Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Month: January 2018

Why the hell?

Why the hell?

I told someone in a coffee shop today that I don’t believe in hell and she thought I might go to hell for that. She wasn’t sure about much theology or even what she believed about God, but she was pretty sure that I was supposed to believe in hell if I was a pastor.

Why the hell? Why did we get shackled to this extra-biblical idea of eternal souls and punishment? It was Jesus who said, “Whoever believeth in me shall not perish but receive everlasting life” right? If everyone already has an everlasting soul, then what kind of promise is Jesus making to Nicodemus in John 3:16? Is everlasting life something we receive or is it something we have already by nature of our humanity? Is “the afterlife” a given for everyone and it’s up to us whether we spend eternity in the bad place or the good place? I don’t think so, but it’s remarkable how much staying power this idea has.

Rob Bell’s book was aight

I just read Rob Bell’s supposedly scandalous book from 2010, Love Wins, which precipitated his departure from his megachurch and his exit form the evangelical mainstream. In the eyes of his critics, the worst thing he did was question this old script of eternal punishment. But I agree with his argument. Without the presupposition of the eternal soul, all of the scripture references to “hell” (Sheol, the grave, Hades, the pit, the lake of fire) can be interpreted very differently. Circle of Hope pastors have considered this here, here, and here. Bell’s book was not a revelation to me. It was, however, an artful, empathetic, and pastoral invitation to an alternate view. I think many people need to hear this Good News, still.

I might join Bell’s critics when he suggests that salvation can come to people through Jesus even if Jesus is not named as their Savior explicitly. He is pegged as a Universalist now. He hints at the possibility that by other faiths and traditions individuals may arrive at a way of being that Jesus desires for everyone. Maybe that is what he is trying to say but I am not sure Rob fits perfectly in that Universalist shoe. It seems to me that Jesus is still very much his personal Savior. But his nuanced language is not definitive enough for most people. Theologians, and Christians in general, seem to want more certitude. There is comfort in certitude. They fear that “mystery” might be the means by which Jesus is depersonalized into the “Force’, or the “Source’, or the “Universe,” or something else that robs him of his proper place. People do abuse “mystery” this way, but not all do, and I don’t think Rob does.

We want some people to go to hell, tho.

Some people find a lot of comfort in the fact that the bad people are going to hell. They need justice to be done, and the only thing bad enough is eternal punishment. Other people find a perverse sort of comfort in the probability that they themselves are going to hell. At least the universe makes sense if bad people (even if that’s me) get what they deserve eventually. I think the idea of hell is comfortable, like a toxic relationship that we don’t have the energy to change or escape. But we don’t get what we deserve–not now and not after we die. Jesus offers us everlasting life as a gift, not a reward for good behavior.

Isn’t this Good News? I don’t have to earn anything. I’m getting off the scale. Measuring up is no longer my goal. My performance is now for art sake, and not for the reviews. I am free. This demand for merit is what made me not free. That cosmic calculus is what made me a slave. This Truth is taking root in me and it has changed and will continue to change my life.

Let’s get some real Good News!

Let’s keep undoing that story about hell and eternal punishment. Jesus came not to condemn the world but to save it. You can receive that salvation and inherit eternal life, or not. If you don’t want a life with God, okay–you don’t have to have it. Why the hell would God die for you so that he could reserve the right to torture you forever? That just doesn’t make sense. And demanding that it make sense undoes all the other Good News that comes with Jesus’ death and resurrection. Judgment day is coming but the verdict has already been given and the sentence has already been served. Punishment itself died with Christ. Now that is Good News! You can have it.

 

Why I Ditched the Grown Ups for the Children

The week before New Years Eve I schemed up a plan at the last minute to ditch the grown ups at our morning Sunday meeting.

I’m usually involved in a significant way at our meetings (I am the pastor, after all) but it has been years (close to a decade probably) since I got to be with our children during a Sunday meeting. The children are a very significant part of our church, so I needed to go and be involved in a significant way with them. We ended up throwing a surprise New Year’s Eve party complete with a balloon drop, games and prizes, pudding parfaits, ball drop, and countdown to noon (EST but midnight in Vietnam) all made by the kids. We surprised the grown ups and made them yell and celebrate something new with us. The most fun, I kept telling the kids, was that WE made it for THEM. It was a gift.

Children have gifts to share with the community.

Some of you might say, “Of course.” Others might be saying, “Huh, yeah, I guess they do.” Let me enumerate a few.

Children easily express themselves.

In joy or sorrow, children are close to their celebration and grief. Everything is cause for some eruption. Learning to regulate is still in the future for them, but that process often goes awry as we grow up and we, the adults, end up too regulated, our emotions shriveling for lack of expression. Children remind our hearts of their capacity for the full spectrum.

Children know how to trust.

Jesus called little children to the attention of the adults who followed him on more than one occasion. It seemed a special feature of Jesus’ hope for us that we relate to God as a parent. He taught us to pray “Our Father” he told us that “unless we become like a little child we will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Children trust their parents even if they are untrustworthy. I have a vivid memory of going over to a new friend’s house when I was about 10. His little brother, who was probably 6 or 7 told me, “My Dad knows everything.” Being the youngest in my family, I had never been exposed to such foolishness. “Of course your dad doesn’t know everything,” I thought, but having enough compassion intuitively not to be responsible for this boys disillusionment, I said nothing, just wondered. Trust like that kid had in his dad is not far from the faith we need for the darkness of the world.

Children need us to express our faith. 

“My Dad knows everything.” The corruption, destruction and rot have their limits. Somewhere, somehow, God contains it, sustains us and plows a path for us through the drifts of icy death dealing to other side of death, and maybe just tomorrow. Our children’s fragility is a gift to us in this harsh reality. They need our gentleness and we need their need. What future are we creating for them? What hope are we demonstrating for them? What faith do we have to show them? Will our Heavenly Father save us? Will our Heavenly Mother care for us. Our children know what we believe. They can smell it. They need our faith because the world is not safe. We are in Christ, though. You can be, but you need the tribe of Circle of Hope to maintain and grow it.

Children are good at being themselves.

At the party, the children offered us these gifts just by being themselves. In Circle of Hope in South Jersey we do not have a curriculum for our children. We have a tradition. We have a routine, which is helpful for our togetherness, but the content is our life together. We tell stories from the Bible but more importantly, we DO the Bible by forming our tribe, our extended family in Christ, just by being ourselves together and including others in our fun. Having a project on New Year’s Eve was great for building our team. Everyone played a part. We dealt with our limitations, we sorted through conflict, we loved one another, we listened to each other, gave and received honor, and went a little wild together. We made a mess and ate too many cookies. We danced and whooped. The Kingdom of Heaven is near!

Circle of Hope receives this gifts and creates an environment for them to be received and for children to grow.

Our theology about how we raise children is well developed but under communicated. I encourage you to read this page on our website, which is a brief summary of how we think our community is a great environment for children to grow up into a life of meaning and faith. If you’re really into it, like on the Children’s team or a parent yourself, you would be interested in our Children’s Plan, a more extensive document about how we practically create and maintain that healthy environment for our children.