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Posts Tagged ‘grace

The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, HarperOne, 2009, 230 pp.

First PaulI was so excited when this book came out that I ordered the hardback copy right away. (I almost always wait for the paperback to save money.) I had learned so much about Jesus from Borg and Crossan’s work on on the Gospels, I knew that this would be a rich resource for learning about Paul from their perspective. For some reason, though, this made its way onto my way-too-many shelf of books “to be read” and did not manage to come out again until nearly five years later. Still, it was everything I had originally hoped it would be—a critical, radical reassessment of Paul and his writings that will lay the foundation for preaching and interpretation of all the letters attributed to him.

Borg and Crossan begin with some brief observations on the different roles Paul plays in Protestant and Catholic theologies, then name their three foundational statements:

First, not all of the letters attributed to Paul were written by him—there is more than one Paul in the New Testament. Second, it is essential to place his letters in their historical context. Third, his message—his teaching, his gospel—is grounded in his life-changing and sustaining experience of the risen Christ; Paul, we will argue, is best understood as a Jewish Christ mystic. (13)

Borg and Crossan identify the authentic letters (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians and Philemon) as the work of the radical Paul, the disputed letters (Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians) as conservative, and the non-Pauline letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) as reactionary. Stories about Paul in the Book of Acts are a fourth Paul, with some parts more reliable than others. Borg and Crossan write predominately about the authentic letters of Paul as a radical follower of the radical Jesus, because he has had a personal life-changing encounter with the mystical Christ on the road to Damascus. Occasionally, they will offer a comparison to the conservative or reactionary Paul on issues like slavery and gender equality.

Taking Philemon as a model, the authors then demonstrate “How to Read a Pauline Letter.” They emphasize that readers must “remember that, when we are reading letters never intended for us, any problems of understanding are ours and not theirs.” (29) We must “turn letter into story,” the original story that would have been known and understood by the original recipients of the letter. In Philemon, that is the story of the slave Onesimus and his master Philemon. The radical Paul argues that equality must not be limited to the spiritual realm, but must exist in the earthly realm as well—that Philemon must release Onesimus from slavery, because it is incompatible with the way of radical love demanded by Christ.

The next chapter is a basic biography, constructed from insights in the authentic letters, the Book of Acts, and other historical sources for context. They talk about his likely education and background in Tarsus (even speculating about chronic malaria as the “thorn in the flesh”), his life as a Pharisaic Jew, his conversion at Damascus, the missionary journeys, and imprisonment. The chapter ends with interesting observations about the cities in which Paul planted churches, portraying them as dense, dirty places filled with tenement-like housing and persons displaced by empire. His churches began among Gentiles who were worshiping in the synagogues, not the Jews. Labeling it “adherent poaching,” Borg and Crossan say,

Our proposal is that Paul went always to the synagogue in each city not to convert his fellow Jews, but to convert the gentile adherents to Christian Judaism. And that proposal explains huge swaths of Pauline data. (88)

Paul’s letters can be interpreted much more clearly by these gentile synagogue-goers than by those who were strict adherents of Judaism.

The final four chapters explore and explain four core theological ideas in the radical Paul: “Jesus Christ is Lord,” “Christ crucified,” “Justification by Grace Through Faith,” and “Life Together in Christ.” Paul’s insistence on calling Jesus Christ “Lord” is a treasonous claim against the Roman emperor, replacing Rome’s peace through violent victory with Christ’s peace through the nonviolent justice of equality. His proclamation of Christ crucified is not a scriptural account of substitutionary atonement. Instead, it is evidence of the greatness of God’s love for the world, and the entryway to the resurrection. We participate in dying and rising with Christ, born again with a radically new heart for loving the world as God does.

The chapter on “Justification by Grace Through Faith” aims to “get Paul and his letter to the Romans out of the sixteenth century polemical Reformation world and back into the first century imperial Roman world.” (157) Borg and Crossan argue convincingly that Paul sees justification by grace as a message of God’s distributive justice, “that God’s Spirit is distributed freely to each and every one of us to transform God’s world into a place of that same justice.” (160) The argument about faith and works then becomes a concern by Paul for works-without-faith, not faith-without-works.

