There is Room at the Table

There is Room at the Table

The night settles in as we drive across the Florida Georgia line. The blue horizon fades to black, pale stars blink awake, and rows of pines trees rise up to replace buildings on either side of the road. I watch out the window as the occasional illuminated billboard passes by, holding my husbands hand and shuffling through podcasts to sync up to the radio.

We land on the story of a Christian man, a pastor, who recently came out to his family and friends as gay. It a beautiful story which I will not do justice to as I attempt to recap it here. You can listen to it on the Liturgists podcast.

Basically, this man lived a life of celibacy for 40 years, because that is what he believed faithful obedience to the scriptures looked like for him. As a young person, he buried feelings of same-sex attraction beneath prayers to be made straight, self help books and focus on the family hotlines. As he grew, he lived a life of genuine faith and love for God and others. He served the body of Christ, studying the scriptures in seminary, earning his doctorate degree and teaching as an ordained pastor. Listening to him, you can tell how thoughtfully he considers everything he does, how wise he is, and how humbly he walks with his God.

Despite his commitment to living the way many evangelical Christians would advise gay men to live- celibate, seeking to change- he ends up hospitalized by stress and battling suicidal despair. He reaches a point where he has to be honest with himself and with others to save his life.

His subsequent journey to reconcile his gay identity with his faith is so moving. He proceeds with emotional and mental integrity, prayer, humility, and honesty about who he is. He describes the ongoing process of trusting and resting in these words: “God loves you. You have people who love you. You are going to be O.K.”

All the while, he maintains a high view of scripture, leaning on biblical truths and their authority in his life.

But wait, how is that possible, some Christians might ask? The scripture is clear about homosexuality. If you believe in the bible, you have to reject homosexuals/homosexuality. That’s the end of the conversation, right?

Maybe not.

The Bible has been “clear” before, after all,” Rachel Held Evans points out in her blog, “in support of a flat and stationary earth, in support of wiping out entire people groups, in support of  manifest destiny, in support of Indian removal, in support of Antisemitism, in support of slavery, in support of “separate but equal,” in support of constitutional amendments banning interracial marriage.”

Christians have gotten it wrong before- horribly wrong. They’ve rejected science or reason or even their own conscience because they thought the bible told them to. There’s always the chance, maybe even the likely chance, that we’re still getting a lot of our interpretations wrong today. This issue is not as “black and white” as a lot of people would like to think: There are good arguments from authors like Matthew Vines who say that the scripture does not say what so many people think it says about homosexual relationships. There are nuances and gray areas in scripture, and there is a uniqueness to every individual soul which should be honored and dignified when thinking these issues through.

In our limited understanding of complex issues, it is my prayer that the Evangelical Church would err on the side of graciousness rather than judgement; inclusion rather than exclusion, and empathy rather than condemnation.

My heart is broken over the casualties that lie in the wake of American Christianity’s political and social wars. Entire groups of people-who are made in the image of God, who are deeply beloved,  who are valuable and beautiful and worthy, have received the message loud and clear from the church: you are not welcome here. You are not loved as you are. There is not room for you at the table. Today, that is especially true of the LGBT community. As much as Christians claim to “hate the sin, love the sinner,” unadulterated hatred and exclusion has been the defining experience of gay people in relationship to the church.

Christians who don’t affirm same-sex relationships ought to weigh the relative cost of thinking they’re “right” with the cost of excluding people from the family of God. Your words and your actions have the power to do that. Even if they’re said from behind a keyboard. Even if you defend them with a bible verse.

I see that stuff you post on your Facebook wall. I hear you discussing the HB2 Law on the radio. I hear the easy, dismissive, confident assertions about LGBT people dripping with insinuation of pedophilia and perversion. I struggle with when to remain silent and when to open my mouth.

So many Christians mistake what their role should be in the lives of others. Instead of unconditional love and “judging not lest ye be judged,” they take it upon themselves to be the moral police for all society. They make spotting people’s “sins” a sport; they consider their public disapproval a virtue.  Instead of empathizing with, listening to, and honoring the struggles of others, they distance themselves from people’s suffering by making it into a metaphor; a debatable topic with which they can agree or disagree without consequence. 

They fail to realize, or perhaps just refuse to acknowledge, that behind every “issue,” every political debate, every hot button topic, there is a real man, woman, or child  who is experiencing the day to day realities that issue represents. Racial injustice. Debates over immigrants. LGBT rights. Gun violence. Even if you’re not directly effected by them, someone is. Someone is agonizing over it. It’s someones entire life.

I imagine the long line of human beings stretching back into our history who have been dehumanized and silenced in the name of a God who loves them. I’m haunted, because that tradition lives on today, and it is so damn antithetical to everything I know and everything I love about Jesus Christ.

Once, a group of religious leaders were prepared to stone a woman to death for her sexual sins, and Jesus stood in their way. He defended her, even though we can safely assume that this woman was guilty of the adultery she was accused of. Yet it was not her who Jesus reprimanded, but those who sought to condemn her for her sins. It was important to him that the religious elite knew it was not their job to judge others lest they be judged by the same standard themselves. And since none of them were perfect, none had the right to cast a stone.

Their only job was to love and serve this person: it was up to Jesus to deal with whatever sins she struggled with.

