A Canary in a Coal Mine

Years ago coal miners in the United States and the United Kingdom took caged canaries down into the mine with them as an early warning system. Canaries are extremely sensitive to toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and methane. The earliest mines didn’t have ventilation systems, so canaries helped detect toxic gases long before humans could.

The canaries served as an audible and a visual cue regarding the condition of the air the miners were breathing. As long as the miners could see that the canary was alive, and could hear the canary singing, the miners knew that the air was safe to breathe. A silent, dead canary meant that the miners needed to evacuate immediately—their environment had turned toxic.

The phrase “canary in a coal mine” has come to refer to someone or something that provides an early warning of a potential crisis. Just as miners of earlier generations wouldn’t venture into coal mines without canaries standing sentinel, our keynote passage explains how God’s grace is a spiritual canary. We are well advised not to venture into the halls, buildings, libraries, churches and denominations of religion without the canary of God—his amazing grace.

God’s grace stands as an early warning system against the deadly and often unseen toxic fumes of religious legalism, authoritarianism and abuse. The only reason we are spiritually alive is because of the love of God—he has saved us from spiritually unhealthy places by his grace.

Any time we are in the spiritual equivalent of a coal mine religiosity and legalism can start to affect us with its unseen and hard-to-detect poisonous gases. Shocking as it may sound, churches can be hazardous to your spiritual health—and some churches and ministries are spiritually deadly because people are not on guard.

Like a spiritual coal miner we are well advised to carefully monitor the degree to which God’s grace is being seen and heard in any spiritual environment in which we find ourselves. The degree to which grace is absent, ignored or even maligned and made fun of is the degree to which that religious environment is spiritually unhealthy and toxic.

You may say, “Well, I’m feeling fine in my church—my Bible study group—my Sunday school. I don’t feel as if anyone is misleading me. I feel that my religious group, my pastor, my bishop, my presiding elder, my congregation and my denomination has good teachings and helps people do the right thing—I don’t think there are any toxic fumes in my church.”

Have you looked for the grace canary? Is the grace canary alive in the spiritual places you frequent? Is the grace canary singing? You may be suffering from the toxic effects of religion without even knowing it. If the grace canary is alive then you are going to hear messages and communication about how your relationship with God is far more important than your relationship with a religious institution. If the grace canary is singing then you are going to hear a great deal about the centrality of God’s grace in your life.

I am thinking of one woman who is a grace canary, or perhaps I should say “in whom” the canary of grace lives. This person once told me, having been through several different churches or groups that were brutal, never-to-be-forgotten religious muggings, that she could smell “legalism a mile away.”

Religious legalism does have a distinct odor, doesn’t it? If you’ve lived in the barn with religious legalism, and in the process of the time you served in that religious environment you shoveled the—shall we say “steaming piles of legalism”—you will never forget the distinctive smell. Given my own religious journey, like that lady, because of God’s grace, because of the grace canary, I too can smell legalism a mile away.

Coal mines can be dark and dangerous. Jesus came into a darkened world, a world of lies and deceit, a world filled with counterfeits and fakes—a world desperately in need of truth. Jesus tells us that he is one and the same as truth— truth with a capital T.

Jesus tells us that he is the light of the world. Light drives out darkness. Miners wear miner’s helmets with a built in lamp or light. The light on top of their head automatically illuminates the place where they turn their head —when they turn their attention to a place, the light follows their focus. Light and darkness are incompatible. When one increases, the other is diminished.

A man named George McLeod once wrote that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves, on the town garbage dump where cynics talk smut, thieves curse and soldiers gamble.

Jesus came into our world, as corrupt and perverted as it is, to bring light and healing. Christ-less religion threatens, as a noxious, and somewhat hard to detect spiritual gas, to choke authentic Christianity.

Like so many coal mines, Christ-less religion is dark. Christ-less religion often does all that it can to appear holy. Christ-less religion calls its geographical places and real estate and buildings “holy.” Christ-less religion tries to persuade you that its candles, altars, stained glass and steeples are holy, but Christ-less religion will forget to tell you that God alone is holy.

The grace canary will help you identify toxic religious gas that may choke you, overwhelming you and stifling any real spiritual life.

The grace canary will help you identify, as Jesus said in John 10, the false shepherds who are thieves and robbers, who only wish to use and abuse and profit from the sheep of God’s pasture.