“Faith” means a grateful submission to the Spirit transplant of God’s own nonviolent distributive justice, which empowers us to will and enables us to work toward a reclamation of this world in collaboration with God. (184)

Paul’s work was always built around communities, creating collectives of new converts to follow life together in Christ, following the non-violent path of justice and peace together, in contrast to the domination system of the world. These communities practiced love for one another, sharing meals and resources, prayers and worship together.

The epilogue addresses speculations and evidence about Paul’s death, amid ongoing tensions with the Jerusalem community led by James. When I read it, much to my surprise, I felt the same sadness I feel at the end of any good biography with a tragic death. I was sorry that the empire, likely Nero, cut Paul’s life so short. I felt as though I knew and appreciated the man in a deeper way, and I grieved a tiny bit for his death, even 2,000 years later.

I should never have waited five years to read this book. It was excellent from beginning to end. I am a sophisticated, detailed maker of notations in non-fiction books that I read. There are countless stars and underlines here, because Borg and Crossan have such an ability to explain and evidence various aspects of the scriptures in ways I want to remember. Even without the book in hand to review, I walk away with a much better appreciation for Paul’s radical ministry of love, justice and equality. Anyone who grapples with Paul and all the baggage attributed to him should read The First Paul for clarity and hope.

 

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb, HarperCollins, 2008, 740 pp.

hour i first believedOh, Wally Lamb! He knows how to plumb the depths of brokenness and healing, sin and forgiveness, estrangement and relationship. I have read both She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much is True, so I knew what to expect from his latest tome–a deep, searing, introspective novel with haunting sadness but always hope.

The Hour I First Believed maps the personal and psychological devastation of Caelum and Maureen Quirk, who were both teachers at Columbine High School in the 1999 mass shooting. While Caelum was away tending to his aunt after a stroke, Maureen experienced a trauma that broke her apart. Both of them unraveled, in their own ways, because of the shooting and its aftermath. They return to his aunt’s farm to recover, and Caelum gains access to his family’s long history and discovers information that discloses secrets that cause him to question his own identity. (I thought the long excursions into the past did not add much to the quality of the novel, and even detracted from its power. They could have been much shorter, or omitted altogether and the book would have felt stronger to me.)

I can’t say that I enjoy Wally Lamb’s work. I usually find it difficult and painful to read. However, that’s what makes it so valuable. Lamb’s characters are never perfect and they do not conform to expectations or neat categories. They do not behave like we want them to, and they frustrate and confuse. That’s what makes them so rich. What keeps me returning to Lamb’s work, even as agonizing as it can be, is that Lamb wrestles these complicated, broken characters into a place of hope and grace. It’s never easy, it’s never fully wrought or resolved, but he points the way to faith, every time.

Below are a few gems from the story, keys to unlocking the hope at the end of such sorrow.

Words from a pastor at a community meeting organized by local churches after the Columbine massacre:

We need to stare back, without blinking, at the depravity of these boys’ actions and realize that our love is more powerful than their hatred.” (203)

I said something very similar when facing the murder of a young girl in my congregation, with the shorthand “love wins.”

A little process theology tucked in, too, as Caelum quotes a chaos theorist he met on an airplane:

He said maybe God wasn’t Allah or Jesus Christ or any of the other deities that people are always using as an excuse to go to war over. That maybe all ‘God’ was was mutuation. Mutability. The thing that happens when the DNA we’re ‘carrying forward’ from our ancestors suddenly jumps the track. Gets altered in some unpredictable way, and, for better or worse, sets the first domino falling in a different direction. (451)

Caelum gets words about faith and doubt from an unlikely source, a retired chauffeur for a beer company.

