Friday, April 29, 2011

My Review of Love Wins: Chapter Two

Here Is The New There

That's the summary of the chapter, as well as the title. Rob is going to argue that eternal life/heaven/life in the age to come/God's kingdom/God's will begins now, in this life and continues into the next.

It's not really a radical position to take.

Rob makes the not-so-obvious point in the middle of the chapter, though: What you believe about the future shapes, informs, and determines how you live now. (46). And that's what this chapter is really about - digging through the Scriptures to present to the reader a very Jesusy vision of heaven. This will mean we get a very Jewish vision of heaven. And that's where some people may get very uncomfortable.

Rob starts the chapter by describing an ugly picture that used to hang on the wall in his Grandma's house. It represents popular notions about heaven, notions that Rob wants to push back against. To start his argument, Rob begins in Matthew 19, a story where a Rich Man asks Jesus how to enter into eternal life. From there Rob will unpack his chapter, tackling three big themes: our notions of "eternal life," "treasure," and "heaven." (29)

Rob tries to argue that the traditional exegetical interpretation for "eternal life," which is the Greek word "aionon," fails to incorporate the Hebrew concept of "olam habah." Aionon gets translated "eternal life" and we think time without end, minute by minute, day after day, century following century without end. But Rob points out in the Old Testament that "olam habah" carries with it the idea of "life in the age to come." He implies that we're missing the point of olam habah by focusing on a traditional interpretation of eternal life.

Different scholars have pushed-back against Rob and his attempt to add a new nuance to "aion." However, I think the point still stands: Jesus is a Jewish prophet who's words were recorded in Greek. Whatever the Greek word "aion" traditionally means, we have to take into consideration what the Jewish tradition meant by the idea Jesus was addressing. The New Testament is written in Greek, but Jesus is Jewish - so he might be recorded as using the word "aion", but it's likely he was referring to the Jewish idea of "olam habah." Rob is not convincing in his case to present a nuanced meaning to "aion." But I don't think it undermines his bigger points about eternal life.

Rob walks through the OT prophets to make points about what "life in the age to come" would be like. Isaiah 2 & 25, Ezekiel 36 and Amos 9 are used as examples of how God's prophets described eternal life, or life in the age to come. He summarizes thus: "It's here they were talking about, this world, the one we know - but rescued, transformed, and renewed." (34) This is what Jesus and the Rich Man had in mind.

This provides the transition to the discussion about "treasure in heaven." Rob phrases it like this:
How do you make sure you'll be part of the new thing God is going to do? How do you best become the kind of person whom God could entrust with significant responsibility in the age to come? The standard answer was: live the commandments. God has show you how to live. Live that way. The more you become a person of peace and justice and worship and generosity, the more actively you participate now in ordering and working to bring about God's kind of world, the more ready you will be to assume an even greater role in the age to come. (40)

When Jesus lists the commandments to obey, he lists five of the final six, omitting the one about coveting. The rich man insists he's kept the five Jesus listed, but he can't commit to keeping the sixth one.  As Rob puts it, Jesus is inviting the Rich Man to use "his wealth to move creation forward" and if he can do it, "he'll have 'treasure in heaven.'" And so ideas about reward and "treasure in heaven" imply direct connections between life now and life then. The reward of quitting coveting now begins now - and it carries over into the life to come. To the degree that we enjoy the reward of living the commandments now, we can appreciate the rewards of heaven now.

So what is heaven like then? "Heaven comforts, but it also confronts."(48)  Rob points to John the Revelator's reference to Isaiah, about a day coming when there will be no more tears or pain. Comfort. But then Rob points to Paul and his insistence that on the day of judgment some will enter heaven "even though only as one escaping through the flames."  "Flames in heaven." (49) Heaven confronts. To enter heaven is comforting, then, but there is some kind of purification that must occur in order to prepare each human for life in the age to come. Purification implies transformation, which implies change - which sounds a lot like repentance.
It's important, then, to keep in mind that heaven has the potential to be a kind of starting over. Learning how to be human all over again. Imagine living with no fear. Ever. That would take some kind of getting used to. Soul would a world where loving your neighbor was the only option. So would a world where every choice was good for the earth. That would be a strange world at first. That could take some getting used to. (50-51)

Rob reflects that peoples confusion about heaven comes from their assumption that the change will be immediate. And that's where a lot of resistance is going to emerge to what Rob is suggesting about entering life in the age to come, about getting eternal life. What if it is not immediate, but something that takes time?

One last thing about heaven: who will be there? Rob goes to the story in Matthew 25 where Jesus distinguishes between two types of people. One group will assume that heaven is their destination, and be surprised when it is not. Another group will not consider heaven as their destination, and will be surprised when it is. Rob summarizes: "Heaven, it turns out, is full of the unexpected."

I'll let Rob give the summary of his own chapter:
...when Jesus used the word "heaven," he was simply referring to God, using the word as a substitute for the name of God.
Second, sometimes when Jesus spoke of heaven, he was referring to the future coming together of heaven and earth in what he and his contemporaries called life in the age to come.
And then third - and this is where things get really, really interesting - when Jesus talked about heaven, he was talking about our present eternal, intense, real experiences of joy, peace, and love in this life, this side of death and the age to come. Heaven for Jesus wasn't just "someday"; it was a present reality. Jesus blurs the lines, inviting the rich man, and us, into the merging of heaven and earth, the future and present, here and now. (58-59)

Rob seems to be attempting to invite readers to swap visions: their fluffly cloud, obscure and super-spiritual vision of heaven for an earthy, love your neighbor, feasting kind of heaven. If anything, Rob is trying to help people incorporate Jesus' Jewish beliefs about life in the age to come into their modern visions of what heaven might be like.

But Rob is also trying to make you reconsider about who will also be in heaven with you. We might be surprised at who Jesus welcomes in the age to come. But rather then focus on who is in and who isn't, Rob is pleading with people to start living "eternal life" now, live in light of the age to come now, be part of the answer to Jesus' own prayer: "...your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." It's this kind of activity that will make any kind of evangelism we do much more fruitful, much more Jesusy.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Notes on Hell: Sheol & Hades

In the King James Version of the Bible, sheol and hades are almost always translated hell. Sometimes death or grave, but mostly hell. Thus we get our many of our notions of hell from those verses using sheol and hades. However, as we probe each word, we find that sheol and hades carry different nuances. And sometimes the use of hades in the NT is a reference back to the OT, meaning we ought to consider the original meaning before we add a new meaning. And this has implications for which verses we draw on to construct our vision of hell.

In examining the different occurrences of the word "hades" in the Greek New Testament, it seems that often it is referring to the Jewish word "sheol." This prompts the question: what does Jesus mean when he uses the word "hades"? Does he mean the common Greek culture perception of hades? Or, as an observant Jew, does he mean sheol, even though his words were recorded in Greek?

For a review of the usage of sheol in the OT, see last weeks' notes on Hell.

A clue to how to translate and understand the different uses of the word hades has to do with context. There are some verses where it seems that Jesus is either indirectly or directly quoting from the Old Testament. Thus, though the word in the New Testament is the Greek hades, the original word is the Hebrew sheol.

Below are Scriptures in the New Testament that use the word "hades," accompanied by Scripture from the Old Testament that I think is the original reference.

