Sunday, May 29, 2011

"Here is the New There"

     Some say the world will end in fire,  
     Some say in ice.         
     From what I’ve tasted of desire        
     I hold with those who favor fire.       
     But if it had to perish twice,          
     I think I know enough of hate           
     To know that for destruction ice       
     Is also great    
     And would suffice.
     (Fire and Ice, Robert Frost, 1920)

When will the world end? HOW will it end? WILL it end?

We’ve lived through the latest doomsday prophecy, with its attendant jokes. Next scheduled date: October 21, with the Mayan doomsday on its heels, in December, 2012.

In the church tradition of my childhood, the end of the world was a common Sunday dinner topic. First the rapture, when the saints are taken and sinners left. Then the tribulation. Then the millennium – a thousand years of Christ’s rule on earth. Then the final battle. Then the judgment. Then, finally, heaven.

I confess, I found the heated arguments about Christ’s second coming so un-Christlike I’ve done my best to steer clear of eschatological argument ever since. Define preterism? Pro/con texts for amillenialism? Defend Theonomy?  For me, fingernails on a chalkboard create the same effect.

The second chapter of Rob Bell’s Love Wins, "Here is the New There", approaches eschatology in a very different way. The chapter is by far the longest in the book, and in many ways the heart of the book.

illustration from Love Wins
Bell starts by responding to the ways heaven is portrayed: somewhere “over there,” distant from and unlike this current life. Ethereal, purely spiritual: “harps and clouds and streets of gold, everybody dressed in white robes.”

The assumption, of course, is that in the end those who trust in Christ will be rescued to sit somewhere else with our robes and harps while this world, this broken home of ours, is destroyed, gone forever.

Bell asks: “Are there other ways to think about heaven, other than as that perfect floating shiny city hanging suspended ther in the air above that ominous red and black realm with all that smoke and steam and hissing fire? I say yes, there are.”

From there Bell goes on to talk about eternal life, life in the age to come, as tied in important ways to life in this age, and suggests that life in the age to come starts now, as the kingdom of heaven presses in on earth, as we learn to live, now, as the people who will live forever in the presence of God.

“How we think about heaven, then, directly affects how we understand what we do with our days and energies now, in this age. Jesus teaches us how to live now in such a way that what we create, who we give our efforts to, and how we spend our time will all endure in the new world."

Taking heaven seriously, then, means taking suffereing seriously now. Not because we’ve bought into the myth that we can create a utopia given enough time, technology, and good voting choices, but because we have great confidence that God has not abandoned human history and is actively at work within it, taking it somewhere.”

Pages later, Bell says
“Eternal life doesn’t start when we die;
It starts now.
It’s not about a life that begins at death;
It’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive death.”

There’s nothing new in what Bell says here. N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, and others have written at length about how we misunderstand heaven and eternal life, and about the dangerous dualism the church has created between the eternal/spiritual realm of the future and the temporal/material world of now. I haven’t read Wright’s Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, The Resurrection and the Mission of the Church, recommended in Bell’s endnotes, but a Christianity Today excerpt published in 2008 gives an idea of the direction of his argument:

“The mission of the church is nothing more or less than the outworking, in the power of the Spirit, of Jesus' bodily resurrection. It is the anticipation of the time when God will fill the earth with his glory, transform the old heavens and earth into the new, and raise his children from the dead to populate and rule over the redeemed world he has made.

"If that is so, mission must urgently recover from its long-term schizophrenia. The split between saving souls and doing good in the world is not a product of the Bible or the gospel, but of the cultural captivity of both. The world of space, time, and matter is where real people live, where real communities happen, where difficult decisions are made, where schools and hospitals bear witness to the "now, already" of the gospel while police and prisons bear witness to the "not yet.”

This discussion is an important one. In a long post about Love Wins, Byron Borger, of Hearts and Minds Books, offers context, history and additional reading. Scot McKnight, author of The Blue Parakeet and religious studies professor at North Park University, offers his own thoughtful critique of Bell’s chapter in light of Wright’s work, and in light of a broad view of New Testament scholarship.
As Bell says
“Our eschatology shapes our ethics.
Eschatology is about last things.
Ethics are about how you live.”