We are defined by how well we love the most vulnerable, not how loudly we disagree with them. Jesus said that the way you treat marginalized people in society is how you are treating him. Whether you dismiss or embrace a person is in fact your response to Christ himself.I hope that we can remember that; that we would learn to see Jesus in the faces of people who are stigmatized, judged, and mistreated by the Church.

The kingdom of God was meant for these people you accuse- these scandalous, these strange, these terrifying, these beautiful souls. There is room at the table. That is the good news Jesus came to proclaim. 

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Confronting Racism>Colorblindness

Confronting Racism>Colorblindness

For most of my life, I didn’t think very much about race.

In my neighborhoods and schools, I had friends who were black, white, Latino, Middle Eastern, and Asian. I thought of racism as something that used to exist in real life but now was confined to a chapter in our text books. With the purest of intentions, I was one of those people who’d say “I don’t see color, I just see people.” I wore the rose-tinted glasses you get to wear when you are young- when you are white.

As I got older, things started to change. I started to listen to the stories of my non-white friends and realized that they experienced day to day difficulties I never have.

I watched along with the rest of America as black men continued to be shot in the streets- some of them not men at all, but children, not much older than the ones I teach at school. Their pictures were broadcast on television, posted on social media, and held up in mourning as the nation awaited the results of each trial. There was protesting in the streets, mothers with tear stained faces, and hovering above it all, political debate about guns and laws and standing your ground.

The noise was almost enough to make you forget what we were really talking about: unarmed teenagers, whose lives mattered, were being killed over loud music, over toys guns, over “misunderstandings.” Over race.

Suddenly, colorblindness didn’t feel like the most noble response to racism, because rather than address it as a serious problem, it denied that a problem even existed. Our white silence at the dinner table did not serve to improve a situation where many people did not have the luxury of living in comfortable ignorance.

Desmond Tutu said  “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”  And what is “colorblindness” if not neutrality? However well intended it may be, ultimately, it is cowardly, and it’s less than we’re called to.

I came to understand that being white had afforded me the me the luxury of never having to think about race if I didn’t want to. Mine is the dominant culture, and because of that, I could to go through life without defining myself by my skin color. Being white means I can turn on TV or go to the movies and always see someone who looks like me. It means when I apply for a job, I don’t have to worry that my employer might be biased against “ethnic-sounding” names. It means I am less likely to be incarcerated or stopped by police, whether or not I am doing something illegal. It means my mom didn’t have the same fears about me riding my bike around the neighborhood as a black mother has about her child.

We call these luxuries privilege.

I have spoken to many white people who, when I mention “white privilege,” become defensive and even lash out. They reject outright the idea that there are any societal factors at play which might put them at an advantage, often citing anecdotes about their own personal hardships. These are usually the same people who claim that racism is not a significant issue in America anymore.

But maintaining the belief that we are living in a post-racial society requires a mixture of willful ignorance, historical amnesia, and arrogance. 

It’s so easy to look back on history and assume you’d be on the right side of it. With hindsight, you can claim that, of course, you would have sided with Dr King, and not with the White Alabaman Clergymen who urged him to stop his demonstrations. But at the time, those Clergymen believed that telling Dr King to keep quiet and quit protesting was the best way to achieve “peace.” Dr King famously responded, “Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice.” 

From prison, Dr King wrote letters in response to the clergymen’s position which included these words: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not . . . the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”

Polls show that in the mid century, the era of Jim Crow, most white Americans believed that African Americans were treated fairly in this country. Black people, of course, disagreed. Looking back, most white people today would admit that black people were right and white people were wrong back then.

Which begs the question- asked by Author Drew Hart- what changed? “Is it likely that the white dominant group and the black marginalized group instantaneously swapped roles regarding who perceived injustice more preciously? …To affirm that white people are suddenly getting it right and that black people have simultaneously lost their capacity to interpret their own experiences seems an unhelpful response not based on serious reflection of our past nor the testimonies.”

To my fellow white people who bristle against the #BlackLivesMatter movement, who hesitate to admit that our society is structured in such a way that they receive privilege, please consider this: When people of color, as a collective community, are sharing their experiences with racial injustice in America and speaking out against an unfair system, is it outrageously arrogant for us, as white people, to dismiss them by assuming we know better than they do how prejudice operates in America.

I think one of the major roadblocks to humility and reconciliation is that our colorblindness has made us ignorant of what racism actually is. We assume that just because we don’t use racial slurs or overtly downplay people’s value, we’re guilt-free. We fail to see that racism is subtle, nuanced, and evolving. Its deeply ingrained in our history and cannot be done away with by snapping our fingers. Perhaps most important, we fail to realize that racism isn’t just individualistic, its systemic. 

 Near the beginning of his book, Trouble I’ve Seen, Dr Drew Hart describes a conversation he had with a well meaning white pastor who wanted to “dialogue across the racial divide.” The pastor tried to extract a metaphor from the cup of sweet tea that sat between them. We’re both looking at the same thing, he figured, just from different perspectives- neither can see what the other is seeing on their side of the cup. 

