Are you dying to live?
Would you say that?
Are you dying to live authentically?
Dying to live fully?
Dying to live abundantly?

Dying to live faithfully?

Metaphorically speaking, right?

You want it so very, very much.
You name it priority.
You designate it worthy of your commitment.

Or, maybe you just want it so very, very much,
and yet there’s no real connection to any of your actual priorities—
to your commitment—to your living.

Or maybe you don’t want it at all, but you use the language
to make it sound like you do.

And so, it seems to me,
even metaphorically speaking,
there are appropriate and inappropriate usages of the phrase (I’m dying to …)
that correspond in some measure to the lengths to which I’m willing to go
to attain my expressed desire.
There needs to be a correlation between what I say I want,
and my commitment to get what I say I want.

Even so, no matter the lengths to which I’m willing to go,
some pursuits remain too trivial—ultimately unworthy of the metaphor.
No matter how much I’m looking forward to ice cream,
“I’m dying to have some ice cream”
does not seem, in any conceivable circumstance,
an appropriate use of the metaphor.
Ludicrous, on the one hand—entirely too much of an exaggeration,
disrespectful, on the other …
of those who really are dying.


So it’s not always metaphor …
if it’s disrespectful of those who die?

And everyone dies.

We are all, in fact, dying a little everyday, right?
Not what I meant when I thought to myself that everyone dies.
But it is true.
So we’re all dying to do whatever we do—whatever we do,
and we should evaluate what we do in light of that—
should evaluate all we do in light of that.
Is this worth my dying for?

A practical exercise in mindfulness:
I will be fully aware of what I am spending
some of my allotted time doing
because I will not get this time back.
That might cut back on a good bit of T.V.—
not necessarily a bad thing at all!

So inappropriate use of the expression may be disrespectful
to and of those who live with a respectful, mindful sense of their own mortality
(of the value of their allotted time),
but our metaphor is more disrespectful of those physically dying
not abstractly, not one day, but more immediately—
dying before you would think their time would be—
dying not having lived full lives.
unexpectedly soon.

To say, metaphorically, “I’m dying for a new pair of jeans,”
when in the third world country in which those jeans were made
people are literally, physically dying—
of a lack of potable water,
of malnourishment,
of treatable disease—
is the height of inappropriateness and disrespect.

So circumstances call the metaphor into question.

It’s equally disrespectful though of those who die for their beliefs.
To say, metaphorically, “I’m dying for a new pair of
Citizens of Humanity or True Religion jeans”
when there are those who die for the sake of humanity
those who die for the sake of religion—
also scales heights of inappropriateness and disrespect.

So our metaphor may well be terribly disrespectful
to and of those whose circumstances and those whose commitment
leads them beyond metaphor.
Yet that’s not to deny not only that our initial hearing of this expression
(“I’m dying to …”) leads us into metaphor,
but that our primary response remains in the realm of metaphor.
Most contexts of the phrase are metaphor.

And death as metaphor (particularly linked with resurrection)
is often located in some cyclical reality
rather than a final one:
the seed that “dies” so the sprout can grow,
the death of winter into the new life of spring—
the seasonal cycle,
new life,
the cycles of life—
and I get all that.
It’s true. It’s good—appropriate—insightful—meaningful.

In like manner, when it comes to our faith, more metaphor, right?

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth
and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world
will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25).

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow me.
For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for the sake of the gospel,
will save it” (Mark 8:34-35; Matthew 16:24-25; Luke 9:23-24).

All understood as metaphor, right? Until we get to the death of Jesus—
the real death of Jesus—the physical death—
the circumstance to which his commitment led him—
beyond metaphor.

The death of Jesus in Scripture is not told as metaphor.
It’s told as what happened.
He died.
But still our faith story as told in our living … metaphor.
Jesus as God’s word made flesh, dies;
we, as God’s words made flesh, don’t.
Interesting, isn’t it, that it’s metaphor when applied to us,
but not when applied to Jesus.

And the earliest stories present the resurrection the same way—
as statement of fact—just the fact. He was dead. He rose.

Only later was there interpretation.
Only later was meaning ascribed and appropriated.
At first it was simply fact—and mystery—
trembling and astonishment and fear.
Then it became meaningful.

And with meaning came the metaphors.
Because if it’s not metaphor—
if it’s not interpreted—explained,
it doesn’t mean anything—
it’s just death—just another death,
and then a mystery with no bearing on my living.