Matthew 11:23 (NIV) And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. [see also Luke 10:15]

Sheol Reference: Isaiah 14:15 (YLT) Only -- unto Sheol thou art brought down, Unto the sides of the pit.
Here it seems that Jesus is drawing on Isaiah's prophecy of doom towards Babylon, and using it to denounce the unbelief of Capernaum. It's very similar language, such that whatever connotations come from the use of "hades" to the reader of Matthew, it is likely that Jesus quoted from Isaiah using "sheol". Thus this description of hell by Jesus points us back to our understanding of sheol.

Matthew 16:18 (NIV) And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

Sheol Reference: Isaiah 38:10 (YLT) `I -- I said in the cutting off of my days, I go in to the gates of Sheol, I have numbered the remnant of mine years.
Job 38:17 (YLT) Revealed to thee were the gates of death? And the gates of death-shade dost thou see?
There is one use of "gates of Sheol" in the OT. Often times sheol and death equate a very similar idea, and thus I've included the reference that uses "gates of death." One wonders if Jesus is inferring back to the story of Hezekiah when using the phrase "gates of Hades." Or the suffering of Job?

Others point to archeological evidence that Jesus is referring to geography and mythology. Jesus makes this statement while in the area of Caesarea Philippi, also known as Panea. Worship of the god Pan was common in this area, and at one of the worship areas to Pan was a Gate of Hades.

Click here for a helpful website with pictures of the Gates of Hades and archeological insights.

Click here for a blog with good insights on Caesarea Philippi. Context is everything!

So here we have an example of where the gospel uses the word "hades," and while there seems to be slim evidence that Jesus is referring to the Jewish idea of sheol, it's more likely that he is referring to the notions of Greek mythology held in the popular imagination.

Acts 2:27 (ESV) For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption.
Acts 2:31 (ESV) he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.

Sheol Reference: Psalm 16:10 (YLT) For Thou dost not leave my soul to Sheol, Nor givest thy saintly one to see corruption.
Peter is preaching, making the case that King David was referring to resurrection in Psalm 16, and that Jesus was the one actually resurrected. Peter then goes on to point out the implications of this fact. What's interesting is that the author of Acts quotes Psalm 16:10, substituting the Jewish word sheol for the Greek word hades. King David meant sheol when he wrote Psalm 16, not hades. To those that heard Peter's sermon, it's likely he directly quoted Psalm 16 and used sheol. But Luke records the sermon in Greek, and uses the word hades. This dosen't mean that hades and sheol mean the exactly the same thing. There is a reason for this substitution, including for cultural reasons.

1 Corinthians 15:54-55 (YLT) and when this corruptible may have put on incorruption, and this mortal may have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the word that hath been written, `The Death was swallowed up -- to victory; where, O Death, thy sting? Where, O Hades, thy victory?'

Sheol Reference: Isaiah 25:8 (YLT) He hath swallowed up death in victory, And wiped hath the Lord Jehovah, The tear from off all faces, And the reproach of His people He turneth aside from off all the earth, For Jehovah hath spoken.
Hosea 13:14 (YLT) From the hand of Sheol I do ransom them, From death I redeem them, Where [is] thy plague, O death? Where thy destruction, O Sheol? Repentance is hid from Mine eyes.
Here Paul is writing at length about resurrection. He is nearing the end of his piece when he pulls together two direct quotes from two different authors, Isaiah and Hosea. The two poems that Paul pulls from are compelling, imaginative, resonating ideas about what God will do in the future. The NT Greek has hades, but the original OT has sheol. The KJV here uses the word death in the OT. But it's the same word sheol that in other contexts it translates hell.

Revelation 1:18 (NIV) I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.

Sheol Reference: Matthew 16:18, Hosea 13:14 (see above)
John the Revelator is quoting the words of Jesus to him. The idea of death and Hades together points back to the Hosea text. Jesus' reference to the gate of Hades earlier now comes to mind as he describes holding the keys to Hades. Here the KJV uses the word hell. But when examining the Hosea and Matthew texts, Jesus seems to be implying something else other than our popular notion of hell. 

Revelation 6:8 (NIV) I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.

Sheol References: Deuteronomy 32:22-25, Ezekiel 14:12-23, Leviticus 26:14-39, Hosea 13:14
Again, John uses "death and hades" together, though he seems to personify them in this text. His usage of the ideas of sword, famine, plague, and beasts all come from previous texts in Torah and the Prophets. Whether John is referring to Hades as the Greek mythological god, or a personification of sheol, as sometimes the OT does, is not abundantly clear. What is clear is that the KJV usage of hell here does not clear up any notions of how we ought to think of hell.

Revelation 20:13-14 (NIV) The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done.  Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.

Sheol Reference: Deuteronomy 32:22 (ESV) For a fire is kindled by my anger, and it burns to the depths of Sheol, devours the earth and its increase, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.

Song of Songs 8:6 (YLT) Set me as a seal on thy heart, as a seal on thine arm, For strong as death is love, Sharp as Sheol is jealousy, Its burnings [are] burnings of fire, a flame of Jah!,

Daniel 7:10 (YLT) A flood of fire is proceeding and coming forth from before Him, a thousand thousands do serve Him, and a myriad of myriads before Him do rise up, the Judge is seated, and the books have been opened.
This is an interesting and creative use of references to "death and hades", as John the Revelator has done elsewhere in Revelation. I looked for references in the OT where there is a connection between sheol and fire. I included the reference from Daniel since it refers to a "flood of fire" which seems metaphorically close to "lake of fire" and it includes a reference to the book of life, which is in the same verse of Revelation as sheol and fire and death. According to the KJV, hell is cast into the lake of fire. However, it seems clear that hell here means sheol. And the end of sheol has been prophesied elsewhere using different imagery. So we don't have here a very clear notion here of what the popular vision of hell is like.

These have been examples of the usage of hades in the NT and it's referring back to OT uses of the Hebrew word sheol. I am contending that in these instances, though the Greek word hades was used in the written text, the original meaning was Hebrew. Thus, though the KJV often translated hades and sheol as hell, getting clarity on what those two different words mean shapes what we understand hell to be. These usages of the words hades points more back to a Jewish understanding of sheol then our current popular notion of hell.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Victory Over Gluttony

If you've come to the conclusion that you wrestle with the deadly sin of gluttony, now what? How do you achieve victory over gluttony?

We saw that Jesus was initially tempted with gluttony. Those first temptations were very powerful, much like the ones we face on a regular basis. Somehow Jesus continually found ways to be victorious over gluttony. How? Through  fasting.

WHAT IS FASTING? Abstaining from food and/or drink for a period of time as a way of worship, a humbling of oneself, a form of contemplative prayer, a preparation for service to others.

Not only was fasting a key reason for why Jesus was able to be victorious over the temptations to gluttony in the desert, it was a regular part of his ministry. He would often withdraw to the mountains to pray. It's hard to believe that Jesus would pack a papersack of bread and dried fish as he trekked through the hills in order to get away to pray. 

If you struggle with gluttony, you ought to become familiar with the themes of Isaiah 58 - it reveals the heart of God and what he wants to accomplish in the world through his people. If Isaiah 58 gave direction to the life of Jesus, it ought to be instructional for us. It reveals what is true fasting, what God expects from us, as well as what God wants to do in the world through us.

Here's how I would summarize Isaiah 58 (from the Message):

Hey, You’re a Glutton!
1-3 "Shout! A full-throated shout! Hold nothing back—a trumpet-blast shout!
Tell my people what's wrong with their lives,
face my family Jacob with their sins!
They're busy, busy, busy at worship,
and love studying all about me.
To all appearances they're a nation of right-living people—
law-abiding, God-honoring.
They ask me, 'What's the right thing to do?'
and love having me on their side.
But they also complain,
'Why do we fast and you don't look our way?
Why do we humble ourselves and you don't even notice?'

