Archive for April 2011
Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, by Rob Bell, HarperOne, 2011, 202 pp.
Last Easter, a friend of mine used Rob Bell’s inspirational sermon from sometime around 2006, which was originally called “The Cross,” but soon became known as “Love Wins.” (You can purchase it from www.marshill.org, but I found a podcast here.) I found that catch phrase, and the accompanying stickers, a great summary of Easter faith, and immediately knew it would be the title of my Easter sermon this year. Back in early February, I planned it out. I put it on flyers. I even ordered 276 “Love Wins.” stickers to pass out to the congregation on Easter morning. (That’s nearly 100 more than we needed, but they were cheaper in bulk.)
Just a few weeks later, Rob Bell published his latest book—Love Wins. And all hell broke loose. I’m guessing most of you have heard about the controversy. Bell has been villified among evangelical preachers, with Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Seminary here in Louisville leading the way. This battle between preachers has captured media attention, and been featured in the New York Times, USA Today, Courier-Journal, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.
While I am not unwilling to talk about hot theological topics, opening up an already politically charged conversation about heaven, hell and salvation on Easter morning, when the congregation is packed with visiting extended family (many of whom regularly worship in local evangelical churches, but come with mom on Easter) and C&E Christians, was not what I had in mind. But I had all these stickers. And flyers, already printed. I was excited about “love wins” as an Easter message of hope and new life overcoming death.
So I had to buy the book and read it in time for Easter, and then negotiate a theological controversy on Easter morning without preaching a 20-30 minute expository sermon. In the end, I think it turned out pretty well, and gave me a chance to talk about my beloved United Church of Christ and our commitment to welcoming all the people and all our questions. Here’s what I said:
In the book, Bell questions the classical evangelical understandings about hell and wonders how, if God loves us so much, God could then condemn us to eternal punishment just because we didn’t get the message in time. He asks questions about heaven, about salvation, about resurrection and grace. In the end, he concludes, love wins. Always. Eventually. Not without judgment or justice or consequences, but love wins.
So, before I could preach my pre-planned Easter sermon, before I could give you all these items I had ordered, in bulk, I had to go and read the book. And I did, cover to cover, and I did not find anything in it that was either new or objectionable—and Bell himself says as much. He covers familiar debates that have existed throughout the history of Christianity in a new way. We in the United Church of Christ have always believed that faithful questions are more important to faith than unquestioned certainty. You can doubt the existence of heaven or hell, question the resurrection of the body and God won’t cast you aside and neither will we. That’s why our welcome is wide and we generally err on the side of love over judgment, grace over purity, mercy over punishment—because we believe that we are all sinners, no one knows all the answers, but in the end, with an Easter God of resurrection, love wins. I’m not sure exactly why this controversy has gotten so heated, except that some people really cling tightly to their need for eternal damnation. As Doug Pagitt, one of Bell’s friends, wrote in his defense: “Is it possible to overstate the love of God? Is it really possible to tell as story of God that is more graceful than God actually is? Is it really possible to give God too much mercy credit?”
On this Easter morning, when life has overcome death, when the stone has been rolled away, when the powers of destruction and violence are defeated, I would say absolutely not. Love wins. (You can hear the full sermon here.)
As for the book itself, I don’t have much to add beyond the brief review I offered in the sermon. As a member of the mainline, progressive wing of Christianity, I don’t really know what all the fuss is about. Bell’s book covers terrain we have been discussing for 200 years. In the pulpit, I did not anticipate most of our folks would find it objectionable or controversial either. Many found it exciting and refreshing to name those questions publicly on such a high holy day.
However, especially here at the borderlands of the Midwest and the South, single-digit miles from the Southern Baptist seminary of Albert Mohler, we are surrounded by people who have never heard these questions before, or by those who have dared to ask them in the open and been shunned for it, or those who secretly ask but fear losing family, friends and faith for giving voice to their doubts. All around us in our community are people who have rejected God because they reject those beliefs about God. People stumble into our church all the time, led (I believe) by the Holy Spirit, seeking to find faith and community through their questions and doubts. People come with fear about going to hell, even though they aren’t sure what they think about hell.
Bell’s book is worthwhile not because it offers new information or different perspectives or deeper explorations, but because it presents a lifeline to anyone who wants someone to hold their hand while they explore those questions, to reassure them that this is not new territory, that someone else has walked this path and lived, with faith, to tell about it. It’s a resource I can offer to those who ask, tentatively, fearfully, about heaven, hell and salvation for all the people.