Well, let me give you a piece of advice, Mr. I Have My Doubts. Next time you’re in a bad way and you’re asking this god you have your doubts about to help you, just remember that the question you gotta ask isn’t Why? or If? The question is How? You got that? Not why. Not if. How. (519)

When Caelum teaches a class on “The Quest in Literature” at the local community college, they explore the role and importance of myth in healing. The closing assignment is to examine Picasso’s Minotauromachia and discuss what they see in the picture and what it says about modern life. One student responds thus:

“This picture shows us what all the myths we studied told us,” he concluded. “Life is messy, violent, confusing and hopeful.” (685)

That is what any good story will do–an ancient myth, a biblical text, and a good novel. Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed is just such a story. It’s messy, violent, confusing and hopeful, and I recommend it to you.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Atria Books, 2013, 307 pp.

Ordinary GraceThe title drew me in from the “new books” section of the library. I’d never heard of William Kent Krueger before, but he is apparently best known as a mystery writer. Ordinary Grace is a bit of a mystery, but it is mostly a coming-of-age story about a young boy, son of a Methodist minister, as the reality of death touches his small community and his family. It is not the best book I’ve ever read, but it was a good story well told. I couldn’t put it down, and it made me weep more than once. It spoke to my heart in a powerful way in this season of my life, as the pastor parent of a young boy.

The story belongs to Frank Drum, who is thirteen in the summer of 1961 and the novel’s narrator. Frank and his younger brother Jake have the run of their Minnesota small town, while their older sister Ariel is busy preparing to attend Julliard in the fall. Their daily explorations unpack the town’s characters: the minister father who carries invisible scars from his bleak past at war; the mother who gave up her own musical dreams; the piano teacher Emil Brandt, blind from war wounds and resigned from a life of fame; his sister Lise, living with mental illness; their father’s war buddy Gus, who lives in the church’s basement. There are savory and unsavory characters, from their young friends to a Native American with a past to the rowdy teenagers to the town police officers. The story unfolds a series of tragic deaths that occur over the course of the summer. As Frank is exposed to these deaths, and to the events that led to them, he enters an adult world of violence, betrayal, adultery, prejudice and more.

What drew me in was the plainspoken style that Krueger gave to many of the adult characters, especially Rev. Drum, as they explained to the boys and to one another the realities of loss, hope and especially grace. I put nearly a dozen flags in the book, and copied out countless quotations to keep for later. Here are just a few.

These are Rev. Drum’s remarks at the funeral of a transient man whose identity is unknown. I would hope to speak so simply and truthfully.

We believe too often that on the roads we walk we walk alone. Which is never true. Even this man who is unknown to us was known to God and God was his constant companion. God never promised us an easy life. He never promised that we wouldn’t suffer, that we wouldn’t feel despair and loneliness and confusion and desperation. What he did promise was that in our suffering we would never be alone. And though we may sometimes make ourselves blind and deaf to his presence he is beside us and around us and within us always. We are never separated from his love. And he promised us something else, the most important promise of all. That there would be surcease. That there would be an end to our pain and our suffering and our loneliness, that we would be with him and know him, and this would be heaven. This man, who in life may have felt utterly alone, feels alone no more. This man, whose life may have been days and nights of endless waiting, is waiting no more. He is where God always knew he would  be, in a place prepared. And for this we rejoice.” (71)

When the Drum family suffers a terrible loss, Rev. Drum questions whether his own sins in war might be to blame. His war buddy Gus responds with words that cut to my heart as a pastor who has known times of doubt.

Gus said, “You think God operates that way, Captain? Hell, that sure ain’t what you’ve been telling me all these years. And as for those sins of yours, I’m guessing you mean the war, and haven’t you always told me that you and me and the others we could be forgiven? You told me you believed it as surely as you believed the sun would rise every morning. And I’ve got to tell you, Captain, you seemed so certain that you got me believing too. … I can’t see any way that the God you’ve talked yourself blue to me and everyone else about would be responsible for what happened.Seems to me you’re reeling here, Captain. Like from a punch in the face. When you come around you’ll see that you’ve been right all along. I know I give you a hard time about your religion, but damned if I’m not grateful at heart that you believe it. Somebody’s got to. For all the rest of us, Captain, somebody’s got to.” (191-192)

I know what it feels like to carry the weight of faith because other people need you to believe it, even when you have your doubts. Krueger’s ability to name this subtle experience of ministry so plainly moved me.