In fact, our eschatology shapes everything. How we worship, how we pray, how we budget our money, share our faith. What we plant in our yards, what we serve at our tables.

International Justice Mission
If we believe this world is doomed, and we’re headed elsewhere, we watch with  detachment the suffering around us, eager to be on our way, happy to announce doomsday and watch our neighbors squirm.

If we believe this world is loved by God, and that we are part of the ongoing story of redemption, then our response will be different.

As we hear news of tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and droughts, I’ve been thinking of Romans 8:

For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.

Strange as it may sound to contemporary Christians, our physical selves and the physical world are tied in some way to the unfolding of God’s plan and the working of his spirit. Old Testament prophecies spell this out. Here’s just one of many passages, this one from Isaiah 32:

The fortress will be abandoned,
   the noisy city deserted;
citadel and watchtower will become a wasteland forever . . .
till the Spirit is poured on us from on high,
   and the desert becomes a fertile field,
   and the fertile field seems like a forest.
The Lord’s justice will dwell in the desert,
   his righteousness live in the fertile field.
The fruit of that righteousness will be peace;
   its effect will be quietness and confidence forever.

Blight and oppression are brought to an end as the Holy Spirit moves in God’s people. As Jesus prayed: “your kingdom come, on earth as in heaven.”

Bell may overstate his point in places, but it’s an important point, worth hearing:

“Jesus invites us,
in this life,
in this broken, beautiful world,
to experience the life of heaven now.
He insisted over and over that God’s peace, joy and love are currently available to us, exactly as we are.”

Even that last line gives me pause: “exactly as we are?” And yet, when I stop to think, yes, exactly as we are. Jesus demonstrated this again and again: healing for those who had never expressed faith, forgiveness for those still reeling in their sin, love for those who lived beyond the reach of love.

Our presentation of the gospel, too often, is backwards: “Repent, believe, accept, and sometime, way off in the future, you’ll get a good taste of what Jesus has to offer.”

Kenya Clean Water Project, Water Missions International
What if we lived the kingdom, the eternal life we talk about, in the way that Jesus showed us? What if the love, joy, peace, kindness, friendship, justice, mercy, wisdom, healing, was so visible and available that our friends, neighbors, children, could enjoy the fruit of our kingdom life before we even put it into words? What if our care for creation and our stewardship of resources created islands of grace and plenty that nourished not just our own, but those around us in need?

Isn’t that what led thousands at a time to a life of faith in the early days of the church? Isn’t that still the most compelling witness, in places where the church is growing?

Wright, in the CT article, says: “When the church is seen to move straight from worship of God to affecting much-needed change in the world; when it becomes clear that the people who feast at Jesus' table are the ones at the forefront of work to eliminate hunger and famine; when people realize that those who pray for the Spirit to work in and through them are the people who seem to have extra resources of love and patience in caring for those whose lives are damaged, bruised, and shamed—then it is natural for people to recognize that something is going on that they want to be part of.

I’m not wasting time worrying about when I’ll be rescued and taken off to heaven, and I’m not going to argue about the precise chronology of Christ’s coming. I’m excited to be living “life of the ages,” eternal life, life in God’s presence, here, today, from the minute I wake up to the moment I fall asleep. And I’m thankful for those, Rob Bell, Bishop Wright and others, who challenge the “dualistic, sectarian mentality” of the church and invite God’s people to demonstrate His kingdom now, in every arena.
As Bell says:
“There’s heaven now, somewhere else.
There’s heaven here,
sometime else.
And then there’s Jesus’ invitation to heaven
in this moment,
in this place.”

 Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Love Is ...

 Rob Bell's Love Wins raises some important questions about our understanding of God's love. What is God’s love like? And what does it mean to be his children?

Bell says "I believe that the indestructible love of God is an unfolding, dynamic reality and that every single one of us is endlessly being invited to trust, accept, believe, embrace and experience it."

What, exactly, does that mean? How do we learn to trust God's love when our own understanding of a love, and our own assessment of our own value, is badly skewed by less-than-perfect childhood experience?

I've spent the last thirty years working my way through those questions.