Metaphor though relates Jesus’ death to me as something other
than the Ash Wednesday reminder of my own death
(Remember mortal, you are dust, and to the dust you shall return)—
something other than the truth to which we all relate—
which we all embrace—which embraces all of us.
And metaphor relates Jesus’ resurrection to me
as something other than some historical miracle—
but as a truth within my own living.

So lots of metaphors are subsequently absorbed into the relating of these events:
the military metaphor, the death of Jesus as part of God’s war with Satan;
the economic metaphor, the death of Jesus as ransom for others;
the sacrificial metaphor, the death of Jesus as the final sacrifice;
the legal metaphor, the death of Jesus within God’s court where God is Judge;
and the triumphal metaphor, the resurrection of Jesus
as victory, as vindication—
as the violation of all we know,
that I might possess the possibility of more than I know.

And it’s not that to name resurrection metaphor empties it of meaning
(unless applied inappropriately, as mentioned—
ore unless the metaphor is grossly stretched
in some vain attempt to fully explain).
But metaphor allows me to claim in the story of Jesus
something substantively different from any reality I know (resurrection),
and claim it for myself rather than acknowledge
the reality of someone committed enough to die—
not just for an alternative vision of reality,
but for working to implement (create) that other reality.
Jesus’ death and resurrection as metaphor
allow me to claim the benefits of such a living as his
without having to live it.

So we need a suspicious appreciation of all these metaphors—
along with the awareness that we do ourselves no favors
talking in terms of metaphor
if we’re talking about a unique event unlike any other.

So while some would say when we get to the resurrection,
we have to read that part of the story in Scripture as metaphor—
that that’s the only way to ground it in reality,
here’s the thing—metaphor—death as part of a cycle—
is called into question by the concreteness and finality
of death that’s not metaphor.
And, if that’s the case,
is it also true about resurrection?
He rose. Nothing to be understood.
Nothing to be explained.
The meaningful life that led to the death
was not the end. Period.

It’s not to be explained in some metaphor: military, economic, religious or legal—
though there’s much to be gained in such considerations.
It’s not the resurrection of the old pagan gods’ seasonal reality
ever dying with the winter, ever reborn in the spring—
though there’s insight to such consideration.
it’s not dying to one way of being
only to be born again into another (a la the seed)—
though there’s insight to such reflection as well.
We don’t know what it is.
And if we can know that—
know that we don’t know,
maybe we can know enough,
in our here and now,
to tremble, to marvel and to fear.

For there’s not much at all in Scripture that’s not focused on the here and now
including much (most?) of what we project into the here- and now-after.
So amidst all that we must say we don’t know—
can’t understand—can’t explain,
we may need a new emphasis on the fact—
the reality that we don’t take seriously enough—
the living death that is our cultural legacy.

Paul writes to the Corinthians:
“If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised;
and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain
and your faith has been in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:13-14).
Strong words. Without disagreeing, I would add:
If Jesus was resurrected, but is not reborn in me, it doesn’t matter, and
if he was resurrected and is reborn in me, it doesn’t matter.

So are you dying to live—dying to live faithfully?


If Jesus had just died of old age, as he would have, right?—
if he had not lived in such a way as to force the issue,
would he have been resurrected?
Maybe the the question is less are we dying to live,
as are we also living to die?
Are we forcing the issue?
Do we live dying to what is to live into what is not yet?


I have a cross necklace. I got it in Jerusalem.
I don’t wear it much.
Too daunting to take seriously.
Too important not to.


comments and questions for your consideration:
• How would you comfortably complete the expression: “I’m dying to …”?
• Do you consider and evaluate your activities in light of your allotted time?
• Are there choices you make in terms of how you spend your time that you would make differently if more intentionally considering your dying?

• Is your consideration of dying to believe purely a matter of metaphor?
• Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “Someone who won’t die for something isn’t fit to live.

• Do you feel the need to understand Jesus’ death and resurrection to affirm them?
• Can you imagine what it might be like to affirm without interpretation?
• Can we appreciate metaphor suspiciously?

• Are you dying to live—dying to live truly, abundantly, faithfully?

• Do we force the issue? Do we confront the world in and through our living with an alternative reality?

• Do we live dying to what is to live into what is not yet?

• Do you believe the resurrection or trust it—count it as one of your faith affirmations or live into it?

Does God get what God wants?
Well that just begs the question, what does God want?
And God has told us what God wants:
justice, righteousness, humility (Micah 6:8).
So no, God does not get what God wants.