I also learned from the Prologue a quotation from Aeschylus that I had not heard before.

He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

In the end, it was the grace of Ordinary Grace that moved me–the way the characters in this small town extended grace and forgiveness to one another across terrible circumstances.

Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation by Barbara Brown Taylor, Cowley Publications, 2000, 73 pp.

Speaking of SinThis short volume, begun as a lecture series at the National Cathedral, is a powerful meditation on our Christian language of sin, repentance, and salvation. I read it on Ash Wednesday, sitting in a coffee shop for the day with a sign that read “Ashes for Everyone.” In between chapters on salvation, sin and redemption, I imposed ashes upon strangers and church folk alike. It was a powerful day, and Taylor’s book provided powerful words to accompany the journey.

Each chapter moves through a deeper level of meaning for the word “sin.” We mainline Christians often avoid the word these days, but that doesn’t make sin go away, she argues. Instead, we should claim the rich depth of Christian understanding about sin, about the condition of the world as a heart-breaking place, about our human inadequacy to heal it, and our continued sins of omission and commission that allow it to continue. She also explores the difference between sin as sickness (church as clinic) and as wrongdoing (church as courtroom), the various Hebrew words translated as “sin,” and the role of individual and corporate confession. She also addresses penance, righteousness and justice.

The book is rich and full of insight from beginning to end, including many explanations of loaded terms like sin and repentance that sing with Taylor’s gift for beautiful language:

In theological language, the choice to remain in wrecked relationship with God and other human beings is called sin. The choice to enter into the process of repair is called repentance, an often bitter medicine with the undisputed power to save lives. (41)

Of course, the conversation turns to grace as well, and Taylor offers one of the most  powerful descriptions of grace since Bonhoeffer’s famous distinction between cheap grace and costly grace.

God’s grace is not simply the infinite supply of divine forgiveness upon which hopeless sinners depend. Grace is also the mysterious strength God lends human beings who commit themselves to the work of transformation. To repent is both to act from that grace and to ask for more of it in order to follow Christ into the startling freedom of new life. (60)

This book will be my go-to resource every time I want to talk about sin, repentance, grace, redemption and salvation. Taylor’s insights are rich, and I am still thinking about them all the time as I write this review, three months after completing the book.

Nearly two years ago, one of the members of my church brought me an old book she found while cleaning out the church library in preparation for a major construction project. She gave it to me with a wry smile. “I thought you’d be amused by this,” she said, and handed me a copy of A Preacher’s Temptations, by James H. Blackmore, copyright 1966. At first I chuckled too, expecting an antiquated list from another era, like a ladies’ book of etiquette. Instead, I was surprised and convicted by the accuracy of the preacher’s temptations Blackmore described, and struck by the timelessness of his list.

Each chapter identifies a particular temptation, and Blackmore explains what he means and what that temptation looks like. Then, the chapter ends with a prayer for deliverance from that particular temptation. As much as I wanted to enjoy a good laugh at old-fashioned ideas of ministry, I couldn’t even muster much of a smirk once I started reading Blackmore’s list.

This is the Table of Contents, taken verbatim, plus my commentary:

