This is the online version of our 2016 Christmas letter, which includes our Christmas picture this year, which looks something like the one above. The letter’s a bit long but I hope you’ll find it to be worth the read, and so I shared it here too. Here it is:
It happened again. In the midst of a worship experience that was deeply meaningful this morning among our family, the people of Mill City Church, I found myself repeatedly unable to sing. I was just too choked up. I knew this was likely to happen when I realized that Nathan, who would be joining the other elementary school kids on stage to sing with the band today, would be singing “All the Poor and Powerless” by All Sons and Daughters. This song is frequently in the worship rotation among Mill City, as are many of All Sons and Daughters’ songs, and their live album is on heavy rotation whenever I’m in the car (my total commute is at least an hour every day) or at home, writing as I am now. I’ve written, in part anyway while talking about other things, about “All the Poor and Powerless” recently on my blog, but some of the lyrics are:
All the poor and powerless And all the lost and lonely All the thieves will come confess And know that You are holy Will know that You are holy And all will sing out Hallelujah And we will cry out Hallelujah And all the hearts that are content And all who feel unworthy And all who hurt with nothing left Will know that You are holy And all will sing out Hallelujah And we will cry out Hallelujah [x2] Shout it Go on and scream it from the mountains Go on and tell it to the masses That He is God [x5]
There’s a little more to the song as it repeats some of the words above, but you get the idea. Here’s Nathan practicing with the band today while singing this song:
That’s him to the far right on the second row. This song has been something of an anthem of mine of late.
It’s had particular resonance because for some time continuing to declare that “he is God” has been a painful duty that I’ve performed instead of a joyous cry. It’s also been resonant because of the context in which this song has gained its currency for me. As I’ve said, we’ve sung it quite a bit during Mill City Church worship gatherings and this song and All Sons and Daughters’ whole “Live” album has been the soundtrack for our entrance into a faith community that, for the first time in a long time, feels like the family we were meant to be a part of, the people with whom we were meant to be on a mission together. If you’re interested in knowing more about the long journey that led us to become covenant members of Mill City Church, there’s a 6 part(!) series on this blog that culminates with the post: “Why I’ve Started Talking About Mill City Church.”
Speaking of my blog, lately I’ve been writing here about my summer in 1995 doing Kingdomworks, the life changing experience in which I and 8 other (relatively) rich white college students lived in an inner-city church building in SW Philly where we ran a day camp, Sunday School, and youth group for the neighborhood kids, hoping to empower that congregation to do ministry that it couldn’t do otherwise. Here are some pictures from Kingdomworks that maybe give you a little bit of the flavor of the experience:
I’ve written a fair bit about Kingdomworks on my blog; so I won’t repeat it here other than to say what I usually say about it, that during that summer I was able to “build a bridge between my own personal suffering and the suffering that’s out there, in the world.” This realization I had about suffering was connected to the larger awakening that was occurring in me at the time during my Gordon College days as I also realized (as I’ve also long said) that “God isn’t a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male that lives in the ‘burbs, shops at the mall, and spends his days pursuing the ‘American dream’ like most other people I knew at the time.” I’ve been writing again about Kingdomworks because of a recent sequence of events that included me learning something about one of my Kingdomworks’ teammates, someone that I was close to during that summer. This teammate, Holly, afterward wrote me that she longed to be back out there, “on the streets where our feet are always dirty and the tears sting, where each drop of sweat has a purpose and every smile is a slice of heaven.” She knew that I felt called to be back in the city serving however I could (and indeed as soon as Kirsten and I got married that’s just where we went), and Holly wrote that she felt a similar calling and that when she and I both went back to serve in the city we’d do it “for them this time,” for the kids. This was a telling sentiment, as perhaps not surprisingly as an experience that was only about two months long Kingdomworks was far more effective at bringing lasting change for we (relatively) rich white college students than for the (relatively) poor, mostly black kids we had served in the inner-city. Perhaps this was the point. Anyway, I recently learned that while Holly is now doing amazing work that is very meaningful to her, it doesn’t have much to do with serving kids in the city, but more to the point she no longer calls herself a person who follows Jesus. Bart Campolo, the son of Tony Campolo, started Kingdomworks all those years ago, and then not long after I did the program, he transitioned it from a summer program in one city to a year long program in multiple cities and renamed it Mission Year. Mission Year is still going strong today under new leadership. Like Holly, Bart no longer calls himself a Jesus follower these days and has some notoriety as the first humanist chaplain at USC. I love Bart and still consider him a friend (though I’m not claiming to be a close personal one). His impact on my life has been huge, and I think he’s doing great work at USC that’s not unlike the work he’s always done. He’s always been about building community and inspiring people to love and serve those around them. He’s just not doing it in Jesus’ name anymore, and his journey to reach that point is a story he’s told very publicly and continues to do so. I bring all this up, though, in a Christmas letter no less, for a couple of reasons. I do so in the first place because the struggle to follow Jesus and the temptation not to, for lots of good reasons, is one that I can relate to. As I said above, for some time now declaring that “he is God” has been a painful duty that I’ve performed rather than a joyous cry. There are lots of reasons for that which I’ve explored in depth again on my blog if you’re interested. The other reason I’m bringing all this up in this letter is because of a dream I recently had. I should mention that during my Kingdomworks experience I had a couple of opportunities to get away for a night over the weekend. During one such opportunity I took the train from SW Philly way out into the ‘burbs where I stayed at a Gordon College friend’s house. She and I weren’t particularly close but she knew that I was in the midst of an intense experience and she graciously offered me a momentary reprieve from it. I was grateful. So in my dream, I was back at her house, searching in her basement for something I had been storing there. I woke up before finding it, but when I recounted the dream to Kirsten I realized how symbolic it was. Something happened to me during Kingdomworks that fundamentally changed me. That much is clear as I’ve spent the better part of 21 years trying myself to get back out there “where we belong,” as Holly put it, in the city, serving kids, but “for them this time.” I suspect that part of what my dream may be telling me is that I left something there in SW Philly in the hot summer of 1995, and I’ve spent a long time trying to go back and find it.
What exactly did I leave in Philly 21 years ago, perhaps in my college friend’s basement, at least metaphorically speaking? There were probably a number of things, to be sure, and some of them for the good. For example, I left behind, I hope, a childish faith that in its individualistic and consumeristic nature was likely as “American” as it might have been Christian. I left behind, I hope, a selfish faith that was all about me getting my “fire insurance” so that I could avoid hell and enjoy God’s heavenly retirement plan instead. I left behind, I hope, a narrow-minded worldview that only ever took into account myself and people who look and think like me. I left behind, I hope, selfish regard for my “own personal suffering” that I experienced in my abusive childhood home, and as I’ve said, in exchange I hope I gained empathy for the suffering that’s “out there, in the world.” In exchange for all those things I left behind during that summer, I hope I also gained an at least slightly more mature faith that is communal, not individualistic and consumeristic; that is about allegiance to Christ and his kingdom, not “America;” that is about living as if God’s kingdom of love, justice, and (especially) peace is already here, even when it so often feels so far away and not yet fully realized; and I hope I gained a faith that recognizes that if the inbreaking of such a good, loving, just, and peaceful kingdom into our troubled and tired world is to be good news, it must be good news for us all, especially those who suffer daily so that we rich white Westerners can enjoy our “great” way of life.
When I came back from Kingdomworks, I found myself experiencing culture shock as I went from a brief but intense experience in inner city Philly among folks who didn’t look much like I did and who lived very different lives than I had ever imagined possible, back to the serene, pastoral environment of Gordon College where I was again among (relatively) rich white young people like myself. I always said it was hard to be back there when I knew that “kids were dying on the streets of Philadelphia.” What I didn’t know then, but certainly do now and have for some time, is that however hard but beautiful the lives of black kids in SW Philly might be, it hardly compares to the lives far too many people, especially and including kids, still experience in the developing world in places like Africa and India, for example. And it’s again worth noting that, as I keep saying, there’s a direct relationship, a causal link, between the grinding poverty of the poorest of the poor, the 11% of the world that in 2013 lived on less than $2/day, and the “great” way of life we in the U.S. and other rich Western countries enjoy, where, for example, in the U.S. the average person lives on $140/day. Though some in this country are unwilling to face this fact, our comfort comes at their expense. The world simply cannot support everyone living like we do. If all of God’s children are to live sustainably, our way of life must change; our standard of living must come down so that theirs can rise.
So back at Gordon College after Kingdomworks, I found myself questioning everything, starting with God and his alleged goodness. Thus began a project I’ve worked on for more than two decades, and will likely continue to do so. As a young person I had a deeply meaningful and vital relationship with Jesus as I learned to rely on God in the absence of reliable parents. The home of my youth was nominally “Christian,” but also terribly abusive. After Kingdomworks I found my childhood, child-like faith gone. I desperately wanted to trust and believe that Jesus loved me as I always had. I wanted to believe in a loving God that was actively loving the world just as I always had, despite the unloving home I had grown up in. Yet I found those beliefs impossible to reconcile with the brokenness I had witnessed in the inner-city and the abject poverty I came to know was the reality for far too many around the world. If I dared to believe that Jesus loved me and was looking out for me and even “working things out” for my good, what did that say about the lives of folks who seemed utterly abandoned, utterly bereft of such care and provision?
This is a question I still struggle to make sense of. Of course, underneath that question is another one: “Why doesn’t God just fix everything?” One of the reasons I suspect Bart Campolo eventually decided not to follow Jesus anymore is because of the way he struggled with a similar question about evil in the world. He famously wrote a piece when he still called himself a Jesus-follower that got him into some trouble for reasons I’ve again explored on my blog, but in the piece he wrestles with a horrific act of evil that occurred and the question of why God didn’t intervene to stop it. Bart concluded then that the essential relationship between love and freedom required a world in which God would allow such an evil to occur, but because Bart could only believe in a god “at least as good as he was,” it therefore also had to be true that God would somehow redeem that act of evil and every other one throughout human history, a project which Bart said “apparently was a long and difficult task,” considering all the evil that keeps happening in the world. Such logic is cold comfort for those who face such evil in the here and now, and still we wonder why God doesn’t just fix everything. If God is good and loving and powerful, how long must we wait for a peaceable kingdom in which the lion lays down with the lamb and swords are beaten into ploughshares and enemies experience reconciliation and friendship at a common table?
