Those went well enough that I'd finally been given a chance to give a full sermon during our Sunday night worship service. On Sunday evenings the die-hards of the church would return to the building--twenty to thirty of us out of the hundred or so who came to Sunday morning worship--for second worship service. There would be a song service and a sermon and the Lord's Supper for those who weren't able to take communion that morning. The sermon was a regular sermon, 25-30 minutes in length.
When you're in middle school filling 5-10 minutes with cogent biblical reflections is a challenge. Filling 25-30 minutes with cogent biblical reflections is, well, like climbing Mt. Everest.
So in the week or so leading up to the sermon I began to ponder what I might talk about for thirty minutes.
The Sunday before my sermon I happened to grab a tract from the case in the auditorium. Do you know what tracts are? Tracts were huge in my church tradition. Tracts were little polemical pamphlets on aspects of church doctrine. They often had an evangelistic slant, the idea being you could hand a tract to someone you were wanting to evangelize or who had a question about what our church believed about a given subject. To this very day if you go into an old-school Church of Christ you will find tracks displayed in the auditorium. Some dating back to the 1950s. When I see these displays in churches I always take the time to look them over. They bring back a flood of memories.
The tract I picked up on this particular Sunday was entitled "What is Hell like?" It was written by a well-known fire and brimstone preacher in our movement. I've never heard this preacher preach, but in our tradition his sermons about hell and damnation were legendary. From what they tell me, Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" had nothing on this guy.
Anyway, I took the tract "What is Hell like?" home and read it. And it, well, it scared the hell out of me. The tract was basically a list, describing point after point, and each point packed with proof texts, just how hellish hell was going to be. A place of darkness. Pain. Relational separation and loss. And, the kicker at the end, it would be forever. Forever, as in, forever.
By the end of the tract I was shaking. To this point in my life I'd never heard a hellfire and brimstone sermon. So this was my first exposure to the genre, even if it was in written form. Still, it had a huge emotional impact upon me. And to this day I remember my very first thought after finishing the tract:
"People need to know about this. They need to be warned."
My concern wasn't for myself but for everyone else in the world. It seemed, to my young mind, that people were running off a cliff, blissfully unaware. And I felt the overwhelming urge to stand at the edge of the cliff and warn them.
"Stop, go back!" I wanted to scream. "Don't you know how bad hell is going to be?"
This urge to warn others was so strong that I decided on the spot that this would be the subject of my very first sermon.
And so that's what I did. I wasn't very creative in my sermon preparation. I just dutifully copied down the points from the tract along with the Scripture references and wrote "What is Hell like?" at the top of the page. I'd announce the topic of the sermon, read each point along with the illustrative texts, and then conclude with the invitation.
If people needed to be warned, I was going to warn them.
And so it was that I stood before 20-30 members of my church, my beaming parents among them, and declared the subject of my first sermon.
"Tonight," I started, "I want to tell you, to warn you about, what hell is going to be like."
I'm sure it caught some by surprise. Why, after all, tell a group of people who have come to church twice in one day about the terrors of hell? I was clearly preaching to the choir on this one. Still, I felt the urge to warn. And this was my chance. And so I began the sulfurous litany:
"First, hell is going to be a place of darkness. If you have your bibles turn to..."
Bibles came out, pages flipped, and we read about how dark hell was going to be. The list continued. Point for point I went on, like Dante in the Inferno, taking my audience through the terrors of hell.
And then something happened to me.
And this is what was so strange, emotionally speaking, about the whole experience. Like I said, I wasn't worried about myself going to hell. I wasn't in mortal terror. And nor was I angry, a red-faced fire and brimstone preacher yelling at a depraved and wicked humanity.
I wasn't sacred. I wasn't angry.
I was sad. Very, very sad.
And so halfway through my sermon I started to weep. Hard. I described each terror of hell with tears rolling down my face. I was crying so hard I could hardly speak.
I'm sure the audience and my family thought I had lost my mind. Here for my very first sermon I had inexplicably picked "What is Hell like?" as my subject. And then I began to weep through the sermon, barely able to finish. I'm sure it all was very weird and disconcerting.
No doubt it was one of the stranger sermons ever preached at my church.
But looking back, I see now, more and more clearly, how that sermon and those tears were a pivotal moment in my spiritual development. A watershed. (Sorry for the pun.) Much of who I am today and what believe can be traced back to the tears I shed during that sermon.
And let me be clear again, because tears were involved, this isn't a story about feeling theologically abused. Again, there was no fear or anger. None of this was internalized. Throughout it all I felt loved and cherished by God, my family and my church.
The tears were simply tears of compassion. If this was what hell was like, and if most people were going to hell, then I just felt to sad and sorry for the world. My heart was breaking. And so I wept for the world. They were tears of love.
And that was the turning point.
Somewhere deep within me I knew, a feeling I've never let go of, that there was no way I could reconcile the bullet points of my sermon with my breaking heart. Going forward from that sermon I knew faced a choice. I was at a spiritual crossroad.
On the one hand I could go with this list I was reading, this list of torture and horror and pain, and say "This is what God is like."
Or I could go with my breaking heart, I could choose the tears. "This, this ache of love. This is what God is like."
What is hell like? What is God like? I had a decision to make. And I made it that night.
I could choose the sermon or the tears.
I chose the tears.