  1. To identify God with our thoughts about Him. Aside from the irony of the gendered language in this context, this is certainly one of the biggest temptations of all religious leaders. The prayer at the end asks God to save us “from mistaking theology for religion.” (3)
  2. To paste labels on people. The labels may have changed, but their power to shut down relationship has not.
  3. To be jealous of the other fellow. Who, us clergy? Jealous of another’s success in ministry? Surely not! Except that all of us are, and rarely admit it.
  4. To love “the uppermost seats.” I had to read the chapter to figure this one out, but it’s about ambition—about always looking for a bigger church, more important title, or higher status. Yeah, that’s always a big challenge to clergy egos.
  5. To assume a superior air. Lord, spare us from arrogance!
  6. To run from truth. Nearly every week, it takes courage to preach the truth of the gospel. It is always tempting to avoid afflicting the comfortable, and we all succumb to an easy message from time to time.
  7. To bargain with God. This is a temptation for all disciples, but sometimes we clergy think God owes us a thing or two, for all our long hours and faithful service. Reality check: God doesn’t.
  8. To act presumptuously. Blackmore describes this as expecting God to work things out according to our wishes: “this temptation expresses itself in resentment; we are tempted to feel that somehow God has let us down.” (19)
  9. To be partial. We all know that there are some people we find it easier to love than others. Blackmore goes beyond that, warning that pastors must not spend all their time with “the sick, the troubled, the old and the lonely… To keep a balanced outlook the pastor needs to associate with the healthy, the happy, the young and the active as well.” (21) This includes children.
  10. To neglect our body. Apparently, even in 1966 clergy suffered from high blood pressure, obesity, overeating, lack of exercise, and lack of rest. While we talk about this more today, we still fall prey to the same problems.
  11. To run “in all directions at the same time.” Guilty as charged.
  12. To substitute talk for life. “O God, help us practice what we preach.” (28)
  13. To become impatient. With ourselves, with others, with God.
  14. To neglect our own family. Apparently, this is not new to women in ministry or to our generation.
  15. To mistake the parts for the whole. “We may know all the sources of the gospels, but if we do not see the Lord move within them, we do not know the Gospel.”(34)
  16. To think it all depends on us. This is a disaster to us, and to the church.
  17. To neglect spiritual exercises. Guilty again.
  18. To fumble the gospel. “The urgency of our task is that God has something to say to the people of our day, and we are called to say it.” (43) This is a weighty one.
  19. To fail to get the good news for ourselves. God’s grace is for us, too. Forgive us when we forget it.
  20. To speak in an unknown tongue. Our sermons and God’s message are meaningless if they cannot be understood.
  21. To keep up with the Joneses. Deliver me from envy, O Giver of All.
  22. To act as if we own the church. Lord, forgive me when I talk about “my” church instead of yours.
  23. To forget our calling. “Our calling is not something we can turn on and off; our calling and ordination make us ministers of the Lord Jesus Christ—not just for certain hours or places, but for ever and for all places.” (54-55) This is a tough one, but it’s true. We cannot be one person at church and another person outside it—we are always living in faith.
  24. To be nettled by taunts. “Nettled” is just the right word, isn’t it? Critics’ words prick at us and stick under our skin, leaving us irritated and unsettled.
  25. To give forth uncertain sounds. While I might have phrased it differently (this sounds vaguely like bodily noises), the temptation to equivocate in our messages is real.
  26. To undertake too much. Oh dear.
  27. To neglect the work of an evangelist. Ever get too busy managing the church to pay attention to those outside it? Yeah, me too.
  28. To go too far ahead of our people. A pastor is a shepherd—we are supposed to be leading the sheep, not leaving them behind.
  29. To be lazy. I’m glad Facebook doesn’t report how much time I spend there.
  30. To be too severe. The reverse of #6 is equally tempting.
  31. To be proud. No explanation necessary.
  32. To cease to pray for the people. Humbling, and accurate.
  33. To despise ourselves. It’s not about self-esteem, it’s about knowing that God works through us as we are, not as we think we ought to be.
  34. To ride on the authority of others. It’s about plagiarism, y’all.
  35. To hold our peace. Some of us struggle to hold our tongue, others to speak up for the right if it might cause conflict.
  36. To assume we are exempted from evil. Unfortunately, our ordination doesn’t free us from “petty meannesses and small jealousies” (91) or from the big ones.
  37. “To whine.” Apparently, Blackmore has attended some of the same clergy gatherings I have.
  38. To “grow weary in well-doing.” Guilty again.
  39.  To feel that we are no longer needed. Like #6 and #31, the temptation exists at both extremes: to think it all depends on us (#16) and to think that what we do doesn’t matter at all.
  40. To despair. Pastors too face times of darkness and distance from God

James H. Blackmore, thank you for this open, honest work that stands the test of time and crosses generations of pastoral experience.

