black and white and shades of understanding

I expected I’d sit down to write sometime today. I got up with my kids, drank coffee, and worked on reading John Walton’s book about Adam and Eve. I thought I’d work on a blog post about that topic since related issues have been on my mind.

Then I checked facebook and saw that a friend had brought up the topic of black hair styles and cultural appropriation. And so my morning reading took a totally different turn. This post caught my eye because I’d been thinking for awhile about getting braids. Every time I see a black woman with those million tiny braids, I think two words: “beautiful” and “want”. On the other hand, when I hear the words ‘cultural appropriation’ I think “blackface” and “offensive Halloween costumes”.

So, unsettled after reading that facebook post, I asked my friend Tracey what she thought about me getting braids. Tracey is one of my go-to people when I need a black perspective on, well, any thing. She shared her thoughts and a couple of links about cultural appropriation. I spent the morning reading and parenting and suddenly it was lunch time.

black ethnicity hands pulling rope against white Caucasian race
Pursuing a deeper understanding of racial issues has been an 6ish year journey for me so far (and will surely last me until die). Up until 6 years ago I’m someone whose understanding of modern American racial issues would have been summed up with phrases like “well, injustice used to exist in America, but now the problems regarding the black community are just cultural”. Read: “The problems the black community experiences are because of some real cultural problems they need to deal with. End of story.” Also, to add another layer, I was someone who wept for joy when Barack Obama was elected, despite having not voted for him, because “look how far we’ve come… maybe this will help heal the hurt that lingers”.

I grew up in a diverse town, but never really had any black friends. I went to a Christian (white evangelical) school and went to a mostly white church. I ‘knew’ black people, but didn’t really KNOW black people… not enough to talk openly and honestly and CURIOUSLY about racial issues.

About 6 years ago I began a friendship with Petula, a young black Bajan woman who had recently moved up here after marrying an American from the area. Our friendship and her feedback on being a black woman in our part of the country pushed my white fragility buttons. I pushed back. She pushed back. I began to consider that maybe my perspective on what a black woman in America “should” feel wasn’t necessarily solid. Maybe. So I started doing some mental exercises, imagining what it would feel like to be black in America in light of the cultural and historical context. I started reading and thinking about it more. I met Tracey. She pushed (pushes) my white fragility buttons even more. I read more. (A whole actual world of perspectives open before you if you are willing to go read them.) I ask more. I still push back sometimes. Meanwhile we have racial injustice and tensions coming more and more to the forefront of our national dialogue.

Column of books and young man with laptop

There is no end to this story. I mean, there is, but I don’t know the details. “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice”, said Dr King. My effort, in light of this great hope, it to bend towards justice myself.

How do I bend towards justice though? How do I move in the direction of being a healer in our broken world where injustice is so woven into our stories?

1. As a white woman, I have to admit that there are many ways in which I am blind. We are all blind in some ways, to be sure, but I’m in charge of me. I have to be willing to admit that there are things I’m conditioned to notice, and things I’m conditioned not to notice. There are things I know about our racial history, and so many things I’m still learning… and so many things I don’t even know I don’t know. There always will be. If there is one thing that stands out to me in my study of theology, it is that context matters. Our context and our worldview frame how we see ourselves and others. Our context and perspective shape the many subconscious assumptions we make. I had to realize that being white in a world where white men have long been at the top of the food chain has shaped the way I see things and the way I don’t see things.

2. I have to embrace some conflict and discomfort. Look, my biggest breakthrough moments in gaining more empathy for and understanding of my black friends came AFTER I got really pissed and/or pissed them off. I had to ask myself if I was honestly open to the idea that maybe oppression is still real and that I’ve been quite blind to it or even participated in it through my attitudes and actions. And really, the more familiar I get with these issues and the injustice others face in our world, the more that discomfort seems not worth mentioning. Still, it is a genuine hurdle when I’m in the midst of it.

3. Which brings me to this: I have get teachable and curious and humble in the arena of racial relations. That humility part sounds nice and Christiany I guess, but healthy humility is incredibly difficult. Side note: healthy humility exposes our weaknesses and vulnerabilities and leaves our value and essence intact. But it still is painful because our default is to wear pride like invisible protective scales. Humility requires I shed those scales and that hurts. Teachability means I admit I don’t know, but also that I want to learn… and curiosity is what drives me to want to learn.

4. Also, I have to embrace nuance and shades of gray. While I aim to be humble and teachable, I refuse to give up a healthy dose of skepticism. I don’t believe things easily, and when I change my mind about something, I want it to be because I SHOULD change my mind, not because I fully trust every new opinion or perspective I hear. My mother-in-law calls me a ‘late adopter’ because I’m quick to doubt and poke holes in new (and old) ideas. It’s true. So on this issue it leaves me with a lot of gray area- places where I feel I have bits and pieces of the big picture but don’t feel like I have it all figured out or know exactly what the big picture solution will look like. For example: tensions between cops and the black community. There are so many angles and people involved here and I’m simply not willing say I think this is cut and dry. It looks very pixelated and 3-D to me. To get to the completely clear cut bits of the story we have to zoom in so much that we discover each person himself is pixelated in some way. Make sense? I suppose I’m just saying I think that if we want to bend toward justice then we must bend toward truth, even when that truth has layers and nuance.

