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Love Wins!: Questions at Heaven’s Door, Ch 1-2

Because of how the first chapter is laid out, I’m combining the first and second chapters of “Love Wins”.  Basically, the first chapter, entitled, ‘What about the flat tire?’ poses a series of questions which the book, as a whole, will answer, or attempt to answer.  (Spoiler alert.)

They are good questions, they need to be asked, and, again, Rob Bell is doing a noble, martyr-like  job in bringing them up to his community.  (Have you seen his YouTube page’s comment section recently?  His community hasn’t been so friendly.)
That being said, the questions are predicated again on assumptions  that aren’t examined.  Nearly all the situations Bell brings up are based around the idea of how you properly believe. What’s the ‘age of accountability’?  How do you know when you’ve sincerely said the Jesus prayer, and how do you know it’s worked? How are you saved, “saved” meaning “going to heaven to be with God and Jesus after you die”?
All of these are specifically Protestant concerns– more than that, they are 20-21st century American evangelical Protestant concerns.  (Fun experiment– ask any Eastern Orthodox Christian about any of what I just wrote.  See?  To make up for the fact that you just ran an experiment on them, in a gesture of ecumenical friendliness, promise to never again say the Filioque clause.).
In Bell’s defense, he makes the point that all of these things are, in face, problematic.  Have to say a prayer to “be saved”?  Ok, but what if you say it wrong?  Or you didn’t understand it?  And he’s right.  His questions are good.
My problem with what he does is that he doesn’t really deconstruct the assumptions– he just pokes them a bit.  He never asks what ‘being saved’ might mean, or, hey, how it probably means something really different for us today in middle-upper class suburban churches than it did for persecuted minority Christians in the Roman Empire.  Or for a slave in the American South in 1860.
Which gets me into chapter 3: ‘Here is the New There”. Which is about specifically about heaven.
:: takes deep breath::  When I read this chapter through the first time, I read the whole thing, getting progressively more excited, got to the end, and got really annoyed and frustrated.  Here’s why.
In Ch. 1, Bell poses all these questions about how someone gets saved, based on biblical quotes, wherein he conflates phrases like ‘kingdom of heaven’, ‘forgiveness of sins’, ‘age to come’ and ‘salvation’.  Which all mean entirely different things in context.  ‘Kingdom of heaven’, for example, means about 20 different things in Matthew, and that’s being conservative.
In Ch.2,entitled “Here is the New There,” Bell actually addresses that.  (Hooray!)  He points out that for a large part of the 1st century community, saying ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ was another way of referring to God, and the reign of God on earth.  So there’s that.  (Hooray again.)
He also points out that it’s not like Jesus’s community had a clear concept of heaven-as-otherwordly-and-floaty-on-a-cloud.  Heaven, for them, was the complete manifestation of God’s will.  As he puts it.  Heaven, then, is achieved not so much by dying and getting transported somewhere else, but by doing God’s will on earth, and by participating in God’s recreation of the earth.
He follows this up by talking about how there are tons of different dimensions that we simultaneously participate in (via string theory), and heaven can be more real to us (sort of like being in love) than our present reality.
Ok.  It’s not that I disagree with Bell.  I don’t.  It’s just that I don’t think he goes quite far enough with some of the ideas he puts out there.  He’s pulling his punches.
If you are going to start to deconstruct the biblical passages that undergird ‘salvation theology’ then do it.  Tell me what exactly salvation means for Jesus. (Hint:  Jesus never says–Have a personal relationship with me.  We have jackets!)  Bell starts by pointing out that for Jesus’ community, it’s not otherworldly, but that also means it was material and physical.  It was in the here and now.
That is a huge statement to make, and it needs to be unpacked and explained, especially for an evangelical Protestant audience.  (Trust me.  I said that last night to a Lutheran college group reading this book and everyone stared at me.  Fun times!)  Bell never quite gets there.  He opens the door, but never goes through.
Also, an aspect that Bell never addresses is the communal aspect of heaven.  He brings up the story of the rich man and Jesus (Rich man asks Jesus how to enter heaven).  Salvation, being physical and not otherworldly-on-a-cloud-someplace, is also not just between me and Jesus.  When the rich man asks what he must do, Jesus responds by listing the commandments that have to do with our relationship to other people:  (don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t lie, etc).  Salvation depends on others in a real way.  We are saved for each other, not from each other.