Thirty years ago, today, I was packing boxes in our small galley kitchen, preparing to move into a century-old twin we’d bought several blocks away. We had a baby due in a week or two but were hoping we’d finish the move before the baby appeared.
As I finished packing one box and reached for another, it occurred to me I was in labor. An hour or two later, my husband Whitney and I were on the way to Booth Maternity Center, a midwife-run birthing center on Philadelphia’s City Line. At 2:32 that night, our first daughter was born. I was twenty-five and, ready or not, a parent.

In some ways I was well prepared for parenthood. I’d been pied piper to a tribe of smaller cousins for years. I’d helped in church nurseries and Vacation Bible Schools, I’d started babysitting the minute I’d turned twelve, I’d been a camp counselor since I was sixteen, and had launched a youth group in our West Philly church. I could change diapers with the best of them, distract fussy kids with stories, songs, silly hand motions. I was good at logistics and schedules and I could teach almost anything, from fishing, to archery, to swimming, to standing on your head.

But there was an inner deficit, a hollowness inside that sang its sad song to me in those late night sessions while I rocked and sang our fussy baby back to sleep. I could do the work of a parent, but the heart of a parent seemed to be missing. I had started from a place of depletion - and the more I gave, the emptier I grew.

My own parents disappeared a month before I turned two. They were married too young, had four kids too fast, and struggled with undiagnosed depressions and disorders in a time when no one knew how to help. My siblings and I grew up in our grandparents’ home, until my grandfather sold it and announced he was done with parenthood and with us. From there, it was a rocky road through high school, with uncertain attention from our grandmother and other adults who appeared and disappeared as they were blown along by the changing circumstances of their lives.

I had no doubt that I had been loved along the way, but I had no consistent vision of what strong, steady parental love would look like, and not enough experience of it to pass along.

I’d seen, from a distance, some imposters. I’d seen the parental love that treated the child as extension of the parents’ ego. I’d seen the kind of needy love that would give anything to earn the child’s approval. I’d seen dictatorial parents who treated their children like robots, or little wind-up toys. I’d seen neglectful, selfish love, swooping in to say “Isn’t she cute!” then turning away to other interests. I was thankful to have been spared those facsimiles of love, but not sure the task-oriented form of care I’d been given, and knew how to give, was enough.

I was reminded, often, of a line from a James Taylor song:  Loving the love I love / To love is just a word I've heard when things are being said.

I loved my husband, and I knew he loved me. And I loved our childen, as two more came along. But there was always something strangely missing.

Yes, I understood that the very definition of love was Christ’s death on the cross. I’d memorized John 15, with that clear statement of love: “Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

It’s one thing, though, to understand love as a concept. That doesn’t make it a personal reality. I believed in God's love. I just didn't feel it.

Stampabilities Rubber Stamp
And yes, I was familiar with that famous chapter about love, 1 Corinthians 13. I’d memorized it in high school, and memorized it again as a parent: “Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”

I worked hard on all of those things: patience was almost impossible. Kindness? sometimes. Anger? That depended on the day. Record of wrongs? Still working on it.

The fact is - it was work. And that was the heart of the problem: it was all work. Rocking a baby late at night. Diapers. Laundry. Long, bored afternoons. The challenge of making dinner while kids whined underfoot. Work.

There was another passage I came across, memorized, and taped inside my cupboard door: Ephesians 3:14 to 21.

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

I understood God’s love – in concept. And I tried to live it- as a job description, a too-hard task I’d been given along with all the other too-hard tasks. But did I grasp it? Was I rooted in it? Was I filled with it? Was I strengthened by it?

I remember an evening after a too-long, too-hard day. We had three small nieces spending the week with us, to give their parents a break, and I’d made the mistake of letting the whole crew camp together in our basement playroom. We had a baby, asleep in her room upstairs, and five excited children arranged between a pull-out couch and some comforters on the floor. Upstairs it was quiet. Downstairs, it was mayhem.

I was tired, impatient, ready to be done with the day. We’d done too many trips to the bathroom, too many last drinks of water, too many “just one more” stories. Lights, and night lights, had been on and off too many times. to count. I sat on the hard wood of the basement steps, head in hands, and prayed.