Your Gluttony Plugs Up God’s Ears
3-5"Well, here's why:
"The bottom line on your 'fast days' is profit.
You drive your employees much too hard.
You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight.
You fast, but you swing a mean fist.
The kind of fasting you do
won't get your prayers off the ground.
Do you think this is the kind of fast day I'm after:
a day to show off humility?
To put on a pious long face
and parade around solemnly in black?
Do you call that fasting,
a fast day that I, God, would like?

Fasting That Feeds Your Neighbor
6-9"This is the kind of fast day I'm after:
to break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed, cancel debts.
What I'm interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry,
inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
being available to your own families.
Do this and the lights will turn on,
and your lives will turn around at once.
Your righteousness will pave your way.
The God of glory will secure your passage.

Generosity On An Empty Stomach
9-12"If you get rid of unfair practices,
quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people's sins,
If you are generous with the hungry
and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,
Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.
I will always show you where to go.
I'll give you a full life in the emptiest of places— firm muscles, strong bones.
You'll be like a well-watered garden,
a gurgling spring that never runs dry.
You'll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
rebuild the foundations from out of your past.
You'll be known as those who can fix anything,
restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
make the community livable again.

Jesus Triumphs On An Empty Stomach
13-14"If you watch your step on the Sabbath
and don't use my holy day for personal advantage,
If you treat the Sabbath as a day of joy,
God's holy day as a celebration,
If you honor it by refusing 'business as usual,'
making money, running here and there—
Then you'll be free to enjoy God!
Oh, I'll make you ride high and soar above it all.
I'll make you feast on the inheritance of your ancestor Jacob."
Yes! God says so!
A Summary: Turn Away From Gluttony To Fasting That Feeds Others

Turning away from gluttony will be a continuous process. The temptations will grow in intensity to the degree that you learn to resist them. The ongoing response to the temptations of gluttony will be to turn towards serving and blessing others with generosity and food and justice. Think about it: the temptation of gluttony can be your reminder and prompt to lifting up your neighbors out of poverty and hardships!

WHAT IS FASTING? Abstaining from food and/or drink for a period of time as a way of worship, a humbling of oneself, a form of contemplative prayer, a preparation for service to others.

Your fasting is not about impressing God or seeing how long you can go without food. We traditionally think of fasting as a spiritual discipline that is to benefit ourselves. But clearly from Isaiah 58, while fasting does have obvious personal benefits, it is at its best when it blesses others. Our fasting is worship and prayer, but God wants it to alleviate the suffering others.

Which is why I think Jesus entered Jerusalem as king on a growling belly. Victory over gluttony comes from fasting that results in generosity to those who hunger and are oppressed. Apparently it takes a lot of work to overcome gluttony. And it also takes a lot of work to alleviate suffering in the world. And God makes a connection between the two with his idea of fasting. Jesus the starving king who saves the world.

If you are considering a lifestyle of fasting, you must consult your doctor. If you have any ongoing medical conditions or on any medication, you need to discuss with your doctor how you can make fasting a regular part of your diet without harming your self. Everybody can fast, and fasting can take many forms.

Victory over Gluttony. Where there is a will, there is a way.  
And where there is unwillingness, there is an excuse.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

He is Not Here. He is Risen!

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared, and went to the tomb.

They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.

While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightening stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground.

But the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, He’s risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee? ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified, and on the third day be raised again.’”

Then they remembered his words.

Then they remembered his words.

They had forgotten his words.

How could they have forgotten Jesus’ words about crucifixion and resurrection?

Didn't they believe in resurrection?

Why didn’t they remember Jesus’ words? Didn’t they believe Jesus? Maybe they didn’t remember because they didn’t really believe that Jesus would be resurrected. Maybe they believed that once Jesus died, that was it. Done. Finished. Over.

Even though they had heard Jesus repeat his little line about death and raised to life at least three different times, they must not have really understood what he was talking about. They didn’t understand, and so they didn’t really believe.

How could you be a friend of Jesus, feed him, care for him, and then forget about his dire warnings of death on a cross? How could you forget about your friend promising to be raised up again?

Sometimes people have no imagination.
Sometimes people only hear what they want to hear.
Sometimes you have to believe something in order to see it.

Mary Magdalene loved Jesus. Joanna financed Jesus’ ministry. Mary the mother of James took care of everyone, including Jesus. How could they not remember his words about resurrection?

How did Mary Magdalene not remember Jesus’ words?

Jesus had saved her life. He had rescued her.

She had been home to demons. Seven of them ravished her soul.

She was helpless. Mary of Magdala was driven to madness. Until she met Jesus. Or, until Jesus met her.

Maybe a friend dragged her screaming and frothing corpse to the feet of Jesus. Maybe Jesus heard her wails and seen her writhing as he passed through the dirty streets of her hometown.

When Jesus arose to deliver her, when Jesus placed his weathered hands on her worn out body, when Jesus’ stern gaze caught her tear-drained eyes, when Jesus commanded with steely authority for the demons to depart, when Mary’s exhausted body dropped into the carpenter’s arms, she had been born again. She had a new life. When she woke up, she was starting over. She was loved. She was healed.  She was at peace.

So when Mary hears a few years later that Jesus is telling the apostles about upcoming tragedies, she is frightened. She wonders: what does Jesus mean that he must be delivered unto the hands of sinners and crucified, and on the third day raised again?

What does Jesus mean? Crucifixion? Why will he let that happen to himself? What will we do if that happens? What will happen to us? And what does he mean that he’ll be raised back to life again on the third day? On the third day you’re dead-dead. Maybe I could believe that he’d be raised again on the first day, but the third day?
No way.

Is this another parable? I don’t understand what he’s saying.

How did Mary of Magdala not remember Jesus’ words?
She got busy? She stayed confused? She couldn’t believe in resurrection? She loved Jesus, but she didn’t always understand Jesus. She didn’t always understand Jesus, and she didn’t always agree with what she did understand.

Crucified and raised again on the third day?
To be crucified is to be cursed. Cursed by God.
If Jesus is crucified, does this mean he is cursed by God? Why? What would Jesus have to do in order to be cursed by God? I understand why some of the Pharisees and Herodians want Jesus crucified, but God? Surely God won’t allow Jesus to be cursed and crucified?

Didn’t Peter confess that Jesus is the Messiah, that Jesus is the Son of the Living God? What about the stories that we heard from Mary and James about when Jesus was born in Bethlehem? Surely God won’t let the Savior of Israel be crucified! Why would God let Israel’s Deliverer become accursed? And if God curses Jesus, why would he bring him back to life three days later? Why would God curse Jesus on one day, and then raise him back up on the third day? What does this mean?

Why do you look for the living among the dead?
He is not here, He is risen!

You can imagine the two men rehearsing their lines. Should they shout it out loud and full of joy, or should they come across as serious and exasperated? Should they say it together in unison, or take turns with the different lines?

Here’s what I think they were supposed to say when they confronted the unbelieving women coming to put the burial spices on Jesus’ entombed body – it comes from Deuteronomy 32:29, a chapter that charts out Israel’s history – a history that God is prepared for, a history that God is preparing for:
See now that I myself am He,
There is no god beside me:
I put to death and I bring to life,
I have wounded and I will heal,
And no one can deliver out of my hand.

