Living Orthodoxy

This month the Synchroblog is partnering with Provoketive Magazine once again. We will each explore the implications of Jesus’ words: “Take up your cross and follow me.”

“Take up your cross and follow me.” ~Jesus

As I reflect on the severely polarized and politicized struggles within American Christianity it is evident how little these struggles really have to do with Jesus. Both sides are more interested in isolating an ideology and then vilifying those who hold a different view. And of course, we are all convinced that our ideology is more “biblical” than any other. In all honesty, I think we hold on for dear life to our stances and beliefs so that we may convince ourselves that this is what Jesus really wants from us. It’s like a collective thought disorder. But it’s much easier than following him.

Because truthfully, who really wants to follow him?

He did the very thing that our American worldview does not allow. We are all about being upwardly mobile, successful, safe and prosperous and so we have co-opted God into that belief. We believe that God is all about blessing our efforts and that our success proves God’s favor. Our Christianity has become a prop for middle to upper class comfort and security. That ideal is found nowhere in the gospels. Jesus’ movement was decidedly downward. He moved right into the neighborhood of powerlessness and need.

I think what is most difficult for us is that Jesus, though already fairly poor, chose to become homeless. He claimed all humanity as his family and moved away from his nuclear family, which in his culture was a shameful act. (He obviously needs a tutorial in family values.) But in addition to that, while most good Jewish men of his age would have married and started having children, his singleness aligned him with the “non-procreators”, like the eunuchs, who were considered unclean and inferior. There were no categories of gay or straight in Jesus’ day; people were either procreative or non-procreative. Those who did not or could not produce children for any reason were suspect, or outcast. (See Jesus’ words in Matt. 19:11-12.) He chose solidarity with the most despised.

We know he treated women as full and competent disciples, he welcomed the stranger and the sick, touched the dead, and healed the children of the enemy. In his presence the tight miserly hands that held onto precious silver and gold opened wide. He undermined every structure of religion and empire and really, really ticked off those with power. Let’s just be honest. It’s far, far easier and safer to convince ourselves that being pro-life and justifying the harsh realities of the lives of those with less (money, resources, opportunity), or feeling superior for being more tolerant than thou, is somehow at all like the path Jesus walked.  Instead, Jesus asks us to pick up the instrument of our death and to follow where he goes. Any sane person would count the cost. Any sane person would struggle with it, because to follow Jesus means that we no longer get to co-opt the faith to make our own lives work.

Many of those whom I know that consider themselves to be “biblical” Christians feel that the “dying” that is asked of them means they reject the “world” and its values (hence the dogged political views). However, I wonder if how we have come to understand “the world” has become quite distorted. Blogger and Wild Goose Founder Mike Morrell says, “Jesus was referring to the world of principalities and powers, those inhuman and dehumanizing forces of religion and empire. He wasn’t referring to culture-as-such, and certainly not to planet earth. Millions of friends-of-God are awakening to the reality that we live in a God-blessed and God-beloved world that God still thinks is ‘very good,’ however marred by egoic haze and degradation its become. We’re all connected – for life or death.”

And there it is. What will “kill” us is following Jesus’ movement into the God-blessed and God-beloved world, and receiving those for whom Christ died as we would Christ Himself. That means making a home with them all, in the here and now. That means looking beyond political and doctrinal divisions into the eyes of all humanity, not to minister to them or over them, but to join them and work alongside them. Jesus asks us to do the very thing our religious and political hearts find abhorrent. But by making space within ourselves to receive the other, we are changed by them and ego dies. We begin to become less defined by our certainties and stances, and more defined by love, by becoming “we”. And Kingdom comes. That was Jesus’ prayer for us before he died, and his prayer for us as he continues to live.

It’s much easier to convince ourselves that we are following Jesus by choosing to eat or not to eat at a certain chicken restaurant. It’s much harder to share your table with those whom you have decided don’t belong. It’s even harder to admit that there is only One Table. However, we are going to need each other because let’s face it, Jesus’ path is more than a little crazy. It will cost us our lives.

Links to the Synchrobloggers will be added as they come in. :)

Carol Kuniholm Which “Way” Am I Called to Follow?

Glenn Hager Strange Places

This month’s Synchroblog explores the question: What if Jesus never rose from the dead? If there were no resurrection, would there still be a religion known as Christianity?

My first thought is, without the resurrection I don’t think Christianity would have survived. After all, after the crushing blow of Jesus’ death, there had to be something big that happened to have caused those first century Christians to risk their lives and endure 300 years of intense persecution and torment at the hands of Rome. Something happened that opened up a whole new way of seeing life, hope and the Kingdom of God. And as a result, the Church has survived for 2000 tumultuous years.

