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Ken Wilson did a fine job teaching about all of the moments when Jesus talks about Hell, emphasizing the connections between references, which I would sum up as namely this: Jesus brought up hell not in order to answer our questions about what happens to us when we die, but to emphasize God’s concern with the oppressed, and to draw his listeners to a perspective about what is important to God verses what’s important to them (generosity verses money; compassion for the poor verses self righteousness).  In the final passage Ken talked about (which is the last time Jesus mentions Hell or judgment in Matthew), Jesus illustrates how God will separate the people like sheep from goats, that all of these people will refer to God as “Lord” but only the ones who “remembered the least of these” will continue on to eternal life.

Some points Pastor Wilson made:

a) Judgment (or God’s Justice) is always good news for the poor and oppressed.  So if we shudder at judgment, especially in the context of this story, we are probably not oppressed at the moment.

b) In this story, Jesus changes the perspective from “sound doctrine” as what makes someone right with God to how they represent Him to other people.

The fact that hell has become a doctrine but feeding the poor has not really perplexes me.  Or maybe they both are doctrines, but one is debated a lot less on the internet; feeding the poor is so painfully obvious and doctrinal debate offers a fine distraction from what is painfully obvious.

As protestants or people influenced by protestantism, we read a teaching from Jesus like this and say, “God must take care of the poor through us because we’re too weak to take care of the poor.”  I definitely need God’s intervention on this one.  I get nervous when I see a homeless person (the last one I encountered started following me and saying that he wanted to get to know me better.  I’m a small woman and so I was freaked).   My guru in Detroit (Dale) says that one of the worst things we can do is pretend that we don’t see people who are asking us for money.  What is more unlike Jesus to ignore a person in need?  But still, I do it.  I’m weak and I’m scared.  At the same time, I don’t get the impression that Jesus is excusing the folks he’s addressing with this story because they are weak and scared.  He does like to invite people to come to Him, find rest in Him while simultaneously asking them to pick up their crosses.

I think we have to be careful what we do with our fear of the homeless/poor (who we fear, as Ken Wilson pointed out somewhere in the series, not as much because they are dangerous, but because they are different).  We have to ask God to tell us who is poor around us and we have to ask for his help to get over whatever keeps us from feeding the hungry.  The same dude who started (or propelled) all of this commotion about hell is also the same dude that said when a Christian moves to a neighborhood, the whole neighborhood should get excited because they are about to have someone on their block who they know will love them no matter what, who will provide for them whenever they need something, and will not judge them under any circumstances in such a way that would prevent them from loving them no matter what.  I really want to be this neighbor.  I think this neighbor represents someone who takes Jesus’ teachings seriously, especially the teachings to care for “the least of these,” which outweigh any explanation about how the afterlife works.  I need to stop getting caught up in “hot-button” issues and start asking God to direct me towards what’s important to him, and to equip me with generosity where I’m stingy, and compassion where I’m judgmental.

The last thing that I want to take away from this series is a nice reminder that Jesus’s words are as textured as a Rembrandt painting (scroll down for my post about Rembrandt paintings)–we can study them our whole lives and see something new about them.  Of course obeying Jesus’ commands starts with spending time with his words.  Of course.

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This morning I was in the mood for listening to a teaching about Jesus and so I went back to the Vineyard Ann Arbor website, where I know they post their sermons online.   I trust Ken Wilson’s teaching, partly because he was influenced by the same people whose faith helped shape mine.  This influence is clearest, I think, in his emphasis of Jesus as the central figure and focus of his teachings.  He speaks of Jesus as the person we’re following, worshipping, and getting to know through our prayer life in compliment of what’s recorded in the Gospels.  If it’s been a while since you’ve heard a teaching like that, I think the one I stumbled on today might be a nice refresher.

Back in January, Pastor Wilson taught a series called “Vertigo: A Jesus Perspective on Hell” (Man, I love his U2 references).  I just listened to the first one–if the others have interesting points I’d like explore on this blog, I’ll write about those, too.

First of all, I admired Ken Wilson’s decision to teach this series.  A lot of churches are facing the threat of division over teachings on hell; thanks to Rob Bell’s book, it’s a topic he’s tossed into the Christian arena to be devoured  not just by critics (discernment ministries, in particular), but also by people who read the book and found that a lot of its questions resonated with them.  But you’re reading a blog so I assume you know the “Love Wins” context.  I appreciate Vineyard’s response to this divisive era and tough subject by saying, simply: “Let’s see what Jesus had to say about this.”