The grace canary will point you, like a spiritual weather vane, toward Jesus, the source of the fresh wind of grace.

Consider the plight of hundreds of millions, around this world, who are trapped by religious legalism and authoritarianism. Hundreds of millions believe and live a lie. They are deceived—they mean well—they are sincere—as are, in many if not most cases, their religious leaders. I grieve for them for “there but for the grace of God go I.”

Tens of millions are trapped within places that even call themselves Christian—and thus these people believe they are safe, but they are anything but. Religious toxic gas fills their lives. Such people are, sadly, prisoners of religion —they live in spiritual hamster cages where they endlessly run on a religious wheel, convinced that one day they will do enough, they will be good enough—so that God will eventually smile on them.

What they don’t know is that God has already smiled on them. God’s grace has already been given, to the entire world! God’s grace is given and offered to us all, it’s just that religion and all of its devices is busy trying to avert our attention, shift our gaze and persuade us that it and it alone is the only middleman here on earth that is qualified to represent us before God.

Grace is available to all of us—that’s why the gospel is just that—good news! Incredibly wonderful good news. God’s grace is available to each and every one of us—we only have to accept it, believe it, live in it. The canary of God’s grace is singing, but of course the noise of religious jackhammers continually strives to drown it out.

You will know the grace canary has stopped singing when:

• The church or group you are in or a part of claims to be better than anyone else—when it claims that it and it alone is “true” or has more truth than anyone else! What an audacious lie! Jesus alone is truth, and he died for—get ready for this—the whole world! The grace canary is dead when pride and arrogance are apt descriptions for a toxic religious mood and climate.

• You start hearing about all kinds of requirements you must fulfill—like how and when you have to be baptized and with how much water—like a specific percentage of your income you are required to give to that church or group —like how often and precisely when you must attend church—like how long you have to pray and the kinds of people you can socialize with and befriend, and those you cannot.

• You are told that you must earn God’s approval by doing what religious professionals tell you. The god who you are instructed to worship is a god who is never satisfied, who always demands more and more, who insists you go faster and faster and work harder and harder attempting to please and appease him.

• Your life is characterized by fear, guilt and superstition.

• Judgment and condemnation define the spiritual atmosphere.

• The “little people” are used and abused—when they are asked to serve the institution more than the institution serves them—when hurt and pain are inflicted in the name of God—when Christ-less religion attempts to guarantee its own survival through its use of power and threats.

• Continual emphasis on performance-based perfection produces spiritual actors who are hypocrites, pretending to be something they are not. People who find themselves trapped in a toxic religious swamp or cage or prison act out assigned roles. There is no room for authenticity or truth in Christ-less religion.

You may remember the words to an old song, performed and recorded by many artists over the years—it’s called “Games People Play.” Here’s one of its verses, which is directed at Christ-less religion:

People walking up to ya
Saying glory hallelujah
And they try to sock it to ya
In the name of the Lord.
Here’s what keeps the grace canary singing:

• God’s grace produces a healthy, Christ-centered spiritual environment of rest and peace. God’s grace assures Christ-followers that Jesus has done all that needs to be done so that they might enjoy an eternal relationship with God, because that relationship is based on God’s goodness and not human deeds and accomplishments.

• God’s grace will not beat you over the head, demanding that you serve and give and do and volunteer more and more. God’s grace will serve you, for truly Jesus came into this world not to be served, but to serve.

• God’s grace builds and nurtures—it does not tear down, depress and destroy. God’s grace encourages, refreshes, soothes, comforts and heals.

• God’s grace assures you that God is after our heart and that the new creation he is building within you is of the inner man. His love for you is not based on your external deeds and works.

• God’s grace frees you from the demands and control of institutionalized, big business religion—freeing you in Christ so that you might be a part of Christ, united with him, in him. John 15 tells you and me that we will, by God’s grace, abide— live— remain— in Christ. We will not be relentlessly worried about where to lay our heads. We will not be spiritual vagabonds. By God’s grace we have a home—an eternal home. Our spiritual home is with God, in Christ.

Don’t settle for some run-down, decaying, decrepit religious slum when God offers you the riches of his grace, the treasures of his kingdom. You may be, by God’s grace, an heir to his kingdom, adopted into his family. The relationship God offers to you and me is not based on what we can give and offer. God is not interested in what you can contribute to him. God wants you to experience and enjoy the grace canary!