Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Video: Maybe We've Got It Backwards

Here's a short (less than 3 minutes) video clip I wrote and produced to be used in my sermon last Sunday.  Be sure to watch the whole thing.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Spiritual Formation Q & A

A few days ago, a former student from my days as a youth minister sent Dana and I a few questions about Spiritual Formation for a project she was doing for a college class.  Below are her questions followed by my answers.  (If you'd like to see Dana's responses to the same questions  CLICK HERE)

Q:  How would you define "spirituality" or the "spiritual life"? 

A:   Spirituality:  In both Greek and Hebrew, the word in the Bible that is translated as "spirit" also legitimately means "breath" and "wind" (Greek: pneuma and Hebrew: ruah).  I think this is more than significant.  Spirituality is about life and movement.  I'd further argue that its specifically about moving further and further along the path to living "life to the full", as Jesus promises in John 10.  Further, I think it has to do with living a God-directed (though not micromanaged) life that relies on guidance from God through his Spirit, as Jesus specifically describes in John 3.  It's learning to understand that God is the source of true life, breathing that life in and exhaling it back out to the world around you (that he so loves). Its knowing that the same breath of God that is giving life to you is available to all, and understanding & embracing the connection.  Its letting the wind of his Spirit fill your sails and propel you wherever it sends you, knowing that adventure awaits.  Sometimes, its letting that breath sustain you when it seems like theres nothing else that can, and letting the wind propel you when you don't feel you have the energy to go on.

Q:  What are some practices or things you do that play a formational role in your spiritual life?

A:   Praying with Dana has jumped to the top of my list recently.  This is one of the most life-giving practices that I've ever incorporated (I'm glad she suggested it).  Also, I periodically incorporate fixed-hour prayer, especially when I'm having trouble praying spontaneously.  I've found that art (music, visual, literature, etc) has begun to play a huge role in spiritual formation for me.  Sometimes it intentional engagement with/enjoyment of it, and sometimes its the creation of it.  Additionally the continual decision to remain in community with a church (congregation) is undeniably formational.  To remain connected to diverse people (which can often be difficult) in a culture that tells me to just be a good consumer and treat these people collectively as a commodity that can be disposed of and traded for a newer, sleeker, more convenient model (which can also be traded later), shapes character in decisively positive and counter-cultural ways.  (We could have a separate conversation about working as a minister in this situation, but I think that might take us too far off topic for now.)  I'd also argue that whenever I'm engaged in works of service, both individually and collaboratively with others, to those who can offer no direct benefit (to myself or the church), my character is formed and shaped in positive, sometimes counterintuitive ways.  I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention reading good books.  The practice of reading has been an invaluable part of my spiritual formation.  When I don't make time for it, my spirituality tends to suffer.

Q:  What difference does it make for you to worship/fast/pray/praise communally/corporately vs. individually? Which do you prefer?

A:  It's interesting that in the Bible, the only real reason you are given for gathering together appears to be to spur one another on toward love and good deeds," and to encourage one another (Hebrews 10).  For this reason, I think corporate worship is essential (as that would be impossible to do alone).  However, in our consumer culture we are somehow simultaneously tempted to believe that, a) Christian spirituality is really all about me as an individual (consumer), and b) the cultivation of my personal spirituality is the responsibility of the church (as my chosen and dispensable provider of religious goods and services) to cultivate within reasonable but optional time periods that don't take too much away from my already busy life.  Both temptations must be resisted if we are to in any sense actually engage in worship, much less spiritual formation.  Biblically, worship appears to be directed to God, but clearly involves our engagement in the lives of others for their encouragement and good.  Loving God without loving others is an impossibility, and worshipping God devoid of any connection to others is a farce.  In the context of The Lord's Supper/Eucharist, Paul tells the Corinthians that to partake of it devoid of community (without "discerning the body of Christ", which he's already defined as community with other believers), is to render it as not the Lord's Supper but your own, and further to eat and drink condemnation upon yourself.  With all of that being said, a follower of the Way of Jesus also has the responsibility to cultivate formational spiritual practices within his or her own life.  This is particularly true for me as a minister.  No true growth comes from being comfortable and passive.  I don't guess I have a preference, and I'm not sure it matters if I did.  If anything, I think it would be an indicator that I should dive deeper into the one I didn't prefer, if it is actually growth that I seek.

Q:  Of the "Spiritual disciplines", which is the most difficult for you? Do you see this as reason to push into this practice more or less?

A:  Honestly, the one I struggle with the most is prayer.  I'm not totally sure why this is, but I do see it as a reason to push into the practice more.

Q:  When/how do you feel most connected with God? Prayer, praise, silence, service, something else?