The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, HarperCollins, 2006, 238 pp.
While I should have read this book earlier in Lent, to have it undergird my preparations for Holy Week services, it became my Holy Week practice to read a chapter every day, each corresponding to that day of Holy Week. The authors undertake a thorough examination of Jesus’ activities from Palm Sunday through Easter, focusing on the Gospel of Mark but often holding up other accounts to explore the differences. The book aims to provide serious and scholarly reflection on the stories of Holy Week so that those of us who celebrate them in Christian worship might move beyond centuries-old layers of theological interpretation and examine Jesus’ Passion with an eye toward what Jesus was passionate about.
The first passion of Jesus was the kingdom of God, namely, to incarnate the justice of God by demanding a fair share of a world belonging to and ruled by the covenantal God of Israel… We focus on “what Jesus was passionate about” as a way of understanding why his life ended in the passion of Good Friday. (from the Preface)
I have read enough Borg and Crossan before to recognize similar themes between this book and their other works. Jesus’ passion is about non-violent resistance to the Roman empire, about peasants and villagers who are unjustly treated by the empire and its collaborators, about an alternative vision of the world that is not based on violence and domination, but love, radical hospitality and economic justice. Thanks to Borg and Crossan, along with Walter Brueggemann, Walter Wink and Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, that is how I have come to understand Jesus as well.
This book was incredibly helpful in connecting that understanding of Jesus’ life and mission with the events of Holy Week, which are surrounded by so much baggage of atonement theology, pietism and oversimplification—not to mention the baggage that comes from things like The Passion of the Christ or even Jesus Christ Superstar. As a preacher who tells and retells and interprets this story every year, I felt grounded and refreshed by reading this book. It helped me immerse myself more fully in Holy Week, (more on that here) while keeping me from lapsing into sentimentalism. While I did not ever cite the book directly, it certainly inspired and directed my preaching for the week. I highly recommend it for preachers, teachers and small groups who want to go deeper with the story of Jesus’ last week.
Today is Good Friday. It is also the 10th anniversary of my ordination into Christian ministry. Every year during Holy Week, I give thanks with all my heart to be a part of this pastoral life.
It was March of 1989, and I was 15 years old when I first got caught up in Holy Week. I don’t remember how it started, but I was swept away by the emotional roller coaster between Palm Sunday and Easter. I felt like I was right there on the streets of Jerusalem, bearing witness to Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. I wrote about it at length in my journal, which I dug out tonight from inside the trunk, under the pile of laundry. On Good Friday that year, I wrote with great youthful earnestness:
I was with Christ in Spirit throughout today. I learned that I have the wonderful ability to withdraw from this world and put myself in another. … Thank you, Jesus. I am just beginning to understand Your love for me.
Every year since that discovery, I have tried to recreate it—to step outside of the ordinary during Holy Week and get swept up in the ancient story. I don’t think of it as “another world” anymore, nor do I invest much energy in imagining myself in the streets of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. However, I still love to get absorbed in it, to experience its meaning anew, and to forget all other concerns. Some years there are more distractions than others, but the act of walking through the stories and services every year never fails to transport me to a holy place, with deep conversations with God and exhausting emotions.
Because of my life in ministry, I not only can throw all my energy and focus into meditating and understanding and retelling the story of Jesus’ betrayal, death and resurrection, I must. During Holy Week, with all the writing and preparation, I spend all day every day praying and thinking and writing about the story of Jesus. I abandon all other church work, give up on housecleaning, let J take the role of lead parent, and just live into the story. There is no negotiation about whether or not to attend services on Thursday or Friday or both, because I have to be there for all of it. There is no conflict over soccer games or meetings with the boss or anything else—everyone knows that, during Holy Week, the pastor has no more important task than preparing for services through prayer, meditation and writing. If I am wrought with emotions and wracked by the Holy Spirit throughout, so much the better for my preaching. What a privilege.
So today, Good Friday, I celebrate 10 years of ordained ministry. Ten years of throwing myself into Holy Week with all my heart and soul, and having no one think it strange. Did I know in my 15-year-old self where that blessed Holy Week would lead? Could I have imagined the opportunity not only to let myself get lost in Jesus’ story every year, but to devote my life’s work to getting other people caught up in the story as well? There is no better time to celebrate my call, to give thanks to God for this pastoral life, than during Holy Week. Thanks be to God. Soli Deo Gloria.