Drew thanked the man for this gesture, but went on to explain why this metaphor simply didn’t hold up as accurate: “In fact, I did know what was on his side of the cup. This is because I have learned Eurocentric history written from a white perspective. I have read white literature and poetry. I have learned about white musicians and artists. I have had white teachers and professors through every stage of my educational process… the truth is I wouldn’t have been on track to a PhD without becoming intimately familiar with the various ways that white people think….in contrast to me, he most likely could go through his entire life without needing to know black literature, black intellectual thought, black wisdom, black art and music, or black history.”

This clarification was important for me to hear, and I assume it will be for many others how read the books as well: “Racism isn’t first and foremost about a horizontal divide; it is a vertical and structured hierarchy. Social hierarchy and power have defined, in varying degrees, human worth, beauty, and significance in society.” 

As a followers of Christ, we’re called to stand in solidarity with the marginalized, even if we can’t fully understand their experience. I want to honor and dignify the voices of those around me who experience oppression to which I have been blind to. Honestly, I’m not sure yet what exactly that is suppose to look like. I am still receiving feedback (and welcoming it from readers.) I’m continuing to read books on the subject by people of color, including The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.

I think a good place to start is with genuine humility, self-critical examination, and a willingness to learn.

We need to celebrate the voices of black artists and writers and thinkers.

We need to listen when people say they are experiencing injustice.

We have to break our silence, in our homes and from the pulpits.

We need to be unafraid to affirm the truth that Black Lives Matter in our conversations, friendships, and churches. (We need to say it without feeling the need to quality it with, “Well, ALL lives matter.” Of course they do. That’s the entire point. )

And we need to repent of the ways racism has effected us both systemically and individually.

This can be daunting for a lot of people. It’s not easy. But it’s worth it. And I have hope, because I believe in redemption and in the Resurrection and in a God who is making all things new, that there’s so much beauty and healing we’ve yet to discover here.

I want to end this post by recommending a book that I read recently by Dr Drew Hart called Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the way the Church Views Racism. It is a powerful, challenging, hope-filled read. It’s caused me to stop and reflect, to seek out further reading, and continue the process of prayerfully reconsidering what it should look like to follow Christ in a nation where racial injustice is still so prevalent. You can order it in the link provided.

 

 

Renewing our Minds by Wrestling with Doubt

Renewing our Minds by Wrestling with Doubt

I have a confession: I am a Christian who doubts. My faith holds hands with big, challenging, often unanswerable questions.

I am a Christian who isn’t sure that everything happens for a reason or why God allows suffering.

I am a Christian who doesn’t think she believes in hell anymore.

I am a Christian who grew up in the evangelical Church, a pastor’s kid, an alumni of more living room Bible Studies than she can count- a christian who knew all the right answers from an early age.

I am a Christian who doesn’t see scripture as black and white as she used to.

I am a Christian who doesn’t know how to reconcile the hypocrisy and politics of the American Church with the teachings of Jesus.

I am a Christian who can’t always smile in quiet agreement with everything the pastor says- who sometimes wishes she could raise her hand during Church service.

I am a Christian who is hungry to occasionally hear from someone other than a middle aged white man speaking from the pulpit.

I am a Christian who is finally listening to LGBT voices instead of assuming I already know what they are going to say and that they’re wrong.

I am a Christian who has been comforted to discover a vast diversity of perspectives within her Christian faith, but disheartened by how so many of them claim, without an ounce of humility, that theirs is the denomination which hold a monopoly on truth.

I am a Christian who woke up to the concept that God might care about things like feminism, global warming, and the lives of animals. That he might value this world, this life, this creation- not just the one after death.

I am a Christian whose God seems to be growing into something more mysterious and less containable than before.


 

On most days, I feel really positive about the changes happening in my heart and mind which are reshaping my faith. But I am not immune to an old, ingrained sense of guilt that always seems to accompany doubt. It’s an effect, I think, of growing up in an American evangelical world, where its not always particularly safe to ask questions.

I rolled over in bed the other night and asked my husband, “Do you think its a bad thing, to have all of these questions?” After all, I had been taught most of the “right” answers- the ones I was suppose to automatically trust.

He said, “Answers don’t mean very much if you’ve never really asked the question. Keep wrestling.”


 

In College, the Bible Study I attended was pretty heavily influenced by John Piper. The girls  watched his video sermons regularly and took a lot of cues from Desiring God

Around my Junior year, Rob Bell published a book called Love Wins. In it, he challenged the current mainstream view of hell, which is that of eternal conscious torture after death for all who don’t believe in the Christian God. 

Before Love Wins even hit bookstores, John Piper reacted to it by sending out a short tweet to his nearly 900,000 Twitter followers.

Farewell-Rob-Bell

“Farewell Rob Bell.” That was all it said.

That tweet was a clear message to all of us who followed Piper. Not only was Rob Bell wrong, he was asking dangerously wrong questions. The implication was clear: Do not doubt this doctrine. Do not believe the wrong thing. If you do, you’re out of the club. Period. Ironically, according to Piper, not believing in hell made you in danger of it.
We listened to Piper. We ditched the Nooma videos mocked Bell for trying to make the gospel more palatable, more fluffy, more mainstream. Not everyone could handle the bloody truth as well as we could, we figured.

Secretly, part of me wondered about the book. Part of me hoped, deep down, that he might be right- that there were room for mercy and uncertainty about this terrible fate everyone was so certain of. 

But I kept that part of me silent, because I thought that to doubt what I had been taught would be “unchristian.” 