I think that was the first line, and here’s what was supposed to be the second line, a portion from Isaiah 53:
After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; 

By his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, 
and he will bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death, 
and was numbered with the transgressors. 

For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

But I think the men – messengers from God, clothed in gleaming garments of flashing lightening – they got so excited about announcing this good news to the women that they blurted out a much shorter, concise, and memorable announcement:
Why do you look for the living among the dead, he is not here – he is risen!
And then they remembered his words.
The Son of Man must be delivered over to sinners and be crucified.
And on the third day be raised again.
He is not here – He is risen.

So don’t go looking for him.

So now what. What do we do now? This is crazy good news! We’ve got to tell the others! Except we know what they’re going to say: you girls are crazy!

Jesus is dead! He’s been crucified! Cursed of God! We’re doomed! Doomed I tell you! You’re crazy to leave this Upper Room. You’re crazy to visit the tomb. You’re crazy if you think we’ll believe it’s empty and that two linen-lightening clad men told you that Jesus is alive. You’re crazy and we’re doomed. All is lost.

Even when Jesus did show up in the flesh – with obvious wounds to his hands and feet and side – everyone was very frightened. They just didn’t expect to see a resurrected Jesus. Even with Mary and Joanna’s crazy good news, even with Peter’s confirmation of a missing body and empty tomb, even with the weird story of Cleopas claim having broke bread with Jesus – nobody was ready for Jesus to show up amongst them.

Jesus was hard pressed to convince the cowering crowd that it was really him and not a ghost. What to do with disciples who are more apt to believe in ghosts then resurrected rabbis? What do with doubters?

Jesus had to eat fish to show his friends he was really alive. You got to wonder how much fish did he have to chew up before the doubting turned to delightful belief?

Maybe He spent the first hour disproving he was a ghost by downing bowls of broiled fish. Then maybe he spent the next hour with a stomachache while letting James and John stick their fingers in his feet, letting Peter and Andrew hold up his wrists and peek at each other through the holes.

Jesus pulls his friends together, big smiles, big eyes, big hearts – and he reviews with them his version of what’s happened, what’s going on, and what’s going to happen.

This was the way things had to be.
It was hard. It was tragic. It was difficult. It was confusing. It had to be this way.
And this changes everything.

You know how I healed you Lazarus. You know how I rescued you Peter. You know how I delivered you Mary. And now I’m back – I was crucified by sinners and cursed by God, and I’m back – blessed by God and ready to forgive sinners!

You didn’t believe me. You betrayed me. You abandoned me. You denied me. You ran away. You fell asleep on me. Yet hear me now: I. Love. You. I. Forgive. You. We. Are. Friends. My. Peace. I. Give. You. God has blessed you. God has been making you a blessing. And now God is ready to bless the world through you.

Now hear this – this is what’s next for you:
I’m going to send you out into the world that God loves. You remember how through God’s Spirit I helped you change your life? Well you get to go into the world and help sinners and cripples and the brokenhearted, showing them how to change their life. You get to preach repentance and demonstrated forgiveness of sins with that Same Spirit of God!

Just as I invited you to change your life – so you get to go and invite others to change their life. Just as I forgave you, so you go and forgive others. Just as I taught you how to forgive others, so you go and teach others how to forgive. Just as I healed you, go and heal others in my name, with the Same Spirit of God. Just as I saved you, rescued you, delivered you – let me save and rescue and deliver the world through you.

Don’t just believe in resurrection. 
Live in light of the resurrection.

Resurrection. Raised up. New beginnings. Born again. Invincibility. Getting back up. And the resurrected Jesus – what’s the first and best message he gives his followers? Forgive. Teach others to forgive.

How do you sow seeds of resurrection in the world God loves? Repent. Change. Forgive. Love. The resurrected Jesus came to forgive and save sinners. To those that remember his words: remember to forgive, to help others forgive.

Don’t just believe in resurrection. 
Remember the words of the resurrected Jesus.

This is how the world that God loves learns to believe in him. When those that follow the resurrected Jesus remember his words and choose to proclaim forgiveness of sins.

Don’t just believe in resurrection. 
Believe in the resurrected Jesus.
He is not here, he is risen!

He is risen!
He is risen indeed!

It's Resurrection Sunday!


What do you believe?

Do you believe in resurrection?

I do.

resurrection announces that God has not given up on the world
because this world matters
this world that we call home
dirt and blood and sweat and skin and light and water
this world that God is redeeming and restoring and renewing

it’s easy to be cynical

everybody believes somebody
Jesus invites us to trust resurrection
that every glimmer of good
every hint of hope
every impulse that elevates the soul
is a sign, a taste, a glimpse
of how things actually are
and how things will ultimately be
resurrection affirms this life and the next
as a seamless reality
and saved by God

resurrection says that what we do with our lives matters
in this body
the one that we inhabit right now
every act of compassion matters
every work of art that celebrates the good and the true matters
every fair and honest act of business and trade
every kind word
they all belong and they will all go on in God’s good world
nothing will be forgotten
nothing will be wasted
it all has it’s place
~ Rob Bell

Friday, April 22, 2011

Why Is Today Called Good Friday?

Why is today called Good Friday?

As my six year old son said, “Shouldn’t it be called Sad Friday?”

His twin brother suggested that it be called Bad Friday, since Jesus was killed on a cross.

Indeed it was a bad day for God. His one and only son was unjustly condemned, slandered, betrayed, abandoned, tortured, mocked and murdered.

It was a sad day for God. It was a sad Friday for Jesus.

Why call it Good Friday when it is a day of grief, of sorrow, of suffering, a day of affliction and transgressions, a day of iniquities and wounds?

Why call it Good Friday when God’s Son is humbled and crucified for preaching the Good News of God’s Kingdom?

If anything, it should be called God’s Friday. On it God’s Son was killed by God’s people, they had killed another of God’s Prophets as they had done in centuries past, another of God’s Servants rejected. On this Day it was God’s Kingdom that was resisted, God’s good News of Deliverance and Salvation of Peace and Righteousness was rejected.

God the Father sent His Son to be the New King of Israel; to fulfill that ancient promise to Abraham: I will bless you, I will make you a blessing, through you I will bless the world.

They killed their king.

It was a bad Friday for God the Father. Why call it Good Friday when it’s a day marked by violence, rebellion, and defiance?

If nothing else, call it God’s Friday, just not Good Friday.

The earliest Christians called today Holy Friday. Holy carries with it the meaning of set apart, unlike all else. For obvious reasons, today is holy, unlike all other Fridays in all of history.

Today also became known as Great Friday. A tradition developed in early Christianity when every Friday became a Holy Feast Day in remembrance of Christ’s crucifixion. This day today became known as Great Friday, a distinction from all the other Holy Feast Days.

Holy Friday. Great Friday. Those are the ancient names for today.

Maybe we should reclaim those early titles for today. Instead of calling it Good Friday, call it Holy Friday, or Great Friday. Just not Good Friday. For too many years now, whenever someone hears the title for today, it often prompts that searching question: Why is today called Good Friday?

For obvious reasons, today is God’s Friday. It’s when God died. We believe that God was in the flesh on the cross. Here’s how St. Paul writes it:

Who, being in the form of God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he made himself nothing,
By taking the form of a servant
Being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human being,
He humbled himself
By becoming obedient to death
Even death on a cross.