5. Lastly, while I love to speak and think in the world of ideas, nothing substitutes for our individual relationships and actions. Whether you are an ideas person or a hands on ‘what about the practical, real life stuff?’ person, we must live out justice in our day to day life. We must be open to people who are in some ways unlike us: our neighbor, our schoolmate, our landscaper, our boss. We must commit to allowing our eyes to be opened to our own assumptions and attitudes and actions. We must commit to ‘doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly’- before God and others. I don’t exactly know the ‘big picture action plan’ for combating injustice, but I do believe it will look like people everywhere doing the next right thing that’s set before us.

Salty Politics

With election season in full swing and the drama around the recent and upcoming changes in the Supreme Court, my mind has been in serious politics mode lately. I’m listening to people debate about who the best candidates are, about whether President Obama could/should nominate a new justice, and about policy troubles both foreign and domestic. However, I’m a bit zeroed in on another dimension of it all at the moment: the political tone in our country.

When people talk about Christianity and politics, the conversation is normally centered on positions and policies:
What is the right/biblical role of government?
Should we stop or support gay marriage?
Should we help the poor through the government or rely on private programs?
How do we protect innocent lives?
Is the death penalty just?
How much should we regulate/tax/spend?
When should we go to war?

Great questions. There are some even broader questions we ask in some of my circles:
How closely connected should church and state be?
Should a Christian serve in the military?
How much should a Christian invest into politics anyways- isn’t God’s kingdom not of this world?

Important questions, everyone of them.

However, for all our talk of theology and policy I think we can really miss a fundamental element of what it means to live out our Christian identity.

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.”

Dollarphotoclub_102436486.jpg

Jesus is telling His hearers here that they are to have both a preserving and flavoring effect on the world around them. So what is does that even mean? How do we preserve? What is the ‘flavor’of a Jesus follower? And how can this play out in a political environment?

Well, most Christians know to say that the chief characteristic of a Christian is love. ‘They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love…’ right? But seriously, has the word ‘love’ come to be seen as cliche and thoughtless? Should we at least unpack what we mean by that? Surely the Bible gives us plenty of examples of what love is. Love is patient and kind, it’s not self-seeking. Love is laying down your life for another. Love seeks the truth.

Ok, those are all very true and good, but I suspect they still seem cliche. So let me turn to one of my favorite chapters in the Bible- Philippians 2.

This passage speaks of Christ’s humility and how we are to imitate it in our relationships with each other. It speaks of love in a familiar way but focuses in on how Christ’s love for us was necessarily humble.

 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,

 did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

Now this particular passage was aimed at believers’ relationships with each other, but I see no reason we not apply this description of love to our relationships with other people… Especially when we consider here that the example we are to follow is Jesus’, and he served all in this way.

Back to politics. Here is my angle: What if part of our mission as Christians in a democratic society isn’t just what our policies are, but what our posture is?

What if we thought it was as important to value our political opponents above ourselves as it was to make our point about how the government should handle immigration? What if we thought it was as important to share power as it was to retain plenty of it? What if listening and being people who take time to understand others was as important to us as arguing for a better/bigger/smaller/more efficient government program? What if being aware of our own fallibility was as big of a deal to us as ‘standing for righteousness’ in our condemnation of those-things-those-people-do?

Gosh, I feel like I’m saying nothing new here, but dammit, we sure don’t act like we we give a shit about our political opposition. We talk about love, but we are so quick to demonize people on ‘the other side’. That is not love. We assume terrible motives. That is not love. We rarely take a second to understand the perspectives of people who are “CLEARLY” on the wrong side of our most deeply held cultural convictions. This is not what Jesus meant when he said to love. We walk in deep fear of what will come of our privileges and rights. There is no room for love in that.

We are failing to be salt when we act like simply having political victory is our end game. Being like Jesus is our end game. He somehow managed to value and care for people who were all over the cultural and political map. We must find a way to do the same.

Now look, Jesus wasn’t a politician. Power and government and many of the political hot buttons of the day look nothing like they do now. This is *part* of why Christians disagree on political issues so much. May that fact actually help us give even more grace to each other and ourselves as we wade through the swamp of this nasty election season. But even if we see some issues as perfectly clear and obvious, it seems rather evident to me that we are never given leave from loving others. Enemies, friends, Christians, non Christians, Americans, Iraqis. We simply don’t get a pass on that. And when we love people, we value them. We look for ways to meet their needs and understand them better. It doesn’t mean we always  find agreement. I doesn’t mean a solution to the problem at hand will always be clear. But we don’t get to stop taking a humble and loving posture towards others. If we do, we are losing our saltiness and have sacrificed the core element of our calling.

 

why I’m stuck as a political moderate

Because I believe that people need to take responsibility for themselves;
And that people need to take responsibility for each other.

Because I believe that unfettered capitalism and socialism both fix some problems;
And create other problems.

Because I believe that liberty is essential for humanity to flourish;
And that we need to guard against my liberty threatening your freedom to flourish.

Because I believe that nearly 20 trillion dollars of federal debt is a very serious problem;
And that neither side of the aisle is actually interested in addressing it.

Because I believe that people have a bent towards gaming the system;
And that the wealthy and well connected have that same bent and even more ability to game the system effectively.

Because I believe we have a work ethic problem in this country;
And that we have an opportunity problem as well.

Because I believe that power corrupts;
And that when we find ourselves in the position of power we must use it humbly and wisely.