That’s the easy answer.
The apparent answer.
The answer now—the answer here.
Obvious when you consider our world, our culture,
the church and ourselves. Right?

And yet, God invested God’s own being in creation.
God risked God’s own self in this venture we call life.
God chose respectful relationship as means of presence—
thus choosing not to be dictatorial—
thus rejecting authoritative, absolute power.

Which is to say, God locates God’s deep desire
within the free will of others—
a recipe for absolute frustration.

In other words, it’s not just about what God wants.

Or we have to add a qualification to what God has told us God wants.
God wants justice, righteousness, humility—freely chosen.
Different want, that.

Not just what God wants.

For God wants us to want what God wants.
God entrusts us to be partners with God—
co-creators of the reality God wants—
one characterized by justice, righteousness and humility—
freely chosen by God’s co-creators—
not imposed upon them.

That’s a tremendous risk on God’s part.

And so now, the ultimate judgment come Judgment Day,
will be the judgment of God.

It’s not that how we live and what we affirm and prioritize
is unimportant.
Not at all.
But beyond whether or not we live up to God’s will
(our judgment to be sure),
lie the key questions:
was creation a good investment of God’s being?
Was respectful relationship an appropriate risk of God’s self?
Did human beings constitute a justifiable hope
or a great … a terrible … foolishness?


Jesus came into the world—the world of his day—
amidst very specific expectations of power and authority
manifest in judgment and vindication—
expectations of Messiah,
who would basically impose justice and righteousness on creation.

Now, how did that turn out?
Pretty much the inversion of expectation.

Messiah was expected within the kingly line of David,
and Jesus was born a carpenter’s son.
Messiah was expected to rule,
and Jesus taught.
Messiah was expected to establish justice,
and Jesus preached justice.
Messiah was expected to change the world,
and Jesus changed people’s lives.
Messiah was expected to judge the nations,
and Jesus was judged by the authorities.
Messiah was expected to put an end to evil,
and Jesus was put to death.

Yep. Messiah and Jesus.
Pretty much the inversion of expectation.

So, interesting that “Christ” is the Greek translation
of “Messiah.”
Jesus Christ = Jesus Messiah = an identity of inverting expectation.

Consistent with what we come to know of God—

who does not impose self, but
risks self in living—
who chooses respectful relationship and presence—
who locates the depths of divine desire within the free will of others—
who wants co-creators of a reality
shaped one freely chosen living at a time—
who loves people even when rejected and betrayed by them—
who is more about steadfast love than about absolute power—
who sounds a whole lot like Jesus, don’t you think?

So what do we make of expectations that remain with us to this day—
expectations of power and authority manifest in judgment and vindication?
What do we make of the fact that
the expectations of Jesus’ second coming
are the same expectations as those before Jesus’ first coming?
What do we make of the fact that expectations of Jesus’ coming
equal expectations of God coming:
in power, with authority, to judge and vindicate.

And what do we do do with a divine identity
that consistently inverts human expectation?

Do we consider a variation of Einstein’s definition of insanity
(doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results):
expecting the same presence/identity/activity/initiative over and over again
in spite of the consistent revelation of the opposite—
in persistent denial of who God is?

Why though—by what reason, would we think anything has changed?
Has God changed?
We tend not to go with that one.

Have we changed? Have we matured—
grown more fully into our heritage as children and heirs of God?

Uh, no.


So it is that God continues to come as God came—
as God has always come.
Such is the truth of God—
the truth of God with us—
always and forever. Amen and amen.

And all time is defined by Advent—waiting the fulfillment of God-with-us,
and yet, simultaneously, all time constitutes Christmas—
the affirmation—celebration of God-with-us.


Love’s victory is assured we claim—we affirm—we believe.

But our perception of victory is so colored by our culture’s.
and we find ourselves in need of another qualification:
love wins, yes, absolutely.
But what is winning?

Is winning the public vindication we crave—
public vindication that seems so often to go hand in hand
with the public humiliation of others—
those who lost—simultaneous elevation and denigration?
Is it a power equation?
No, none of that.

Love wins in consistency and integrity—
in commitment through time,
and wins in precisely such a way
our culture suggests isn’t all that important—
isn’t even winning.

And it is so hard for us to get.
Even if we want to—
try to.
You see, while we may say
freely choosing to live without the presence of God
acknowledged and embraced
is the worst of all possible fates,
we don’t really believe that.
It doesn’t sound bad enough—feel bad enough!
So we take the uncomfortable and terrible
and painful and brutal
and we create ourselves images of hell.