I’m sure it wasn’t an eloquent prayer. More along the lines of “I don’t know how to do this, I don’t know why I put myself in this place, and God, I don’t love these kids. And I don’t feel like you love me. Show me. Show me that love that surpasses knowledge, and help me love these kids.”

No bright lights. No sudden voice. No angel song. But on those hard wood stairs, in that dark stairwell, I felt suddenly surrounded by a warmth and care that pressed in close and filled my empty heart. And I had a vision of God’s love. Not a visible vision, but a strange sense of being loved with a love that was firm, and patient, that would take as long as needed, that would hold me steady no matter what wind or waves swept past me. That wasn’t comparing me to anyone else, wasn’t grading me by some impossible standard. A warm, present, listening love, that melted my hard sad heart and still brings me to tears when I think of it.

Trying to describe it, I realize words fall short.  God was giving me a glimpse of that passage from Ephesians, rooting me further in his love, and giving me power to see the immensity of his love, a love that surpasses knowledge, and, even more, surpasses words.

Something inside me changed that night. It wasn’t a “conversion” – I was already following Christ as faithfully as I knew how. It was what Paul described in Ephesians: I began to grasp the boundless love of Christ, and began to be filled, in a new way, with the boundless fullness of God.

So what was different? The best I can say is I had begun to understand, somewhere beyond my head, what that phrase, “God’s love,” really meant. I was no longer trying to earn something that I knew I could never earn. I knew, in some deep, unexplainable way, that I was loved, and that God’s love, even when I couldn’t feel it, was present, at work, surrounding me.

And I knew that my role as parent was to do my best to offer a reflection of that same kind of love: Unchangeable. Wanting their best. Not dependent on their good behavior, their compliance, their good will. I could love them when they slammed the door, and could remind them, patiently, that they were free to be angry, but not free to be rude. I could love them when they made me look bad, interfered with my plans, challenged my priorities.

And I could love myself when I fell short, which happened, and still happens, twenty times a day. I could say I was sorry, and start again. Because the bottom line, for all of us, is we’re loved already. With a love beyond imagining.

That raises some important questions: about judgment, consequences, heaven, hell, what it means to be God's church, how we treat each other, how we explain the story of God's love. 

But for now, here’s what I pray, for my still-growing family, for the kids who come across my path, for the Christians who portray God in ways that make me cringe, for friends who’ve seen so little of God’s love they have trouble believing it’s real:

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

 Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Green Grace

Blue Heron  -C Kuniholm 2010
 When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life 
    and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, 
    and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
    (The Peace of Wild Things, Wendell Berry)

It’s easy to get caught up in the burdens of our day – headlines of nuclear fallout, record floods, fraud, fiscal impossibilities.

It’s easy to start the day uneasy, to hurry from appointment to task to challenge, and fall into bed at night still carrying that sense of unease, that feeling of modern malaise.

In the last decade, sociological and scientific research has validated a cure as old as the psalms: time in nature, “green time,” time spent in “the peace of wild things.”

Frances Kuo, a strong advocate of “green time”, recently published a major study documenting the importance of trees, grass, natural beauty, in calming the heart and easing the mind: 

An April article in Science Daily summarizes the findings:
  • Access to nature and green environments yields better cognitive functioning, more self-discipline and impulse control, and greater mental health overall.
  • Less access to nature is linked to exacerbated attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms, higher rates of anxiety disorders, and higher rates of clinical depression.
  • Greener environments enhance recovery from surgery, enable and support higher levels of physical activity, improve immune system functioning, help diabetics achieve healthier blood glucose levels, and improve functional health status and independent living skills among older adults.
  • By contrast, environments with less green space are associated with greater rates of childhood obesity; higher rates of 15 out of 24 categories of physician-diagnosed diseases, including cardiovascular diseases; and higher rates of mortality in younger and older adults.
"While it is true that richer people tend to have both greater access to nature and better physical health outcomes, the comparisons here show that even among people of the same socioeconomic status, those who have greater access to nature, have better physical health outcomes. Rarely do the scientific findings on any question align so clearly."
Backyard - C. Kuniholm 2010

