20,000 children will lead the May 2012 World Prayer Assembly in prayer for the world. Wow. Which begs the question: can prayer be social justice? After watching this video sent on by organizers of the May 2012 “World Prayer Assembly” in Jakarta, Indonesia, I am tempted to think so, albeit with some hesitations. (Incidentally, if you have an inkling to stop by and can afford the two days of air travel- I’m tempted!- you are warmly welcomed to attend.)
When I watch this video I am once again reminded that the church in the global South is not just alive and well but on fire with the Holy Spirit in a way that can teach us something about the intersection of prayer with God’s mission to reconcile all things to Himself and redeem us and our world:
Apparently Rob Bell’s best-selling Love Wins and its ambivalent stance towards an “eternal” hell (as “eternal” has historically been interpreted by evangelicals at least) continue to send ripples. Two authors, author of Crazy Love Francis Chan and senior managing editor of Christianity Today Mark Galli have now responded with their own books, both of which seem at the outset (from a reading of Stan Guthrie’s review in Books and Culture) like a sniffing out of any potentially dangerous “universalism” (the idea that all people at some point in the scheme of eternity will be saved) in both Bell’s book and the Bible.
I am grateful for this latest round in the discussion. If truth be told, I am also intrigued by the way in which Bell and his more narrative, impressionistic engagement with the topic of heaven and hell have become such a lightening rod. A universalist reading of Scripture- (if in fact Bell is advocating this, and I, having read Love Wins, am not sure he totally is)- is in no way new in a survey of centuries of church history. Nor does it stand outside quite a wide spectrum of varying takes on the subject, all of which qualify as “orthodox” Christianity.
So why does Bell elicit such strong reactions, I wonder? Take this opener to Guthrie’s review, for instance: “Rob Bell, as you may have heard, sympathizes with those who have left the church because of their discomfort with the doctrine of eternal punishment. Alas, he seems to lack sympathy for people still in the church who believe in a God who sends unbelievers to hell.” Or, take N.D. Wilson’s voicing of a common refrain among Bell’s critics that Bell “cannot be pinned down.” Wilson goes so far as to imply that Bell, in his peripatetic questions, is a “pensive rabbit.” (A bit uncharitable if not harsh, don’t you think?) What follows is a rather sarcastic and summary dismissal of the questions Bell raises, with little appreciation for the grays in which Bell would invite us to inhabit when it comes to engaging Scripture on the subject of heaven and hell.
The implication here? That if Rob Bell cannot be pinned down, Scripture can be. But I beg to differ. The Bible I read does not give a consistently clear, definitive answer to the question of what “hell” looks like. Eternal torment in flames of fire. Total annihilation. “Gehenna,” or the rubbish heap where worthless things are thrown out. Yes, “hell” is all these things. But “heaven” is also a place where, we are told, “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4). Which, I might add, begs a question: how are those of us who find ourselves within the “pearly gates” of eternal bliss to live pain-free when our agnostic uncle, whose lap we used to crawl up onto at family reunions, is eternally burning away in flames of fire in the next room over, or being continuously water-boarded (to borrow a more contemporary metaphor for eternal torment)?
So while maybe I needn’t be so surprised by the way in which Bell has become a bit of a punching bag, I am disappointed. Because at its heart, this debate about heaven and hell really is an argument about who God really is and whether God is who God says God is- whether God really is Love and whether we can trust that God is Love. And it seems to me that the basic statement, “God is Love,” is one that we evangelicals, regardless of our differences, might be able to get behind.
Which leads me to think that Rob Bell is right: if we believe that God is Love and that God “wins,” then we must also believe that “Love” wins. The details of what that victory looks like exactly in the scope of eternity remain elusive- at least insofar as we are willing to admit the insufficiency of Scripture and our human limitations to answer such questions with great certainty. When Bell as a prominent leader in the church does this very thing, it gives the rest of us permission to wrestle with God and Scripture, too. And, it should. “Love” requires it.
