Monday, December 05, 2011

The Individual and Community

For thousands of years, the primary way that a human identified himself was through a community. And then came the Age of Enlightenment, the Light of Reason, the Way of the Individual. And we live amongst the confusion, a few centuries later, mired.

When people fail, we look at them with disappointment, assuming that they didn't take responsibility as an individual for their own life. We discount the role of their community and lift up too high the assumption that people have great power as an individual over their destiny.

We see people succeed and we admire them for taking their life by the reigns and victoriously surging forth as an individual. We downplay the contribution that any kind of community played in their life to prepare them for there accomplishments.

This downgrade of community and obsession with individuality has been part of our heritage for a few centuries now. It's too easy to look at our parents or older generation and reject their traditions and perspectives - for that's what they did in their days, and so on. We inherit from our parents the desire to think for ourselves - which means we must reject any accumulated wisdom they might be able to pass on. How smart is that?

What are the fears associated with a renewed emphasis on community? People don't like to be told what to do. They don't like to be forced into a routine, to have a tradition enforced. People don't like being accountable to people outside their family. People don't want to feel obligated to care for others outside their selective network of friends.

Christians are born into this aura of individualism. It's why we struggle so much with community. Yet Jesus places a high value on community, almost more so than on individualism. In our age, we think that community results from the gathering of individuals. But for Jesus, community is both the origins and nexus for individuality.

Christians are identified as the body of Christ - which implies that we only exist because of our connections to each other. How can a foot increase it's value to the body by insisting on its individuality? Of course the foot is a sort of individual, differentiated from the hand and heart. But it's value is not just that it is different, but that the difference plays a substantial role in giving life to the community to which is attached.

The greatest command for Christians is to love. God is love. We are go give God, to give love to the world. But we can't do that as individuals. Love can only happen in community. You can't love by yourself. You can't even come to know God or love by yourself. It requires a community to give birth to you and those ideas and structures and history from which you benefit and are nurtured. Love is can't be just an exchange between two individuals. Love is what makes community possible, what makes individuals able to be attached and make a contribution to the life of others.

It's almost as if you have to pick one: love or individualism. If you pick love you get community. If you pick individualism, you get yourself, your way of doing things, your thoughts, your attempts to relate to God and know love on your own terms. But God seems to insist on being first and primary - often at the expense of your individuality. God wants you to love and be loved, and that means embracing community, his way of becoming.

The funny thing is, people throw away their individuality in dozens of ways, all the while insisting that they are not going to be bound to community and let someone tell them what to do. So they live in this shadow world, rootless, anchorless, drifting. They claim to be an individual while at the same time embracing the fashion styles of celebrities. Just like a few million other fans. The individual asserts the ability to think for himself, and then aligns himself with a popular modern writer. Just like a few million others.

Oh, we want community. We want to be led. We want to be bound to tradition. We want love. But we've drank so long from the toxic well of the Enlightenment. Even our readings of Scripture, our thoughts on God are fueled by this pervasive attitude of individuality. We think of God as the supreme individual. Except that he exists as the Trinity. And he bound himself up to Israel, and the church. And the world. God lives in community. It's how he expresses love, himself.

We ought to reconsider our attachment to individuality. I am just as much an individualist as the next person. I was born into it, like everyone else. And yet. As powerful as the drug is, the call of community continues. The desire to love and be loved - God, my wife and children, friends, church - results in a draining of those individualistic energies that drive me towards loneliness. I want God's kingdom to come. I want to love. I want to see my city flourish. I want the church to prevail as a blessing. Those are all community-oriented themes that undermine my individuality. So be it.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

What is an Advent Sunday?

Today is the first Advent Sunday! There are four Advent Sundays leading up to Christmas Day. Today is also the first day of the church year. Interestingly, though, today is not the first day of the Christmas Season. Christmas begins on... Christmas Day - and lasts 12 days. It ends on Christmastide, January 5th.

The word "advent" means "coming," connected to the idea of arrival, appearance, emergence, occurrence, birth, rise, development, approach. The church has for well over a thousand years celebrated the advent or birth or arrival of Christ by marking out the four Sundays before it as a season of preparation.

The church re-enters into the Nativity Story, imagining in a way that we are participants with Mary and Elizabeth, Simon and Joseph and others who sensed that God was about to appear in a new and radical way.

As you consider your life, don't you think you would benefit from some time of reflection on what the significance of God's advent as an infant? Do we assume we have a rich and robust grasp on the Incarnation? How could we spend four Sundays preparing for the celebration on Christmas Day of God becoming one of us?

When we consider the Advent of Christ, it carries two meanings. We remember the birth of Jesus, born into poverty, under the tyranny of a vicious king. We also remember the promise of Jesus that he would return, that he will come again, that there will be another, final, advent. The church starts the new year with four Sundays to consider the promises - then and now - of what the coming King Jesus will do when he arrives.

It's likely that the bewilderment and controversy that surrounded Jesus the first time he came will follow him the second time around. Maybe we need the four Sundays to remind us of how much we don't understand. Of our need for help when it comes to believing. 

We think we understand the First and Second Advent of Christ. We need our Sundays to point us to Jesus - to help us understand what he actually said and did. The life of Jesus shapes our understanding of the Advent that was, and the Advent to come.

Advent Sundays are not a substitute for celebrating Christmas. The church celebrates Christmas for twelve days. Advent Sundays point to Christmas, they challenge our understanding of Christmas, but they are not part of the Christmas season. 

Some of us are sick of Christmas by the time we get to December 25th. We've spent so much time shopping and partying and stressing and getting wrapped up in the drama of family dysfunction around the holidays that Jesus gets the shaft.

Really, how much of your Christmas energies go into worship of Jesus? Attending a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day service is the classic way of worshiping the newborn King. But that is supposed to be the beginning of twelve days of worship, not the exhausted end.

There is plenty of material out there on how to prepare yourself during these four weeks of Advent. To the degree that you are interested in keeping Christ in Christmas, don't let your busyness cause you to push the baby Jesus off to the side. Keep it simple. Keep it intentional. Keep it focused on Jesus.

Some suggestions:
* Read each Gospel - one a week, leading up to Christmas Day. (There are about 20ish chapters in each Gospel, read up to three chapters a day)

* List out all your questions about Jesus and his teachings on a piece of paper, and put it in your Bible. As you read through each Gospel, add to your list. Trust me, most of what you will read about Jesus will cause more questions. It should.

* Do some research into the history behind the Christmas hymns that we sing each year. Or the traditions that we observe each year. Or the origins of the Santa Claus myth.

* Spend time reflecting on your unconfessed sins each Sunday morning or evening The greatest gift you can give God and others and yourself is truth about the sins you hang on to, the sins you won't forgive - in yourself, and others. To forgive and let yourself be forgiven is the true fulfillment of Christmas.

* Look for a way to give away something good everyday. A good word, a good attitude, a good ear, a good hand, a good prayer - as prompted by the Spirit of Christ.

* Find a way to integrate Jesus into everything you do during what you consider the Christmas Season.

* Don't go in debt to buy presents for people as a celebration of Jesus' birth.

* Pray the Lord's Prayer everyday - and reflect on how God's Kingdom has come through the First Advent, and will come in full with the Second Advent.

* Eagerly desire to let poverty into your life. Either take a vow of poverty, or give away your possessions such that you only have the bare necessities, or become friends with those who are poor. Jesus was born into poverty, lived in poverty, ministered amongst the poor, taught the poor, loved the poor.

