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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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The first time I heard this analogy was in Tennessee.  I’m going to blame the Bible belt for it.  Nearly a decade ago now (sheesh time flies), my best friend who I sometimes call my wife and I were on a road trip and Knoxville was our first stop.  The friend we stayed with spent a lot of our visit debunking various religions, reiterating the analogy that the ingredients in rat poisoning are mostly harmless except for a very small dose of poison–was it arsenic?  I don’t know.  A small of something that kills rats.  This was to demonstrate that we can’t pick and choose what we want from other religions and throw away the bad stuff, because a small amount of lies spoils the whole religion and makes it poisonous.  Something like that.

I’d nearly forgotten about this illustration until a couple Sundays ago, when the pastor at my church told a story with the same sort of analogy as a punchline:  A young girl asks her father if they can watch a movie that’s rated R, and the father says, “Why is it rated R?” She explains that there’s a little bit of sex and violence but it’s supposed to be a really good movie.  He says, “Okay, I’ll make you a deal.  I’ll watch that movie if, after it’s done, you’ll eat some brownies we’ll make together.”

The girl is like, “Awesome!”

So before they put the movie in, the father starts making brownies and he tells the daughter to go get some dog shit out from the yard.  She does.  He puts it in the brownie batter.  The punchline: a little dollop of dog shit ruins the whole batch. (See below for my pastor’s context of this story, which is different than the guy in Knoxville’s…)

I’m willing to say that sometimes, life does work this way–if a hair gets in my restaurant meal I am going to be grossed out and ask the server for a re-do on my dish.  I’m not convinced, however, that God works this way with sin in our lives.  Here’s why:  The harvest analogy.

Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is like a wheat field where the farmer lets the weeds grow with the crop, knowing that come harvest time, he’ll separate the weeds from the good stuff. He’ll toss the weeds into a fire. He’ll use the wheat for some bread.   Lots of people like to say this is about hell, and sure, maybe it is, I have no idea, but I see it also in my own life here on earth.  For me, walking with God means that every six or seven years or so, I go through a harvest period.  In this case, something drastic has occurred which has made me have to rethink my faith, my relationships, my family.  And I ask God–how did it get this way?  And then I reflect, through various conversations with folks, about how I ended up where I am.   I understand that there have been wonderful things happening to me and my faith (I love God more and I love people more and I’m less depressed) because of the events that led me here since the last time I had to go to God in a crisis.  Meanwhile, I see lots of lies about God and how he goes about his God-business have also accumulated.  I ask, “Why did you let that junk go on?” as many of us do when we are wondering why God allows suffering.  This time, I asked the question right before I read the harvest analogy, which just happened to come up in Matthew, which I’ve been reading again since the New Year.

This is what the Kingdom of God is like, for me at least.  My relationship with God is one where I hit the wall, where shit hits the fan, and instead of turning away from God, I go to him and ask me to sort out what’s left.  What’s left is a lot of weeds and a lot of wheat.  He helps me to see what is what, I pick out the good, productive ideas from the bad, destructive ones, and I grow in my knowledge and insight.

This is a life-long process, I think, for myself as a believer.  Eventually, we are to believe, God will give the destructive stuff a good destroying and that will be the end of it. But until then, this is how it’s been and probably will be again.

I’m hesitant towards the rat poison analogy because it sets us up for some real exclusion of people.  Because what if the field analogy works on an individual level, and what if we are rejecting someone because we have spotted a weed in their thinking?  Sure, we should try to pull it out, but also trust that if the person is trusting God, a time will come, likely in this life, when he will harvest them into better people.  If the rat poison analogy holds, we must reject those in whom we we detect the tiniest bit of poison.  And who among us is completely poison-free?

I will end this by saying that though I think sex and violence can be in a really good movie (what is better than The Wire? and what has more sex and violence?) I actually liked the sermon a lot that I heard at my church.  It wasn’t about people, but our words.  It was a reminder that a poorly constructed thought can do a huge amount of damage–in other words, watch your words.  Words count.  As a writer, I do need to hear this as much as possible.

Meanwhile, as a believer, I think it’s important that I trust God with the weeds in other people’s lives and be careful about how I use the rat poison analogy.

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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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Coming back Homeward

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted on this blog.  My senses have perked up to God lately, due to some troubling events in my personal life (those of you who have gone to God with your problems before probably know what I’m talking about), and I have it on my mind to share some of my thoughts.  I don’t know how much I’ll be writing on here, but that is what has brought me here today.

The end of Psalm 22 struck me in a new way this morning.  Those of you who know your psalms know that this is the one where David’s description of his suffering in the earlier verses gets attributed to Jesus’s suffering in the Gospels.  I’m cool with that, but it’s the implications of the end that fascinate me at present:

 25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you[f] I will fulfill my vows.
26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the LORD will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!

27 All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the LORD,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
28 for dominion belongs to the LORD
and he rules over the nations.

29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
31 They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!

It encourages me to think of God as the true ruler of the nations and when his commands are fulfilled, when his desire is in order, the poor get fed and are satisfied.   I can see this on a personal level–when I make God my ruler, I feel nourished in the areas where there is the most poverty in my life.  But this psalm also refers to God’s desire for the whole world to be satisfied, especially those “who cannot keep themselves alive.”  That’s the kind of King I want; that’s the kind of King I have.