So back to the opening line of Guthrie’s review: “Rob Bell, as you may have heard, sympathizes with those who have left the church because of their discomfort with the doctrine of eternal punishment. Alas, he seems to lack sympathy for people still in the church who believe in a God who sends unbelievers to hell.”
It seems to me that until we understand that the church is the one organization that does not exist for itself– that the church exists in love for the sake of God’s world- it will be easy to interpret one church leader’s daring to believe in the triumphant conquest of God’s Love as subtle “church bashing.” In other words, an over-arching concern to engage and problematize a doctrine (eternal punishment) that is a stumbling block for many outside the church, not to mention a good many within the church, probably will come across as a belittling of the many good people in the pews who hold to that same doctrine. But sometimes a bit of self-deprecation when it comes to the things we in the church spout is the very best way to witness to a love that really is cosmic in its vision and scope. And, if we evangelicals are serious about proclaiming God’s love in Jesus Christ in word and deed, maybe the best place to start is with the things we’re most sure about.
“The law, you see, was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus the Messiah.” -John 1:17
“The Messiah”- and here I resort to consulting trusty exegetical companion N.T. Wright- literally means “anointed one,” and in theory can be either a prophet, priest or king. In practice, the Messiah was the one in ancient Judaic tradition who would come to reign as king over Israel and rescue God’s people from their enemies. Wright locates the persistence of the conviction that Jesus was in fact the Messiah in the belief that Jesus really was raised from the dead. (After all, no Messiah, according to the prevailing Judaic understanding of the time, would have let himself be crucified in the first place.)
And the New Testament does present Jesus as one who fulfills all three of these roles of prophet, priest and king. Jesus takes his place within a long line of prophets who come to God’s people warning them of God’s judgment and urging them to return to God. But he also intercedes on behalf of not only Israel but all who call upon His name, promising to rescue them. And, the many miraculous healings Jesus performs gesture to a kingdom that is both not of this world but has every relation to it- a kingdom in which heaven and earth find restoration and where the lame walk, the blind see and those in bondage are set free, and where we are invited to dwell, too, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The law that God gives to Moses in the form of the Ten Commandments? This is but a skeletal, albeit very helpful outline of God’s desire for how human beings are to live in relation to God and one another; without Jesus, this law can become a sometimes sickening reminder of our separation from God and the ways that we fail to live up to God’s very best for us; but in Jesus, who as Messiah also perfectly fulfills the law- (which makes me wonder if Jesus could still have been “a naughty boy,” and I would like to think so!)- God seeks to plant in us what the law could not do, which was this restoration of relationship with the One who made us. In Jesus, God need no longer be the officious school marm managing our every sin, and instead becomes our friend, lover, or the loving father we never had.
What does this mean for us today? I suppose the notion of Christ as Messiah can cause many of us to shudder or roll our eyes. When spirituality these days is so often about our own kingdoms and our own preferences, who, after all, needs a king? When a personal relationship with God often can be reduced to little more than our own direct experience of God, which is often on our own terms in the forms that we want it to be, who needs a priest? Who needs someone who will intercede before God for us, asking God to be merciful on our behalves? And then there is this often antiquated-sounding term, “prophet,” which in some ways can distance us from Jesus. It makes us think of strange, wilderness-loving men in hair shirts (John the Baptist) or depressives who forgot to take their Prozac (Jeremiah). But a “prophet” is really anybody who serves as a kind of human “alarm clock,” waking us up to God’s love, sometimes jarringly, but always with our very best purposes in mind.
And if Jesus really is these three things, then Jesus is by definition the Messiah. The “anointed one” who comes to us not on our own terms and not according to our own expectations but as a real God would: as a gracious ruler seeking to inhabit our hearts and rule our kingdoms, advocating for our very best because love itself demands this, and persistently waking us up to this love in countless ways.
Apparently my reflections on Lauren Winner and her latest book have generated interest if not controversy about the nature of marriage as a storybook conclusion to the hopes and dreams of single people. In light of this, a few thoughts, queries and resources to further the discussion.