You could say that God’s heart was hammered onto a hardwood tree that day. A day of rejection, a morning of brokenness, of shattered, bleeding love.

Instead of calling it Good Friday for all these years, we should’ve been calling it God’s Friday. All by itself, there is nothing good about today. When you look at just today, it’s not a Good Friday.

It’s God’s Friday. God suffered on this Friday. God in the flesh was staked to a rough-hewn pole amidst criminals. On this Friday God the Son who came to serve and save was ripped to shreds. His life and blood pouring out onto the stones on this Friday.

God gave a vision of this many centuries earlier to a prophet who was also rejected and tortured and destroyed on a tree. Well, according to legend, in a tree. It is told that on his final day, Isaiah was stuffed into a hollow tree and then sawn in half.

Isaiah was a servant that suffered. He was the servant of a God who suffered. He was given words to remember about another servant to come who would suffer. A poem for how God would suffer again:

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering.
Yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him and afflicted.
He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth.
He was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers are silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away,
yet who of his generation protested?
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death.
Though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit found in his mouth.

This makes for a Sad Friday. As my son Levi said, “It should be called Bad Friday.” Or at least, instead of Good Friday, God’s Friday.

If any of you know your German, you’ll remember that today is known in their land as Gottes Freitag. For a nation that predates ours, they carry the tradition of calling today God’s Friday. But it also seems that some in Germany long ago referred to today as Gute Freitag.

Gute carries with it the meaning of Benevolence, Charity, Kindness, Goodness.

And so it seems the tradition of calling today Good Friday can stand.

Today is God’s Friday. And on His Friday, God turned a Bad Day into a Good day.

As we read the sorrowful story in the Gospel According to Luke, amidst the words of grief and paragraphs of pain, there is a simple, stunning line from God’s Son that transforms God’s Friday into a Good Friday:

Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with them to be executed. When they came to the place of The Skull, they were crucified him there, along with the criminals – one on his right, the other on his left. And Jesus whispered amidst his tears groans: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

He’s not supposed to be there, between two brigands.

Jesus was a good man. He brought good news. He was good news. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, befriended the poor, lifted up the lame, set sinners free, generously gave away faith, hope, and love.

It can’t be a good day when God’s good Son is unjustly put to death. But even amidst the torture and agony and pain, God’s Good Son lets his body:
Be pierced for our transgressions,
Be crushed for our iniquities.
He bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors.

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

This is the Father’s Friday. For those that believe, trust, accept, want it, today can be a Good Friday.

How would someone know that you believed that today is a Good Friday?

How would someone know that you trusted in the Father’s Forgiveness?

How would someone know that you believed that on Good Friday the Father laid on his Son the iniquity of us all?

How would someone know you want today to be a Good Friday? They would know it when they hear you whisper those same words of Jesus on the cross amidst your own sorrow and suffering.
Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.

When you are afflicted and crushed, we’ll know you believe God’s Friday is a Good Friday when you whisper the words of God’s Son.

Why is today called Good Friday? Because one by one, Christians quietly choose to respond with forgiveness when they are sinned against.

It’s always been God’s Friday. Through our response to the Father’s forgiveness, our lives, our words, our forgiving just as God forgave us – this will become the best answer to the annual question:
Why is today called Good Friday?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Notes on Hell: Sheol

In beginning to understand what the Scriptures teach about hell, one must start at the beginning. For those that grew up reading the King James Version of the Bible, the word sheol was translated hell. So to understand what we mean by the word hell, we ought to become familiar with the word sheol.

I typed in the word sheol using, selecting Young's Literal Translation. Here's what I found. I used YLT because it is consistently gives us the word sheol in its translation from Hebrew to English. Most other translations give it a variety of words like grave, realm of the dead, or place of the dead.

Using YLT, there are 62 occurrences of the word sheol in the Hebrew Scriptures. By glancing through each verse, you would could conclude that the Hebrews don't believe in an afterlife, that there is no reward or punishment after death. Sheol is not what we typically think of when we use the word hell.

Here's the summary of some of the best Christian scholars on the meaning behind sheol.

In the Torah, Sheol carries with it two general meanings: that of the grave, as well as some kind of netherworld in the "lowest depths of the earth." (Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch - Life, Disease and Death, Cosmology).

Burial is simply recorded as an event, with no religious ceremony. The destiny of the dead is not generally addressed in the Pentateuch. ...the world of the dead was cut off from Yahweh, and it's exploration firmly forbidden. Yahweh is the author of life and the God of the living, and this life is the sphere of obedience and blessing. (536-7)

For the wisdom, poetry and writings of the Hebrew Scriptures, Sheol is the destiny of all people, used as a description for death as well as some kind of place, an underworld of "non-life." (Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings - Afterlife, Chaos & Death).

Poetry in psalms and wisdom is by nature evocative and elusive, and their references to death reveal as much about its emotional impact as its conceptualization. Alternative views of destiny after death emerge in other, nonpoetic texts. The emergence of these views is often dated well into the postexilic period for many reasons, including the possible influence of Persian dualism and the development of apocalyptic. (5)

Ecclesiastes is the only OT book to contain significant reflection on death itself. The Pentateuch prescribes death as a penalty, the Historical Books record it as an event, and the psalms offer prayer against its untimely occurrence. (7)

Together, these books illustrate well the traditional Hebrew focus on this life and its events and the general disinterest in any individual consciousness beyond death. (8)

...Death enlarges its appetite (Habakkuk 2:5), opens its throat wide (Isaiah 5:14), swallows people (Psalm 69:15, Proverbs 1:12) and is never satisfied (Proverbs 27:20, 30:15-16). Death's power over humankind is seen in the fact that all people die (see Psalm 89:48), and that those who go to the grave do not return to life (Job 7:9-10, 10:21). (52)

The imagery of death as voracious swallower meets an ironic reversal when we learn that YHWH will permanently "swallow up death" (Isaiah 25:8). Since death is the ultimate opponent of divine order, the death of death represents the establishment of the ultimate divine order. (53)

To conclude: death and sheol go together. The Hebrews reflected little upon death and sheol, they did not expect to return from it, did not hope for it, did not plan for it. However, there are glimpses here and there of yearnings for the "death of death." It is this glimpse that gets magnified in the New Testament. With this understanding of sheol, we learn that it modifies our traditional understanding of hell. Whatever it is you believe about hell, it must be rooted in what the Scriptures actually teach.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

When Does Feasting Become Gluttony?

We've been reflecting on the thoughts of St. Gregory the Great about gluttony: too much, too soon, too eagerly, too richly, too daintily.

Gluttony has always been a problem in society. We usually associate gluttony with big meals with big servings, or too big of plates or too many trips to the buffet. But if God commands his people to worship him through feasts, maybe gluttony isn't just about the portion size, but the purpose of the meal. And maybe not just about the purpose of the meal, but the people at the meal with you.

God spoke to Moses: "Tell the People of Israel, These are my appointed feasts, the appointed feasts of God which you are to decree as sacred assemblies. "Work six days. The seventh day is a Sabbath, a day of total and complete rest, a sacred assembly. Don't do any work. Wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to God.
~ Leviticus 23v1-3 (The Message)

Following this introduction in Leviticus, we learn about seven feast days, starting with the Sabbath, that are spread throughout the year. Days of worship when the people of Israel are to assemble together - a sacred gathering designated by feasts. You got to like a God who when giving instructions on how to worship him includes regular feasts.

Through this text, I observed three things about feasting - when it's connected to worship, when it's connected to rest, and when it's connected to community.