However, it seems it’s been really hard to recapture the early passion of the church. I sat with several friends this week for whom the Easter season felt flat, even sad. “Why bother?” they asked. There’s tons of historical and psychological explanations to explore, but in a nutshell what I see in our present day is major memory loss on the part of the church.

The liberal theology that has flourished since the 18th century de-emphasizes the supernatural events of Christ’s life such as the virgin birth, atoning death and resurrection in favor of an earthy, incarnational faith that concentrated on feeding the poor, caring for the sick and imprisoned, and outcast, and treating the least of these as Christ Himself. This became known as the social gospel, a Christianity to make a difference in the world. To be fair, not all denied basic orthodoxy as truth, but there was and is a definite concentration of the actions of Jesus and his command that his followers do the same. It’s cool stuff really, however, there is a major problem. This liberal reductionist theology has not produced on its promises: that humanity alone can change this world for the better. It cannot change the human heart. In its blindest moments, it allows evil to remain unchecked.

Conservatives on the other hand, have inexplicably thrown out the social gospel in their fervor to preserve the basic tenets of orthodoxy (virgin birth, atoning death and resurrection). On this end, the faith has become dangerously more about having an accurate Christology than about Christ. The actions and life and teachings of Jesus are seen primarily as a means to the Cross and personal eternal salvation, over against having a significant purpose of their own. The emphasis then has shifted from caring for the world to personal and social morality. This has overshadowed the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God in and among us, a subject about which Jesus spoke frequently. Though a creedal understanding of events like the resurrection is a necessity (and I’m grateful for the preservation), the words of Peter Rollins come to mind: “I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.”

The problem with both “ends” is that extreme wickedness remains throughout our human societies. The social gospel is not able to diminish it in this hurting world, and the emphasis on eternal salvation and creeds has not diminished it in the hearts those of us who call ourselves “saved”. Both poles seem to act as though the resurrection never happened (except as an assurance for heaven perhaps) and it’s not working out so well. True transformation does not seem to happen much when we live in extremes.

If resurrection is to be believed, it must be about much, much more than doing good stuff or believing the right stuff, no matter how sincerely these things are done. The resurrection happened within this world, so I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it then, that it has a whole lot to do with this world. It is not merely a hope that lies in the future outside of this world but a renewal right here, right now within it.

NT Wright says,

[The resurrection is] the utterly characteristic, prototypical, and foundational event within the world as it has begun to be. It is not an absurd event within the old world but the symbol and starting point of the new one. The claim advanced in Christianity is of that magnitude: Jesus of Nazareth ushers in not simply a new religious possibility, not simply a new ethic or a new way of salvation, but a NEW CREATION. (emphasis mine)

To paraphrase Wright, there is a new world being reborn in Jesus, and in this world Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t. God’s saving rule is breaking in. As my pastor often says, Jesus didn’t come to make us good, He came to make us new. There’s something beautiful and powerful and real enough to change the intractable narcissism of our hearts. And, it’s not just about us, it is about the renewal and healing of everything. Old things have passed away, the new has come.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of striving. We’ve all blown it in some way. We’ve all decided that we’re right and our way of doing religion is better than that of “them over there”. And I’m not going to give a “10 steps to the Resurrection Life” schpiel because I don’t have one. I hope that is a relief. I think the way is simply like that of the early church: Come and see this Jesus of Nazareth.

Richard Rohr says,

Christ Crucified is all of the hidden, private, tragic pain of history made public and given over to God. Christ Resurrected is all of that private, ungrieved, unnoted suffering received, loved, and transformed by an All-Caring God. How else could we believe in God at all? How else could we have any kind of cosmic hope? How else would we not die of sadness for what humanity has done to itself and to one another? Jesus is the blueprint, the plan, the pattern revealed in one body and moment of history to reveal the meaning of all of history and each of our lives. The cross is the banner of what we do to one another and to God. The resurrection is the banner of what God does to us in return. Easter is the announcement of God’s perfect and final victory.

He is God’s life-affirming yes to the universe. And yes, Resurrection says, this is not the end.

Check out our other Synchrobloggers:

[This month our Synchroblog partnered with Provoketive Magazine. See below for links to other Synchrobloggers.]

Sometimes, ok, perhaps it’s often, I weary of the discipline it takes to stay faithful to the routines of tending life. I begin to skimp on the practices that nurture body, mind, soul and community. Fortunately, every now and then something wonderful comes along to enliven my efforts.