Because I believe unborn human life is to be protected;
And that the best way to protect it isn’t always to pass more laws.

Because I believe we are a nation of immigrants who calls out to the huddled masses;
And that we are a nation that rightly values order and law.

Because I believe ‘privilege’ is a reality and causes unremedied injustice;
And that not every hardship is a result of someone having a disadvantage.

Because I believe that black and white and right and wrong are real things;
And that we need to learn that shades of gray are real things too.

Because I believe America has been a wonderful experiment;
And that we aren’t the last best hope for mankind.

Because I believe we rely too heavily on character attacks on those with whom we disagree.

Because I believe non-American lives matter just as much as American lives.

Because I believe nuance and honesty are the most undervalued qualities in today’s political and cultural discourse.

Because I believe compromise is not a dirty word.

Because I believe we’d do well to stop shouting across the aisle and lay down our talking points long enough to consider the perspective others bring to the table.

Friendship>Evangelism

I grew up hearing and learning about the concept of evangelism. I learned about missionaries who went to far away countries to win people for Jesus. I knew about people who handed out tracts to win people for Jesus. I knew about people who would hold rallies and church services and give alter calls to win people for Jesus. These were all forms of evangelism I was familiar with. I won’t bore you with Greek, but in the Biblical context, evangelism is literally about sharing the good news of Jesus. In my mind this has all centered around the goal of sharing that good news in order to invite people to become a follower of Jesus. Win them. Convert them. Evangelism 101.

So one other way we talk about evangelizing is by talking about ‘friendship evangelism’. The logic behind friendship evangelism goes like this:
‘People don’t care what they know till they know that you care.’
‘People don’t respond well to tracts anymore, we need to be more relational.’
‘People are more likely to respond to the gospel if it comes from a friend or family member.’

Many great and true points here.

However, I have one beef with friendship evangelism: we can easily miss out on true friendship because we have one very specific goal in the relationship. That goal in this case? Win people to Jesus. What happens when you are ‘trying to reach someone’ through friendship evangelism and realize they really, really have no interest in Jesus? Do we suddenly feel like that friendship is a waste of time or that our effort has failed or that we should move on and reach out to someone else? If so, then I believe we are missing out on really living out the good news of Jesus. The irony is that the reason we are missing out on becoming like Jesus is because we are so busy trying to win people TO Jesus. Following me?

Let me say it this way: when we as believers joined the Jesus family, we signed up to be transformed into people who are compatible with God. We signed up to have our selfishness burned away, to exchange our goals for God’s goals, to love Him with our whole selves, and ultimately to be transformed into people who love as indiscriminately as the Father does.

I heard a speaker this last weekend- the most excellent Jen Hatmaker. She was speaking of Jesus’ tendency to hang with the less than upright Jews and show kindness to Gentiles and Samaritans and even Roman soldiers (read, oppressors). She said something to the extent of ‘when Jesus loves, He loves like a FRIEND… He doesn’t treat people like a photo-op or a project or a sob story. He treats people like FRIENDS.’

The difference between a project and a friend is that a friend is an equal. Both parties in a friendship have something to contribute to the relationship. They don’t treat you like a person to talk down to or fix. A real friend doesn’t just start a friendship in order to get you to do them a favor or sell you something. In fact, if you’ve ever been cornered by an acquaintance you haven’t seen in years who suddenly is acting like your BFF and five minutes later tells you should start selling weight loss shakes in their awesome company and that with just a tiny bit of work you’ll both be independently wealthy for life, you know what I’m saying. Extreme example I realize, but you know what I mean, right? You don’t feel like that person is being a real friend… in that case you feel primarily like you are a business prospect being recruited for a pyramid scheme.

If we are becoming like Jesus, we will learn to be real friends, agendas aside. OF COURSE we want people to know Jesus. But do we also realize how vitally important it is for us to be LIKE Jesus ourselves?  Do we realize that if we are knowing Jesus more and more, then we will become better friends to believers and non-believers alike? If we are becoming like Jesus we will see that caring for people, loving them, being a good neighbor and friend, is a very important aspect of us living out the good news whether or not our friends ever decide to follow Jesus themselves. This goes for all of our lives: when we live well, when we act in love towards other people, when we work well, when we are truthful and kind, when we care for this earth God put us on, when we create beautiful art, when we pursue justice and mercy, we are living out our redemption. We are living out the gospel.

We must get our own house in order, our own selves in order. If we, the people who say we follow Jesus, are living out the beautiful reality of what it looks like to know God, then perhaps others will find our good news more compelling. Or not, who am I to say? But regardless of who else decides to follow Jesus, surely it can be nothing but good for the whole world if we Christians look more and more like our Christ.

10 Rules of Engagement: talking to your formerly Christian friends and family

So there is this thing that’s been on my mind; I’ve been thinking about how sometimes when we try to ‘witness’ or talk about Jesus with non-Christians, we end up having a more negative impact than a positive one. Not always of course, but often. No group is this more true with than non-Christians who used to be Christians.

So I want to throw out some ideas, some unsolicited suggestions, for how to have better conversation, how to be better friends, and ultimately how we can exercise love.

Stop trying so hard. It is alienating when you feel hounded, right? Like say your aunt can’t stop critiquing your parenting or your step brother can’t stop telling you about how you’d really be more successful in your career if you would just take his advice… You begin to feel badgered, right? You begin to expect that this is going to keep coming up and it makes you dread talking to that person. Don’t be that guy when it comes to trying to get your formerly Christian loved one to come back to Jesus. It really isn’t likely to help when the only thing you care to relate with them about is how they need to change.