Into this yearning, in the midst of this groaning and conflict, God gives us Jesus. Jesus is the fullest and final revelation of who God is. He is the “lens” through which we must view the rest of scripture, and he is the answer to the question of if or when God will ever do anything. By putting on flesh and moving into the neighborhood, God chose to join us in our place of suffering and experience the worst of it himself all the way up to death, “even death on a cross.” As Michael Binder of Mill City Church said this past Sunday, Jesus not only offers us peace, but is our peace. Michael preached on Ephesians 2:14-18, which dealt with divisions between Jews and Gentiles. Jews were considered, or at least considered themselves, to be “near” to God because they were sons and daughters of Abraham, with whom God had first made a covenant and to whom God had first promised a blessing. It was to Israel that God had given the law “with its commands and regulations” that pointed the way toward right relationship with God, one another, and the world. Of course, this law was impossible to keep and broken relationships were the result. Meanwhile, Gentiles or non-Jewish people were considered (by Jews) to be “far” from God basically because they weren’t Jews. They weren’t natural sons and daughters of Abraham and so weren’t heirs to the promises given to him and his descendents. Sadly, these categories and the divisions that came from them ignored the fact that God originally blessed Abraham in order to be a blessing to all the world. Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus addresses this and urges peace among the two camps, those Jews and Gentiles who had both decided to follow Jesus, because as we read in the text:
14 …he himself (Jesus) is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Thus, as Michael reminded us, the cross acts to “level the playing field” not just between Jews and Gentiles but among all the groups we find ourselves categorized and divided into today. As I also said recently in a blog post, God didn’t kill his son on the cross in an act of “cosmic child abuse” in order to arbitrarily satisfy rules God established that we could never follow in the first place. Instead, God’s willingness to be “God with us” means that God was willing to be with us even in the place of our deepest conflict, where we experience the final separation from God and one another that our sin causes. Sin, after all, is “missing the mark.” It’s not living into and up to the ideal of right, loving relationship that we were made for. This failure to love each other as we ought (“sin”) causes brokenness in our relationships (separation), and the end result of that brokenness especially in our relationship with God is death, because it is in Jesus that “all things hold together,” and to be cut off from God is to be cut off from the very source of ongoing life itself. We cannot bridge this gap ourselves, but God can, and God did. In his willingness to be put to death on the cross in order to break into the place where we were ultimately separated from God and one another, Jesus put to death the brokenness in our relationship not only with God but with one another and with God’s good world. Reflecting again on the Ephesians passage above, we obviously could not and cannot follow all the “commands and regulations” of the law that pointed us in the direction of the right relationships we were made for; so God again put skin on, moved into the neighborhood, and “set the law aside” in that very skin, in his flesh that was pierced and bloodied and put to death on the cross. In so doing, God begins creating a new humanity, a unified humanity that no longer is bound to experience separation. In Christ then there not only is no longer Jew or Greek or male or female (inasmuch as we are divided from one another by these categories), but there is also no longer rich or poor, or white or black, or Republican or Democrat. Conservatives and liberals and Trump supporters and Clinton supporters no longer need to be separated from one another. Our hostility has been put to death on the cross with Jesus, and we all have access to the same Father through his Spirit. If we who used to be Republicans or Democrats or “Americans” or Russians or Somalis instead lived solely as part of the new humanity God is making and citizens of God’s peaceable kingdom that is upon us, then we finally would be the ones we’ve been waiting for; we would be the change we hope to see in the world. God did do something about all the evil and injustice in the world. He put skin on, moved into the neighborhood, and absorbed the worst violence, the worst evil, that we in our brokenness had set loose in the world. He allowed himself to be put to death to break into our place of separation and so put to death also the hostility between us. He began making a new humanity by preaching peace to those who were near to God and those who were far from God, and then he unleashed these redeemed and reconciled people to be a people who live as if that’s who they are, to be reconcilers and peace-makers in the world. God sent the world Jesus, and Jesus keeps sending himself into the world through us.
As I keep saying, I respect and love my friend Bart, but all the reasons I too might have for not following Jesus- all the brokenness and suffering and evil in the world- aren’t evidence that God has abandoned us and isn’t worth following or that there is no god after all. Rather, it turns out these are all reasons to follow Jesus. The world needs supporters of Black Lives Matter (and indeed black lives do!) and Trump voters to live as if the hostility between them has been put to death on the cross with Jesus, because it has. Children in Aleppo desperately need those who support Assad and those who don’t to live as if the hostility between them has been put to death on the cross with Jesus, because it has. Jews and Palestinians desperately need to live as if the hostility between them has been put to death on the cross with Jesus, because it has. By following Jesus, together, we become the new humanity God is making and thus the peace the world so desperately needs, which once seemed so far away, suddenly comes near.
It is true and lasting peace that in some ways I think I was metaphorically looking for in my friend’s basement in greater Philly in my dream, perhaps because I felt like maybe I lost it in the hot summer of ’95 as I did Kingdomworks. Certainly I “lost” something that summer, but I hope what I left behind was an immature faith that is even now giving way to a more mature one. That said, if it really is true and lasting peace that I yearn for both in the world and in my own broken heart, there is only one place to find it. True and lasting peace was born in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. It is Immanuel, God with us. Thus as we wait in this season of Advent for Jesus to come to us again in a few days, I am filled with hope, and I pray that you will be too. I am filled with hope because for the first time in a long time I can joyously cry that “he is God,” especially for “all the poor and powerless.” For too long this was instead a painful duty, but no longer. Peace has come, and continues to do so. Let’s join Jesus in making it a lived reality for us all. Amen.
Family Update:Now, here’s a little update about each of us over the past year. Sam has a mentor through Mill City Church that he’s just about to start meeting with. He’s a middle schooler now and has been making that transition with a few bumps in the road here and there but mostly with great success. He’s on target developmentally to have the right level of teenage snark and angst ready to go when needed, but remains at heart an incredibly sweet, compassionate, and kind-hearted young man. We’re very grateful for him! Sam is in orchestra as a 6th grader this year and just had his first viola concert the other night. Here are some pictures from that:
Nathan also had a big transition this year, into all-day Kindergarten. He’s a young Kindergartner but is doing great so far, and we’re also very, very proud of him. He remains the attention-seeking entertainer in the family and is always cracking us up with his witty zingers and antics. For example, it wasn’t long into his elementary school career that he got in trouble at school not once in a day, but twice, including having to go to the principal’s office, because he thought it would be funny to sit (clothed, thankfully) in the urinal in the boys’ room. We can get him to eat all of whatever healthy thing he’s being picky about at dinner by convincing him that he can beat me at arm-wrestling, but only if he eats it all. He always “wins” when he does, but I still beat him handily when he doesn’t. So he keeps asking when he’ll be the same age as I am, thinking once he “catches up” to me he’ll be able to defeat me. Also, noting their relative sizes and that he’s growing all the time, he assumed Kirsten is growing just like he is and asked her if she would be a giant some day. That’s Nathan, in a nutshell. Here he is for ya:
Kirsten continues working at Gillette Children’s Hospital, though in March of 2016 she transitioned out of direct care and began working in their phone triage department. Telehealth has been an interesting transition for her that has brought new challenges each day. She’s enjoyed most importantly being off night shift and hopefully is adding back the years working overnight for so long had quite possibly taken from her life. Being in an office environment has also hopefully been a positive move. It remains challenging work, though, as the nursing shortage reaches all the way into her little office, which is chronically short-staffed, leaving she and her colleagues stressed and constantly risking burnout as a result. Kirsten says she dreams of opening a used bookstore/coffee shop with me some day. Maybe someone will magically pay off our debt and fund that. Meanwhile, the boys and I continue to be blessed beyond what we deserve by Kirsten’s other, more than full-time, around the clock work as a wife and mother. Here are some pictures of Kirsten being wonderful as usual:
As for myself, I continue serving disabled individuals who choose to live in their own home rather than a nursing home through a case management role vocationally. That (sort of) pays the bills so that I can pursue my avocation, which is writing. I do that mostly on my blog, but I’ve also written a little for Mill City Church’s website and may do so again, if they’ll have me, and when I can make time I “blog for books” too. A former pastor once told me I might get “discovered” for my writing posthumously. I should be so lucky. In the meantime, if you know a good publisher and want to put in a good word for me this side of the grave, please do! Here I am recently with my “bundle of boys:”
Merry Christmas 2016 and Happy New Year 2017 from Robert, Kirsten, Sam, and Nathan
Towards the end of my last post, part I in this little series, I said I often come back to something Bart Campolo said once in 1995 as he addressed a group of idealistic young college students doing Kingdomworks (KW), including myself. He said he wasn’t so much interested in why we decided to follow Jesus whenever we did. He said he cared more why we kept doing so. I wrote in that post that I know that this was probably something he was struggling with (why or if one should keep following Jesus) even then even if he didn’t realize it yet. I said that this question has stuck with me. Why do I keep following Jesus today, even with lots of good reasons not to? As I wrote in the last post:
How can I claim to be led in part by a holy book that describes the “holy” slaughter of entire people groups down to every man, woman, child, and animal? How do I reconcile the notion of a loving God exemplified best in Jesus with the idea that part of why Jesus came is because that same loving God would condemn us all to eternal torment if Jesus hadn’t died in our place? How do I make sense of the idea that God is at once a loving savior who died to rescue me and is at the same time the “cosmic child abuser” who killed his own son with the deadly punishment that was meant for me?
I should start by acknowledging the many “hard sayings” (teachings, stories) in the Bible, mostly in the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures. An atheist site has helpfully compiled some of them, which I’ve included below:
1. God drowns the whole earth.
In Genesis 7:21-23, God drowns the entire population of the earth: men, women, children, fetuses, and perhaps unicorns. Only a single family survives.
2. God kills half a million people.
In 2 Chronicles 13:15-18, God helps the men of Judah kill 500,000 of their fellow Israelites.
3. God slaughters all Egyptian firstborn.
In Exodus 12:29, God the baby-killer slaughters all Egyptian firstborn children and cattle because their king was stubborn.
4. God kills 14,000 people for complaining that God keeps killing them.
In Numbers 16:41-49, the Israelites complain that God is killing too many of them. So, God sends a plague that kills 14,000 more of them.
5. Genocide after genocide after genocide.
In Joshua 6:20-21, God helps the Israelites destroy Jericho, killing “men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” In Deuteronomy 2:32-35, God has the Israelites kill everyone in Heshbon, including children. In Deuteronomy 3:3-7, God has the Israelites do the same to the people of Bashan. In Numbers 31:7-18, the Israelites kill all the Midianites except for the virgins, whom they take as spoils of war. In 1 Samuel 15:1-9, God tells the Israelites to kill all the Amalekites – men, women, children, infants, and their cattle – for something the Amalekites’ ancestors had done 400 years earlier.
6. God kills 50,000 people for curiosity.
In 1 Samuel 6:19, God kills 50,000 men for peeking into the ark of the covenant. (Newer cosmetic translations count only 70 deaths, but their text notes admit that the best and earliest manuscripts put the number at 50,070.)
7. 3,000 Israelites killed for inventing a god.
In Exodus 32, Moses has climbed Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments. The Israelites are bored, so they invent a golden calf god. Moses comes back and God commands him: “Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.” About 3,000 people died.
8. The Amorites destroyed by sword and by God’s rocks.
In Joshua 10:10-11, God helps the Israelites slaughter the Amorites by sword, then finishes them off with rocks from the sky.
9. God burns two cities to death.
In Genesis 19:24, God kills everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah with fire from the sky. Then God kills Lot’s wife for looking back at her burning home.
10. God has 42 children mauled by bears.
In 2 Kings 2:23-24, some kids tease the prophet Elisha, and God sends bears to dismember them. (Newer cosmetic translations say the bears “maul” the children, but the original Hebrew, baqa, means “to tear apart.”)
11. A tribe slaughtered and their virgins raped for not showing up at roll call.
In Judges 21:1-23, a tribe of Israelites misses roll call, so the other Israelites kill them all except for the virgins, which they take for themselves. Still not happy, they hide in vineyards and pounce on dancing women from Shiloh to take them for themselves.
12. 3,000 crushed to death.
In Judges 16:27-30, God gives Samson strength to bring down a building to crush 3,000 members of a rival tribe.