Feasting as Worship: Eating with gratitude, with God in mind, as a sacred task

Feasting as Rest: Eating slow-food instead of fast-food, preparation instead of pre-packaged

Feasting as Community: Eating as a family, eating with your neighbors, eating as sacred event

Gluttony is probably connected to scarfing your food. And scarfing your food is rarely connected to gratefulness. Feasting becomes worship when we consider the gathering to be sacred, a special moment of the day. Feasting becomes worship when we let God sit at the meal with us, listening in on our conversations, adding to the experience. Feasting becomes worship when we eat with a grateful heart to him and those around the table with us.

Why not prepare home-cooked meals? Because we're too busy. Why not eat dinner at home with your family at least five or six times a week? Because you're too busy. The purpose of a meal is to add energy to your life, to add life to your family - which is the same definition of rest. We've forgotten how to make meals rest-full, instead we've made them stress-full and a chore.   

The irony is: eating fast-food fuels only a fast-paced life that does not lead to rest. Busy people don't usually grow gardens. Busy people don't usually do dinner as a family. Busy people eat pre-packaged meals which add to their waistline instead of their family legacy.

Michael Pollan observes that most American families today report eating dinner together 3-4 nights a week. But - Mom cooks alone; Dad and each kid prepare an entirely different entree for themselves. They might join Mom as long as it takes to eat, but not necessarily at the same time. This does not create for rest and refreshment.

Michael Pollan also observes that people eat more when they are alone. If you have family that live in your home, you ought to do the hard work of rearranging schedules in order to enjoy the blessings of meals together. Of course this may require some mending of relationships, of adding to people's lives before and after the meal. Which would be a good thing, right?

Feasts are meant for community. Every dinner could be a feast - not because of the mounds of food - but because of the attitude towards those seated to your left and right.If you rarely eat with others, you have to ask yourself, why? And when it comes to the prospect of changing your life in order to feast with others more often, you have to ask: why not? 

The ancient Israelites knew how to turn a worshipful community feast into an gluttonous affair of orgiastic proportions. And they were punished for it. You can read about it here in Exodus 32:1-6. The temptation towards gluttony is always powerful, always hard to resist. The rut we get into makes it so easy to eat too much, too quickly, alone. When we take matters into our own hands, life unravels for us. The same for our eating habits. Or addictions. God offers deliverance. But it doesn't come as a miracle, but from a way of life. And for us Christians, Jesus is our guide.

Jesus ate at plenty of feasts, and though he was accused of gluttony, it's easy to see him as making the event worshipful and sacred and good, of making it rest-full and refreshing, and making it a rich community experience. And one of the feasts he was invited to, he noticed how some people used the experience to their own advantage, so he made this observation:

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.”
~Luke 14v12-15 (NIV, 2011)

Jesus wants us to reconsider who we are eating with. We all need to make our feasting more worship-full and more rest-full. But we also need to make it more community oriented. And that doesn't mean we only invite people who like us, or who are like us. Would we consider throwing a party or planning a feast and then inviting the poor, the disadvantaged, the socially awkward, the outcasts, the smelly or undesirable ones? Would you EVER do that? Why not?

Notice also about this verse: the assumption that we'll be feasting in the life to come with God. If you don't like feasting according to God's commands now in this life, what makes you think you'll like heaven? If you've got to spend eternity eating with people you avoid on earth, does that sound like joy and bliss? Maybe you ought to reconsider your assumptions about what you eat and who you eat with in the weeks to come.

What can you do this week:
to make Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner worship-full?

to eat more slow-food and less pre-packaged food?

to avoid eating alone – or add another chair to your family meal?

What can you do so that you're sharing a meal with the poor and marginalized?
Maybe at your church? Who in your neighborhood?  
Do you even know any poor people?

My Review of Love Wins: Chapter One


Rob Bell begins the chapter with a story, but then he unloads a long string of provocative questions.

I imagine he's asking these questions because they're the same ones that get posed to him as a pastor.

He's also learned along the way that asking questions is how you...learn. Far too many Christians have quit asking questions. Ought not we critically examine our beliefs, test them against reality and the Scriptures?

Here's the leading question of the chapter - and the book:
Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number "make it to a better place" and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God? (2)

It's easy to see someone one posing this question to Rob from across the cafe table over a cup of coffee. A young man who grew up in the church, who asked too many questions, who got too many cliche answers. A woman with a sensitive spirit who probes the mystery of Scripture and who connects with a wide array of people with wretched stories.

The second part of the question - a controversial summary:
Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life? (2)

You can almost hear the sneer in the voice of the one posing this to Pastor Rob. For some it's a sneer, or cynicism, or bewilderment. And what should a pastor do at this point? Try and give the "right" answer? Or, maybe, help this questioner ask better questions. Which is what Rob attempts to do in this chapter.

He notes that this particular line of questioning raises questions about the kind of God who would do such a thing. It also poses a question of how you get to be one of the "select number" get to avoid "eternity in anguish." And it's a good question: "How does a person become one of the few? (2) How would you answer it?

Rob points out that there is not agreement on what a person is to do. He asks if you are to take a class, be baptized, join a church or have something happen in your heart, or say a specific prayer. And he points out that there's not agreement on what exactly to say in the prayer, or even what to call the prayer. And what about people who said the prayer, but maybe didn't fully understand what they were doing. (5) He then asks a question that seems out of context:
What about the people who have never said the prayer and don't claim to be Christians, but live a more Christlike life than some Christians?

The next statement and question also seems out of context for the chapter:
Some Christians believe and often repeat that all that matters is whether or not a person is going to heaven. Is that the message? Is that what life is all about? Going somewhere else? If that's the gospel, the good news - if what Jesus does is get people somewhere else - then the central message of the Christian faith has very little to do with this life...." (6)

Followed up with another zinger of a question:
So is it true that the kind of person you are doesn't ultimately matter, as long as you've said or prayed or believed the right things?

These are provocative questions that seem forced into his line of questioning, yet they are important ones to consider. It reveals the audience Rob is seeking to rattle: those Christians who don't really think about their beliefs, or the consequences of those beliefs for other people, their community, or their world. Their beliefs lead them to activity that focuses primarily on getting other people to go to heaven - and as Rob observes, at the expense of caring for the poor, caring for Creation, caring about their neighbor.

There's a barrage of questions. Rob points out that some would say in response to all this complexity, that everything can be boiled down to "how you respond to Jesus" (7). Rob agrees. But then he has to go and ask another pesky question: "Which Jesus?" (7) He goes on to point out all the different kind of Jesus's that have been portrayed that ought to be rejected or disbelieved. A man molests a daughter while reciting the Lord's Prayer. Christians herd Muslims into a building and then gun them down. Jesus who comes across as antiscience. "Some Jesuses should be rejected." (9)

So if you reject the unauthentic Jesuses, how do you discover the real Jesus? Rob mentions how people bring up the Romans 10 passage: "How can they hear without someone preaching to them?" And Rob wonders: what if the missionary gets a flat tire? (9) "Is someone else's eternity resting in your hands?  

That's a scary question. And it deserves a good answer. But this chapter is about questions, not answers. Rob wants you to consider - what are the implications for what you believe? And what do you believe? How did you come to believe it? And do others have to believe the same way you do? Do they have to come to the same belief you do in the same way?

