Sunday, May 31, 2009

Enough: Contentment in an Age of Excess

I chose to read this book because I wanted to read something about curbing consumerism from a Christian perspective. Saying "Enough!" is something most of the Church has been silent on- or has proclaimed the exact opposite. Many of the church circles I traveled in growing up were very encouraging of the accumulation of stuff... it was a sign of God's favor.

I highly believe that, because Christianism has been largely silent on consumerism, God has had to seek out agnostics like Rev. Billy to get a message of contentment out to the world. So, I am glad to see that the Claibornes, Wallises, Sojourners,... and the Will Samsons, are getting a voice in the Christian subculture. Christianity needs to have a counter culture, not a parallel one.

Samson proceeds early on from a personal foundational statement:

I had two Volvos, three kids, and a five-thousand square foot house. Everything was coming up sevens. But, like a consistent majority of Americans, I did not feel content with the dream.

I related to this because 5 years ago, I made twice the money and had twice the house that I do now. However, now I am content, and then I was not. Contentment does not come with possessions. I had to downsize to learn that.

He observes that:

Most, I would guess, had more material wealth than their grandparents could have imagined possible. Yet for the majority it was not enough. It seemed they would never be satisfied.

He goes on to say:

Something deep within us, from time immemorial, causes us to want what we do not have.

He makes the case throughout the book that it is our consumerism and bottomless desire for commodities that undercuts our ability to develop community. Neighborhoods never truly form when people are working endlessly to acquire more so they can move to a bigger house somewhere else. And while we grasp to get more and find our selves increasingly empty, the church, for the most part, has offered no alternative.

Here are some other quotes from the book that caught my attention:

When we use energy without thought of consequence it seems that we are making one of two theological statements. Either we believe that the resources of creation are given to us without concern for their stewardship, or we believe that God is unconcerned with how we use the resources we have been given. Neither of those views seems consistent with what we can learn about God from Scripture or the tradition of the church.

I wonder if those who benefited financially from predicting the soon destruction of the world, and then used that money to build things in that world, might cause some to question their message.

Study after study shows that the average Christian in America is statistically indistinguishable from someone of another faith, or of no faith. The culture seem to have an attitude of "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die," and we join in the party. But is this the correct posture for a follower of Jesus?

Too many of us who were raised as "Bible-believing Christians" have often approached scripture to affirm the things we wish to be against and to provide permission for the things we wish to do...
Christians are just as likely to carry higher loads of debt, buy bigger homes than they need, and load those homes up with all manner of useless stuff.

Samson weaves the Eucharist and its metaphor throughout the book. If the book has one Achilles Heel, this is it. Not that I do not consider it important, but if your tradition did not teach this well or you do not connect here, you miss a fair amount of his emphasis.

For myself, I grew up in a church where 200 people drank out of a common communion cup. It took me years after leaving to overcome a subtle nausea every time I took communion. :)

Monday, May 25, 2009

Digital and Analog Thinking

In blog comments, and in live discussions, I have noticed at times that some people seem to completely miss what I say. They respond to things I never uttered and seem to assign motives and feelings of which I have given no indication. I used to think this was just the rude and/or dim-witted behavior of someone who could not see past their own opinions, but I have come to think that there is more at play here.

I have an idea that people tend to fall into one of two primary modes of thinking: digital or analog. Digital and analog are two ways of moving electricity. If you think of it in terms of light switches, digital is a typical switch. It has two positions- on or off. Analog is like a dimmer dial; it can be either on or off, but it can also be turned to any level of light or darkness in between.

Whether we tend to be a digital or analog thinker affects how we interpret events. If an event happens that is vague, or has multiple perspectives, the analog person is able to see and understand the various gradients in the situation. However, the digital person must push the event to one side or the other. Since there is no in-between for the digital thinker, the distance to either polarity must be accounted for, and this is where distortions begin to form. The more committed the digital person is to a certain position being true, the greater the potential for distortion. If the event is closer to "off", but the digital thinker needs it to be "on", then more distance must be made up, and the perception is further skewed.