My husband and I met with friends for dinner a couple of nights ago. They are the type of friends with whom you always wish you could spend much more time. We enjoyed delicious food, wine, conversation, and heaping platefuls of hope. Interestingly, we had decided beforehand that we would discuss the end of the world. We were only half-joking. This idea was instigated by the distress of another mutual friend, a very wealthy man, over his fear of an impending world-wide economic collapse. He was ready to liquidate all his assets, pack up and move to South America. (I am not sure why South America would be better if the whole world was in trouble but there you have it.) One of our dinner mates is also in the financial world and well acquainted with the inner workings of the struggling economy. We looked forward to hearing what she might have to say.

We agreed that the mutual-friend-turned-conversation-starter is very bright and very rational man. This reaction seemed very out of character for him. But this sort of thinking is entrenched in our collective psyches and probably has been since the beginning of time. We are all afraid of what we cannot control. We are all afraid of loss. This fear is amplified through the lens of round the clock disaster movies and documentaries, and the Mayan, Nostradamus and Left Behind theories that all seek to interpret many world events in catastrophic terms. In response, there are survivalist websites selling packaged food and gear. Self-protective instincts run deep.

Our conversation moved to what if? Specifically, if major calamity does strike, how do people of faith respond? How do we create safe space for ourselves and how do we care for our neighbors? How do we share meager supplies with those who have run out? How do we offer the hospitality of God?

And, what would it be like? Would desperation finally push us to the faith that we have not grown into yet? You know, the kind of faith that feeds 5,000 from a few loaves and fishes, the faith that heals sickness and that finds the coins we need in the mouths of fish? We had no answers. These probably weren’t our real questions anyway. We have not been asked to live this way, not yet.

It was in this context that one friend brought up the idea of spiritual eldering. Spiritual elders are the folks who have been around a while. They have seen suffering and they have seen great beauty. They have seen heart-breaking betrayals, and they have seen love and sacrifice like that of Christ himself. They have seen faith fail and they have seen grace overflow. These are the ones who have “set their faces towards Jerusalem”, that is, they have set out finally on the journey that is Christ’s. They have seen Kingdom and can do nothing else but live in a way that brings it forth. They have let go of what brings only fleeting hope here on earth. They have learned what is truly important.

And there we were, the four of us, each moving into our sixth decade on earth. We recognized that we are entering the elder stage. And of course, none of us felt ready or adequate. My friend then asked, “So, when will we be old enough to give it all away?” It became apparent that while we are not old enough yet, our shared conviction was to move in that direction together as community. This is never a journey that we need walk alone. In that realization, we felt the growing potential, desire, and joy of the possibilities held between us.

Therein lies the hope. We were sitting in communion with friends who hope for Kingdom. Their hearts were for the left behind, the people in need. They were not thinking about preparing for disasters as much as much as learning to be good shepherds. They were concerned about growing into the people we would each need to become in order to bring forth the equities and the sweet, inclusive shalom of Kingdom life, no matter what happens. We all felt caught up in a quiet thrill at the thought of this communal dream. And just for once, the cost didn’t seem to obscure the prize.

None of this stuff would be surprising to my dear mentor nun, Sr. Marilyn. She is a spiritual elder in the truest sense of those words and she is helping to grow us up. She once told me a story of a priest whose South American monastery faced apocalypse when it was invaded by gunmen. The humble priest greeted them with open arms. They shot him. “It was the practices,” said Sister, “that prepared his heart to meet them that way.” Indeed, it was the practices that prepared him for anything.

Richard Rohr notes that in our younger days, we typically use the type of prayer posture that we feel will help to build our careers, fill our coffers, and create a life. As we move towards eldering, we need the kind of prayer practices that help us to let it all go. We need what will bring us to the place where being emptied enough to truly open ourselves to the reality and need of the other, becomes as compelling a desire as any other we have known here. Then, instead of grasping and protecting what is ours, we can begin to walk this earth with arms held open wide.

How do we get there? “Do the practices,” says Sr. Marilyn. “The practices will get you ready.” And the hope birthed by good friends does, too.

[The practices she refers to include regular engagement with faith community, Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina, the daily Examen and others.]