A:  This is a difficult question to answer.  The best way I know to answer is, when I get outside myself.  I'm finding more and more that God is found in connections.  The ancient rabbis taught that when God created the world, he created it in a state of Shalom.  This word means something like peace and harmony combined and on steroids. ;)  They further argued that this Shalom basically played out in 3 ways:  Harmony between God and People, Harmony between People and Other People, & Harmony between People and Creation.  I find that the more I move into isolation, the more distant God seems to be, (Go figure!).  I find that the more I look at and experience how everything is connected--in relationships, in nature, in worship, etc.--the more present God seems.

Q:   When speaking with someone about growing in their relationship with Christ, how would you advise them to move forward?

A:  I'd advise them to connect with a community of faith.  I'd tell them not to look for a perfect one, as they don't exist, but rather to seek one that seems to be sincerely seeking to follow the Way of Jesus, and that is most obviously characterized by things like faith, hope and love.  I'd also advise them to pray regularly, both alone and with others whom they love and respect.  I'd advise them to do this, even if they didn't fully believe in the effectiveness of the practice yet.  I'm also quite sure I'd have some books to recommend to them, relative to their particular situation.

Q:  What do you perceive as the goal of these "practices"? 

A:  I see the goal of these practices is to form me/us further and further into the image of Christ, and to understand that this will be an ongoing, unfinished process that goes on for the rest of my life.  It is to engage me/us in the Story of God; to help us find our place in it.  It is to embrace our identity as children of light and people of love.  It is to form us into the kinds of people who would actually be happy about it if God does what he promises in the end:  The Restoration of All Things, The Renewal of All Things, The Reconciliation of All Things, The Lifting Up of The Downtrodden, etc, (See the Hebrew Prophets for more).  It is to develop "eyes to see" and "ears to hear".  It is to engage us in actively living life to the full, in partnership with God, in pursuit of his dream for the world.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Rumors of Rob Bell's Heresy Have Been Greatly Exaggerated (my review of "Love Wins")

The following is my review of  Love Wins by Rob Bell It was originally posted on The Englewood Review of Books.  It was also posted on Jesus Needs New PR.

The fact that Rob Bell’s new book is considered controversial is as much a testimony to the marketing prowess of HarperOne (not to mention the unintentional marketing prowess of some critics), as it is to any theology contained in the book.  The first lesson that can be derived from all of this is that if you want to publish a successful book, HarperOne isn’t a bad way to go.

To begin with, let’s look at two things that shouldn’t be surprises, but (based on the more angry reviews I’ve read) apparently are:
  1. Rob Bell is not a Calvinist (“New”, “Neo”, or otherwise).  He doesn’t write like one.  He doesn’t adhere to exclusively Calvinist doctrine.  He doesn’t see the terms “non-Calvinist” and “Christian” as mutually exclusive.
  2. Rob Bell writes almost exactly like he talks.  That means that there will be
             and half-sentences
                              laid-out unconventionally

With that being said, there is much about this book that is worth discussing.  I’ll go ahead and go on record as saying that the vitriol-fueled rumors of Rob Bell’s heretical universalism have been greatly exaggerated.  Bell’s critics claim that the arguments in his book fall outside of historical Christian orthodoxy, while Bell himself claims to be saying nothing new, and that everything he argues for can be found within the stream of historic Christian orthodoxy.  So, who is right?  Well, that all depends on who you are asking, doesn’t it?  In contemporary use, the term “orthodox” is quite subjective, though almost no-one attempting to employ the term as a theological trump card will admit this subjectivity.  (Additionally, it should be noted that all reformers were technically heretics when they initially proposed their reforms, and that the way that the term “orthodox” is normally employed today seems more like a power game than anything else…but I digress)    Frankly, there isn’t much theological content in this book that you wouldn’t find in the work of N.T. Wright, Dallas Willard, and anyone who advocates a “restoration of all things” eschatology.  Even on the particular subject of Hell and eternal punishment, Bell doesn’t say anything that isn’t in the same spirit of what N.T. Wright argues in his chapter on Hell in Following Jesus:

“First, it must be said as clearly as possible that as soon as we find ourselves wanting to believe in hell we find ourselves in great danger.  The desire to see others punished–including the desire to do the punishing ourselves–has no place in a Christian scheme of things.  There is, of course, a right and proper desire for justice, for the victory of right over might; the desire to punish, however, must be sharply distinguished from this.”

And later, Wright goes on to state:

“[M]ost of the passages in the New Testament which have been thought by the Church to refer to people going into eternal punishment after they die don’t in fact refer to any such thing.  The great majority of them have to do with the way God acts within the world and history.”