First, while I single out evangelical Christianity for its gilded, fairy tale approach to marriage, I want to acknowledge something that is obvious: that this theology is steeped in a larger culture that sends the same message. (In other words, we evangelicals are not singlehandedly guilty of fostering this myth.) While we can look just about anywhere to see this, the following Beliefnet article, which describes the stories of brides-in-waiting who enter “The Magic Room” of a wedding dress shop, is a good place to start: http://www.beliefnet.com/Love-Family/Galleries/11-Lessons-About-the-Love-Within-Families.aspx. (It leaves me waiting for that scene in the movie, “Bridesmaids,” when a giddy bride and her bridesmaids upchuck while trying on dresses in a fancy boutique store.)
There is also historical precedent within evangelicalism itself for healthier theological approaches to marriage, as Karen Swallow Prior notes in her article, “Marriage: Creating a Partnership, Not Reeling in a Catch,” complements of friend Jake Dell. In the framework of marriage as a vocation, then, which I might add is the primary way in which my own denomination, the PC(USA), construes marriage, marriage is the joining together of two people based on a common calling to serve God.
The question I would lift up now is how to read Scripture when it comes to a Bible replete with imagery of brides preparing to meet their bridegrooms. Take, for example, the parable of the ten “virgins” awaiting the arrival of their bridegroom (Matthew 25:1-13). Or, the imagery of Jerusalem “coming down from heaven like a bride prepared to meet her husband” (Revelation 21:2). Then there is, of course, that whole, Old Testament book, Song of Songs, about the sexual union between a man and a woman (presumably united in marriage, albeit marriage in a different form than the kind we are talking about in the 21st century). When I read these passages, I tend to understand them as describing marriage as a telos or end in itself, rather than as a crucible for mutual relationship and the living out of vocation. Marriage in these passages seems more like a consummation than a process of transformation. So, in other words, we are left to wrestle with Scripture itself in sorting out a healthier, contemporary approach to how women and men are to approach a life-long commitment to one another. What do you do with this question?
Incidentally, I would also make a plug for FB friend Rachel Held-Evans’ forthcoming book with Thomas Nelson featuring “Biblical Womahood.” Rachel spent a year following all of the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible. I suspect her insights will at least indirectly provide a window onto marriage as a biblical trope.
If there were anyone who knew about insecurity or a sense of not “measuring up,” it would be the thirteenth century, “stealth theologian” Mechthild de Magdeburg: she wrote as a woman in a largely male-dominated world of letters; she did not know the more academic Latin of her time and instead wrote in her lay, mother tongue of German; and as one of the wandering, marginalized and soon-to-be-outlawed “Beguine” mystics, she rejected the patriarchally prescribed routes for women in her time (marriage and family, or the nunnery). So Mechthild has something to teach us about how to overcome our insecurities. The following five ways to “shush” insecurity in your life come directly from Mechthild’s spiritual “treatise” of sorts (if this eclectic mix of allegory, poetry, aphorisms, and visions could be called this), The Flowing Light of the Godhead.
1. Remind yourself that God is Love and that God in God’s love has imprinted God’s very Self on you in the form of your soul (I,22); then let God love you by in essence “waking up” to this love (II, 23).
2. Remember you belong to the community of God’s Triune Self as the Father’s “daughter” (son), the Son Jesus’ “sister” (brother) and the Holy Spirit’s spouse (II, 22). Think about this for a moment: your life is caught up in the life of God, so that you not only are intimately known by God but belong with God and in God; strive to live into this reality.
3. View everything you do as an equal means of honoring God (and in turn taking yourself less seriously). That means, as Mechthild spells out, that satisfying our most basic bodily needs (be it in the form of eating breakfast or taking a dump) can become a way of honoring God when we do it with love of God (I, 27).
3. Welcome the things that scare you or make you question yourself or your place in the world as gifts from God, and reject anything that separates you from God’s love (most notably, willful sin) (I, 27).