This is why I believe some debates can get so heated. If two digitals are discussing an event, and they are on the same side, there is no issue. If two analogs are discussing an event, even the most oppositional views can maintain a civil tone because the two analogs can more accurately perceive and address the other's viewpoint, even when disagreeing.

However, when digital and analog thinkers mix, there is great potential for sparks to fly. The analog thinker becomes frustrated because he feels he is not being heard. The digital thinker is frustrated because he cannot accept or understand any perspective that is not at the pole where he presently resides. Each tries in vain to get the other to see their view. The analog cannot accept the digital person's perspective because they feel it is not a true representation. The digital cannot accept the analog's perspective because that perspective between the poles cannot exist, so the analog must be pushed to the "wrong" side.

I think one of my favorite scenes from MASH can illustrate my point. In this scene, Hawkeye and BJ have drugged an overly aggressive combat Colonel to give him gastritis symptoms. By keeping him out of the fighting for a few days, they hope to save some kids that the colonel is taking into a losing battle. However, when Hawkeye finds out that the Colonel would lose his battalion altogether if he were out of combat for over 2 weeks, he decides to up the ante' and take out the Colonel's appendix.

BJ: What the hell do you think you're doing?

Hawkeye: I'm taking out that guy's appendix in there. Ya gonna get into your whites or what?

BJ: You're talking about removing a healthy organ!

Hawkeye: No, I figure his appendix is about as sick as his mind.

BJ: Doctors aren't supposed to take bodies apart, they're supposed to put them together.

Hawkeye: Why? So guys like that can take them apart again? You heard him, he's gonna take those kids up that hill tomorrow and send them back to us in pieces.

BJ: That man is crazy, but that doesn't make this right. Some things are wrong and they are always wrong!

Hawkeye: Fine, its wrong! But there are going to be a hundred boys still alive tomorrow. Go tell them how wrong it is!

BJ: Dammit! Why don't you just stab him!? Cutting into a healthy body is mutilation!

Hawkeye: Don't give me that! There aren't doctors back home who do unnecessary operations? You've never heard of that?? and for what? for a few bucks!

BJ: Alright, suppose you get him relieved of his command. What about the guy they send to replace him?

Hawkeye: He's gonna be better than this guy, he's gotta be!

BJ: But you don't know that for sure do you!?

Hawkeye: So I'll take them one at a time!! What have I got to lose?!

BJ: Just your self respect, that's all!! You are a doctor of medicine! You cut into a healthy body and you are going to hate yourself for the rest of your life!

Hawkeye: I hate myself right now! I hate me and I hate you and I hate this whole life here! And if I can keep that maniac off the line by a simple appendectomy, then I'll be able to hate myself with a clear conscience!

BJ: Alright! You wanna play God? You do it alone!

Hawkeye: Fine! If you're going to keep talking about it put a mask on! I don't want to run the slightest risk of infecting him.

Later, as Hawkeye enters their tent.

BJ: So?

Hawkeye: It was pink and perfect... and I tossed it on the scrap bucket.

In the above scenario, I lean towards Hawkeye's perspective; but I can still understand and validate BJ's stance. I believe that both men are right. However, to a digital thinker, it is impossible for two opposing views to be right. It has to be one or the other with no movement in between. The opposite view is deemed wrong.

I suspect that digital and analog thinking can be issue specific. The more tied we are to a certain idea, the greater our tendency will be to push views to a certain side. My question at the moment is whether we are wired that way, or is it our choices that lay down these patterns over time?

Or something in-between.....