If you’d like to see those ideas teased out and backed up, I’d recommend that you read Bell’s book and Wright’s work on the subject.  I don’t offer these quotes from Wright as a sort of “trump card” here (Indeed, for some, Wright’s name won’t carry any weight at all).  I’m merely attempting to show that Bell isn’t alone in his arguments and that it isn’t accurate to claim that only someone who doesn’t take the Bible or history seriously would make such an argument.  It is simply not the case that in Love Wins, Bell is ignoring scripture and making an unbiblical argument.  In his chapter on Hell, he actually lists and discusses every passage in the Bible that directly or indirectly discusses Hell.  One may disagree with Bell’s interpretation of the Bible, but (particularly on this point) an accusation that he’s ignoring scripture is laughable.

It’s not that I don’t have any criticisms of the book.  In his chapter on Heaven,  Bell states:

“Jesus often referred to the ‘kingdom of heaven,’ and he tells stories about people ‘sinning against heaven.’  ‘Heaven’ in these cases is simply another way of saying ‘God’.”(82)

There is a sense in which this is sort of true, but, at the same time, it is so oversimplified that it is utterly unconvincing as it is stated.   The fact is that the Gospel of Matthew records Jesus as using the term “Heaven” in this way, which is made all the more obvious when these texts are compared to the parallel texts in the other Gospels where the same term is rendered “Kingdom of God.”  This comparison would make Bell’s case much more convincing than simply claiming that Jesus often used the word “Heaven” as a euphemism for the word “God” (while offering no more detail or supporting information).

Additionally, in his chapter on Hell, Rob cites Jesus warning to Capernaum in Matthew 10, and says:

“[Jesus] tells highly committed, pious religious people that it will be better for Sodom and Gomorra than them on judgment day?
There’s still hope?
And if there’s still hope for Sodom and Gomorrah, what does that say about all of the other Sodoms and Gomorrahs?” (84)

My problem here is that it’s just a weak supporting argument.  The fact is that Jesus’s message here is directed at Capernaum, and Sodom and Gomorrah are brought in to the discussion for comparison’s sake.  Jesus is also well known to use hyperbole as a rhetorical device in precisely this kind of scenario.  Again, I’m not necessarily disagreeing with the point Bell is making here, I just don’t think he does himself any favors by using this particular text in this particular way.

This is not an academic book, and it doesn’t claim to be one.  Rob Bell is more pastor than professor, more artist than engineer, and more conversation partner than debate opponent.  He asks questions, not to undermine the Bible and/or faith, but rather because he thinks the Bible and/or Faith are so important…and because he thinks the people that God loves (read that as “everyone”) are so important.  If you think that theology is best done by engineers and that “Christian books” should always and only reinforce what you already believe, then this isn’t the book for you.  If you think theology is more art than science; if you believe that neither God nor truth are threatened by questions; and if you suspect that there may be more reason to hope than you’ve dared to hope for, you’ll really enjoy Rob Bell’s exploration of how “Love Wins”.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Thought Exercise: Jesus or Heaven?

The following parable was written by Peter Rollins in his book, The Orthodox Heretic: And Other Impossible Tales.  When I first read it a few years ago, it rocked my faith (in a very good way).  If you are a person of faith, do yourself a favor and take a minute to read it.  It is a very challenging and worthwhile thought exercise:

You sit in silence contemplating what has just taken place. Only moments ago you were alive and well, relaxing at home with friends. Then there was a deep, crushing pain in your chest that brought you crashing to the floor. The pain has now gone, but you are no longer in your home. Instead, you find yourself standing on the other side of death waiting to stand before the judgment seat and discover where you will spend eternity. As you reflect upon your life your name is called, and you are led down a long corridor into a majestic sanctuary with a throne located in its center. Sitting on this throne is a huge, breathtaking being who looks up at you and begins to speak.
“My name is Lucifer, and I am the angel of light.”
You are immediately filled with fear and trembling as you realize that you are face to face with the enemy of all that is true and good. Then the angel continues: “I have cast God down from his throne and banished Christ to the realm of eternal death. It is I who hold the keys to the kingdom. It is I who am the gatekeeper of paradise, and it is for me alone to decide who shall enter eternal joy and who shall be forsaken.”
After saying these words, he sits up and stretches out his vast arms. “In my right hand I hold eternal life and in my left hand eternal death. Those who would bow down and acknowledge me as their god shall pass through the gates of paradise and experience an eternity of bliss, but all those who refuse will be vanquished to the second death with their Christ.”
After a long pause he bends toward you and speaks, “Which will you choose?”

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

FAQ 4: What is Salvation?

I'm currently preaching through a sermon series called "Frequently Asked Questions".  The premise is that I'll take the most common questions that people have about God, Faith, etc., and respond to them.  I'm not attempting to definitively answer these questions, per se, but I am publicly interacting with them.  I've dusted off my blog and I'm writing a post that interacts with each week's question.  So, without any further introduction, I give you my 4th question:  What is Salvation?