Looking back, it seems obvious why my attempts at critical thinking, doubt, and questions were always met with discomfort by my fellow churchgoers. It makes sense why I was often handed a quick solution or explanation or apologetics book instead of being met with genuine consideration. Asking the wrong questions is dangerous because arriving at the wrong answer is heresy.


 

I’ve heard it said that there is no meaner person than a Christian who thinks you’ve got your theology wrong. Ain’t that the truth.

When the most important part of our faith becomes having the correct answers, war ensues over what those answers are. The comments section gets nasty. People call other people heretics. Hell-fire is threatened.

I have known a lot of people who, when someone disagrees with them, become agitated, nervous, and angry. Such reactions are usually just an imitation of confident strength, thinly veiling  fundamental insecurity. It’s as if the wrong line of questioning might send the flimsy infrastructure of their worldview crashing down.

What does that kind of defensiveness say about our view of God? Is he not big enough to be questioned? Is he threatened by our doubts? Is he as offended and angered by people’s multiple perspectives as many of his followers seem to be?


 

Every once in a while, you get really lucky, and you find a book that speaks directly to what you’re going through. It walks you through the things you were feeling but couldn’t quite articulate. It is a gentle, steady voice that says: you are not crazy to feel this way. You are not alone in this. That’s what David Dark’s The Sacredness of Questioning Everything recently did for me. (Plus, he quotes South Park, so I was obviously hooked.)

sacred

In it, he describes how his mental image of God evolved from a foreboding, pitiless, “Uncle Ben” character into a God who was big enough to welcome his questions.

“Over time, the Bible ceased to be a catalog of all the things one has to believe (or pretend to believe) in order not to go to hell. Instead, the Bible became a broad, multifaceted collection of people crying out to God- a collection of close encounters with the God who is present, somehow, in those very cries….and Christianity, far from being a tradition in which doubts and questions are suppressed in favor of uncritical, blind faith, began to assume the form of robust culture in which anything can be asked and everything can be said.”

I’m starting to realize that God never intended us accept doctrinal truths like a suppository. When reasonable doubt arises in us, God does not ask us to dull our critical thinking or bury our rationality. He doesn’t want forced allegiance, he doesn’t want us to fake it.

Instead, we are invited to wrestle with God. After all, that’s the meaning of Israel- the meaning of the name of God’s chosen people. He who struggles with God.

We’re invited to think critically, because critical thinking reinforces truth and clears away untruths (which you should want cleared away.) If you refuse to think critically, you end up believing nonsense. You might even end up with a Creation Museum in Kentucky.

We’re allowed to ask big questions. We’re even allowed to arrive at different conclusions.

Because maybe having the right answers is not the point. Maybe being right is not as important as being kind. Maybe treating others the way you’d like to be treated is more important than correcting their theology.


 

The way to combat all of this hostility between people, I think, is simple humility.

When human beings talk about God, we are grappling with mysteries bigger than any of us can really comprehend. The Milky Way Galaxy  alone is 100,000 light years wide. Your brain is only the space between your ears. It is a wise idea to have a little grace on one another as we navigate enormous concepts like meaning, truth, life, and God.

We all have something to say, we all have something to learn, and none of us has all the answers. Each of us is most certainly wrong about a great many things we think we know. It is a wise idea to remember that before we speak. Do not crush an opportunity to empathize with someone because you are unwilling to dignify their point of view.

David Dark says, “For the love of whatever peaceable kingdom you proclaim, come out of your isolated subculture and learn. Watch. Wait. At least every once in a while, practice your right to remain silent. Know when you don’t know. Have the wit and the human kindness to say so. Practice tact.” 

 

 

As Christians, we are all called to the renewing of our minds. This “renewal” is not a one time event. There is no bold red line we cross at conversion,  no moment where we once and for all change the way we think and act and live. Instead, we have to participate in a daily  lifelong process of turning our hearts and minds over to Christ, in order that we may become more humble, more merciful, more just, less judgmental, less violent, less prideful.

Be sure of this: You cannot be open to the renewing of your mind if you firmly believe that you’ve already got it all figured out.

You cannot be open to the renewing of your mind if you are unwilling to listen to and learn from people who are different than you- people of other creeds and colors and communities.

You cannot be open to the renewing of your mind without the self awareness to admit when you are wrong; without the humility realize that you most certainly are wrong about a great many things you think you know.

So doubt. Struggle.  Be honest, be open, and willing to learn. Be humble, no matter who you are or how much you think you know. Be patient with yourself and with others.

Wrestle with God. You are not called to anything less.

You can order The Sacredness of Questioning Everything here.

Speaking up on Trump

Speaking up on Trump

 

Like many of you, I am dismayed and shocked at the progress of this election, and I am especially appalled by the success of the leading GOP candidate, Donald Trump. 

While the political arena is not typically what I choose to write about, it has become obvious that this issue has bled beyond the realm of politics and become a basic question of right and wrong, of decency, of basic morality. I cannot, as an American and as a person of conscience, listen to any more racial slurs, misogynist insults, calls to violence, or divisive rhetoric without standing up and saying, “enough.”

 

Trump is a bully. As a teacher of small children, I know that there can be a tendency to side with the bully, because we think it might protect us from their wrath- that maybe by being on the stronger side, we will be made strong ourselves. Trump is obsessed with winning, he promises power to those who side from him. When you get swept up in the pull of a bully, it becomes easy to ignore the humanity of the bullied- of the weak who are trampled under toe.