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Christianity and Capitalism

Did you know, beginning in the late 19th century, that corporations were granted all of the rights of the individual? -but none of the annoying responsibilities. They lack, almost by design, any kind of moral compass, conscience, or compassion. Basically, corporations are a way to enact sociopathic behavior on a grand scale. In short, they are what make this country so damned great! ~Ray Wise (as the Devil)

One of the push-backs that has occurred due to the Obama administration is the Religious Right's vigorous promotion of capitalism. To read some articles and listen to some ministers (and fellow Christians), you would think that the capitalist economic format is a scriptural mandate. In their resistance to socialism, many in the Christian Right are trying to wed the economic system of capitalism to Christianity in the same way they have tried to tie certain political and social ideas to their faith. To question capitalism or endorse socialism in some churches would bring your spiritual well-being into question.

I am not a trained economist, so my opinions here are limited; but allow me to raise some issues as I see them. It would seem to me that capitalism, at its core, is opposed to the Kingdom of God. Aside from running contrary to many of the economic edicts laid forth in scripture, capitalism makes use of tendencies we are supposed to guard against. It calls us to be first, rather than last. It wants us to be dissatisfied rather than content. It encourages acquisition instead of giving.

So, where do I stand? I think the old axim - Capitalism is the worst system on earth... except for all of the others... - has some truth to it. However, it needs to be critiqued rather than embraced. Capitalism can be very powerful and produces a lot of prosperity for many individuals; but I believe much of its success is because it uses sin as its engine. As a people of faith, we should be suspicious of it rather than endorsing it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Quotes from articles I have read recently #6

Let’s go back to the passage from John and substitute system for world:
If the system hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the system, the system would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the system, but I have chosen you out of the system—therefore the system hates you.
So if we run afoul of the various systems that dehumanize and destroy, we might be on the right track. There is no illusion in John’s gospel that we will ultimately change all systems. They will be with us as far as we can see. Yet it is possible to make the system a little more humane. It is possible for us as individuals to identify not with our systems, but to become human.

The task of the human being is to love. It is a love that lays down one’s life for one’s friends. In Jesus’ kingdom which is really a non-kingdom, we live as friends—equals--not masters or slaves.
Shuck and Jive

Theology is thus always on its way. It never arrives. There is no definitive and normative theology. Theology is ever in the making. It is always to be remade and refined as struggles develop, as experience deepens, change follows change, and history keeps unfolding. It is ever on the move in the direction of the Truth symbolized by faith and mysteriously known in love. Theology is a pilgrim of truth.
Catholic Anarchy

I often see people proclaiming how they trust God, and how God will always be there for the, and God will always be a present source of help in times of trouble. And yet, that source of help and trust come down to a very vague concept of God being by one's side. I'm reminded of a scene in the book "The Shack" where the father asks God where God was when his daughter was abducted and murdered. God said that He was with the daughter the whole time.

Yet the daughter still ended up murdered.
I Wonder as I Wander

Charismatics are notorious for not realizing that Christianity exists outside of their industry circles.
Kingdom Grace

The reason I'm interested in the role of luck is that I hear a lot of religious people railing against the rise of "socialism" in America. But I think it is very clear, the case in Outliers as one example, that personality, work ethic, religious affiliation and income are impacted by luck. Consequently, all I am and all I own isn't solely due to my virtue or work ethic. I'm not good, I'm fortunate. Importantly, luck implies success at someone else's expense. I got the break and you didn't. You're a janitor and I'm a millionaire professional athlete (or CEO, Dr., or whatever). Consequently, it seems right and just that I share.

How much should I share? I don't know. Where is the balance here? How much luck is involved? How much work? When are the taxes too low or too high? Again, I don't know. All I'm arguing is that the socialistic move isn't, on the face of it, immoral or unfair. It's realistic as far as I can tell. I don't mind debates about taxes or entitlements. But I do mind an ideological stance that automatically and unthinkingly equates taxation or "socialism" as evil. Why? Because it assumes life is all merit, work and virtue with no luck involved.
Experimental Theology

