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.

Lost Mandate

Newt Gingrich is warning us that if we’re not careful, we’re going to end up in an atheist (or) Islamist country by the time his grandchildren (or, to be personal, my children, since they are about the same age) grow up. Now, not to be snarky here (ok, maybe a little), but I’ve never exactly viewed Newt as the Righteous Leader of the Church. But out of charity, I will give him the benefit of the doubt here.

That being said, my question to the Church (not to Newt) is this: what great things has Christendom done for the world which makes an atheist (I will set aside Islamist as that has exactly 0% chance of happening, despite tea party imaginings otherwise) future something to fear?

Is it the fact that we have turned the faith of the one who stated that how we treat the “least of these who are members of my family” reflected our relationship with himself into one solely focused on getting people into heaven and to hell with how they live on earth?

Or perhaps it’s the fact that we have turned the Gospel into a get rich quick scheme. Or a therapeutic treatment to allow us to live our Best Life Now? Or perhaps even that we’ve turned it into just another consumer good to be purchased by its adherents?

And don’t forget the fact that we have allowed his name to be known more for the people we hate and the stridency of our rhetoric than for the love of a God who would live with us and die on the cross to complete his plan for the forgiveness of every last person ever born.

To be perfectly honest, the church in the era of Christendom has lost its mandate to lead. In many ways, I welcome a future run by just about anyone OTHER than us, so that we, as a church, can stop worrying about how we’re going to prevent someone else from screwing things up (in a different way from how we’ve done it), and can focus once again on how we can be a witness to a screwed up world (there’s a better word for that, also featured in a Dead Milkmen song if you want to Google it, but I will refrain from using it out of respect for those who are already offended by my post). A witness of love, justice, compassion, and hope. Not of fear, anger, and uncertainty.

Things I Don’t Believe

Oh, I’m going to step into it now.

It’s a good thing nobody reads this blog.

Okay, here I go.

I don’t believe in the God who condemns people to hell simply because they didn’t choose to say the right words before they died. As a matter of fact, I don’t believe in the God who condemns people to hell. Full stop.

Do I deny the existence of hell? I can’t, without being faithless to the witness of the scriptures. But the more God draws me into his grace, the more I suspect that hell will either be lightly populated, temporarily populated, or perhaps not populated at all when all is said and done. And with Robert Farrar Capon, I wonder if in fact hell won’t be the pity party in the midst of the banquet of grace which goes on for all eternity. A pity party that God will frequently interrupt in order to bring his pitiful guests back to the table of celebration. Until all have finally come back.

I don’t believe in the God of correct doctrine. The God who carefully parses our theology, and kicks those who color outside the lines into the cellar (Google “Dead Milkmen, Methodist Coloring Book” for the reference). The God who wants us to choose sides against our fellow brothers and sisters, branding those on the wrong side heretics.

Do I then deny objective truth? Am I so post-modern that I believe that whatever one believes is equally true as long as it is sincerely felt? No, but I have tasted the poison of my own failure enough in my life to realize that any doctrine is simply an approximation of the truth, colored by our own biases and mental wiring. And so I choose to be generous in my understanding of orthodoxy, and assume that you are my sibling in Christ despite all evidence to the contrary.

I don’t believe in the God who chooses some people to be with him and dumps the rest into the fiery furnace. God may in fact be the great predestinator, but if he is, it’s because he predestined everyone to be forgiven on the cross. I also find it remarkable that our response to his free gift could in any way, shape, or form affect the outcome. We’re not all that important in the grand scheme of things.

I don’t believe in a One True Church, unless you are talking about the church catholic, with a small c, which includes the church Catholic, and Orthodox, and liberal Episcopalian, and even Calvinist, among others.

I don’t believe that God’s word, in the form that we have it today (the Bible, for those following along at home), is inerrant. I don’t believe that you need to read the figurative parts of the scripture literally, and the poetic parts of scripture as prose. I do believe that the bible that God has given us is good enough to lead us to him, even if it may have some defects which reflect the cracked vessels he asked to write it.