* Put a Nativity scene in your front yard.

* Make your own list of how you will live this December in light of the Advent of Jesus?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Teaching Me To Love

In 1847 a Danish Christian wrote at length on how we can love in light of what God had revealed to us through Jesus. Soren Kierkegaard, a brilliant philosopher, turned his searching mind and heart towards the truth of love and how it works in our world. Long story short, I found his book, Works of Love in 2004 having spent a few years praying to God that he would teach me how to love.

Today, six and a half years later, I finished Works of Love. A lot of life has happened since then. It would seem that God has been helping me answer my own prayer, thanks to my wife and kids and family and friends and church. And Kierkegaard. I also realize how much more I have to learn about love. Or, what I learned was only the beginning of how to love.

The advantage of reading really old reflections on the works of love is rooted in its disconnection from our post-modern ways of thinking about God and relationships and self. But, 1847 was also among those nascent years of the Enlightenment, our Modern period of thinking. It's odd to read Kierkegaard's critiques on his culture and church - they sound so similar to ours today. What he has to say is relevant to our situations now.

I grew up in a loving home. I have loving parents and brothers and extended family. I have a loving wife and four loving children. I am part of a loving church. I am loved by many friends. There is much love in my life. What does that tell me? That I am an expert in loving? That I have much to teach about love? Or, that God has been helping answer my prayer. And that every opportunity I have to give love is also a revelation of how much more I have to learn.

If love is truly the greatest thing in all the world, then I'd be crazy to settle for a mediocre love. There is much left to understand in this world of how God gives love, of how God gives himself, of how Jesus is our supreme image of love at work in the world. There is so much confusion. So much hurt and rage. There is much discontent about the kind of love that is being offered up these days. How to enter into the most excellent way of love - and let that overflow onto all those connected to my life?

So in the final pages of Kierkegaard's thoughtful Works of Love, here are some disturbing and striving discourses on love:

Christianity's view is: forgiveness is forgiveness; your forgiveness is your forgiveness; your forgiveness of another is your own forgiveness; the forgiveness which you give, you receive, not contrariwise, that you give the forgiveness for which you receive.

It is as if Christianity would say: pray to God humbly and believing in your forgiveness for he really is compassionate in such a way as no human being is; but if you will test how it is with respect to the forgiveness, then observe yourself. If honestly before God you wholeheartedly forgive your enemy (but remember that if you do, God sees it), then you dare hope also for your forgiveness, for it is one and the same.

God forgives you neither more nor less nor otherwise than as you forgive your trespasses. It is only an illusion to imagine that one himself has forgiveness, although one is slack in forgiving others.

It is also conceit to believe in one's own forgiveness when one will not forgive, for how in truth should one believe in forgiveness if his own life is a refutation of the existence of forgiveness!

For, Christianly understood, to love human beings is to love God and to love God is to love human beings; what you do unto men you do unto God, and therefore what you do unto men God does unto you.

If you are embittered towards men who do you wrong, you are really embittered towards God, for ultimately it is still God who permits wrong to be done to you. If, however, you gratefully take the wrongs from God's hand "as a good and perfect gift," you do not become embittered towards men either.

If you will not forgive, you essentially want something else, you want to make God hard-hearted, that he should not forgive, either: how, then should this hard-hearted God forgive you? If you cannot beat the offences of men against you, how should God be able to bear your sins against him?

If you have never been solitary, you have also never discovered that God exists. But if you have been truly solitary, then you also learned that everything you say to and do to other human beings God simply repeats; he repeats it with the intensification of infinity. The word of blessing or judgment which you express concerning someone else, God repeats; he says the same word about you, and this same word is blessing or judgment over you.

Such a person will certainly avoid speaking to God about the wrongs of others towards him, about the speck in his brother's eye, for such a person will rather speak to God only about grace, lest this fateful word of justice lose everything for him through what he himself has called forth, the rigorous like-for-like.

Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, p348-353

Friday, October 14, 2011

Audacious Collaboration

Christian Community Development Association audaciously works to lift up broken neighborhoods in the Spirit of reconciliation and restoration. Whether it is a startling story of unacceptable injustice, or the unnoticed tales of disintegration, CCDA involves itself to help.

Thousands of Christians across America and the world are participating in this renewal of all things. Its this mighty stream that Anchor is sipping from, that I am stepping into. Our neighborhood collaboration of churches and schools and non-profits and corporations and local government is a story that's being lived elsewhere as well. The good news can really be present in our communities.

We can develop people and places that add truth and beauty and freedom and goodness in the name and way of Jesus. To be part of Anchor is to be part of something much bigger than we could ask or imagine. God tells his people to seek the prosperity and shalom for their city. Is there anything for Christians and churches to do in our city of Fort Wayne?

Is Jesus wanting to still rescue the broken-hearted in your neighborhoods? Yes - especially when it gets messy and complicated. God moved into our neighborhood, became like us, was our friend, and set an example for his disciples for how to join him in his enduring work to renew all things. Renew broken school systems, broken economic policies, broken foreign policy, broken taxation system.

Sin is personal. Sin is systemic. Rescue and restoration are for individuals and communities.  God has big work for us in Fort Wayne. Its exciting to join with others in this work of development and shalom.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

There Are Two Kinds of People

Yawn. A bunch of churches getting together in a local park to worship together. Who cares! It sure doesn't look like anything is really happening. And yet...

On Sunday five neighborhood churches worshipped together in Hamilton Park for the first time. It could become an annual event. We prayed together, we sang, we took communion together, we shared ways of increased collaboration together, and we feasted together. It was good. It was fun. And it was strategic. 

We had Roger Reece, Executive Director of Associated Churches preach  - and it was good to introduce him to our congregations. Most of us are members of the organization, and in one way or another are involved in serving our neighborhood. But it's important that we think about how we can care for our neighbors together. And it's the togetherness aspect that I think was strengthened on Sunday. 

Churches have become very irrelevant and obsolete in their neighborhoods. Sure, they still find a way to contribute to the needs of the community, but ask a neighbor how they've benefited from the local church. The answer will reveal the disconnect. 

Anchor has worked hard to be relevant to our neighbors - but we don't want to continue to do that work alone. We want to learn from our other neighborhood churches from the ways they've become helpful. From the collaboration comes more helpful churches, a unity of spirit that adds strength to our good work, and new opportunities for the Spirit to accomplish the impossible in us and through us.

There were about 165 of us gathered together in front of the brown cinder-block pavilion at Hamilton Park. It was inspiring to hear the voices singing together, to see heads bowed in prayer, to join the long line for Communion. We were planting seeds. Now our vision is to grow our churches and invite our neighbors so that we fill the park, we want people sitting on the far back hill! Wouldn't that be a great testimony to the help we have given in the name of Jesus to our neighbors? 

More than anything, our churches want the Gospel of Jesus to be good news for our neighbors. We want our churches to be harbingers of that announcement. We want the kingdom to come where we live. This means, though, that we have to get involved in the lives and issues of our neighborhood. All the divorced families. All the kids without a father at home. Homes where the man is in prison. Families that are caught up in the court-system. Families that are dependent on the welfare system. Parents that don't know how to make it work together. People on disability, who are depressed, who are angry. People struggling to start over again, to get an education, to get a better job, to be a better parent. 