The woman who gave me the book told me to pass it on to the Goodwill pile, but I’m holding on to it. Much in ministry has changed in the last 50 years, but these temptations remain.  Deliver me, O Lord, from temptation.


Yesterday, I met with a friend-of-a-friend seeking spiritual care, discerning a way out of a dark night of the soul. My friend thought I might be able to help her with a spiritual roadblock, and I was happy to offer my time, to hear her struggle, to offer perspective and prayer and theological conversation. We talked for a couple of hours, and then prayed together. However, throughout the meeting I felt a sense of awkwardness about my role that I have not felt in a long time. As I contemplated this later, I think it has something to do with the source of pastoral authority that was lacking in my relationship with her.

As a pastor, my authority comes from the context of the church. My ability to offer spiritual care and insight comes from a complex, multi-layered relationship. My connection with those in my church community (regardless of membership or active status) involves preaching, teaching, prayer, fellowship, leadership, presence in a crisis, working side by side in service, and more. All of these aspects of ministry take place in a shared community grounded in history, story and the lived reality of regular interaction. Our relationship includes not just times of profound spiritual conversation, but washing dishes together after a shared meal and working out the details of chaperoning a Sunday School class and playing kickball at the annual picnic. We are co-workers in the common mission of God for our church.

This is very different from the helping professions. Therapists get their authority from their listening skills, their ability to ask discerning questions and their expertise in family dynamics and emotional healing. Doctors get their authority from their superior knowledge of the body and its myriad possibilities for brokenness and healing. Massage therapists and alternative healers get their authority from their knowledge and physical skills at working through mind and body toward wholeness. There is always work to establish genuine trust between the healer and the patient or client, but the relationship remains transactional—one person has knowledge or treatment to offer the other, and that person is always the expert.

Pastoral authority does not come from knowledge or expertise, and I do not simply have spiritual insight to transact. I am not a guru who has reached greater spiritual depths or discovered deep wisdom to pass along. I know the Bible better than most, but there have been people in every church I’ve served who know more about it than I do. I try to live a faithful Christian life, to walk with God and listen to the Spirit, but I am no more spiritual than anyone else. There are a great many people in my church whose faith is stronger and deeper and wiser than mine.

When someone comes to me facing a dark night of the soul, my authority comes from repeating the same good news of God’s love that we share every week in worship. My wisdom is shared wisdom, of the community, of the ages, told and retold until it soaks deep. My care for them is an extension of the community’s care for one another. My words about God’s grace echo the ways we try to practice grace and forgiveness with one another in our life together. The prayers we speak are part of a longer, deeper, wider conversation with God that we carry on week in and week out.

My authority comes from the community itself, and from our ongoing relationship. That is not to say that there is no expertise in ministry, or that God has not placed in me the unique gifts, or that knowledge and wisdom have no bearing. Those things matter a great deal in the community’s willingness to grant authority to a pastor, but the source of the authority is not those things. The source of pastoral authority is always the community itself.  The community trusts me to tell their story, to speak the truth in love, to pray as though it matters, to challenge and provoke in the name of faithfulness, to enter a crisis to bear witness to God’s presence there, to hold the light of hope when all seems dark. I claim that authority from them, with them, in every act of ministry. I claim it not for myself, but for us—for the Gospel.

To speak “as one with authority” (Matthew 7:29) in ministry requires the presence and participation of the community of God. With it, I am a pastor, with an abundance of authority and wisdom to share in relationship. Without it, I am just the friend-of-a-friend.

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.

Copyright oracorac, flickr.com

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.

A church map to help orient newcomers, filled with words I don't even know.

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.

I am just downright irritable this morning. And I hate being this way.

Normally, I am a very chipper person. So much so that I am often accused of being annoying, pollyanna-ish and overly optimistic. But occasionally–like today–I am just downright grumpy.