Salvation.  It's one of the most basic and fundamental concepts of Christianity.  Do you have it?  How can you get it?  Can you lose it?  What is it, anyway?  Ask 7 Christians and you may get 7 answers.  Most of the debates that revolve around the subject reduce salvation to a thing to be possessed or a status to maintained, and the general assumption seems to be that salvation is almost completely related to one's destination in the afterlife. 

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word that is translated "salvation" literally means "rescue".  As a Biblical concept, it finds its dominant expression in the Exodus,where the enslaved Israelites called out for generations to God, who eventually delivered them from their oppression.   Most Biblical references to salvation seem intended to evoke this imagery again and again.  Another prominent idea found in the Old Testament is that God IS Salvation.  The New Testament relies heavily on the Old Testament imagery of Salvation, but there are a few subtle differences.  In these texts, Salvation (rescue) takes place by Grace (unmerited), through Faith (trust, confidence) in Jesus. But even this short overview might lead one to an individualistic, escapist understanding of Salvation.  Such an understanding would be deeply mistaken and profoundly unbiblical.

I have less than no interest in the debate between "Once Saved, Always Saved" and a Salvation that is called into question by the commission of a sin or the misunderstanding of a concept.  The extremes at both ends of that spectrum are equally ridiculous, and frankly I question the spectrum itself.  In Galatians, Paul seems to call out the Galatian church for thee distorted version of Salvation they were promoting.  He says:

 You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. 
-Gal. 5:4-6 NIV

 That's right.  The infamous phrase "fall from grace" actually originates in a passage that is arguing against trying to justify yourself by law, as if you were "paying off the god".  He essentially says that to do so is to fall from grace...seemingly because you don't recognize it, and you don't believe you need it (or that it's sufficient in the first place). Salvation is not payment for services rendered.  It is a gift from God. no Don't miss the next thought though:  "The only thing that counts if faith expressing itself through love".  Paul refuses to choose from their options.  Instead, he transcends them.  To do anything else is to reduce grace to a commodity and Salvation to a status game.

I've come to believe that the Christian concept of Salvation is rooted in the Hebrew concept of Shalom.  Shalom is a word that the ancient rabbis used to describe both the original condition of the world in the Genesis creation narratives, and God's intention for how the world should be.  It means something like "harmony", and the rabbis argued that it exhibited itself in 3 ways:  Harmony between God and people, harmony between people and other people, and harmony between people and God's creation.  They argue that what we normally refer to as "the fall" in the Genesis 3 narrative is not merely meant to indicate a break the relationship between God and people, but rather the breaking of Shalom in all three of the dimensions we've discussed and a new trajectory towards chaos.  It can be argued that all sin can be traced back to the breaking of harmony in these 3 areas. It can also be argued that sin isn't a matter accumulating demerits so much as it is a matter of further distancing yourself and the world from the harmony God intends for it.  Salvation then, is rescue from this situation by the God who is most clearly revealed in Jesus.

This re-framing  has been profoundly helpful for me.  However, there is another aspect of Salvation that I believe may be just as important and just as overlooked.  Paul articulates it well in 2 Corinthians 5:14-21:

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.  So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! …

Notice the language of "Creation" and "New Creation" here, and how resonant it is with what we've already discussed.  Paul isn't the only one who makes this connection (and this isn't the only place he does it).  In the Gospel that bears his name, John structures his telling of the story of Jesus after the Genesis 1 Creation narrative.  He names 7 days (in order) in the course of the narrative, and lists 7 signs/miracles (each of which can be tied to the parallel day of Creation).  On the 7th day, Jesus "rests" in the tomb.  He is resurrected (in a garden, no less) on the first day of the new week, indicating that New Creation has begun.  Although I could certainly keep going down that rabbit trail, I want to get back to Paul's argument in 2 Corinthians, because the next part of his argument is fascinating:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God

I've argued that Salvation is essentially reconciliation...rescue from the trajectory towards chaos...a return to the harmony (Shalom) that was broken, in all of its dimensions.  Now, Paul lets the other shoe drop.  Those who have been (are being) reconciled have also become agents of reconciliation.  Those who have been saved/rescued by God become agents of salvation.  It's not that you "have" salvation.  It's that salvation has you.  The writer of Ephesians makes a similar argument:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do
-Eph. 2:8-10 NIV

To be clear, I'm not arguing for a works-based Salvation. This text (as well as many others), deconstructs any such argument before it can even get started.  However, I am absolutely arguing for Salvation-based-works.  To be rescued is to become involved in the rescue.  Individual Salvation is not an end unto itself.  It is a means, by which we become active participants of what a living and active God is doing in the world.  Biblically, Salvation isn't just a status to be claimed, it is a vocation to be embraced.

Salvation is the delightful surprise of having your little life caught up in the purposes of God for the whole world.
-Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon