A beautiful death (?)

I was listening to a list of things that are beautiful, things that fill us with hope and with life.  “Holding the hand of your daughter.”  “Sitting by your grandfather’s bedside while he takes his last breath.” “A beautiful song.”  “This feeling at work that what you do matters.”

My ears heard all of them, but my brain just stopped processing at about the second one.  I was not surprised, really.  I know that this is what we are supposed to believe.  But I was struck by the force of it.  My grandfather died about ten years ago.  He died quite suddenly, walking into his bedroom to turn the clock foreward, for daylight savings.  (Is daylight savings the one when we move the clocks foreward?  What do we call the other one?)  I have always found that kind-of wonderful and poetic.  I have this idea that he went to be with that lost hour, in somewhere of eternal possibilities, so near to us, but not quite close enough to touch.

And so the literal meaning of those words, “Sitting by your grandfather’s bedside while he takes his last breath.”  it’s not that what the words meant is what I struggled with.  My mom has been dead for a little over a year now.  And so whenever I hear that word, “death.”  It’s her I am thinking about.

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There are lots of things that were a lot less beautiful about her death.  It was a battle she fought, a battle she lost, just a few feet at a time.  It was World War I-style trench warfare, the death of my mother.  Also, there is something… natural?  expected?  about losing grand parents.  Yes, I know that the same could be said for parents.  But somehow, it just isn’t the same.  I did not know how deep the connection to my mom went until she was gone.

These things are related to something more fundamental, something which made her death not beautiful: me.  I was not ready for it to be beautiful.  I resisted it and I fought with it.  Some of these thoughts and feelings on the inside played out in terms of decisions and words that happened on the outside.  I am not proud of all the things I did and said as my mother died.

Declaring a thing beautiful makes it so.  Tell a person they are beautiful and it will change them.  God made the world, and then he said, “It is good.”  I realized something about this:  I think that when God declared the world good, it actually changed the world.  It made the world more good, perhaps in some way we could never define or explain.  This change was not only brought about because God is God.  I truly believe that even when we declare a thing beautiful, it changes that thing.

Someday, much too soon, other people who I love very much are going to die.  And I am declaring, right here and now, that it is beautiful.  This declaration will make it a little bit more beautiful than it would have been.  I don’t think this declaration will make it easier.  But it will make it better.

I hope that you can learn from my mistakes.  I hope that you will make this declaration now, too.

As I write this, I am holding on to this hope.  In a way it so abstract I can barely describe it, but right now it feels really important.

I am going to try and express this hope as a question:

Would it have mattered if God came back to the world, and declared it good, after the fact?  Can declaring a thing beautiful, after the fact, can this travel through time itself, going back, and changing a thing?

What if I decide right now, that my mom’s death was beautiful?  Does that change anything?

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Lying and Telling the Truth

English: the beginning of the 1. Epistle to th...
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Last post, I began to explore some questions about what it means to believe that the bible is inspired, especially when Paul says a few times that he is just speaking as himself.

This blogger had a really interesting response.  He put into words some of the things I was going to say in this follow-up.  A portion of his comment is below:

He may not have been positive that what he’d just written was inspired, but the consistent, continual witness of the church through the centuries has been that he was, indeed, inspired in all that he wrote in 1 Corinthians. The church didn’t make it scripture; the church merely recognized that it was scripture. In short, inspiration of the Bible means that the Lord guided those who wrote, so that they wrote from their own knowledge and from their own personalities, but wrote what the Lord wanted written.

I think he is ultimately on to something.  But taking this tract still has some problems for me that I’d like to think out loud about.

Because the thing is, based on the English translation, Paul doesn’t seem like he isn’t sure whether or not he’s speaking God‘s words.  He seems pretty confident that he is just speaking as himself.  This does not mean that these words are unimportant or untrue.   There are numerous books written by wise people.   And Paul was one of the wisest.  But no matter how wise a person is, it seems like we ought to grant a seperate, lower status to these books than the bible.  I’d like to believe that most people, even the authors themselves, would agree that CS Lewis, Max Lucado, or Rob Bell books ought to be secondary to scripture.

I actually believe that God is at work through those three authors.  In some limited sense they might be inspired.  But this is a far cry from the deep meaning that “inspired” should have for the bible.

