Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Ten Year-old's memories of Good Friday

I took my three oldest children to a Good Friday service at a church close to our home.  We are members of a church about fifteen minutes away, so it was nice to go to a nearby church.  The service was a mixture of music, movie clips, prayer and communion, with the pastor adding a few comments throughout.  Overall it was a very relaxed and reflective experience.  It made me think about Good Friday services I've attended throughout my life, and one in particular that I will never forget.

Growing up my family attended a small, traditional United Methodist church.  When I was about ten years old, I was the acolyte for the Easter weekend services, including Good Friday.  I loved being the acolyte for this particular service because I got to light and extinguish thirteen candles instead of the usual two.

The traditional Methodist Good Friday service uses thirteen candles to represent the twelve disciples and Jesus.  Traditional hymns about the crucifixion are used for this service: What Wondrous Love is This?, Nothing But the Blood, O Sacred Head Now Wounded and Were You There?.  Passages from the Gospels and from OT prophecy are used to weave together the story of Christ's final hours.  As each passage is concluded a candle is extinguished, symbolizing the disciples abandonment of Jesus.  As the service progresses all the candles are eventually extinguished except the Christ candle, which is left alone burning on the altar.  It's a compelling and effective way to remember and retell the story.

The last passage read during the service is  from John 19: "When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit."  Then someone standing in the alcove of the church gently sings a capella: "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?".  When the song is over it is utter silence in the sanctuary.  Then the acolyte stands up and walks up to the altar.  Picking up the Christ candle the acolyte slowly walks across the platform, down the steps and down the aisle towards the back where an usher holds open the back door of the sanctuary.  The acolyte slowly takes the candle out, leaving the sanctuary completely dark and silent.  This symbolizes the Light being taken out of the world when Jesus died on Golgotha.

After a few minutes of silent and dark reflection, the acolyte brings the lit candle back into the sanctuary and places it back onto the altar to remind everyone of the hope that is coming on Sunday.  The congregation then leaves the service in silence and reverence.  This is a powerful way to remember Christ's death on the cross.

Except the Good Friday when I was ten years-old.  At the appropriate time I carried the candle out of the service and through the back door like I was supposed to.  I stood outside the sanctuary holding the candle in the entryway of the church.  As I anxiously waited for my cue to go back inside, a stiff draft from under the outside door blew the Christ candle out!  "Oh sh*t," I whispered.  I quickly looked around in a panic.  There were no matches to be found in the entryway!  There were no lighters!  Did someone hear me say "sh*t" in church?  What was I supposed to do?  The Light is not going to come back into the world, and it will be my fault!  Just then the usher opened the door and whispered, "Is everything okay?  It sounded like you said, 'sh*t'".  He took one look at the anxiety in my face and the dead candle and started laughing.  He laughed as he took out a book of matches and re-lit the candle, and he was still laughing when I re-entered the service and placed the candle up on the altar. 

Fortunately, the crisis was averted and no one's faith was shaken by my failure to bring the Light of Jesus back into the world.  After that I always made sure that I carried matches in my pocket when I was acolyte.

I guess it is kind of funny now.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Love Wins - My thoughts on Rob Bell's new book

After seeing the interviews given by Rob Bell in the national media last week for his latest book, Love Wins, I bought it and read it. There hasn't been this much controversy in Christian circles about a book since The Shack or The Da Vinci Code.  I was at a conference this past weekend with other Navigator staff and I heard someone call it a "cursed book".  I couldn't wait to read it.  Click here to view Rob Bell's promo video for his book.

If you want to read a brief, well-written response (instead of what I've come up with), go here (Amazon review).

There are a couple things you should know about Rob Bell:  He is an excellent and creative communicator.  Whether its his preaching, his writing, or his production of video media, his style and teaching are funny, effective and explosively divisive.  He's been called many things: a rock star preacher, the next Billy Graham, a Universalist, and a heretic who teaches a false gospel.  My sense is that he loves Jesus deeply and he has great compassion for those he feels are on the outside looking in (the poor, the lost, those who don't "fit" into evangelical circles. etc.).  He writes like he preaches and it is often compelling.  He has an intentionally provocative style which certainly comes through in this book, and there are far more questions than answers or conclusions.  From the start he acknowledges that nothing he is saying is new.  (He borrows quite a bit from C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller, N.T. Wright and others).  So I definitely recommend reading this book, if only to participate in the conversation.  But do so with a praying and discerning heart.  (See Acts 17).

"Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number 'make it to a better place' and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever?" (pg.2).  This is the fundamental question at the center of the book.  Another one: "Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?".  The book is drenched with Bell's incredulous and intelligent responses to these basic questions.  He spends considerable time addressing the question of how you become one of those who "go to a better place".  "Whenever people claim that one group is in, saved, accepted by God, forgiven, enlightened, redeemed - and everybody else isn't - why is it that those who make this claim are almost always part of the group that's 'in'?".  These questions stack up, and so does his criticism of evangelicals.  As a conservative evangelical myself, I can say that we often (sometimes intentionally and sometimes not) have judged and alienated those who don't follow Jesus.  We have observed their choices and lifestyles and categorized them, instead of having compassion on them like Jesus did.  We have focused on their foolishness while somehow ignoring our own.  Nonetheless, Bell's vehement critique of the "E-club" gets old after awhile.  Like listening to a one-string banjo.

I want to briefly discuss two of his main points, one I agree with and one I do not.  

His discussion of heaven is very good.  He is critical of the assumption that heaven and eternal life are something that exist somewhere else and later.  "Eternal life doesn't start when we die; it starts now.  It's not about a life that begins at death; it's about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death." (pg. 59).  This life comes through Jesus Christ when we choose to follow Him - eternal life now.  "Jesus talked about a reality he called the kingdom of God.  He described an all-pervasive dimension of being, a bit like oxygen for us or water for fish, that he insisted was here, at hand, now, among us, and upon us. . . Jesus invites us, in this life, in this broken beautiful world, to experience the life of heaven now.  He insisted over and over that God's peace, joy, and love are currently available to us." (pg. 61-62).

He also encourages the reader to think about about the gospel primarily in terms of joyous participation rather than just as a ticket reserving your spot in heaven.  "Life has never been about just 'getting in'.  It's about thriving in God's good world.  It's stillness, peace, and that feeling of your soul being at rest, while at the same time it's about asking things, learning things, creating things, and sharing it all with others who are finding the same kind of joy in the same good world." (pg. 179).  This sounds like what Jesus describes as "life to the full" in John 10:10.  I like that - we have an opportunity to experience the sanctified, joyous life that awaits us in the redeemed, re-Creation NOW, HERE, through the Gospel.  This is good.

His discussion of hell and judgment is interesting.  He has grabbed hold of the idea that we can experience hell here on earth through our choices.  By rejecting God and choosing to exclude Him, we experience hell now, and increasingly so over time.  This is Great Divorce imagery and quite true to an extent.  He spends a great deal of time flushing out this point.  He also rejects the idea of God's final judgment to an eternal torment, and instead seems to embrace the idea that, "given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God's presence.  The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most 'depraved sinners' will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God." (p.106-7)  He also writes, "untold masses of people suffering forever doesn't bring God glory.  Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn't.  Reconciliation brings God glory; endless anguish doesn't.  Renewal and return cause God's greatness to shine through the universe; never-ending punishment doesn't." (p.108)  (I find myself wondering where God's holiness fits in here?)  He references "a long tradition" of serious Christians who also held this view (Clement of Alexandria, Origin, Gregory of Nyssa, Eusebius, Jerome, Basil).  This certainly leans heavily towards a universalist view.  Lastly, he references Revelation 21:25 as a biblical example of people having limitless opportunity to be reconciled to God, even after the appearance of the New Jerusalem and into eternity.  "We read in Revelation that the gates of that city in that new world will 'never shut' . . . gates are for keeping people in and keeping people out.  If the gates are never shut, then people are free to come and go." (p. 115)  Bell consistently encourages us to not make theologies based upon one verse, but does it himself in this instance.  And he seems to dismiss the numerous passages and images in the Scriptures that indicate there is a final judgment (Matthew 25, Revelation 20:1-15, Daniel 12:1-3, 2 Thess. 1:8-9, and 2 Peter 3:1-10 among others).     

In my opinion Bell has become so uncomfortable with the idea of lasting judgment that he's now completely rejected it.  

Sidenote: A serious mistake we can make is presuming to know WHY he's gotten to that place.  "Oh, he's just a liberal!  He's just one of those emerging church guys!  He's just preaching what people want to hear so he can keep the seats filled!  He just this or he's just that!" - Big mistake.  Only God knows the true journey of his heart.  To presume we know shows that we are ignorant and narrow-minded. 

Interestingly though, with all the questions he asks, he never actually claims specifically that there is no eternal punishment.  Nowhere in this book.  He simply gives example after example, posing question after question (How could God still claim to be loving if He sends billions of people to eternal torment?  If God wants all people to be reconciled to Him, doesn't God get what God wants?  Do we actually have to trust Jesus to rescue us from God?).  Is he chickening out? Perhaps Bell's main purpose is to get us to think.  Maybe it's to stir up the E-club to think and act with greater compassion and grace.  Maybe even he doesn't know what his purpose is.  One initial visceral response I had to his promos and interviews on TV and online, was that he was only reinforcing this stereotype that Christians are judgmental numbskulls.  I think it's likely people would see this book and his media blitz as more evidence that the orthodox Christian worldview (more simply - the Gospel of Jesus) is irrelevant and impotent.  That's probably happened to some extent.  I'm relieved that God is bigger than NBC and YouTube.

This book has some very positive, intelligent things to say.  The best chapter (the last) is actually the shortest.  It lacks the biting, provocative style of the rest of the book, and probably represents what his true voice actually is.  But his biblical thinking also has some serious holes.  I've already heard a couple people praise this book because it affirms what they'd hoped all their lives (that God loves us too much to bring eternal condemnation upon us for our simple sins).  But the idea that we would try to make God or His Word into something that we're more comfortable with is troubling.  Doing that has caused more problems over the centuries than probably anything else.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sprint does not want me to unplug.

The Palm Pixi
Yesterday I put part one of my social experiment into action by successfully canceled texting from my cell phone line.  Today was the first day in a long time that I haven't received any texts.  Several times this morning I caught myself checking to see if I had any missed texts alerts.  Of course I had none.  By 11am I stopped checking.

I also visited my local Sprint store today to check on a new phone.  It's been almost 3 years since I replaced my previous phone with my current Palm Treo, and my upgrade discount is maxed out.

Two issues were quite frustrating right off the bat.  In order to replace my current Smart Phone with the free one they offer when you renew your contract, you're required to have a data plan.  When I got my current smart phone, I got it specifically so I could use the Palm software to manage my calendar, and didn't need or want the $35/mo. data plan.  Now it's required . . . and it's a racket.  So it looks like a new Smart Phone (which are really cool by the way) won't pan out.  It doesn't really matter though, because I'm back to the archaic method of pencil and paper.

Then I checked the conventional cell phones, and most of them could only hold 300 entries in the contact list.  I have 513 entries.  Bummer.  I was able to find one phone (an LG) that held 600 entries in the contact list.  So out of 40 phones in the store, I was able to find one that worked for me.

In the end I walked out with my faithful Palm Treo still in hand, and now I'm deliberating what to do next.  Should I go ahead and cash in my discount now to get the new LG "dumb" phone.  Or wait?  The discount will not increase, so it will be the same 6-12 months from now.  I'm also considering making a huge jump and leaving Sprint after 11 years.  Verizon is calling.  Somewhere we don't need a 2-yr. contract is calling.

What do you think?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Social Experiment

I recently decided to give up texting as the first half of a two-part social experiment.  I started using texts frequently about two years ago, eventually paying for a plan giving me 300 texts per month.  To some people, 300/mo. sounds like a ridiculously small amount seeing as my 17-yr. old nephew sends twice that many in one day.  My text usage has continued to increase, causing me many frustrating overages.

In June I completed a five month sabbatical.  It was absolutely grand.  One of the crucial realizations I had during my sabbatical was the slow and quiet disappearance of margin in my life.  When every spare moment of my life is scheduled, or I can be beeped (text/email/calendar) at any hour of the day through my cell phone, there’s hardly any room for the necessary breathing in and out of the Holy Spirit in my mind and heart.  So now I'll no longer be tempted to send texts while driving or to glance at my beeping phone while talking with my wife or children.  I'll be free from the bonds of text etiquette.

We need space . . . ruthless and consistent space in our life so that we have a chance to hear the voice of God speaking to us.  We need space so we can think.  We need space so we can authentically relate with our friends and those in our family who are too young to send me text messages.  If we embrace margin, unexpected and difficult circumstances will less likely cause stress and panic.  We’ll be better equipped to simply and calmly trust God.  We'll be able to discover an unhurried and thoughtful life.  

So I'm unplugging from the text Matrix for 6-12 months.  If you send me a text you will receive a short, polite text message from Sprint informing you that my number no longer receives texts.  I'm assuming that if you really need to reach me, you'll call me.  Vice versa.

The second part of this social experiment is that after 2 years of using a Palm Treo for my calendar, I'm going back to paper and pencil: DayMinder 2010.   The digital calendar was both helpful and convenient.  I was able to sync it to my computer, and everything was right there at my fingertips.  Slick.  But my Palm was merciless about reminding me of my next appointment, or that I was running late for a man to man.  How many texts did I send while driving?  "Hey man.  I'm going to be a little late." or "Hey man.  Be right there."  Etc.

So I'm giving up both for awhile.  Afterwards some big questions should be answered: Can I really survive without texts?  Will I forget or get lost on my way to my appointments without my Palm?  We'll see.  Besides, wouldn't you rather hear my sweet voice than go through a long, boring exchange of text messages?     lol

Friday, April 16, 2010

Car Alarms


"What's that noise, Daddy?"  my daughter Rose asked.  "That's a car alarm, sweetheart.  Somebody's set it off by accident."  It's 9am and we're sitting at the breakfast table playing her new favorite card game: War.


I'm reminded why we don't have a car alarm - I hate them.  For as long as I can remember I've detested unnecessary, repetitive noises.   Vibrating change in the ashtray, dripping faucets, barking dogs and especially car alarms.


"That's loud. " Rose says.  I give her a smile.  "Well, maybe one of our neighbors is testing it to see if we can hear it all the way in here." 


Alright already!  Someone get that thing turned off!  I crane my neck to look out into the yard.  A thin layer of ice and snow left by last night's brief return of winter covers the grass.  In the driveway my unhonking car is also covered with ice, but the sun is out and everything is already starting to melt quickly.  I'm thankful for the sun this morning.


"It's your turn, Daddy."  Rose says gently.  Apparently I've allowed the noise to distract me from what's really important.  I need to stop obsessing about the car alarm and focus my attention on the game.  I push the noise out of my mind.

I turn my next card over.  It's a seven of clubs.  "We both have sevens!  War!"  Rose exclaims.  We both count out three cards and lay them face down.  "This next card is it," I say.  "Whoever has the higher card  keeps all of them.  Ready?"  Both of us lay our cards down.


"That's it!  I'm finding out who this idiot is!" I say not exactly under my breath.  I slam my cards down on the table and go for the front door.  "You're not allowed to say that word, Daddy."  I barely even hear Rose's rebuke as I open the door and stand on the front porch.  "Which of my dumb neighbors is it this time?"  I'm literally fuming.


"Who is it?"  I look frantically up and down the driveways.


"C'mon!!"  I yell to my empty yard.


My eyes are suddenly drawn to the corner of my house, and I see the downspout has broken away from the gutter and is hanging in midair.  Water is gushing out of the spoutless gutter.

What the . . . ?

All the melting ice and snow from my roof is running down the side of my house and into my basement!


Several thought's blast through my brain simultaneously as I sprint for the garage to get my ladder:

How on earth did that break?
How long has the water been running like that?
Is my basement going to be flooded?
I don't need this right now!
This is just great.


I open the garage door and wrestle my aluminum ladder from the wall.  I've got to get that downspout reconnected right away or I'll have some serious problems in my basement.


As I'm running down the driveway with my ladder something quietly occurs to me:

"If that car alarm hadn't been going off this morning, I probably wouldn't have stepped outside and noticed the broken downspout."


"That water could've gushed for a couple hours before I noticed it was broken.  (I mean really, who does a daily check to see that their downspouts are connected and working properly?)"


"God must have set that car alarm off so I'd go outside and see the broken downspout!"

HONK!  HON . . . .

The car alarm stopped at the exact moment the last thought entered my mind.


 I guess I don't really mind car alarms after all.