Love Stinks (But it Also Wins): A Delayed Review of Rob Bell

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photo by Javier Ramos via Unsplash

The problem with love is it’s easy to sentimentalize.  O heck, there are many problems with love, sentimentalizing being the least of them.  Love distorts our vision.  Love lets us down.  Love keeps us in relationships we should have left.  Love is a knife to the heart and a passionate madness.  Yes, love is a many splendored thing, but let’s be honest: Sometimes, to quote the J. Geils Band, love stinks.

The problem with Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell is not that the title is wrong.  Christian theology is all about love winning.  I high-fived Bishop James Swanson mid-sermon on the floor of the Virginia Annual Conference last summer right after he said roughly that.

The thing is: we’re not the best judges of love.

41SJcK3PlDLI’m a little late to the game on Love Wins.  It has been seven years since Bell made a splash with this book which challenges the idea that sinners will suffer consciously and eternally in a literal hell unless they find Jesus.  This was the book that led to infamous John Piper tweet which said simply, “Farewell, Rob Bell.”  And the following year Rob Bell had said farewell—to the large Mars Hill Church he had pastored in Michigan, in part because of the fallout from his flirtation with universalism.

Bell landed on his feet under the wing of Oprah, who was enamored with Rob’s follow-up book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God.  Becoming a celebrity spiritual guide only confirmed the suspicions of those who see Bell as a theological lightweight.  But it’s unfair to measure a man by his Nielsen ratings.

Let’s measure by the book.  And Love Wins does speak to an honest hunger among us to know a God of love.  Bell wants to give a lot of windows on that question.  He uses biblical examples like the parable of the prodigal son and the plight of the rich young ruler.  He pokes holes in the otherworldly theology behind an old, evangelical picture of a cross straddling a chasm between the darkened ‘here’ and the gleaming ‘there.’  He celebrates the kitchen floor conversion of a man who found God in the midst of smoking pot.  There are many ways Jesus can meet us, he concludes.

What Bell doesn’t do is to spend a lot of time describing who this Jesus is and how the Christian tradition has talked about the work of atonement.  “Not his job or his point,” you might say.  He obviously wants to talk about how Jesus’s story is the story of love.  “The love of God for every single one of us,” Bell says on the first page.  “It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love, and it is for everybody, everywhere.” (vii)

True, that.  But it’s also a stunning, beautiful, specific love that finds its expression in the Christian story centered on a crucified Jesus.  That’s the story that lights up all those other stories that Bell brings to the table.

Arguing about hell is like judging a car by one ball bearing.  Whether you like it or not doesn’t help understand how the thing works.  And you’ll never understand the piece without comprehending the whole.

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Rob Bell, Religion News Service

Which is not to say that Bell is wrong about hell.  In his afterword he points the way to C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce which is pretty great read and which offers a plausible rendering of what hell is within the tradition.  But the tradition holds the key, tends the light, and marvels at God’s love, which is unlike any of those loves we celebrate in our culture.

And to get a little lyrical about it: We see it as compassion—this willingness of God to go to the far country, to restore the divine image in the works of clay.  We call it love—the greatest love—but it has a character altogether different from any kind of love we know.  Our pale reflections are tinged by fear and grief and pain, sentimentality and need and failure.

But what is this love which is just doing its work—not out of necessity but out of some grand unicity—its beauty of a piece with its eternal wholeness?  It is love because God is reconciling all things to Godself in Jesus Christ.  Of course, we experience this as love—of the unmerited kind that so captivates us and makes for tender parables of prodigal sons restored and dead children brought back to life.  But Christ is just doing his job.  ‘Today and tomorrow I am with you and on the third day I’m in Jerusalem.’

This is the mundane job of the divine—to knit together what is wounded and to blaze a trail where there is no way.  But it comes with purely superfluous flourishes—touches that are in no way required.  A tear at the tomb of a friend.  The sensual pleasure of bathing in nard.  The intimacy of a mother and child.  Bread passed around a table and a shared cup.

Is it any wonder we reduce it all to love winning?  Rob Bell has the same instincts.

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God, love, God, love: The Winn Collier Interview Concludes (3 of 3)

winn-mountain-lumber_largeIn previous segments of this interview with Winn Collier we talked small towns, small churches, and his use of letters to tell the story of Granby Presbyterian Church, the fictional congregation at the heart of Collier’s new book.  Love Big. Be Well.:Letters to a Small-Town Church is a big-hearted, hopeful book that celebrates what Christian community can be.  My review of the book is accessible through the title link above.