I don’t think you can have Gospel without Justice. Not the Gospel of Christ at least. Remember, Jesus defined the Gospel (and shouldn’t we let him define it?) as “the Kingdom of God is at hand,” not “accept me as your personal savior and ask forgiveness for your sins so you can go to heaven.” Not to mention, nobody really defined the Gospel in the latter way until the industrial age. I realize those last two sentences may sound outlandish to some. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying there’s nothing personal about the message (there is); I’m just saying Jesus himself didn’t define it that way. The Kingdom (which is a social word) aspect is primary to Jesus, so if we put emphasis on the personal over and above the corporate, we disagree with the Christ. So I think the extent to which we see Gospel as interconnected to Justice is the extent to which we agree with Jesus, who opened his preaching ministry with a social justice quote from Isaiah (Luke 4).
Emerging Toward Something Redeeming

This is the problem that I have with some apologists (those who defend the faith). Don’t get me wrong, I believe very much in apologetics and also love many apologists. But very rarely do I find a reasonable apologist. Most are very hardened because they are committed first to defending their particular position, not so much to learning.
Parchment and Pen

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Christianity is Meaningless

At least it would be, if you take Hell out of the equation....

That is the view of many in Christendom.

They would not necessarily state it that way, but that is the practical up-shot. That is why I believe large sections of Christendom are being pushed to the back of the bus as its people become increasingly viewed as backward and irrelevant.

I was following various blog links and I came across a pastor who was bemoaning the "worldliness" of the church. He was upset that a local pastor had used almost exactly the same 4 points about bolstering marriages that he had heard a "secular" therapist use. To him, this was evidence that the Church is being over-run by secularists and Christian congregations are in danger of going to Hell.


I went to one of his links and I read a post where the author went on and on about how wrong headed non-calvanists were. He said:

Now, that all said, I know this post has a tone of simple disdain. I know it because I cannot avoid it – I really try to have patience for the non-calvinist, but the truth is that they don’t really have any patience for the Calvinist under any circumstance, and they as a group don’t really listen.

The 95 posters that followed (I must admit a little blogger jealousy there) kinda "Rah-Rah'd" his statement... occasionally expressing some level of concern (or satisfaction) for all of the folks who were on their way to Hell because their doctrine was a mess or non-existent.

Besides the bully-ishness of many of the commentators, what struck me most was how utterly pointless their Christianity becomes if Hell is taken out of the equation. Underneath all of their rhetoric was not a desire to follow someone who was worth following, but rather a desire to get out of Hell. The blogger and his commentators adhere to this version of Christianity, not because it is good, but because they are afraid to do otherwise. Christianity, in their view, is getting yourself lined up correctly with God... so you don't go to Hell.

What a hopeless present and eternity that amounts to (for either destination) if that is really all this life is about.

But just to clarify....

I don't believe any of that. Jesus is worthy and I dedicate myself to his way.... without any worry or threat.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Observations of an Inner-City School Teacher - State Testing

I am beginning the third week of administering our state standardized tests to my sixth graders. This is my fifth year teaching in an inner-city environment. I previously spent 12 years teaching in elementary schools that served primarily wealthy families steeped in education. As I watch my class work on these tests, I notice the following differences between my present and previous teaching assignments:

  • State tests do not show a student's progress. If I have a child who moved from a 2nd grade reading level to a 4th grade level, the test does not take this into account. If the child cannot pass a sixth grade test, he or she is marked as a failure. Since most of my present kids start out significantly below grade level, most of them will be deemed failures regardless of any progress made. By testing level instead of progress, inner-city students face barriers that most suburban students do not.
  • Since these tests use a high level of academic vocabulary, most of my current students face a natural disadvantage because this level of vocabulary is not typically used at home. My suburban students would have been raised hearing this level of vocabulary.
  • My suburban students had a much higher concern for grades and test scores than my present students. For many suburban kids, grades were tied to their allowance, vacations, or sports opportunities. Failure to get certain grades meant loss of privileges. Since most of the parents were highly educated, the culture in the home stated that grades matter. My inner-city students have little of that, so typically grades and scores mean little to them. When I give a test to my inner-city students, there is rarely any interest shown by them for their test results. My suburban kids would be asking me a half hour later if I had corrected them yet... they WANTED to know what they got. This gives suburban students a significant advantage in state testing... they have been conditioned to CARE about any test.
  • Inner-City students tend to be more dependent on assistance than suburban students. Because they have not received the same support and oversight at home as their suburban counterparts, and because much of their schooling has been remedial, they are more teacher dependent. This puts them in a much less secure position when having to be completely independent for a high stakes test.
Again, these are just anecdotal observations and are by no means scientific. But as I see it, there is an unfair disparity when judging students by state tests. To piggy back on an example above, you can have a child who has advanced two grade levels in one year deemed a failure; whereas a child who has made little advancement in a year, but still can achieve grade level, is a success.