I also appreciate that, under the umbrella of Jesus’ teachings, they are using Bell’s book to start a conversation, which was absolutely all that he was trying to do with writing it (okay, maybe I don’t absolutely know if it was, “absolutely”, but that’s what he says in his introduction and how he structures the book).  Pastor Wilson didn’t address the book much in his sermon, but at the end he invites his congregants to participate in two book groups: one that will read The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, and another that will read and discuss Love Wins.  I thought the idea of reading-groups alongside the sermons was a mighty-fine one.  I wish someone was doing that at the church I attend here.

In this first of four sermons, Pastor Wilson begins by addressing the contexts in which people have asked him questions about hell.  From his sermon notes:

 1. People from evangelical-fundamentalist backgrounds ask me about hell to see if I’m biblically sound. 2. Questions from people drawn to Jesus but troubled by their impression of Christian hell teaching; do I have to believe this about hell to be a Christian? [My question to Brian; MK’s to me] 3. Surprisingly common: Suicide context.

(The “Brian” in that bracket is actually a good friend of my parents’ so I felt kind of special for being able to recognize him.)

Then he contrasts these questions with the contexts where hell actually appears in Jesus’ teachings:

Jesus spoke of hell in a very different context: most of his hell references occur in his conflict with the Pharisees, as a warning about the dangers of self-righteousness or lack of concern for the poor. His teaching on hell discomforted the over-confident and powerful but comforted the religiously insecure who felt oppressed by them.

(His emphasis, not mine.)

After going through some of the different cultural influences that have shaped our understanding of hell, the way we picture the place in our minds, Pastor Wilson defines the three terms that Jesus uses in the Gospels to refer to it: the Greek word, Hades, the Hebrew word, Sheol, and the Greek word Gehenna.  This part was interesting but I’d heard it before (if you haven’t, I’ve linked the Vineyard Sermon page at the bottom of this post).  I was more interested when he started to talk about interacting with Jesus’ teachings and working, through prayer and reading, to understand them.

He says (sermon notes again):

When you love someone, when you’re devoted to them, it’s not enough for you to hear their words as they happen to strike you based on your experience of the world.  You need to learn-enter their experience of the world the sense what the words mean to them.

As I’ve said to my daughters, if a guy says, “I love you” don’t just assume that means the same thing to him that it means to you. He could be speaking with his heart, his brain or different part of his anatomy. You need to know this guy, his background, experience of life and love, over time, to have any idea what he means.

It’s not enough to hang around Christianity, grow up in faith environment, and think you can easily understand what Jesus is saying. You’ve got to give him your full attention, put your time in with him, to understand him.

I think with all of the fear and division that is going around our churches today about who’s too loose and who’s too tight in their Biblical teachings, the reminder to give Jesus our full attention is especially important.  Not just to keep our churches together, but to keep our relationships with Him and each other together.

You can find the sermon here if you scroll down to 1/8/2012.

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I just played this video for my students while they free-wrote, responding to one of the two prompts:

1. Give a history of your life  by listing the different books, television shows, movies, songs, bands, or albums you were obsessed with at various ages.

2. Write what comes to mind when you hear this song.

I usually respond to the prompts along with my students and this time was no exception.  I chose the second one.  I’m writing and thinking, do my students know they are listening to a song about resurrection?  Does it at all ring true to them?  Do they yet know how much death is required of them if they want something good to come out of their lives?

I keep coming back to this song (the first time I heard it was in 2002, when I was roughly the same age as my students) because I find it to be a good reminder, true on so many levels–spiritually, materially.  Just today, I met with my professor about my thesis novel and we decided that it really needs to be told in third person limited.  Those who knew me know that I wrote a hundred pages in third limited, switched perspectives from a 30 year old woman to a 10 year old girl, and then switched to first person retrospective, looking back to when the narrator was a ten year old girl.  Each time I make one of these switches, it’s like I have to die to the book again and hope that it resurrects as something better.

The thing that this principle asks (you have to die if you want to be alive) is pretty simple:How much do you want it? How much do you want this book to be a good piece of Literature with a capital L?   How much do you want Life with a capital L?

 

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Writing Enhancers

Of course every writer is different and has their own tricks about what keeps them sitting in the chair (or in my case, on my bed or couch.  I’m not a chair writer, though my boyfriend is at this moment writing at his desk in his chair).  These are some things that have boosted my own writing practice.