Trump literally incites violence at his rallies, saying how much he’d like to punch those who oppose him in the face. He’s asked his supporters to “beat the crap out of” protesters, promising that he will pay their legal fees if they do. When protesters speak out, he’s shouted “Throw them out into the cold. Throw them out and don’t give them a coat.” From the podium, he’s reminisced about the “good old days” when such people would be carried out in stretchers. 

He plays on the paranoia and prejudice of Americans by assuring them that that “Islam hates us.” When asked to clarify if he meant all Muslims, he said, “I mean a lot of them.” He’s called  Mexican Immigrants “rapists,” “criminals” and “drug dealers.” He promises to build a wall on the Southern Border, which he will “force” Mexico to pay for, or else he will threaten them with war.

He compared Syrian Refugees to Poisonous Snakes, and has  described the brutal torture and mass execution of Muslim POWs in the Philippines like a giddy schoolboy, and suggested that the United States do the same.

He has demeaned and mocked a reporter with disabilities, has called women “pigs,” “dogs,” and “disgusting animals.” To one reporter he said, “Women. You have to treat them like shit.”

While his vulgar, divisive, violent speech is in and of itself abhorrent, it is the roaring cheers of the crowd that worry me most. Trumps popularity is horrifying. It is proof that xenophobia, hate, and racism are powerful and active forces in America today. His rise to power shines a light on the dark, ugly underbelly of our ideologies, and reveals how dangerous the collective ignorance of a nation can be.

To suggest that Trump’s hateful speech, nonchalant threats of military violence, and causal bigotry are somehow separate from his policies and competency as a potential president is absurd. What we are seeing now is an impulsive, hateful, self absorbed man obsessed with his own power, and those attributes are directly connected to a person’s ability to lead.

For all you evangelicals out there who are considering voting for this man, all you members of the “Christian Right” who will toe the party line because of the little elephant on Trump’s lapel, I ask you to pause and compare the brand to Trump to the ethos and the sayings of Christ.

 Jesus, who sided with the weak, the poor, and the oppressed. Jesus, who said of foreigners:

“I was a stranger and I knocked at your door, and you did not let me in, you turned me away….For whatever you did not do for the least of these you did not do for me.” 

And of violence:

“Do not resist and evil person. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek as well.”

And of Wealth:

“How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!…Dear children, it is very hardto enter the Kingdom of God.  In fact, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”

And of Generosity:

“If someone takes your shirt, give them your tunic as well…give to the one who asks from you, give and do not turn away from one who wants to borrow from you.”

I’ve heard it said that this election is a battle for the soul of America. I feel the weight of that. I hope that as we approach the coming weeks and months, we choose to be wise, peaceful, and tempered in our actions. I hope that we do not neglect to stand up for those who are being tossed around and belittled by this campaign and in the national dialogues we’re having.

 

Questioning Hell

Questioning Hell

Lately, I’ve been thinking about hell.

You know, everyone’s favorite topic: fire and brimstone and unending torment.

And I haven’t just been thinking about it occasionally or in passing. My brain has been gripped with questions surrounding it, obsessively, to the point where I toss and turn at night.

I pass a billboard on the highway that asks Where will you go when you die? Heaven or HELL? Sinister orange flames lick the bottom of the sign, which is fixed against a cornflower blue sky. Drivers who pass below are supposed to contemplate their eternal destiny, but mostly I imagine they just roll their eyes. Perhaps some people might experience a pang of fear that motivates them to attend church more often. Or at least not to stop texting on the turnpike. But I doubt the sign creates many converts.

My obsessive thoughts on hell are not based in a fear of going there. They used to be, when I was a little kid. I remember being absolutely terrified on the car ride home from a Christian youth event that featured a skit on hell. It had started out right along the lines of any school-funded PSA about the dangers of drugs and alcohol: a freshman girl gives into peer pressure by drinking beer at a party. She and her friends get into a fatal car accident on the way home. Immediately after the crash, we see her walk on onto a dark stage clouded by fog machines, cowering in an eerie red spotlight. She’s soon surrounded by demonic teenagers wearing black leotards and pulling her backstage through a portal of paper flames. Her cries of “Help, get me out of here!” and “I’m sorry!” fall on deaf ears: shes already dead, it’s too late.

What bothers me now is this gnawing question: Is this really what we believe?  

And if it is, what does it say about the character of God?

As it turns out, I’m not the only one dealing with these types of questions. Rachel Held Evans describes her experience wrestling with the concept of hell in her book, Faith Unraveled. As I read it, it was almost uncanny how her words echoed my own struggles.

“In Sunday school, they always make hell out to be a place for people like Hitler, not a place for his victims. But if my Sunday school teachers and college professors were right, then hell will be populated not only by people like Hitler and Stalin, Hussein and Milosevic but by the people that they persecuted. If only born-again Christians go to heaven, then the piles of suitcases and bags of human hair displayed at the Holocaust Museum represent thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children suffering eternal agony and the hands of angry God.”


So what do we believe about Anne Frank?

Is she currently enduring unending conscious torment in hell because she was not a born-again Christian?