4. Remind yourself that other people are not what they seem: those who claim to be “religious” are often not; just as those who claim to be “secure” about their relationship with God and the course of their lives, are often not; so don’t compare yourself with anybody else, and instead learn to look within yourself to see how God is drawing your unique self to Love, which is really why you are alive in the first place (II, 25).
5. When you feel most unworthy, poor, lowly or unable to give the world anything of value, that is when God is most ready to use you, just as God used Mary the mother of Jesus. God says to you this, in the words of Mechthild: “The highest mountains on earth cannot receive the revelations of my favors because the course of my Holy Spirit flows by nature downhill” (II, 26).
6. Meditate on how God is using even your insecurities to bear something beautiful and “holy” (or “set apart”) within you, in the same way that Mary, the mother of Jesus, bore God’s very Self within her when she was most vulnerable and felt most unworthy (II, 4).
The domesticated goddess in me made a new recipe the other night. (These days “domesticated” means trying out the dishes on sample at my local Trader Joe’s, so long as I can be assured of four ingredients or less.) So this evening we were to eat “Baked Chili Cheese Cornbread Casserole” (a bag of shredded cheddar over TJ’s cornbread batter and two cans of TJ’s turkey chili). Simple enough, right? You would think so- especially if you follow the directions.
We sat down to dig in and quickly discovered that the corn bread was only partially finished and that in fact, underneath the yellow crust was nothing but gooey batter. I apologized, but by way of example, proceeded to eat my serving. (It was getting late, and the kids needed to be in bed soon. Baking dinner any longer didn’t seem like an option at this point.) The ensuing dialogue from that evening goes something like this:
Kid 1 (normally my big eater): Takes one bite and decides she would rather be excused; without asking permission- she is two- she lets herself down and runs away before I can protest.
Husband (grimacing dramatically, as if he has just been asked to swim across the English Channel with ten-pound weights): “I’m sorry but I just really don’t think I can eat this.”
Me: “If we were in some parts of Africa right now, we would be eating this just because it’s food.”
Husband grudgingly and painstakingly takes another bite.
Kid 2 (whiningly, having not tried it but now taking his cue from Dad): “Mommy, I can’t eat this.”
Me: “Oh alright. I guess you can give yours to Carter (Carter is our dog.)”
Husband: “I’ll make some mac n’ cheese for the kids.” (He’s secretly dying for some mac n’ cheese. I can see it written all over his face.)
Me: “Fine. Give it to Carter then.”
The three bowls make their way to the floor as part of a nightly ritual of plate cleaning in which Carter is happy to indulge. Only this time, of course, Carter has really lucked out, or so I think. Carter eats one bowl and decides he has had enough…
Sometimes, when it comes to the depth, adventure and rich texture of a relationship with Jesus Christ, I wonder if we in the church often pull out half-baked chili cheese casserole for people and expect them to eat it. Which is one reason why so many folks these days find food for their souls outside the church.
To be fair, the term, “spirituality,” is actually quite young here in America: it has only been “baking” for so long. Eric Leigh Schmidt’s Restless Souls, which chronicles the development of what he describes as a quintessentially American, spiritual restlessness, locates the first textual use of the term in the early nineteenth century.
But the reality is that these days what many people are looking for and seemingly not finding in the church is a very real experience of God’s presence in the stuff of their lives. When “church” each Sunday becomes little more than another social gathering and the “sermon” a self-help pep talk, people naturally will resort to looking for God outside Christians’ prescribed holy places. Because understandably most of us are looking for more than half-baked dishes. We want something that not only feeds us but tastes good and is nourishing.
“Taste and see that the Lord is good,” the Psalmist says. “Take my yoke upon you, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest,” Jesus says (Matthew 11:25). What if Christian spirituality were as simple and profound as feeding on God’s goodness and taking on the yoke of Jesus (which is really a way of describing what it means to walk in step with Jesus and get to know Him)? What if we the church learned to talk about why we gather in terms of just these two things and nothing more? Would we still be feeding people half-baked chili cheese casseroles?