1. My dog

I adopted a puppy last May from the shelter–something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and I’m almost thirty so I thought, hey–why not?  My reasons had nothing to do with writing.  My favorite characters growing up had dogs (Dorothy, Punky Brewster), and so when I was a kid, I always imagined I would have a dog one day.  After I adopted Woody (Guthrie), I was pleasantly surprised with how much he helps my writing.  First of all, I find writing to be pretty lonely.  I mean, I collaborate some but that initial draft puts me in solo-mode.  My dog is content to lay beside me as I type away (sometimes I toss his toy while I’m drafting, quickly typing the sentence down while he fetches it from across the room).  Seriously–an animal that just wants to be in the same room as you, no matter what you’re doing.  A huge writing plus, especially if you’re like me and function better when there are others around.

Because I’m a socialite, he also keeps me at home more, or cuts short my nights out with friends.  This is kind of a pain in the ass, but is invaluable for a writing practice.

Even better, maybe, is the fact that I have to take him for thirty minute walks every day.  During this thirty minutes I either: a) meditate by counting my steps or picking a color and acknowledge every time I see it; b) work out a problem in whatever I’m working on; or, c) listen to audiobooks on my ipod.  I’ve gotten so many audiobooks “read” this way.  Which leads me to my next writing enhancer:

2. Audiobooks

In the first workshop I took here at FSU, my professor made a point of saying that if we want to be writers, we have to understand that we’re entering a conversation that started centuries ago with the printing press.  I’m a teacher and a student alongside being a writer and audiobooks have been a fantastic way to hit my never-ending reading list.  I have an Audible membership, which lets me choose one book per month–I generally use it for contemporary novels and staying on top of what’s just been published, what just won the Pulitzer or National Book Award, and the latest from my favorite writers. When I want to catch up on all the old books I never read, like my Henry Jameses, Edith Whartons, or George Eliots, I download free books from Librivox.  The readers there are volunteer and therefore hit or miss, but generally good enough to keep a good story going.  I listen to books when I drive, when I walk around campus, and duh, when I walk my dog.

3. Podcasts

Michael Silverblatt conducts fantastic, 20 minute author interviews on Bookworm. The recent Joan Didion one killed me in the good kind of killing way.  The NPR triumvirate of Radiolab, This American Life, and Krista Tippett’s inspirational interviews at On Being have all regularly contributed ideas to my creativity bank.  Of course, there is always the Moth, the New Yorker Stories, and Selected Shorts–I’m not as devoted to these but put them on from time to time.

4. Morning Pages

Most writers have at some point or another come across Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and have heard of writing three shitty pages every morning as a meditative practice.  Now there is a website to help you do it: 750 words.  The idea is that you write 750 words per day, which comes to about the same length as a Cameron morning pages session.  The site sends you email reminders at the time of your choosing.  The most fun part of this website, though, is that it psychologically analyzes your daily entries.  Seriously, it tells you if you’re focuses more on the past, present, or future, if you’re obsessed with a certain family member.  It even tells you what the weather is like outside as you write.  I’ve just started using it but I’m having a blast with the entries.

So, writers–those are my enhancers.  What boosts your practice?

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Writing that novel feels essentially like this:  You have seen or felt or dreamed something that you can’t name, but you know you can’t live without.  You set off on a journey to find it.  There is no map; no one has ever been to this place.  You barely know the people you are traveling with–your characters–but you know that they are the only people who know the way.  You watch them, listen to them.  You follow along, putting down the words to mark the path they make.  It is a long journey, with many wrong turns and surprises.  Every day, or as often as you can, you go into the world of the novel.  Months pass.  Sometimes years.

~Barbara Shoup and Margaret Love-Denman, Introduction to NOVEL IDEAS

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I had one of those this morning when my friend Ann (who is in the middle of a really cool project, read about it here) sent me a link to this blog:

http://rachelheldevans.com/bible-made-impossible-biblical

The problems the author works through on this post, particularly the stuff about “biblical womanhood” are things I’ve been working through for a helluva while.  It’s just so great to see that I’m not alone on this.  Plus, she uses the word “deconstruct” when reading the Bible.  It’s Derrida week over here in grad school and so the timing is impeccable.

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Book Recommendation

I knew nothing about Coetzee when my friend sent me a copy of “Foe” to Bangkok for Christmas back in 2006. I’ve also never read Robinson Crusoe*. I’m not sure that matters.

The book isn’t long and it moved really quickly, except when I would stop to underline something really interesting I thought it was saying about perspective and storytelling, which seem to be my two favorite subjects to read about these days.
There’s also some nice things going on about race and gender, which are also my favorite subjects to read about.

*The book is a retelling, sort of, of the Robinson Crusoe story.

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