There are also great families in our neighborhood, homes that are good and stable and shine a lot of light. And our neighborhood needs our churches to do their best in making disciples who are the hands and feet of Jesus where they live. Disciples who use their resources, their connections at work, their influence, their skills, their wallets, their prayers, their kitchen tables, their community assets, their political involvement, their local schools, to help make our neighborhood a better place to live. Disciples who jump into a project that will outlive them, a task that is bigger then all of us, a work that requires more than we can ask or imagine. Disciples who work together, in the wisdom and grace and diligence and creativity and truth and perseverance of Jesus.

For me, the quotes below capture these ideas. They inspire me. May they provoke you as well. 

Find out how much God has given you and from it take what you need; the remainder is needed by others.  
~Saint Augustine

Wherever a man turns he can find someone who needs him.  
~Albert Schweitzer

The only way you can serve God is by serving other people.  
~Rick Warren

There are two kinds of people one can call reasonable: those who serve God with all their heart because they know him, and those who seek him with all their heart because they do not know him. 
~Blaise Pascal

The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was:  "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?"  But... the good Samaritan reversed the question:  "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"  
~Martin Luther King, Jr.

There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, "All right, then, have it your way."  
~C.S. Lewis

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.  
~Margaret Meade

Click here for more information about the neighborhood churches involved.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Remember One Dead

Thus death is the briefest summary of life or life reduced to its briefest form.

What is the benefit of pondering the deaths of those you love? Yes it is painful, yes it is sorrowful, yes it is difficult. And yet much wisdom in life can be gleaned from reflecting upon the deaths of those you love.

Yes, once again go out to the dead in order there to get a look at life.

Our family goes out to visit Ben and Matt's grave each year on their deathday. We've been going to Ben's graveside since 1994. It's hard to put into words why we make the trek. Every couple of years we wonder whether we should still head out to Huntington on this evening. But we do. And Kierkegaard teaches me why we ought to continue the tradition.

In truth, if you really want to make sure about love in yourself or in another person, then note how he relates himself to one who is dead.

In our Western civilization, we turn our backs on our ancestors. Maybe it is the Western Christian aversion to pagan and Eastern veneration of our elders. Either way, we have an uneasy relationship with our dead. It causes angst, confusion, rage, despair, helplessness - but love?

How we express love to our dead reflects our ability to love the ones who live. But, you ask, am I to still love the dead? As Kierkegaard writes in Works of Love: But we do have duties towards the dead. If we are to love the men we see, then we are also to love those whom we have seen but no more because death took them away. No, one must remember the dead; weep softly but grieve long.

In this chapter on the work of love in remembering one dead, Kierkegaard asserts three things: the work of love in remembering one who is dead is a work of the most unselfish love, of the freest love, and the most faithful love.

He comments that for the living, our understanding of love is often based on repayment. Love is strengthened when it is rewarded with a thank you, with a gift, with kindness, with devotion, and so on. But the dead cannot repay you for your love. If, therefore, you wish to test for yourself whether or not you love disinterestedly, note sometimes how you relate yourself to one who is dead. Do you weep softly and grieve long over the dead you love because of what it does for you, or for how you continue to express your love to them. That you give the love is more important then that they acknowledge the love.

Not only is the work of love in remembering one dead the most unselfish love, it is the freest love. The stronger the compulsion, the less free is the love. A baby's piercing cry compels you to come care for it. The dead utter not. Your husband complains, a wife nags, a child whines, a neighbor or coworker comments... and so you adjust your works of love. But the dead you do not hear, they can't compel you to give your time, your attention, your devotion. And so if you give love to the dead, it is the most free. If, therefore, you want to test whether you love freely, observe some time how over a period of time you relate yourself to one who is dead.

The work of love in remembering one dead is unselfish, it is free, and it is the most faithful.
When two living persons are joined in love, each holds on to the other and the relationship holds on to both of them. But no holding together is possible with one who is dead. Immediately after death it perhaps can be said that he holds on to one, a consequence of the relationship together, and therefore it is also the more frequent occurrence, the customary thing, that he is remembered during this time. However, in the course of time he does not hold on to the one living, and the relationship is broken if the one living does not hold on to him. But what is faithfulness? Is it faithfulness that the other holds on to me?

Kierkegaard goes on to say: One who is dead does not change; there is not the slightest possibility of excuse by putting the blame on him; he is faithful. Yes, it is true. But he is nothing actual, and therefore he does nothing, nothing at all, to hold on to you, except that he is unchanged. If, then, a change takes place between one living and one dead, it is very clear that it must be the one living who has changed.

In our fast paced, pleasure-obsessed culture, who has time to love the dead? And who has time to love the living? How does one cultivate unselfish, free, faithful love these days? It was difficult in the 1840's, and it still is today. We honor the dead when we remember them, yes. But Kierkegaard presses us to love the one dead. Love is love is love. Love to God, love to the living, love to the dead.

He concludes: The work of love in remembering one who is dead is thus a work of the most disinterested, the freest, the most faithful love. Therefore go out and practice it; remember one dead and learn in just this way to love the living disinterestedly, freely, faithfully.

If you fail to love the dead, you can't blame the dead. And thus you are given the opportunity to consider why you fail to fully love the living around you. Maybe you should quit blaming them for your failure to fully love them.

Remember one who is dead, and in addition to the blessing which is inseparable from this work of love, you will also have the best guidance to rightly understanding life: that it is one's duty to love the men we do not see, but also those we do see.

I'm thankful my family makes the yearly trip to the cemetery. And now I more fully appreciate this work of love. I am more aware of how selfish, unfree, and faithless is my love to God, the living, and the dead. Yet with this confession comes the opportunity to learn to love in a new way. While I am alive, I will always have more to learn about the work of love. And when I am dead and join Ben, and Matt, may those I loved weep softly and mourn long.

[Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, pgs 317-329]

Monday, August 08, 2011

15 Years

It's a small milestone. It was this month 15 years ago that I joined North Summit Church as their Associate Pastor. In those years as a pastor I've learned much - including that I have much, much, much more to learn. 15 years in a profession, in a job, in a calling lends itself to some observations about people, life, ministry, God, the world and the church. My Dad reminded me a few months ago that I'm still really young and in the beginning of my ministry. I was really relieved to hear his reflections. The learning curve for me has been so high! Knowing that I'm still in the beginning stages helps with perspective and confidence and wisdom.

Serving North Summit Church was a real gift. Tara and I had helped Pastor Brooks Fetters and Ed Souers (and lots of others) start the church in a movie theatre. Fun times for sure! There was risk involved, lots of hard work, and plenty to learn. The finances took a hit though, and after a year there with NSC, I was able to join Emmanuel Community Church as part of an internship. I was in my final year of my Master's at the Huntington College Graduate School of Christian Ministries, so it seemed to work out well to serve at ECC. It was supposed to be a two year internship, but about six months into it, an opportunity to restart a church in downtownish Fort Wayne opened up. Six months after that, Tara and I and about fifty others from ECC started up Anchor Community Church. I owe much to North Summit and Emmanuel Community Church, to Pastor Brooks and to Pastor Dennis Miller.

Reflecting back on that first bunch of years, I wish that I could have spent a few more years as an Associate or Intern. I was too eager to get out there and do ministry my way. It's too late now to go back, but I think I would have benefitted from more training, mentoring and experience from being an associate or with the internship. However, I've learned that I've got to make the best of my decisions, even when I regret those decisions later. With my Dad being a pastor, I was familiar with church, and had lots of my own ideas of how I would run MY church. Well now I had MY church and it was a lot harder then I imagined.

