Love Does Win (or How I Learned to Relax and Stop Listening to all the Warnings)

I just completed a theological double header: Robert Farrar Capon’s The Fingerprints of God and Rob Bell’s Love Wins.

I will get to both books in a minute, but first let me write a few words about Rob Bell. In short, like Brian McLaren before him, I spent too much time listening to warnings from the heresy hunters (primarily online) regarding his teachings, and so I kept my distance. But also like McLaren, that distance could only survive interacting with his thoughts and becoming completely won over. Brian McLaren was instrumental in helping me swap out my old wineskins for new, more generous ones, and Rob Bell has probably put the finishing touches on the sea change I am convinced God has been working in me for some time with regard to my eschatology.

Honestly, this sea change started as I was drawn to the writings of the Internet Monk, Michael Spencer, who introduced me to a vision of God’s grace that resonated deeply with my soul. I grew up in the faith after my conversion as a pretty mainstream Evangelical (note the capital E), with pretty mainstream Evangelical notions of heaven and hell. But the concept that God’s love would be so limited that the vast majority of people would succumb to the fires of hell never really sat very well with me.

And then Michael Spencer pointed me to the teachings of Robert Capon. Michael articulated an irresponsible Grace. A Grace that was so much bigger than the one I had known before. A Grace which was available to EVERYONE – not just some select few, not some elect, not even people who assented to a certain belief system. ALL. EVERYONE. No exceptions. Yes, it is a Grace that can be ignored, if we so choose to engage in our pity party and reject it, but even in ignoring that Grace we cannot completely escape it.

Rob Bell’s and Robert Capon’s books are perfect complements to each other, and it is clear that while so many are condeming Bell as a Universalist (in the “all roads go to the same place” sense of the word), he is clearly more a disciple of Robert Capon in this regard. The two of them do not reject hell, but rather that God is the one who condemns people to it. Neither of them deny heaven, but both assert that we will be quite surprised by everyone who gets there. And they both affirm that the story of salvation began in the opening chapters of God’s story, rather than suddenly appearing when Jesus died on the cross.

I thoroughly enjoyed both books, but if I had only one to recommend to someone starting down this path, it is Bell’s. His retelling of God’s story as a means of encouraging us to let God retell our story really resonated with me, and the second half of his book is really evangelical in the truest sense of the word. This book is for those who have been told that God needs them to get their lives together before they come to him. For those who have been wounded by the church and by people outside of the church. It is for those who really need to hear about a God who has already taken care of everything that could keep them apart from him.

But it’s also for those of us who are quite sure about our place in the Kingdom. For we, like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal, are the ones most likely to engage in the pity party at the end of the age, when we scratch our head at all the riff raff that God has let into his banquet, while we stand outside in our own personal hell.

Creep, Part 2

I’m finally, ever so imperceptibly, making my way through Michael Spencer’s posthumous masterpiece, Mere Churchianity. In chapter 11, he drops this bombshell:

Jesus was not clearing the road so I could ride victoriously through life. He was becoming the road that would carry me through all the garbage, falls, failures, and disasters that were the inevitable results of my existence. In trying to make myself lovable, I had been distancing myself from true love. In pretending to be a leading candidate for the religious life, I was abandoning the life of grace. In seeking to be a good Christian, I was deserting the truth that there is no gospel for “good” Christians, because the Lamb of God was nailed to an altar for those who are not good and who are no good at pretending to be good.

Grace is far too scandalous for this world, even for Christians. It’s much easier for us to construct moral systems which make us feel like we’re getting it all together, rather than to just accept who we are and then let Christ’s grace wash over us.

If I can simply manage to live this truth and impart it to my family and those around me, then what more can I ask of this life?

Grace Alone

One of the best things I’ve ever read from Michael Spencer:

For me, the Gospel itself is “the Gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24) The Bible is incomprehensible apart from grace. It is the tidal wave predicted in the first scenes, and it eventually arrives to soak everything and everyone in Jesus. Titus summarizes the incarnation and work of Jesus as, “the Grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” The New Covenant is grace and truth from Jesus, as contrasted with the law that came through Moses. (Consult Hebrews for the difference.) Every single New Covenant blessing comes through grace. Listing the scriptures that substantiate this would be woefully redundant to most of my readers. The air of heaven is grace. The heart of the Father is grace. The Good in the Good News is grace.

Emphasis mine. Read the whole post. He understands the grace of God in a way that I can only hope I will attain. This is the heart of the gospel, and it’s beautiful.