Because she was born into a Jewish family instead of a Christian one, and believed the things she was brought up to believe?

Most Christians think that children are shown mercy. They talk about an “age of accountability”in which kids are given a free pass to heaven until they’re old enough to make a decision about their faith. This idea isn’t found in the bible, but it’s what we assume. Once a child reaches around age 12, we say, they can be held accountable for their decision to either accept or deny Jesus as their personal savior, thereby securing an eternal fate in one of two places.

At thirteen, is it too late?

A thirteen year old’s brain is still twelve years away from its full physical development in areas associated with decision making. Should we bump the age of accountability up a few years? Maybe to 25?

And in the grand scheme of things, when it comes to the great mysteries of life, aren’t we all something of adolescents, grasping at things we can never fully understand?

If we are honest, we know our religion and our worldview is largely influenced by, if not entirely dependent on, where we live, when we live, and what we are taught. Statistically, if I had been born

Are we all just victims of our circumstance?

And what about the unevangelized? What about the billions of people who lived and died with little to no exposure to the Christian faith? Are the majority of humans throughout history in hell because they weren’t Christians?

The more I investigate these questions, the more I read and inquire, the more I have come to suspect that we may have gotten this theology wrong. It has been enlightening to realize that within the Christian faith, there is great diversity of thought on this and many other topics.

Still, it isn’t always safe to question the doctrine of hell. A few years ago, Rob Bell wrote a book called Love Wins in which he questioned the traditional view of hell. In response, Mega Church pastor John Piper issued a dismissive “Farewell, Rob Bell” Tweet.

Farewell? As in, you ask the wrong questions, or you have the wrong theology, and you’re out?

When I bring these “hell” questions up with other Christians, I’ve received all the textbook answers. They’re responses I might have given myself years ago. Now, I’m reevaluating what they mean:



“Remember: we all deserve hell. None of us is worthy to be saved. Our sin makes us enemies with God, and our sin is offensive to him.”

I want to be careful when I talk about this. Because human sin is serious. It wreaks havoc in insurmountable ways. If God is good, he can’t just shrug off child molestation and genocide and murder and hatred. If God is just, then he must have an answer for human evil. There is no room for that stuff in the good and perfect kingdom he has promised to build.

We are accountable for our sins, even the little ones. We choose them.

But at the same time, sin is a part of human nature. We can’t control that. We choose to sin, yes, but on the other hand, we are bound to, just by being alive. Even though we choose to do what’s wrong, we also literally can’t help it: no one is perfect. Are we punished for being born with a sin nature?

God will The idea that people are fundamentally repulsive and abhorrent in God’s eyes because of their sins doesn’t seem compatible with a guy who spent his time hanging out with criminals, touching contagious lepers, and having dinner with prostitutes. Jesus talked about God who so loved the world, even in its broken state, that he sent his son, not to condemn it, but to save it. (John 3:16-17)


“God shows mercy to those he chooses to.  It’s not our place to question him.”

“Reformed” theology offers a doctrine that embraces the circumstantial nature of salvation: the Elect were chosen before birth for redemption, and others were destined for hell before they ever even took a breath or spoke a word. These “other” people are simply beyond hope.

But this doctrine troubles me deeply. A God who makes some people utterly disposable is a God who is foreign to me; a God I do not see when I look at Jesus.


“It’s not a good idea to let your emotions and desire affect the way you interpret scripture.”

Fair enough. But I think it is a good idea to allow what I know about the character of God as revealed in Jesus inform the way I read difficult passages of scripture.

And, as it turns out, many Christians thinkers do not agree that our Western picture of hell accurately reflects what the bible actually teaches. Which leads me to the really important question…


Does the bible really say what we think it says about hell?


I’m not a biblical scholar. But NT Wright is. In fact, he’s largely considered to be the leading New Testament scholar alive today.

In his book, Surprised by Hope, he writes briefly about Hell and suggests that we take a fresh look at it. Hell is not a major topic in the letters of the New Testament, and was never meant to be the point of our theology. The middle ages was responsible for much of the emphasis we place on eternal torment after death. In fact, much of the imagery  we typically associate with hell comes from medieval folklore rather than early Christianity.

Often, we have so distanced ourselves from the original meaning of the words used in the New Testament that we misinterpret the meaning of the passages. Hell, for example, is often translated from Gehenna, which an actual place: a trash heap outside of Jerusalem.

“When Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna, he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life they would burn in the next one. As with God’s Kingdom, so with it’s opposite: it is on earth that these things really matter, not somewhere else.”

While Wright agrees that there is some sort of final judgement, some sort of answer for injustice and evil, he also believes that “There is no concentration camp in the beautiful countryside, no torture chamber in the palace of earthly delight.”

Instead, Wright says he believes in something between the traditional view that of annihilation. He says that humans are free to reject their humanity, and in so doing, become something less than the image baring creatures they were intended to be. At a certain point, God says to some people “Thy will be done,” as they reject his goodness and ultimate reconciliation.

“And that is such a shocking and horrible thing that it is not surprising that the biblical writers have used very vivid and terrifying language about it. But many people have picked that up and said, ‘this is a literal description of reality, and somewhere down there, there is a lake of fire and it’s got worms in it and serpents and demons and they’re coming to get you.’ …actually, the reality is more sober and sad than that…which is this progressive shrinking of human life.”