Exercise Empathy. Take a few minutes to mentally step into their shoes. Imagine: you were a devout Christian for many years. You are surrounded by Christian friends and family. Upon examining your faith, you come to the realization that you just don’t believe this any more. You come out with this reality to your friends and family. This information radically alters all your relationships. You wish people could see more than the fact that you don’t believe when they look at you, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. This is very painful.
Please sit with that for a bit.
Also sit with the very real fact that while you’ve probably never been in their non-believing shoes, they have already been in the Christian shoes. They may well know more of what it feels like to be you than you know what it’s like to be them. We need to exercise a good deal of humility there.

Next, Exercise Appreciation. Now sit with the fact that we ALL want to be cared about as we are… not be disappointed in for who we aren’t. Think about this the next time you are with your non-Christian friend. Care about him for who he is. Enjoy her company. Appreciate their many good qualities- their honesty, their intelligence, their humor, their kindness. There is something wonderful about being able to appreciate people as they are, no strings attached. Be at peace in that gift.

Leave the Bible verses in your head. While it can be so tempting for us Christians to slip a Bible verse or other reference to God or Christianity into conversation, please know that your formerly Christian family member won’t forget what Christianity teaches just because you stop bringing it up. I promise, if they were a devout Christian in the past, they know the verses and all the Christian things. The Bible isn’t a book of magical incantations that, if injected into conversation, is bound to have positive effects. In fact, it is probably doing the opposite at this point.

By all means pray for for them but leave that in your head too. If they know you are a Christian and that you care for them, they likely assume you pray for them… But telling them about it when you know that they adamantly don’t believe can border strongly on being passive-aggressive. We should do it, but let’s listen to Jesus and keep it quiet.

Angry fury woman screaming man closes his ears.

It’s ok to ask genuine questions. Maybe I’m going out on a limb a bit, but I don’t think most people mind an honest question. This comes with two big caveats though. One is HONEST. Honest question. As in, we are asking because you desire to understand better, not because we are looking to start a conversation where we launch into a monologue about how they are wrong and need to come back to Jesus. The other caveat is that sometimes people want to talk about other things. Sometimes it’s ok to just talk about things that we have more in common.

Answer honest questions. If there is good dialogue happening, they may ask you questions or otherwise give you an opening to share your heart and thoughts. Do so not with a canned speech, but from a place of authenticity and openness, free from defensiveness or pressure to make something happen.

An important tag on to that is that boundaries are to be respected. Maybe it would be a good idea, when we want to broach the heavy topic of faith, that we ask if it’s ok. Like “hey, friend, I’ve had a something on my mind I’ve been wanting to ask you about regarding faith, would that be ok?” If they say yes, proceed. If they say no, don’t. No good will come of pushing through.

Don’t try to use guilt. Don’t talk about how sad Granny is because her grand baby isn’t a believer and she is worried for them. Don’t remind them that their parents are disappointed and wondering where they went wrong. Don’t tell them about how their kids are praying for them to come back to church. Not. Help.ing. Really, do we want someone’s motivation for coming back to Jesus to be that they were guilted? No way.

Lastly, be at peace. As Christians, we believe in the ultimate goodness of God, right? There is no fear in love, right? Then relax and trust the whole thing to Him. Everyone in our lives, including our non-believing loved ones, will benefit from us being at peace. It is not on us to save them. It is on us to love them. Lean on love and be at peace.

What the hell?

I’ve been feeling compelled to write about hell now for some time. It frequently comes up in conversations with skeptics and believers alike. It’s an issue many people find to undermine the idea of God’s goodness. Honestly, if you just take a few minutes to think about the traditional understanding of hell- where people suffer terribly for all time– it will probably make your heart drop and your skin crawl. One can understand why the idea of hell is an issue people struggle with.

If you were raised like in a Christian environment similar to me, an environment I would call ‘generic evangelicalism’, then you probably were raised to think of hell in terms of this eternal conscious torment (ECT, ‘the traditional view’). This wasn’t really debated, it was assumed. Hell was occasionally referenced to incentivize ‘getting saved’, but in general it wasn’t talked about all that much. My church and Christian school weren’t ‘fire and brimstone’ preaching places, but there was an underlying belief in the traditional view of hell. As a teenager I didn’t question this teaching, though I would say I had an underlying discomfort about the idea of the unsaved being burned or otherwise tormented for eternity.

At some point in my early 20’s I became aware that the ECT view wasn’t the only perspective. I don’t recall what precipitated this awareness, but it was probably something Greg Boyd said and it was definitely before the Bell/Hell controversy. The idea of a different understanding of hell drew me because of my aforementioned discomfort. Might the traditional view be wrong? I hoped so and would have to find out. I gave this new idea, this ‘annihilationism’ idea, some consideration. When I did, I found it to biblically and morally compelling.