Why we should not emulate the Borg

This week I got to stay in Flagstaff again, and preach at Epiphany, the local Episcopal church. Hooray! While I enjoy driving all over Arizona, it is also nice to stay home every so often.
Especially when I-40 is closed because of fire again. (Ah, summer in the high desert!)
Here is what I said. And the following things should be noted:
1. I got my brother’s permission for citing our email discussion.
2. The Hafiz poem is from a book called “The Gift”, translated by Daniel Ladinsky. Highly recommended.

Easter 7, Year A
John 17:1-11, Acts 1:6-14

My brother, Aaron, is a comedy writer in Los Angeles. We are very different people– we don’t even really look alike. To meet us, most people wouldn’t guess we were related at all. When I went out to visit him and our two cousins in March, our cousin Elliot asked me if I played basketball in school. Aaron and I looked at each other and laughed for several minutes.
In school, Aaron played three varsity sports, including basketball. Meanwhile, I wrote a scathing op-Ed piece in the school newspaper, partially aimed at the misdoings of the basketball team. Aaron helpfully disavowed being related to me.

This week, I sent Aaron a link to a newly-founded ‘women’s entertainment and humor destination!’ website. What did he think? Because I didn’t think it was funny, and I wanted to know if I was missing something, and he’s usually good at this sort of thing.
Aaron responded the way I expected him to: with a long commentary about women in comedy, and a comprehensive review of the website in question. What I did not expect was the final note at the end: ” you’re a girl. I’m not. Respond to this with thoughts!”.
Aside from his sudden failure at writing like someone with a bachelors in communications, I was impressed with my brother.
Generally, his approach to the world is pretty know-it-all. But here he was, admitting that there was going to be a difference between how he perceived something, and how I did, and that difference was important. That difference could even be creative.

The readings for today center around an idea of wished for unity. At the end of his prayer, Jesus prays for the disciples to be one. As he is about to ascend to God, the disciples anxiously inquire of Jesus if this will finally be the time when Jesus will restore the one true united kingdom to Israel under the one true unified God. Unity all over the place.

It’s such an attractive idea, unity in God, unity with each other. No strife or conflict to worry about, everyone agreeing all the time. There’s even a psalm about it. Oh how pleasant it is, exults the psalm, when the people dwell together in unity! It is like oil upon the head, running down upon the beard! Which, I’m assuming, is actually, a more pleasant a thing than it immediately sounds.

How often do we come home at the end of a long day, or better yet, at the end of a church meeting, and dream of a day when everyone will be brought by the power of the Spirit to perfect agreement with everyone else? When we won’t actually have to have meetings anymore, because the perfect solution to each problem will just present itself magically in our minds?
When denominations will disappear, because, as an old professor of mine used to say, everyone will eventually give up, and become Episcopalian as God intended? Oh happy day!

Unity! Is this what we picture when we say unity? But, notice!
When Jesus asks for his disciples to all be one, he conditions it. He says, as the Father and I are one.
And now that’s a tricky image, isn’t it? What is the relationship like between Jesus and God?
Jesus and God, the Father and the Son, are close, but they were by no means the EXACT same entity. They didn’t subsume each other.
They were different. They are different.
While both of them are God, they are still different, unique. So much so that Christianity doesn’t work if they suddenly start to merge into each other.
Now, At a certain point, we need them to be the same. We need Jesus to be the Christ, to be God made flesh, to be God’s way to experience our human life. We need them to be the same.
But at another point, we need Jesus to be Jesus, and God to be God. We need God to create the heavens and the earth, and we need Jesus to wander around down here explaining it to us, and telling stories, making God reachable.
Without the difference, it doesn’t work. Without the sameness, it doesn’t work either.