13. A concubine raped and dismembered.
In Judges 19:22-29, a mob demands to rape a godly master’s guest. The master offers his daughter and a concubine to them instead. They take the concubine and gang-rape her all night. The master finds her on his doorstep in the morning, cuts her into 12 pieces, and ships the pieces around the country.
14. Child sacrifice.
In Judges 11:30-39, Jephthah burns his daughter alive as a sacrificial offering for God’s favor in killing the Ammonites.
15. God helps Samson kill 30 men because he lost a bet.
In Judges 14:11-19, Samson loses a bet for 30 sets of clothes. The spirit of God comes upon him and he kills 30 men to steal their clothes and pay off the debt.
16. God demands you kill your wife and children for worshiping other gods.
In Deuteronomy 13:6-10, God commands that you must kill your wife, children, brother, and friend if they worship other gods.
17. God incinerates 51 men to make a point.
In 2 Kings 1:9-10, Elijah gets God to burn 51 men with fire from heaven to prove he is God.
18. God kills a man for not impregnating his brother’s widow.
In Genesis 38:9-10, God kills a man for refusing to impregnate his brother’s widow.
19. God threatens forced cannibalism.
In Leviticus 26:27-29 and Jeremiah 19:9, God threatens to punish the Israelites by making them eat their own children.
20. The coming slaughter.
According to Revelation 9:7-19, God’s got more evil coming. God will make horse-like locusts with human heads and scorpion tails, who torture people for 5 months. Then some angels will kill a third of the earth’s population. If he came today, that would be 2 billion people.
The post on the site the list above comes from concludes by adding that “Christians have spent thousands of years coming up with excuses for a loving god that would allow or create such evil. In fact, they’ve come up with 12 basic responses, which are the subject of The Tale of the Twelve Officers.” The first link (“excuses”) in this last quote takes you to the Wikipedia page for Theodicy, which is an entire line of thought that “attempts to answer the question why a good God permits the manifestation of evil.” The second link, to “The Tale of the Twelve Officers,” takes you to a hyperbolic story about a terrible crime committed in full view of 12 police officers who did nothing to stop it. The bulk of the story is the 12 officers accounting for why they did nothing. Each of their justifications represent ones the author of that page finds Christians commonly using to explain evil and justify how God might allow it to go on. That author concludes by adding:
Religious readers, do not take offense. I have made this parable as brazen as I could, but my purpose is not to insult or blaspheme. I have found that religious believers are often conditioned to accept trite solutions to the problem of suffering, and that it is all but impossible to shake that conditioning through dry analysis. The temptation to offer to an entity a moral blank check simply because it sports a name tag with “God” written on it, is overwhelming in our theistic culture. Hence, this attempt to make the point through a medium as far removed from dry analysis as possible. But again, it is all to make a point, not to cause anyone harm. I have not written anything that I would not have wanted directed at me when I myself was a believer.
Were I to choose not to follow Jesus as some that I know have, including Bart, this would be one of the reasons why. Another reason has to do with the nature of truth as it relates to the Bible. In a postmodern age, this boils down to a simple question: why should we trust the Bible? How can we, really, when you know as I do that the written Bible we Protestants rely on is different from the Catholic version, for starters, and more importantly (leaving divine inspiration aside for a moment) is not a single book written at one time by one person in one language but is rather many, many books (at least 66; some would argue more) that at first weren’t written at all but were instead passed on as oral traditions and then were written down by many different people in a number of different languages over the course literally of thousands of years. Some of these original writings were lost in the dust of time, but fragments of copies of them were unearthed sometimes much later and eventually compiled, and then men (usually) sat in councils to decide which of these compilations to canonize (make official) as the “Bible” we can buy in a bookstore today. Surely this must be a matter for faith because it seems to me it takes a lot of faith to believe that a holy book with such an origin story could be, well, holy.
Problems with the Bible don’t end there, though. Not only is it of dubious origin. Not only does it recount horrific tales of murder and genocide seemingly ordered by God, but for quite some time Protestants have insisted that the Bible is inerrant. Usually there’s some qualification to go along with this like “in its original writings” or something of that sort, but the basic gist is as it sounds, I would suggest. The point is that the Bible doesn’t have any mistakes. There’s no error in it. As someone who’s done just a little study of Christian history, I like to point out that it’s perhaps not coincidental that this insistence on the part of Protestants seems strangely (or not) to have arisen around the same time that Catholics began insisting that the Pope was infallible. It’s as if one team needed an answer for the problem posed by the best player on the other team. Perhaps I digress, however. What’s troublesome about this and truly challenging if one is to continue to have faith is that the Bible seems to, well, have some errors. Depending on how one interprets it, one could make a case for all kinds of things the Bible seems to support which just don’t stand up under modern scientific, literary, or historical critical analysis. Questions like how old the earth is and whether dinosaurs and men walked the earth at the same time are ones that some find answers to in the Bible, but those answers sometimes directly contradict all other evidence that can be found outside the Bible using all the tools God has otherwise given us.
One more point should be made, again reflecting as we are in a postmodern (and, in the wake of the recent election, truly “post-truth”) age. Its worth noting as others much smarter than I have said, but which I keep echoing, that all reading is interpretation. I’ve posted and talked about this before, but a clip from the amazing film Waking Life deals with this most helpfully:
The dialogue in that scene goes:
Creation seems to come out of imperfection. It seems to come out of a striving and a frustration. And this is where I think language came from. I mean, it came from our desire to transcend our isolation and have some sort of connection with one another. And it had to be easy when it was just simple survival like, you know, “water.” We came up with a sound for that. Or “saber-toothed tiger right behind you.” We came up with a sound for that. But when it gets really interesting, I think is when we use that same system of symbols to communicate all the abstract and intangible things that we’re experiencing. What is, like frustration? Or what is anger? Or love? When I say “love,” the sound comes out of my mouth and it hits the other person’s ear, travels through this byzantine conduit in their brain through their memories of love or lack of love and they register what I’m saying and say yes, they understand. But how do I know they understand? Because words are inert. They’re just symbols. They’re dead, you know? And so much of our experience is intangible. So much of what we perceive cannot be expressed. It’s unspeakable. And yet, you know, when we communicate with one another and we feel that we have connected and we think that we’re understood, I think we have a feeling of almost spiritual communion. And that feeling might be transient, but I think it’s what we live for.
It’s terribly useful to remember that words are indeed symbols. They’re vehicles for conveying meaning. But the meaning in the mind of a speaker or writer that a word is meant to bear may or may not be the meaning that is made in the mind of the hearer or reader when that word is received. Certainly, some meanings are more easily transferred from the mind of the speaker/writer to that of the hearer/reader than others. Some symbols/words are so ubiquitous in a culture that the chances of effective communication are very high. But what if the writer and reader speak very different languages and come from very different cultures and lived thousands of years apart? So I’ll say it again, all reading is interpretation, and this is a useful concept when thinking especially about reading the Bible. Some Christians would like to say that their reading of the text is somehow “plain” or so evident as to be beyond dispute, but such a claim does not hold up. Every act of reading involves many, many decisions by the reader about what the symbols they’re presented with are meant to convey. Most of these decisions are made subconsciously or they’ve effectively been made for us by virtue of the time we’re born into, the language we speak and the abundance of words it has or doesn’t have to represent one thing or another; our socioeconomic status, who and how present our parents are, and on and on and on. For example, and I’ve talked about this before, in English “you” can be plural or singular. Many, many of the “you’s” in the New Testament that talk about how to follow Jesus are plural. They’re addressed to you all, the church, because following Jesus is so wonderful and so hard that you can’t just do it alone. Yet how many of us grew up reading them as if they were addressed to me, just me, the individual? How many sermons did we who grew up “going to church” hear that reinforced this way of being a “Christian” that in its individualism was probably more “American” than “Christian?”
So then, what are we to make of all this?
Usually in discussions like this I’ll talk about my Luther Seminary days and how one professor in one class was so very helpful. Of course, at first he was decidedly un-helpful as the faith of my youth was torn down time and again by questions like “Jonah- a story of a whale, or a whale of a story?” Incidentally, the Jonah story never mentions a whale; it was “a big fish,” but I digress again. In any case, after serving to deeply challenge and even deconstruct quite a bit the faith I grew up with, this prof. very helpfully provided some building blocks for constructing a very different, but hopefully more mature, faith. He suggested that when it comes to the Bible what’s most important are the questions we ask of it. So instead of asking about the Bible questions like “Is it true?” as in “was it factually observable?” or “could I have taken a video of it?” it’s far better to ask about the Bible “what is it for?” The authors of the Bible and especially the Hebrew Scriptures- with their ancient neareastern understanding and cosmology- did not set out, for example, to write a 21st century science textbook. So if some of the stories in the Bible don’t exactly jive with our modern scientific understanding, it’s because they weren’t meant to. That’s not what they’re for. No, what the Bible is for, taken as a whole, is to tell the story of God’s wooing of humanity through the ages, culminating and centered in the person and life of Jesus. Everything in the “big God story” that comes before Christmas is best seen as somehow pointing toward him, and everything that comes after the resurrection can only be understood in light of it. Thus, as Circle of Hope says, “Jesus is the lens through which we read the Bible” and “the Bible should be known and followed, and that is a group project.”
The notion of knowing and following the Bible being a group project is integral too. Because all reading is interpretation and language is fraught with so many ontological challenges, we best understand and receive guidance from Scripture when we do it together. One of my pastors, Michael Binder of Mill City Church, talks about this a bit when he discusses whether or not the Bible is trustworthy. He says: “I think the Bible can be trusted because it’s always being translated. In fact, I trust the Bible more because it’s always being translated.” Later, he says: “We have to do the hard work as a community to ask ‘What’s the most faithful interpretation and action based on what we know of God’s story and character and what’s said in the Bible in the midst of a constantly changing cultural setting?’ ” He goes on:
“Our engagement with the Bible becomes more important right now, not less important. One of the reactions to the question of ‘Can I trust the Bible?’ is to say, ‘Well I don’t know if I can so I’m just going to put it on the shelf.’ That’s the opposite reaction we need. We need a whole group of people who are digging into it more and asking better questions about how we faithfully translate that Scripture today. And we all have to do that together. You can’t just pick some experts and have them do it for you.”
“Community then becomes more important, not less important, because we need each other to interpret the Bible well. We have to decide what it is God is calling us to do. I can’t decide that for you. You can’t sit in a room by yourself and read the Bible and decide what you think it means. You can’t. You have to do it with other people because you need their perspective. You need to hear God through them. You have to build trust with people in community. That’s one of the reasons why we need more community in church, not less. We need to fight against the individualistic tendencies that say ‘Just go off and do it by yourself in your own spiritual journey.’ That doesn’t work. So the reasons why we can trust the Bible is 1) the Bible is the means to an end and the end is connecting us to Jesus, and secondly, because it’s already built to be translated, which means it can adapt and adjust and speak clearly truth into any cultural situation and if we know that then we can enter into discussions and questions about what that really means in any particular time and place and trust that as a community God will reveal it to us, because he always has.”