Ready for more questions?
If the message of Jesus is that God is offering the free gift of eternal life through him- a gift we cannot earn by our own efforts, works or good deeds - and all we have to do is accept and confess and believe, aren't all those verbs? And aren't those verbs actions? Accepting, confessing, believing - those are things we do. Does that mean, then, that going to heaven is dependent on something I do?
How is that grace?
How is that a gift?
How is that good news?

Isn't that what Christians have always claimed set their religion apart - that it wasn't, in the end, a religion at all - that you don't have to do anything, because God has already done it through Jesus? (11)


Now we're getting to some of the core questions of the book, of Rob's thoughts, his theology, the seeds for his answers to come later in the book. If you're like me, you're a bit overwhelmed with the onslaught of questions. But if you're not the type of person to ask a lot of questions, or you don't want more questions - you want more answers, you might be very annoyed with Rob.

His next set of probing questions might really annoy you. He's going to push back against the simplistic ideas we have about how one comes to be saved. He mentions stories in Luke 7, 18 & 23, John 3, Luke 20, Matthew 6, 7 & 10, Luke 19, Mark 2, 1 Corinthians 7, Acts 22 and Romans 11 that all reveal different ways that people were saved. (12-17) Jesus is central to all of them, but not in the same way.

Here's his summary of questions about how Jesus saves you according to the above referenced Scriptures:
Is it what you say,
or who you are,
or what you do,
or what you say you're going to do,
or who your friends are,
or who you're married to,
or whether you give birth to children?
Or is it what questions you're asked?
Or is it what questions you ask in return?
Or is it whether you do what you're told and go into the city? it the tribe, family, or ethnic group you're born into?

Almost done with the chapter.

"...some would say, 'Just believe.'" (17)
Rob points out in Luke 11, Mark 3, and Matthew 16 that there was some uncertainty about who Jesus was exactly. Pharisees, family, and disciples had "a difficult time grasping just how Jesus [was]." (17)

Rob seeks to cause uncertainty in your mind and heart about what you believe.

Sowing seeds of doubt, maybe? This assumes that doubt can be a good thing. And that certainty can sometimes be toxic. Maybe you disagree with this premise? If so, you'll be annoyed, offended, or confused by Rob's methods.

But could we agree that most people could use some clarity about what they believe and the implications for them? And the path to clarity sometimes requires you to start over again, in a sense, with what you believe. To allow everything to be re-examined in the light of Scripture and reality.

Here's how Rob ends the chapter - it's a directive for where he's going in the book and the grand scope of what he's seeking to accomplish:
We could go on,
verse after verse,
passage after passage,
question after question,
about heaven and hell and the afterlife
and salvation and believing and judgment
and who God is and what God is like
and how Jesus fits into any of it.

But this book isn't just a book of questions.
It's a book of responses to these questions.

(If at this point you're still reading this post, I'll admit I'm impressed. If I make it too short, I'll get accused of taking stuff out of context. If I make it too long I'll get accused of losing people because they don't have a long enough attention span to read stuff that's this long. I guess you're not one of those people!)

You can see why Rob makes people nervous. He's asking questions about the heart of Christianity, the identity of God, the role of Jesus. No wonder such strong opinions surface in reaction to Rob's ideas. We protest and fight about what we hold dear. So push-back is good. I'd like to hear your push-back with this chapter.

Is Rob asking unfair questions?
Is Rob asking misleading questions?
Is Rob asking too many questions?
Do you resist asking too many questions? Why?

Is Rob making the issues too gray in this chapter? Is there really that much confusion about how to become a Christian? Is Rob misusing Scripture to point out the different ways people become a Christian? Does Rob mischaracterize Christians who have a strong focus on going to heaven when they die?

For me, the weakest part of this chapter is the characterization of Christians. The power of the questions come from a particular kind of characterization. Even the initial question which is at the heart of the book is carefully phrased, and I think it comes across a bit misleading.

However, I do think that these questions didn't all originate with Rob. I think a lot of them came from Christians and ex-Christians and anti-Christians who really struggled to make sense of the faith. In their struggle, in their experiences, in their life they ended up asking these kinds of questions. Rob puts there questions in his mouth and asks them on their behalf for us to consider.

What don't you like about this chapter?

What resonated with you?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

My Review of Love Wins: the Preface


That's how Rob Bell understands the Scriptures. What he writes in Love Wins comes from his interpreting the Scriptures as "Jesus's story." And what is the heart of Jesus' story? In the preface he centers on John 3:16. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

love wins book coverLove Wins challenges your traditional understanding of this oft-quoted verse. It takes a firm stand against some interpretations - particularly those that promote belief in hell as a place of eternal concious torment for most of the people who have ever lived. Rob tells a story about God's love as revealed through Jesus that has in mind those who have walked away from the Christian faith that emphasizes this story of hell.

Love Wins asks really focused questions that are designed to make you squirm, to make you really think about what you believe about hell. Rob is comfortable with asking big questions, looking at a particular idea from different angles. There's no answer he's not willing to question. Discussing ideas - and allowing all view points to be considered and sifted and challenged - this is how we get clarity. Dousing controversial questions is not acceptable.

I think that Rob was fully aware of how the evangelical Christian community will generally receive his book. He knows he'll get accused of heresy, that debates will descend quickly to slander and misrepresentation, and that there will be "a massive exercise in missing the point." But it would seem that he also wants to share what he's learned from Scripture - as a pastor, as a student, as one immersed in the writings and research of many Christians who have come before him. And he senses that there are those within the evangelical community and many outside of it who are interested in learning from him.

Here's how Pastor Bell attempts to frame his telling of the Jesus-story in the preface to Love Wins:
...please understand that nothing in this book hasn't been taught, suggested, or celebrated by many before me. I haven't come up with a radical new teaching that's any kind of departure from what's been said an untold number of times. That's the beauty of the historic, orthodox, Christian faith. It's a deep, wide, diverse stream that's been flowing for thousands of years, carrying a staggering variety of voices, perspectives, and experiences.

Some Evangelicals are suspicious of non-evangelicals who are also part of the historic, orthodox, Christian faith. Rob isn't. Love Wins draws on plenty of non-evangelical yet historic, orthodox, Christian thinkers and theologians. Thus there will be plenty for some evangelicals to resist. But maybe more evangelical Christians should be reading from a wider stream. Love Wins, for many, may be their first dip.

I like asking big questions. I like digging around, pushing back against accepted tradition. And I like that others challenge me in what I say I believe. But I'm not interested in being novel or quirky in my beliefs. I want to know the truth. I seek to follow where the truth leads in Scripture. I try to read widely, to look at issues from a multi-faceted point of view. Thus my interest in exploring Scriptures and its idea of hell and the fate of every person who ever lived.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Lose the Weight: Gluttony & Worry

What are you worried about these days?

What do you eat when you are worried? Anxious? Nervous? Upset? Afraid? Uncertain?

There's a connection between gluttony and worry. How many of us want to lose weight around our waist AND we wish we could shrug off the big backpack of worry that's wrapped around our shoulders? We become gluttons when we worry, when we open up the fridge or scrounge through the pantry to snack and ease our anxiety. We fuel our worry when we regret  that tub of chocolate fudge caramel peanut butter ice-cream.