In any case, according to No Child Left Behind, all of these results will be placed at the teacher's feet... though they have little control over so many of these factors.

Observations of an Inner-City School Teacher: Part 1

Friday, May 08, 2009

I give Star Trek a B+

There are SPOILERS ahead, so proceed at your own risk.

I have always enjoyed Star Trek. TOS and Next Gen were great, Voyager may have been my favorite, and I only marginally watched DS9 and Enterprise. Unlike many, I loved the Motion Picture. I never believed the every other movie theory for Star Trek. I thought V, Insurrection, and Nemesis were weak, but the rest were great.

That brief summary gives you a baseline for my take on this week's Star Trek release.

What worked:
  • Kirk, Spock, and McCoy have great chemistry
  • They captured the characters without looking like they were imitating the original actors
  • Pike was an engaging character
  • There was a good balance of action, drama, and comedy
  • The Enterprise was beautiful... inside and out
  • Rebooting the timeline to reboot the series works
  • Kirk WAS Kirk
  • I left wanting to see it again!
What did not work:
  • Nero the vengful mine worker. This did not work on SO many levels. I wish they would have dug through about 20 years worth of 24th century villans to find a "Khan".
  • Chekov.... if he had about a fifth of the accent, he might have been passable.
  • Kirk gets dumped on the nearest inhabitable moon... and Spock Prime just happens to be within walking distance... I laughed it was so absurd.
  • Cadets were running the Enterprise awfully quick. Where was its crew? Why make them all newbies? Couldn't a few of the primary characters already have been crew (Scotty for instance).
My few quibbles do not take away from the fact that it was a great flick. The only bummer is - now a have to wait a few YEARS for part 2.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Getting ready for Joseph!

Tomorrow I get to start my rehearsals for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I will be playing the part of Rueben, which I think will have me doing a solo at some point. My two munchkins will be part of the children's choir. I love that my kids and I get to do this stuff together.

This is Kathryn's 5th production, Jacob's 2nd, and my 2nd. South Jordan Community Theater has been a lot of fun and a blessing to our family. Kathryn had to speak in front of a few hundred people recently and she spoke with confidence and animation. I knew that was due in large part to her SJCT experience.

Go, Go, Go, JOE!!

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Bart Campolo on the Limits Of God's Grace

The following article was printed in Youth Specialties a few years back. Many Christians thought Bart's views were heresy, so the article was pulled. The Journal of Student Ministries hosted it for a while, but they seem to have dropped it as well. All that to say, I would link if it were out there, but since it doesn't seem to be, I am going to paste it here.

It may or may not be heretical, but I am in complete agreement with Bart.


The Limits of God’s Grace

Written by Bart Campolo

A few years ago, after being politely asked to depart early from yet another speaking engagement for giving the wrong answer to a question about the limits of God’s mercy, I decided it wasn’t fair to keep sneaking up on unsuspecting Evangelicals.

Strange as it seems to me, I know all too well that to proclaim a God compassionate enough to seek the rescue of every one of his children—and powerful enough to pull it off—is a dangerous scandal to such folks. In a very real way, they don’t even hope for universal salvation. After all, without the fear of their unsaved loved ones’ eternal damnation, how would they motivate one another for outreach and missionary service?

