The air was sultry hot, and the preacher was sweaty and tired, but still full of fire, and he was not about to stop–not until himself got a convert.
We were in the assembly hall at a Baptist beach church camp, and it was the final night. The preacher had been doing altar calls all week with almost no response, and tonight he was not to be denied. The problem he faced was that half the people in the hall were already saved and the other half were pretty determined to NOT be saved. I was in the second group that night.
My soul was not ready for eternal bliss for a variety of reasons, all of which had to do with being a typical 15-year old male. I, and everyone else in the hall, sat firmly in our seats.
The preacher was determined. He wanted some notches in his Bible Belt.
“I know…and the Lord has said this to me…that there is someone out there….one of YOU, who needs to come forward tonight, who needs to be saved TONIGHT! You dare not tarry.”
But tarry I did, even though the crowded room was getting hotter and hotter. And I was not the only person in the room to tarry. My friends were just as revolved as I was to stay cemented in their seats. The overhead fans were pushing sweltering humid air down on us and there was no cool beach breeze to ease our anguish. I wanted to get out of there something awful. I came to this camp because of a girl, and we had plans to meet on the beach after chapel, and I was good and ready for after chapel.
“I knew a boy,” the pastor continued, “Who tole his mama that he didn’t want to get saved yet, but that he would, and real soon. Said he wasn’t ready. His momma talked him into going to church one Sunday, and the boy was ready to be saved, but a drunk driver plowed into their car ON THE WAY TO CHURCH, and now that sweet boy is suffering ETERNAL damnation because he put off being saved!” At this point the preacher went into a pretty vivid description of eternal damnation, which ironically sounded a lot like what I was going through at that very moment. The fires of hell had nothing on the still summer air and the torrid thoughts winding and twisting through my mind in anticipation of the evening to come.
At one point I almost walked down the aisle, just to shut him up, but I knew there would be no way to get to the beach afterwards because they would want to rejoice with me over the redeemed state of my soul, and I was more more interested in getting down to the beach and doing something unredeemed.
# # #
I did not get saved that night. Nor did I meet that girl on the beach. She stood me up for an older guy.
Years later, I did have a conversation with God, one I needed to have, and it wasn’t at the bequest of a sweaty preacher who was looking for a body count. I was sitting alone on the back porch of my parents’ house, and just slowly realized it was about time I had a talk with the Almighty.
Somewhere during that conversation I was born again, I turned my life over to God, I accepted Christ as my personal savior, I was saved, I started my faith journey for real, I become a practicing Christian–call it what you want, my relationship with God changed that afternoon, and ever since then I have counted myself as a follower of Jesus Christ.
There was nothing coercive about it. It just happened, in a natural, unforced way.
Years later I would read Eugene Peterson’s translation of Matthew 11:28-30:
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me–watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.
The conversation I had with God had a lot more to do with the “unforced rhythms of grace,” than the demanding strident threats of a man whacking me over the head with Jesus.
I came to the table of faith because I heard Jesus “softly and tenderly,” calling me home, not because a pastor was yelling at me. The invitation came through some friends of mine who had become Christians, but who had, over the last year, truly cared for me as a friend, and who did not openly judge me, as well as my relationship to a church that also a very caring place.
Both my friends and the church exhibited the unforced rhythms of grace that lie at the heart of the faith in ways that made it irresistible. They did not push me to get right with God, and because they didn’t, I did. A coerced conversion is no conversion at all. If I am only bowing down to Christ because someone is pushing me down, my heart remains standing and unmoved–in fact it becomes more rebellious.
But when I open myself up to the unforced rhythms of grace, I join a dance that has gone on since before time and will continue as long as long as time does–and beyond. There are times when can I feel those rhythms deep in my bones, and the divine dance floor is open and I am swaying to the cadences of heaven. Sometimes it happens during worship, but it can also happen at a Grateful Dead concert (with literal dancing), a hike in the woods, or while reading a moving passage from an essay or novel. It can happen when I am working with the homeless around our church, or when I am counseling someone. It never happens when I am angry, impatient or irritated. It can never be forced.
David Bentley Hart, in The Beauty of the Infinite, makes the point that there is no room for coercion or violence in Christianity. Instead the church should strive with all its might to attract people through its embodiment of beauty posed on the edge of infinity. Beauty, he says, elicits desires that draw people to it naturally. The nature of the church should be its own persuasive force. We don’t need barkers standing outside the the revival tent, cajoling people to come in. We should be the kind of people who are naturally attractive–beautiful in our commitment to justice, to compassion, and to the infinite God.
Scaring or shaming people into faith is a losing proposition. It can only produce a scared or shameful people. Forcing the rhythms of grace messes up that very rhythm and leads to cacophony. The commitments that accrue from faith should flow naturally and beautifully from the lives of faithful. The Church should not need to persuade people to join–the form, commitments, and practices of the Church are the persuasion. If we are not a beautiful people we have no right to expect others to be attracted to us.
Many years ago, on Sixty Minutes, Andy Rooney said that on the whole he tended to be more pro-life than pro-choice, but that he liked the pro-choicers more than the pro-lifers. I think a lot of people feel that way around Christians. They may like the notions of grace and forgiveness, but in order to get through to them they have to go through a people who can be ungraceful and unforgiving as a normal way of practice. As one bumper sticker says, “I love Jesus, but I’m not crazy about his fan club.”
On the other hand, the unforced rhythms of grace are not just attractive, they are often irresistible. The day I did finally make a commitment to faith in Christ was the day I discovered the irresistible love of God. That is the faith that has stayed with me over the last forty years.
# # #
Dancing to the Rhythm
After what seemed to be an eternity of haranguing, the preacher finally gave up that night without a single soul walking down the aisle. From his point of view it was a wasted night. He was defeated, like Father McKenzie in the Beatles song. No one was saved. But he was pushing a product I don’t think he really believed in himself, which is why few others wanted to believe him. Why on earth would I let someone coerce me into making one of the most important decisions in my life when their very style of persuasion belies the heart of their message? If he truly believed in the love of God, he could have let that love shine through at least a little. If he truly believed in the power of God, he could have trusted God more to draw the people in.
He was an ad man pitching a product that he never really bought into himself. He was taking the beautiful rhythms of grace and forcing them into a constrained structure that never could and never will contain them.
As for me, I would rather dance to unforced rhythms.