Only in the last few years have I been able to let go of Anchor. It's not MY church. It's OUR church - Jesus and whoever wants to be part of it. I've had to learn that it's more important to grow people then grow a church. My vision for MY church was all about me, sadly enough. God's clever enough to still use MY church for lots of good, but I think more good has happened since I let go. Pastoring people is way more fun then running a church. Helping people know God, learn the Scriptures, live in the way of Jesus, love their neighbor, become good news, listen to the Spirit, serve their community - all of this has been a joy. Difficult, but good.

Most of the pain of ministry has come from within, my expectations, my immaturity, my strategies. Of course others have disappointed me, and learning to handle that well has been a great source of wisdom. I am my biggest obstacle to fruitful ministry. My ego. My fears. My ideas. My pride. I'm surprised how much fear plays into my decisions, my energy, my humility. I'm more fearful then I want to admit or let on. The antidote to this is trust, and it seems that every year of ministry requires me to trust God more and more and more. This makes for more beautiful ministry, more letting go, more fearlessness, and more good news. As I gain wisdom about myself and in serving others, I am able to relax in ministry and enjoy it.

In serving others, I've met and worshipped with and ministered to a wide variety of individuals and families. Some of those relationships I've bungle, some of those I've had to let go of, and others have been a real test. But most of them have been a learning experience to me about how to love, how to respect, how to add dignity, how to see Christ in each person. I try to listen and learn from others more. Instead of having all the ideas, I want to hear what others think. In caring for those in need, I've learned to let them affect me. In meeting people not like me, I've been learning how to empathize. Being part of Anchor all these years has been an unsurpassed education in learning how to trust and love, in gaining wisdom and growing in maturity.

It's easy to feel inferior as a pastor. There's always plenty of bad press out there. Some church somewhere has abused somebody, disappointed somebody, failed somebody, hurt somebody. Most people don't go to church, and half the people who don't go to church used to go to church but got let down by their pastor, so they don't go anymore. There's usually more failure shrouding most pastors than almost any other profession. And if we fail people, we believe people go to hell. Talk about pressure! We preach, but statistics show that those that listened will forget 95% of what we say by the next day. Yet we get evaluated on how good our sermons are! We get evaluated on how many pastoral visits we do, but if we do too much, then we produce lousy sermons. And pastors have to run a church efficiently, be really good at handling conflict, stay up on the finances, keep the programs exciting, and also set a good example for how to be rested and unbusy.

What is success as a pastor? It can't be the numbers. It's not the paycheck. It's not fame or recognition. I've had to learn that love is the greatest measure of success. My willingness to be loved, my willingness to love others, that's what makes pastoring successful. Of course I want to sharpen my skills as a pastor when it comes to leadership and management and counseling and teaching. But without love, it's all nothing. The temptation is to skimp on the love, to exchange it for being nice, or to excuse yourself from it because you're not a "people-person" or don't have the gift of mercy. Love is patience and kindness, and I've found my pastoring has become much more sustainable and fruitful when I focus on those two. There's plenty more to love, but I'd do well to focus on the first two as a pastor. And as a man.

In 15 years of pastoring, I've learned to value of ministering with other churches and pastors. I've benefitted from cultivating relationships with other non-profits that can further improve our church's ministry. I've had to learn how to befriend people despite being a pastor, how to be a neighbor without having an agenda. I've had to learn how to lose my faith and gain a new one while being a pastor. I've had to come to terms with my deep darkness within, to see how we all have addictions that must be healed. I've had to say goodbye to many friends, and start all over again with new ones. I've seen my heart put up walls, and I've had to tear them down. I've let people severely depress me, and I've had to learn to choose joy. I've been humbled many times, and I'm getting better at being okay with it. I've learned more about what drives me, about what controls me, about the ways I want to be free to love and serve and give.

I'm thankful for my wife Tara, who has been with me on this journey of pastoring. It's only been a decade and a half. May the next fifteen be full of adventure and joy! I'm thankful for my best friend Don Gentry, a fellow pastor who inspires me. I'm thankful for my Dad and Mum, who pray for us daily, who serve with us weekly at Anchor, and who pour so much love into my children. And I have more family and more friends to whom I owe much. Anything I accomplish is because of what others have poured into me as a gift. I also owe gratitude to my brothers. Jerm, Matt and I had to say goodbye to Ben way too early. And then Jerm and I said farewell to Matt. I am profoundly shaped by my brothers. They inspire me, they drive me, they are the other parts of me. I always cherish our growing up together. The Happy Hallman Home. It was a good life we had as brothers - and I continue to learn about how it's influenced my first fifteen years of ministry. Thanks, brothers!

What will I have accomplished in the next fifteen years? I'll be 52. Ack! I immediately feel the pressure to perform and strive and measure and go. But I want a sustainable life as well, one where I am able to nurture my marriage, bless my children, care for my family and friends, and become fully human. I don't want my ministry and work to grow a church to hijack my life such that I fail the people closest to me. In the first fifteen years of ministry, I've been learning to absorb the wisdom of Jesus, to trust God, and follow the promptings of the Spirit. I believe that this will be more then enough for the next fifteen years, come what may.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Seek the Truth

~Ayn Rand

All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.
~Galileo Galilei


All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.
~Arthur Schopenhauer

The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.
~Niels Bohr

~Mark Twain

Whenever you have truth, it must be given with love,
or the message and the messenger will be rejected.
~Mahatma Ghandi

Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.
~Sir Winston Churchill

How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?
~Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

If one tells the truth, one is sure sooner or later to be found out.
~Oscar Wilde

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Take the Long View

It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.


-A prayer of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was martyred in San Salvador in 1980

This quote was found on the justice blog for Trinity Grace Church in New York City. This church is doing some great work, an inspiration for what could happen in my city of Fort Wayne. These words of Oscar Romero add fuel to the fire for what I feel called to help create and accomplish. May his words add to your calling...

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Get Your Heart Broken

God comes in all his grand and searing holiness to hopeless and pain-ached sinners. He becomes like us - all the brokenness - not because he sins but because he so vulnerably and generously loves sinners. He comes to the proud with truth and the rebels with grace and the disturbed with peace.

His loving sinners will require him to forgive sinners for how they reject him and disbelieve him and misunderstand him and betray him. But a holy priest / prophet / king like Jesus loves his unholy neighbor, he let's the unholy hold him and feed him and follow him. Somehow, someway, his holiness transforms the unholy.

His love changes us in the midst of a mad and angry world. But he moved into this vale of tears to restore all things. It will be a lot of cross and tomb before there is resurrection.

Christians ought not think of themselves as saved, rather as those who are working out their salvation by loving the unholy and forgiving those who sin against them.

Christians associate with other Christians in such a way as to promote false holiness and insular love. Jesus wants Christians to get their hearts broken because they love the unholy so deeply. Jesus wants Christians to forgive a lot because of the sinful people they love.

Jesus wants Christians to become good news - those who love the poor and the prisoner, the maimed and diseased, the oppressed and distressed - not just those on the other side of the world though - but the ones that are your neighbors.

Sunday, July 03, 2011


Hatred paralyses life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it. 
~Martin Luther King, Jr.