But Oftentimes, we get fixated on similarity. We become convinced that unity is the only way to go, and that if we don’t achieve perfect similarity, we have failed. If everyone doesn’t think like us, we are failing, if there is conflict, we have screwed up, if there is disagreement, or strife, or whatever, we have done something wrong. We confuse unity with conformity, and the two are not the same. As Christians, if our model for human relationships is the Trinity, then we need to remember that the Trinity is not conformed to one another, and it would not work if it was. We don’t worship a weird version of the Borg. Praise God.

We worship a triune God. We worship unity in diversity. We worship a God who is complicated and multi-voiced through the centuries. And this God teaches us that each individual voice needs to be more than tolerated: they need to be celebrated.

Our different perspectives are valuable, not just a fact. They are gifts of God, given by the Spirit for our enrichment, for the benefit of the whole. Those aspects of ourselves that make us different also lead us to see aspects of the world that others cannot, movements of the Spirit that others miss. That’s important. That is necessary. That is necessary if the Body of Christ is to function as a full Body, and not just a disembodied head, or a dismembered arm.

And though the fact that our differences lead us to see the world distinctly, often leads to clashes and conflicts, that’s ok. If the spirit can speak through our differing voices, our distinct perspectives, then the spirit is going to speak through our conflicts too.
Sometimes the people of God disagree. Sometimes they do this loudly and vigorously. And sometimes, unfortunately, they do this in not so kind ways. Conflict isn’t antithetical to being a good Christian– you can have conflict and still have unity.

Because, in the end: What gives unity isn’t similarity, and it isn’t perfect agreement, and it isn’t, most certainly, forced acquiescence. What gives unity is simple: Unity is found in love.

Jesus and God and the Spirit are bound in love. The perfect sort of love that recognizes the unshakable, unbreakable image of God in the other. That honors the other, and promises that despite disagreement, the relationship will not end. Love: patient, kind, unselfish and unfaltering. The sort of love that we find in God is the sort of love we are called to cultivate for all people on earth. That sort of unbounded, unbroken love flowing out from God and uniting us with every living thing.

That is the love in which we find ourselves, and all of creation already enclosed, so long as we open our hands to embrace it. As the poet Hafiz said: out of a great need, we are all holding hands and climbing, not loving is a letting go. Listen! The terrain around here is far too dangerous for that.

Amen.

Love Wins: And so do tiny sentences, evidently.

Remember that time I asked if y’all would be interested in my rambling thoughts on Rob Bell’s new book? Well, being as no one talked me out of it, I hereby begin a weekly series that shall be known as:
Love Wins! (You’d think more people would be happy.)

Part 1: Preface: Millions of Us
First off, let’s get this out of the way:
The layout is driving me up the wall.
I mean, really.
(Whole thing?
It reads like this.
Tiny little lines.
And questions? So many little questions?
Have you noticed?)

Either I am not trusted enough to read two complete sentences in a row, or he’s going for something akin to oral presentation in a written form (difficult to believe, given the overall vocabulary level of the book– that generally takes a lot of thinking/reading out loud in your head) or, option three, he’s segueing into a pseudo- poetical form, and trying to make the reader feel deep and insightful. Actually this would go along with a theory I’m beginning to develop about the way Bell is approaching this book, and its topic. More on that later.

Bell opens the book with stating something that should be apparent, but might not be, for the average reader of this book: Jesus’s central message is about God’s expansive love, but this central message frequently gets lost when surrounded by talk of heaven vs hell, and fiery damnation. So then, our struggle now is whether this heaven and hell stuff really is central (& biblical) to the message, or whether it is adiaphora. He points out that arguing and dissent is not new in Christianity, and that, in fact, the Bible records lots of debate, even with God. and, he argues that nothing he is proposing is new– it’s all been said before in the course of Christian history.

A few things:
Hooray for Rob Bell, given that he is a prominent evangelical pastor, and he is confronting this, most central, and most thorniest of issues for the Protestant-y community. That takes courage, and given the book’s reception, even before it hit shelves, he deserves credit for raising the issue. That being said…..

