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.