In this segment we talk about the book, the recent Texas church shooting, and the rhythm of writing:

I was reminded of [Marilynne Robinson’s] Gilead as I read your book.  When your preacher, Jonas, starts talking of the virtues of blessing, it reminded me of the story in Gilead of trying to baptize the cats and just the importance of blessing.  They’re both very human stories and a very human vision of what life in a community of faith is all about. 

How do you connect that to how God works in the world? I’m thinking about Karl Barth who said, “You can’t speak about God by talking about man in a loud voice,” but in a sense, you are kind of pointing that direction through human relationships.

51zxriXcF5L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Again I go back to Incarnation.  In the world I grew up in there was a grand separation between God and the rest of the world. The culture and the creation and all these things really, they were just functional they had nothing to do with God’s revelation to us. I was overwhelmed and saved by sacramental theology and so I reject that.  But I am aware that it’s possible, if you never name God, then our human mind really can forget God.

Jonas, in Love Big. Be Well., talks about how his job as a pastor is to stand within the community Sunday after Sunday and point to God and to speak the words of God and to speak the word love and speak ‘God, love, God, love’ into the world.  And that’s how I see it. I think that’s fundamentally my job.

I think that’s what a small church, or every church, should do—to stand in the middle of this community, to be enmeshed within it, just as Jesus was, not separate from it, not trying to draw these huge dividing lines, but to say, “We are here.  We are immersed.  It is messy.  It’s wheat and tares.  We’re going to be here.  We’re going to claim the love and presence of God in the world.”

That’s a destabilizing factor because I think God is a disruptive reality.  If the church forgets its mission to be the presence of God and not just a vague idea of God as we define it but the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ…If we don’t speak that presence into the world then we are abandoning our identity and our calling and ultimately, we are abandoning the possibility for the depth of healing and redemption that God is inviting us to bring into the world.

So it definitely is not just, in a loud voice, saying all our ideas.  But it’s also not divorced in any way.  It is manifest through or built through friendships and dinners and work and all the things that make up human existence because that’s how God has chosen to reveal himself.

imagesWe’re talking in the week after the shooting in Texas in a small church. I was doing some writing this morning to the churches here on the Shore about church security and  struggling with what that means and trying to come to terms with what it means to be vulnerable, which is part of our call as a community.  Do you have any reflections in light of that event about what small churches mean?

I’ll tell you one thing I love: I love the way the community of Sutherland Springs, even ones who were not part of that church on a Sunday rhythm, seemed to see that church as very much part of who they were and their identity together.  I think that’s potent.

My hunch is that in Granby (the fictional town of the book), Jonas would have had a couple people who really wanted to make sure the next Sunday they had their fire arms to use.  I think Jonas would have resisted that with everything within him simply because we are peculiar people who are here to proclaim God.   And to proclaim God means to lay down your life and it’s very hard to simultaneously say you’re going to lay down your life and at the first trouble pick up a weapon.

“To proclaim God means to lay down your life and it’s very hard to simultaneously say you’re going to lay down your life and at the first trouble pick up a weapon.”

At the same time, I think Jonas is kind of befuddled about some of these things.  He’s not a consistent pacifist but in his heart he is. So, I think he would struggle with that like all of us are in knowing where is wisdom and where is the prophetic voice. But at the same time, I think he would just keep bringing it back to Jesus and what does it mean to be a people of Jesus and trust it in the long work.

That’s well put because I think the struggle I’ve had this week is allowing the gunman and the incident to determine the field on which we play and the kind of things we talk about and it’s so easy to do because it seems like an easy fix to just say, “Well, if we just had a good guy with a gun at the door, it wouldn’t happen.”

Yeah, and this is for every Christian and every church, but if we can hold on to the fact that we are resurrection people and that death is our enemy but is not our final enemy, then there actually are things worse than dying.  If we can release that stranglehold on our heart then it opens up a lot of possibilities.  As long as our self-protection is the ultimate god to us and God will never be God then we are ultimately going to make grave errors.

Well how are you finding ways to keep writing a part of your life these days? This is me being curious about how you fit it all in.

aaron-burden-90144I have a weekly rhythm and Monday is set aside as my creative day so anything like writing, sometimes other things, but that’s my day. Most of this book I actually wrote on sabbatical two and a half years ago.  I wasn’t planning to finish it but I just knew I wanted to write every day and have that as one of my main practices and it ended up happening.

