Archive

real church

The War Prayer

by Mark Twain

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and sputtering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spreads of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country and invoked the God of Battles, beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpouring of fervid eloquence which moved every listener.

It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came – next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their faces alight with material dreams – visions of a stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender! – then home from the war, bronzed heros, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation – “God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest, Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!”

Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory.

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher’s side and stood there, waiting.

With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal,” Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside – which the startled minister did – and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said:

“I come from the Throne – bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd and grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import – that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of – except he pause and think.

“God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two – one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of His Who hearth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this – keep it in mind. If you beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

“You have heard your servant’s prayer – the uttered part of it. I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it – that part which the pastor, and also you in your hearts, fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory – must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God the Father fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

“O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle – be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(After a pause)

“Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits.”

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

[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

Our world is unraveling. We are seeing the deterioration of civil society in many ways. This holiday week alone has been an embarrassment of aggressive consumerism with shoppers resorting to pepper spray and robbing each other at gunpoint. Black Friday is extending back into Thursday, threatening to diminish the one day we have set aside to pause our frantic lives and give thanks that some of us actually have money to spend. And that’s just the news on the small scale.

I just had a long conversation with a friend over the meaning of Christmas. It began around her assertion that Christmas has nothing to do with Jesus. When you look at Walmart at midnight on Thanksgiving, you can see that that has become very true. But the conversation was more about how many choose to celebrate Christmas either in a secular fashion or with more ancient ties to the pagan rituals that were the inspiration for the choice of December for this observance. I agreed, the holiday was birthed from engagement with other traditions and has taken on many more dimensions, much of which have nothing to do with the remembering of Jesus and the Christian story. I also agreed with her that people should be allowed to celebrate how they wish without harassment. In her insistence that Christmas has nothing to do with Jesus, I assume she wanted to show support for the millions who celebrate Christmas in various ways but have no Christian affiliation.

Even so, it’s important to remember that the shaping of the Christmas celebration (long before secular commercialization) was intentional and beautiful. Early Christians brought their story to the celebrations that they had already been observing such as pagan solstice rituals, or more likely, the Roman solar celebration. Since the beginning of time people had observed that light returns to the world as the world revolves around the sun, renewing and enlivening as it comes. The Christian story, the gospel story, is about the Light coming into the world, bringing life and healing to hurting souls. What was already observed and celebrated in rhythm with creation was then seen to hold a deeper meaning in the minds of these early Christians. As a result, the season of waiting (Advent) and the celebration of the Incarnation of God, Emmanuel, was born. Eventually, the season became known as the Feast of the Nativity or Christ’s Mass. So on the level of tradition and history, the evolution of Christmas as a holiday (holy day) is indeed about Jesus. The whole point of the discussion was that there’s no need to diminish Christian tradition to make room for other traditions, just as there’s no need to diminish other traditions to make space for the Christian.

But that discussion isn’t the true issue. I understand that there is a lot of anger towards Christians who have been offering judgment instead of the Good News. I understand that people would then choose to diminish the Christian Story as a result. That’s what people do. That’s why the world is hurting. We all diminish and deny the traditions, beliefs, needs and feelings of the other in order to make space for ourselves. However, in doing so, any empathy for the other is also lost. Lack of empathy for the other is the human heart in its most desolate state. The particular case above was about diminishing Christianity. But the way of thinking that essentially diminishes or eliminates the other, any other, has become the norm worldwide as each of our hearts shrink and pull back into self-protective bunkers. This is what our broken and hard-hearted system of justice does.

So, we live in a world in which empathy is a rare gem. More than ever, this has become a world of every man or woman for themselves, whether it be about grabbing the last waffle maker at Walmart or blocking job creating bills because you don’t like the politics of the party in power, or insisting that every conservative Christian is hate-filled and every liberal one is immoral, or that every Muslim is a terrorist. We no longer seek to listen, to know, to honor and respect each other. We no longer see the Image in one another. The idea of being our brothers’ keeper has become laughable, even amongst Jesus followers. We cannot compromise and work together because whatever the other represents is simply too offensive, too threatening, too inconvenient, too irrelevant to our personal lives. In this sense, we indeed have truly lost Jesus.

We do not need to create a “let’s take Christmas back” mentality. That is not what this post is about and it’s only another way to diminish those with whom we disagree. We do acknowledge that millions of people who are not Christians celebrate “Christmas” in various ways around the world and can remain unthreatened by that. However, the most important thing we can do is to reflect to the world the Light that has come to us. The incarnation of God-as-human is an act of ultimate empathy. God, who is Wholly Other became the other in order to love fully and to reconcile, to heal, to save. This is what love does! Love enters the story of the other. This world that has become more cold and hard and cynical than ever is desperate for a love that enters in.