But that’s not how love wins.

In a book, a movie, I anticipate the moment in which the villain
realizes he or she has lost—
realizes he or she has made the wrong choices.
In fact, I feel cheated if that realization is not sufficiently detailed.
I want to—need to see the dawning awareness of failure—
of all that’s lost
or it’s not satisfying.

But that’s not how love wins.

We may think we ought to be able to look at those
who have prioritized money and acquired it,
power and acquired it, and simply say,
“Love wins, and you have none,
and though you may not know it, you lost.”
But that’s just not satisfying.

And that too, is not how love wins.

For love’s winning is neither quick, conclusive, nor final.
For love remains freely chosen—
again and again in commitment through time.
To make of that something final
undermines what it is.
And there’s nothing of the majority about love winning—
Just one freely chosen living at a time.

I have long thought the reason we can’t make a good Christian movie
or even tell a Christian story true in our terms,
is because at the heart of it lies, necessarily, the mystery of God with us.
Therefore, the story told may well not be satisfying because when love wins,
it’s not necessarily a win reflected in circumstance.

God’s not that interested in our sense of satisfaction,
and, to be honest, probably less interested in our circumstance
than our attitude and living in and through them—whatever they might be.

We have trouble with that.
Even if we think we don’t want to.

Part of what God works to overcome
is our own deep abiding sense of how God should wrap things up.
In our theology, part of what God works to overcome
is the triumphalism with which we imbue resurrection.

Resurrection is celebration of the miracle of Jesus’ love.
As consequence, it’s part and parcel of all that the truth of love is.

But love won before resurrection happened
in Jesus’ commitment to God, self and others.

Not satisfying.
Not to those of us weaned on success defined in other ways.

Love wins though, and it’s not losers vanquished, but losing.


Does God get what God wants?
And what does God want?
When it comes right down to it.
Love as the basic structure of all creation.
Love—freely chosen by all God’s co-creators
and manifest in every facet and expression of being.

And so no.
No, God doesn’t get what God wants.

Or, at least,
God hasn’t …

not yet.


comments and questions for your consideration:
• What would you say God wants?
• On what do you base your answer? Scripture? Tradition? Theology?

• Are expectations of a final judgment more in keeping with God
or the desires of our culture?
• Do you want satisfaction, or the truth of God with us? Be honest!

• Would you deem humankind an acceptable risk for God to take?

• How is your God other than how you want your God to be?
• How does God surprise you?

• What constitutes “winning” for you?
• Think of those you love. Do you consider those relationships
in terms of winning and/or losing?
• How does love win?

Chapter 3: Hell

So did Jesus ever express any interest in hell
as a not here here and a not here now?


Let me clarify.
Jesus really didn’t talk about hell much at all—
though, in fact, he made every single one of the 11 explicit references
to hell in the gospels.

All 11 are translations of the Greek place name Gehenna
itself a translation of the Hebrew ge hinnom,
the Valley of Hinnom—right outside Jerusalem.
Mentioned 13 times in the Old Testament—always referring to this place,
associated with the sacrifice of children—
ancient site of abominable acts of worship to foreign gods.
Said to have been the city’s garbage dump
shrouded in the stench and smoke of ever smoldering fires.

Now it was in the time period between the Old and the New Testaments
that the belief developed in an after-death punishment by fire—
though it was apparently not associated with Gehenna
not until Jesus made the connection between the place and the theology.
Jesus made the connection between the place and the theology.

But wait! There’s more—
more we need to consider.
For Jesus did, as well, speak clearly (and graphically)
of what we think of as hell in contrast to heaven
in stories—in parables
in which hell is never mentioned by name,
but is called Hades,
is called the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,
or the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,
or is described as where the punished are cut in pieces
and put with the hypocrites—who are themselves never of one piece
where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,
or is simply called the eternal punishment.

Clear enough, you’d think.
And yet, when it comes to hell,
other than a heretofore unsuspected propensity for TMD,
there’s no great consistency at all.

For in one teaching Jesus employs
what is clearly a hypothetical threat of punishment—
being thrown into the sea weighted down by a great millstone around the neck—
an image that has never really quite caught on
within the array of stock images of hell—
a chaotically writhing sea (in direct contrast to the eternal flames)—
a chaotically writhing sea of ever-drowning masses
pulled relentlessly beneath the surface by their disregard for the care of children.