Thinking of the Bible as being “built” to be translated is helpful to me. Perhaps the crazy convoluted process in which Scripture came together in the form we receive it today is a testament (ha! no pun intended) to why it is trustworthy, not why it’s not. If we remember what the Bible is for- namely, it’s for telling the story of God’s wooing of humanity though the ages culminating in the person of Jesus- (a notion I think Michael affirms in saying “the Bible is a means to an end and the end is connecting us to Jesus”) then it also bears remembering that this storytelling has always been a group project. It was in the context of a community that the first oral traditions that later became written scripture first evolved. It was within a community that scriptures were copied, edited, and added to as the “big God story” continued on. Letters within Scripture were written to whole communities of believers in various cities, and the story continues to be told today, right at this second on a blog.
Thinking of the Bible as a means to an end also solves another problem. It rescues us from the temptation to resort to “Bibliolatry,” as unfortunately all too many would-be Jesus followers have done. Some Christians are so focused on being “Bible based” and “preaching the Word” that they lose sight of the One of whom the “word” speaks. They lose sight of the living Word, Jesus. They forgot that while the “law” in scripture is useful because it points in the direction of how to have the right relationships God made us for, what’s important are those relationships, not the rules that help us have them well. As I’ve long said using my own personal mantra, “rules are for relationship.” Or as Jesus put it, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Likewise, we’re reminded in scripture that the day will come when God “will put (his) laws in (our) hearts, and (he) will write them on (our) minds.” I’ve talked about this before. So if you ask me why I continue to trust the Bible, I can give you one crucial reason: because it reliably points to Jesus. I trust the Bible to do that. I trust it to point me in the direction of right relationship with Jesus, with those around me, and with God’s good earth. It’s a signpost along “the way” of following Jesus, but ultimately my trust does not fully and finally reside in any text. My trust finds its final home in Jesus himself. In the absence of right relationship with Jesus, the Bible has little value for me.
I’ll be honest. I still have lots of problems with the Bible, at least 20 or so, as noted above. Some of them are mitigated by remembering how the Bible came together and remembering too that what came together was not only a compilation of many different voices separated by language, culture, and time, but also many different genres. Some of what we read in scripture is narrative or prose. Some is poetry. Some is allegorical. Some is apocalyptic, a genre which many interpret as telling the future, but maybe is best understood as telling a hard truth about the present which couldn’t be heard unless it was couched in language that on its face had to with the future, much like the best science fiction today. Thus some of the stories in the Bible are clearly “stories” meant to make a point but not needing to be factually observable to be “true.” Others seem to be intended to be historical accounts, but sometimes it’s just hard to tell which is which.
Our challenges don’t end there, though. Even when it does seem somewhat clear what kind of story we’re reading in Scripture, we’re still faced with the question of what to do with that story. In the Garden of Eden story Adam and Eve sin and a curse is pronounced. Included in that curse are the words “To the woman he said, ‘I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’ ” Remember, those words were first spoken, then written, then fragmented and put back together, then translated many, many times and finally ripped from their historical and cultural context as they were brought to us. The question is still begged, however, does this description of what is (“he will rule over you”) means that it is what should be? Is patriarchy Christian? Many Christians over many years have basically said “yes” to this question and in all too many cases women were oppressed as a result. Some of us hopefully have been smart enough to move away from complementarianism and have taken more egalitarian stances in our marriages, workplaces, and churches. Still, does the Bible give us a “right” answer? What about slavery? Many Christians were on the wrong side of this too, and could quote chapter and verse from the Bible to justify their position. Were they again right to do so according to the text(s)? How about LGBTQ issues today? Or the death penalty? Or abortion? What about war? Or killing and eating animals (yes, you can defend your position on this using Scripture)? My point is that would-be Jesus followers have been all over the map on these issues throughout history, and in most if not all cases, they used the Bible to support their answers. Does this mean that everyone’s right? That no one is? And what do we do when passages seem to contradict themselves? And what weight do we give various passages within the Bible? Are some more important than others? How do we decide? Who gets to decide?
I think what Bart so brazenly and honestly declared he did with Scripture when he was still following Jesus- which I referenced in my last post- is something we all do. He said that he “will either interpret away or ignore altogether any Bible verse that” didn’t comport with his “first article of faith,” namely “that God is completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving, that God is doing everything possible to overcome evil (which is evidently a long and difficult task), and that God will utterly triumph in the end, despite any and all indications to the contrary.” He also declares just what king of a god he can believe in (at the time), namely one that is “at least as moral as he is.” He starts from there and then moves to scripture to find affirmation of this view. Some would immediately assert that this is wrong, backwards. Are we really so different, though? Remembering that all reading is interpretation, we all bring our assumptions to the Bible, and most of us too often use it as a tool to justify our pre-conceived positions.
All of this only reinforces the need to remember what Scripture is for, namely again telling the story of God’s wooing of humanity through the ages. Of course it’s also useful for what it says it is useful for, which is: “…for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” but this is only possible within a community that is willing to do the hard work of ongoing interpretation, together, as together that community does its best to follow Jesus, to ask “what is God up to?” and “how should we respond?” Some Christians will be deeply offended by the paragraph above about Bart’s “first article of faith” (which alludes to universalism) and his approach to Scripture (which some would call brazenly cavalier), and it reminds me of something Bart’s father, Tony Campolo, used to do when he would speak at Christian colleges. He usually said something like this, which I found recorded here:
I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.
Obviously (hopefully it’s obvious, anyway) he was being hyperbolic, but his story does what good stories do. It got you to think. It raises questions about justice and rules and begs the questions: “what do we think God really cares about?” and “do we care about those things as much as He does?” So I wonder about those who would be offended by the paragraph above. Are you more offended because Bart believed, with some Scriptural support, that God’s love for humanity would be so, well, loving that it would eventually wear down our resistance to it down to every last man, woman, and child throughout history; or are you more offended that Bart would be honest about discounting some parts of the Bible or ignoring them altogether in favor of others? If the former, I’ll have more to say below. If the latter, is it possible that you’re offended because if you’re at all like me you know that deep down you’re no better? I can certainly agree with him regarding myself, and I have lots of evidence that almost every Christian does this. Many “conservative Christians,” for example, elevate some passages of scripture that touch on immoral habits like drunkenness or promiscuity to the point that they’re quick to judge those who engage in such acts while seeming to utterly ignore how Jesus seemed to interact with those who engaged in such acts. Some such would-be Jesus followers wouldn’t be caught dead with such “sinners,” while Jesus seemed to greatly prefer the company of “sinners” over that of the (self-)”righteous.” Similarly, some “single issue voters” will use abortion as the alleged metric for deciding who to vote for because murder is pretty clearly wrong and life seems to pretty clearly begin at some point in the womb (and as the father of a son born at 24 weeks and 3 days gestation I can unequivocally say my son wasn’t quite cooked enough when he was born but he was certainly my son already and he’s an amazing young man today!). Astoundingly, though, those same single issue “don’t murder” voters seem to have no difficulty supporting war and the death penalty and seem to be unwilling to lift a finger to support the social safety net and living wages and universal healthcare and early education/intervention opportunities, all of which can have a dramatic impact on continuing the already downward trend in abortion rates. And you know what? They can use scripture to defend some of those positions.
Speaking of scripture, or more accurately, some people’s interpretation of it, I started writing these two posts and spent much of the last one talking about Bart and his repudiation of faith for a reason. Actually, and importantly, my recent post with all the Kingdomworks pictures is related too. You see, there was an interesting, if not strange, confluence of events that happened lately. It started when I discovered that my old KW team-mate Holly is actually kind of famous.
Holly and I had been in touch a little in the year after KW and then again haltingly some time after that, but then we fell out of contact as was the case for all my other team members save for my friend Dean. It was a surprise to suddenly find Holly again and also find that she’s something of a star in the improv circuit, to the point where she made the main stage at Second City and even auditioned for Lorne Michaels at SNL. I’m super proud of her and gratified by her success, and because of it all and because of her presence on YouTube and other sites I was able to hear, in her own words, a little about her journey. Most poignantly, though, and part of how this all came to a head for me is that Bart interviewed her I think for over an hour on his podcast about humanism. Perhaps it goes without saying that like Bart, Holly no longer considers herself a Jesus-follower.
It’s probably worth noting that after doing KW Holly spent a long time, maybe as much as a decade, supporting her night-time work learning and training in improv by working during the day for Willow Creek, smack dab in the belly of the beast of modern-day Christendom (which, if you know me or have read this blog, you know that “Christendom” stands for everything the church should not). I don’t meant to judge (much). I’m sure there are many well-meaning would-be Jesus followers who form wonderful relationships and maybe even serve the poor in meaningful ways by virtue of their being a part of Willow Creek. But what do you have to give up to get that goodness? I can only imagine how mind-numbing and soul-sucking it was to produce dramatic experiences for rich white suburban Chicago Willow Creek kids and their parents, which I think is somewhat close to what Holly was doing for them. I can only guess it was especially soul-sucking for Holly, who famously wrote me after Kingdomworks and said this:
If you can’t make it out, it says: “…at present I desire to high tail it back the where we belong. Back on the street, where our feet are always dirty and the tears sting. Back where each drop of sweat has a purpose and every smile is a slice of heaven.”
I can’t help but suspect there was a lot of sweat involved in serving Willow Creek kids and their parents, but not a lot of purpose. I’m not mad at Holly. I have no right to be and no place in her life now, and I recognize that her journey is her journey. I don’t judge it, or her. I can’t say that I’m emotion-less about it all, though. I feel….wistful, a bit melancholy I suppose. If you know me, you know I’ve been “mildly depressed” for most of my life; so this is not something new for me. It is…different, though. I guess as I’ve spent the better part of 21+ years in many ways trying to recreate my KW experience by moving to Philly (twice!) and working in social service and in the foster care system for some years and then with disadvantaged kids in education for the better part of a decade, through all of that I felt like I was trying to get “back to where I belong,” and it was comforting to know I may not be the only one. Perhaps I digress.
So….that happened. Then, in spending a little more time on my dear friend Bart’s website than I had of late, I came across his podcast where he interviewed his very introverted wife Marty, whom I hardly know but had the pleasure to meet a few times and was welcomed into their home once. Anyway, the subject of their talk was them wrestling with the notion that they (atheists) have gone “too easy” on Christianity (they’re careful to say not too easy on Christians, but I suppose the “institution” of Christianity, to be sure), particularly in regard to the generally-accepted-by-many-Christians doctrine regarding hell as a place of conscious, eternal torment for much of humanity throughout history, including perhaps your friends, neighbors, and loved ones. So, first I realized Holly was semi-famous but not following Jesus anymore, then that Bart had recorded a conversation of over an hour with her that touched in part on the summer that Holly and I shared doing Bart’s program, KW; then I discovered Bart’s conversation with Marty that delved deeply into this question of whether or not Christianity as an institution in the world had done great harm by espousing and inculcating many young minds with this palpable fear that they will suffer eternal torment if they don’t “believe the things and say the things” about Jesus. Thus, Bart wondered if not only had Christianity done great harm but also could rightly be accused of literally abusing the children that grew up believing this. Marty talks a little about her experience growing up believing this. I can certainly relate, and I know my wife, Kirsten, can as well. I’ve often talked about “fire insurance” Christianity and rejected it wholesale for all the reasons I’ve already said, but hearing it put in these terms was perhaps appropriately challenging.
