by Eric Elnes (Scripture: John 10:11-18)
I. Killer Compassion
Over the course of nearly 20 years of ministry, I have been regularly approached by people in and outside the church who struggle with what they believe to be “the Christian” view of other faiths – that Christianity is the only way to God and there are no others. For many, the question is quite personal. They’ve gotten to know a Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or Jew who seems to be as connected with God as any Christian, if not more so. Some have not only met such a person, but have fallen in love and are considering marriage. Increasingly, the Buddhist or Hindu we come to know is a son- or daughter-in-law. Sometimes, that person is not an in-law, but our own son or daughter.
In my book on the Phoenix Affirmations, I share the story of Don, whose quandary represents that of many. Don attended a Bible Church down the road. He showed up in my office one day wanting to discuss his daughter Carrie’s salvation. On her eighteenth birthday, Carrie announced that she had converted to Buddhism.
Carrie’s announcement had a rather chilling effect on the celebration.
Over the next several months, numerous attempts were made by parents, grandparents, and even aunts and uncles to convince Carrie of the error of her ways and return to the fold. Each attempt only created a greater rift between them. At wits end, Don decided to seek the advice of his pastor.
After listening to all the ways in which the family had attempted to lead Carrie back to the fold, and her responses, the pastor advised Don that he and his family threaten to disown their daughter, and follow through if she didn’t repent and return to Jesus.
“You can’t allow Carrie to have a negative influence on your other children,” he said. Don had two other children – a fifteen-year-old boy and a twelve-year-old girl. “They’re younger than Carrie,” the pastor reminded. “She has a lot of influence over them as their older sister. How would you feel if one or both of your remaining children were to lose their salvation a result of Carrie’s mistake? You need to cut her loose. Besides, showing Carrie tough love like this may just create a big enough crack in Carrie’s heart to allow Jesus back in.”
Don didn’t know what to do. His fatherly compassion made him want to keep Carrie close and show her love and acceptance no matter what her beliefs. Yet compassion for his other two children made him take seriously the course of action his pastor advised. His conflicting sense of compassion was tearing him apart!
A year earlier Don had heard from a friend that I was teaching an eight-week class exploring the relationship between Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and certain Zen Buddhist stories (koans). Back then he had considered this class to be further proof of the decline of true Christianity in America and a slide into spiritual relativism. Now, he was curious.
In my office, he started challenging me before he even sat down: “You seem to believe that God can be found in other religions.”
“Yes,” I said.
“I’d like know how you can justify your belief when Jesus clearly says that no one comes unto the Father except through him,” he responded. His question sounded more like a statement whose conviction rests more on the forcefulness by which it is uttered than any underlying surety behind it.
Lowering his eyes and voice slightly he continued, “Right now I’ve got a very personal reason for hearing you out. Can you really be Christian and believe that Jesus isn’t the only way?” Of course, behind this question was another, more pressing one: “Will my daughter go to hell if she dies a Buddhist?”
He sat down and we had a very different conversation than he’d had at his Bible Church.
How would you respond to Don if he were sitting across from you, waiting to hear your thoughts on his daughter’s salvation?
II. Roe, Roe, Roe Your Boat
In early March, a new dog entered the Elnes household after our Doberman, Keta, died of cancer. His name is Roe, and he’s half Bijon and half Jack Russell. We named him Roe since Keta was named after a species of salmon. It seemed appropriate.
Roe’s not nearly as imposing to potential intruders as Keta was, but anyone who knew Keta also knew that all it took was a smile and an outstretched hand to become Keta’s “new best friend.” In reality, Roe is probably a bigger threat to a would-be intruder! I’m not saying Roe is unfriendly. He’s more discerning. He has been a perfect dog in every respect but one.
Oh, so you want to know the one? The Jack Russell blood in Roe means that he is a born ratter. As a ratter, Roe can squeeze his way through openings little larger than your fist. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. For those of you who have seen our house on 13th Street, you know we have a solid brick wall out front. But in back, the fences between our property and the alley are wood, with a six-inch gap between the bottom of the fence and the ground – little to block a dog whose back might clear 12 inches if he was wearing heals.
So from Day One, I was at Menard’s purchasing stone blocks, placing them under the fences, and declaring to Melanie, “There’s no way Roe can get out now!” before leaving for the office. By the time I opened the garage door, Roe would literally be waiting for me outside!
After my sixth trip to Menard’s, my sixth pronouncement to Melanie, and my sixth humiliation (Roe’s last break-out took 40 seconds longer than his first), I took a trip to PetSmart on 72nd Street – a store managed by Countryside member Verne Craemer. There I purchased a PetSafe Invisible Fence. After stringing 200′ of copper wire down and back along the appropriate fences and placing a small “Receiver Collar” on Roe, I can report a dramatic turnaround in Roe’s behavior! While the shock it administers is no greater than the static shock you’d receive after shuffling your feet across the carpet, all it took were two incidents and Roe became a boundary-lover!
What I never expected, was that Roe would become a shock collar lover, too. After wearing it for three months, he’s so used to it that he gets nervous if you take it off. If you shake his collar from across the room, he’ll come running and sit down, anxiously waiting for you to reattach it!