From reading the book, I am getting conflicting messages. On the one hand, Bell explicitly tells the reader that this isn’t new. On the other hand, the language he uses and the entire set up of the book suggests over and over that this is SHOCKING, SURPRISING, INFLAMMATORY information, that I need to be led to gently, lest my head explode. The text layout (as I mentioned before) strikes me as odd on this count as well. All short little sentences and lots and lots of questions. What are you trying to ease me into? Why am I going to need to be eased into this?!? Good Lord, man, WHAT IS HAPPENING?!?!?
At no point are there footnotes, citations, even explicit biblical verses (just descriptions). I’d expect if he’s trying to convince me of something that’s been out there before….that he’d show me these preexisting ideas. The way it reads now, despite the assertion of the preface, it seems like this is an idea, the rightness of which, has just occurred to him. (If so, honestly, even more credit to him. Changing like that is not easy. But in that case, he should cop to that. He didn’t just uncover the idea of universalism, bless his heart.).

Also, it’s striking to me, just in reading the preface, just how very assumed- evangelical this is. Which is not to say that it’s bad. It’s not. There are just many assumptions just under the surface that I don’t happen to share, being a non-evangelical, and not-so-Protestanty. For example, he makes the assumption that there is essentially a single story of Jesus unambiguously and harmoniously recorded in the bible, and that this Jesus can be easily and unequivocally understood by all people everywhere with minimal confusion.
Like I said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. My first reaction is that it’s sort of sweet, really. (Awww! Evangelical modernist assumptions!)
But it’s a big, huge assumption to make, and it guides a lot of his thinking. So, for example, he just goes ahead and cites Jesus, without making allowances for which gospel a parable appears in, what community wrote it or what their needs were, or (and this is sort of a biggie) the 2nd Temple Jewishness of everyone involved. This will come up more later, but suffice it to say that: Assumptions! Rob Bell has them.
As do we all.

Telling Stories

Today, I got to supply at a local ELCA parish here in Flagstaff, and got my ecumenism on. All the churches I supply for are kind and welcoming, but this group is particularly laid back. The first time I supplied for them, I forgot that the Lutheran liturgy goes as follows:
1. Confession or Reminder of Baptism
2. Absolution
3. Opening hymn
4. Kyrie-esque responsorial prayers, generally sung to one of ten (!) settings.
5. Gloria/ song of praise, and on.
So it’s mostly identical to Episcopal liturgy, with penitential order added,just a teeny bit different. And the first time I supplied, I forgot the opening hymn, just entirely. (They announce hymns, rather than just break into them.). Graciously, no one said anything, or looked aghast. They just proceeded on. Gold star for laid-backness for them. And meanwhile, I have gotten lots more practice at Lutheran liturgy.
Anyway, here is what I said in the sermon.

6 Easter, Year A
Acts 17:22-31, John 14:15-21

My grandfather liked to tell stories about our relatives. Lots and lots of stories, about his great grandfather who lived on the plantation in Spotsylvania County and was so ornery that he got into a bar fight, got sliced open across the stomach, and held his intestines in by hand as he rode to the courthouse so he could swear out a statement against the guy who stabbed him.
Or the ancestor in Scotland, who was in a boat race to claim some land from the king– whoever laid his hand on the shore first won the land. Seeing that he was losing, my ancestor cut off his hand and threw it to the shore, winning the race….and losing his hand.
My brother and I loved to hear these stories, over and over, and of course they would get taller and taller with each retelling. First it was one mile to the courthouse, then it was five. Then it was ten. And I have no idea if any if this really happened.
But here’s what I do know– I learned a lot of truth by listening to these stories.
The stories my grandfather chose to tell spoke some deep truths about his family, whether or not the facts were accurate.

Clearly, we were a strong group, maybe headstrong is a better word, and maybe prideful. And the sort of person who will chop off their own hand to win a contest is probably prone to the streak of insanity that definitely was present in my Southern Tennessee-Williams inspiring family. But stubborn? Able to persevere? And proud enough of those traits that we tell story after story about them? You bet.