So let me be clear again. Much as Bart did with his embrace of universalism before deciding not to follow Jesus, I reject, outright, the idea that God will eternally torment in a pit of fire anyone that doesn’t “believe the things and say the things” for whatever reason. As I’ve said before, Bart can tell his own story far better than I and he has and continues to do so, but I would like to suggest that to whatever extent he rejected Jesus because of this notion that God would cause his children to suffer forever, whatever the justification; this need not have been so. I know many Christians over many years have supported this idea with words from the Bible and whole generations have grown up taking this idea of hell as “gospel truth.” I remain convinced that they’re wrong, for several reasons.
First of all, as I said here a couple of years ago while wrestling with some of these same questions (including conversing a bit with the same writings by Bart that I have continued to wrestle with in these more recent posts), I defer to Rod White of Circle of Hope, who writes the following here:
In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a story about the end of the age when the sheep are separated from the goats. This is the line that bothers people, even if they have just heard about it: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’” This seems to be a reflection of Enoch 10:13 (which did not make it into the Protestant Bible) in which evil angels are locked forever in a prison at the bottom of the fire, the “pit of hell.”
I do not think that God, who absorbed the ultimate violence the world could offer on the cross in Jesus Christ, is waiting around to come again in order to send millions of people to unending judgment – to absorb the ultimate violence he can offer! Yet some people do not want to follow Jesus because they believe the Bible contradicts itself by calling on people to love their enemies, while showing plainly that, in the end, God will condemn his enemies to experience ever-burning fire. Maybe quoting Miroslav Volf again will help with this misunderstanding (I think Exclusion and Embrace is a great book, if you can take dense arguing).
“The evildoers who ‘eat up my people as they eat bread,’ says the Psalmist in God’s name, will be put ‘in great terror’ (Psalm 14:5). Why terror? Why not simply reproach? Even better, why not reasoning together? Why not just display suffering love? Because evildoers ‘are corrupt’ and ‘they do abominable deeds’ (v. 1); they have ‘gone astray,’ they are ‘perverse’ (v. 3). God will judge, not because God gives people what they deserve, but because some people refuse to receive what no one deserves; if evildoers experience God’s terror, it will not be because they have done evil, but because they have resisted to the end the powerful lure of the open arms of the crucified Messiah” (p. 298).
Those who do receive what no one deserves are welcomed into a renewed creation under God’s loving reign. That is the goal. The evildoers are not imprisoned, screaming in agony, in some eternal land of unrenewed creation. I think they get what they desire. They get themselves without God, and that is death.
I added in that post from a couple of years ago:
Thus, as Lewis said in The Great Divorce, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done’.” So God persistently, stubbornly, despite it being a “long and difficult task” in Bart’s words, works to overcome evil, respecting our freedom all along the way to choose to join him or not. When, in the end, whenever and however that comes, we finally choose not to join him in that task, God respects that choice too and in his mercy permits us to “get ourselves without God,” which is death/nonexistence.
To my theological imagination, this makes perfect sense. If it is in Christ that “all things hold together,” and sin is separation, then eventually those who resist to the end God’s goodness and grace and refuse to accept his invitation into right relationship with him, with one another, and with God’s good world will then experience final separation from God, which means no longer “holding together,” no longer being. This is a final end/death. Think of babies who die tragically from “failure to thrive,” from a lack of loving touch and of human kindness. We were so obviously made in and for love that it’s hard to imagine how we could go on existing in any place where there was fully and finally none of it. If it were possible, that place would be hellish indeed.
This is what Michael Binder suggests in another of his sermons to Mill City Church. If you go here and scroll all the way down you’ll eventually see a sermon titled “The Separation of Hell” by Michael Binder from 5/2/10. Before echoing many of the larger points I’ve just made, he starts by sharing a bit of pop theology on hell from Seinfeld:
Then he moves on to his sermon proper, using the story of the “rich man” and Lazarus from Luke 16:
The Rich Man and Lazarus
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family,28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
His sermon is worth a listen, but some of what he gets at is that first of all this is not a story necessarily about hell. It’s a story about money. Just a few verses before Jesus had given his oft-quoted statement on money: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” The passage then adds: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.15 He said to them, ‘You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.’ “
In a culture where health and wealth were regarded as rewards from God and conversely sickness and poverty were seen as judgment, Michael says Jesus preached the coming of a kingdom that was radically different. He says: “In a place were God is king, no one gets to lie in the filth with untreated sores, hungry. That doesn’t happen in God’s kingdom. Jesus is saying, ‘You don’t understand; the wealth you were given, it’s meant to help that guy; it’s meant to bless this person who’s having a terrible time and needs someone to aid him’.” Thus Jesus was preaching something radically different from the accepted practice of the day, though this should not have been the case, as way back in Genesis 12, speaking to Abram, God had made clear that God’s people were “blessed to be a blessing:”
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.[a] 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
Somehow the message hadn’t stuck; so Jesus uses this story from Luke to make the point. Michael adds, “This person (the nameless rich man, whom the Pharisees and teachers of the law are meant to identify with) is justifying their lifestyle, justifying their lack of action, lack of help for this person with their religious beliefs. Nothing makes Jesus more angry than the people who are in charge of religion saying that not only do I not acknowledge this (poor) person, but I have no obligation to help them.”
Michael says that one of the most remarkable things about this passage is that the rich man, when he can communicate with Lazarus, doesn’t ask to be rescued, to be taken from that hellish place as you or I might have thought to request. Instead, he asks that Lazarus, a man who when each of them were still alive was clearly in a much lower class than he, be sent essentially to serve him, to “increase his comfort level,” as Michael said. Thus, even in a hellish place, the rich man is so locked into his selfish ways that he seems unable to even conceive of the steps necessary to change. By this time in the rich man’s story he’s so trapped in his self-centered way of being that it doesn’t even occur to him to humbly ask for rescue. Thus, Michael says, it’s this text that have led C.S. Lewis and others to conclude that “hell is locked from the inside,” not the outside. I’m reminded again of the The Great Divorce.
That said, though this passage is much more about money than hell, Michael goes on a little to explore the two main words used in the New Testament for hell: Hades and Gehenna. Hades, Michael says, comes from the “Greco-Roman” world and just means “the underworld, the afterlife, the place of the dead; and it often means a place that you can’t escape, and it can be a place of punishment.” Michael adds that:
Gehenna was referring to a valley that was out behind Jerusalem, and this is where a lot of the imagery of fire, and burning, and torture (regarding hell) comes from. The south side of Jerusalem had this big valley and that’s where Jerusalem would dump all their trash…and they burned it…and so there was this constant burning in this valley going (on) behind Jerusalem and there would have been worms and maggots and things eating up all the trash that was in there.
Even worse, says Michael, in one of the worst periods of Israel’s history two of her kings sacrificed their sons there, in Gehenna, to the god Molech, and afterwards the valley was considered cursed. So this is known imagery. Michael then concludes: “At times I think people reject the idea of hell because they don’t like this caricature of a fiery burning place and like I said most scholars think this was a metaphorical piece, but what’s frustrating to me,” Michael goes on, “is that somehow when people hear that….that’s comforting to them; it’s consoling to think, ‘well, maybe there really isn’t a fiery hell’.” “No,” Michael says, “no there probably isn’t a fiery hell; there’s something much worse than that. There’s something far worse than burning for all eternity; there’s a place completely absent of God’s presence…completely absent of love…” I’m still not sure that we could exist in any place devoid fully and finally of love, but I pray I’ll never have to find out.
Either way, God isn’t a cosmic child abuser. He didn’t kill his son to satisfy some perverse system of justice that we could never adhere to. God is love. God loves us enough to make us free, and in our freedom we have fallen short of loving him and one another as we should. That leaves us isolated, alone, separated from God and one another. God still loves us, though, and so rescues us, even though bridging the gap between us requires him to traverse death itself, because any place without love, without God, is necessarily a place without life. We can choose to receive this free gift, this offer of rescue, of the restoration of the right, loving relationships we were made for. Or, I suppose, we can choose not to. If so, God doesn’t vindictively torment us forever. Instead, as Volf said above, those who continue to resist God’s love right to the very end, “…get what they desire. They get themselves without God, and that is death.”
I should begin to close with the words of another mentor in my life that I’ve mentioned before, Duane Crabbs. Duane once responded to an email thread I forwarded him that contained some theological arguments about some of the big questions I’ve been wrestling with above. He answered me by saying:
I have little or no interest in debating beliefs/opinions with anyone, even about ultimate matters like suffering. As someone who spends much time among the suffering (nursing homes, jail, inner city, hospitals, hospice) I have discovered that they are each one individually, a rich vein of incredible faith. The main people who I hear debating issues surrounding suffering and doubt tend to be well-educated, relatively young, materially comfortable people. To debate requires us to abstract principles and philosophical ideas form the particulars of actual suffering people. The suffering themselves do not seek life-meaning from philosophical debates. They want to touch and be touched, to care and matter to somebody. Instead of debating, let’s re-enact the incarnation and throw our lot in with the suffering and learn to love and be loved in the midst of our messy humanity. Now that is the good news, not just preached, but incarnated, dare I say re-incarnated. I don’t think God will give us the grace to intellectualy figure out suffering and its causes. I do know he offers every one of us the grace sufficient to bear our own suffering and to enter into the suffering of others!
Wow! As usual, I think Duane is right, and again I think the church has done the world a great disservice for quite some time now. We abstracted a personal (but communal and relational) faith and reduced it to “believing the (right) things and saying the (right) things” about Jesus. We made it about lending intellectual assent to a set of propositions about God and checking all the right boxes on a list of behavioral do’s and dont’s. Thus, an intellectual, moralistic faith leads to intellectual problems that only a personal (but communal and relational) God can solve. As Bart said, it doesn’t matter quite as much why I started following Jesus; it matters why I’m still trying to. And so again I will echo Bart when he said:
I still do my best to convince young people to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, but not because I’m afraid God will damn them to Hell if they don’t. On the contrary, I want the kids I love to follow Jesus because I genuinely believe following Jesus is the best kind of life. Eternity aside, I want them to be transformed by the Gospel right here and right now, for their sakes and for the sakes of all the lost and broken people out there who need them to start living as Jesus’ disciples. After all, the sooner we all start following Jesus by feeding the poor and freeing the oppressed, the sooner God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in Heaven.
Most of all, however, I evangelize people because, having discovered that they are the beloved children of my beloved God, I don’t want them to suffer one minute longer than they have to without knowing that most wonderful fact of life.
I too think following Jesus is the best kind of life. Though I am so very much a work in progress, I am being transformed by the gospel right here and right now. I’ve known love deep in my soul in a way that I can’t explain, but I’ve felt it well up inside me and overflow with love for those around me that simply defies any other explanation. My heart continues to break for “all the poor and powerless, for all the lost and lonely,” not because I’m a swell guy, but because the King of the universe reigns in my heart, and he won’t quit until the beloved community he dreams of, the new humanity he’s creating, is a reality for every last one of us, if we’ll have it.
I think Bart’s right, by the way. To whatever extent “Christianity” terrifies little kids into saying a magic prayer so that a vengeful god won’t torment them forever in a fiery pit, it is an evil in the world. I don’t think that has much to do with following Jesus, though, and I pray the day comes when enough of us follow Jesus closely enough that such a caricature loses its potency. In the meantime I’ll keep plumbing the depths of God’s love for me and doing my best to love those around me well enough that they want to jump in and experience it too. And who knows? Maybe Bart and Holly will join me again some day. After all, the arc of our lives may be long, but I suspect it bends towards Jesus, because Jesus is love, and love is what we were made for.