At other times, Jesus speaks not of a future threat at all
(hypothetical or otherwise),
but of an immediate punishment—a present consequence—
often extreme in nature—
the beaten servant …
the tortured servant.

Then there are times that that immediate response is obviously metaphorical:
salt thrown out and trampled underfoot, unfit for soil or manure pile.

There are even a couple of instances
in which we completely lose the juxtaposition of future reward and punishment
(heaven and hell), and there is rather
the prospect of an order to the kingdom of God’s heaven:
being least or being great in the kingdom of heaven,
or going into the kingdom of God ahead of others,
but everyone, apparently, getting in.

All in all, to consider the range of possibilities
in the teaching and the stories of Jesus is to consider the possibility
that Jesus used hell less as the specific promise of future punishment,
and more as means of present warning to and for those he addressed
to get their act together now—
brutal images of violence dramatized beyond believability
(can you really associate Jesus with beatings and torture?)
brutal images of violence dramatized beyond believability for maximum effect—
to provide encouragement—incentive—motivation—determination
for the living of these days—
to offer perspective on the importance of the living of these days.

Each reference to hell invariably comes in the context of Jesus teaching
the importance not of where we spend eternity, but of how we live our lives.

So, having considered Jesus’ use of the word hell and of hellish imagery,
back to my question, did Jesus ever express any interest in hell
as a not here here and a not here now?


(a) Jesus was never interested in hell,
he was always interested in the people with whom he was in conversation,
(b) while the outer darkness, eternal punishment, and Hades
are all concepts admittedly removed from the here and now,
Jesus uses them all precisely and only
in order to draw attention to the here and now,
and, (c) Gehenna (the term Jesus used most)
was not a not here here, it was rather a very well known place
right there southwest of Jerusalem, the city everyone knew.

So while Jesus made the connection between the place and the theology
in references to Gehenna, Jesus wasn’t using a place to illuminate an idea,
but grounding an idea in a place, and not just any place, but a recognized place.

It’s the direction of the thinking we have to note:
not from a specific place to a theological idea,
but from a theological idea to a specific place.

And if it was, in fact, the city garbage dump,
what it must have been like (imagine) during festivals
precisely when people with whom Jesus was in conversation up in the Galilee
would have most likely been there in the holy city—
when the local population swelled, and the garbage—
fetid, foul, festering, putrid, noxious, nauseating, rotting, reeking, revolting, vile—
the garbage flowed and overflowed the Valley of Hinnom.

Actually makes me think about the way he used parables—
often popularly deemed earthly stories with a heavenly point—
stories incorporating the vivid details of earth and experience
to illuminate truth and theology, to instruct, and to re-envision living.
But maybe it’s more a matter of theology being given an earthly point!

Don’t look away. Look here. See the garbage and the waste.
See the decay and the loss. And, conversely, see the beauty,
the wonder and the joy—all around you and within you.
Now decide how you want to live your life.

Jesus only looks away from living—away from the here and now
to help us focus our attention more closely on the here and now—
looks away only to look back to see it all the more clearly—
to increase our respect for the value of our own living—
the choices we make—the story we live.


Jesus never expressed any interest in hell
as a not here here and a not here now.

Indeed, did Jesus ever indicate any concern
about someone’s soul—anyone’s soul—going anywhere?
Again, I don’t think so.
I’ve tried to find a reference I believe might be about that.

It’s somewhat of an odd thing to say,
given evangelical thought, theology and tradition,
but Jesus really isn’t interested in anyone’s soul.

He’s interested in them—in them as people.
He’s interested in their living.

Now granted, as important a concept as soul
has become in Christian tradition (especially evangelical Christian tradition),
it’s not (never was) a part of Hebrew thought—
as such, not a part of Jesus’, right?
Even the Pharisees who believed in the resurrection of the dead
did not believe in the immortality of the soul,
but in the resurrection of the body.

“Soul” is a consequence of Greek philosophy
used to interpret Hebrew texts—
Greek philosophy imposed on Hebrew thought—
to even consider a separation of soul from body from living.

It’s actually not even ancient Greek thought (generically speaking).
It’s specifically Platonic thought—
Plato believing everything “known” through the senses
to be but a shadow of what is in truth real.
thus conceptually doing the opposite of what Jesus did—
moving from the concrete to the abstract instead of from the abstract to the concrete.