For me and for many of my friends, in our effort to resist temptations of gluttony, we need to worry less. In my learning to master my fears, I find I'm learning to control my snacking and second-helpings. Fear and food too often go together in unhealthy ways. Jesus observed the connection and put it like this:
“Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, [gluttony and] drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. ~Luke 21:34 (NIV, 2011)

Our hearts and hips get weighed down, and we add to the burden when we fail to control our indulgences and insecurities. Gluttony may feel good for a moment, but it only adds to our problems. Remember: Gluttony = too soon, too much, too eagerly, too richly, too daintily.
And what is worry? Here's how some people put it:
“Worry is like a rocking chair--it gives you something to do but it doesn't get you anywhere.”
“Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow.”
“Worry is interest paid on trouble before it comes due.” ~W. R. Inge

How do you lose the weight of gluttony and worry? If they are often intertwined, what can be done to lighten the load of each? In looking at Jesus' words above, here are some considerations:

Pay Attention to your Heart.
When it comes to worry, you need to confess to someone else - at least to Jesus, and probably to a close friend - what you are anxious, nervous, or upset about. Confession gets the secret out of your heart and into the open. Confession allows you to share the burden with someone who cares. Confession opens you up to a new solution that undercuts the power of worry.

Along with confession comes repentance. In Hebrew the word repent means to turn around, to change your direction. In Greek the word means change your mind, your heart. Either way, repenting is committing to change, to good change. Confession and repentance go together as an antidote to worry and gluttony. Let a friend share the burden, and then together put in place the changes you've determined to make. Those are the kinds of prayers God loves to answer.

Pay Attention to Your Days.
 As you think about what you've been confessing, of what you've been repenting, it's worth considering what your days are like. What are your habits and patterns, daily routines and weekly ruts that shape your life? Everybody has good habits that add to your life, and bad habits that drain your life. What are yours? Which of them need to be changed? Repented of? Confession and repentance strengthen your resolve to change your daily and weekly ruts.

When you take into account your habits and ruts, you ought to project into the future where all this is taking you? What's the bigger picture - if you change, and if you don't change. What if you leave life the way it is now - weighed down with gluttony and worry? How is that working out for you now? What will that be like in a year? Ten years? What if you started shrugging off the baggage of anxiety now? What if you did the really hard work of repenting and changing your worrisome ruts now?

Pay Attention to Jesus.
He'll help you relax and respond to God's initiatives in your life. Here's what he has to say about how he can help you today:
"If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don't fuss about what's on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body.

"If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don't you think he'll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I'm trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God's giving.

People who don't know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don't worry about missing out. You'll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

"Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don't get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes. ~Matthew 6:25, 30-34 (The Message)

You Can Lose the Weight of Worry and Gluttony.

This is the kind of work Jesus can sustain in your life. He can help you carry the load. He can help you change. Jesus is with you.

Jesus says, "Relax!"

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Be A Glutton. Like Jesus.

In reading through the Gospels while preparing for this series on Gluttony, I was fascinated by the idea of Jesus being accused of gluttony. Imagine Jesus guilty of gorging?! As I explored this theme, I came across where Jesus threw the accusations back at the Pharisees, naming them as gluttons. So who's right? What's the difference between a glutton like Jesus and ones like the religious leaders of Israel?

Here's how Jesus recounts the accusation:
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by all her children.”
Luke 7:34-35 (NIV)

He's been walking around Israel for awhile, doing a lot of good work, preaching the good news of God's coming. Lots of people were flocking to him, getting healed, getting touched, getting fed, getting loved, getting a new heart. People hung out with Jesus and they repented, they confessed, they turned their lives around. And they invited him to lots of dinners.

Mealtime was more than just about eating. It was about hospitality, about welcome, about community, about acceptance, about embrace, about love. To dine with someone was to become associated with them, to be with them, to be for them. So be careful who you dined with! Jesus, obviously was spending lots of suppers with sinners and tax-collectors. They were also doing a lot of repenting.
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Luke 15:1-2 (NIV)

So why were the Pharisees so bothered by Jesus? And what was it about Jesus' dining with the poor and the outcasts that solicited accusations of gluttony? There were two images behind this idea of gluttony. The first has to do with wisdom:
Oh listen, dear child—become wise; point your life in the right direction.
Don't drink too much wine and get drunk; don't eat too much food and get fat.
Drunks and gluttons will end up on skid row, in a stupor and dressed in rags.
Proverbs 23:19-21 (The Message)

The second image has to do with a stubborn and rebellious son:
If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.
Deuteronomy 21:18-21 (NIV)

How could Jesus be a true prophet of the holy God if he was spending so much time with gluttons and drunkards? Either he is not full of wisdom and thus not a true prophet, or he's a prophet that has rebelled against God and has stubbornly refused to resist temptations of lamb-chops. Either way, the proper response for the religious leaders was either to drive Jesus out of the land, or sentence him to death.

Jesus wasn't scared by the accusations. He knew what they meant. And he knew what he was doing. He was bringing good news to the poor. He was healing the sick. Those who had faith were getting their sins forgiven. And Jesus wasn't going to let the wealthy or the powerful stand in the way. He turned on the Pharisees and pointed out their hypocrisy, their indulgences, their sins of gluttony:
"Instead of giving you God's Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn't think of lifting a finger to help.

"Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you'll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you're content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.

"You're hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony. Stupid Pharisee! Scour the insides, and then the gleaming surface will mean something.
Matthew 23:4,11-12, 25-26 (The Message)

So what would you rather be? A glutton like Jesus or a glutton like the Pharisees? Here's how it often goes for us - we're a mix of sinner and Pharisee:

Like the tax-collectors and sinners: we eat to satisfy unending cravings, we try to avoid skid row, we get drunk and get fat, our life has been pointed in an unwise direction.

Like the Pharisees: we eat too much too often, we are vain, hypocritical towards sinners and the poor, we aren’t known for being a servant, our inside life can be maggoty

But here's the invitation to us:
Like Jesus: you eat with anyone, you can welcome everyone, you can be generous with the word “friend”, you can add love and joy to a meal, you ought to encourage gratitude, you ought to help people receive forgiveness for their sins, you ought to send people away in peace.

One more story of Jesus the glutton, a stubborn Pharisee, and a seeking sinner:
One of the Pharisees asked him over for a meal. He went to the Pharisee's house and sat down at the dinner table. Just then a woman of the village, the town harlot, having learned that Jesus was a guest in the home of the Pharisee, came with a bottle of very expensive perfume and stood at his feet, weeping, raining tears on his feet. Letting down her hair, she dried his feet, kissed them, and anointed them with the perfume. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man was the prophet I thought he was, he would have known what kind of woman this is who is falling all over him."

Jesus said to him, "Simon, I have something to tell you."
"Oh? Tell me."

"Two men were in debt to a banker. One owed five hundred silver pieces, the other fifty. Neither of them could pay up, and so the banker canceled both debts. Which of the two would be more grateful?"
Simon answered, "I suppose the one who was forgiven the most."

"That's right," said Jesus. Then turning to the woman, but speaking to Simon, he said, "Do you see this woman? I came to your home; you provided no water for my feet, but she rained tears on my feet and dried them with her hair. You gave me no greeting, but from the time I arrived she hasn't quit kissing my feet. You provided nothing for freshening up, but she has soothed my feet with perfume. Impressive, isn't it? She was forgiven many, many sins, and so she is very, very grateful. If the forgiveness is minimal, the gratitude is minimal."

Then he spoke to her: "I forgive your sins."
That set the dinner guests talking behind his back: "Who does he think he is, forgiving sins!"
He ignored them and said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace."
Luke 7:36-50 (The Message)

What kind of glutton are you?

Be A Glutton Like Jesus. Follow His Way of Eating.