Saturday, March 26, 2011

Bell's Book

I just finished reading Rob Bell's new book called Love Wins. It is supposed to be about hell. It 's supposed to be about Bell's restatement of the traditional Christian view of hell. It's supposed to be Bell's heretical restatement of the traditional Christian doctrine of hell. At least that is what I had heard and read from the barrage of evangelical reviewers and bloggers. Some who never even read the book! Some rather well known evangelical leaders have written Bell out of the evangelical camp for this book. One well known big church pastor and author commented simply, goodbye Rob! Maybe I missed something but I read the book and I am somewhat puzzled by the reactions, or overreactions. Seems to me there might be some other issues at work in some of these critical reviewers. Maybe some professional jealousy, perhaps? Don't know for sure. That doesn't happen among Christians, does it? Just saying. Bell is enormously popular. He is the main pastor of a church that attracts over 10,000 people a week! He writes and does video curriculum. He is an engaging, gifted speaker. He is a brilliant thinker and is able to concisely convey a vast amount of knowledge in a readable style. He has his finger on the pulse of contemporary culture. That is not to say that Bell is original in his thinking ( who is? That's a good thing not a putdown). In this book, he channels many well known theological giants from the past. He could have footnoted more of them. He does give a short list of books to read. There are echoes of C.S. Lewis, Pinnock, Forsyth, Bloesch - and even Barth, just to name a few. What gets lost in this current controversy over Bell's book is that eschatology in general and the idea of hell in particular is a subject that has a long and varied history. You might get the idea from reviewers that Bell is the first to raise the issues he does! Christians have thought and taught a wide spectrum of belief on this topic - in other words, up to today it was ok if you were somewhere in a range of belief - you were still considered orthodox. Maybe not evangelical but at least Christian! Even universalism which Bell has been charged with teaching in this book (but I could not find it) was able to be contained in this wide spectrum of orthodox belief and taught by some of our less well known Christian theologians, ie, Origen, Evagrius, Gregory of Nyssa, Jacques Ellul (at least they considered themselves Christians!). Others have taught a universalism of hope - meaning that Christ's atoning sacrifice was not limited but intended for all humanity. Karl Barth seems to say this at times. So do Hans Urs von Balthasar, Richard Neuhaus and Gabe Fackre. ( I realize most of the above named Christian thinkers would not be called evangelicals but they are still pretty heavy weight Christian thinkers!) Annihilationism was taught by John Stott, Philip Hughes, John Wenham and Michael Green - all who are evangelical thinkers. Annihilationism is the belief that God does not force his grace on anyone and allows some to reject it and thus be excluded from the everlasting kingdom of God but they do not experience everlasting torment in hell since their souls pass out of existence. Additionally, there is a long history in the church of teaching divine perseverance. This is the belief that God in his love never gives up pursuing people even into the pit of hell. After death. Allowing for second and third and as many chances as a person needs to respond to God's love. Teachers of this view expound scriptures like Eph 4:8 and 1 Pet 3:19 and 4:6. Some of the theological heavy weights who have held this view are Cyril of Alexandria, Clement of Alexandria, Ambrose, George MacDonald (a great influence on C.S. Lewis), P.T.Forsyth, and Donald Bloesch. (as far as I can tell Bell doesn't hold to either of those beliefs, but he might, he can be ambiguous at times). So, all of this is to say that there has been a rich history of thinking and teaching about what happens when we die. Bell's book falls well within this tradition. Furthermore, Bell's book is written with an apologetic purpose. He has two groups of people in mind. First, are those who have only a superficial understanding of Christianity. Probably, many of these people show up at his church having been invited by other Christians. Bell is known for having Q&A sessions after he preaches. All a lot of people know about Christianity is what they have seen in the media or heard about third hand. Or maybe picked up from a person at work who claims to be a Christian. And it's pretty negative. Maybe they have seen so called Christians holding up signs saying all gays are going to hell. Do all Christians think that anyone who is not just like them in behavior and belief are going to hell? Bell wants to address this question. The second group of people are Christians who perhaps have been taught there are no other options. Believe in Jesus and go to heaven when you die ( in fact they think that is all there is to Christianity) and if you die without believing in Jesus then you go to hell. Hell is this place of terrible torment that lasts forever. Hell is the place where non-Christians "get theirs" vindicating the Christian life (of sacrifices) Christians have chosen. Bell is very quotable -what he says about this is "a discussion about how to just get into heaven, has no place in the life of a disciple of Jesus, because it's missing the point of it all." For those Christians who think the only or main reason to be a Christian is to escape hell and make it to heaven - Bell's book would be an eye-opener. In my reading of Bell, he does not deny the existence of hell. He does not deny God's just judgment. He does not deny the atoning death of Christ although he reminds us of the many ways the Bible talks about the merits of Christ's death (there has been a wide spectrum of belief in Church history about the atonement of Christ, too). He does want to affirm God's grace and God's love which he believes gets lost too often in our discussion of what happens when people die. He absolutely wants to confront the tendency of some Christians and Christian churches to act like they know what God's thinking is about the eternal destinies of other people. I would say that was his major reason for writing this book. Bell, remember is a pastor, not a trained theologian. He is writing out of the need for pastoral care for his flock and for others who might want to know what he is thinking. Here is what he says," for some the highest form of allegiance to their God is to attack, defame, and slander others who don't articulate matters of faith as they do.... a destructive, violent, understanding of God can easily be institutionalized in churches, systems, and ideas.... some churches are not very life giving places, draining people until there's very little life left... their God is angry, demanding, a slave driver, so that God's religion becomes a system of sin management, constantly working and angling to avoid what surely must be the coming wrath that lurks behind every corner, thought, and sin." Bell knows people who have been in those kinds of churches or who know people who are - and wants to say that this type of Christianity is toxic ( a word he uses a few times). Bell poses a lot of questions in his speaking and writing. He asks questions. He probes. He ponders. He asks us to reconsider, rethink, restudy, go back to the Bible and take another look, go to our teachers and ask questions, read other teachers. This is a good thing I think. Yet, it seems many Christians are afraid to do this. Thus, we see the reaction to Bell's book. Some were quick to label it, (even before reading it!) "controversial, extreme, on the fringes of accepted belief, outside the camp, etc. That's too bad. For another thing Bell writes is, "we shape our God and then God shapes us... our beliefs matter. They matter now, for us and they matter then, for us. They matter for others, now and they matter for others, then. What is God like?" That's doing theology. We swim in a wide stream with many other Christian thinkers and teachers over a long history. Rob Bell reintroduces us to some of them. He asks us to rethink, and to ponder an aspect of the Church's eschatology - what happens to people when they die. Do people have any hope? What sort of hope is it? What about God's judgment and what about hell. What about God's love? How do they relate and why should I care?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Pastor