I’m actually working on a biography now and I’m finding it much more difficult because the kind of research that has to happen is of a different level.  I am actually in this precise moment feeling more anxiety about that because that’s basically the time I have.  The rest of my time is given to church and family. So, every once in a while, if there’s a week here or there where I don’t have to preach or other things are less pressing I’ll slip in some extra time but I am definitely wondering how this is going to work.

I know that struggle when you’re trying to be precise about some things, like you’d have to do with a research-oriented book, coming back to it after you’ve gone away from it for a while.  It’s so much uploading of information again just to get to the point where you can write again.

Yeah that’s right!

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photo by Peter Feghali via Unsplash

Anything else about the book that you would particularly like folks to know?

I would be really pleased if people read this book and felt more hopeful.  Because I feel like we’re in a time that’s devoid of hope.

Winn Collier is the pastor of All Souls Church in Charlottesville.  You can access his blog at winncollier.com.

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017:#5 The Crucifixion

51EUda6wF3L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Fleming Rutledge is having a long-overdue moment in the wake of her 2015 book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.  I finally finished it in 2017, qualifying it for this list, and gushed about it in my review, (which you can access through the title link in the previous sentence).

Rutledge sees her book as an exercise of religious imagination, drawing together biblical and theological images of the atonement and exploring their significance.  “The principal purpose of this book,” she says, “will be to strengthen the reader’s surmise that the cross of Jesus is an unrepeatable event that calls all religion into question and establishes an altogether new foundation for faith, life, and a human future.” (2)

I credit this book with drawing me back to a love of theology, primarily because Fleming doesn’t insist that such a pursuit be done at the expense of beauty and literature.  In fact, she insists on such things.

This is my top theological recommendation these days.  Solid, comprehensive, generous, and insightful.  With the occasional quote from Flannery O’Conner, Dostoevsky, and MLK.  An easy pick.

The Greatness of the Small: A Review of Love Big. Be Well.

IMG_7336When Amy Quitman writes a letter to the unknown pastor that the Pastoral Search Committee hopes to call to their Presbyterian church in the small town of Granby, she includes an invitation that would set the hearts of potential candidates like me aflutter:

We want theology, but we want the kind that will pierce our soul or prompt tears or leave us sitting in a calm silence, the kind that will put us smack-dab in the middle of the story, the kind that will work well with a bit of Billy Collins or Mary Karr now and then.  Oh, and we like a good guffaw.  I’ll be up-front with you: we don’t trust a pastor who never laughs. (5)

Jonas McAnn, unhappily stationed in a cubicle as an insurance company employee, answers the invite, as you might expect he would.  After all, his folder of potential church profiles and questionnaires is sitting beneath a stack of books that includes the likes of John Irving and Karl Barth.  Burned by his previous pastorates, Jonas is tired of plans, programs, and church growth strategies.  A lover of beauty, he is looking for an opportunity to be a pastor:

“Lots of churches don’t actually want a pastor,” he writes back to Granby Presbyterian.  “They want a leadership coach or a fundraising executive or a consultant to mastermind a strategic takeover (often performed under the moniker of evangelism or missional engagement)…Too much pastoral leadership literature recirculates anxious efforts to make the church significant or influential or up-to-date, as if they need to harangue the church into becoming something.  I think my job is to remind the church that she already is something.  Can we settle down and be who we are, where we are?” (12-13)

The epistolary match-making works and soon Jonas is moving his family to the mountains of Virginia.

51zxriXcF5L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Winn Collier’s Love Big. Be Well.: Letters to a Small-Town Church [William B. Eerdman’s, 2017] is a gentle, human love story that begins with these two letters and continues with many more.  It is a novel that has big things to say yet finds its transcendence by staying close to home.  For instance, when the church plans for a new eucharistic table, two members suggest using trees from the church property and Jonas reports:

Now, every Sunday, we receive grace around a table intricately woven into our story, our place.  It’s true that a church in Seattle could feast at this table, but it’s also true that it wouldn’t mean nearly as much to them.  Particulars matter.  Stories matter.  Places matter. (130)

There’s more than a little Wendell Berry in Collier’s small town characters.  They value the small, the local, the sustainable.  And they celebrate the elemental gifts of long-lived community.