Human beings are a bit like dogs. We have a tendency to fall in love with the familiar, even when it imprisons us. As Morgan Friedman’s character, Red, observed about prison life in the Shawshank Redemption , “These walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.”
Religion can act like a prison for some. The boundaries of their faith are clearly and rigidly established. Then, the theological equivalent of a shock collar is placed around their necks. They are told that any crossing of the boundaries will incur God’s wrath, which may ultimately lead to eternal torture in a lake of fire in which they will burn forever without dying. That’s not just a shock collar. That’s a shock-and-awe collar! With so much at stake, they stay well within the boundaries. To the extent possible, they will defend the boundaries against crossing by loved ones, too, lest they get zapped for eternity.
This describes Don’s situation as he sat in my office trying to decide whether or not to cut Carrie loose, in order to protect his other children from God’s wrath, or to keep Carrie around, putting his other children at risk.
III. The Good Shepherd
So what did Don and I talk in my office? We talked about boundaries, of course. Not what his church had to say about boundaries, or what I had to say about them, but what Jesus said.
When Jesus spoke of boundaries, he spoke of sheep and shepherds, gates and sheepfolds. The boundaries of the sheepfold keep the sheep safe from thieves, robbers, and wolves. They are not there to keep the sheep safe from the shepherd who might just roast them over an everlasting fire if they get out and get lost. Within the sheepfold, the sheep live within the love and care of the shepherd. Injuries are inspected and dressed. They have their babies there. The sheepfold is also a place in which the sheep develop a sense of identity as a flock.
If a sheep were to stray from the fold, Jesus does not speak of punishment. He speaks of leaving the ninety-nine sheep behind to go after the one who is lost. You aren’t lost if you’re under the protection of another sheepfold. No, you’re only lost when you’re wandering the wide-open pastureland where no protective boundaries exist; where thieves, robbers, and wolves may do what they please. In such encounters, Jesus speaks of laying down his life in the sheep’s defense.
Looking back, the conversation I had with Don was pretty much centered on the Bible and theology. Now, after a decade of extra pastoral experience and reflection on the significance of incarnation and the cross, I would like to have asked Don more questions than I did.
For instance, it would have been helpful to know if he or his family had ever taken the time to really listen to Carrie and get a sense of her spiritual life. Anyone who switches religions is spiritually in motion. They are not living their life passively or stagnantly. Often, they are searching for something that their souls know already to be true, but which their heads or hearts aren’t finding reflected in their present setting. The soul knows, for example, that we are loved beyond what our hearts and minds can fathom. The soul knows that it is constantly surrounded by the loving Presence of its Creator who seeks relationship with us quite independently of what we have done to deserve a relationship. Therefore, the soul also knows about grace, and the joy of knowing that its creator chooses relationship over rule-following, transformation over perfection.
For Christians, this love and grace takes the shape of a cross and an empty tomb. The cross and empty tomb are the gate of the Christian fold. But, Jesus claims that, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” As their shepherd, Jesus says these other sheep recognize the sound of his voice and respond to it. That tells me that the cross-shaped love we find in Christianity must take other forms within the folds governed by the Good Shepherd.
So I would want to know from Don what Carrie was searching for that she wasn’t finding in her experience of the Christian fold. Was she searching for something her soul already knew to be true yet wasn’t finding reflected in her setting? Was she reacting to something within her particular fold that did not reflect the love, grace, and transformative relationship offered by the Good Shepherd?
I did tell Don that no one can know if Carrie is making “the right” choice by leaving the Christian fold and entering the Buddhist one. Not even Carrie herself could know until she learned what life is like within it. But the best way for Carrie to know whether or not she had entered a fold governed by the Good Shepherd would be if Don and his family were to continue to offer her the love of the Good Shepherd. In so doing, Carrie would have the best chance of either recognizing the Good Shepherd within another faith and committing to that Shepherd in ways she apparently never could bring herself to do within Christianity, or she would discover that the pastures of other sheep looked greener to her from a distance than up close. In this case, what would bring her back would be the love of God, her family, and her church, not wrath. If Carrie’s parents and their faith community would model and offer cross-shaped love, Carrie would find her way home safely, and with greater appreciation than ever for her Shepherd.
For Further Exploration:
If you would like to explore this theme further, you may watch the 5/27/12 episode of Darkwood Brew, which featured Diana Eck, director of Harvard University’s Pluralism Project (www.darkwoodbrew.org/episodes). Small groups may wish to use the small group video resource from this episode. You may also wish to consider the following questions:
I. How would you respond to Don’s quandary with respect to his daughter’s adoption of another faith?
2. What is the purpose of boundaries in religion? What negative boundaries do you perceive within Christianity? What positive ones do you find?
3. Are there other interpretations of Jesus’ “other sheep who do not belong to this fold” than the one Dr. Elnes offered? How would these interpretations change your response to Don’s situation/your own?
4. Have you faced situations where you had to give someone you love the freedom to explore other faiths? What has been the result?