And yet, almost everywhere I go, I meet people—especially young people—who are not motivated at all by such fear. On the contrary, these people are utterly horrified by the notion of a Heavenly Father who essentially says to his children, “I love you, but if for any reason you fail to accept that fact before your mortal body expires, I will kill and torture you for all eternity.” Especially if that same Heavenly Father holds in hand all the reasons the children do or don’t accept in the first place.

These are the people who ask me the questions that used to lead to my early departures, and who write me letters and emails like this one:

Dear Bart,

This might be kind of weird, but I have a question for you.

I lived and worked among the poor with Mission Year in the inner-city of Atlanta last year. When you came to visit my team, you told a story about how when you first started working in rough neighborhoods, you got to know a girl who was gang-raped as a nine-year-old and—after her Sunday School teacher told her God must have allowed it for a reason— rejected God forever. Because you believed God was indeed in control, and because you believed that girl’s lack of faith doomed her to eternal damnation, you decided that God must be a ‘cruel bastard.’ You sort of said the words inside my head out loud, words I had wanted to say for a long time.

Anyway, after putting this off for almost a year, I want to know how you reconciled that. How did you make it from, “God is a cruel bastard” back to “I can trust him”? I can’t seem to make that leap. Sometimes I begin to really trust him, but as soon as I think about my past abuse and those I know and love who are bound for Hell, it just doesn’t add up. I want to know the God you know—who apparently allows for horrible things in this world to happen, yet remains pure and holy and trustworthy and faithful and loving.

I don’t know if any of this makes sense to you, but as I was wrestling with it again today I was reminded of you and hoped you might be of some help.


Dear Sarah,

Thank you for writing to me. Over the past few years, I have become convinced that yours is actually the single most important question in the world. As Rabbi Harold Kushner observes, “Virtually every meaningful conversation I’ve had with people about God has either started with that question or gotten around to it before long.” While I am sure my answer will not be as eloquent as his, I will do my best.

First of all, while I certainly believe my most cherished ideas about God are supported by the Bible (what Christian says otherwise?), I must admit they did not originate there. On the contrary, most of these ideas were formed during that difficult time I described to you, when I was suddenly disillusioned by the suffering and injustice I discovered in the inner-city—I suddenly did not trust the Bible at all. At that point, for the first time, I realized that people’s lives don’t depend on whether or not they believe in God, but rather on what kind of God they believe in. I also realized, for better or worse, that the only evidence I could rely on was that which I saw for myself.

What I saw then, and still see now, is a world filled with dazzling goodness and horrific evil, love and hate, beauty and ugliness, life and death. In the face of such clear dualities, it seemed to me then, and still seems to me now, that there are but a handful of spiritual possibilities:

* There are no spiritual forces. The material universe is all. Our lives bear no larger meaning, and those who hope for more hope in vain. In this case, considering that nine year-old rape victim, I despair.

* There is only one spiritual force at work in the universe, encompassing both good and evil. This world is precisely as this force wills it to be, and everything—including the rapes of children— happens according to its plan. In this case, again, I despair.

* There are two diametrically opposing spiritual forces at work in the universe, one entirely good and loving and the other entirely evil. Satan (or whatever one chooses to call that evil force) is most powerful and therefore will utterly triumph in the end. The suffering of that poor little girl is but a foretaste of the complete suffering that is to come for us all. In this case, of course, I despair.

* There are two opposing spiritual forces at work in the universe, one entirely good and loving and the other entirely evil. God (or whatever one chooses to call that good and loving force) is most powerful and therefore will utterly triumph in the end. The suffering of that poor little girl—evil’s doing—will somehow be redeemed, and she herself will be healed as part of the complete redemption and absolute healing that is to come for all of us. In this case—and in this case alone—I rejoice and gladly pledge my allegiance to this good and loving God.

