Thursday, March 31, 2011

rob bell: love wins

I'm just barely getting in under the wire for this month's Quaker blog carnival! I'm glad QuakerQuaker decided to suggest people write on this book, because I'd been hearing about it and wanted to check it out for myself, and this gave me a good excuse. Plus, completely independently of me, Joel bought the e-book, so I took it as a sign!

Rob Bell wrote a really important book here, one I appreciate and found helpful. As he said himself, he didn't actually say anything new--he said stuff people have been saying for a long time--but he said it in his own voice, in this time, in this context, and I think that's really helpful. For those of you who haven't heard of him, he's fairly well-respected in the evangelical world for his NOOMA videos, which explain theological concepts of grace and love, sin, redemption, etc. in story. He's also written some other books. (I'll trust you to do your own Amazon search for those if you're interested.) He's pastor of a large church that connects mainly with young adults.

So, why is this book important?

The full title tells a little about what the book is about (as a title should!): Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. That's quite the list of topics to cover in this brief text! But he manages it, and does so well. The book's been getting a lot of attention--both positive and negative--because of various sides' opinions about its tendency toward universalism. Bell writes in an engaging way that is biblically based and pays attention to the needs in the world and in our particular culture, and presents an authentic Christianity that connects with people today and is anything but watered down. In fact, I think he shows that the "Christianity" that is often spouted by those who often get the most press is the one that's watered down, or too black and white with no nuance. Bell sees and names the nuance--which really shouldn't be nuance, because his point is that God created people, God loves people, and God doesn't get any pleasure out of throwing them into hell, but people do have a choice and can put themselves in hell if they want to, here and now, and drag others with them, and they can continue to be in that hell as long as they want, even after they die.

I'm not saying I think this book will become a Christian classic, but it's important largely because it speaks our language now. He writes like he talks, so this book is really accessible. (If you've ever seen any of his videos you can picture him while you're reading, with his black-framed glasses, each expression and gesture he would use...) Accessibility is really important, because although he tackles theological issues, he doesn't do so with the voice of a theologian, which, as much as it pains me to say it, just isn't often listened to by "normal" people. (Just us abnormal ones.)

I was really impressed how he goes through all the atonement theories (theological theories of what Jesus' death and resurrection mean) in a way that no one would realize that they were being taught any kind of theories. His point is something I've been saying as well (but he has a much larger audience, so, go Rob Bell!), that all these theories are well and good, but we need to make sure we're not stuck on just one or it can become an idol to us, or actually injurious to those who grow up with only one view of who God is and who we are in relation to God. The people who wrote what came to be the New Testament were providing metaphors from their culture to understand what this all meant, and we're allowed to do that too--that's how we connect with God now, how God draws us to God's self. This is a very Quaker way of understanding God, because our denomination is based on the idea that God continues to speak to us here and now, every day, in ways that we can understand. We don't just know about God from ancient texts, but we know God through the stories of our lives.

OK, so is he a universalist? Yes and no. He's definitely Christian (in my opinion), because he thinks the only way to God is through Jesus and the saving work that happened through him. He doesn't say definitively that everyone will be "saved" (i.e. be with God for eternity in some form of heaven), but he suggests that all people will always have the choice to come to God. This doesn't end with death--because why would God create all these people, who God loves completely and utterly, and send them to an eternity in hell because they never heard about God/Jesus or they heard in a way that was harmful or they had a bad upbringing or whatever?

And Bell doesn't just say this, he backs it up with scripture. I'm not going to give you all the references because you should just go and read his book. (It's not very long, only took me a few hours to read--more like having a long conversation.) He points out every single place in the Bible where the words for heaven and hell are mentioned, and where the concepts of heaven and hell are even inferred. He shows that these were not major emphases in scripture, either by Jesus or any of the epistle writers, or even John when he wrote Revelation (since he was mainly talking in metaphor about what was happening to people at the time he was writing, although it can and does still have implications for our present and future spiritual lives). Bell reminds us that in the Hebrew Scriptures there was not a concept of "hell" as we think of it (and I remind us that the story of Lucifer being cast out of heaven is not in the Christian Bible, but in the pseudepigraphal book 2 Enoch, written in the first century BCE). In Jesus' speech he mostly talked about "Gehenna," which was a real place--a garbage dump outside Jerusalem, where there were literal fires, as well as animals who fought and therefore "gnashed teeth."