You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.  
-Anne Lamott

We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.  -Jonathan Swift

In time we hate that which we often fear.  
-William Shakespeare

Hatred is the coward's revenge for being intimidated.
~George Bernard Shaw

It is easy to hate and it is difficult to love. 
This is how the whole scheme of things works. 
All good things are difficult to achieve;
 and bad things are very easy to get.  
~Rene Descartes

Hate is too great a burden to bear. 
It injures the hater more than it injures the hated.          
~Coretta Scott King

If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. 
What isn't part of ourselves doesn't disturb us.  -Herman Hesse

Hating people is like burning down your own house to get rid of a rat. 
-Henry Emerson Fosdick

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.  
-James Baldwin

When we don't know who to hate, we hate ourselves.  -Chuck Palahniuk

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; 
only light can do that. 
Hate cannot drive out hate; 
only love can do that.  
~Martin Luther King, Jr.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Of Passive Men and Flailing Pastors

It was a good day for a long drive with the windows down. Plenty of sunshine and blue sky. Lots of time to think to be grateful. And think.

My trip took me to a prison. I spent a few hours with a friend. He's a good guy and I always learn something from him. Today we were talking about our fathers. I was also trying to recruit him to become a pastor.

In sharing our stories with each other, we got to talking about the different ways that men can be passive. How passivity in a man can become addictive, a form of bondage, and how a wife's response is often counter-productive. We ruminated on the ways that this passivity can get passed on to the next generation. It's a form of giving up, of disconnecting, of disengaging. It's part laziness, part selfishness, part apathy, part despair. It's also toxic.

We also got to talking about the ways pastors can flail in their ministry. There are pastors who are very religious, but disconnected from reality. There are pastors who are above others. There are pastors who are popular but then disappoint. There seems to be an expectation of pastors to never fail. But there is also an expectation for pastors to be useless. The common experience seems to be that pastors will let you down sooner or later; they are ultimately unreliable, just like everyone else.

For the boys and men in our church who have passive fathers and flailing pastors, what is their fate?

And what is the antidote?

My friend in prison is honest with me about his life, his experiences, his assessments of people. He can see through people. He knows what failure is. And recovering. Together we discussed some options for dealing with a past that included passive men and flailing pastors. It involved authentic introspection, identifying the ways that we were passive, the ways we flail.

How do you impart courage into a passive man? What's the antidote for cowardice, the fear to engage and love and make decisions? There is help, it doesn't have to be a mystery. It's not about ignorance, it's about desire.

What to do with the flailing pastors of your past? Forgive them? Be wary of them? Learn from them? Pity them? Mock them? Reconnect with them? When a pastor flails, it often results in others falling away from the church, their faith, even God. The pressure to not flail can be oppressive. And yet flailing pastors will always be part of the church experience, of our culture. Why the scorn for flailing pastors?

I know a lot of passive men. I could be one of them. I know pastors who are flailing. I could be one of them. I have been passive, and it was toxic. I have flailed, and it has hurt others. What do I do with that part of me? What do I do when I see that in others? When those men and pastors are part of my life?

Initiative. Decisions. Confidence. Choices. Engage. Listen. Learn. Sacrifice. Desire. Lift. Care. These have been my attempts to erode my passivity, to make amends for my flailings.

Hmmm...well, yes... there is plenty on which to ponder.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

My Brief Review of Love Wins

Article first published as Book Review: Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, And The Fate Of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell on Blogcritics.

There is a long-standing belief that Christians go to heaven and that God sends everybody else to burn in hell, in eternal conscious torment.

This way of phrasing the situation is common. It is also unhelpful. It misrepresents heaven and hell, God and Christians. And so Rob Bell decided it was time to present another way of of looking at this controversial belief, thus Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, And The Fate Of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

In covering ground from Genesis through Revelation, pastor Rob Bell concludes heaven and hell are right next to each other, and that you get endless invitations from God to enter heaven and depart hell — both now and in the life to come. The implication is that there will be people in hell, that hell will be temporary, and that eventually every person who has ever lived will repent of their sins in response to God's love as demonstrated through Jesus.

For Christians who are repulsed by the long-standing belief of hell as eternal, conscious torment, Bell's idea are a welcome relief. But Bell has also fired up immense controversy amongst those Christians who adhere to eternal conscious torment — which is a majority of conservative evangelical Christians. Using the same Bible, both sides have conjured up opposing views of God and the afterlife. Whose interpretation is right?

In his book, Bell methodically addresses some key ideas that undermine the traditional view of hell as eternal, conscious torment while making the case for his understanding that love wins. He tackles what the Scripture teaches about heaven, hell, free-will, resurrection, atonement, gospel, and love. Each of these topics are highly-contested theological ideas. Scholars have written thousands of pages on each of those topics, denominations have been formed on varying interpretations of these ideas. And Bell wrote a short book trying to summarize the whole Bible — not an easy task, one open to much criticism and misinterpretation.

Love Wins insists that Jesus' death on the cross atoned for the sins of the whole world, of every person who ever lived. Love Wins understands hell as necessary and needed judgment for evil actions and thoughts, but it is restorative and corrective judgment. Love Wins frames the gospel as good news for the wicked, forgiveness of their sins and the grace-full offer of reconciliation by God. Love Wins believes that people can choose heaven or hell, now and then; and that every person will someday choose heaven. Love Wins demonstrates how resurrection explains the way the world works, and that Jesus' resurrection points to a day when God will make all things new. Love Wins sees heaven as that time and place where God will get what God wants — the rescue and restoration of all Creation.

Love Wins requires the reader to rethink what they've been taught to believe about heaven and hell, God and love, Jesus and the gospel. But it's a requirement that takes thinkers back to the Scriptures, the primary source for what Christians believe about heaven and hell. Rob Bell takes you back through the two Testaments, presenting a Biblical view of the world that is Jewish in its origins, and Jesus-centered in its proclamations. This will result in an understanding of heaven and hell that differ from what has become pop-culture visions of the afterlife.

Pastor Rob Bell's interpretations are certainly open to debate, his controversial conclusions need scrutinized. And while many may dismiss or reject the idea of Love Wins, it is certainly proper and Christian to hope for it.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Does It Really Matter What You Believe About Hell?

For the sake of argument, there are three general positions that Christians take towards the belief in hell:
1) Hell is a real place of eternal, conscious torment (ECT)
2) Hell is a real place of temporary, restorative judgment (TRJ)
3) Hell is an imaginary place

There have been different reports out indicating that many Christians don't live as if they believed in option 1. Though many denominations are on record as holding to a belief in hell as ECT, their members act otherwise. Evangelicals are known for their emphasis on evangelism, and they still struggle with getting their congregations motivated to save their neighbors from a hell of brimstone and burning sulfur.

So despite what doctrinal statements are declared or pronounced, the overall American Christian behavior belies a belief in hell that is either temporary or non-existent or at least not all that bad. Maybe it'd be fair to say that based on people's behavior, they either don't ever really think about hell, or else kind of view it from a Gary Larson point of view.

An interesting dilemma arises: should their be more teaching and preaching on hell in order to get more people to live according to a real fear of ECT? This would seem to lead to an over-emphasis on hell, out of line with how Jesus himself preached in light of hell. It seems to lead to a "fire-insurance" kind of Christianity.

Should hell even be any kind of motivator for evangelism? It would seem that the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus teaches that even if a dead man came back from hell to warn people about the agony of the next life, it would not be effective. If this is the case, what should our attitudes be towards the hell that Jesus describes? It seems it is proper to teach about hell as a reality, but to not be inclined to use it as a motivator for people to get saved. 