In light of Rick Warren’s latest campaign to help Christians lose weight and stay fit- the pastor of Saddleback Church has reportedly lost 60 pounds on his biblically inspired “Daniel Plan”- this very helpful, annotated guide to worship signals might come in handy. (It comes compliments of FB friend Bob Hyatt who pastors The Evergreen Community in Portland, Oregon.)
Just string a few of these arm movements together, maybe to the tune of Beyonce’s “Move Your Body” (if you’re not a big fan of contemporary Christian music) and you’ll have quite the upper-body work-out. Or, visit a non-denominational church in your area and give them a try. You’ll find you fit right in- and you’ll burn a few calories, too.
“Love me passionately, love me often, and love me long.” The appeal might grace the cover of Cosmopolitan. The one, big exception? That it is addressed to God…in the thirteenth century…by a “virginal” nun named Mechthild de Magdeburg.
These days I am reading Mechthild’s strange, quirky yet wise The Flowing Light of the Godhead and finding there what she (or at least her male confessor, Heinrich) promises in the Prologue: “an increase in solace and spiritual grace.” For me, the “solace” consists in the reassurance that the Holy Spirit was alive and well in speaking authoritatively through women writers and theologians as far back as the thirteenth century. The “grace”- in the presentation of a God who longs jealously after my soul the way a stricken lover does, and from whom separation is as necessary as “togetherness” if our love is to be real.
This depiction of the spiritual life as one of Love wooing the human soul in an erotically laced, wrestling contest of sorts is one that we would do well to recover in an age when sexuality has become so untethered from spirituality. That God’s Love in a sense seeks to “devour” us, so that even our best virtues burn away when we find ourselves in the refining fire of God’s jealous love, is, I suspect, an important component in any conversation about the nature of love, sex and spirituality. I am grateful to Mechthild for giving it voice. In the days and weeks to come, you will probably be hearing more from Mechthild and other women writers and theologians as I, thanks to Emory theologian Wendy Farley and her seminar on women’s theology, survey their contributions to the Christian tradition. I hope you’ll join us for the ride!
While she doesn’t need or want my sympathy, I feel sorry for popular evangelical writer Lauren Winner. Only several years back we were reading her ambitious project to “change how Christians have sex.” Now we are reading about her divorce.
Winner’s latest book, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, are reflections on God’s presence in the pain and disillusionment when “til’ death do us part” comes undone in six years. “Still” in this context describes the act of giving pause to reconsider where God is and to be attentive to God’s presence, or seeming lack thereof; it is also a way of proclaiming that somehow in life’s messiness, God is still there.
And I must admit that I like this “stiller” version of Winner better. That is because, while it may not be Winner’s intention in her latest book to uncover and chip away at a pervasive myth in evangelical circles, she nonetheless does this very thing: her crisis of faith arises within and to a certain degree from an evangelical fairy tale about what it means to become a Christian and what it means to be married. What I am talking about here is the way that we evangelicals have historically equated both marriage and a born again conversion with “The Promised Land.” If you’re not married, then, in essence, you haven’t “arrived;” and, if you’re not a “born-again” Christian, then you haven’t truly “arrived,” either. There is little appreciation for the nature of conversion as an ongoing process made up of many steps forward and backward along the way; or, for marriage as only one option among a couple, or even a few, equally viable, equally “holy” alternatives for living out one’s God-given vocation.
I don’t have to dig too deep into my own experience to recognize the hang-ups that this glorification of marriage and a one-time conversion experience can foster. Having been married twelve years now, I am struck (sometimes painfully, sometimes serendipitously) by how marriage, much like conversion, involves an ongoing process of falling in and out of love, losing and then finding oneself, and being, in essence, “converted” and transformed over and over again. The notion that marriage itself, much like being born again, is somehow the telos– the end of our restless striving and longing- is not only flawed but destructive.