Two important points Bell makes:

1. When Jesus talks about hell he's talking to people who are already "believers," people in the "in" crowd, the Chosen People--his fellow Jews. He doesn't use hell as an evangelistic tool. He's telling those who are already trying to follow God that they should really follow God instead of just doing it for show, which didn't do any good and only produced evil.

2. I hadn't realized this one before, but in Revelation where John talks about the new heaven, the new Jerusalem, there is a gate--but the gate is always left OPEN. One doesn't come to the pearly gates and get turned away. One can choose not to approach the gate, but it's always an option, according to John's metaphor here.

Bell mostly has a realized eschatology--meaning that mostly he thinks what's important is what life looks like here. It matters how we live and cause others to live here. We can't get ourselves off the hook by making someone say the Jesus prayer before we shoot them so that they'll be in heaven, or by destroying the Earth because it's only the afterlife that matters. But the Kingdom of Heaven is now--and it's then. Bell is more specific about the afterlife than I would be, saying that eventually we'll get physical bodies and there will be a physical new earth, which may be true I'm just not certain we know for sure. At any rate, he believes in an afterlife with God, but he says that there will be boundaries. Those who don't want to be with God can continue making destructive decisions that put them in their own hell, and God will keep pursuing them, just like the lost coin, lost sheep, lost son. God won't give up. Love wins.

He's not a universalist in that he doesn't think we all just get a free ticket to an eternal paradise, or that every way up the mountain is the same. But he does believe that God cares so much about all people that God won't give up on them, forever. They can forever choose not to accept God's love and grace, not to live into God's version of their story, as Bell puts it, based on the Prodigal Son parable. But they always have the option of accepting God's gift.

How does this relate to Quakers?

Well, I think this is a theology that is very compatible with Quakerism. We believe in the "Light Within," that spark of od in each of us that calls us to God, that communicates God's love and grace to us. As Friends have said all along, people can choose to stamp out that Light and not pay attention to it, but people can also choose to respond to God's Light and become more and more filled with the Light of Christ.

Quakers also haven't traditionally focused too much on the afterlife, but have lived out a realized eschatology: we believe that how we live now and how others live is important and has ramifications on eternity. Loving God IS about loving others and living in right relationship with them (and, many of us would say now, with all of creation). That is how we follow God, not just by saying a prayer once and then living according to a set of rules or stating certain beliefs (a creed). How we live is of exponentially more important than what we say, and I think this is Bell's understanding of Christianity.

All of this is important because of the kind of God we believe in. The God I believe in is just to the oppressed, but not just in the sense of "giving people what they deserve"--God for some crazy reason chooses to give us more grace than we deserve, and chance upon chance to live into the love lavished on us. We have choices, but ultimately, love wears us down, love wins.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

preparing a message, part 2

Last week I posted about some of my process regarding preparing to give a message at my meeting. It's still about a week and a half away.

Over the course of the last week I've read commentaries and an article, and read the passage a bunch. In this particular passage, reading it in Greek doesn't seem particularly helpful--there aren't any huge insights that have come to me from it. The message isn't in the words, but in the implications.

Still, I looked at a couple other books that have to do with the words themselves, just to make sure I wasn't missing anything. One is a synoptic parallel, called Synopsis of the Four Gospels (two volumes: one in English and one in Greek), which means that it looks at each passage in the gospels and compares them to other passages telling the same or a similar story. (It also includes anything similar in extra-biblical sources, like the Gospel of Thomas). I can then see what words are exactly the same, what each author has chosen to present slightly differently, and whether or not other authors included that story. (In this case, there are parallels in Mark 14:3-9 and Matthew 26:6-13, and a somewhat similar incident in Luke 7:36-50. It's rare that a story is in all four gospels, so I probably should pay attention to that.) I also used a Greek tool called The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament, also known as Rogers & Rogers (for the authors, father and son). It gives a little more information about words that are difficult to translate, ambiguous or obscure.