Before I launch into what this view entails and why I find it persuasive, let me take a moment to speak about one of the most basic questions we have in our hearts and minds when we think about God. We want to know: is He good? We need to know that we can trust Him. You can fear and obey a God who you believe to be all powerful, but to truly love Him, trust Him, and find peace in Him, you need to believe He is truly good. I can’t overstate how much the traditional view of hell, especially if combined with Calvinism or restrictivism (the belief that only those who have explicitly heard and committed to Christ have hope of escaping hell), undermines the goodness of God. Before you start telling me about how “it might not look good and loving to us, but that His ways are higher“, let me just stop you to say that the Bible speaks quite a lot about what goodness and love is. The traditional view of hell certainly seems to be at odds with goodness and love as generally defined in scripture, and it doesn’t sit well with our conscience either, and that rightly concerns many of us.

So let me tell you about what annihilationism is and why I find it quite compelling:
The basic idea of annihilationism is that when the Bible says (over and over) that sin brings death and destruction, it actually means total death and destruction- annihilation. It means, as scripture says, that the wicked ‘will be no more’.

Reading through scripture, looking at all the places where sin, judgment, death, and hell as spoken of, we see this idea that judgment is actually total death and destruction. I never had realized this thing that now seems so ‘obvious’ when I read scripture, but the overwhelming idea of judgment in the Bible is DEATH:
‘The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.’
‘Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or you will surely die.’
Phrases like perish, destroy, be no more, vanish, blotted out from the book of life, be as though they had never been, consumed, consuming fire are used over and over… and they convey annihilation, not an eternal experience of torment.
(A sampling of references for the ideas I’m putting forth: Ps1:4,6; Ps2:9; Ps69:28; Ps9:6; Ps34:16,21; Ps37:38; Nah1:10; Mal4:1; Prov12:7; Prov24:20; Heb6:8; Jude 7; Matt7:13; Matt 7:19; Phil3:18-19; 1Thes5:3; Rom6:23; 2Cor2:15-16; James1:15)

I used to read ECT into these verses. For example, I’d read about the consuming fire and because of my prior assumptions interpreted that people would eternally experience such a fire. But the verse doesn’t say that the person is forever experiencing being consumed, but that that fire consumes completely.

When you read about hell, one of the first things that gets pointed out is that the word Jesus used for hell was ‘Gehenna’. Gehenna was the trash heap outside the city. It was believed to have been a place of evil (human sacrifice) in the past and in Jesus’ day had been the place where trash was thrown to be burned up. The fires of Gehenna burned all the time, consuming all the trash that had been throw out of the city. So when Jesus speaks of judgment he refers to an actual place where things are literally destroyed.

Another thing concerning the topic of hell is that the Old Testament doesn’t have much of a frame of reference for the idea. The Old Testament is not focused much on the afterlife, but on this life. There are references to destruction and death and the grave, and references to the idea of the righteous who have dies being in a place of peace, as well as a select few passages about resurrection. By and large though, the Old Testament was much more concerned with matters of this life.

It is when we reach the New Testament that the ideas of heaven, resurrection, and new creation become a more developed theme. Along side these ideas the teaching of final judgment and hell find their place. Those found ‘in Christ’ will be raised and granted eternal life… and those who reject Christ will ultimately suffer destruction. The wages of sin is death… But the gift of God is eternal life.

C.S. Lewis and some others have spent a decent amount of time in both theological pondering and fictional writing expounding on what it might mean to completely die- body, soul, and spirit. Closely related is the idea of what it means to be human and what it means to lose our humanity. N.T. Wright said, “It seems to … that if it is possible, as I’ve suggested, for human beings to choose to live more and more out of tune with the divine intention, to reflect the image of God less and less, there is nothing to stop them finally ceasing to bear that image, and so to be, as it were, beings who were once human but are not now. Those who persistently refuse to follow Jesus, the true Image of God, will by their own choice become less and less like him, that is, less and less truly human. We sometimes say, even of living people, that they have become inhuman … I see nothing in the New Testament to make me reject the possibility that some, perhaps many, of God’s human creatures do choose, and will choose, to dehumanize themselves completely”  

Wright is suggesting, as many have, that ultimately it will be people themselves, and not God, who determine whether they are destroyed. To go there for just a moment, let me throw an idea at you. The Bible presents a couple of ideas: 1. That God is our source of life and 2. That sin and rejection of God bring death.

Viticoltura

Now let us imagine something: say that, to use a well known metaphor, we are each a branch on a vine. Say that we decide we don’t need the vine, and hack ourselves off at the connection point between branch and vine, disconnecting ourselves from our source of nutrients and hydration. What will ultimately happen to us in this case? The branch can not supply it’s own life, and if it decides to disavow the vine, it dies and gets thrown in the burn pile.

Fire burning dry tree branches

This is an overly simple metaphor, I realize. I would be bullshitting you to say that I thought I had the issue exhaustively resolved in my own mind… and I certainly didn’t completely unpack the topic here. The Bible is a huge and even diverse book with some metaphors for judgement and salvation that push at the edges of this view, I will not argue that. However, I think annihilation captures the most basic essence of judgement in the Bible.

Before I close this out, I want to return to that core question I began with: is God good? While it is important to reexamine the doctrine of hell, I don’t think having a new perspective on hell will ultimately resolve this question. The answer to this is found in Jesus. I don’t believe God is good because I’ve fully nailed down the nature of hell (and who goes there and other related issues we didn’t even address). I believe God is good because I believe He became human, entered into our pain, bore our sin, and provided life. I believe He is good because I believe Him to be full of love. The Bible tells us that Jesus is the ultimate picture of what God is like. A God who would rather suffer the effects of our sin and rejoin us to Him than lose us. That’s the core of what I hold on to in the midst of questions about hell or suffering or justice.