Synchrobloggers at Provoketive Magazine :

The Trouble With Hope: John Ptacek

Hope = Possibility x Imagination: Wayne Rumsby

Little Reminders: Mike Victorino

Where Is My Hope: Jonathan Brink

Hope for Hypocrites: Jeremy Myers

Now These Three Remain: Sonny Lemmons

Perplexed, But Still Hopeful: Carol Kuniholm

A Hope that Lives: Amy Mitchell

Generations Come and Generations Go: Adam Gonnerman

Demystifying Hope: Glenn Hager

God in the Dark: On Hope: Renee Ronika Klug

Keeping Hope Alive: Maurice Broaddus

Are We Afraid to Hope?: Christine Sine

On Wobbly Wheels, Split Churches and Fear: Laura Droege

Adopting Hope: Travis Klassen

Hope is Held Between Us: Ellen Haroutunian

Hope: In the Hands of the Creatively Maladjusted: Mihee Kim-Kort

Paradox, Hope and Revival: City Safari

Good Theology Saves: Reverend Robyn

Linear: Never Was, Never Will Be: Kathy Escobar

Better Than Hope: Liz Dyer

Caroline for Congress: Hope for the Future: Wendy McCaig

Fumbling the Ball on Hope: KW Leslie

Content to Hope: Alise Wright

Hope: Oh, the Humanity!: Deanna Ogle

Jesus came, did you get what you expected?

I pray that the answer is no.

I realize how strange that sounds. When I wished my friends and family Merry Christmas, I truly meant it. I wished for each one a season of peace and enjoyment and that each would experience life-altering moments of kindness and love. I wished everyone could be a part of a gathering in which they felt a sense of belonging. I hoped that each of us could offer that to others as well, especially those with no place to go. I wished that everyone would feel noticed and known through the gift giving, and that each one would feel as though they matter.

I confess I love the beauty and ribbons and lights and music and anticipation of it all. It’s all too easy to get caught up into the commercialism and sentimentality that has taken over the holiday season and that causes so many of us to rack up big bills and stress in order to make it all happen. Let’s be honest, that stuff is just as alive in the Christian world as it is in the secular. But sentimentality is a cheapened version of true celebration. It tells a lie that what our hearts most desire can truly be found here, through our money and our parties.

Therefore, even though I truly wished you all Merry Christmas, I hope you were blessed enough to leave the holiday unsatisfied. I hope you all enjoyed a lovely holiday as did my family and I, and, I pray that none of us would be satisfied with so little ever again.

My prayer is that the Christian church would have to courage to begin to grow up. May we become less afraid of the mystery, the great paradox of our Christian lives which is the reality of the already/not yet. Christ has come and shown us the way of His Kingdom. Alleluia. However, Christian celebration on this side of heaven must always carry with it a morsel of grief. That is why three of our Advent candles are purple, the color of penitence and suffering. We must outgrow the Jesus who, as my pastor says, is too often viewed as our “bearded girlfriend who wants to be our lifecoach.” We must outgrow our “religious narcissism”. May we dare to follow God to places far outside of ourselves.

Those who walk in the footsteps of Emmanuel may not forget that the world aches in pain, oppression and need. We ache because even though we enjoyed a feast day with all the trimmings, many of our children in West Africa passed away from hunger. We are troubled because though we are free, too many of us are still in chains through sex trafficking, dictatorships or the selfishness of others. We ache because we do not yet know how to die enough to our own fears and greed to allow Kingdom to be birthed fully alive and full term everywhere.

If we lose our sense of ache, of longing for something better, we lose who we truly are. We are made for something, Someone, far better than what the pretty, sentimental holidays can ever provide. And, we are meant to begin to realize that truth in context of community. Theologian Miroslav Volf says that when we “receive” Christ, we receive all who come with Him. We cannot fully know and bring Kingdom without those whom we have left behind.

May the awe that we feel at the coming of God Incarnate jar our hearts awake to this exquisite longing. May this Holy Discontent drive us to the Story to live as deeply liturgical people, people who live with rejoicing and ache, all while figuring out a bit more of what it might mean to love God and love others. And if you have been fully satisfied and your life is near perfect, may you be blessed enough for God to come in and mess it up enough so that you are not left behind in slumber. Amen.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:

to find the lost, to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
(Quaker Blessing)

Enjoy the Synchrobloggers:

Glenn Hager – Underwear For Christmas

Jeremy Myers – The Unexpected Gift From Jesus

Tammy Carter  – Unstuck

Jeff Goins – The Day After Christmas: A Lament

Wendy McCaig – Unwanted Gifts: You Can Run But You Can Not Hide

Christine Sine – The Wait Is Over – What Did I Get?

Maria Kettleson Anderson – Following The Baby We Just Celebrated 

Leah – Still Waiting For Redemption

Kathy Escobar – Pain Relief Not Pain Removal

This weekend my husband and I were fortunate enough to see an exhibit of the St. John’s Bible at the Benet Hill Monastery down in Colorado Springs. This Bible is the first handwritten and hand painted work commissioned by the Benedictines in 500 years. It is a work of theology and a work of art.