So what's the use in believing in hell? How should a belief in hell affect how I live my daily life? If I believe in ECT, then shouldn't I be using every waking moment to try and convince every living person to convert? How could I ever go to the movies for fun or take a vacation or even raise a family if I knew that it distracted me from keeping people out of ECT? If I believe that hell is TRJ, then I'd end up focusing more on the consequences that actions have in this life, letting the bad consequences experienced now be motivation for turning to God for help now.

Do you think it matters what people believe about hell? How do you justify your behavior in light of what you believe about hell? 

Is the doctrine of hell up for debate? Can we learn anything new about what the Scriptures teach about hell, or has it all been figured out already?

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Who/What/Where Is God? Exodus

What are your big questions for God?

A common one has to do with God's goodness and the existence of evil in the world.

It's really interesting that in the Scriptures there is a big story about God's own people suffering, of their oppression by an evil system of slavery. These people cry out to God for help, he hears their cry, and sends them someone to deliver them. It's the story of the Exodus.

There are layers and layers of insights and truths about God and life and humanity in the Exodus story. It's Israel's own story of their deliverance from Egypt and how they entered the Promised Land. What's so fascinating about the stories they retell about themselves is the raw honesty. Moses was a flawed leader. Israel was a stiff-necked and stubborn people. God got really, really angry with them. Within weeks of delivering them from Pharaoh's raging army, Moses had to talk God out of abandoning them in the desert of Zin.

There are five big stories that Israel tells about itself in the Old Testament, about their existence, about their covenant relationship with their God YHWH, and about what happened to them. Creation is the initial story of how they believe the world got started. Covenant is the heart of the story of how God brought Israel into existence. Exodus is the defining story of when Israel became a nation. Kingdom is a messy story of how Israel staggered it's way through political and economic realities. Exile is the fifth story, the very tragic story Israel tells of what happened to them due to their failure to keep the covenant they had made with YHWH.

If you want to know more about God, if you want to find better answers to your questions, you'll want to learn how to read the Old Testament. These are the stories about God that Jesus grew up with, stories about who he is, what he has done in the world, and where we can look for him to act next. Exodus teaches us that God always hears the cry of the oppressed. It also teaches us that God uses humans to deliver people from oppression. And we learn that there are humans who resist being used by God to rescue people from oppression, to help be part of the answer to their prayers. God's got to find a way to prevail using very flawed people in a very messed up world. 

Exodus is Israel's story of how God delivered them from an evil system of slavery that had oppressed them for a few hundred years. God rescued them from their demise by raising up Moses. It took eighty years for God's rescue plan to come to fruition. It would take another forty years to actually get Israel to the Promised Land. We learn that it often takes God a long time to answer prayers. Are you okay with that?

God also wanted to get his people back to the Promised Land, the ridge of mountains and fertile valleys that had been promised to Abraham all those years ago. God's work to deliver Israel out of Egypt was part of God's work to keep his part of the covenant. God proved his loyalty to Abraham by providing a rescuer like Moses to save Israel from Egypt. It's this story that helps us understand the story of Jesus and Israel and Rome.

In keeping his part of the covenant, in getting the ancestors of Abraham back to the Promised Land, God was giving his people a land where they could worship him and live according to his Way. An essential part of the Exodus story includes introduction of Torah, the Ten Commandments and all the statutes by which Israel was to live as God's community. Torah was God's gift to Israel, the instructions on how to live as the light, commands that would result in them becoming a blessing to the world. Exodus is deliverance from Egypt, but Exodus is also deliverance of Torah. 

We learn that not only does God hear the cry of the oppressed, but he responds. But his response is part of a bigger work in the world. Part of God's answer to their prayer for rescue is Torah. The people want freed from slavery, but what will they be freed TO? How will they live once they are delivered from bondage?

Torah is laws and commands and instructions on how Israel will live as a new nation with new freedom amongst the moon-worshipping, death-obsessed, empire-tyrannized nations. Keeping Torah would bring blessings for Israel and surrounding peoples. Rebellion against Torah would bring curses. For to rebel against Torah is to rebel against the God that rescued them - a real poke in the eye that cannot go ignored. 

Observing Torah helps Israel become the special nation God intended for them. If Israel became like Egypt, they would be cursed. If Israel enslaved aliens, they would become cursed. If Israel worshipped the sun and moon and idols of stone and wood, they would be cursed. If Israel stooped to justice stained by bribes and favoritism, they would be cursed. This helps explains some of Jesus' harsh words for the political and religious leaders of Israel. They were not living out Torah, God's instructions for how to live as a blessing to the world.

When you look around at the suffering today, when you look around at the prevalence of evil today, you might wonder what God is doing about it. The Exodus story reveals a lot about how God has worked in the past to relieve suffering. The Jesus story is another essential story about how God responds to evil in the world. One of the lessons we learn is that God answers prayers through the willingness of people to serve and save. Jesus is an example of someone who was willing to go to great lengths to be used by God to help set people free from evil. The big story of Exodus is still being written, it is still our story.

Maybe the next Exodus is depending on someone like you. God took eighty years to prepare Moses. Moses didn't know he was being prepared for anything until the eightieth year. God has to work in our world with people as they are, with nations as they are, with empires as they are.

God is always at work -  redeeming, rescuing, restoring. But it's a two way street - he can save us from evil, but he also saves us for good. Torah was his instructions on how to live a good life in a wicked world. If you want God's help - he doesn't just help you get out of a bad spot, he helps you get into a good place - but it's on his terms. Jesus comes to us, in our life, to both free us and to prepare us to help free others. Will you let Jesus be Moses to you? Will you let Jesus make you into a Moses for others?

Exodus is still the defining story for Israel. Do you need an Exodus? Do you need rescued? Do you need new instructions for a new life? God always hears your cry. God will bring people into your life to help answer your prayers. And God will have instructions for you to follow.

Go here for more study questions.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

My Review of Love Wins: Chapter Eight

The End is Here.

That's been a central idea of Love Wins. Instead of keeping our eyes on a future life way out there somewhere else, we ought to keep our eyes focused on life now with our neighbors, here. In the End, God comes down to us, to dwell with us Here. Here is where the End will occur - with a God who is Love. In the End, God wins. In the End, Love Wins. In the End, Love will be Here.

Whatever you've been told about the end - the end of your life, the end of time, the end of the world - Jesus passionately urges us to live like the end is here, now, today. Love is what God is, love is why Jesus came, and love is why he continues to come, year after year, to person after person. (197-8)

This is the core of Rob's summary. An emphasis on God as Love - an emphasis gleaned from an immersion of the Scriptures, from Genesis thru Revelation. God is holy, just, glorious, jealous, and righteous - but the Great Commandment is for us to Love God and Love our Neighbor (just as God in Christ loves us). It's not an emphasis on love to the exclusion of holiness or justice, but an emphasis that points to the heart of God.

...I believe that the indestructible love of God is an unfolding, dynamic reality and that every single one of us is endlessly being invited to trust, accept, believe, embrace, and experience it. Whatever words you find helpful for describing this act of trust, Jesus invites us to say yes to this love of God, again and again and again.  (194)

So here is a focal point of the controversy, of the rejection of Rob's argument: "endlessly being invited" instead of eternal conscious torment. From Rob's point of view, Scripture points to a God who loves covenantally, who loves through substitutional atonement, who loves through global redemption. A God who blesses his own people, but then curses them. The curse is part of the judgment, but it is also the beginning of the restoration. The judgment is a form of discipline that is to bring about repentance and righteousness. Judgment is designed to be ultimately restorative for those that God loves. God punishes rebels so that he might bring about their reconciliation.