Pastor Jonas is continually directing his congregation’s focus to interactions that could be easily overlooked, such as the significance of a BBQ dinner with friends or breakfast at Stu’s with the Order of the Roasted Bean.  “Showing up, doing the work, being together–that’s our liturgy,” Jonas writes to his congregation.  “And it matters.” (99)

As a denominational official in The United Methodist Church who works with many pastors and programs, I appreciate Collier’s empathetic portrayal of a small church and its clergy leader.  Explicitly and implicitly, those who labor in small churches are often told that they don’t measure up–that they need to be more than they are.  Jonas pushes back:

When religious experts suggest an identity update, the whole proposal amounts, in my book, to nothing more than a grand slogan and a fresh coat of paint.  We could try to re-envision ourselves as a community center or a social advocacy firm if we want to wrench ourselves trying to fit into someone else’s clothes.  But look, we are the church.  We’re incompetent at most endeavors, but the Spirit has gifted us with divine energy to live into a simple and straightforward vocation.  Gathered at Jesus’s table, we feast on true life and the disperse into our run-of-the-mill lives as witnesses to the Kingdom of this Jesus who loves the whole world.  The world needs more of who we are, not less. (26)

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Winn Collier

Rural churches and pastors are having a hard time of it these days.  The letters that Jonas writes to his parishioners are a tonic for weary souls seeking to be faithful with what always seems like less.  Shining through Jonas’s words are those of the author, who shares his art and wisdom as the pastor of All Souls Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.  (Winn also writes regularly on his self-titled blog.)

Without calling attention to itself, Collier’s writing delves deeply into questions of prayer, baptism, and the nature and mission of the Church–all sprinkled with humor, quotes from literary and theological greats, and a lot of love.

Jonas McAnn is the kind of pastor I want to have and strive to be.  Winn Collier is the kind of writer we all need for such a time as this.

Check out my interview with Winn Collier.

Why Katherine Sonderegger Gets 10 Pages a Day: A Review of Her Systematic Theology

41G1+De1i8L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_If your fine-grain theological vocabulary has grown a little rusty with lack of use, as I’m afraid mine has, you will find Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology: Volume One, Doctrine of God [Fortress, 2015] daunting.  I’m not ashamed to say that it took me nearly a year to get through it.  By this fall, however, I was determined to work through the 529 page tome so I used the 10 pages a day method.  I’m glad I did.

I wouldn’t normally be so dogged in pushing through, but there were several things about Sonderegger that intrigued me.

First, is the fact that she periodically breaks forth into some of the most glorious prose I’ve ever seen a theologian use.  The burning bush reveals that “the cosmos is phosphoric, Light bearing.” (81)  Intoxicated with the notion of God’s omnipotence, Sonderegger says, “The Spirit-soaked existence of the enchanted world gives us the haunting reminder that Power must be in the end personal.” (200)  To believe, she says, “is to trust that there is more.  More riches in a text than meets the eye; more Grace and Life in bread and wine and oil than anyone glimpses there;…more is the name of Christian dignity.” (456).

I’ll grant that there are many passages that snag in the thorny woods of her eccentric prose, but the clearings into which such writing emerges are worth every part of the journey.

Secondly, Sonderegger returns to the classical Divine Perfections of Omnipresence, Omnipotence, Omniscience, and Love, whose main purchase on Christian consciousness these days consists of occasional singings of “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.”  Discussions of the perfections can be airy and deadly dry, but Sonderegger uses a thorough-going compatibilism to place creation firmly within the picture.

“Deity is not repugnant to the cosmos, nor paradoxical to it,” she affirms.  “We do not find a contradiction or opposition between the One Lord and all that He has made.  Rather, the Divine Reality is compatible with the cosmos: God has a ‘positive’ relation to the world.” (xix)

Yes, you see it there in that passage—the things you need to get used to in this book.  The idiosyncratic capitalization.  The consistently masculine pronouns for God.  Sonderegger has her reasons, but for those of us trained in theology after the 60s, these decisions act as barriers.  It is worth the effort to surmount them, however.

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Katherine Sonderegger

Ultimately, Sonderegger is trying to act as a supplement and corrective to the Christocentric systematic theologies that Barth and his followers have produced.  She is sympathetic and a fellow-traveler with Barth in many ways, but her focus in on the Unicity of God, not the Trinity.  She wants to address the “allergy” modern Christian theology has shown towards “questions about Deity—what God is” (xi).

In her exploration, Sonderegger holds on to that focus with impressive determination and exegetical skill.  I felt carried along by her vision even when the writing became cryptic.  It’s a strange beauty, this book.  Strange and beautiful.

Katherine Sonderegger is the William Meade Professor of Theology at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia.