A Vision for the Future

What’s that scripture about “without vision the people perish?”

That’s pretty much how I have felt the past several months – like I am perishing. There’s been a war going on inside myself between the easy path – just go with the evangelical flow and live the typical American Christian lifestyle, which with three young kids is – trust me – very tempting, and the deeper path I believe God has revealed to me over the course of the past couple of years through any number of his servants who are already walking down that path.

But instead of choosing one vision or the other, I have been basically adrift – unwilling to “settle” for the easier path, but afraid that the deeper path is too difficult for a family to pursue. So I’ve been stuck in neutral, and in-and-out of depression because of it.

This is, of course, compounded by the fact that no-one – not my wife, not my church, not my pastor – no-one – is really thinking about the same kinds of things I am right now. It makes no sense to them. Why would I want to go to an Episcopal church on occasion? Why do I find the communion administered at my church lacking? Why would I choose to recite rote prayers at regular intervals? What’s with all of the candles and the sign of the cross? And am I crazy to suggest that perhaps we should be trying to find a way to live in community with other followers of Christ?

Perhaps I am crazy, but it doesn’t help that I’m the only one with this particular brand of craziness in my church.

And yet online I’ve found so many other fellow travelers. Through teachers such as Richard Rohr and Brian McLaren I’ve learned a great deal about the wealth that exists in the broader church, outside of the parochial confines of evangelicalism which largely rejected tradition in the 20th century. Which, of course, helps me feel a little more sane.

So rather than just perish, I figured it might be a good idea to try to construct a vision for what this “deeper path” might look like in my and my family’s life. To start, I wanted to lay out what it might look like in the 5-10 year time horizon. So here are my dreams:

In five to ten years, I would like to be living in the same neighborhood with a number of other families and others who are committed to a common rule of life – centered around a spiritual rhythm, engagement in the missio Dei in our neighborhood, and the pro-active embrace of Christian community for both those inside and outside of our community.

I would like to together start non-profit businesses which could act as “third spaces” for our community and the neighborhood in which we live. Instead of making people come to church, we would have the church come to them – both through these businesses and of course through our interactions with our neighbors.

I strongly desire to have my children see a faith that is active in the world – loving the poor, caring for the hurting, passionately coming to God in prayer, contemplation, and worship. A faith that welcomes all to the table, and that while seeking actively to understand the truth, is humble enough to accept those who may have different understandings without judgement, condemnation, or a need to be “right.”

Now, I can’t see a path to there at this point. I don’t know anyone else who shares this vision. I can’t imagine myself having the time to pursue this and still have any semblance of a family life. And, to be honest, I’ve had Christian community blow up in my face so many times in the past that I have a hard time believing something like this is even possible.

But for the coming year, I would like to start small.

Try to find a way for my family to serve the poor at least once a month.

Consistently pray at least the morning and evening office every day.

Find time at least once a week to sit in silence before God.

Have an extended time with God at least once a month.

Find a way to start sharing the spiritual disciplines I am learning with my wife and kids, and anyone who will listen, to be perfectly honest.

Perhaps if I just start small, then next year God will give me some more steps to take. And maybe that 5-10 year vision will have a chance of coming true after all?

When the Spirit Speaks…

As a follow-on to my rants from the past couple of posts – and perhaps as God’s response to them in a certain way. I just bought a new “album” (of MP3s) from a band called The Ember Days – which is very good, by the way. While of late I certainly have found myself drawn to the theological heft of hymns and the contemplative mystery of Taize, I still have a soft spot in my heart for a well-crafted bit of emotional praise music. And while The Ember Days mix things up with a bit of indie, atmospheric, rock, this album is clearly a praise and worship album.

In any case, while reading N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope (the chapter where he discusses concepts such as hell and purgatory – completely engrossing) and listening to The Ember Days, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the Spirit of God and compelled to cross myself (another one of those “strange” post-evangelical practices I have taken on).

I can only say that the sense of the Lord’s presence and his peace was overwhelming as I prayed through the remainder of the song – “you’re holy… you’re holy… you’re holy.”

Maybe there’s a way to reconcile all of my contradictory feelings about Evangelicalism after all. Certainly, the Lord seems to be willing to combine my evangelical past with my post-evangelical present in surprising ways!

Post-Evangelical Pilgrimage: Weeks 3 and 4

I actually did complete my “post-evangelical pilgrimage,” but managed to come down with a series of illnesses which have pretty much knocked me down for the past month so I haven’t had a chance to write about it. At last, I have the time and energy to do so.