I know for myself, in times of stress an hour spent weeding the moss path in my backyard can return me to quiet calm. When I’m angry or troubled, a short bird-watching jaunt around nearby Church Farm pond can shift my focus, realign my priorities, bring unexpected delight.  During my teen years, hovering on the edge of depression, I found myself taking long walks down unknown roads, finding grace and calm in the hills around my home, finding hope in the budding trees, the bright spring flowers, the feel of wind ruffling my hair. In my senior year of high school, during a very dark time, I would sit on the grassy bank of Lake Gleneida, watching the sunlight move across the ripples, finding rest, even joy, in the dance of sparkling water and sudden silky shadow.   

Outdoors I have experienced, more times than I can count, the truth of Psalm 23:

     The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
     He makes me lie down in green pastures,
     he leads me beside quiet waters,
     he restores my soul. 

I worry about kids who have no experience of green space, who can’t imagine spending an hour outside alone. In youth ministry, camp ministry, scout work, I tried hard to get kids outside, playing Ultimate Frisbee barefoot in the grass, reading under a tree, paddling a kayak on a little mountain pond, sitting around a campfire counting shooting stars.

Bayside nature walk - C. Kuniholm 2011
An amazing grace from my childhood was summers spent at a camp in the Catskllls. I still remember with great thanks the view across the valleys, the green grass of the baseball field sloping down the side of the mountain. I remember sitting by the little hidden waterfall, down across Sutton Road, and feeling the cool of the mist, the soothing song of the water, soaking in the grace of God’s beauty. I’d arrive at camp every summer feeling ragged and a little lost; somewhere along the way, swinging in the sun with the world below my feet, hiking up through the pine grove with whippoorwills calling, I’d notice I was strong again. Happy again. Healthy again.

In Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder , Richard Louv describes the forces that have kept our kids inside, creating a dangerous disconnect between children and the natural world. Our kids would be healthier if they spent more time outside. Their view would be clearer if they spent less time in simulated worlds and more time in the world of seasons, weather, bird song, soaking up God’s green grace.

But the same is true for us as adults. I have neighbors who only come outside to mow the grass and unload their groceries from the car.

I’m reminded of the Gerard Manley Hopkin poem, written more than a century ago.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
                (God's Grandeur, Gerard Manley Hopkins)

We are “smeared with toil,” hurrying to get what we need, worrying about many things. Yet, for many of us, a place of refuge is just steps away. God’s grace is there, waiting to fill us, as it filled David, out in the wilderness, on the run for his life. As it filled Elijah, weary and despairing. 

I’m puzzled, and saddened, at Christians who seem alarmed at the idea that God can meet us in nature, that He can use his creation to soothe and heal us. It’s His, right? His gift to us. There’s nothing pantheistic, new age, spiritually dangerous, about finding God’s grace at work in his world.
Backyard shooting stars - C. Kuniholm 2011

As David said in Psalm 65:

The whole earth is filled with awe 
   at your wonders;
   where morning dawns, where evening fades,

   you call forth songs of joy.
You crown the year with your bounty,
   and your carts overflow with abundance.
The grasslands of the wilderness overflow;
   the hills are clothed with gladness.
The meadows are covered with flocks
   and the valleys are mantled with grain;

   they shout for joy and sing.

David repeatedly mentions awe and joy in his experience of nature. When I think of times I’ve spent exploring creation, digging in the dirt with small children, wandering waterways with kids of all ages, celebrating spring in all its glory, awe and joy are the emotions that come to mind: a good foundation for mental health, and a gracious reminder of God and his goodness.

I’m heading outside – to check what’s blooming, to plant some native azaleas, to see what’s happening in the nests around our yard.  

I hope you have time outside as well, enjoying God’s green grace. 

 Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Love Wins

“...I believe that Jesus’s story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us. It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love, and it is for everybody, everywhere.

"That’s the story.
'For God so loved the world . . . '
That’s why Jesus came.
That’s his message.
That’s where the life is found."