Mostly I've just mulled over the passage, both in times set aside for such pondering and at random times. I've paid attention to how it connects with other life events, especially worship services and other events at our meeting. I've also thought a lot about questions I have about the passage, and just let those reverberate around in my brain and spirit, seeing if any sort of clarity comes, and paying attention to other thoughts and questions that rise.

I think in some ways it's kind of hard to wait for a message on a pre-determined passage of scripture. I mean, if I absolutely didn't feel called to speak on this passage and changed to something that wasn't part of the sermon series that would be OK, but at the same time, I trust the discernment of those putting together the worship schedule, and I think it helps us settle in more deeply to be able to listen to Christ when we have a series of messages that relate to one another and draw us to focus on God from a specific perspective. So I trust that the message has/will come.

But usually when I give a prepared message like this (as opposed to standing in open/unprogrammed worship), I start with a topic I feel called to explore, or an idea I read in a book that sparked something in me that I felt called to share, or a passage of scripture that jumped out at me about which I felt compelled to share. But choosing a passage of scripture before a specific message has come to me is somewhat harder for me. I wonder how people do it when they preach from a lectionary every week???

Anyway, about the specific message I'm working on, I chose John 12:1-8, where Mary of Bethany (sister of Lazarus and Martha) anoints Jesus' feet with costly ointment. Although the details are slightly different in the parallel versions, the thing that remains constant in Matthew, Mark and John is the statement, "The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me." My main question is, What does this say to us today? Does it say that since we don't have Jesus we should now make sure that we lavish love on the poor as Mary did on Jesus in this story? What would that look like? Are there still times where we are to pour out our treasure on God and God alone in a way that seems wasteful and ridiculous?

I think I'm kind of like Judas here--hopefully not with the malicious intent, but perhaps it's just as bad to always want to be practical. I think a similar thought--why wouldn't someone sell such an expensive item and give the money to the poor? Or better yet, why would a Christ-follower own something so expensive in the first place? The ointment she poured on him was worth about a year's wages for a day-laborer, so if we imagine it's worth a year of minimum wage, that would be about $17,500 (in my state). That's quite the wad of cash!

So two major things I'm pondering at the moment are: a conversation I had with a few people at a Wednesday night class we had last week, and a question I read yesterday. We're studying the book of John on Wednesday nights, and last week we were talking about ways that we relate to or feel similar to the Pharisees in John. I said I feel like most American Christians right now are more like the Pharisees than the Christ-followers in John: we are more concerned about following the rules of how we're "supposed to" act (most of which are just cultural and aren't in the Bible at all) than we are about actually listening to and following Christ. I talked about our congregation and how it's great in many ways, and yet we're all pretty similar. Would people of a different socio-economic status feel comfortable and welcome if they visited? Would they become part of our congregation?

One of the other people in the group told us she's had several conversations with people in our congregation who speak against the middle class, but she herself grew up without enough, and she's just grateful to be part of the middle class. So she wonders what's so wrong with being middle class?

That really got me thinking. I guess I feel like it's not being middle class that's the problem, it's the attitude. This woman's attitude was like Mary's--one of gratitude, and willingness to do what it is she's called to despite the cost. Many of us who have been comfortably middle class our whole lives have a hard time having this attitude, however--we feel too much of a sense of entitlement. We're not grateful, this is just how life is. It's easy, then, to ignore both "the poor" and any calls we might otherwise tune into that might ask us to impractically expend our resources in an irresponsible way, just for God.

The second thing I've been thinking about is a question I read yesterday. We're also practicing devotional reading of John during the time leading up to Easter, called "Forty Days with the Gospel of John." So yesterday I read about the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, and the query for the day was, "If you knew the gift of God, what would you ask for?" It's talking about Jesus' offer to the woman of living water, but it made me think of the anointing passage as well.

My answer to the question was that I would ask for a release from all the details--all the cleaning and cooking and house repairs and paying bills and....

The woman at the well was asking for a similar thing--she's excited about Jesus giving her living water so she doesn't have to come back to the well all the time to draw more water. She could get rid of that chore!

I want to be like Mary in the story in Luke, where Martha is busily preparing a meal for Jesus and who-knows-how-many other guests, while Mary is sitting around listening to Jesus and not helping. But then what would they eat? Who's going to do all that stuff if I don't?

Mary chooses what is better, and I think in the anointing passage she does the same. She may not know why this anointing is important, but she knows it is. It's totally impractical. It makes a spectacle of herself, going in there where all the men are reclining at the table, letting down her hair to wipe off his feet, spending her family's savings, and yet, maybe she's received the gift Jesus is really offering--living water--and this is the only response she can think of with enough magnitude. She's living beyond the chores and duties, filling the world with the fragrance of pure love for God.

It's so hard to live in that tension, though--how do we know when we're supposed to live life with abandon like Mary, and when we should be practical and take care of the needs of others? How do we receive the gift of living water daily, and yet stay engaged in this world in which we find ourselves?

I guess that's the eternal human question, isn't it?

So I have all these thoughts and they're not coalesced into a sermon yet, but that's where I'm at right now. For part 3 I'll probably post the sermon after I give it--wouldn't want to give it away any more than I already have for those from my meeting who read my blog!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

reflections on single-family chicken farming

We got chickens this week, as I mentioned in my last post! We got two of them that are a year old from my brother- and sister-in-law, as well as a coop that Joel fixed up. Then another friend gave us two more. Today we got two baby chicks!

So far I like having chickens. I'm not sure it's more cost-effective than buying eggs, but...probably better for the Earth because the eggs don't have to be transported, and the chickens are probably happier when they're not in a huge warehouse-chicken-coop.

For those of you thinking of getting chickens, here are the things we had to buy and/or assemble:

--Fence & posts
--Chick food
--Chicken food
--Water holder
--Food holder
--Bale of straw
--Wood shavings (for chicks)
--Chicken scratch (so the egg shells are strong)

Most of these things should last for years, so although it's a bit of an up-front cost, it's not really all that bad. But of course you have to continue to buy food for them, as well as straw for their nests.

And they poop a lot. I cleaned out their coop from 4 chickens for only about 5-6 days worth (and part of the time there were only 2), and there was quite a bit already. It's not that bad if you keep on top of it, but I can see it being a really gross job if you wait too long.

The eggs are soooo good, though! The yolks are a deep orangish-yellow, and they're much more flavorful. It's fun to go out and collect eggs and eat them for breakfast!

We have had a little trouble with one chicken escaping, so we're going to have to clip her wings. That will be another adventure!

I'll keep you posted on whether we still like them after we've had them for a while.

For more pics of the baby chicks, see this post.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

preparing a message, part 1

I'm going to be bringing the message to worship in a few weeks. As a Quaker, in some ways it feels a little bit strange to be so certain that I'm going to be the one through whom God chooses to speak on that day, and yet, there's something cool about digging in deep to do the study, waiting, questioning, listening and writing that can allow God to speak through me and allow others to connect with God. I thought I'd write a little bit about my process of how I go about preparing to bring a message in a Quaker programmed worship context.

First, I chose a passage of scripture around which to speak. I don't always do this first--sometimes I have a thought or subject I want to talk about and find scripture that goes with it. But this time I'm speaking in a series that's leading up to Easter. The series is entitled "Wondrous Encounters," and on Sunday morning and Wednesday nights through Easter we're focusing on the Gospel of John, so I chose a passage from John. The passage I chose caught my attention because I don't get it. I have a lot of questions, and yet it's a story that seems to have a good deal of depth. I chose the story of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus' feet with costly ointment, and Judas says, "Shouldn't she have sold that and given the money to the poor?" Jesus says, "The poor you always have with you, but you will not always have me" (John 12:1-8).

I looked at the Greek text and did my own interpretation. When I do translations I look for any words or phrases that are difficult for scholars to interpret, and any words that are in a tense that means they would have stood out to those hearing/reading. Words like these I look up in Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament to get more context, and I do further study in commentaries.