When I started out in this pastor thing I had no idea what I was getting into. I didn't even know a pastor is considered self-employed and so he has to file quarterly income taxes. That was just one of many things I did not know. There were many role models but not many good ones. Most of the pastors who came to speak at the seminary I attended were older and pastoring the kind of large churches that most of us seminarians would only pastor in our imaginations. After a few fits and starts I wound up at my first full time "senior" (I was the "only" pastor) pastor position. It was a struggling small town church which was meeting in another denomination's church in town. Our church building had been condemned being about a thousand years old. So we worked hard and eventually combined the two churches into one (now we were The United Church) and planned an addition. Everyone worked hard again. Then it was done. People relaxed and some stopped attending and I wondered what I was supposed to do now. Keep working hard, keep adding new people, keep planning new programs and keep finding more volunteers and church staff. Pretty soon none of that was working and I had a growing family which I wasn't seeing much of. I was discouraged and pretty well burnt out. What else could I do. I started looking around. About that time I happened onto Eugene Peterson. First, a pastor friend of mine spent a three month sabbatical at his church in Baltimore. Then, my sister and husband who were doing youth ministry at our church went to a conference where they took one of his courses. Both were excited. So, I started reading what he was starting to publish. And I started listening to his courses on tape. He saved my ministerial life. Many times over the years. I have read just about everything he has written and that has been a lot. I have used the Message for years. That's why when his new book, Pastor, came out it did not have much in it I had not read somewhere else. Still it is nice to have all in one place and to see how his thinking and writing developed in his life. It is a good read. Highly recommended.