Remember the Story. May we remember and act accordingly and thus bring true empathy back into the world, whether it’s at Walmart or in congress or towards Wall Street protestors or in trying to be politically correct (or not).  The world says, “Your needs and pain don’t matter to me” as it steps on the heads of the weaker brother to move upward towards bigger and better. Jesus calls us back down to our senses, back down to being our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, back down to a life of love. And when we listen to his Story, we find that he has shown us how.

The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. John 1:9 RSV

Definitions of Empathy:

1. The imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it (perhaps incarnates it? – my addition)

2. The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this.

More Synchroblogs posts will be added as they come in:

ron cole at the weary pilgrim –  advent: reimagining everything

liz dyer at grace rules –  expect the unexpected

sarah styles bessey at emerging mummy –  in which i’m expecting something from advent

miz melly at perchance to dream –  parousia

kathy escobar at the carnival in my head –  present, humble, vulnerable

David Perry at Visual Theology –  Advent As A Mirror of Possibility

Christine Sine at Godspace –  Jesus Is Coming What Do We Expect?

Liz VerHage –  Living Theology

Glenn Hager –  Antithetical Advent

Sally Coleman at Sally’s Journey –  Come Spirit of Advent

Jeremy Myers at Till He Comes –  Jesus Is Returning Today

Tammy Carter-  His Gift: The Way of Escape

Wendy McCaig-  Re-expecting a baby

Jon Reid-  Undiscovered Advent: The Second Coming of Christ

This is part two of my St. John’s Bible post. If you’d like to read about its history and to see some of the other illuminations, the first post is here. There are 160 illuminations and there were 17 of them on tour at the Benet Hill Monastery in Colorado Springs. We attended a wonderful lecture by Sr. Irene, a member of the creative Committee on Illuminations and Text that brought this work to life. I share some of her insights and a few of my own ponderings as well.

 

The 10 Commandments- Exodus 20

This illumination contains lots of words. The 10 commandments were written on stone by the finger of God and it was the first time the revelation of God was given in written form. God says, your carved gods are not ok but here I am, revealed in the written word. Most people were illiterate so this brought a significant shift in the history of writing.

It was the most significant religious event in history up to that point. It is yet another re-creation story. Into an anarchic world of oppression and cruelty, God bursts in to bring order into the chaos once again.

The images recall the Israelites’ story: the burning bush, the blood of the Passover lamb on their doorposts, and their exodus through the Red Sea. There are 12 pillars, representing the 12 tribes of Israel.

The bottom of picture reflects the sense of chaos that is always pressing in around us but God there too. In its midst you can just make out the words “I am the Lord your God”.

 

The Nativity Story – Luke 2

This illumination is from the nativity passage in Luke. Once again, God moves into chaos and brings new life. You may notice that the one person not clearly present here is the infant Jesus. Sr. Irene told us that the artist offered several trial sketches of the baby, but none felt right. Finally, he decided not to portray the baby at all, but instead bathed him in descending light in order to to bring to mind the incarnation. Heaven came down to earth.

The ox is from a Neolithic cave painting in France and is a nod to early Christian writers who often used an ox as a symbol for Luke. The ram is a foreshadowing of sacrifice. The shepherds are mostly women and children, which was apparently the norm in that day. My favorite part of the nativity story has always been the presence of these humble (and often despised) people, being amongst the first along with the strange Magi to see Christ in this world.

 

In this illumination of the raising of Lazarus we are given a new perspective. We are not outside the tomb weeping and waiting. We are inside the tomb awakening to the tunnel of white light beaming from the outside. At its center is Jesus. Do you choose life or do you choose to stay dead?

 

John 1

The beautiful words of John 1 recall the Creation story. In the beginning was the word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Here we see the figure of Jesus stepping out of eternity into time. The figure seems unfinished, because incarnation is ongoing as Christ is being formed in each one of us. We are his incarnation now. Transformation, beauty, order, life is called out of chaos (both in and outside of us) once again.

The images of the universe surrounding him were taken by the Hubble telescope.

 

The Baptism of Jesus – Mark 1.

The Spirit once again is hovering over the waters. The heavens are opened and humanity is created anew. There is a hint of the birth of the Church, seen in a gold stamp in the background. In the foreground John the Baptist is a large figure, moving away. Jesus is golden and small in the background, bringing to mind the verse, “I must decrease so he may increase.” I don’t know if this was intended here but in iconography, the true perspective is always from heaven’s point of view. So the larger, closer figures as seen through our perspective are actually lesser than the ones that are further away. Jesus then, is the Center of the Story. “This is My Son, with whom I am pleased.”

The book of Mark is fast paced. After the baptism Jesus is immediately sent out into the desert to be tempted. We see that demons are already present to tempt him. The angels are ready and waiting to minister to him.