Then I went to the library. This is where I got a little giddy...I was walking to the library with my 3-month-old in a front pack, and I was just bouncing with excitement that I got to go to my college library, go to the biblical commentary aisle and grab some books out to use. Total nerd moment! Anyway, I found an article on the setting of this story in John, and I also made copies from some commentaries on this passage. The ones I usually use are Interpretation (which is pretty pastoral--not too technical, just a general overview and some thoughts on how to preach the passage), Hermeneia (this one is my all-time favorite!), the New Interpreter's Bible (this one is also fairly brief and easy to understand) and the Word Biblical Commentary (this one is pretty technical and gives WAY more information than one needs for preaching, but it's interesting--to me--and sometimes gives insights that help answer questions about particular words or idioms about which I'm confused).

I've begun reading the article and commentaries, so that's where I am right now. I still have a lot of questions and I'm not exactly sure what I'm supposed to focus on about the story, so my next step (after finishing the commentaries) will be to sit down and write out my questions and thoughts. I also think about the passage on and off throughout the day, so sometimes stuff will come to me when I'm not actually working on the sermon.

As a Friend, I think this allows me to mull over something for a long time and allow the Spirit to speak to me about it. Maybe I'll get to the day I'm supposed to bring the message and something will happen to show us that I'm not supposed to bring that message on that day. But usually when I try to prepare faithfully, I feel the power of the Spirit in me as I deliver the message with which I've been laboring.

Monday, March 14, 2011

simple living: successes & fails

Living simply is one of our goals, because 1) it's cheaper, 2) it's better for the Earth, and, last but not least, 3) we feel like simplicity in life and in our stuff helps us focus more clearly and have time and space to respond when God calls us to do something. Sometimes we do better than others.... Here are some things I've been thinking about lately.

Success: We just got chickens! We inherited some that are already laying--that's our first egg.

Fail: After nearly 10 years of marriage and two kids, we're now a 2-car family. Our "new" car has more space but only gets about 17 mpg.

Success: We bought a house with my mom, so we're sharing space, mortgage payment and childcare!

Fail: We have a landline because it came with our cable/internet package (cable for my mom to watch football), and we each have a cell phone. We tried to go down to one cell phone and our iPod Touches for texts, but that only made life more complicated, although cheaper.

Success: We joined a CSA for this summer! Looking forward to fresh, local fruits and veggies this summer, grown by local f/Friends.

Fail: We suck at doing our own gardening.

Success: Cloth diapers. They're awesome, too! When E was a baby we used regular ol' Gerber cotton tri-folds and plastic pants. This time we sprang for the more expensive but infinitely better bumGeniuses. They are truly as easy as disposables, and last as long per use as a disposable. You can get them either with snaps or Velcro. (I chose snaps because I figured Velcro wouldn't last as long.) They are one-size so you can use them as long as your kid's in diapers. E can still wear them at age 4. I'll probably make a real post with pictures on the family blog at some point, and more details than most of you probably want about diapering...if you're interested you can check there, but I won't bore/gross out the rest of you with any more details...

Fail: Long, hot showers. I always tell myself when I get in the shower that this time I'm going to take a really quick shower, but...just one more minute, just a little bit hotter sounds so necessary in the moment.

Success: Free, used kids clothes and used baby accessories. Babies require TONS of accessories, and since we were moving back and forth across the country with our first, we got rid of basically everything as soon as he outgrew it. But thanks to an amazing community and thinking ahead last summer at garage sales, we haven't bought much baby stuff new, and only a couple outfits. Our 4-year-old has been the lucky recipient of basically all hand-me-down or garage sale clothes thus far, or FreeCycle.

Fail: Going out to eat/drink. We aren't as intentional as I wish we were about where our food and drinks come from when we eat out, and there aren't a lot of really good options nearby (unless we burn fossil fuels to get to them).

Success: Spent the day a couple Saturdays cleaning out the garage! It feels much better internally to have that stuff cleaned out of our physical space.

I suppose I could go on for a while, but those are the ones standing out to me at the moment. It's helpful to me to make a list like this because it reminds me that even though we don't live up to all of our ideals and can't perhaps live as simply as we'd like, we are doing some things that make our lives and our world simpler and more peaceable. I can get bogged down in the little things, but I can also be refreshed by them.