Peterson tells a similar story about starting out with a new church plant and when the congregation was gathered and the new building built after about four years he was in that same place, asking, now what do I do. He is a great story teller and he tells a story from early in his ministry when he didn't even expect to be a pastor. He was in NYC studying at Union Seminary working toward a PH.D. He planned to be a professor. He took a part time job at a Presbyterian Church working with young adults. Willi Ossa was the church janitor. He was also a serious painter. As Peterson got to know Willi and his wife, Willi asked if he could paint his portrait. Now Willi had grown up in Germany and his pastor supported the Nazis. He saw his church preach hatred for Jews and embrace Hitler as a modern prophet. He didn't know why Peterson or anyone would have anything to do with the church. He warned Peterson about what the church would do to his soul. Pastors were just functionaries in a bureaucracy where labels and rules were all that mattered. Willi and Peterson became friends and he did not want to see his friend hurt. For several Fridays Peterson sat for his portrait but after the session Willi would quickly cover it up. One Friday Willi's wife came into the room and looked at the nearly finished portrait. "Krank, krank", she cried. Peterson knew enough German to understand, "Sick, sick!" Then he caught Willi saying, "no, he's not sick now but that's the way he will look when the compassion is gone, when the mercy gets squeezed out of him." A couple weeks later Peterson got to see his portrait. There he was in a black robe, a red Bible on his lap with his hands folded over it. His face was gaunt and grim, eyes flat and expressionless. Peterson asked Willi why he had painted him like that. He said, I am painting you as you will look in twenty years... no matter how good your intentions, the church will suck the soul out of you... please, my friend, don't be a pastor.

Eventually, Peterson became a pastor but he says he kept that portrait in his closet for 55 years as a warning. Peterson's books functioned something like that for me. His books depict various ways to do this pastor thing; some ways he explains lead to death but some ways lead to life. He has been a good guide, a mentor; he saved my ministerial life.

Finding Our Voice

As most people know, The King's Speech, won the academy award for best picture. It is the story of King George, a shy man who was thrust onto the world stage at a critical point in world history. The charismatic German leader, Hitler, was mesmerizing crowds of people with his impeccable elocution. King George needed to speak a word to his own people of England but the problem was he could not get those words out without stuttering. The Queen finds an Australian speech therapist who helps King George find his voice so he can address the public reassuringly. It is a great film ( I have heard since I have not seen it yet) with Biblical overtones. God chose spokespersons with similar speech impediments such as Moses. It could be said that anyone who stands before a crowd and espouses to speak a word for God feels like he or she is stuttering. Badly, at times. How do you speak for God? Most of us who have preached have stood before a congregation with butterflies in our stomachs, sweaty palms, and wondering how long until this torment would be over. Most people I have talked to when asked to "fill the pulpit" confess to a lifelong fear of speaking in public. William Willimon, a preacher and teacher of preachers, says, "Walking naked down Main Street while playing a harmonica is nothing compared to the personal exposure required to talk about God for 2o minutes to a group of people who have been, all week long, avoiding even the barest mention of God."

Most of us who preach need someone like Lionel Logue, the King's speech therapist, if we are going to find our voice. Few of us ever find our Logue but hopefully we find our voice. Eugene Peterson in his book, Pastor, tells about a time when his grown son returned home from college where he was pursuing a writing degree. He told Peterson that just as all novelists have one book so all preachers have one sermon. Peterson protested vehemently; each sermon of his was different and carefully crafted. Later, after his son returned to school, he left the church he had been attending because it was too big and he didn't know anyone and tried other churches in the area. Eventually, he came back to the same church he had been at. When Peterson asked why, his son replied, none of those other pastors had found their sermon. Then, Peterson said, he knew what his son was talking about.

I have stuttered and stammered and struggled to get through plenty of sermons. I have listened to many other preachers do the same. In fact, some of the most well known preachers of past and present had all kinds of vocal oddities and bodily tics. Some of their voices were hard to listen to and their trains of thought not easy to follow. Willimon defines finding one's voice as "learning to embrace why God called someone like me to say truth like this to people like these." He reminds us that preachers are not up there to "share what's on their hearts". Who really cares, anyway? Preachers are called to speak a word from the Lord to these people in this place on this day. That's all that is worth talking about.

Paul said that God shows his power through our weaknesses. Good thing. Every week those weaknesses are on display but we trust the power of God is at work as well. May he help us preachers find our voice.