“Beauty was all the answer they had”–When Theologians Soar

IMG_5989Sometimes, and all too rarely, a theologian can soar in writing.  I have been working my way, very slowly, through Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology: Volume I, The Doctrine of God, and savoring passages like this one:

This is what we mean by compatibilism in theology. The One Light that enlightens all creatures is truly here, truly shining in the night, truly hovering over the chaos, over the manger and its little, hidden King; truly illumining the search for truth in all sciences, living up all struggles for compassion and mercy, shining down each dark corridor, in prisons and workhouses and death camps, pouring gracious Light on every death, every restless search for rest. God is there; before us, [God] is there.

41G1+De1i8L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_What faith sees in this Christian compatibilism is the Relatio: the tie between creature and Creator that just is the dependence of all things on God.  Augustine says this best: “I spoke to all the things that are about me, all that can be admitted by the door of the senses, and I said, ‘Since you are not my God, tell me about him.  Tell me something of my God.’ Clear and loud they answered, ‘God is he who made us.’ I asked these questions simply by gazing at these things, and their beauty was all the answer they have.”

God is communicated, as Life, as Power, to creatures, and that Communication is spiritual Light. The faithful see this world bathed in light–our opened eyes take in an illuminated world–and in that earthly light, we see Light. The Uncreated Light veils itself within our creaturely light, and by faith, we believers affirm its lovely Presence.  (428)

This is the stuff and root of poetry.  This is what happens of a morning when I look at the frost on the field out my window.  This is why, when I’m tempted to despair, I realize I am yet a captive to the God of Israel and of Jesus Christ, lost in wonder, love, and praise.  Thanks, Katherine.

A God’s-Eye View: The Heartlands Interview with Katherine James, 3 of 3

21430607_10155382876155860_7627859225571601695_nA town named Trinity is bound to have some things to say about God.  In this final segment of my interview with debut novelist Katherine James, (whose book, Can You See Anything Now?, was published in October), we dig into the the book and find a Christian vision.  For previous segments, click here.

One of the most striking things in the book to me was, as we’re headed towards the culmination of the book and everybody’s coming to a vigil at the rehab center for the character who is in a coma, you take off to 30,000 feet and start to describe the town from above.  It was such a striking image.  It had the effect for me of moving to the God’s-eye view and seeing these characters, who really come from a whole lot of different backgrounds, as being all in this common journey.

That’s exactly what I wanted to do, and I hope that in the very beginning you see a little bit of that.  Also I think after Pixie, [the character in the coma], falls into the river, I go into it a little bit after that.  So, yeah, I’m going up into God, basically, looking down on the people and pulling all this together and having a plan for all of it.  Also, in the hospital, when Pixie wakes up to the ceiling, there’s this sense that God’s calling her but might allow her to stay.  You don’t really know whether He will or not. So, God is a huge, huge part of this book real. Although it’s in the background of the book, it was in the foreground of my mind when I wrote it.

416HGA6nSHL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Well, it is definitely a book about faith and I know your own Christian convictions.  But in the book, the most conventionally religious people in the book, like Etta and Pete, are at a distance most of the time.  The characters that you invite us to get closest to are very skeptical and wounded and hurting, but they are also vibrant and sympathetic.  So, I think you move towards the faith questions or help us understand the depth of characters like Etta only late in the book.  Is that a way of subverting expectations of what a Christian book should be? 

Yes.  Of course, I didn’t set out to write a Christian book and that’s almost what I wanted to avoid. But it’s in my head. It’s there and I couldn’t help but write that way because that’s my perspective.  It’s very troubling, what’s going on right now [in our country], and I wanted somehow to bring down these Christian factions, on both sides.

The truth is that Etta is in a Christian environment and she does do crafts that are silly.  But in the end, she respects and looks up to Margie’s abilities, and she’s kind of in awe of them. And her intellect and she wants to be like her. So, the change happening in Etta…you’re right, I don’t really get to until later in the book, because it begins with Margie and that’s who the book is about in many ways.

Nick, [Margie’s husband], has this view of Christians that’s very typical of the way that the world might see them.  He isn’t as open to her as much as Margie only because Margie is so broken that she’s humble and she’s willing to get to know somebody whom she doesn’t agree with or might have originally been skeptical of.  But, because she’s humbled by her situation, I think she’s open to Etta and very thankful to have that visitor and the fact that Etta would actually take the effort to do it rather than talking about Margie.

I’m not really mirroring the world because the truth is you do have people on the right that don’t have any substance. People on the left, too.  But I wanted to show that frequently, people really do have hearts.  Their convictions might be different, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t love.