And, yet it has taken a long while to welcome this discovery as the falling away of unhealthy illusions about my relationship with God and with my spouse. I certainly had no clue what I was getting into when, at the tender age of 5 and at the cue of missionary parents- they had been sent to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by their Evangelical Free church- I accepted Jesus into my heart. I had only a little more clue about what I was getting into when nineteen years later I strode down the aisle of a little Episcopal church in New Haven, Connecticut to say the words, “I do.” Because in both cases the message relayed to me within evangelical circles was that “this” was the euphoric “it;” that I had not only made the most important decision of my life, but would now be a full, fulfilled and self-realized human being. Pain, confusion, discouragement, and loss of self? These things were not even acknowledged as possibilities in the “promised lands” of marriage and being “born again.”
So I guess I am grateful to Winner for sharing her story. She has poked in a more personal way at the underside of the evangelical fairy tale that we so rarely see, or see largely in statistics- how, for example, the divorce rate among Christians is as high as it is among the general population (approximately one in two marriages); or how the still largely Christian South where I live boasts some of the worst divorce rates in the country; or how a girl who has met God, “seen the light” and “arrived” can then find that same God a stranger shrouded in darkness.
Somehow this gentler, more chastened Winner seems a bit more likeable than the one leading the crusade to change how my husband and I have sex.
Words tend to matter less these days. Talk is cheap. If the Republican presidential nomination process hasn’t convinced you, take this for an example: apparently you can buy an iPhone app that puts words in your mouth- in this case, “Status Shuffle” will update your Facebook status for you, so that you at least sound funny, creative or interesting (when in reality you may be a conventional, personality-less bore).
But the Gospel writer of John calls Jesus “the Word.” The same Word that God spoke when God creates the world, saying “Let there be.” “Word made flesh.” The cosmic, life-giving, energizing force that was present at the very beginning of the universe and which still “speaks” all creation into being has in the person of Jesus become a human being.
I often meet people who say with certainty that they believe in a life force or energy of some kind, if not a Higher Power, because they have experienced it. They see it in nature. Or they sense it in the birth of a child. Or in the union between two people in love. Or in great works of art, or movements that change the world. But the notion that this same force might be embodied in a person is harder to wrap one’s mind around, isn’t it?
Yet the Gospel of John would claim this very thing about Jesus. Which is a claim not only about Jesus’ divinity- that Jesus is God incarnate- but a statement about Jesus’ very trustworthiness.
Most of us have met people who speak eloquently about all sorts of things, or make claims on us or promises. Claims in the form of “I love you” or “You can trust me.” Or promises like “I won’t say a word” or “Til’ death do us part.” Some times we are the ones who make these assertions only to discover that we can’t live up to them. Our words fail to create a reality that is lived out in our character or actions. Similarly, when our politicians, spouses, lovers, pastors, or parents fail us, it is usually because somewhere along the line their words proved untrustworthy.
But someone who lives up to their word honors a personal relationship with us. And in turn makes claims on us, too- claims that many of us would prefer to ignore, or resent. In some ways, it is easier to reduce God to nothing more than an impersonal cosmic energy force, because it means that God is ultimately disinterested in how we live our lives (which we often would prefer to live on our own terms, anyway).
So the boldness of the claim that Jesus is the Word is really twofold: that Jesus is God Himself; and that this God by definition has to live up to what He promises. Whenever God speaks, God’s words are not just an extension of God’s breath. They create reality. They speak into and shape human hearts and the unfolding of history.
Pretty mind-blowing, eh? A claim like this requires not just a suspension of disbelief but personal surrender. Or at the very least a handshake.
It can also lead us to throw darts in the dark whenever we attribute certain words and actions to God and not others. And we Christians have been doing this sort of thing for centuries, often mistakenly in big and little ways. Not long ago, for example, I was convinced God was telling me that my husband and I would be moving to Singapore to start a new job. It didn’t happen. I was wrong. Somewhere along the line God and I must have gotten our lines crossed. (All good fodder for another post about disappointment and discerning God’s will.) And it seems by implication here that the Gospel writer John would attribute that miscommunication to me.