That’s the start of Rob Bell’s controversial, brilliant, very engaging new book, Love Wins. As he continues:

There are a growing number of us who have become acutely aware that Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of other stories Jesus isn’t interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what he came to do. The plot has been lost, and it’s time to reclaim it.

"I’ve written this book for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter thos resolute words, 'I would never be a part of that.'

"You are not alone.
There are millions of us.”

As I've read and thought about what Bell has to say, I'd have to agree: the good news of Jesus has come to sound like bad news for almost everyone, for those who don’t endorse right wing politics, those who weren’t born in our “Christian” nation, those who like to ask difficult questions, those who struggle with gender identity, those who have trouble expressing their faith in the exact formula endorsed by their particular denomination.

Bell goes on to explain that his book is meant to “question some of the dominant stories that are being told as the Jesus story.” He notes “Some communities don’t permit open, honest inquiry about the things that matter most. Lots of people have voiced a concern, expressed a doubt, or raised a question, only to be told by their family, church, friends, or tribe: “We don’t discuss those things here.’”

Right again. Assumptions abound – about whose side God is on, about whose agenda he endorses, about how we know what’s true, about how we read what the Bible says. It’s far too easy to be branded liberal, heretic, non-believer, "universalist," just for wondering why Christians embrace one passage and ignore another, or embrace one issue, while pretending others don’t matter.

So, Bell sets out to reexamine “the Jesus story,“ and the good news Jesus proclaims, to open space for questions that can’t be resolved by anyone this side of heaven, and finally, to demonstrate the breadth of the “historic, orthodox, Christian faith. It’s a deep, wide, diverse stream that’s been flowing for thousands of years, carrying a staggering variety of voices, perspectives, and experiences.”

There are plenty of responses to Love Wins. Fuller President Richard Mouw’s endorsement of Rob Bell’s orthodoxy; maverick Brian Mclaren’s musings on interpretation, communication, and the difficulties in our labeling of Christian liberal and conservative; a very detailed analysis from Reformed pastor and co-author of Why I’m Not Emergent, Kevin DeYoung, detailing what he considers Bell’s errors. One very funny response from Don MIller of Blue Like Jazz fame. And, by far the most helpful, a very thoughtful, careful series of posts by Scot McKnight, author of The Blue Parakeet and religious studies professor at North Park University.

And plenty of uncharitable, wrong-headed, “shoot first then ask questions” comments, twitters, blogs, posts, reviews, many from Christian leaders who should know better. Too often the interviewers sound like Pharisees, trying to trap Jesus with either/or questions, with no real desire to hear the mystery beyond what they’re asking. And too often the critics sound like they know –for sure – how it all turns out, when we’re told “we know in part, and understand in part.”

Which brings us back to the topic of God’s love, and the good news we’re called to share.

Forgive me for jumping to the end of Bell’s book – I’m not really giving away the ending, because on the one hand we already know the ending: Love Wins. And on the other hand, as Bell makes clear, we don’t know the ending, fully, completely, because it’s way past what we can understand or envision. “Heaven is, after all, full of surprises.”

So we know, and don’t know, how the story ends. But this is where Bell takes us:

Jesus invites us to trust that the love we fear is too good to be true is actually good enough to be true. It’s written in one of John’s letters in the scriptures that ‘what we will be has not yet been made known.’ Jesus invites us to become, to be drawn into this love as it shapes us and forms us and takes over every square inch of our lives. Jesus calls us to repent, to have our minds and hearts transformed so that we see everything differently

"It will require a death,
A humbling,
A leaving behind of the old mind,
And at that same time it will require an opening up,
And loosening our hold,
And letting go,
So that we can receive,
And enjoy. . .

"Whatever you’ve been told about the end-
The end of your life,
The end of time,
The end of the world –
Jesus passionately urges us to live like the end is here,

That’s not quite the end, but it’s where I want to end for now. Yes, I recommend the book. And I recommend wrestling with the story, as Bell does so eloquently. What is the story Jesus tells about us, about our future, about the world he made? Who has the final word? 

