Preachers, Pulpits and the Blogosphere

Recently, there has been a lot of hullabaloo about Love Wins by Rob Bell, pastor of the emergent Mars Hill Church.  I haven’t read it (yet), but in it, Bell apparently questions traditional Christian beliefs about Heaven and Hell, in his typically provocative and thought-provoking way. 

Even more recently, the ‘Net has been abuzz with news that a United Methodist pastor has been “fired” by his church because he agreed with Bell’s notions in a blog posting

First of all, let me say that no United Methodist pastor can be “fired” from his or her church–the Bishop and the Conference have the authority over who is and is not appointed within the Connection.  As this press release from his conference states, it was a mutual decision between the Psator and his congregation that he leave early–he was a student pastor, and was slated to leave in June, anyway. 

Second, given the above, let me say that I’m glad that blogging wasn’t big when I was in seminary, or I could have found myself in a lot more hot water than I did anyway back then.  Blogging has become a way for many people to work out their thoughts in an environment where they might receive feedback, correction or encouragement from others.  I know that if I had blogged my way through seminary, I would have been declared a heretic for the kinds of questions I asked back then. 

One of the questions I asked back in seminary, which I am still struggling with today, is the question of Hell.  Hell was not a big topic of discussion in my growing up years, other than the fact that we knew that it existed, and that “bad people” went there.  I went through a period of my teenage years where I spent a lot of time obsessing about my own salvation, and wondering if I would go to Heaven or Hell when I died some day.  I have preached funerals for people whose state of salvation, or whose relationship to Christ were, at best, questionable.  I have struggled to answer the questions of teenagers who wanted to know if their relatives were waiting for them in Heaven, or if they had gone to Hell because they might not have known Jesus as their personal Savior.  I have witnessed profound faith and wisdom in the writings and teachings of other religions.  All of this has led me to know that I don’t have the answers about Heaven and Hell. 

So, I keep asking the questions.

I think that the difference I can discern (so far) between Rob Bell and the UM pastor who was asked to leave because of his beliefs is that Bell doesn’t really come to any definitive, once-and-for-all conclusion about Heaven or Hell.  No one who has read anything else by Bell could reasonably call him a “Universalist.”  But, this young pastor, earnest and well-meaning as he may be, seems to have drawn the conclusion from Bell’s (and others’) writings that Hell doesn’t exist. 

I struggle with that, because I’ve always seen Hell as being a separation from God.  No fires and pitchforks in my vision of Hell, just eternal separation from the One Life Source that created, creates, and re-creates us all.  The pain of that separation is felt in a temporal sense here in this life, but an eternity of that would be excruciating, even for those who might not acknowledge in this life that they know or need God.  Bell seems to make the point (at least in the teaser video for the book) that the question of who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell is bigger and more complicated than a matter of belief or assent to a belief.  He seems to be asking the question that all of us need to be asking:  “What does my belief about Heaven and Hell say about my belief in God?” 

I thank God that I am not God, and that I don’t have to judge such things as the eternal disposition of souls.  But I also thank God that God is God, because I know that such judgments are in good hands.  God’s grace extends beyond my knowledge, and beyond even the accumlated human wisdom of all the ages.  In the end, perhaps the questions of who goes to Heaven/Hell, and if Heaven/Hell exist aren’t the right ones to be asking. 

But what are the right questions? 



Pathological Christianity?

I’m thinking about giving up Church for Lent.  Not that I want to really give up Church, I’m just thinking about it, in the sense that it’s been on my mind. 

Here’s why:  I think that sometimes, we who are heavily involved in the Church become “pathological Christians.”  “Pathology” in reference to the practice of the Christian faith seems to be a harsh word, but at its root, it means “the study of suffering” (pathos=Greek for suffering, logos=Greek for “word” or “study”). 

So, can the Church make us as Christians suffer?  You bet it can!

It happens when we let ourselves, our sense of identity and vision, get so wrapped up in the Church, or in our particular practice of the faith, that we exclude others, or even God, in order to protect it. 

It happens when we become rigid or narrow-minded about others, because we can’t imagine that their practice of following Christ could be as holy or valid as our own. 

Yesterday, in a conversation I had with a community leader, I was struck by one comment she made.  She observed that sometimes churches can become like high school football teams.  People ask, “What church do you go to?” and when they get an answer, they automatically judge the other person based on what church they attend, and automatically assume that their church is “better.”  What does that mean?  How can one church be “better” than another?  I could sense her frustration with Church as she shared this with me, and I grieve, not because she said this, but because it’s so true, and strikes at the heart of what can happen when we become pathological about our particular way of experiencing God.

What can really hurt, though, is when we idolize our Church so much that when the Church doesn’t live up to our expectations, we’re devastated.  The Church, after all, is made up of human beings.  Its not God.  So, there are bound to be imperfections, and even sins, that will creep in from time to time.  What we need is to be forgiving of one another’s faults, and find ways to move forward together, rather than become disillusioned when the Church falters or fails because of our very humanness. 

So, in order to help heal the suffering that our attachments (even to Church) can have, I encourage others to think about “giving up Church” for Lent–or at least, your attachment to it–and cling to God alone for salvation and comfort.  In the end, when the Church is no more, and we’re all gathered into God’s kingdom, that’s all that will matter.


Easier to Lie…

I was recently turned on to this video by Aqualung by reading an article by Guy Chmieleski about student leaders dropping out of youth/campus ministries, and it got me to thinking.

Sometimes, in the church, we lie to each other. 

Actually, in my ministry, I’ve found that it happens quite often. 

Because we mask the feelings we’re experiencing, and hiding behind the masks of “everything’s alright, I’m o.k.,” we lie and tell each other that nothing’s wrong, nothing to see here, move along to someone who really needs your help…

I’ve felt this when I have a young person who drops off the face of the earth, only to find out later that he/she is in trouble, and nobody (not even concerned parents) told me anything about it.

I’ve felt it when a leader of the church says that “some people” are really concerned about something, when they really mean that they are concerned. 

I’ve done it myself, when I’ve been angry or disappointed or scared, and someone asks me how I’m doing.  “Pretty good,” I answer, even though I’m torn up inside. 

Why do we Christians do that?  Why don’t we even feel comfortable sharing our pains and sorrows with each other? 

What can we do about it?

Probably, the place to start is by being honest with ourselves, admitting that we do have problems and stresses in life, that we’re not perfect, and that we do need a community of brothers and sisters around us who will support us, even as we support them.

Then, maybe we need to be honest with God (he already knows what’s going on, anyway), and pray about it.

If we can do that, maybe, just maybe, we might feel able to tell each other about it.

And I don’t ever want to hear anyone say, “I know you’re really busy, and I don’t want to bother you…”

Or, “I’m afraid you might think I’m a failure, but…”

Or, “I didn’t think I could approach you with something like this…”

Believe me, I’ve said those things before myself.  But not anymore.  As believers in Christ, we need to believe that he has the power to heal and restore us to total freedom from all our pains, sicknesses and addictions, and that he can restore community when it breaks down. 

But he can’t do it on his own.  We need to make the first step–with ourselves, with God, and with each other.

 Just do it.