As an idea linked (appropriately or not) to the concepts of both heaven and hell,
the word “soul” leads us to two interesting word studies. Fascinating, actually.
Consider the Hebrew word nephesh and the Greek word psyche.

Five Hebrew words are translated in the Old Testament as “soul,”
but only one has “soul” as its primary meaning.
The other four are only translated “soul” six times
(in the entire Old Testament),
and they are also translated: nobility (nediybah), glory (kabowd),
breath (neshamah), and internal organs (me-ah).
There you go.

There are over 750 occurrences of the word nephesh in the Old Testament.
It’s the primary word translated as “soul.”
But (here’s the thing) of those 750 occurrences,
it’s only translated “soul” some 472 times.

Now compared to six, that’s huge,
but compared to 750, it is too!

And how it’s translated is fascinating.
Because in direct contrast to (contradiction of)
how we normally think of soul (nephesh),
it’s also translated as … ready? …
as creature: “So God created the great sea monsters
and every living creature (nephesh!) that moves ….”
“I will remember my covenant which is between me and you
and every living creature (nephesh).”
It is translated “person” (nephesh). It is translated “life” (nephesh).
It is translated “dead body” (nephesh)! It is translated “breath” (nephesh).
It is translated “fish” (nephesh).
Fishy, huh?

With over 100 occurrences in the New Testament,
psyche is the only Greek word translated as “soul.”
But it too is only translated that way 58 times.
40 other times, it’s translated as “life.”

The Greek word is psyche in these well known verses.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life (psyche),
what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.”
“Those who who find their life (psyche) will lose it,
and those who lose their life (psyche) for my sake will find it.”
“… just as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve,
and to give his life (psyche) a ransom for many.”
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life (psyche) for one’s friends.”

So consider: the very words used to evoke a not here here and now
(nephesh and psyche)
are words that can also integrate us more fully into the here and now.


So the question to ask, is not (is never) if Jesus were to come today,
do you know where you would go?
It is rather, if Jesus were to come today,
would you and he be pleased with your today?

The question is not where does your soul go after your living,
but does your living have soul?
Does it resonate with truth?
Does it have depth?
Does your breathing hover over the surface of depths?
Does the being of God unfold in your own?
Every day?


Happen to remember the subtitle
to Thomas Moore’s 1992 book Care of the Soul?
A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life (emphasis mine).


I remember talking to a college co-ed once
considering her sexual relationship with her boyfriend,
and it occurred to me to say, 
“Be careful with your soul.”

It gave her pause.

It’s not the way we think.
But there is no separating. There are no distinctions.
Be careful with your body; take care with your soul.


Hell represents poetic license
given to functional descriptions of consequence and truth.
Because I’m for sure not saying hell doesn’t exist.
I’m saying it represents a teaching strategy—methodology;
it constitutes a lesson plan.
It serves a greater purpose, and is not—is not an end unto itself.


I can think of two purposes hell serves—
one potentially constructive, one not.
One employed by Jesus, one most definitely not.
One intended, one unintended consequence.

First, apparently obvious: hell as the threat of punishment.
I’m really not comfortable with hell as theological stick the church wields
juxtaposed with the theological carrot that is heaven.
Really? Really?

Now I know my comfort level does not constitute an appropriate gauge
of theological truth,
but I still truly can’t see Jesus employing even a metaphorical stick.

Yet as parents we threaten consequences to our beloved children,
and the more important the circumstance,
the more dire the consequence we dream up.
But our threats (real and honest) serve, always, the greater purpose
of teaching the right way through the circumstance.

The threats are unimportant in and of themselves.
They’re not what we want—important only representing the hope
and the investment we have in the learning and growth of these we love.
And even when we force ourselves to apply them,
we look for ways to mitigate their harshness.
We look to extend grace.

(Yes, I know. There are times we as parents get so frustrated
we start anticipating imposing a consequence!
But that doesn’t last.
That shouldn’t last.)

We remember (try and remember) amidst consequences
we’ve brainstormed to be as undesirable as possible
that it’s never the consequences we threaten that are scariest,
but the consequence of our children not learning and growing.

But in the fullness of time,
poetic license became theological doctrine.
The threats become more important than the greater hope they serve.

Such are thoughts on the first purpose of hell.

Second, the unintended, non-constructive—destructive dimension to hell—
is one that incorporates the whole scapegoat idea—
never a part of Jesus’ thought or teaching (indeed antithetical to it),
but so integrated into any depiction of hell.