And I recommend a continuing dialogue about what it looks like to live as people of love, people of good news, people of resurrection. As Bell makes very clear, the point isn’t, solely, what happens when we die, but what happens here, now, in this time, in this place. How does God’s love change me, today? How does that love change the world, through me, today? As his chapter on heaven is titled, “Here is the new there.” The story isn't just about life after death, but life before death. 
Jesus teaches us to pursue the life of heaven now and also then, anticipating the day when earth and heaven are one.

Honest business,
Redemptive art,
Honorable law,
Sustainable living,
Making a home,
Tending a garden-
They’re all sacred tasks to be done in partnership with God now, because they will all go on in the age to come.”

The new life we're called to, the life of heaven, pursued here, now, is love: inviting, expansive, active, personal, shared with those like us and those we could never love on our own, those next door and those on the other side of the globe, a visible expression of God alive in us. Love made possible by Jesus Christ's example, his atonement, and his Spirit at work inside us.  

"Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us." 1 John 4:7-12

"And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God". Ephesians 3:17-19

"For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."  Romans 8:38-39

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Paradox of Pain

Which of these is true? Either God is all powerful but doesn’t care about the people of Japan and their suffering or He does care about the people of Japan but He’s not all powerful? Which is it?

There’s a viral video clip circulating of an interview with Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, mastermind behind the effective Nooma videos and author of the just-released much-discussed book Love Wins. The interview, with Martin Bashir of MSNBC, has Bell’s detractors rejoicing at Bell’s apparent sidestepping of some either-or questions.
One either-or question Bashir repeats has been echoing in my head, as I’ve followed the news of tornados in unexpected places, heard reports of the continuing struggle following the earthquakes and tsunami in Japan, and spent time visiting and praying for our friend Emily, struck by lightening almost three years ago. Here’s part of the transcript:

Kyodo Press
Bashir: Before we talk about the book (Love Wins), just help us with this tragedy in Japan. Which of these is true? Either God is all powerful but doesn’t care about the people of Japan and their suffering or He does care about the people of Japan but He’s not all powerful? Which is it?

Bell: I begin with the belief that God, when we shed a tear, God sheds a tear. I begin with a divine being who is profoundly empathetic, compassionate and stands in solidarity with us. Secondly the dominant story of the scriptures is about restoration, it’s about renewal, it’s about rebirth, it’s about a god who insists in the midst of this chaos the last word hasn’t been spoken so people of faith cling to the hope God will fix this place. It’s a beautiful hope. We ought to keep it front and center now.

Bashir: So which of those is true, he’s all-powerful and he cares or he cares and he’s not all-powerful?

Bell: I think it’s a paradox at the heart of the divine. Some paradoxes are best left as they are.

Bell is finding himself criticized in Christian circles because he insists on paradox. God loves us, cares, is all powerful, but allows tsunamis. Jesus will draw all men to himself, but we have the freedom to resist. We don’t like paradox, yet if we watch the world carefully, and read scripture thoughtfully, we find reality saturated with paradox, and our attempts to nail things down, tie them up, list them out, thwarted at every turn. 

Consider this short passage: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Philippians 2:12-13).

Who is working? What part does human agency play? Looks like paradox to me. I could spend this whole blog listing inescapable paradoxes, but stay with this one: is God caring but unable to stop tsunamis and tornados, or is God powerful but disinterested?
Put this another way: Where was God when my parents split and left four kids to fend for themselves? When Emily was digging daffodil bulbs and a lightning bolt shot through her? When all those priests whose parishioners trusted them abused the children in their care? When the tornado ripped roofs off homes, and smashed cars with children inside?

Here’s the paradox, the puzzle I can’t unravel. He was right there – grieving. He was right there, loving those who did harm, those done harm, arms of love surrounding both  the innocent and the guilty. Waiting to bring redemption.

Don’t buy it?

We approach the problem of pain from one of two directions. We can see it as an intellectual exercise – the Pharisees either/or. When we come at it from that direction, we get the answer God gives in Job:
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
   Tell me, if you understand.
  Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! . . .
“Brace yourself like a man;
   I will question you,
   and you shall answer me.
“Would you discredit my justice?
   Would you condemn me to justify yourself?

