part two: what hit you the hardest?

i'm falling down on the job here--michelle, thanks for jumping in here.

i'm wondering if we could just have a shout out for the biggest takeaway idea/thought you had from part two? we could call it highs and lows. the idea that resonated with you most forcefully and/or the one idea that left you scratching your head, thinking, "hmmmm...i'm not so sure." maybe we could add one more category in light of this recent article. at any point did you think, "this isn't anything new"? from there we'll have a posting frenzy from our contributors, highlighting the points of greatest interest. sound good?

i'd love to hear from as many of you as possible. let's see if rss is keeping this thing alive after all! :)


First Impressions

Posting here seems to have ground to a halt recently, so let me jump in quickly with a short one.

My book FINALLY arrived last week (more than a month late), and it was hard to put it down - I finished it in record time! I was left with the "warm fuzzies" after reading it through, with a feeling that maybe, just maybe, we can all see past our differences as Christians, bridge a few gaps and grow together toward God.

I had my knuckles rapped in a few places - a couple of in-grown beliefs were named, exposed, and seen to be perhaps not so correct after all, leaving me cringing and smiling ruefully. I learnt a lot about other perspectives too. There are aspects of the different facets of Christianity that I knew nothing about - until now.

I've recently been through a very dark place spiritually, with seemingly no hope at the end of the tunnel. Reading this book has brought a spark of hope, the feeling that things CAN get better, and an urge to strive toward that. There's a tingling of spring now in my soul, and it has nothing to do with Chapter 16 (Why I Am Green). :)

I've been recommending this book left, right and centre to as many people as will stand still long enough to listen (and a few who won't - I recently used part of it for a devotional time where I had a captive audience...). I suspect my copy is going to end up well-worn. It will take a few more passes for everything to really sink in.

Looking forward to hearing what others have to say. To the next chapter and beyond!


Mission, hell, and universalism in Chapter 4

The question of hell comes up a lot in this chapter, which would make sense in a chapter on mission. When I was an evangelical kid at summer camp, we sometimes wondered, in hushed heretical voices, whether the "fire-insurance" we were selling was really what it was all about. I remember some pastors telling us counselors of the incredible value of using the fear of divine punishment for "scaring the hell" out of people. So sometimes a counselor would give their most vivid description of hell in the evening devotion, just before all the ten year olds went to sleep. The salvation count at the morning meeting would always spike well the following day.

So lets talk a little about hell and how our view of it changes how we act out in mission. I started feeling my view of hell was incomplete during university, when questions were raised regarding the nature of eternal punishment. The purpose of punishment is correction, so how could God be into punishment forever? What's the corrective purpose in that? That's just God being nasty, and apparently, according to what God says about God, God's not supposed to be that mean.

So I kept my ears open for other views of hell. And at this point, there are three that bounce around in my head:

1. Hell as fire and eternal punishment. Basically what I just alluded to, a place that God comdemns you to.

The other two are more based on my choice, which makes more sense to me.

2. Hell as a place God sends those who desire to be there. I have heard it described in terms of being cast into "outer darkness" where there is "weeping and gnashing of teeth". Basically the idea is that God allows people to pursue in the afterlife exactly the path they pursued in life, the difference being that God completely withdraws his spirit from that place. Because in life, even the most screwed up, ugly situation benefits from the spark of light, which is the goodness of God, which works its way into every corner of creation. Even among those who reject God, any good thing they experience, any hint of friendship or tenderness, comes from the light of Christ. In hell that redeeming light is gone. Everyone is free to be as selfish as they desire, cruelty is unrestrained, making it, well, no party anyway.

3. This one is the most convicing to me, and it comes from Eastern Orthodoxy. In that version, when we die, we all go to be with God. But, as James Ferrenberg puts it,

some people are simply unable to experience heaven - that to them, God's love and truth is too much to bear. Lovers of darkness who cannot love the light...to them the light is hellfire.

So each person in their life makes a choice, to embrace the light or reject it, and that choice determines what your experience will be when you go to be with God. For those who have embraced it, it will be heaven, the fulfillment of all we have have hoped and longed for. For those who reject it, the light of God will be the very fires of hell.