And I don’t think it’ll work to suggest that Paul was wrong when he wrote that he was speaking for himself and not God.  Of course Paul was fallible in his every day life.  He was probably even capeable of making mistakes if he was doing something at the same time as he wrote scripture.  (For example, if he was writing the book of Romans at the same time he was making dinner, it would be quite possible for him to make mistakes on the dinner recipe.)  But what doesn’ t seem possible is for him to write something untrue at the very time he is inspired. It seems that if it means nothing else, being inspired should certainly mean that one is writing the truth.

It’s also a bit tricky to suggest that God was decieving Paul.   It doesn’t seem consistent with God’s nature.   Jesus is the truth; could the members of the trinity lie?

To some extent, the answer here is the one that almost always pops up in these discussions: our puny little brains simply aren’t able to comprehend God.

To whatever extent their is an humanly comprehensible explanation, I suspect it will revolve around just what we mean by truth.  I believe that a person it makes sense to suggest some events didn’t literally occur.  I think, in these cases, it makes more sense to focus on the idea that God was telling a very deep truth even if the events didn’t specifically happen.  The truth in the statement “The early bird catches the worm” isn’t invalidated by the lack of an actually, specific bird catching an actual, specific worm.   This statement is true in a more general way which is in some sense deeper than a mere retelling of a specific incident.

So maybe there is some deeper truth expressed by Paul, when he states that he is speaking for himself, not for God.  I’m not sure just how this argument would play out, or what it would mean. 

What do you think?

my emergent nostalgia

The very best part of my day was digging an old(ish)  Switchfoot CD out of a stack of neglected old music.  I popped it as I did the dishes and I began to realize something.

When I first became a Christian I was surrounded by all this art that really spoke to me.  Not just that CD, but perhaps even more importantly the writings of Don Miller, Brian McLaren, and Don Miller.  A CD that I love but many revile by Casting Crowns.  I started looking into the spiritual side of U2 songs that I’d loved for a long time but never really listened to.

This writing and music as well as some of the people who were in my life at this time, had some stuff in common.  (Or atleast, it seemed like it did.  Maybe it’s all projection.)

It’s hard to put in words, but here are several characteristics:

It’s all about Jesus.

This life will continue to be sucky, sometimes.

The next life will be unbelievably cool.

The truth is complicated.  We don’t have a monopoly on the truth.  There’s some things that we might get wrong.  But focusing on Jesus is the important thing.  We’re not wrong there.  And it’s better to be open about things we’re unsure about then spout silly platitudes.

Have you ever listened to “I still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”?  By U2?  There’s this unbelievable version with a gospel choir.  The song just has this great balance of longing and knowing that life will be better while agnowladging that life can just be so hard.

Those writers continue to write.  But they’ve lost some of this essence that helped Christianity make sense for me, I think.  I was listening to Switchfoot today, and I was feeling nostalgic for that little piece of time.

I wonder if I romanticized and projected it all.  Even if I read “Blue Like Jazz” for the first time now, I don’t think that it’d impact me the same way.  But I’d still love it.

Does anybody have any good recomendations for music or writing that capture that early Miller, Bell, or Mclaren feel?