Still, the topic of hell is an important one… it behooves Christians in particular to examine it and make sure that we are not weaving an unbiblical and unjust view of judgement into our understanding of the gospel. If we do, it will have consequences both in both our own hearts and in the way we express the ‘good news’ to others. We want to make sure we are knowing and reflecting the heart of Christ in all things, even in our thinking about hell.

Lastly, I want to offer a couple of resources for those inclined to look into this more:

Greg Boyd’s case for annihilationism

Rethinking Hell

Questions for Edward Fudge

Across the Spectrum, a book I’d highly recommend to anyone interested in the different ‘sides’ of evangelical doctrines.

And finally, a three part teaching on hell from Greg, looking at the parable of the rich man.

a little trust, please

I recently was talking with a Christian I know. Now before I tell you the rest, I want you to know that this is a wonderful person, someone with a thousand fabulous traits, someone I’ve learned from and hopefully will continue to learn from.

Anyways, we were having a conversation and the topic of Islam came up. The person told me that they wouldn’t trust a Muslim… and went on to say that they wouldn’t trust anyone who isn’t a believer. Now I really doubt this would play out in their life in such a cut and dry way, as I know them to be kind and friendly. In any case, I pushed back a bit and then we moved on. What they didn’t know, and I certainly didn’t mention after that exchange, was that I had upcoming plans to drive down to center city Philadelphia and meet up with a non-christian friend I had only ever ‘met’ online. Now in this case it wasn’t the kind of thing where I or my husband had real hesitations about the situation. Other than the drive into the city itself, I had a positive sense about the whole thing… but on some level it was still a trust thing. So when the idea of not trusting someone who doesn’t share my faith came up, it really got me thinking.

I don’t often hear it said quite so blatantly as I did that day, but the concept of ‘outsiders aren’t to be trusted’ is found in many (most? all?) communities. This can run along ethnic or religious or even political lines. The less genuine exposure and relationship we have with outsiders, the more suspicious we are inclined to be. We are quicker to believe the worst, to presume bad motives, and to let their extremes become the norms we assume about them. And the more sure we are about their badness, the less we feel inclined to become friends with them. If I think I know all I need to know about you because you belong to that group, then everyone will lose- and we’ve all been losing a lot I’d say.

So coming from a Christian perspective, I have a particular belief that my community is called to love. Love- a vague and packed and sometimes manipulated word. So to unpack it a bit, I’m gonna call on the love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

Now there are a couple of things to note here:

First, is that this is a letter to specific people. I think we often read the epistles and feel inclined to read them like a list of rules that apply in the same way, everywhere, all the time… when in fact they were written in a specific context, to be applied in that context, and now we have the privilege of figuring out how they are to be applied in our context.

Second, some of these qualities can have legitimate tension with each other- most notably that sometimes protecting means not trusting. Wisdom and discernment need to be used in knowing how to love people. When there is deception or abuse we shouldn’t assume a blanket command to simply ‘trust’, because in that case trust is probably not loving.

Third, the overarching theme in this chapter is that love. is. IT.
We can do freaking miracles or be martyrs, but if we don’t love, we have missed the boat.

All that said, when we follow that very human tendency to not trust others just because they aren’t ‘one of us’, I believe we are falling short of love. For Christians, we are falling short of our calling. Frankly, we are hurtful to others when our reaction is to view them with suspicion.

You know what else?- we seriously miss out. Really. It is a great joy in life to get to know people who are different from me… and to find out how much alike we may actually be. When we become friends with other people we find we can learn from them and we can simply enjoy each other.

Trust doesn’t always look like meeting up with new people in the city. Often trust starts with listening to someone’s story with an open mind and heart. Sometimes it means believing that they mean what they say. Sometimes trust means sharing YOUR experience and heart. Sometime it means you stop walking on eggshells or stop filtering yourself so much. Sometimes it means a hug or a shared meal. Sometime it means not allowing yourself to get defensive. Sometimes it means working through conflict or misunderstanding and hoping that the person is gonna stick with you.

And sometimes trust means you end up betrayed. Sometimes people, both in and out of our group, trash our trust. We are people after all, and sometimes people do really shitty things. Love goes in eyes wide open to this fact of life.

But ultimately, our communities and the rest of the world will be better if we learn to be more open to ‘other people’- if we learn to WANT to hope, to trust, to persevere. For Christians especially (and I mainly say that because I am in that community and I think we are to challenge our own group first) we really have to learn to value people enough to put some faith in them. We need to live in to who God has freed us up to be. To settle for less is for us and those around us to miss out.

Distrust - trust

why Christian apologetics falls short

It’s really no secret that you can’t argue someone into a belief system. Most Christian thinkers and apologists will readily admit that there are other components that affect why faith clicks and sticks with some and doesn’t with others. But what exactly are they? What causes reading through the Bible or an apologetics book to draw some people into deeper faith and literally sends others clear away from Christianity?

Well I’m sure there are numerous factors, but I’ve got two in particular on my mind.

But first let me tell you what I think is NOT a factor. Somewhat frequently when this topic comes up among Christians I will hear this Calvinistic sentiment: “Well if people don’t believe in Jesus it’s because God didn’t predestine them to be saved. Some are chosen to be vessels for honor and others for dishonor.” It feels like a way of saying “this isn’t our problem”.