C.S. Lewis in The Last Battle would even seem to suggest that it goes in degrees. There, the dwarves who just "sort of" embrace the light just "sort of" experience heaven. For them it is comfortable, but dull and boring. I wonder if that is what the apostle Paul means when he talks about getting into heaven as one "just escaping flames". Or maybe this is what the Parable of the Talents is talking about...

Anyway, there's one version I forgot. It's from Father Zossima in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamozov, and ties in with the number 3.

Fathers and teachers, I ponder, "What is hell?" I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love. Once in infinite existence, immeasurable in time and space, a spiritual creature was given on his coming to earth the power of saying, "I am and I love." Once, only once, there was given him a moment of active lifting love, and for that was earthly life given him, and with it times and seasons. And that happy creature rejected the priceless gift, prized it and loved it not, scorned it and remained callous. Such a one, having left the earth, sees Abraham's bosom and talks with Abraham as we are told in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and beholds heaven and can go up to the Lord. But that is just his torment, to rise up to the Lord without ever having loved, to be brought close to those who have loved when he has despised their love. For he sees clearly and says to himself, "Now I have understanding, and though I now thirst to love, there will be nothing great, no sacrifice in my love, for my earthly life is over, and Abraham will not come even with a drop of living water (that is the gift of earthly active life) to cool the fiery thirst of spiritual love which burns in me now, though I despised it on earth; there is no more life for me and will be no more time! Even though I would gladly give my life for others, it can never be, for that life is passed which can be sacrificed for love, and now there is a gulf fixed between that life and this existence."

Which one makes the most sense to you? How does your view of hell affect how you act out in mission? What is the mission anyway?


Quick thoughts sparked by Chapter 3

My mind was drawn to how I prayed when I was a teenage in Mandarin and the constant use of the phrase "Lord" in my prayer. Besides that, I also recall hearing my Indian seminary mate praying, and how the phrases "Master" and "Lord" came up frequently. Then I thought about how all this reflects not only our theology but also our spirituality.

One thing I like about the book in general and this chapter in particular is the "revisiting" of familiar words, like "Lord". And just spending some time unpacking them once again. I suppose we can see this exercise like "opening a box of chocolates" or "opening up a can of worms" but this is necessary. In the past many of us here in Malaysia specifically may just import the "dominating" understanding of the word "Lord" without knowing it, or may use the word with the "absolute control" flavor even withing our own cultures. In the history of China for example, (and for those who watched the movie "Hero" might get a taste of it), Emporer's can be brutle and war-like, others might be wise and loving to the people. It depends ... thus, the unpacking of the word like "Lord" helps.

I thought about the contrasting styles of my country's previous prime minister and the present one assuming for today the primier of the country is like a king in a way. The difference in operation makes me see the possible values underneath the actions on the surface. And so, if in the past the word "prime minister" may be negative, now the word may evoke a different more positive response.

I guess what I'm trying to say is "words" really do matter, but the picture the word evokes matters even more. Is there a hidden challenge there for us in regards to the word "Christian"? (since the chapter is titled "would Jesus be a Christian?")


Pay Dirt in Chapter 2

I once prayed, as a new Christian, that God would change my heart so that I could accept my place as a woman in the Kingdom – a place that I was not experiencing as one of mutuality, egalitarianism or wholeness for women. I cried buckets as I prayed, but I was ready to accept God's answer. Such was my fervor that I donated my extensive collection of feminist writings, including feminist theologians like Mary Daly and Rosemary Radford Ruether. But I wanted to believe rightly and do rightly for God. My prayer was an offering that said, “Lord, where I need to change – change me.”

Then I went outside and got in my car to drive to work. I put in a tape that I had been listening to over and over again – “Conversations” by Sara Groves. What I heard was “I know that you tore the veil so I could sit with you in person.” Then I heard, “No, Karen. I broke those barriers, tore those veils. There are no second-class citizens in my Kingdom.” And I was comforted and transformed, if still dismayed for the loss of my books. Chapter 2 – Jesus and God B – reminded me of this early episode in my life as a follower of Jesus, an episode that threatened to sink my nascent faith and one that had been a barrier to my conversion for over 25 years.