The book is a lot about left and right.  A lot.  You also have Owen and Noel [two young adult characters in the book].  They have that scene were they have that little argument about pro-life.  That’s just a little snippet.  Are they going to be able to get together in light of this disagreement? Because it’s kind of big.  Or, maybe not.  In the end, you really don’t know. But it’s good to just open that up.

And they struggle with the idea of what goodness is. I appreciated that, too.

Exactly.

When you come back to earth in that culminating vigil scene, and it’s the day before the 4th of July, this all-American holiday that we might have used to think would bring us together in some kind of civic religion, the characters and the scene are so ‘typical small town.’ They’ve got plastic coolers and the paper lanterns and the brownies. But, I felt a real kinship with all those characters. They’re bringing what they’ve got and what they’ve got are plastic goods.  They don’t prepare them any more or less for what’s going on than the high art that the other characters have in the face of the mystery.

Exactly.  There’s this thing in the background that they all want. Their goal is the same. Kind of like America in our day and age—our goal is to wipe out evil, to not be affected by evil. But how we get there is completely different.

713640So, Trinity [the small town that is the main setting] becomes this nurturing place.   The name is a pretty dramatic gesture towards the divine. Is it God?

[laughs] Yes. Oh, basically yes, with the going up into the sky and looking down and all that sort of thing.  Very much. I wanted that to be there the whole time.  That there’s this reality that’s so much bigger than our pettiness down here, so far above all these silly things that we argue about. When you know the Ultimate Truth, beyond whether you’re left or you’re right.  He sees hearts and some hearts that look good but they’re terrible, that sort of thing.

There are sections [of the book] that are biblical, passages that people probably won’t pick up.  It talks about the people are like grasshoppers. They jump and something like that. That’s actually a verse somewhere.  [Isaiah 40:22]

[There are other biblical images.]  I would say that one of the biggest things in the novel is water.  Water and Margie and then water and Pixie—in both of those situations it’s very important to me, partly because of baptism and new life in both situations.  Water should have killed them both, but it ended up that it’s the water itself that saved them.

That’s one of the things that drew me into what was going on.  In Margie’s case, ultimately she has this rock that she climbs up on and she was able to stick her face above the water. And then the Mammalian Diving Reflex for Pixie, where she definitely should have drowned and died, but then because the water was so cold, the water actually ended up saving her life.

Both of those things, in the sense that God is that big and if we were to come into His presence, I don’t think that we would be able to survive.  Just like the sun, you can’t get too close or you’re just going to disintegrate.  However, because of Christ, God himself makes us able to approach him.  That’s something that’s very Christian that I don’t know who’s going to pick that up.

Taking Hospitality Out of the House (& Keeping Worship Weird)

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Photo by Julio Casado via Unsplash

Preachers are fond of quoting Annie Dillard’s devastating critique of worship as she experienced it in a traditional church:

On the whole, I do not find Christians outside of the catacombs sufficiently sensible of conditions.  Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense or the waking god may draw us out to whence we can never return.  —“An Expedition to the Pole” in Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982)

To me the better line is her under-the-breath horror as a make-shift folk band comes to the front to lead the Sanctus:

“I would rather, I think, undergo the famous dark night of the soul than encounter in church the dread hootenanny.”

But no matter.  Either quote will do and Dillard’s withering words are good medicine, even 35 years hence.  Though Dillard herself recognizes that, even if we had more appropriate worship wear and the most excellent of music, we would still be unprepared to meet the living God.

21w56ZraclL._BO1,204,203,200_I’ve been thinking about Dillard as I consider what it is that we are asking people to do in worship.  At best practice churches, we hand visitors coffee and feed them doughnuts.  We put friendly faces at the door and make sure that they are greeted by at least five different people.  We make our bulletins visitor-friendly and we are sure to highlight entry points to the congregational life in our announcements.  We don’t assume they know what the acronyms mean and we print the Lord’s Prayer in case it is unfamiliar.  We have good lighting and clean sanctuaries, free of dustbunnies and spiderwebs.

The truth of the matter is that most churches, as much as they try, will never match the expectations of hospitality that have been set by the commercial spaces we inhabit.  We’re not going to out-hip the coffee shop or exceed the bright, cleanliness of Whole Foods.  And the sanctuary is not going to mimic the comforts of home.

I’m not making an argument for abandoning the practices of radical hospitality.  The habit of welcoming is essential to a body that believes that it may be thereby “entertaining angels unawares” as Hebrews says.