I’m not writing this with any concrete answers in mind. I’m writing and because I want to process it, and I think it’s important for Christians to be able to talk about hell without it being taboo or heretical. 

Here’s where I’m at now: When it comes down to it, I know Jesus is more compassionate than I am. And not in a lofty, theoretical way. As in, when he was being murdered, he prayed for his murderers to be forgiven.

I believe his mercy is wider and more far reaching than we dare to assume. He came to right the wrongs we couldn’t. He came that ALL might be redeemed, he conquered death.

He says he will abundantly pardon, restore and redeem, and I think he is capable of doing so for more of his creation than we have boxed in as “saved.”

I’ll leave you with an invitation to join in the conversation, and a quote from CS Lewis in Mere Christianity:

“Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in him? But the truth is God has not told us what his arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.”

Prayer in Action

Prayer in Action

I’m eating breakfast and I’m reading a headline that says five people have been shot at a “Black Lives Matter” protest in Minneapolis.

A couple days later, My newsfeed is filled with the crazed face of a gunman who stormed a Planned Parenthood in Colorado, killing three people and injuring nine.

By Wednesday, news breaks that 17 people have been killed in a mass shooting in San Bernardino.

Each time, my stomach turns and sinks within me. I feel helpless and desperate. What is going on?

Recently he news has become increasingly hard for me to stomach. From the horrific attacks in Paris and Beirut, to the ongoing Syrian Civil War, to abject debates over refugees, to gun violence at rallies and clinics and schools, I feel overwhelmed, perplexed and  heartbroken.

In America, there have been more mass shootings in 2015 than there have been days in the year. People are at a loss for what to do, and they’re fed up with a lack of solutions. The Daily News delivered this shocking cover page two days ago:

God not fixing this

Now, before we Christians jump headlong into defense mode, let me establish that I’m fairly certain this statement isn’t meant to criticize prayer or God specifically. It’s not even about the existence of God, as some have suggested. It’s a call to action directed at people in power. It’s a criticism of politicians who say via Twitter that they are praying for the victims of gun violence- politicians who have the very real power to act on behalf of victims- and yet are not taking steps towards stricter gun laws. Daily News isn’t bashing Christianity, they’re asking that #thoughtsandprayers be accompanied by practical steps towards a solution to this very real crisis.

Because without the willingness to act, the promise to say a prayer just seems like an empty platitude.

Lets put aside political differences for a moment. Regardless of what we believe about gun control, I think this newspaper brings an important question to light for Christians. Namely, what is the Christian response to evil? How are we to react in the face of terror, suffering and violence? Are our prayers spurring us on towards better works and changed hearts? Or do we allow well-wishes replace our urgency to work for change?

James 2:15-17 says “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things they need for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

Jesus doesn’t want us relying on empty platitudes. Wishing someone well is not enough- we are called to action for the sake of others.

When it comes to injustice, Jesus tell us not to look the other way. Incredibly, we are called to love our enemies, mourn with those who are mourning, and turn the other cheek when we are stricken. We’re told to sacrifice our stuff, comfort, money, time and space for the sake of the needy, regardless of whether or not we think they deserve it. We are to speak up for the rights of the oppressed and do something about cruelty and violence.

Deny yourself for the sake of the poor and the suffering. Care for the orphan and the widow. Love mercy, act justly, and walk humbly. Do not meet evil with evil; overcome it with good.

 All the while, we pray.

Most of us are not politicians with immediate influence on this issues. Most of us are grappling with how to deal with the news of these tragedies from a strange distance. Sometimes, there literally isn’t anything we can do in the moment except cry out to God.

When I kneel in prayer, I’m not necessarily asking God to fix something or grant something. I’m quieting my heart, stopping everything else I’m doing, and inviting God into the moment with me- a moment that may very well be shrouded with confusion and sadness.

I kneel in prayer believing that there is efficacy in prayer. I trust that God is listening, that he is real, and that his spirit is moving and working in the world, even when I don’t understand it.

I kneel in prayer recognizing that I’m incapable of solving the world’s massive problems. Prayer is humbling: it reminds us that we are not all powerful, that our opinions are not always right, and that we are not infinite. A strange comfort overwhelms us as we whisper to a God who is. 

I kneel asking for those who are hurting to be comforted, and I remember his great love for them.

I kneel in prayer asking to God to ready my feet for action, asking I would not just be a hearer of his word but a doer also.

I kneel in prayer before God and I am filled with his love for people.

Prayer and action are never mutually elusive, they rely on one another.

I am reminded what CS Lewis said about prayer: that “it doesn’t change God, it changes me.”


 

As I sit at my kitchen table and type these words, my heart still aches. Sometimes violence seems unconquerable: all attempts to correct it feel like putting band aids on a gushing wound.

But in the Christian faith, I see a rare and undying hope break through the face of this darkness- a hope which is more substantial than anything I have found elsewhere.

Christians dare to believe that something lies beyond this chaos and disarray. The saints have long prayed for a day when this world, which is presently flooded with darkness, will be met with justice and mercy. All is not as it should be, but God is utterly committed to redeeming the earth and setting all things right. He calls each of us to participate in that restoration here and now; to be bringers of justice and mercy and love.

Pope Francis  said “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.”

Jesus said we should pray these words: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Amen.