In Chapter 2 I think that McLaren begins to hit some pay dirt. Though the chapter begins with more protestations about his inability to adequately describe Jesus, and his discomfort with those who think that they can, his clear statements regarding the nature of God as being beyond gender categorization really rang true with me.

That said, as a person who was steeped in feminist theory prior to my conversion to Christianity it raises a warning flag for me that a thing I find so obvious would need to be so flatly stated in this book (and in italics no less). Have the lessons of the last 30+ years of feminist theology, the ordination of women in other mainline denominations, not to mention the spiritual and social contributions of first wave feminists in the mid-1800’s and early-1900’s, been so ignored by the Evangelical Church that such a statement even needs to be made? Apparently so.

This is another of those things that keep the unchurched from full communion with the Body of Christ. We can read that God created man and woman in his image just as well as anyone else and we can’t then understand how the church backs into such policies as “the headship of the male,” or “the submissiveness of a woman to her husband,” or the lack of female leadership in the church in general.

I think I’m beginning to understand what McLaren is doing with this book. He’s acknowledging that the voice of the Evangelical Church is, for all intents and purposes, the face of Christianity that most people in the U.S. see, and that, if his brothers and sisters in Christ want to be ambassadors for the faith, they better get a better handle on what that faith really entails. As an unchurched friend of mine asked me yesterday after having heard Jimmy Swaggert’s quote regarding his intent to kill any gay man who looks at him that way, “I don’t understand how he can say that? Isn’t it counter to the teachings of other religious leaders and of Christ?” Bingo, buddy! But that’s the Evangelical Church, fringe element though he may be.

It takes a pretty high level of abstraction to divorce one’s perceptions of who Jesus is, and who we can be if we are in relationship with him, from the examples we see of other Christian’s lives. And that is why it is so important for us to live in ways that do not seem to be diametrically opposed to the teachings of our faith. So, preach on Mr. McLaren. Here’s praying for ears to hear.


The Seven Jesuses Brian Has Known

Seven Jesuses! My goodness, that's a lot. I've got seven kids--seven completely different personalities. It can be a bit much to manage at times, but seven Jesuses? If you thought grasping the concept of the trinity was challenging, I can only caution: kids, don't try this at home.

His first Jesus was the Conservative Protestant. How familiar He was, and reading about him left me with a sense of both comfort and fear. This is the Jesus that I always perceived as taking the edge off of the Angry Father God. I met him as a child, reading one of those terrifying Jack T. Chick tracts that were everywhere in the seventies. Enough said.

His second Jesus, the Pentecostal/Charismatic one--now that's the Jesus I fell in love with. This wildly present Jesus was all up in a sistah's life, but I couldn't help but feel that my church was a largely dysfunctional family--the kind that yells and moans a lot, and throws dishes. This Jesus left me as tired, and frustrated, as much as He left me feeling loved and cared for. Or was it Jesus making me feel the more painful feelings? Maybe it was His people, claiming to know Him so well, yet missing the obvious so often. Where was the love and service of Brian's Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Jesus? Where was that love, with busy hands and feet, working in the community, so captivating in Liberal Protestant, Anabaptist, and oppressed Jesuses?

Finishing this chapter, I realized that although I may not have known these seven Jesuses by the names Brian gave them, I knew them all indeed, and more Jesuses than that. They all mingle, and overlap, and intersect, morphing in my heart and head into One Big Jesus, with many faces, still turning his head revealing more faces, more personalities, challenging my ideas about who He is, and what He requires. He is a mystery, ever unforlding. This One Big--and I like that word Big, inadequate as it is, this Jesus continously asserts His sovereignty. He simply refuses to be what I think He is. He outgrows me, every time, and in doing so, He grows me.

Thank God for every Jesus I have known, and every Jesus I have yet to know.

What about you?