In other words, God says “you think your puny mind is going to understand my intent? Little, time-locked, three-dimensional human, you think you think you can grasp the greater purpose of one who lives outside time, outside space, in dimensions you can’t begin to fathom? You trust your mind that much?”

The other approach is that of the hurt child, the wounded friend, asking “Why?”

Peter Kreeft, philosophy professor at Boston University, leans into this question in a thoughtful discussion of suffering:  

“This is not merely the philosophers' ‘why’" Not only does it add the emotion of tears but also it is asked in the context of relationship. It is a question put to the Father, not a question asked in a vacuum.

The hurt child needs not so much explanations as reassurances. And that is what we get: the reassurance of the Father in the person of Jesus, ‘he who has seen me has seen the Father’ (Jn 14:9).

The answer is not just a word but the Word; not an idea but a person. . . He didn't give us a placebo or a pill or good advice. He gave us himself.

Anna Kocher  2006
. . . He sits beside us in the lowest places of our lives, like water. Are we broken? He is broken with us. Are we rejected? Do people despise us not for our evil but for our good, or attempted good? He was ‘despised and rejected of men.’ Do we weep? Is grief our familiar spirit, our horrifyingly familiar ghost? Do we ever say, ‘Oh, no, not again! I can't take any more!’? He was ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’ Do people misunderstand us, turn away from us? They hid their faces from him as from an outcast, a leper. Is our love betrayed? Are our tenderest relationships broken? He too loved and was betrayed by the ones he loved. ‘He came unto his own and his own received him not.’ 

. . . Does he descend into all our hells? Yes. In the unforgettable line of Corrie ten Boom from the depths of a Nazi death camp, ‘No matter how deep our darkness, he is deeper still.’

Kreeft’s discussion raises some interesting ideas about suffering, the cross, God’s love, but leaves questions, objections. Any attempt to address suffering is by necessity superficial – pain goes beyond words, beyond thought. Who would expect the problem of pain to be resolved in a two sentence soundbite, (as in the Bell/Bashir interview) a short (or long) blog entry, a few-thousand-word essay?

C. S. Lewis, described as the greatest apologist of the early 20th century, wrote two full-length books wrestling with the question of suffering, first from the philosophical angle, in The Problem of Pain, and again from a personal, relational point of view, in A Grief Observed. Anyone seriously considering suffering and pain would do well to read them, but his conclusions are no clearer than Rob Bell’s simple admission: “It’s a paradox at the heart of the divine.”

Here’s what Lewis says in A Grief Observed:

When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘no answer’. It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate gaze. As though He shook his head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child, you don’t understand.

Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All non-sense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is a yellow square round? Probably half the questions we ask — half our great theological and metaphysical problems, are like that.

Later, Lewis concludes:

Heaven will solve our problems, but not by showing us subtle reconciliations between all our apparently contradictory notions. The notions will be knocked from under our feet. We shall see that there never was any problem.

We see in part, and understand in part. What I’ve learned, in my own experience, and in shared prayer and struggle with many others, is that when we turn to God in our pain, he comes close. He meets us there. He leads us into deeper knowledge of himself, greater fellowship with Christ and his cross, and deeper compassion with others in pain.

Jeff Roberts, Birmingham News AP
That may be the most mysterious aspect of suffering. “The answer is not just a word but the Word; not an idea but a person.” And while the person is always Jesus, sometimes the person is also us. As Kreeft says: He came. He is here. That is the salient fact. If he does not heal all our broken bones and loves and lives now, he comes into them and is broken, like bread, and we are nourished. And he shows us that we can henceforth use our very brokenness as nourishment for those we love. Since we are his body, we too are the bread that is broken for others. Our very failures help heal other lives; our very tears help wipe away tears; our being hated helps those we love.

How is it possible, that our suffering can aid those who suffer? Paradox. Another of those questions that will be knocked from under out feet, when we see the full purpose, in dimensions we can just begin to imagine. Another mystery to pursue another day.

Like graves, we heal over, and yet keep
as part of ourselves the severe gift.
By grief, more inward than darkness,
the dead become the intelligences of life.
Where the tree falls, the forest rises
There is nowhere to stand but in absence,
no life but in the fateful light.
    From Rising (Wendell Berry)

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.