Jesus invites us to trust that the love we fear is too good to be true is actually good enough to be true. Jesus invites us to become, to be drawn into this love as it shapes us and forms us and takes over every square inch of our lives. Jesus calls us to repent, to have our minds and hearts transformed so that we see everything differently. (195-6)

What's the motivation to repent if hell is not forever? If the conscious torment is not eternal, what's the motivation to cease rebelling and embrace reconciliation? As Rob seems to insist, God's love compels love as a response.  Obedience to God through fear of fire, or appeal to restoration? Is it possible that people will still repent of their sins though they don't believe in the traditional teachings of hell? Yes. But then what to do with the images and words of Jesus himself that seem to point to eternal conscious torment?

These are strong, shocking images of judgment and separation in which people miss out on rewards and celebrations and opportunities. Jesus tells us these stories to wake us up to the timeless truth that history moves forward, not backwards or sideways. Time does not repeat itself. Neither does life.

While we continually find grace waiting to pick us up off the ground after we have fallen, there are realities to our choices. While we may get other opportunities, we won't get the one right in front of us again. That specific moment will pass and we will not see it again. It comes, it's here, it goes, and then it's gone.

Jesus reminds us in a number of ways that it is vitally important to take our choices here and now as seriously as we possibly can because they matter more than we can begin to imagine. (197)

When Jesus spoke words of judgment to his fellow Israelites, it was within a particular historical and cultural context, within an economic and political reality. Those words he spoke were for them, not us. The phrases and ideas recorded by the Gospel-writers were done so in light of those contexts and realities. And so we "listen" in on their wrestling to believe and understand. As Hebrew Christians, immersed in the First Testament, expectant for a deliverer, they grappled with what actually happened through Jesus. The Messiah they had waited for did not accomplish what they had anticipated - he did something bigger and better and more beautiful. And so it is for us.

Can our choices "matter more than we can begin to imagine" if there is no eternal conscious torment? Is there another compelling way to think about the connection between our decisions today and our experience in eternity aside from the fear of burning for billions of centuries? What will God do with all the rebels and idolaters, the doubters and deceivers, the ignorant and innocent little babies? Will the mass of humanity writhe in agony as fulfillment of God's justice? Does this bring glory to God?

The End is Here. We take today seriously, tomorrow has enough worries of its own. The consequences of the decisions we make now have ramifications now that we ought to pay more diligent attention to. The threat of hell is by itself insufficient to prompt rebels to repent. The work of God is the only hope we deceived humans have for receiving a second chance. If we ignore or reject or misunderstand God's overtures for salvation now in this life, that has consequences for now, in this life. But will God continue those invitations in the life to come? Or is this life it?

Rob seems to believe the invitation is endless. Only God can turn a heart towards him - and God will not cease until every man and woman repents. Rob believes that the fires of affliction, the torment of hell that we experience now will continue - on both sides of death - until we surrender and relent in our rebellion. Love never fails. 

That seems to be what Rob believes. When God comes down to Earth, everyone who has ever lived will dwell before him - their experience in God's presence will be heaven or hell - it's their choice. Their response to God's presence, their response to God's gift of faith and grace through Jesus will determine their experience in God's midst. Those outside the gate can walk through any time they want. It's their choice. And Rob believes that God will wait out their rebellion, that his patience and kindness will prevail. In the End, God will win. Through Christ, love will win Here.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Rob Bell & Bin Laden: Hell

Funny stuff.

My Review of Love Wins: Chapter Seven

The Good News Is Better Than That.

Better than what?

The word "gospel" literally means "good news." But in these days, the word "gospel" has become the shorthand way of framing our message about Jesus and Christianity. There has been a great emphasis on correctly stating and preaching the "gospel." For the normal person on the street, or in the pew, if you were to ask them what is the good news of Jesus, what kind of answer would you get? Despite all the books written about the gospel, the answer will lack nuance, depth, and scope.

I think Rob is writing to those people on the street, immersed in real life, giving them a working definition of the gospel that they can remember - more than that, that they can grasp with their heart and either truly embrace or clearly reject. Rather than the gospel becoming a complex set of doctrinal beliefs, Rob seeks to reveal the thumping heart and blood of the gospel in Jesus.

To do this, Rob retells a story/parable that Jesus made up about God and his love for sinners and the righteous. You can read it for yourself in Luke 15, it's about a father with two sons. One of the interesting angles Rob takes on this story is by pointing out the different stories at work in this one parable. Rob points out that both the younger son and older brother have a version of their life-story. The challenge is this: will they believe the story that their Father is telling them?

The younger son believes he is "no longer worthy to be called the father's son." (165) The older brother believes that he has been slaving for his father all these years without so much as a word of thanks, not even a small goat for a party. The older brother also believes that the father has been unfair.

The father, when the younger son comes home, tells a different story - here is a robe for your shoulders, a ring for your finger, and soon lets fill your belly up with roast beef and fine wine! And the father, when angrily confronted by the older brother, tells him a different story - "My son, you are always with me and everything I have is yours." (167) This is followed up with an invitation to join the party.

Rob points out that the challenge for each of the sons is about trust and belief - will either one of them trust the story the father is telling them? Will they believe their father? The differences between the two stories - the one we tell ourselves and the one the father tells us - Rob says it's "the difference between heaven...and hell." (169)

Heaven and hell seem to be right next to each other in this story - the younger son enjoying the party being thrown for him, the older brother fuming just outside the tent doors, refusing to enter, "to join in the celebration." (169) Rob is going to use this parable as a launching point for ideas about the good news, about heaven and hell. This is a unique approach, sure to attract lots of objections.

Rob has made the argument in earlier chapters about the temporary nature of hell. This comes into play in this chapter about heaven and hell as thought about from the perspective of the parable in Luke 15.
"Hell is our refusal to trust God's retelling of our story." (170)

What? This is not what most people think of when it comes to hell - where's the fire and brimstone?
But in reflecting through the story, Rob observes that belief and trust are essential to our experience with God - or without him. And this story that Jesus tells points to a moment of decision for each son - will they believe their Father, will they trust his words to them about their situation?

"We believe all sorts of things about ourselves. What the gospel does is confront our version of the story with God's version of our story." (171) Some people are full of flaws, they're marked by failure, they carry around heavy weights of shame and guilt. They believe they are not good enough. Certainly not for church. Or heaven. There are others, though, who believe they are good enough. Their pride keeps them out of church, keeps them independent, keeps them convinced that is God for the weak. And God brings to each of them, to each of us, another story which will challenge the story we've been telling ourselves.

"It is a brutally honest, exuberantly liberating story, and it is good news. It begins with the sure and certain truth that we are loved. That in spite of whatever has gone horribly wrong deep in our hearts and has spread to every corner of the world, in spite of our sins, failures, rebellion, and hard hearts, in spite of what's been done to us or what we've done, God has made peace with us." (172)

Rob implies that when Jesus died on the cross, the sins of the world, of every individual who had ever lived, who ever will live, were forgiven. The blood of Jesus atoned for the sins of every person, forever. It's not fair, but it is generous. It is shocking, when you think about it. But, as Rob shares, "we create hell whenever we fail to trust God's retelling of our story." (173) When we see Jesus, we see God - and so what Jesus tells us about God, well, it's something we have to decide whether to trust it. When we don't believe the story that Jesus tells us about God and about ourselves, we miss out on the party.