Just for The Hell of it

The idea that some of us are destined for eternal damnation is tough to swallow. The possibility that people might suffer eternal torment simply based on an accident of birth such as geography or history (the place and time that they were born) or experiences (only encountering hypocritical or even abusive Christians instead of reliable witnesses of God’s glory) makes this very hard to swallow.
Denying the reality of Hell, on the other hand, means failing to take the Bible seriously. It means down playing the seriousness of evil. It means wandering into a New Age-ish territority where faiths are formulated like a lunch at a buffet: (“I’d like an entree of karma with a side order of Jesus’ wisdom, please.”)
After spending some time wrestling with the issue I’ve found some measure of peace. There are a few different ways I’ve learned to think about Hell. I’m going to share them below. I can’t take credit for any of these, really. I’ll quote the sources as I list these ways of thinking about Hell. I’ll admit at the outset that the originators of these views are often identified as post-modern, emergent, liberal, etc.
I am not suggesting that any of these views are literally true. I am not advocating that we abondon what scripture says. The fullness of reality is always well beyond our puny little brains. These are images that have helped me to wrap my brain around the issue, ways to envision why Hell has to be the case.
One of the reasons that I’m sharing these is because Jenn of the blog Jenn with 2 n’s (see the link in the blog role… could somebody, please, remind me, by the way, how to do a link inside a post… I’ve forgotten what to do after I highlight a word to get the little window with the chain links to pop up… anyway, Jenn with 2 n’s…) posted a summary of a communication she’s involved with. She’s trying to help make Hell make sense to a non-Christian. I was about to share these thoughts over there, in a comment. But it occurs to me that I’ve actually done this already on a number of others’ blogs. I thought if I had this post over here, as I need to reference these ideas I could simply post a link rather than re-writing these ideas over and over. Anyway…
View of Hell #1: Nothing left of us.
Close to the end of the New Kind of Christian trilogy, Brian McLaren has his (mostly) fictional characters debate a view of Hell that goes roughly like this:
In Heaven, we will be the best we can ever be. God builds us up from our whole lives. Perhaps we were at our most courageous at the age of 18. Perhaps we were at wisest at the age of 30. Perhaps we were at our most optimistic at the age of 40. The person we will be in heaven is sort of like a greatest hits C.D. The courage of being 18 combined with the wisdom of being 30 and the optimism of being 40.
The deal is this: every decision we make either diminishes us or makes us greater. Whoever, whatever we are at the time of our death is sort of like the root, the base, of the person we will be in the afterlife. Courage, optimism, all the rest, these are added on, hopefully.
Sometimes, though, we are so diminished by the decisions that we have made that God has nothing to work with. We have reduced ourselves to the point of virtual nothingness. God might make a sort-of clone of the person we would have been if we’d done right, but this being doesn’t really have continuity with who we are. It’d be quite irrelevant to the fact that if God built us back up, he’s had to do so much repair work that there is really nothing left of who and what we began as. God weeps when we have left Him nothing of ourselves to work with, when we are in this state we are seperate from God; we are damned.

View #2: Are we ready for Heaven
In a recent series of sermons, Rob Bell explored the idea of Heaven crashing into Earth. He asked us how we would fair if such a thing happened.
He said imagine a heavenly table where people of all races sit and eat together. What would the experience of being at this table be like for someone who is a racist.
He challenged us to imagine a person consumed with violence. How would it be, he wondered, to be so violence-filled and to be confronted, utterly with the Prince of Peace?
There are all sorts of other qualities of Jesus we can imagine… These are self-sufficient, complete, perfect. In our cowardice, how would we feel before His bravery? In our ignorance, what would it be like to stand before His wisdom? In our hatred, how would it be to stand beneath His Love?
I want to be clear, Bell never, ever, ever, ever said that any of the above circumstances would in fact be Hell. I wonder if he meant to imply it. Regardless of what he was thinking, I certainly think a case can be made that it’s a powerful view of Hell.

Are there problems with these views of Hell if taken in isolation? Of course there are. But there’s problems with taking any metaphor to seriously. I’m not advocating that these images replace the idea of Hell. I’m thinking, though, that they are good images to start the process of wrapping our brains around the reality of Hell. They are much more palatable to someone outside a Christian world view, in particular.
As I’ve grown in my faith (and God quite literally knows that I’ve got so very to go!) I’ve increased my trust in Him; I know whatever the truth and reality are, that God is love and reality is fair. The specifics matter a lot less to me now. Earlier in my faith walk, particularly, it was helpful for me to lean a little more on conceptions of Hell that didn’t seem so hate-filled because back then I needed a little more assurance that God can be trusted.

Rob Bell’s misquote, modernity, and hypocrisy

So I’ve been watching this interesting series of events unfold.  It’s a bit of a case study in how principles aren’t as important as people claim they are.

It begins with Rob Bell saying, “We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just some of us; it’s in everyone.” (Quote is from http://christianresearchnetwork.com/?p=3821 I assume the various bolds and underlines are their emphasis, though they do not state that.)

The first problem is that there is an urban myth that this quote began with Nelson Mandela.  The second problem is that the urban myth is not true.  The third problem is that the quote actually belongs to a prominent new age writer named Marianne Williamson.