But the culture that surrounds the church has diverged so sharply from the culture of the church, that a more effective hospitality is embodied in going into those other, non-church spaces to be a real human person there.  To be a real-live Christian in the wild.  It’s an old saw now, but the days of setting a shingle out in front of the church and saying, ‘Y’all come,’ are long gone.  It’s more about going out and saying, “I’m here.”

Which means that worship is freed from its anxious superficiality to be an encounter with the fire that tells who we are.  Why pretend that the worship space is as non-threatening as an aisle of Wal-mart when it summons us into the presence of a fierce and holy God?  We are immersed in the idolatrous identities offered to us by our screens and other inputs.  Where can we practice being something different and where can we learn what it means to be splayed out before an all-consuming Presence?

41G1+De1i8L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In her magisterial book, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, The Doctrine of God [Fortress, 2015], the theologian Katherine Sonderegger ponders Moses’s burning bush encounter with God and highlights its earth-shattering implications:

“It is a wonder that Scripture does not end here, at this blinding fire.  It is a wonder that Moses is not annihilated—consumed—by the Name uttered to him in the wilderness.  For all the other apocalypses in Holy Scripture can only pale before this Naming, the annihilating Speech of God as Subject.  This is the end, the finality of all creatures, of all reality.” (222)

I don’t want to seduce the world to church by promising that we are all a few tweaks and life hacks away from perfection.  I want to be in a place that reminds me of the “end” Sonderegger talks about.  A place where I am told that the distance between what is and what should be is a chasm that can’t be crossed short of total surrender.  And yet that salvation is closer to me than I am to myself.

I want to keep worship weird.

Rural Soul: Evolution of a Liberal, Guest Blogger – Sara Keeling

I’m traveling back from Israel & Palestine Monday, but not before the Rev. Sara Porter Keeling continues her guest hosting with a post on anthropology, theology, and the continuing journey of discerning the Word.  Many thanks to Sara for bringing her rural soul to Heartlands while I’ve been away…

Sara Porter Keeling

Does loving our neighbors look like being politically correct and choosing our language for each other carefully? Does wanting access to health care and child care and equal pay and education make me a snowflake?  
 

It goes without saying that we have trouble hearing one another and talking to each other. But it seems to be helpful to try to understand why we may think and feel the way that we do: particularly about social and political issues.  

I used to be concerned that The UMC might allow for the full inclusion of LGBT persons. Now I’m much more deeply concerned that we never will.  

 It doesn’t feel right that people who are gifted for ministry, called by God, should not be ordained because of who they are attracted to and who they commit their lives to.  

 It doesn’t feel right that that is the number one issue, life choice, character trait, even as we allow for outright, named, unquestionable sins to exist amongst our clergy. We pick and choose what we want out of the Bible. We pick and choose what we want out of the Book of Discipline. Are we all so blameless and striving for perfection? We don’t mind sinful clergy so long as they are not gay. And there’s nothing else to say except that we are fascinated and grossed out and consumed by sex.

I managed to leave the town of Orange, Virginia as a moderate conservative. I confess that I voted for a Republican my first election.  Shortly thereafter, my liberal arts education lived up to its name. That’s what happens to all small town girls right? We go off to college, cut our hair short, and become raging feminists. That was true for me.

I majored in Anthropology and English at UVA. And yes, since you asked, my first paying job—post diploma—was making coffee.  

Brooks Hall at UVA

My intro-level anthropology classes started with an apology tour of the oppression the discipline had caused. I barely understood what anthropology was in those days.  (It’s the study of human culture—“anthro” referring to human beings, “ology” to the study thereof.)  But before we could fully understand cultural criticism or current archaeological methods, we had to take a look at the history of the discipline.  

It turns out that the study of human culture was a very euro-centric, very 19th-century way of documenting and cataloging other cultures–the non-European, therefore non-civilized, generally inferior and primitive cultures. This way of study was often to prove such inferiority and primitiveness in the first place. To document cultural aspects as they “vanished” in the march of progress, civilization, colonization, slavery. Often proving along the way exactly why these cultures and groups of people were so “easily” destroyed and obliterated or assimilated or enslaved.  

In general, keeping bones, and other sacred objects that were acquired through “discovery.” Despicable things such as keeping skulls in museums to measure was also a practice. Which is why many indigenous peoples are dubious, even unwelcoming, to an anthropologist in their midst—to an outsider attempting to tell their story or stealing their ancestral heirlooms.

Now done differently, of course, anthropology is a way of actually understanding how very different and unique and valuable each culture is—how so many things that we consider natural and normal are really our cultural ways of understanding.