All of the text is done in beautiful calligraphy, with a script designed just for this project. There are 160 works of art designed in prayerful response to scripture passages. Fr. Michael Patella, OSB, 
(Chair of the SJB Committee on Illumination and Text) says, “The illuminations are not illustrations. They are spiritual meditations on a text. It is a very Benedictine approach to Scriptures.” Simply put, they are stunning. They are thresholds. If you love art and if you love the scriptures, these illuminations will feed your soul.

This experience does what a reading of the Bible is meant to do. We were stirred up into awe, wonder, worship, and surprise. Our souls quickened in delight. We were challenged and even offended as our small view of God and large view of ego was exposed. We rediscovered that our Bible is indeed a living text. Kathleen Norris has noted, “Most people don’t know what is in the Bible and when they find out, they become unglued.” We are never left unchanged. This encounter with the scriptures wooed us to the larger story that encompasses everything and everyone.

The monks who commissioned this Bible wanted it to reflect the Benedictine values of hospitality, justice and love. They hope it will enhance our engagement with the biblical text and with the arts. The illuminations are designed to reflect God’s all-embracing presence and His unending welcome that is offered to the whole world. They emphasize women, neglected peoples, and the poor. At the heart of it all is God’s global message of hope for all time, for all peoples, for all generations, and over all history.

Aram remarked that it’s so rare to see anyone have a long vision for a project such as this anymore. This Bible began about 12 years ago and will be completed sometime in 2011. In contrast, our culture demands immediate answers and immediate results. We don’t know how to wait. We dismiss the value of memory and time. Cathedrals used to take generations to build. Talk about job security and economic stability! We have forgotten how to work for something greater than ourselves to benefit generations that we may never meet this side of heaven. Monastics do everything prayerfully and slowly. I am grateful to them for this.

Below, I share some of what we learned from the lecture that we attended at the monastery. It was taught by Sr. Irene, a kick-ass nun and theologian from the Committee on Illustration and Text for St. John’s Bible. The images that I have posted here are obviously not as clear as they are up close and in person but I hope they speak to you. The Benedictines say, “Listen with the ear of your heart.” As we learned the practice of Visio Divina they added, “See with the eyes of your heart, too.”  And Sr. Irene gave us much freedom in our gazing by saying, “If you see it, it’s in there.”

Just FYI: Gold always represents God.

Creation (Genesis 1)
The seven panels represent the seven days of creation, of course. The panels are rough and unfinished on the edges, reminding us that creation is still happening. It’s a work in progress, and so are we. We are also reminded that God always brings order, beauty and life out of chaos. Day 3, when vegetation and plant life come into being, there is a satellite image of the Ganges River Delta. On day 5 when the waters are called to team with life, the artists included ancient fish fossils. On day six, the drawings of people are from aboriginal cave drawings from Africa and Australia. Gold (representing God) is present throughout of course, increasing to Day 7. Creation and re-creation is an overarching theme throughout the whole Bible.

The Genealogy of Jesus (from the Gospel of Matthew)
The Menorah is designed to recall the panels of the days of Creation as well as the tree of life. The Menorah is a symbol of Judaism, the people from whom Jesus was born. There are patterns of DNA molecules throughout, reminding us of His humanity. The Menorah was also the design of the lamp that lit the temple as described in Zechariah. Jesus is the Light.

The gold designs at the top of the piece are from the Koran. The circle (mandala) underneath is an Asian design. Within the menorah itself are all the names of the ancestors of Jesus. They included the names of all the women in His ancestry, not just the ones included in Matthew. The name of Hagar, second wife of Abraham and mother of Ishmael, is written in English, Hebrew and Arabic, for she is the mother of the Arab peoples. Christ is for us all.

The five “books” of the Psalms (divided up by some scribe way back when) each have a frontispiece that looks like a Torah scroll. They also look like painted Japanese screens. (There was an Asian art expert on the committee.) There are gold squares and designs all over, reminding us that Christ is present throughout. Gregorian chant notes were also represented by squares, so they reflect the heritage of the church age as well.

What is especially intriguing are the small squiggles throughout the scroll. These are actual digital voice prints of the Monks of St. John’s Abbey singing the Psalms. There also are voice prints of the monks singing a Native American song, and sacred songs from Hindu, Jewish, Taoist, Greek, and Buddhist traditions and probably some more that I am forgetting. It is indeed a living text. It is the tradition of Benedictine hospitality to honor all those who pray.

Luke’s “Anthology”

This piece reflects many parables that are unique to Luke. The first one is the woman who lost a valuable coin and looks everywhere for it. When she finds it, she throws a party. There are hints of angels in that panel, ready to rejoice with her. Sr. Irene reminded us that a larger theme of the book of Luke is the fact that Jesus ate with the wrong people. Often in His stories he says in effect, “You think I eat with the wrong people? My Father throws parties for them!”