I cannot prove or disprove any of these possibilities, of course, based on the evidence of my experience. What I know with certainty, however, is the one that makes me want to go on living, the one I choose for my own sake, the one I deem worthy of my allegiance.

I may be wrong in this matter, but I am not in doubt. If indeed faith is being sure of what we hope for, then truly I am a man of faith, for I absolutely know what I hope to be true: that God is completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving, that God is doing everything possible to overcome evil (which is evidently a long and difficult task), and that God will utterly triumph in the end, despite any and all indications to the contrary.

This is my first article of faith. I required no Bible to determine it, and—honestly—I will either interpret away or ignore altogether any Bible verse that suggests otherwise.

This first article of faith was the starting point of my journey back to Jesus, and it remains the foundation of my faith. I came to trust the Bible again, of course, but only because it so clearly bears witness to the God of love I had already chosen to believe in. I especially follow the teachings of Jesus because those teachings—and his life, death, and resurrection—seem to me the best expression of the ultimate truth of God, which we Christians call grace. Indeed, these days I trust Jesus even when I don’t understand him, because I have become so convinced that he knows what he’s talking about, that he is who he says he is, and that he alone fully grasps that which I can only hope is true.

Unfortunately for me, God may be very different from what I hope, in which case I may be in big trouble come Judgment Day. Perhaps, as many believe, the truth is that God created and predestined some people for salvation and others for damnation, according to God’s will. Perhaps such caprice only seems unloving to us because we don’t understand. Perhaps, as many believe, all who die without confessing Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior go to Hell to suffer forever. Most important of all, perhaps God’s sovereignty is such that although God could indeed prevent little girls from being raped, God is no less just or merciful when they are raped, and those children and we who love them should uncritically give God our thanks and praise in any case.

My response is simple: I refuse to believe any of that. For me to do otherwise would be to despair.

Some might say I would be wise to swallow my misgivings about such stuff, remain orthodox, and thereby secure my place with God in eternity. But that is precisely my point: If those things are true, then God might as well send me to Hell. For better or worse, I simply am not interested in any God but a completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving One who is powerful enough to utterly triumph over evil. Such a God may not exist, but I will die seeking such a God, and I will pledge my allegiance to no other possibility because, quite frankly, anything less is not worthy of my worship.

Please, don’t get me wrong. I am well aware that I don’t get to decide who God is. What I do get to decide, however, is to whom I pledge my allegiance. I am a free agent, after all, and I have standards for my God, the first of which is this: I will not worship any God who is not at least as compassionate as I am. If Mahatma Gandhi and my young friend who got gang-raped are going to Hell because they failed to believe the right stuff, then I suppose I am too, for the same reason. John Calvin—or Jerry Falwell for that matter—may well be right after all, but if they are I would rather cling to my glorious hope than accept their bitter truth just to save my own skin.

You can figure out the rest. I don’t hate God because I don’t believe God is fully in control of this world yet. Heck, God is not fully in control of me yet, even when I want God to be—so how could I possibly believe that God is making all the bad stuff happen out there in the streets? I don’t hate God because I believe God is always doing the best God can within the limits of human freedom, which even God cannot escape.

On that last point, consider for a moment the essential relationship between human freedom and love, and then consider the essential identity between love and God. If God is love and made us for love in God’s image, then God had no choice but to make us free, to leave us free, and to win us over to his Kingdom as free agents (which, evidently, is a long and difficult task). So God did, I believe, and so God will.

I don’t hate God because, although I suppose God kmows everything that can be known at any given point in time, I don’t suppose God knows or controls everything that is going to happen. I also don’t hate God because in more than 20 years on the street, I have seen too much of evil (and too much of my own, moving-in-the-right-direction but-still-pretty-doggone-sinful nature). I don’t hate God because it seems to me that this world is a battleground between good and evil, not a puppet show with just one person pulling all the strings. I don’t hate God because the God I have chosen to believe in isn’t hateable, and because I refuse to believe in the kind of God that is.