To uncover the lost stories and different perspectives that were lost to the written history books. To challenge our assumptions about race, class, gender, sexuality, and on and on.

I took all of this and thought what does God have to say about this? About indigenous cultures, minorities, colonists and the colonized?  Aren’t we all God’s children no matter the winners and losers of history?

I had taken a bit of a break from church at that point, but I returned and picked up at the Wesley Foundation. Where Alex was serving as director. (It all comes back to Alex, like it’s his blog or something.) I discovered that the language of Wesley and our Social Principles aligned quite nicely with my social conscience. My academic language and the native language of my religious upbringing were not at all at odds.  

As a minister, I bring cultural understanding to the scriptures. Realizing that our stories as the people of God are so highly tribal and interwoven with all of the stories of God. From other times and places and cultures and understandings. Sometimes the people of Israel were the oppressed and downtrodden. And sometimes they were the mighty victor and the oppressor. Both slaves and slave holders throughout history. Sometimes with God on their side and sometimes not. Words that were not written for us in 21st Century America, and yet words that still speak to us and guide us.  

We’ve Got an Open Door Problem

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photo by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash

I’ve always been a little worried about our open doors.  When the United Methodist Church adopted the slogan “Open hearts, open minds, open doors,” some twenty years ago, it captured a sentiment that many United Methodists have about themselves.  Whatever else we may be, (and that’s an area of great contention), we have been the broad middle, accepting and celebrating a wide variety of peoples and viewpoints.

When the planes hit the towers of the World Trade Center in 2001, our then-new slogan had just been unfurled on a giant billboard in Times Square.  In the aftermath of that attack and in the wake of the other scares of that awful fall (anthrax, the elusive sniper), the whole tenor of the country changed and the impulse was to close every door and to go into lockdown mode.  Our openness stood out in prophetic contrast then and that slogan helped us adhere to our faith in the One who made himself vulnerable and who, in his crucifixion, “broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us” [Ephesians 2:14].

But there were always dangers in the slogan.  One was that it might get confused as a mission statement—as if openness was our reason for being.  In that case, openness might as well be emptiness because the slogan doesn’t speak to its source.  Open hearts, open minds, and open doors are a byproduct of a vital faith in Christ, not an end in themselves.  What we’re about is the worship of a God who is making all things new and one sign of that is that walls are coming down.

515pkTRb55L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_A larger danger was and is that the slogan might be taken for a description of how things are rather than as an aspiration of what we hope to live out.  Fleming Rutledge goes after this in her book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ:

Congregations are claiming for human beings what is possible only for God.  No congregation can include everyone.  No self-identified inclusive and welcoming church can live up to this assessment of itself.  Many a person who has attended a church advertising radical hospitality has come and gone from church coffee hours without being greeted by anyone…The congregation that makes a place for torchbearers with Downs syndrome might fail to embrace an unwashed, unmedicated, disruptive man off the street…Despite the good intentions of congregations that proclaim themselves as diverse, welcoming, and all-inclusive, the fact remains that no one and no group can be, in this life, all-embracing.  (576-7)

If the danger were just false advertising, we might just tweak the slogan: “Mostly open hearts, minds, and doors.”  Or better yet, choose another one.  But Rutledge points out that the problem is ultimately theological.  We are overestimating our potential to do what only God can do and has done.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t be about the work of hospitality.  Lord knows we could use some freshening up in how we acknowledge and include new people, and all kinds of people, in our churches.  But we could also use some real honesty and humility about our need for God in order to understand how openness happens.

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photo by Tim Marshall via Unsplash

John Wesley invited the same danger when he talked about Christians moving on to perfection.  When you separate such language from a bedrock trust in God’s work in Jesus Christ, it sounds like Wesley is putting his faith in human efforts.  But Wesley understood the ways that the we are warped by slavery to Sin and Death.  He knew that human work was always done in the light of Christ’s prior work on the cross to free us, despite our lack of potential, to nevertheless follow where he leads.

All of this to say, that the slogan needs some grace.  Grace that will allow us to stop using it as a weapon to needle our brothers and sisters for not living up to it.  Grace to accept the freedom God gives us, not just for earnestness, but for joy and wonder.  Grace to not attempt to be more than we are called to be.

For generations, we have tried to be too much as a church—social scientists, political theorists, psychologists, urban planners, non-profit charities.  And all-inclusive at that.  God bless our curiosity and ambition.  But God forgive our forgetfulness and lack of faith in the centrality of being a Church living out of the deep well of its faith in the crucified and risen Christ.  It is enough.