Another panel shows the story of the prodigal son. The familiar characters are there – the returning son, the older brother, the running father, the pigs. Sr. Irene remarked that the mother seems to be missing from this story. But she relates a favorite tale which says that the mother was absent because she was busy fattening the calf for the party to come, polishing the ring and then is looking out and about for her son. The mother remarks, “And his father thinks this just happened!”

What is particularly moving is that all the stories are in diagonal panels of gold, leading upward to Jesus. These are stories about restoration and forgiveness. In the panel with the prodigal are the New York City World Trade Center Twin Towers, also in gold. This panel was being painted during the fall of 2001 after the 9-11 tragedies. They were included to offer the message that forgiveness is the way to move forward. Indeed, the very last panel which portrays Mary and Martha reveals the words “Only one thing is necessary” as all move towards Jesus. Forgiveness.

The Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37) “I will put my Spirit within you and you shall live.”
This is a particularly gripping work. The artists did not want to go towards “The foot bone’s connected to the leg bone” or “dem bones” types of imagery. The skulls and bones are reminiscent of mass graves. There are images that evoke the picture of the heap of eyeglasses seen at the Holocaust Museum. There is a watchtower. There are also junk and old cars, depicting throw-away people, used and abused by others. The oil from the old cars reveals a rainbow with flecks of gold. Even here, God is present. There are rainbows of promise overhead, filled with colors, filled with God. I ask you, can these bones live?

I will post part two later this week. Go here to page through this Bible yourself!

“The continuous process of remaining open and accepting of what may reveal itself through hand and heart on a crafted page is the closest I have ever come to God.” ~Donald Jackson, Artistic Director, St, John’s Bible

Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, by Rob Bell.

Well, there’s nothing like a good controversy to increase blog posts and book sales! Like many, I am saddened by the way the controversy is being handled. I chose to blog about this because it hits at the heart of something very dear to me: the oneness of the Church. Many who haven’t read the book (and probably some of those who have) may assume that Bell argues for an easy universalism, a cheap devil-may-care-and-nothing-matters-because-we-all-get-in sort of thing, and that there is no hell. Not surprisingly, many are on the warpath and are drawing dividing lines. I am simply hoping that we may foster some respectful consideration of one another.

Just to catch everyone up, the gist of the book is that the ideas Bell addresses have more to do with the nature and heart of God himself and the belief that “God is reconciling all creation to Godself” and that there is good reason to believe that he will succeed at this (hence the title, “Love Wins”.) Hell is a place we create for ourselves as we continue to resist and reject the life that God offers. I believe that opens up the door to larger ideas to discuss than just cheap grace.

To sum up this blog post (tl;dr): Relax everyone, and listen to one another.

Please consider:

1. This is not new stuff. This topic has been under discussion for 2000 years. Debate amongst Christians is not new either. Plenty of important issues such as, what is the exact nature of the atonement and what is hell and who gets to go to heaven and what does it mean to be saved and even how do we decide who is in the church have been discussed and debated zillions of times. There remains plenty of disagreement and we have survived and God still loves us.

There was a time during the formation of the early church in which the Apostles and others needed to keep the tightest reign on “sound doctrine”. This was particularly focused on what was understood about Jesus and the essence of the Good News. I can imagine Jesus’ followers standing around scratching their heads after he ascended back into heaven thinking, “What on earth just happened?” The early church leaders recognized that preventing confusion and lies about big, core issues like Jesus’ divinity and his death and resurrection were crucial to the budding life of this new entity called the Church and to the Kingdom Jesus had spoken about. They had to guard things carefully. And for them, it was truly an issue about for what and whom they would be giving up their lives. That’s a tad different than “my theological camp is superior to yours.”

Beyond the basics about Jesus, there has been and will continue to be much debate and questioning and rethinking doctrinal ideas within our ranks, just as there has been for 2000 years. It’s ok. Let’s use it for good and not for evil.

2. Nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition. We no longer have to sentence someone who disagrees with us to death or cover them in honey and push them onto an ant hill. This is probably what is most distressing about this whole kerfluffle. Christians are treating those who disagree with their stance badly. They judge and demean and slander. They feel proud of their “correct” position, and use it as a measuring rod as if it means anything about themselves and their relationship with God.

I honestly do not believe that when we stand one day before Jesus he will look at us and say, “So, I am concerned about your stance on the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement. Tsk. Tsk.” Or, “Were you dispensationalist or reformed?” No, I think he will be more concerned about how we treated the brother or sister who thinks about things differently. That truly seemed to be more important to Him. Oneness comes from making space for one another, not demanding conformity. And it also seemed to be his desire about how we are to show up in this world. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Jn. 13:35 That sounds like evangelism to me.