As humans, we are story-telling machines. It’s how we make meaning out of things. It’s how we convey things that we feel are important. We do it as Christians, certainly. We are nothing if not people of a central story that we tell over and over again– the story of Jesus. And in that story, we celebrate and remember everything that we hold dear. What we know about God, how God relates to the world, how god wants us to relate to each other. All of that really is wrapped up in our big main story of Jesus.

The book of Acts is pretty much a description of the disciples trying to live out the central story of Jesus. Acts is a sequel to Luke– sort of Luke 2.0, written by the same guy for the most part. And if Luke is the story of Jesus, Acts is the story of what the disciples decide to do with the story of Jesus. It’s the story of ‘what comes next’.

And what comes next is essentially what you’d expect. The disciples witness the Ascension. They find someone to replace judas. Pentecost happens. But mainly, they travel around, filled with the Holy Spirit, sharing the story of Jesus, bringing new people into their fledgling community.

But each time they share the story of Jesus, they share it in a specific way. Each time the story of Jesus is told in the book of Acts, it changes. It morphs a little bit.

Notice the story we get today. Peter is in Athens, and, having wandered a bit around the city, excitedly makes his pitch to all Athenians within earshot that the God of Jesus is in fact a god that they already know. The god of his story is a god of their own story. How about that!

This is a bit of a left-field assertion for a devout Jew to make. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is usually not to be confused with Zeus, Mercury, or Hera. That’s the sort of talk that got a person exiled to Babylon, generally. So what’s going on with Peter?

But all throughout Acts, the apostles are doing things like this. The whole time. All the way back to Pentecost. Because, if you’ll remember what happened on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended upon them and gave them the ability to speak and understand other languages, gave them the ability to listen and speak to people different from themselves.
And that’s pretty much what they’ve been doing ever since.

The first thing Peter does upon getting to Athens, filled with the Holy Spirit as he is, is he listens. He wanders around the city and he listens. He listens to who the people are, what they care about. And then, he starts to speak to them. And that way, he manages to convey to them the story of Jesus in a way that’s meaningful and authentic to them.

Listening, true listening is a gift of the Spirit. When Jesus tells his disciples that he will send them the Advocate, one of the things that the Advocate is supposed to do is allow the disciples to be led into all truth. To hear more truth. At Pentecost, in Acts, it was the Spirit that opened the ears of the disciples to hear God in a fuller way. But how often to we use that gift today? How often do we forget to listen at all, and rely on speaking instead? How often do we rush to speak ourselves, because we are so eager to share our story with the other person, and in our rush we forget that they have a story too?

Each encounter the apostles had in Acts exposed them to a different story. All of the languages they heard on Pentecost, each was a different story. Philip’s encounter with the eunuch– a new story to be heard. Saul– definitely a story, that would be told over and over and over again. And Cornelius, the Roman centurion, a new story. In each case, these weren’t just stories the apostles listened to for the exercise. And to be really cynical– they didn’t just shape their evangelism to fit the market.

The church at the end of Acts is a radically different thing than the church at the beginning of Acts. Each encounter, each story heard has shaped it. And the work of the Spirit has been nowhere more prominent than in the apostles’ willingness to let the stories they hear change them. When Cornelieus the Roman soldier shows up, they don’t just listen politely to Cornelius; they end up welcoming Gentile converts because of what he tells them of his experience of God. The Spirit works through his story, the spirit works the apostles’ listening. And the church is enlivened.

So, we, as we are sent into the world, our job is not so much to talk to people until we are blue in the face, filled with the power of the Spirit, and handing out biblical tracts.
Our job is to listen. To hear where the Spirit is in fact already at work in the lives of the people God created in the first place. And then, as the hands and feet of Christ in the world, to catch up and help.

Question

So, I’ve begun reading Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person who ever lived.   (I’ll say this for him:  The man is good at picking out un-nuanced subtitles.)

Would you, the blog-reading audience, be interested/willing to read my thoughts on what Sir Rob Bell doth say in this book, which has caused so much controversy in the evangelical sphere?

Because at the moment, I’m just writing emphatic margin notes.