Over the past little while I’ve found myself preoccupied with thoughts of eternal torment. There’s good reason for this. As someone who is trying to follow Jesus, the notion of “hell” is one that I must contend with if for no other reason than because it seems to loom large in the “Christian” imagination, at least as that imagination is conceived of in popular culture and by all too many would-be Jesus followers. I’ve written about this before, and certainly have done my share of wrestling with it. It seems to me that often the decision to follow Jesus-or not- is presented as the “answer” to the “question” of (how to avoid) hell. Thus becoming a Christian for so, so many has been about getting their “fire insurance,” something which seems to have little to do with following Jesus. Instead, what is presented by hopefully well-meaning but misguided “Christians” is not so much about following Jesus; it’s about lending intellectual assent to certain beliefs about Jesus and the Bible and then saying a formulaic prayer, all so that one can avoid being eternally tortured by the same cosmic child abuser that not only asked Abraham to kill his own son to prove Abraham loved him, but would ultimately subject his own son, Jesus, to the same fate, all so that the impossible rules he set up in the first place could be somehow satisfied. Sure, Isaac was spared at the last minute, and we too who would follow the rules (believe the things; say the things) of “getting saved” get spared too, but it doesn’t work out so well for Jesus, at least in the very short term. And for all the folks who won’t or can’t or don’t get a chance to follow the rules of “getting saved,” well they’re going to burn- forever, while consciously awake and aware of their torment. At least that’s the story that’s been told by too many for too long. Is it any wonder that a whole generation has propelled us into a “post-Christian” era here in the U.S.?
I should back up a little. I’ve talked a lot about Kingdomworks on this blog, and recently I posted all my pictures from that hot summer of 1995 on the streets of Philadelphia. I put all those pictures up so that I could begin to fully tell the story of that summer in a way that I haven’t before. This is long overdue. Look for that post soon. In the meantime, I’m mentioning Kingdomworks now, and again posted all those pictures recently, because of a somewhat strange confluence of events in my life related to Kingdomworks (KW). Bart Campolo, seen above, is the visionary leader that founded Kingdomworks so many years ago and then led it through a transition from a summer program in one city to a year long program in multiple cities across the country before stepping away. He’s someone that I still look up to and consider a friend even now 21+ years removed from my summer doing Kingdomworks. Interestingly enough, though, Bart no longer calls himself a Christian. I won’t dare speak for him or try to say too much about his story; it’s his to tell and he’s done so quite publicly, even at the cost of no doubt a not small measure of criticism and condemnation.
Here’s what I will say about my friend, Bart. He works really hard, and those of who have had the privilege of relating to him face to face can attest to this, to be warm and inviting. His smile can light up a room and he’s just someone that you want to open up to, to tell your story to. That’s a great gift that he keeps working hard to keep giving whether he does it in Jesus’ name or not. My relationship with Bart was significant for me when I did KW that summer, though I’m sure it probably wasn’t for him, which is understandable. I was but one of the many college students there that summer, and one in a long line of young people (I was then, anyway) that he’s reached out to, taught, mentored, inspired, and sometimes cajoled into doing “kingdom” (then; “good” now) works over the long years. More notable has been my relationship with Bart since doing KW. It has ebbed and flowed over the years as all relationships do, and let me be clear that I’m not a close personal friend by any means. Nonetheless, there is a bond of friendship. Like many who have participated in programs that he’s led, I’ve been the recipient of more than a few newsletters he’s written, first for KW, then Mission Year (MY), then the Walnut Hills Fellowship (WHF- more about that later). His letters are always compelling and inspiring.
Take this letter he emailed to those on the mailing list for the WHF, which literally is the first one I came across when I started looking through all my emails from him. I could give you many more examples just like this one. Read it, though:
Stanley is a dirty old man, and by that I don’t just mean he talks about younger women in inappropriate ways. He smells bad, too. Really bad. On the other hand, Stanley is about as gentle a fellow as you are likely to meet here in Walnut Hills, which is why the rest of us put up with his stink, even at the dinner table. He’s our friend, after all.
After dinner the other night, we held our annual show-and-tell talent show, which is kind of a homey cross between American Idol and The Jerry Springer Show. Just after one of our teenagers proudly modeled her pregnant belly (her talents, unfortunately, do not include good judgment), I was getting ready for “Cincinnati’s loudest burp” when Karen tapped me on the shoulder. “Della says Stanley has bedbugs all over his jacket,” she whispered urgently. “What do we do now?”
I quietly moved next to Della, who sadly shook her head. Sure enough, Stanley ’s back was literally crawling with bedbugs. How did I know they were bedbugs, you ask? Around here we learn to spot our bedbugs the way an endangered horror movie hero learns to spot her zombies. Della knew too. “You gotta get him out of here, or my family’s leaving,” she told me. “I love y’all, Bart, but we can’t be getting no bedbugs.” And just that quickly, everything changed between Stanley and the rest of us.
I called him outside, but there was no way to avoid embarrassing him. He didn’t argue or minimize the problem. He just shook his head and told me he didn’t know what to do. I shook my head too. Three weeks later, I still don’t know what to do.
If all this seems overly dramatic, then you must be unaware that bedbugs, which were largely wiped out in this country by DDT in the 1950s, are in the midst of a major resurgence, most especially among the poor people in inner-city neighborhoods who are least equipped to fight them. It only takes one hitching a ride on your clothes to infest your house, and after that they are incredibly difficult to get rid of, even with the help of an exterminator, and even if you can afford to throw away your bed and most of your furniture. They feed on your blood every three nights, but you can’t just leave and starve them out, because they can survive without feeding for more than a year.
Spiritually speaking, bedbugs are a kind of modern day leprosy. Della and her family aren’t the only ones afraid to touch Stanley these days; all of us keep our distance. Until we can find a way to shower and dress him in clean clothes each week, we don’t even let him come to dinner anymore. He’s a gentle old crackhead who needs our love, but we shun him.
We’re still not safe, of course. Every day we hug people who might be carriers, or invite their kids into our homes, or go to visit theirs. A few months ago, when Marty and I had a false alarm in our house, our whole ministry here flashed before our eyes. Bullets in the backyard we can handle, I think. Bedbugs…I don’t know. How can you love anybody if you can’t sleep anymore?
Then again, how well can you sleep when you know your old friend Stanley is just a few blocks away, filthy and bug-bitten and alone? Not so well, it turns out, when you think about it.
I used to judge all those Bible people who shunned the lepers to protect themselves and their families. I thought I was different because I was willing to spend my life in a ghetto. Now I know better…and wish I had some DDT.
Inspiring, isn’t it? I always find his letters heartfelt and truthful, and usually challenging and convicting too. Let me share one more before I go on:
The other day I met a young woman whose entire life was built around her identity as an urban minister, and whose entire life was in shambles. She was burned out from her work and, in the aftermath of a failed romance, suddenly aware that most of her other relationships were unhealthy as well. The more we talked about her path and the key decisions she had made along the way, the more evident it became that something was deeply wrong.
At first I thought it might be some combination of the usual suspects: religious legalism, a broken home, an addiction of some kind, clinical depression, or a history of abuse. But as our conversation wore on, and each of those possibilities was ruled out, I began to suspect a different kind of wrongness. Eventually, I asked. This may sound strange, I began, given what you do for a living, but I want you to think very carefully before you respond: At the core of your being, do you really believe that the personal God you’ve been serving even exists?
She looked up from the patch of floor between her feet, maybe to make sure she had heard me right or maybe to see if it was a trick question. In any case, she held my eye as she shook her head. No, she said quietly, I don’t think I do. After a moment of silence, she asked a question of her own: That’s pretty sad, isn’t it?
It was all I could do to keep the grin off my face as I answered her. Actually, I said, that’s the most hopeful thing you’ve said all day.
I wasn’t out to undermine that young woman, of course. The reason I was happy was that the root problem of her faith—of her whole life, really—was one I knew we could work around. You see, two days out of three I don’t believe in a personal God either.
I used to think my lack of credulity had mostly to do with living in this ghetto, but over the years I’ve discovered that you don’t need to be surrounded by ignorance and brokenness to begin wondering about the likelihood of a benevolent, all-knowing, all-powerful creator. You don’t need to be a bad person, either, or a stupid one for that matter. In fact, many of the best and brightest people I know find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe that Someone is actually listening to their prayers.
Honestly, I think whichever psalmist wrote “Only a fool says in his heart that there is no God” must have been an arrogant fool himself, unless he was simply fronting like the rest of us. Or, better yet, unless he was misquoted. Perhaps what he really said is that only a fool hopes in his heart that there is no God. In that case, you and I may be doubters, but we are no fools.
Regardless, it seems to me that what we hope for is ultimately more important than what we believe, anyway, partly because our hopes better reflect our true selves, and partly because those hopes so often determine what we believe in the end. That is good news for those of us who often doubt the existence of a good and loving God. Why, after all, would we even notice those doubts, let alone lament or defend them, if we weren’t so deeply attracted to their object in the first place?
Certainly my young woman friend (let’s call her Marian) is attracted to the possibility of such a God. Indeed, as she puts it, she is “absolutely desperate” to remain a believer. Beyond her understandable fears of losing her job, alienating her family and friends, and perhaps going to hell if it turns out she’s wrong, Marian is desperate because she is virtually addicted to the everyday experience of living by faith. She’s hooked on the comforting routines of discipleship, on the easy camaraderie of spiritual fellowship, on the purpose and identity she draws from openly following Jesus. Also, on a more existential level, she’s terrified of being alone and adrift in an uncaring Universe, with no meaning but that which she can fashion for herself. Really, she needs the assurance she’s on a divine mission like a junkie needs a fix. I can relate, of course. I’m a faith addict, too.
It isn’t just that, like Marian, I’m already so deeply invested in the idea of God. It’s that the idea itself is so utterly fabulous. Whether or not you believe in a good and loving God who can and will redeem everything and everyone in the end, you have to admit that a God like that beats the pants off all the alternative possibilities, including all those lesser Gods whose so-called grace depends on everything from theological orthodoxy to luck of the draw. Which is all the idea of God needs to do, as far as I am concerned: Beat the pants off all the other possibilities.
Now I know there are folks who claim they can empirically prove not only the existence of God, but also quite a few particularities about his character and expectations, but I don’t know anyone who takes those folks very seriously. Even my fundamentalist friends will admit that such things are matters of faith. What they won’t admit, generally speaking, is why exactly they put their faith in the existence of this or that particular God. Then again, born as most of us are into overwhelming currents of familial and cultural rituals and assumptions, I doubt they had much choice. That kind of directional leap of faith is the unique burden—and the unique opportunity—of the true non-believer.
When I say “directional leap of faith,” by the way, I don’t mean choosing what you actually believe. Nobody gets to do that, unfortunately, just like nobody gets to choose who they are attracted to, or what they are afraid of, or if they like strawberry ice cream. Faith is a feeling, after all, and, like it or not, you don’t get to choose your feelings. All you get to choose is how you respond to them—what you say, where you place yourself, who you watch and listen to, when you start or stop trying to do the right thing. What you do get to choose, in other words, is how you live.
Until proven otherwise, I choose to live as though what I (and Marian, and maybe you) desperately hope to be true actually is just that. I can’t prove anything, but I reckon that if there was a good and loving God, that God would want me to love people—especially poor or broken people—so that’s what I’m trying to do. I figure that God wouldn’t want me to hurt myself with drugs or alcohol, so I don’t. I wish pornography and junk food were equally easy for me to refuse, but at least I am disappointed with myself when I succumb to their false promises, because I feel certain that the God I hope for would be disappointed, too.
Here at last is my point: I believe that living by faith—even on those days you don’t believe in God—is the best life possible, for Marian, for me, for you, or for anyone. You might call this my version of Pascal’s Wager, except that Pascal’s argument for taking the leap was centered on his fear of eternal damnation, and mine has nothing to do with that. My best argument for choosing to live by faith is the happiness and meaning that choice gives me right here and now. A good and loving God in the process of utterly redeeming every soul in the universe may not be the most obvious of existential possibilities, but it is certainly the most beautiful of the bunch, and even more certainly the only one I deem worthy of my devotion.
And here is my good news: The more I live by faith, the more strongly I suspect that my faith is not in vain, even here in Walnut Hills. I pray that happens for you, too, wherever you are.
I forwarded this last one several times after I got it back in 2011, and I introduced it by saying: “To whatever extent I can still call myself a Christian, I’m able to do so in no small part because of him” (Bart). It’s a bit poignant to read it now, knowing that Bart no longer chooses to consciously “live by faith.” You know what, though? Bart remains one of the most inspiring people I know, or know of. KW was an amazing ministry that tangibly changed the lives of inner-city kids, at least for a little while. Even more so, it tangibly changed the lives of we (relatively) rich white young people who wanted to live among and love inner-city kids for a summer so many years ago. I can certainly say that I’ve spent the better part of 21+ years since doing KW trying to work out its meaning in my life. The same can be said for MY, which is still going strong now many years since Bart left it, and which has been even more impactful not only because it’s a year long program but also because it is operating in more than one city. I’ve been grateful to come across MY alums (like one of the people that now run this inner-city ministry) doing amazing work trying to love folks in the city. All of them were changed by their year of service in the inner-city living in intentional communities focused on loving God and loving people as if nothing else matters.
After leaving MY, Bart and his family moved to inner-city Cincinnati where they started the Walnut Hills Fellowship, which is the context of the two letters I shared above. They moved there with some friends and attracted a few others along the way. They didn’t set out to start a ministry, but found that one grew up around them as they worked intentionally to know and love their neighbors, especially through a weekly dinner party they invited all of their neighbors to. As usual, Bart probably says it best in this, his first WHF letter:
When I stepped down as the President of Mission Year a few years ago, I figured I had written my last monthly newsletter. Even after my family’s jaw-dropping move from suburban Philadelphia to inner-city Cincinnati returned me to street-level urban ministry, I planned to keep things fairly informal. Certainly I had no intention of starting another non-profit organization. A thrift shop perhaps, or maybe a laundromat, but nothing that required any fund-raising.
However, it wasn’t long before I realized that establishing a for-profit business as a vehicle for community-building would leave me precious little time to provide pastoral care for that community once it was built. The more Marty and I reached out to our neighbors in Walnut Hills, the more aware we became that many of them are not only poor and vulnerable, but also alienated and alone. That awareness led us to start our big neighborhood dinner parties, which have proven a wonderful way of connecting people, both to us and to one another. It turns out the only community-building vehicle we really need is the ability to make marginalized people feel at home. That and enough time to love those people in practical ways, now that we’re all connected.
All of which brings me to that non-profit organization I wasn’t going to start.
If the word ‘church’ wasn’t so loaded, I would say we’re planting one here, for all those neighborhood folk that nobody else seems to want or have time for. But then you might think I was talking about Sunday worship services with music and sermons, when what we really have in mind is more like an every Thursday dinner party, with good food and conversation, some thoughtfully chosen ‘announcements’, and lots of follow up. An inner-city youth group, if you will – with service projects, field trips, retreats, Bible studies, one-on-ones, and life skills training – but for families and individuals of all ages. Regardless of what you call it, the big idea is simply to gather a bunch of broken people who need a loving, local, extended family, and then do our best to become one, according to the teachings of Jesus.
Besides being a more natural time for our crowd, meeting on Thursday nights will enable me to keep taking weekend speaking engagements, at least as long as people keep inviting me. Still, unless I am willing to be gone virtually every weekend of the year – which doesn’t make much sense for a neighborhood minister – I can’t earn enough as a speaker to support this new ministry all by myself. Neither can Marty. No, to do what we believe God called us here to do, we’re going to need your help.
All of which means…I get to write monthly newsletters again! Not big-time national organization letters like I used to write, mind you, but small-is-beautiful local ministry letters, with stories about the neglected people Marty and I and a few others are loving first-hand, right here in the neighborhood.
You may be wondering why the ‘real’ churches of Walnut Hills don’t reach out more to such neglected people. I used to wonder the same thing myself, in a fairly judgmental way. Then it dawned on me that most of the churches around here are struggling just to stay in business, and that most of their pastors are working other jobs as well. They literally can’t afford to welcome our neighborhood’s most desperate people, because such people consume lots and lots of time, have no money, and tend to drive away the more respectable people who do. Weird, huh? Lately I’m thinking Jesus himself must have had some generous donors, who enabled him to spend so much time with the prostitutes, lepers, and street people he loved so well. A congregation of genuinely poor people like his – or ours – must always depend on outside support. Hence those monthly newsletters.
Perhaps someday our gang will come up with one of those cool, evocative ministry names, like The Simple Way or The Sojourners Community or Mosaic, but in the meantime we’ve incorporated this thing as The Walnut Hills Fellowship. It’s simple and self-explanatory, and hopefully it won’t scare away half the neighborhood. Our first choice, of course, was The International Holy-Rolling Evangelistic Church of Sanctified Bible-Thumping Soul Savers Incorporated, but unfortunately, like those other cool names, it was already in use elsewhere.
Those of you who know me well may also be wondering what will become of everything else I’ve been doing, from producing provocative workshops and articles, mentoring young leaders, and working as a justice activist, to recruiting for Mission Year and helping out all kinds of other ministries through EAPE. The short answer is that, for the sake of my own sanity, I intend to organize all those other activities around a single, primary ministry commitment: The Walnut Hills Fellowship.
So then, don’t let the humble name fool you. What I’m asking you to support is a ministry that will communicate the unlimited, transformative grace of God first and foremost to this gritty little neighborhood, but hopefully far beyond it as well. Granted, that’s not a particularly new or complicated idea. I think that’s why we’re all so excited about it.
Of course, in a very real sense, I’m also asking you to support me personally as an urban missionary, to give me the opportunity to creatively love the beautiful, broken people surrounding me here in Cincinnati. Most of you already know what I mean by that, but I am looking forward to telling you more in these letters, and when you come to visit us as well. For now, I hope and pray that you believe in me enough to help.
Can you see why I find Bart inspiring? He spent years organizing and motivating sheltered, privileged “Christian” college students to move to the ghetto for a summer to love kids who looked and acted very differently than they did. Realizing that a summer was long enough to maybe inspire lifelong change in those college students, but not nearly long enough to really benefit the inner city kids those college students were supposed to be loving, he changed everything and morphed KW into MY, challenging those same sheltered, privileged “Christian” college students to give up not just a summer but a whole year. Meanwhile, Bart worked with local churches and other neighborhood organizations to do the most good that could be done with a steady stream of bright eyed college students hoping to change the world one year at a time, year after year after year.
Lives were changed and good was done, to be sure, but along the way Bart found that something in him remained unsettled, and he left Philly and MY and started the WHF, as he described above. From the stories Bart tells, it’s clear that he and those he gathered continued to do remarkable, life changing good in the lives of those they lived with and loved, even if it was gritty, hard work that didn’t “feel” very inspiring most days. That said, one “jaw-dropping” metaphorical and literal move deserves another, I guess, and after some years in Cincinnati with the WHF he and his family moved across the country again, this time to Southern California, where he lives now and is the first Humanist Chaplain at USC.
I suppose those of us who know Bart, even peripherally as I do, could probably have seen this coming, this movement toward a place where Bart now calls himself an atheist. He had been courting controversy for a while, especially during and in the aftermath of this bit of writing he did many years ago. It’s another story Bart tells best:
A few years ago, after being politely asked to depart early from yet another speaking engagement for giving the wrong answer to a question about the limits of God’s mercy, I decided it wasn’t fair to keep sneaking up on unsuspecting Evangelicals.
Strange as it seems to me, I know all too well that to proclaim a God compassionate enough to seek the rescue of every one of his children—and powerful enough to pull it off—is a dangerous scandal to such folks. In a very real way, they don’t even hope for universal salvation. After all, without the fear of their unsaved loved ones’ eternal damnation, how would they motivate one another for outreach and missionary service?
And yet, almost everywhere I go, I meet people—especially young people—who are not motivated at all by such fear. On the contrary, these people are utterly horrified by the notion of a Heavenly Father who essentially says to his children, “I love you, but if for any reason you fail to accept that fact before your mortal body expires, I will kill and torture you for all eternity.” Especially if that same Heavenly Father holds in hand all the reasons the children do or don’t accept in the first place.
These are the people who ask me the questions that used to lead to my early departures, and who write me letters and emails like this one:
This might be kind of weird, but I have a question for you.
I lived and worked among the poor with Mission Year in the inner-city of Atlanta last year. When you came to visit my team, you told a story about how when you first started working in rough neighborhoods, you got to know a girl who was gang-raped as a nine-year-old and—after her Sunday School teacher told her God must have allowed it for a reason— rejected God forever. Because you believed God was indeed in control, and because you believed that girl’s lack of faith doomed her to eternal damnation, you decided that God must be a ‘cruel bastard.’ You sort of said the words inside my head out loud, words I had wanted to say for a long time.
Anyway, after putting this off for almost a year, I want to know how you reconciled that. How did you make it from, “God is a cruel bastard” back to “I can trust him”? I can’t seem to make that leap. Sometimes I begin to really trust him, but as soon as I think about my past abuse and those I know and love who are bound for Hell, it just doesn’t add up. I want to know the God you know—who apparently allows for horrible things in this world to happen, yet remains pure and holy and trustworthy and faithful and loving.
I don’t know if any of this makes sense to you, but as I was wrestling with it again today I was reminded of you and hoped you might be of some help.
Thank you for writing to me. Over the past few years, I have become convinced that yours is actually the single most important question in the world. As Rabbi Harold Kushner observes, “Virtually every meaningful conversation I’ve had with people about God has either started with that question or gotten around to it before long.” While I am sure my answer will not be as eloquent as his, I will do my best.
First of all, while I certainly believe my most cherished ideas about God are supported by the Bible (what Christian says otherwise?), I must admit they did not originate there. On the contrary, most of these ideas were formed during that difficult time I described to you, when I was suddenly disillusioned by the suffering and injustice I discovered in the inner-city—I suddenly did not trust the Bible at all. At that point, for the first time, I realized that people’s lives don’t depend on whether or not they believe in God, but rather on what kind of God they believe in. I also realized, for better or worse, that the only evidence I could rely on was that which I saw for myself.