One of the observations that Rob makes, though, is that the older son - and even the younger one -  he had a distorted view of God. This is what made it hard for him to trust the new story the father told them. The younger son gained a new view of of his father, and thus trusted him. The older son struggled much longer with the conflicting views - a longstanding belief that his father was a slavedriver, stingy... now challenged by a father who seems to be generously unfair and outrageously forgiving. Even towards him.

It's this idea of a distorted view of God that Rob is going to focus on - that the good news often preached today presents a distorted view of God. The summary: For God so loved the world that he gave us his one and only son, that whoever believes in him won't die, but will live forever. But if you don't believe in this God, this same loving God will throw you into the lake of fire, eternal conscious torment. Billions of years of screaming, writhing, agony for seventy or eighty years of rebellion against God. "A loving heavenly father who will to to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony." (173-4)

For those Christians that believe in eternal conscious torment, Rob's characterization of their belief and God will certainly irk and offend them. Apparently Rob has many friends, though, who are terrified and traumatized by the kind of God that would damn men and women to eternal conscious torment. Rob and others ask the question: "Just what kind of God is behind all this?" (175) The good news is better than the distorted view of God you've come to believe in...or disbelieve.

He goes on to write:
Because if something is wrong with your God, if your God is loving one second and cruel the next, if your God will punish people for all of eternity for sins committed in a few short years, no amount of clever marketing, or compelling music, or great coffee, will be able to disguise that one, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful reality.
Hell is refusing to trust, and refusing to trust is often rooted in a distorted view of God. Sometimes the reason people have a problem accepting "the gospel" is that they sense that the God lurking behind Jesus isn't safe, loving, or good. It doesn't make sense, it can't be reconciled, and so they say no. (175)

Hermeneutics is the science and art of interpretation of Scripture. Rob's hermeneutics are obviously at odds with that of many other Christians. His hermeneutics of Luke 15, of the gospel, of God as revealed through Scripture clash with other classic beliefs. But Rob's hermeneutics are rooted in the Scriptures, so I think his ideas are worth wrestling with - which will lead either to a strengthening of our traditional beliefs, or a doorway into a more faithful reading of Scripture. As Rob says, "our beliefs matter. They are incredibly important. Our beliefs shape us and guide us and determine our lives." (176)

Rob is challenging our traditional and culturally popular notions of God. The good news we preach is connected both to the God we believe in, and the God our audience believes in. Rob is inviting his readers to reconsider the God that is presented in the Scriptures, particularly in Luke 15, as presented by Jesus. As Rob sees it, we are free to choose what to believe - we can believe the story that God is retelling us about ourselves, "or we can cling to our own version of the story. And to trust God's telling, we have to trust God." (176) To reject God, his story, his love and grace "will lead to misery. It is a form of punishment, all on its own." (176) God's is love, what God does is love, and the essence of love is such that "it can be resisted and rejected and denied and avoided, and that will bring another reality. Now, and then." (177)

Not only is Rob challenging the notion of what we believe about God, and about heaven and hell, but also what we believe about what this relationship with God ought to look like. He describes it as the difference between entrance and enjoyment. "...when the gospel is diminished to a question of whether or not a person will 'get into heaven,' that reduces the good news to a ticket, a way to get past the bouncer and into the club. The good news is better than that." (178-9) The good news is better than fire insurance. 

He goes to say:
When the gospel is understood primarily in terms of entrance rather than joyous participation, it can actually serve to cut people off from the explosive, liberating experience of the God who is an endless, giving, circle of joy and creativity. Life has never been about just "getting in." It's about thriving in God's good world." (179)

Jesus calls disciples to keep entering into this shared life of peace and joy as it transforms our hearts, until it's the most natural way to live that we can imagine. Until it's second nature. Until we naturally embody and practice the kinds of attitudes and actions that will go on in the age to come. A discussion about how to "just get into heaven" has no place in the life of a disciple of Jesus because it's missing the point of it all. (179)

Rob notices amongst many Christians that there is a certain lack of distinctiveness. Many surveys show that there is little lifestyle difference between Christians and non-Christians. When many Christians talk about their faith, the main point of it is so that they can go to heaven when they die. And there is something in us that recoils at that over-simplification. What is the connection between believing in Jesus and life transformation? I think that is what Rob is trying to get at in his articulation of the gospel - a belief, a trust, a relationship that bleeds into a way of life that looks and smells and feels like Jesus. And so he starts with what we believe, which is a very controversial place to go.

"We shape our God, and then our God shapes us." (183) With that phrase, Rob cautions us to rethink what we believe about God. More than that, to re-examine the effects of our life, and then work backwards to see what we really believe. What we believe about God deeply affects how we live. Do you believe God is a slavedriver? Or do you believe that "God is the rescuer?" (182) The good news is better than being ruled by a slavedriver God.

More on this - it's central to Rob's big point in this chapter:
There is another dimension to the violent, demanding God, the one people need Jesus to rescue them from. We see it in the words of the older brother, when he says he "never even disobeyed." You can sense the anxiety in his defense, the paranoid awareness that he believed his father was looking over his shoulder the whole time, waiting and watching to catch him in disobedience. 
The violent God creates profound worry in people. Tension. Stress. This God is supposed to bring peace, that's how the pitch goes, but in the end this God can easily produce followers who are paralyzed and catatonic with fear. Whatever you do, don't step out of line or give this God any reason to be displeased, because who knows what will be unleashed.
Jesus frees us from that, because his kind of love simply does away with fear. (184)

What kind of love does Jesus describe for us in the story?
"Our badness can separate us from God's love, that is clear. But our goodness can separate us from God's love as well. Neither son understands that the father's love was never about any of that. The father's love cannot be earned, and it cannot be taken away. It just is." (187)

And so:
Your deepest, darkest sins and your shameful secrets are simply irrelevant when it comes to the counterintuitive, ecstatic announcement of the gospel. So are your goodness, your rightness, your church attendance, and all of the wise, moral, mature decisions you have made and actions you have taken. It simply doesn't matter when it comes to the surprising, unexpected declaration that God's love is simply yours. There is nothing left for both sons to do but to trust.
Our trusting, our change of heart, our believing God's version of the story doesn't bring it into existence, make it happen, or create it. It simply is. On the cross, Jesus says, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." (188)

His summary:
Jesus meets us and redeems us in all the ways we have it together and in all the ways we don't, in all the times we proudly display for the world our goodness, greatness and rightness, and in all of the ways we fall flat on our faces. It's only when you lose your life that you can find it, Jesus says. The only thing left to do is trust. Everybody is already at the party. Heaven and hell, here, now, around us, upon us, within us. (190)

This is the Good News as Rob understands it. This is the God of the Scriptures that Rob believes. This is the Gospel of Jesus that Rob trusts.

I agree that the heart of the Gospel is God's love for us, as demonstrated through Jesus. I agree that trust/believing/faith is central to our relationship with God. I'm not sure the parable of the two sons can carry as much theological weight as Rob wants it to. And I think there is an oversimplification of the Gospel going on here in this chapter. Yet I think it is crucial for Rob to publicize the vicious views of God that are being created by the sloppy preaching of Evangelicals.

And I agree that too many people have turned away from God - not the God of the Scriptures, but the God of the different Christians who present a confusing and hard-to-love God. Rob sees in God a very non-violent being - but I think that there is much to discuss - and disagree with here. I see his point though about the way Christians can embrace a particular view of God and violence that leads them away from the way of Jesus.

Indeed, the good news is better than it is often presented. Is it better than what Rob presents?