In the end, I continue to scratch my head that so much of the movement started by the radical, itinerant, rabbi from Nazareth who would hang out with anyone (especially the really bad people) continues to draw lines, choose teams, and pluck specks out of eyes. And sometimes even pluck out entire eyes.

And I continue to be amazed that this very same church, for the most part, misses the fact that the Christ who rose to glory did so by rejecting the very judgement and violence that we so wish he would have meted out instead.

Failure

I have something to confess.

I’m a Christian failure.

I worry about just about everything. I am far from Christian when someone cuts me off on the freeway. I can be hot headed at times. I get depressed relatively easily. I don’t pray very much, and when I do, it’s rarely meaningful. I’m not a very good husband a lot of the time. I’m not very patient with my kids. I think I might be with the rich young ruler in walking away sadly if Jesus called me to sell all my stuff. I don’t give enough to the poor, or my church. Sometimes, the pain in the world makes me just want to shut everything off and play Angry Birds.

I think I’m exactly where God wants me.

Listen, I have absolutely no idea how to follow God. I don’t know how to get close to him, although I know many techniques to try. I don’t know how this whole thing is going to turn out at the end of my life. I don’t even know if things are going to get any better with the whole faith experiment I’ve been a part of for the past two decades.

I really, really suck.

And yet, there’s something liberating about coming to terms with who I am. I can stop trying to keep it all together because the fact is, I’m broken and will continue to be. I can stop believing that if I just do the right things, I will get closer to God and become the follower that I’ve wanted to be since college. I can stop pretending that I have any idea whatsoever about how to stop sinning. I can finally give all of the trying over to God.

I can’t fix myself. I also can’t prevent the world from turning my life into its own personal dumping ground. But what I can do is dive into the ocean of grace. My only trust can be in the One who took on all of my garbage (and that of the entire world) on the cross, knowing that we would keep heaping it upon him even after he did it. Not in myself. Not in my spiritual disciplines. Not in the five points to becoming a better fill in the blank.

So I’m a failure. But that just means that I need to bring my sorry, failure self back to the cross on a daily basis, knowing that the One who died there waits for me, completely accepts me, and will carry me through my failures to a future that I cannot perceive.

Amen. Christ have mercy.

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?

Creep

But I’m a creep,
I’m a weirdo,
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here.

— Radiohead, Creep

I have a confession to make.

I have a spiritual self-esteem problem.

No, it’s not that I think that I’m too much of a loser for God’s grace to reach me. It’s not related to any belief that I’m not doing “enough” to be in God’s kingdom. As my faith nears the end of its second decade, I am more secure in the knowledge of God’s “tidal wave of Grace” (which has washed over even me) than I ever have been in my life.

But I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo.

It’s gotten to the point that I want to stop the sermons. Play some iPhone games in the service. Listen to some music. Watch football. Whatever.

It’s just more stuff that I can’t do, and I can’t stand to hear anymore.

I’m a husband and father of three. I have an incredibly responsible job with a longer commute than I would like. Oh, and the economy is lousy so there’s a lot more pressure to keep the balls in the air.

And it’s left me with a gap. A gap between the journey that I would like to be on and the one I find myself with. A gap between my desires to live into God’s kingdom and the reality of a life with very little space for that.

Oh, and did I mention that there are (at least) four other people who have a vote in what direction my life goes in (and rightly so)?

So I want to turn it off.

Stop listening.

Just be content with being ethical at work, loving to my family, and a stable provider (all important things). But no more.

And yet I still feel like a loser. A spiritual half-empty glass.

The stakes are higher now. My oldest son has begun his journey toward Christ (praise be to God). I desperately want him (and the two younger ones) to walk beside Christ the way I envisioned myself doing when I came out of college. A way which seems so thoroughly buried by life that it seems to have disappeared from view. But what I model to him now will become his faith (or lack thereof) later. And I don’t like the model.

So I continue to go to church. But when I’m there, I can’t help thinking: “I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo. What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here.”

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.