate symbol, not of the past, but of modernity and the dawn of a century in which ambitious tycoons and scientists would solve most, if not all, of humanity's thorniest problems.

The liner was, in other words, a triumph of Darwinian logic and the march of progress. It's sinking was a dream-shattering tragedy of biblical proportions.

The events of Feb. 14 and 15, 912, are the "closest thing that we have to a modern day Bible story," according to Douglas Phillips of, in an essay saluting the men who went down with the ship. "Everything about Titanic was larger-than-life: her conception, her launch, her sins, her heroes and her judgment. …

"Many perceived the ship to be a modern incarnation of the Tower of Babel. The sinking represented God's unwillingness to allow man to build any edifice of invincibility or to seek salvation through technology."

However, days after the tragedy, a young pastor in Switzerland stressed that technology itself was not to blame, but the "playful arrogance" of those who wielded it.

"God has not set a limit to technology, to progress, to the human mind," said the Rev. Karl Barth, who would become one of the new century's most famous theologians. "Quite the reverse! … When we become godless about the headway we have made, i.e. when we become bumptious and conceited and childish, then we need to be called to order." Thus, he argued: "It is true that God set the iceberg on its course, but no one was compelled to get in its way."

There was, however, an inspiring side to this story, as well. While there was cruel logic behind the decisions that caused the disaster, there was a radically different belief system at work in the heroic, self-sacrificial acts on that night, noted the Rev. Henry van Dyke, a Princeton University professor.

The bottom line: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

Thus, van Dyke concluded: "Only through the belief that the strong are bound to protect and save the weak because God wills it can we hope to keep self-sacrifice, and love, and heroism and all the things that make us glad to live and not afraid to die."

Sermons by Billy and Obama

Both men faced rows of loved ones still wrapped in grief after shocking tragedies. Both men quoted the Psalms. Both concluded with visions of eternal life and heavenly reunions. Both referred to familiar songs that offered comfort.

Facing those gathered in Beckley, W.Va., to mourn the loss of 29 miners, President Barack Obama asked them to remember a rhythm and blues classic -- "Lean on Me" -- that had its roots in coal country life.

Songwriter Bill Withers wrote: "Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain, we all have sorrow. ... Lean on me, when you're not strong and I'll be your friend. I'll help you carry on, for it won't be long 'til I'm gonna need somebody to lean on."

The Rev. Billy Graham was more daring at the 1995 prayer service for the 168 victims of the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The world's most famous evangelist even quoted an explicitly Christian hymn.

"The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose I will not, I will not desert to its foes," claims "How Firm a Foundation," in its final verse. "That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I'll never, no, never, no, never forsake!"

There is no way to know if Obama and Graham talked about heaven, hell and eulogies when they held their first face-to-face meeting, just a few hours before the president traveled to West Virginia.

Reporters were not allowed to witness the 30-minute session, the kind of confidential meeting that Graham has held with every president since Harry Truman. Obama was the first to meet with the evangelical statesman at his log home on a mountainside above Montreat, N.C.

Graham's career has been defined as much by these moments of civil religion as by the decades of crusades in which he preached to millions. Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton told reporters that Graham is a "treasure to our country" and that, while the 91-year-old preacher has "some of the creaks that come with advancing age," he remains as "sharp as he ever was."

Some details of the meeting were relayed to the Associated Press by the Rev. Franklin Graham, the outspoken heir to his father's ministry. Billy Graham gave Obama two Bibles, one for him and one for First Lady Michelle Obama. The evangelist prayed for America and for wisdom for the president. Obama offered a prayer thanking God for Graham's life and ministry.

Franklin Graham's presence guaranteed the discussion of at least one sensitive subject, since the Army recently rescinded his invitation to speak at a Pentagon prayer service. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the younger Graham called Islam an "evil and wicked religion" and he still insists that Muslims need to know that Jesus died for their sins.

When they discussed the Pentagon's approach to religion, Franklin Graham said that Obama promised "he would look into it."

That's the kind of theological terrain that presidents strive to avoid. Thus, Obama remained safely vague when using God language in West Virginia. If there is comfort in the wake of the mine tragedy, he said, "it can, perhaps, be found by seeking the face of God, who quiets our troubled minds, a God who mends our broken hearts, a God who eases our mourning souls."