For reasons too lengthy to go into here, I think that is wrong and destructive. I think it badly misinterprets the Biblical passages referring to predestination and it tragically misrepresents the character of God. To be frank, if Calvinism is the belief that God has unilaterally predestined specific people to believe and go to everlasting heaven and specific other people to not believe and go to everlasting conscious torment- all for his “glory” and so that we in heaven would know how lucky we are to have been saved, if that is Calvinism, then you would sooner find me preferring atheism.

Moving on.

As I was saying, I have two components in my mind for why Christianity ‘sticks’ for some and not others:

1. Theology. The theology and doctrine people are presented with is going to effect the desire they have to embrace Christianity. Our theology is what shapes our picture of God. Some understandings of God paint a picture of God that is beautiful, just, sobering, hopeful, and inviting. Other beliefs about God paint a picture that is capricious, dominating, shallow, and terrorizing.

It’s not uncommon for me to hear a skeptic point to the troubling doctrine of traditional hell (where the vast majority of humanity is consciously tormented for all eternity) or the logically indefensible doctrine of Biblical inerrancy (speaking here of the claim that there is literally no error of any kind in the Bible- historical, scientific, numerical, etc, and often combined with the assumption of hyper-literal reading) as some primary arguments for why Christianity is poppycock. Now of course, if these beliefs are ultimately warranted and truthful then there is nothing one can do to combat the repelling effects of it.  However, if they are not true, then by holding to it and teaching it we are painting an ugly and/or illogical picture of God that isn’t warranted. This has genuine and long lasting effects for how the world sees Christianity and how our own children will see God when they start to wrestle and decide for themselves if they want to buy into this Jesus thing.

2. But probably even more important than theology is Christian practice. When skeptically inclined people, myself included, look at the church and see us behaving pretty much like everyone else with just a few added rules, it’s not exactly encouraging. When we behave defensively or angrily or selfishly we are sending a clear message: that our beliefs are pretty much worthless when it comes to the transforming power we claim they have. If Christianity is true then shouldn’t Christians be marked by something beautiful instead? And some are, to be sure… But often not nearly enough to leave a clear impression that Christianity is uniquely transformative.

Starting with the most basic element of Christian teaching, shouldn’t we be known for our crazy self-giving love? For our genuine generosity, forgiveness, courage, and care for all people? I dream of the day when people look at Christians and think ‘well I don’t know if I believe what you believe but I want to be like you are!’ Most everyone- Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Pagan, Atheist- knows and feels that genuine love is a most noble virtue. It is accessible and understandable to all. It is universally attractive. If Christianity is true then love should be a fruit growing particularly wildly in our lives because we have been particularly freed from that part of our nature that is selfish.

I’ve been reading two books. I had started the first one, Tim Keller’s “The Reason for God” but unexpectedly received a different one in the mail called “Preemptive Love” and could barely put it down. Preemptive Love is not a book about apologetics. It is a book about Christians living out the most radical, courageous, and self-giving elements of the Christian faith. It is the kind of book that might make one think “these people are nuts… But they are amazing.” In the end I believe lives lived like that make a far better case for Christianity than a cerebral ‘defense of the faith’ ever could. It is true that apologetics can meet an intellectual need… But it can never replace a beautiful picture of God and an inviting display of Christianity being lived out.

the agnostic Christian and her parachute

I think a lot about faith and what it means. What does it mean to believe in God? What does it mean to disbelieve? Is it a choice or is it something that happens to you solely depending on your experience, knowledge, or divine impartation?

Well in the past I paired faith and sureness. I thought my faith was as strong as my psychological certainty. Which really sucked because I’m never totally certain of anything like that… and the more I aim for certainty the more doubtful I feel.

Before I go on, I want to define a few words for the sake of this post:
(Or you can watch this short video)

Atheism and theism (Christianity in my case) are about what we believe. Atheists don’t believe in God or gods. Theists do believe in God or gods.

Agnosticism is about what we know and how certain we are.

When it comes to agnosticism it involves lack of choice… How we feel psychologically about our beliefs. How sure we are. How certain we feel.

However, when it comes to theism and atheism, I think they are ultimately choices. They are linked to knowledge and certainty to some degree, but ultimately are not altogether dependent on them. Whether or not to believe is, at least in my Christian context, a matter of whether I will choose to trust.

Skydiver jumps from an airplane

Let me give an example. When I am in a plane and contemplating skydiving out of it (something I’ve never done), I may have varying levels of certainty about if that parachute is going to open up. I simply don’t know for sure. I could change my level of certainty by reminding myself that parachutes normally do open up, that parachute packers almost always know what they’re doing, and that stuff very rarely goes wrong. Or on the flip side I could read stories of parachuting gone wrong or of all of the ways that parachutes could fail. I could look at the land below and imagine how very far down it is and how absolutely deadly it’ll be if I’m wrong. I could change my feelings about whether it is worth the risk or not by focusing on the potential reward or consequences: the beautiful ride down and the feeling of having conquered my fear or on the possibility of having a terrifying jump and going *splat*.

But in the end, the choice lies with me and whether or not I’ll jump.

I guarantee you that in that actual scenario I would never feel 100% certain (or anywhere near 100%) that the parachute will open. I am a person who rarely ever feels certain. However, I’ve learned I still need to make choices, despite my doubts.

(Side note: I wasn’t even 100% certain about marrying my husband and that was truly the most. obviously. right. thing. ever. There is just something in me that just doubts everything.)