Postscript: There is another connection between the spring of 1989 and my ordination date that cannot go unmentioned. Just a few pages after my passionate account of Holy Week in my journal, the April 22 entry shares the news of a car accident that took the life of one of my dear friends, and injured several others. It was another pivotal moment in my faith journey. When I scheduled my ordination years ago, I recognized the confluence, but still cannot impart a meaning to it. Still, this year, all three converge–that transformative Holy Week in 1989; my friend’s death on April 22, 1989 (both 22 years ago); the 10th anniversary of my ordination on April 22, 2001; and Good Friday. The day feels deep, rich and complex. God sees the web of connections, and perhaps even their meaning. I, as yet, do not.
Our family drove to Florida a few months ago. If you’ve ever made that journey, you know that the highways in Georgia and Florida are lined with billboards advertising pecans. Both J and I have mild allergies to nuts, but B loves them and seems unaffected. So, to pass the time, we were pointing out the billboards and asking him, “Hey, B, they have pecans! Wanna get some pecans?” His consistent reply was “Eww, yuck! No.” We assured him they were good and he would like them, but he refused. It became a repeating pattern: “Look, B, more pecans ahead! Good stuff! Don’t you want some pecans?” followed by “eww, yuck! No.”
We finally relented in pointing out the billboards, and another hour or so passed in the car. B spontaneously said, “I can’t believe you guys wanted me to eat that pee in cans. Yuck. Pee in cans. I wouldn’t like that at all.”
As hilarious as that moment was, and as revealing as it is about how I say “pecan,” it got me thinking about vocabulary. Since the advent of Willow Creek and other “seeker churches,” there has been an ongoing conversation about how the church’s extensive insider vocabulary can be intimidating, confusing or exclusionary for newcomers. Words like narthex, doxology, anthem and chancel have been replaced in some churches with less fancy (and more secular) terms like foyer, praise song, choir song, and stage. Other churches continue to use the traditional words, but make the effort to explain their meaning on a regular basis.
We may be doing a better job of explaining those words, or putting things in terms people can understand, but what about the more important words of our faith? Are we taking the time and energy to explain what we mean when we talk about forgiveness, resurrection, disciple, Passion, trinity, sin, prophet, Kingdom of God, grace, or the Body of Christ? In my experience, many of the people in our congregations, whether newcomers or lifelong members, have only a passing familiarity with these words. For example, I recently used the word Messiah in teaching a class. While most of the class knew that referred to Jesus, that was the end of their understanding. They understood it as another name for Jesus, not a theological proclamation that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a savior for the world.
It’s easy to teach people to understand that the narthex is the foyer, but how can we teach them that disciple does not just to refer to the original twelve men, but to all who seek to follow Christ—and what that act of following means for our lives? Are we explaining that forgiveness, both human and godly, is more than saying “it’s fine, no big deal”? Do our references to the Kingdom of God include a clarification about where that kingdom resides, and our access to it? When we talk about grace, are we sure that people are hearing about the power of God’s love and forgiveness, or are they just thinking about a formulaic table prayer?
I wonder whether our preaching, teaching and evangelism sometimes resemble our car game: “Look, Jesus died on the cross! Forgiveness from sin! Grace! Want some? They’re good–you’ll like them!” It’s no wonder we hear, “eww, no, thank you,” because people don’t even understand what it is we are offering. Let’s be honest with ourselves. To those who do not know the vocabulary of our Christian faith, talk about sin and death on a cross, even with the promise of forgiveness and grace, is about as appealing as pee in a can. If we want to get past the “eww, yuck,” we need to find a way to explain what we’re talking about.
One of the great joys of serving as a pastor is bearing witness to so many intimate moments in people’s lives. When a baby is baptized, I get to stand right up there with the family and even hold the child. When young people give their lives to Christ at Confirmation, I get to place my hands on their heads. When a couple is married, the three of us stand alone atop the chancel as they make their vows. When someone is facing a health crisis, I am invited into intimate conversations about life and death, and I can sit with people in very deep moments of contemplation. When people discover faith for the first time, or when they take a new step in devotion or understanding, they talk to me about it. I am regularly privileged to be at someone’s bedside to pray as they take their last breath. When a loved one dies, I am honored to listen to the stories their family tells about how much this person meant to them, and then to give them back those stories during the funeral service. It is an honor and a privilege to be a pastor in these holy moments.