Obama concluded with an appeal for safer mines, blending spiritual concerns into the politics of rock and coal.

"We cannot bring back the 29 men we lost. They are with the Lord now," he said. "Our task, here on Earth, is to save lives from being lost in another such tragedy; to do what must do, individually and collectively, to assure safe conditions underground. ... We have to lean on one another, and look out for one another, and love one another, and pray for one another."

In Oklahoma City, Graham had closed with an openly evangelistic appeal, the kind of spiritual warning he has urgently voiced for decades.

"This event," he said, "reminds us of the brevity and uncertainty of life. It reminds us that we never know when we are going to be taken. I doubt if even one of those who went to that building to work or to go to the children's place ever dreamed that that was their last day on earth. That is why we each need to face our own spiritual need and commit ourselves to God."

Bullets, Bibles and Big Questions

By age 14, Cassie Griffin had collected a bedroom full of toy frogs, each a playful symbol of her F.R.O.G. motto -- Fully Relying On God. She was tall for her age, which probably made it easier for gunman Larry Gene Ashbrook to target her on that horrific night a decade ago at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. Cursing God and Baptists, he stormed into a youth prayer service, firing 100 rounds and exploding a pipe bomb -- leaving seven dead and seven wounded.

At a recent meeting of the Wedgwood deacons, Cassie's father gave his pastor a message for the faithful at the First Baptist in Maryville, Ill., where another disturbed gunman killed the senior pastor while he preached on Sunday, March 8.

"Let those people know that my son is still struggling," the deacon told the Rev. Al Meredith, who preached to the stricken Maryville flock exactly one week after their pastor's death.

This kind of tragedy, said Meredith, is not "something you get over with three points and a poem," a dose of scripture, a verse of "Victory in Jesus" and a proclamation that, "Everything's fine. Let's move on."

There's a "Greek word" for that kind of theology and it's "baloney," he said, preaching where the Rev. Fred Winters bled and died, his Bible blasted apart by one of 27-year-old Terry Joe Sedlacek's first shots. Police have not announced a motive.

"Every day with Jesus is not sweeter than the day before," said Meredith, in a sermon that swung from tears to gospel singing to laughter. "Some days are evil. In fact, the Bible says, 'Stand that you might be able to stand in the evil day.' Last Sunday was an evil day, and our hearts are breaking. ...

"People are going to ask, 'When are you going to get over this?' You're never going to get over this, but by God's grace you're going to get through it. And God will give you joy and peace in the midst of it, in the midst of the tears and the heartache. Have you learned that? You are learning it. It's the praise you give with a broken heart that is the greatest sacrifice you can offer God."

There are few pastors who have faced the challenge of preaching in a sanctuary that has blood on the carpet and bullet holes in the walls. There are few who have had to face the press after this kind of bloodshed, with most of the reporters asking an ancient question that is at the heart of mature faith: "Can you tell us where God is in all of this?"

Meredith, of course, addressed that question when he faced his own shell-shocked flock. That's why the Maryville church asked him to come preach.

Back in 1999, he said: "If God really loves us, if God is all powerful, why in the world did he let this happen? Why does God allow evil to seemingly abound in this world? Why Columbine? ... Why do a million and a half unborn babies have their lives snuffed out before they have a chance to breathe a breath? Why do children die of hunger daily around the world? Why is there pain? Why is there suffering? Why is there mental illness? ... The question is, 'Where is God when we hurt?' "

The reality is that there is no way to avoid suffering. Thus, the crucial test is whether believers can face trials and tribulations without sliding in despair.

Meanwhile, said Meredith, far too many churches are fighting about the "color of the carpet or the music they sing," while suffering people keep looking for some sense of hope -- in this world and the next. It doesn't help that anyone with a television remote can find scores of "health and wealth boys" who claim that true believers will avoid pain and strife altogether.

"Tell that to every saint that's died. Tell that to the saints that are struggling with unmitigated pain," he told the Maryville congregation. "God never promised us a life without trials. As Americans, we want a carefree and happy life. We think that's God's will for our lives. Get a clue. God's will for your life is to make you into the image of His Son, and that only happens through the heartaches and trials of life."

Heaven, hell and funerals

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."