What I saw then, and still see now, is a world filled with dazzling goodness and horrific evil, love and hate, beauty and ugliness, life and death. In the face of such clear dualities, it seemed to me then, and still seems to me now, that there are but a handful of spiritual possibilities:
* There are no spiritual forces. The material universe is all. Our lives bear no larger meaning, and those who hope for more hope in vain. In this case, considering that nine year-old rape victim, I despair.
* There is only one spiritual force at work in the universe, encompassing both good and evil. This world is precisely as this force wills it to be, and everything—including the rapes of children— happens according to its plan. In this case, again, I despair.
* There are two diametrically opposing spiritual forces at work in the universe, one entirely good and loving and the other entirely evil. Satan (or whatever one chooses to call that evil force) is most powerful and therefore will utterly triumph in the end. The suffering of that poor little girl is but a foretaste of the complete suffering that is to come for us all. In this case, of course, I despair.
* There are two opposing spiritual forces at work in the universe, one entirely good and loving and the other entirely evil. God (or whatever one chooses to call that good and loving force) is most powerful and therefore will utterly triumph in the end. The suffering of that poor little girl—evil’s doing—will somehow be redeemed, and she herself will be healed as part of the complete redemption and absolute healing that is to come for all of us. In this case—and in this case alone—I rejoice and gladly pledge my allegiance to this good and loving God.
I cannot prove or disprove any of these possibilities, of course, based on the evidence of my experience. What I know with certainty, however, is the one that makes me want to go on living, the one I choose for my own sake, the one I deem worthy of my allegiance.
I may be wrong in this matter, but I am not in doubt. If indeed faith is being sure of what we hope for, then truly I am a man of faith, for I absolutely know what I hope to be true: that God is completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving, that God is doing everything possible to overcome evil (which is evidently a long and difficult task), and that God will utterly triumph in the end, despite any and all indications to the contrary.
This is my first article of faith. I required no Bible to determine it, and—honestly—I will either interpret away or ignore altogether any Bible verse that suggests otherwise.
This first article of faith was the starting point of my journey back to Jesus, and it remains the foundation of my faith. I came to trust the Bible again, of course, but only because it so clearly bears witness to the God of love I had already chosen to believe in. I especially follow the teachings of Jesus because those teachings—and his life, death, and resurrection—seem to me the best expression of the ultimate truth of God, which we Christians call grace. Indeed, these days I trust Jesus even when I don’t understand him, because I have become so convinced that he knows what he’s talking about, that he is who he says he is, and that he alone fully grasps that which I can only hope is true.
Unfortunately for me, God may be very different from what I hope, in which case I may be in big trouble come Judgment Day. Perhaps, as many believe, the truth is that God created and predestined some people for salvation and others for damnation, according to God’s will. Perhaps such caprice only seems unloving to us because we don’t understand. Perhaps, as many believe, all who die without confessing Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior go to Hell to suffer forever. Most important of all, perhaps God’s sovereignty is such that although God could indeed prevent little girls from being raped, God is no less just or merciful when they are raped, and those children and we who love them should uncritically give God our thanks and praise in any case.
My response is simple: I refuse to believe any of that. For me to do otherwise would be to despair.
Some might say I would be wise to swallow my misgivings about such stuff, remain orthodox, and thereby secure my place with God in eternity. But that is precisely my point: If those things are true, then God might as well send me to Hell. For better or worse, I simply am not interested in any God but a completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving One who is powerful enough to utterly triumph over evil. Such a God may not exist, but I will die seeking such a God, and I will pledge my allegiance to no other possibility because, quite frankly, anything less is not worthy of my worship.
Please, don’t get me wrong. I am well aware that I don’t get to decide who God is. What I do get to decide, however, is to whom I pledge my allegiance. I am a free agent, after all, and I have standards for my God, the first of which is this: I will not worship any God who is not at least as compassionate as I am. If Mahatma Gandhi and my young friend who got gang-raped are going to Hell because they failed to believe the right stuff, then I suppose I am too, for the same reason. John Calvin—or Jerry Falwell for that matter—may well be right after all, but if they are I would rather cling to my glorious hope than accept their bitter truth just to save my own skin.
You can figure out the rest. I don’t hate God because I don’t believe God is fully in control of this world yet. Heck, God is not fully in control of me yet, even when I want God to be—so how could I possibly believe that God is making all the bad stuff happen out there in the streets? I don’t hate God because I believe God is always doing the best God can within the limits of human freedom, which even God cannot escape.
On that last point, consider for a moment the essential relationship between human freedom and love, and then consider the essential identity between love and God. If God is love and made us for love in God’s image, then God had no choice but to make us free, to leave us free, and to win us over to his Kingdom as free agents (which, evidently, is a long and difficult task). So God did, I believe, and so God will.
I don’t hate God because, although I suppose God knows everything that can be known at any given point in time, I don’t suppose God knows or controls everything that is going to happen. I also don’t hate God because in more than 20 years on the street, I have seen too much of evil (and too much of my own, moving-in-the-right-direction but-still-pretty-doggone-sinful nature). I don’t hate God because it seems to me that this world is a battleground between good and evil, not a puppet show with just one person pulling all the strings. I don’t hate God because the God I have chosen to believe in isn’t hate-able, and because I refuse to believe in the kind of God that is.
Now here is the good news: I may be entirely wrong, but even in my darkest hours, my God of love hasn’t stopped speaking to me. On the contrary, I hear God’s voice in places I never did before, always saying the same things, one way or another: I am with you. I’m sorry about all the pain. It hurts me, too, especially when my little ones suffer. I have always loved you, and I always will. Do the best you can, but don’t worry. Everything will be all right in the end. Trust me.
And I do. And I hope you will, too, sooner than later.
Of course, to believe in God the way I do is to change all the rules of ministry—especially of youth ministry. I still do my best to convince young people to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, but not because I’m afraid God will damn them to Hell if they don’t. On the contrary, I want the kids I love to follow Jesus because I genuinely believe following Jesus is the best kind of life. Eternity aside, I want them to be transformed by the Gospel right here and right now, for their sakes and for the sakes of all the lost and broken people out there who need them to start living as Jesus’ disciples. After all, the sooner we all start following Jesus by feeding the poor and freeing the oppressed, the sooner God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in Heaven.
Most of all, however, I evangelize people because, having discovered that they are the beloved children of my beloved God, I don’t want them to suffer one minute longer than they have to without knowing that most wonderful fact of life.
And I stay in the inner city, in spite of all the suffering and injustice I see here every day, because I can. No longer do I blame God for what is beyond his control or hate God for so much pain his little ones endure. Even in the midst of such ugliness, I can stay here because I am full of faith. I may not be sure of what I know anymore, but I am absolutely certain of what I hope for, and most of the time I manage to live in that direction.
I stay here for one more reason, of course: In places like this, nobody asks you to leave early because you can’t find the limits of God’s grace.
I usually can’t get through that last bit of writing Bart did, which he appropriately titled “The Limits of God’s Grace,” without crying. I just find it so beautiful, so compelling. You can argue about his theology and certainly there’s much to unpack there, but what remains clear to me is that this is a man that desperately loves those around him- even strangers- or at least he wants to. Yet this is also a man who is awake enough to know that none of us are fully “home” unless all of can be, as Buechner once said. This is a man with deep and abiding empathy who goes on doing very “Christian” things even when he longer believes there is a Christ to do them for. Today Bart no longer hopes for a good and loving God that is desperately working to save us all. Yet Bart continues to do today what he always has. He organizes people into meaningful communities in which they proclaim good news by loving those around them, even if it’s just the good news that they are loved, and not alone, because they have one another. God bless him for it.
Obviously I’m a fan of Bart, but not only a fan. Despite his busy schedule and stature as a somewhat famous person, Bart has been committed to the work of relationship building, even with me. When Bart learned of how KW had changed my life such that a year after doing it I got married and moved to Philly, he wrote me, and in his letter he recommended a few churches Kirsten and I might connect with. One of them was Circle of Hope. If you know me or have been following this blog you know how large Circle of Hope looms in my formation as a Jesus follower. Thus, that moment Bart took to think of me and my story and jot down a note as big changes were taking place in my life proved pivotal in steering me down the path I continue to walk today. Bart and I would correspond again from time to time over the years, and I particularly remember the time he took to reach out to me by phone in 2011 as my father lay dying in a hospice facility. My family and I were living in TX, having moved there to be with my Dad as he died. I stood on the balcony of our small-ish apartment in Dallas and talked to him for about an hour. I think I had reached out to Bart, letting him know what was going on with my Dad and my faith and my life generally. Not only did Bart take the time to respond, he made the time to give me a call and support me by phone. Knowing what I know now, his life was likely going though quite a lot of change right about then as well, but I remain appreciative of the way he loved me.
Thus when he started his humanist chaplaincy, a dear friend offered to give to a cause in my name for Christmas. The cause I chose was Bart’s fledgling humanist ministry. It didn’t matter to me that Bart wasn’t trying to love people in Jesus’ name any more. I knew he was still working his tail off to love people, and that is worth supporting regardless of the motivations of those who do it. I know too that Bart’s story isn’t finished yet. None of us have a finished story just yet, and I want to remain connected enough to Bart’s to see where it winds up. If the arc of history is long, but bends toward justice, and if Bart was right when he wrote that there is an entirely good, loving, and forgiving God that is doing everything possible to overcome evil and win us all over as free agents- however long and difficult a task that may be- then it may be that likewise the arc of all of our lives is long, but bends toward Jesus. I wouldn’t wish for Bart anything that he doesn’t wish for himself and is willing to receive as a “free agent;” still, somehow in spite of my many reasons not to, I still love and want to follow Jesus and more importantly deep inside me I still know that Jesus loves and is still saving me. So again if Bart was right that a life lived secure in the knowledge of God’s love for us is the best life that can be had- in part because of the way that it enables, inspires, and compels us to most fully love those around us- then I still yearn for such a life for myself and all I know and love, including Bart.
I often come back to something Bart said once in 1995 as he addressed idealistic college students, including myself. He said he wasn’t so much interested in why we decided to follow Jesus whenever we did. He said he cared more why we kept doing so. As I’ve said before, I know that this was probably a “live” question for him; that is, it’s probably something he was struggling with even then even if he didn’t realize it yet. Still, this question has stuck with me. Why do I keep following Jesus today, even with lots of good reasons not to? How can I claim to be led in part by a holy book that describes the “holy” slaughter of entire people groups down to every man, woman, child, and animal? How do I reconcile the notion of a loving God exemplified best in Jesus with the idea that part of why Jesus came is because that same loving God would condemn us all to eternal torment if Jesus hadn’t died in our place? How do I make sense of the idea that God is at once a loving savior who died to rescue me and is at the same time the “cosmic child abuser” who killed his own son with the deadly punishment that was meant for me? Stay tuned for part II of this post. I’ll have a little more to say about Bart, about some recent comments he made particularly about hell, and about what finding one of my KW teammates after many years recently has to do with all this. In the meantime, I’m comforted again by the thought I had above, that if the arc of history is long, but bends toward justice, perhaps it may be that likewise the arc of all of our lives is long, but bends toward Jesus. God is love after all, and Bart sure keeps living a loving life. May we all do likewise.
I was glad to be able to do a little writing for Mill City Church, our faith community here in the Twin Cities. You can check it out here, and read a much longer version with backstory here. Thought I’d share.