And I don’t like it. Or much of anything else at the moment.

What frustrates me most at times like this is that I know exactly why I’m so irritated, yet I still find myself in the same position.

I am in such an ornery mood because I am stressed out about the sermon for tomorrow (notice that no sermon sapling ever got posted this week). I am nervous about the sermon tomorrow because I haven’t spent enough time this week preparing for it. I haven’t spent enough time preparing for the sermon because I have been overwhelmed with other pressing commitments at the church. Because I have been overwhelmed, I have not had any time to decompress or relax or take time for myself this week, except in desperation when I watch some bad TV or go to bed early. Because I have not had (or made) the time to relax, I can’t clear my head well enough to concentrate on the sermon. So I get more and more nervous about the sermon, more and more frustrated at all the distractions, more and more irritated, and more and more anxious. It’s a cycle of escalation.

This is a bad situation. I don’t let myself get in this position very often, but sometimes it just sneaks up on me.

The only cure, I have found, is to take the time to relax. The sermon won’t come to me in such a mood. No one wants to hear a sermon written by an irritable preacher—there is much griping and little good news in one of those. I have lots of ideas of what to say this week, and they will come together if I can just claim the space to let the Spirit in.

I have learned, after nearly 10 years of preaching, that the best thing that an irritable preacher can do is absolutely nothing related to the sermon. Instead, she should do something that helps her reclaim a sense of space and a sense of God’s presence. For me, it usually works to undertake something I wanted to do–for myself or even for church–that I didn’t have time to do during the week. Somehow that makes me feel like I have reclaimed the speed of my life and put things back into balance. This morning, I cleaned the kitchen and posted this blog entry. It may not be a sermon sapling, but I feel better for having written something at all this week.

By the time I hit the “publish” button, my mood will have already improved greatly. Especially since it means sharing that funny picture of a grumpy baby. I trust God’s forgiving grace will be with me, and with any other preachers who stumble across this entry when they are too irritated to write their own sermons.

I spend a lot of time making pastoral visits to aging members who are no longer able to attend worship, whether visiting them at home or in senior living facilities. Currently, there are 20 households on that list, and I try to see most of them every 4-8 weeks, depending upon their situation. I celebrate Holy Communion with many of them at every visit, although some prefer it only at holiday times.

Most of the time, I wonder about the value of these visits. Yes, it is a comfort to lonely or isolated individuals that the pastor comes to see them, to express the church’s ongoing care and concern. Sometimes—oftentimes—visits from lay people can accomplish the same message even better. We often just chit-chat, catching up on news from the church family. We pray, but we don’t talk about the deepest things of the heart.

Until we do talk about those things. And then things get very profound, very fast. Although I always try to invite those deeper conversations, it still catches me off guard when people venture there. I am surprised by how much people yearn to unburden their hearts to me. They move swiftly sometimes from chatting about the weather to disclosing deep secrets of their past. We visit five, ten, 20 times and tell the same pleasant stories, until the one time I come and they open up about the guilt and self-doubt they harbor, the questions they have about God and salvation, the fears and anguish they bear for themselves or members of their family.

I become a secret-keeper, a holder of stories, a bearer of burdens. I hear stories that break my heart, things I can never forget, sadness that cannot be overcome. Long after the teller of the story has died, I remember.  On the next visit, when we return to talking about the latest church social or who’s been in the hospital lately, I wonder if they will want to talk about it again. Always, I pray, and through those prayers I try to surround us with comfort and forgiveness and hope, to release the story to God’s hands.

I am honored by these confidences, even though sometimes they can feel overwhelming. I am humbled by the trust people place in me, even when it leaves me emotional and exhausted. Most of all, I am grateful that God knows too. I do not carry these stories alone, and it is not upon my shoulders to provide the healing, forgiveness, hope and courage they require. All I have to do is show up every few weeks, ready to talk and to listen about whatever—just as prepared to talk about whatever has been going on, whatever the weather is, and whatever matters most, whatever the Spirit summons. And trust that whatever happens, it matters.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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