3. Dialogue is good for us. I recall a seminary professor from years ago who told us to be careful what we read because “there’s a slippery slope”. In other words, do not read anything that disagrees with our theological stance for to do so is dangerous because you might actually be changed by it. Back then, I never thought to ask what was at the bottom of the slippery slope. Now that I am older and wiser I have visited the other end of the slope, and you know what? Jesus is there, too.

If we do not allow ourselves to seriously engage thoughts and ideas that are different from what we hold, we stagnate. We also begin to believe we have actually apprehended and captured Truth, as if it all fits in our puny human minds. It creates a subtle shift in belief – right doctrine begins to trump the Person who is the Source of it all. Those who seem to be holding the “there is no more truth to be found” line seem to hint that to not agree with them means you follow a different Jesus. (Some don’t merely suggest it, they state it outright. Seriously guys, stop it.) Sometimes it is expressed that to disagree with them puts your eternal security and even the quality of your personal character in jeopardy. That’s a lot of faith to be placed in doctrine!  And it follows that the issues at hand would become dividing lines in the church.

I must add though, that as much as the truth-as-doctrine folks frustrate me (but they won’t take my blog seriously anyway because I am a woman so I can say whatever I want – ha!), they are certainly not the only ones guilty of dividing church and community over a doctrinal position.

Perhaps we can try to value one another over being right?

4. Don’t you wish this were true? Why would any Christian not want there to be a way for all to be saved and go to heaven? Why is there resistance to believing that the work of Jesus on the Cross and the redeeming love of God could be that powerful? What does this say about us?

I think it might reveal something about our own smallness of heart. Our sense of justice often has much more to do with retribution and spite than with the desire to see all things set right. Admit it, often we need the idea of hell in order to feel that those who have hurt us will pay. There is something in us still that gets a smug satisfaction from seeing those who have hurt us stuck outside while we get treated royally.

I count myself in here. I do not have a heart that can forgive without some struggle. I don’t know that anyone does, really. I need the help of God to forgive. But I am drawn to the idea that God can make my heart a big enough space to receive all who come with Him –a heart that might actually be able to tolerate heaven and the magnanimous mercy and grace that is its essence.

I am not saying I don’t believe in hell- quite the opposite actually. I’m just saying that what we think about hell may say much more about our own issues than about God.

5. Won’t this belief kill evangelism? Perhaps it will, if selling a free ticket to heaven is the only reason to evangelize and if that is the full extent of the Good News. If there is more, which I would argue there is, those who hearts are passionate for it will continue the work of evangelism.

There is plenty to do. There is a Kingdom to co-create and usher in. There are mountains to bring down and valleys to fill. There is outrageous love to be offered.  There are outcasts to befriend. The message as we do these things is the same: This is Jesus, Son of the Most High. Hear Him!

Our love for one another as we do these things just might shine a light on what he is like for others to see and embrace. Whether you believe God tortures non-believers forever and ever without end or if you believe God allows us to create a hell of our own choosing, there is still work to be done.

6. Let’s face it, all of our theology is a “bottom up” effort. Theology is the product of our good and necessary attempts to make some sense of the mysteries of God. However, the only lenses we have is to try to comprehend God are our tiny, foggy selves. Therefore, all of our theology will have something of ourselves projected onto God, even with the Spirit’s help. God doesn’t seem to be too disturbed by that, being accustomed to our cute arrogance. I often wonder if he feels similar to how I feel about my cat when she believes she has caught the laser pointer beam in her paw. Her concept of reality is too limited to know that it’s made of light waves and not matter and she can’t possible catch it. But I let her enjoy her victory for a moment – and then I move the pointer.

I don’t know about you, but I am hoping that my concept of God continues to grow and expand and with it, my theology. For each of us, may God continue to “move the pointer” out from under what we think we know so we don’t get caught up in the lesser things that divide us. (Lesser than Jesus, that is.) God is far more good and loving than we can imagine and may it never be that we think we have him all figured out. In that light, may we humbly choose each other over the arrogance of thinking we know anything.

Years ago, I attended a church that avoided beauty. They met in a little white steepled building with a wood paneled arched ceiling within it that I just loved. However, the rest of the furnishings in there were worn and sparse, making it look like a forgotten and neglected room in an old house. I happened to mention to a friend once that the sanctuary would look so beautiful if it only had a carpet with a rich, deep color to set off the earthy tones of the wood. My remark was met with a terse, “It’s not that sort of church.”