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On Saturday I listened to a sermon on the Marshill website and I’m still thinking about it.    Here’s the link:   http://marshill.org/teaching/2010/06/20/tortured-by-books/

I think the pastor’s name was Skye Jethani, but I’m not sure.  It wasn’t Rob Bell.

The thing I’m thinking about is his idea that a person’s theology is based on the following fill-in-the-blank:

I live a life ____ God.

Whether someone will write “for” or “under” or “with” (can you think of more words to insert?) here will determine how she will  interact with and approach God.

You probably don’t need me to state which word I’d pick (just scroll down some entries and you’ll figure it out quickly), but if I have any readers out there, I’d be interested to know which word you think is the most appropriate to stick into the sentence.  And why.

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I just finished Revelations by Julian of Norwich–a book I’ve been waiting a long time to read and I was blown away in how much that resonated with me.  It encompassed and articulated several notions I’ve had about Jesus for as long as I’ve prayed to him (which has been since, oh, age six or seven?)  I won’t discuss all of the points here; instead, I’d like to focus on a viewpoint about God that I think has changed the way I interact with him.  Lately, the past five years or so, I’ve thought about emphasizing a focus responding to God by living more fully in the present, focusing less on the sins of our past or what God’s plan is for me in the future.

This focus does stem from the knowledge that God has secured the future.   In Julian’s terms (we’re on a first name basis), it’s about reciprocating God’s mercy and forgiveness.   In her revelation, Jesus tells her that he would die for her again and again if he could, he loves her so much.  She says she can’t help but react to that by loving the people around her.  So it’s a faith that intertwines revelation and action.  We have a revelation of God’s love for us and so we love others.    It’s a bit Jamesy (faith without deeds is dead), and it’s been emphasized a lot by a movement of believers, some who connect themselves with the emergent church, some who found this wisdom by reading James and other places.  For me, it’s been a lifelong conversation of seeing and contemplating God’s Word, which I see reflected in the Gospels, but also in my interactions with people around me.

Julian speaks again and again of having security in what God has done for her.  He tells her several times, “I love you securely.”  She then states, I think radically, that all of her sins are productive because God uses them to teach her about his character.  She does not mention, however, the sins of other people and I think that distinction is important.  She doesn’t mention the 100 years war she lived during.  I don’t think that this revelation is about things like genocide or crimes against humanity.  It’s about the way she’s fallen or missed the mark, personally, while having a relationship with God.

The thing I most connected to in her writings, as well as the writings of people like Thomas Merton, Rob Bell, and Madeleine L’Engle, and also teachings by a guy named Dale who I sometimes call my guru, is this emphasis on a conversation.  God is alive and is interacting with us.  Because I feel closest to God beneath a night sky, or in front of a campfire, or driving my car through cornfields, or watching the sun come up on my porch, or walking through my neighborhood at dusk, or standing on on overpass looking at a sea of faces, or on the 14th floor of a Bangkok building facing a skyline–because I’ve felt closest to God when I was contemplating in any of these settings, I consider myself to be a mystic.   It’s in these moments when I’ve grappled with ideas, praying and listening, that I believe God has given to me.  The rest of the time–reading, listening to teachings, having conversations with people–I’m collecting  thoughts and bits of information to grapple with in these quiet moments.

I have been reading the Gospel of Mark lately, thinking a lot about the passage where Jesus discusses why he uses parables.  He essentially says that he speaks indirectly (through stories) because he wants to leave gaps that people need to grapple with in order to understand.  The parable he’s speaking about there (Mark 4) is the one about the sower.  You might remember it.  This dude sows a bunch of seeds that land on different kinds of soil.  1/3 of them grow to be something because they’ve landed on good soil.  Then he says: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  I believe that this is Jesus calling people to seek him to provide the meanings to his words, which I am going to stretch a bit and say are available everywhere.  God’s word in all the nuggets of truth and knowledge available to us wherever we go.  He’s constantly providing us with ideas about who he is, who we are, the meanings of things that he’s created, but it’s up to us to contemplate them.

Before he interprets the parable, Jesus says this to his disciples, once they are away from the crowd:

11“The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12so that,
” ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’[a]

I’ve been thinking about what it means to be on the outside and on the inside.  I’m not exactly sure.  But I think it has to do with taking a step towards God with an open and inquisitive mind.  I also think this sort of inquisitiveness and curiosity is necessary for gathering seeds to contemplate.   This is tricky.  Once we get a bit of knowledge, it’s very hard to accept new ideas, especially ideas that contradict what we think he’s shown us before.  But this is what I think Paul really means when he describes God’s word as living and active.  It’s alive.  It grows in us.  Sometimes it slices us in to bits.

I think what makes a person a mystic is not that they go out into the wilderness (metaphorically, though, maybe) and endure weeks of silence until their brains buzz.  I think mysticism, for me at least, has been this inquisitive approach to God with every new idea, and this search for new ideas about him.

All of this is just to say that I am finding that Christians hesitate at the word mysticism and I think that’s a great loss.  I’m interested in how people relate to God, and this is how I do it.  Maybe we’re just talking syntax here.  Maybe in my tradition, we’ve called this discipleship, or following Jesus.

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