 

An illumination from the book of Acts. You will be my witness in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth… How far is the end of the earth? Here, it goes out into the universe. We see it is filled with crosses, literally crammed with heaven, and God’s presence fills it all. All things will be made new.

These are but a few of my favorites and this Bible is not even fully finished! There are far too many to write about here and you simply must see them for yourself and bring your own eyes to these pages. I’d love to hear about it when you do.

In the mean time, here is the link so you can page through it for yourself.

http://www.saintjohnsbible.org/see/explore.htm

Discovering the God Imagination: Reconstructing A Whole New Christianity
By Jonathan Brink
294 pages

This is a gutsy book. Author Jonathan Brink dares to suggest a new theory of the atonement. In many theological circles this is something that is not only believed to be utterly unnecessary, it’s akin to messing with the truth itself. Inconceivable! And bravo.

Brink respectfully addresses the problems found in the two most prominent theories of the atonement: the Penal Substitutionary Theory, which after all is said and done has the concept of a God who still seems pretty angry, and the Ransom Theory, which somehow has God beholding to Satan, as if God couldn’t just blow him out of the water if he were to so choose. In suggesting some new ideas, Brink works his way through the biblical text to develop a sound argument as bible scholars have always done. I found that his theory does not contradict our pet doctrines, but rather, it offers another paradigm for thinking all together.

I find Brink’s theory quite compelling because it addresses the saving nature of the atonement in every way in which a person can be saved. It goes to the core of the heart of wounded people, bringing a practical theology that not only does the necessary magic in the heavenlies (which the older theories emphasize), but brings healing to our hearts in the present. It is the only atonement discussion that I have seen that actually talks about transformation in ways that reaches into more of our human brokenness than a cognitive assent to a doctrine could ever do.

In short, Brink points out that even in the garden when this messy thing called the fall happened, God was not angry. He was deeply saddened, but not wrathful. For God had set up a question in the garden, posed by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent used it to call our identities into question. Who are we? If we are not like God (implied by the serpent), then are we lacking? Are we…evil? That is the conclusion that we drew and it has darkened our understanding about God and ourselves ever since. We have let of go of the God Imagination, which is God’s perspective of ourselves, and have exchanged it for a warped and harmful vision. The lie that we chose conceals our true selves, which is the first death. We now live under the burden of the lie that we are inherently evil and thus we act accordingly, all jealous and stingy and afraid. We also project our distorted view of ourselves onto God and assume that he feels that way about us too.

Brink emphasizes the fact that God has never reneged on his declaration that we are good. He makes a good argument that there never truly was a chasm between us and God. He says, “Ransom Theory and Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory get some of it right. Someone is receiving a ransom. Someone is being satisfied. Someone is being paid off. Someone can’t come to a sense of justice apart from sacrifice. But the entity making the demand is not God or Satan. It is us.” The cross was required by us. It is we who needed something as powerful and horrific and love-filled as the cross for the lie to be crushed completely. Brink adds, “love wins by going as far as we demand. Love takes on our worst by revealing its best….We needed something so inconceivable, so mistakenly loving. That it would shatter any argument we could make to the contrary.” Our hearts can change as we begin to grasp the God Imagination because Brinks says, “The beginning realization of belief is the starting point. It is the moment a very different possibility of life is created. To follow is to embrace the possibility of the good. But it is only by living into the Way of Jesus that we can begin to experience life. We live into faith, which creates hope, so that we can experience love.” This love then, says Brink, becomes the love that goes beyond ourselves and gathers in the other.

Because I work now as a therapist, I found that there is a lot of language that is familiar to me. There are terms such as “true self” and stuff about brain science. I am concerned that readers who might not be familiar with the rich concepts that go into understanding things like true and false selves will be tempted to write this book off as new age-y or too psychological. (Think in terms of new man and old man which are more familiar Christianized words, if that helps.) There are also some parts that probably need to be fleshed out more clearly. However, I find the concepts to fit well with much of the agreed upon ideas of what is “biblical”. I also find the concepts to be very welcome, because they bring erudite theological concepts down to the level on which we live, changing core beliefs about ourselves and God and helping to bring about healing in the deepest core of our beings. Brink asserts that we each can become one who overcomes.

This book is not an easy read. Hang in there with the wise and winding Socratic type logic that Brink uses. He will bring the concepts home to you. I challenge those who are reading from a theological bent to first of all, read it. Second of all, try to let go of the “this is where it differs from what I know so it’s wrong” thinking. Certainly there will be things you’ll disagree with, but there is something in this for you to hear as well. And I know, most regular folks don’t find books on theology to be very compelling reading. But I urge you to give this a try because I believe that this book nourishes our hearts into the stunning truth that the God of the universe truly understands human suffering, and would go to any length to demonstrate his love to us in a way that truly heals. That alone, is worth it.

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 26 other followers