However, it is also a disconcerting experience at times. These beautiful moments that I participate in on a regular basis are not my moments. It is not my mother or father or spouse who is dying or being buried. Neither I nor any member of my family is being baptized, confirmed or married. For those at the heart of these life-altering days, these are unique, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. For me, they are just another day at the office. What they are doing once in a lifetime, I may be doing several times that week, or even that day.
I am not being flip. As I said before, these are holy moments, and it is an honor to be present in them. But the reality remains that they are not my moments, I am only a witness. And this can leave me feeling a bit disconnected, not just from those around me, but from my own life.
This was brought home to me last Saturday, when B played in his first-ever soccer game. I had a memorial service at nearly the same time, but I managed to make it for part of the game, cheering from the sidelines in my black suit and heels. After a quick hug from a sweaty kid at halftime, I jumped in the car. Twenty minutes later, I was somber-faced, leading a gathering of people saying goodbye to a beloved mother and grandmother. An hour after that, I was handling a phone call from another family in crisis, then heading out to Red Robin for B’s victory dinner (even though his team lost badly) and home to finish the sermon for Sunday.
I was fully present and attentively caring to the grieving family, and I felt genuine love and concern for them and even some small grief for this woman I had come to know. Yet I floated above their level of heartache, distant from their absorbing grief. For them, the moment itself was overwhelming, an emotional experience that knocked out all other concerns. For me, it was not even the most emotional event in my day.
This happens regularly in pastoral life, as we travel alongside people and accompany them through life’s major moments. As witnesses, we are present and compassionate without being fully immersed in the experience. That distance is a sign of a healthy self and functional pastor. Yet, I sometimes think that it keeps me distant from my own life as well. While I was cheering and clapping on the sidelines, I was also distant there, wearing my funeral clothes. I couldn’t give myself over to pride and jubilation, because the 15 minute drive from the game to the funeral home wasn’t going to be enough to change gears so fast.
What does this quick-change pastoral life do to our own emotional depth? Am I a ghost, a hovering specter in other people’s lives, somehow untouched by their hardship? Am I a chameleon, changing my emotional colors to blend in with my environment? Am I a prop, playing a functional part in other people’s scenes? On some days, I think this distance is an obstacle to diving deep into my own emotional well, because I am always present and subject to the varied emotional states of others.
On other days, I look over the richness of these experiences and understand that they equip me to journey deeper. As a frequent traveler over the terrain of death, of birth, of sickness, of joy, of love, I come to know its contours well, and I can engage my own experience with a richer perspective. Because I have witnessed so many holy moments, I can recognize them more easily in my life. I may have frequent roller-coaster experiences from one extreme to another, but that’s because my pastoral work always keeps me close to the heart of what matters most—which includes both the soccer field and the funeral home.
Yet another tension we hold on to in this pastoral life.
What do you think? Do you ever feel this tension in your personal and pastoral life?
Saints at the River by Ron Rash, Henry Holt and Company, 2004, 239 pp.
The novel tells the story of a young girl who drowns in a protected whitewater river, her body trapped beneath the rocks in a dangerous eddy. The tension in the story is between the girl’s family, who wants to dam the river to retrieve her body, and the environmentalists who have the law on their side to protect the river’s natural state. The story’s narrator, Maggie Glenn, is a photojournalist who hails from the small town at the center of the crisis, but now lives and works for a paper in the state capitol. She returns to cover the story, and (of course) deal with unresolved family issues from her past and present. The southern Appalachian mountain landscape and culture figure heavily in the plot as well.
The story was well-written and interesting. In spite of the premise, it was not overly maudlin, and I was grateful to read something that was not emotionally wrenching, like the other novels I have been reading lately. If anything, the book suffered because it didn’t suffer enough. As a narrator, Maggie is detached from the action. She has loyalties on both sides of the debate, although she leans toward the environmentalists. No one in the book seems to struggle profoundly or emotionally with the death of the girl or the river. The situation just is.
Saints at the River is not a book that will be particularly memorable, or that I found particularly inspiring, but I enjoyed it and I have no complaints. I just wanted something to escape with for a few hours, and this book did just that.