For the last two weeks of my “pilgrimage,” I stepped firmly outside of the comfort zone of my evangelical tradition and visited the Episcopalians and the Catholics. While I have attended services of both traditions in the past, I really enjoyed hitting them back-to-back, as it gave me a really good sense of the continuity between the two.

Being a non-liturgical Christian, I did quite a bit of stumbling in the two services. Besides being able to respond “thanks be to God” to the pronouncement of “the Word of the Lord,” I was unable to follow the liturgy in the Catholic service (I believe there is something analogous to the Episcopalians’ Book of Common Prayer, but it wasn’t present in the pew in which I sat). With the Episcopal service, I was able to follow along, but had to get used to the switch between the BCP, the hymnal, and a supplemental hymnal that they had. Not to mention the standing and sitting and kneeling going on in the midst of that.

That being said, I REALLY enjoyed both services. While I believe evangelicalism is very good at making us aware of the immanence of God (sometimes to a “Jesus is my boyfriend” extreme, sadly), the Episcopalians and Catholics are very good at lifting us into his transcendence. In these two services, I truly felt that I was on holy ground and in the presence of the Lord God.

Now to the meat of both services: the eucharist. Obviously, not being Catholic, I was unable to partake of the elements in that service, whereas I was able to join with the Episcopal congregation in receiving the sacrament. But in both cases, it was during the Eucharist that I was most aware of the presence of God. Which given the fact that the two churches will not allow their members to receive communion in the others’ services makes me wonder why we can’t get past this barrier (I know, I know, five hundred years of history and fine points of doctrine).

But it also made me question the way that my own church performs communion (and even raised a question inside of me as to whether we actually DO administer communion at all). One of my biggest complaints about my own church is the self-service nature of the communion – there is no blessing of the elements during the service, and each person individually goes up and takes their own elements during the time communion is given.

And it also raised theological issues – one of the areas where I break from evangelical doctrine (there are quite a few, but this is an important one) is with regard to what is actually going on with the elements during communion. For our church, and for most evangelicals, the bread and wine – er, grape juice – are just symbolic. There is no presence of Christ during communion. But from my experience, my understanding of church tradition, and even the scriptures themselves (see Paul’s description of individuals falling sick and dying for receiving the Eucharist in an unworthy fashion), it seems clear that regardless of WHAT happens during the Eucharist, SOMETHING does happen and Christ is present.

Now, I’m not exactly sure in what capacity Christ is present – do the elements become the literal body and blood of Christ as the Catholics claim, or do the elements merely reside alongside Christ’s presence (I apologize if I’m misinterpreting the doctrine) as most Anglicans/Episcopalians would say, or is it something else entirely? I’m not sure. But I definitely feel that there is more there than just a symbol, and my sense of God’s presence during the Episcopal and Catholic services reinforced that belief.

So in conclusion, I have some serious thinking to do with regard to the Eucharist. While my predisposition is against the kind of doctrinal division which has hounded the church since it was born, I have to seriously consider whether I should continue to receive communion in my church, whether I should continue to receive communion in my church but also supplement it with the Eucharist at a church like the Episcopal church, or whether I can accept that Christ can be present even in our self-service communion as long as I am looking for him there.

But setting aside my personal struggle with the issues raised by the Eucharist, the biggest thing I came away with from these two weeks was the fact that we are all one Church, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, and my prayer is that one day we would be able to live like that church.

Post-Evangelical Pilgrimage: Week 2

I’m a bit late with this post since I’ve had such a crazy week at work, but I wanted to get something out here before I attended yet another church which might color my experiences from last week.

Last week I stayed basically within my “evangelical comfort zone” by visiting an Evangelical Covenant church. The result? I really liked it. If I had to create my “ideal church service” for where I am at right now, this would be it. A mix of hymns and contemporary worship, liturgy, scripture reading, and congregational prayer. And an excellent sermon. The only thing missing was communion, which presumably was missing because I was there on an “off” week (I’m going to rectify that by attending an Episcopal church this week).

Since the congregation was about 100 people, I didn’t feel like I stuck out quite as much like a sore thumb as at the church I attended the previous week. The crowd was pretty mixed with regard to age, and predominantly white (since I attend a primarily Asian church and have a mixed Asian-white family I notice these things).

All in all, another excellent experience with a different type of church than I used to.