So from where I stand, faith is about the choice you make to trust and not the level of certainty you have about it.

Now the parachute analogy does not fit religion perfectly well, I’ll grant. There is a lot of objective data about skydiving. But Christianity, well, it’s a good deal more complicated and subjective. There are no scientific studies that show the odds of the Jesus parachute failing to open.

But to make some level of comparison in my life, choosing Jesus is about jumping out of the plane despite my feelings of doubt. I’ve decided I have enough good reason to jump: The hope of a beautiful ride down. The hope of being more fully with Jesus. The hope that the Jesus way of living really is the best. The hope of landing in God’s country where he is renewing all that has gone wrong and making this world everything it was ever meant to be. Faith, to me, is the choice to hold out hope through the ups and downs. Through my moments of certainty and moments of total incredulity and everything in between.

mountain yumping

For me the parachute is less about the promise of escape and more about the promise of life, the promise that Jesus is what God looks like and that I can be with him.

Of course one needs to feel like they have good enough reason to jump out of the plane.
If I was certain that my parachute would never open and that my venture would turn into a disaster, then I would not make that leap… But, if you’ll remember, I’m rarely certain about anything.:-) So because I do feel there are many good reasons to trust Jesus and to dive out of that plane, it’s a jump I make.

at home, not at my home

The idea of ‘home’ has been on my mind lately. I love being at my house. I also love to travel and feel at home though I’m away. You see, to me, HOME is mostly a state of mind. It isn’t simply about being at my house, though my house is wonderful. Being at home’ is about being at rest, being able to settle in, if only for awhile for awhile, and being able to embrace my surroundings and the people I’m with.

Back when I was in Youth With A Mission (YWAM) I did some traveling. I went to Israel, Germany, and Mexico, as well as several cities and towns around the US (Chicago, Houston, New Orleans). I decided quite early on, probably in my trips to Mexico and Chicago as a high schooler, that wherever I went, I would be at home. I loved embracing the hospitality of our hosts. I loved exploring whatever city or town I found myself in.

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I’d put on my shoes and take a bit of money and maybe a subway pass and roam around pretending like I knew what I was doing. I loved that feeling of being immersed in something big and somewhat mysterious. I enjoyed discovering. We’d check out the various neighborhoods in Chicago- visiting Pakistan, Vietnam, and Greece just by moving across the city. Or in Jerusalem I’d take a stroll through the Muslim quarter, easy walking distance from our hostel, and barter with the guy at the sandal shop. I was broke, darn it, but I really wanted those sandals and could only pay 30 shekels or whatever it was. I would go back every day trying to wear the man down until he finally caved (in an amused kind of way) and sold them to me. I ‘settled in’, made the city my own. I got comfortable as quick as possible with the streets, the people, the atmosphere.

As I said, I also loved embracing the hospitality of our hosts. Sometimes we were in church basements or youth hostels, but sometimes in homes. In Germany our hosts made us feel as though we were their own children. They were eager to show us their culture- their homes, churches, land, and cities, their amazing food and drink… and they clearly hoped we would embrace them and their homeland. We did. We felt so very embraced and we embraced back. I allowed myself to settle in, to relax, to be in the moment, to see the beauty and embrace it, to simply BE with my team and hosts and embrace them… and when we visited Bergen-Belsen and when our one host shared with us his sorrow about the war, to open myself up to that experience as well.

You see, receiving hospitality is about receiving the people who offer it. Hospitality is about making space for each other- whether cleaned up or messy, same or different, comfortable or awkward.

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Another thought about being ‘at home’: being at home is about contentment. Contentment is embracing and appreciating the goodness of our ‘now’, even when we may hope for something different or improvement to our current state. It is not complacency, which is more about the giving up of hope of progress or improvement.

When I travel now I still enjoy being at home wherever I go. Whether visiting family far away or having dinner at a friend’s house nearby, I like the idea of settling in, being comfortable and at rest with the people I’m with, and embracing my surroundings. However, it was easier at 19 to do this. I was far more carefree then. I had fewer worries and fewer responsibilities. Namely, I didn’t have kids. I also had a more peaceful mind in general since my anxiety didn’t fully manifest itself until I was about 22. As I’ve gotten older I find it tougher to live in the moment. If I’m away from my kids, I find it tempting to worry about them. If I’m with them, especially away from the house, I feel the need to keep a watchful eye on them, especially the baby, to make sure she isn’t trying to go down the stairs or making a splash park out of the toilet. I am also more easily caught up in my own mind, obsessing about irrational things or sometimes becoming self conscious about social interactions.

So feeling ‘at home’ has more hurdles to it these days. Challenges I’m working on, step by step, to address and manage, but still very real dynamics inside me.

Still, I find the ‘at home’ mindset to be a worthy aim. To be present in the moment. In familiar or new places. Content. Seeing and embracing the people and the good things all around. Giving and receiving hospitality. Making room for others, complete with their beauty and flaws. It results in pure gain: The embracing of more and more of this beautiful world and the amazing people that inhabit it, and realizing the ability to be at home among them.

I am also finding that being at home is about offering hospitality to my own self: my beauty and flaws, my struggles and hopes, my spirit, mind, heart and body. It’s about making space, extending myself an invitation to breathe, to trust my God, to dare to be at home in my own soul, wherever on earth my soul may be at the moment.

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photo by Liz Blick

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