May Love Triumph over Fear for Syrian Refugees

May Love Triumph over Fear for Syrian Refugees

 

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” John 4:18

 

This morning at the car loop, I helped kids out of passenger seats and wished them a happy morning. In class, sat beside them and painted pictures of Pokemon, Elsa, Star Wars, and Rainbow mountains. We had a brief dance party to the tune of “Come on Eileen” and belted the lyrics to Adele’s new song. Tiny hands held mine as we walked to the playground for recess. The ran around in the grass, laughing, squealing, and escaping the occasional bee. I heard their tiny voices calling out, “Look, Ms Stalvey!”

As I watched them, my heart ached. My mind was preoccupied with thoughts of children half a world away.

Currently, Syrian children are  drowning the Mediterranean Sea in a desperate attempt to reach safety on European soil. The infrastructure of their homeland has collapsed around them, forcing millions to drop out of school and flee their homes. Those who remain in their country are caught in the middle of a violent civil war which has claimed the lives of 240,000 people, including 12,000 children. Civilians are the victims of extremism: they are bombed, shot at, and attacked with chemical warfare on their own streets. Those who flee for their lives are left without basic human necessities like clean water, food, and shelter.

12 million people have fled their homes because of this conflict. Half of them are children. 

With numbers like that, the Crisis in Syria is being called “The Worst Humanitarian Crisis in the World Today.”

syria3

Recently, prominent political voices have spoken out against the Presidents plan to allow 10,000  Syrian Refugees to seek asylum in our county. Their primary motivation in denying refugees reassignment in the US is fear. Many fear that ISIS or other terrorists groups could sneak into the country by obtaining refugee status, as they threaten to.

This fear was heightened by the horrific attacks on Paris last week, which left 129 people dead. In the face of such senseless, visceral violence, it’s natural to be afraid. It’s wise to be cautious.

But it’s also tempting to descend into terror and let fear rule in our hearts. In the middle of panic, it’s easy to forget the very real people who have been most victimized by extremism.

I believe that during this difficult, sensitive time, it’s important that we keep the following things in mind:
1. Obtaining refugee status in the US is an incredibly long and difficult process. Applicants are vetted rigorously, undergoing an intensive screening process which takes 18 to 24 months. The extensive process includes live interviews, medical examinations, and backgrounds checks performed by the State Department, Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the National Counter-Terrorism Center, and the FBI, making it “The most stringent security process for anyone entering the US”  according to Deputy State Department Spokesperson Mark Toner.

It is more likely that terrorists would arrive on US soil via commercial airplanes than by refugee status.

Since 9/11, 750,000 refugees have been resettled in the U.S. and not one has been arrested on domestic terrorism charges.

2. Fear of terrorism, violence, and ISIS is something Syrian Refugees know all about. Their lives have literally been ruined by Islamic radicals. 

By succumbing to fear, we are help Terrorists to achieve what they set out to do. By rejecting refugees, we aren’t sending away terrorists, we’re sending away their victims. We’re sending away widows and children.

3. As Christians, we are called to care for the abused and the victimized, to plead the case of the orphan and the widow, and to embrace foreigners as if they were our own. This remains our commandment even when it is inconvenient,  uncomfortable, or risky.

Our scripture is full to the brim with a mandate for social justice, radical hospitality, and self sacrifice.

Leviticus 19:33-34 says to treat the foreigners as if he were native born and love them as yourself. Deuteronomy 10:18-19 Says that God loves the foreigner residing among us and commands that we love them as well.

Perhaps the most convicting passage for me is found in Matthew 25, when Jesus says that the way we treat the suffering is the way we treat Christ himself. Jesus’ words are poignant and haunting:

“Depart from me, you who are cursed…For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me...Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

To turn our back on the refugee, the poor, the displaced and the oppressed is to literally turn our backs on Christ. He places himself among them as one of them. When we embrace someone in in need, we embrace him. When we slam the door, we slam it in Jesus’ face.

As Stephen Mattson puts it, “Although there might be many political, financial, and logistical reasons for citizens to reject the influx of global refugees, there are no theological ones. It may be inconvenient, uncomfortable, and extremely hard, but Jesus wants us to care for these people — the poor, homeless, sick, persecuted, downtrodden, and oppressed.”

These commands-to love our enemies unconditionally and to welcome strangers-they are not easy for anyone. I have been especially convicted  as I reflect on these words and pray over the crisis. I want a heart that resembles the compassionate heart of God, but I don’t always want the pain, discomfort, and inconvenience that accompanies its transformation.

But I trust him. I know he loves these people so deeply, people who are suffering injustices worse than I can imagine. I listen deeply for the voice of God as it repeats, Do not be afraid. I remember that Jesus did not only call us to embrace the refugee, he was a refugee himself. 


 

As my husband and I drove through the rain last night, we talked about the things we’d read, seen, and heard on the radio.

He sighed. “If they’re going to send them away, they’ll need to change the poem on the Statue.” he said.

You know the one. Its engraved at the foot of our Lady Liberty, who ever extends a hopeful light towards the bay, beckoning for those who seek freedom to find rest on her shore:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. 
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”


 

I know that this issue is polarizing. But silence is not an option, because these people matter to My God and so they matter to me. I’ve  included links to various sources that I have found helpful while reading about this issue.