Now here is the good news: I may be entirely wrong, but even in my darkest hours, my God of love hasn’t stopped speaking to me. On the contrary, I hear God’s voice in places I never did before, always saying the same things, one way or another: I am with you. I’m sorry about all the pain. It hurts me, too, especially when my little ones suffer. I have always loved you, and I always will. Do the best you can, but don’t worry. Everything will be all right in the end. Trust me.

And I do. And I hope you will, too, sooner than later.

Your friend,


Of course, to believe in God the way I do is to change all the rules of ministry—especially of youth ministry. I still do my best to convince young people to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, but not because I’m afraid God will damn them to Hell if they don’t. On the contrary, I want the kids I love to follow Jesus because I genuinely believe following Jesus is the best kind of life. Eternity aside, I want them to be transformed by the Gospel right here and right now, for their sakes and for the sakes of all the lost and broken people out there who need them to start living as Jesus’ disciples. After all, the sooner we all start following Jesus by feeding the poor and freeing the oppressed, the sooner God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in Heaven.

Most of all, however, I evangelize people because, having discovered that they are the beloved children of my beloved God, I don’t want them to suffer one minute longer than they have to without knowing that most wonderful fact of life.

And I stay in the inner city, in spite of all the suffering and injustice I see here every day, because I can. No longer do I blame God for what is beyond his control or hate God for so much pain his little ones endure. Even in the midst of such ugliness, I can stay here because I am full of faith. I may not be sure of what I know anymore, but I am absolutely certain of what I hope for, and most of the time I manage to live in that direction.

I stay here for one more reason, of course: In places like this, nobody asks you to leave early because you can’t find the limits of God’s grace.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Loving Anthony Fremont

You may not remember the name but, if you are over 50, you know Anthony Fremont. He was played by a young Billy Mummy in an episode of the Twilight Zone entitled "It's a Good Life". The story focuses on an omnipotent 6-year-old. The whole town lives in abject fear of Anthony, yet they are powerless to do anything about him. Though the townspeople find most of his actions abhorrent, they are forced to call his actions good... lest they earn his displeasure. Conversations went like this:

Mr. Fremont: It's snowing outside! Anthony, are you making it snow?

Anthony Fremont: Yes, I'm making it snow.

Mr. Fremont: Why, that'll ruin half the crops! You know that, don't you, half the crops! That's what that... But it's good you're making it snow. It's real good. And tomorrow's going to be a good day too.

Somewhere along my Christian walk, I started to notice that many of my fellow Christians sounded like the townspeople who surrounded Anthony. They would call some of the most abhorrent behaviors and events good because they felt these things were authored by God. This became particularly obvious when discussing Hell. I could not believe how inverted right and wrong began to sound. It was like a Twilight Zone episode with God as Anthony Fremont.

Townspeople: Where are those screams coming from?

god: Those are people, they are in Hell, they had bad thoughts about me.

Townspeople: (horror-stricken) What is happening to them?

god: They are being burned alive. Tortured. Flayed. They are bad people, they are very bad people, and they keep thinking bad thoughts about me.

Townspeople: (pale and shaken) When does it stop?

god: Never. You don't think it should stop, do you? I wouldn't like it if you thought that...

Townspeople: Oh no... it's real good that you're torturing them... it's.... real good...

Since the episode was less than 30 minutes, it never addressed the next logical step. Eventually, the sycophants would have begun to surround Anthony. A step beyond fear, these folks would have tried to use their relationship with Anthony to make others fear them. As Tacitus said, "They terrify lest they should fear".

I have met these folks too. They use God as a hammer on others; almost hopeful of the doom they believe awaits those who reject their message.

If you have been on my blog at all, you know that I have renounced this view entirely. After many years of playing theological twister trying to call evil good for the sake of orthodoxy, I let it go and began to see God with new eyes. I no longer walk on eggshells, wondering if God is going to "wish" me or a loved one "into the cornfield". Perfect love has cast out fear.

And that is good... really good.

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