Being new to the faith and having not yet discovered my own voice, I recoiled in embarrassment. I had obviously missed something important or perhaps I was engaging in the dreaded sins called lust of the eyes or the pride of life. I learned to believe that beauty was something that should be suspect, and that my love of beauty could be a character flaw. I learned to not trust my inner senses.

I have since come to understand that those church folks were simply afraid, for beauty can be a perilous thing. It sparks the imagination and moves it beyond safe boundaries, carrying the soul away with it to uncharted and unknown places. If we don’t protect ourselves, we become caught up in it, far beyond the mind and beyond the words in which we have always felt at home and so confident of what we know.

Many others have described to me their experiences of transcendent beauty, whether it be on a mountaintop in the Rockies or during a sunset on the beach. And so often, when they have described their sense of awe, wonder and encounter with sheer Presence, it was tamped down quickly by a well meaning Sunday School teacher who wanted to protect them from those new age-y ideas. Like my little church, they felt it best to keep this experience of beauty reined in.

However, an essay about creativity and Christianity is, in effect, an exploration of beauty. Beauty inhabits the cutting edge of creativity, says John O’Donohue. He proffers the idea that beauty speaks of things beyond words and rouses memories hidden in the depths of our hearts- memories of things both ancient and beyond time. Beauty reveals the wholeness and holy order of things. Beauty infuses our creative acts with meaning.

Frederick Turner adds that beauty enables us to go with, rather than against the deepest tendency or theme of our universe. It calls us back to something deeply ordered and good. In other words, beauty leads us to truth. It speaks of God. Therefore, the church is the right place to develop eyes for beauty; to learn to truly see. For in our relativistic world that is embroiled in either polarizing arguments or apathy in regards to what is good or true, beauty is able to transcend.

Beauty calls forth from our hearts the capacity to love and gives us sight to find the sacred anywhere on earth. It sees beyond exteriors, even the loveliest ones that tempt us to get caught in measuring a person’s worth by their physical attractiveness or charisma. It also sees beyond off-putting exteriors and actions that offend those who only have eyes to see failure or sin. O’Donohue says that beauty creates in us a reverence of approach for each other. Beauty does not allow us to see a mere human being. Instead, it gives us eyes to see sacred space, a container of the Holy in the other. We are led to draw near to one another with quiet astonishment.

Beauty gives us eyes to see God in the most distressing of disguises. Years ago there was a huge kerfluffle about Andre Serrano’s photograph, “Piss Christ.” It is a disturbing portrait of a plastic crucifix submerged in a vial of the artist’s own urine. Many people were deeply offended at this, feeling that the photo was an act of blasphemy. It became a prompt for all kinds of philosophical arguments and meanderings.

I cannot say what was in the mind of the artist when he made it. But my first reaction was “Oh my, he got it.” For isn’t this idea the essence of the gospel? On the cross Jesus submerged himself into the depths of what is dirtiest and darkest about us, plunging into our refuse, our shame. The unabashed and unhesitating descent of God into our garbage is love in its most powerful manifestation. The cross is that scandalous and it is that beautiful. Typically, our religious eyes want to claim only what is most clean and acceptable as a fitting receptacle for God. Yet God came not for those who are already well, but for those who are in most need of healing. Eyes for beauty will illuminate the presence of God in those whom we are very certain are offensive to him. Eyes for beauty may also help us to see God in ourselves.

What is probably most surprising about beauty is that it is enhanced by flaws. O’Donohue says that the beauty that emerges from woundedness is a “beauty infused with feeling; a beauty different from the beauty of landscape and the cold beauty of perfect form.” This sort of beauty can compel us to cross the threshold of our separate selves into the experience of another in the form of compassion. It is the beginning of healing in the world. Some of the most amazing gifts in my life are my friends who are lifelong members of alcoholics anonymous. They trod along day by day, trading their thirst for the vine into thirst for the divine, carrying each other’s burdens and teaching the rest of us how to do it as well. Their lives have taken on a lovely Eucharistic shape. They exude beauty in a way that too few may ever understand.

Beauty illuminates the gospel story. It reminds us that the gospel is not a piece of theological doctrine to be apprehended, but a love story that tells of God breaking down walls of separation and then joining together God and man, heaven and earth, neighbor and enemy. Beauty “mediates between the known and unknown, light and darkness, masculine and feminine, visible and invisible, chaos and meaning, self and others.” Beauty transforms.

Ultimately, the question we must ask is not what is beauty, but who is beauty. I think it is right to say that God is beauty. To quote O’Donohue one more time, “When we claim that God is beauty, we are claiming for beauty all the adventure, mystery, infinity and autonomy of divine who-ness. Beauty is the inconceivable made so intimate, that it illuminates our hearts.”

Amen, church. Teach us to see.

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