I’m not interested particularly in the content of the quote.  I’m not interested right now in Nelson Mandela, or Marriane Willaimson.  What I’m interested in is what happened when this mistake became public knowledge.

The old-school traditional right wing freaked out.   They’ve been accusing Rob Bell of being a new-ager in Christian clothes for years.  But it’s so interesting to me that they don’t even seem to notice the irony of this position.

Those who embody the modern era– like Bell’s critics– hold that we humans can know truth with a capital “T”.  Truth without a capital “T” doesn’t need context.  One of the places this plays itself out in terms of what it means to be a Christian.

Traditional moderns would identify a core belief and claim that intellectually holding this belief is sufficient for salvation and identification as a Christian. 

Post moderns, on the other hand, emphasize context.   Who said a thing, and why this thing was said, is at least as important as what was said.  Many post moderns, for example, would say that rational belief isn’t quite enough.  They’d say that we can tell whether a belief has penetrated the heart based on the actions of the believer.

Here’s the thing: suddenly the moderns care about the context.

So near as I can discover, nobody took issue with this quote when they believed it came from Nelson Mandella.  In some way I’ll give them credit for this: it implies that they recognize Mandella for the hero that he is.

When it became clear that Williamson said it, though, everything went to Hell in a handbasket.  This mentality is captured nicely from another cite which reported critically on the whole affair.  http://www.apprising.org/archives/2007/04/emergent_church_9.html

said this:

“So I guess we now have the right to ask Rob Bell: Do you still believe this love of self stated in this sappy sentiment which we now know actually came emerging from New Age Mystic priestess Marianne Williamson based on her exposition of the occult book A COURSE IN MIRACLES?”

This is perfect!  Nobody’s focused on whether it was right or wrong.  That seems rather secondary to the source of the quote.

Of course they have the right to ask him.  I hope if they did, Mr. Bell would observe, along with me, that it’s pretty interesting to notice that all the sudden context matters.  Interesting how “truth is truth” when it’s convenient, but when the source of this “truth” helps extend a smear campaign context matters.

Confessions of a left wing, post-modern, emergent Christian

So I found myself in this theological mood, wanting to post something.

My natural tendency was to write about areas I’m sure I’m right.

And there are areas I’m sure I’m right.

As I was going through a mental list of issues that I’m pretty good at arguing, it occurred to me: at best this is all silly.  At worst, it’s contrary to the nature of Christ.

What would have happened if I’d gone in that direction is this: a handfull of people would have read it.  A few kind folks would have posted in a supportive manner.  A few folks whom I’d offended would post rebuttalls.  We’d all recite our lines.  And end up basically where we started.

One of the things I know is that Jesus was all about turning everything upside down.  I know that He was about submission, not domination.  I know that he would not have bothered to blog about the same old issues so that He’d have an excuse to spout out the same old rhetoric.

Furthermore, I know that the progressive and emergent understandings of Christ are ones that generally resonate with me.  Wherever there is a disagreement (and I think this is not as often as it’s made out to be) I tend to side with the Brian McLaren/ Rob Bell crowd over the voices of old school, more traditional Christianity.

Having said all that, I realize that I am far from having worked everything out.   There are things that make me uncomfortable about my world view. .. Things I don’t know how to sort out.  In the next bunch of posts I’ll share these.  I invite readers to help me through these issues… Tell me where you’re coming from, tell me how I’ve got it wrong. 

The issues that pop into my head that I’ll cover (though perhaps more will spring up as I go:)

#1) homosexuality

#2) The meaning of innerancy in scripture (and the related issues of interpretation: when should we interpret things literally… when should we interpret them symbolically.)

#3) The role that faith should play in politics/public education

#4) The nature of the trinity and the relationship of Jesus to God the father.

#5) The comparitive importance of faith to works.

I guess what it comes down to is that I see that there are problems with both progressive and traditional views on the above issues. 

As I look at that list, I realize how fundamental most of those issues are.  Despite the appearance to the contrary I actually have a pretty developed faith in many ways… But there are a few (often minor) areas that I’m still wrestling with God in each of these areas.   For example, I’ve got most of the whole faith/works thing worked out, but there’s a few nagging details that I’m still working on.

Looking foreward to your responses,

Jeff