Those in hell are them.
Those going to hell are them.
They are separate from us—different from us.
And it’s okay for them to be tortured for all eternity
because they’re separate from us—different from us.

In fact, it’s good for them to be in hell,
because someone has to take the fall.
Someone (not me) has to take the fall.


What happens if we take ultimate punishment off the table,
but do not deny the reality of hell?
I’m not denying the reality of hell. It exists.

What if we not only don’t deny the reality of hell—
but also don’t deny the transcendent truth
of hell within the mystery of God?
Hell is, verily verily, present and future consequence.

It’s just interesting to consider the beginning of the book of Job
in which Satan is portrayed as someone doing the will and work of God.

Interesting to remember that the Devil’s advocate
originally referred to a lawyer within Roman Catholic tradition
charged with arguing against an individual being canonized
as part of the canonization process.

Interesting to wonder why, if God is presently working
to extricate people from their hells, God would stop.
God is that God is … and always will be …
working to transform even hell.

Hell is present and future consequence,
but not God punishing us. Rather our punishing ourselves
blind to the fact that we are.

And hell is truth and consequence … until it’s not.


There are more hells than there are people—
each sin (all have sinned)—each sin creating its own pocket of hell—
an enclave—
a beachhead—
which in the terms of war creates all too dramatic an image
when what we’re talking about, living without soul,
is an estrangement, an act of unkindness, an injustice,
a selfishness, a lack of care.

It’s a delicate and deliberate balancing—
the desire to use overblown images (poetic license:
the sulfurous flames of scorched torment)
to underscore
the overarching importance of the daily
while, at the same time, not overreaching—
finding an appropriate consequence for the importance of the circumstance
in which we ignore or deny God’s way
while ever affirming that God’s way (even through hell!)
is always fraught with possibility.


One criticism of Christianity—a legitimate criticism of modern Christianity—
is its individualism.
“It’s a personal thing,” we say, “a personal relationship”
(which isn’t the same as private, but it’s hard to tell them apart).

And culture reshapes faith and Scripture in its image.

Christianity was a communal truth—
is supposed to be a communal truth—
with an individual dimension to it, to be sure,
but only as individuals comprising the community of faith.

Hell—hell though—well, there’s nothing communal about it.

So, in fact, when we take our faith—
when we take our Christianity
and load the individualism of our culture on it—
allow the individualism of our culture into it—
Scripturally justify the individualism of our culture,
we are making hell of heaven—
a hell of a thing, you must admit, to do!


comments and questions for your consideration:
• Do you associate Jesus with an emphasis on hell?
• How does hell fit with your understanding of God?

• Think about how you use exaggeration for maximum effect.
• What does it do to your vision of hell to tie it to your local landfill?
• Does it make difference in your thinking not to go from a particular, recognized image to an abstract concept but to go from that abstract concept to the particular, recognized image?

• What does hell mean to you, personally? How important is it to your theology? To your living? Why?
• How have you created beachheads of hell in your own living?
• Do you believe God wants to work with you to extricate you from enclaves of hell in your life? What can you do to be a part of such work?

• How does systemic evil play into all this? For hell has beachheads in our culture (our communal living) that are more than individual failures and shortcoming, does it not?

• What’s it like to think of hell as no play-dates, no T.V. and no sweets for a week?

Traditionally heaven equals another here—
a/not/her here—a not here here—
another now—a not here now.
And traditionally that has translated into a not here here
we go to after we die in that hopefully distant not here now.

Well, heaven or hell, right?
Our two not here options not now—
juxtaposed in stark and absolute, definitive opposition to each other.
Whatever one is, the other’s not.
If one’s up, the other down.

So if heaven equals a hope—a belief in the midst of what is
that there will be something else—
something other,
and if heaven and hell are mutually exclusive in definition
then does hell equal not so much the worst we can imagine,
as much as the fear that nothing will change—
that that which is will just continue to be?

It’s not that heaven is a not here here and that hell is here (thank God!),
but that heaven represents ever dynamic change,
and hell equals stagnant stasis.

We can all relate to both that hope and that fear.
We all hold onto some hope of progress—
change for the better—improvement—growth—
some hope that tomorrow will be better than today—
whether that’s with regards to the diagnosis,
the diet, the relationship, the job, the mortgage.
At the same time, we worry.
We stress—afraid things won’t get better.
We read the news and are not encouraged.
We’re anxious about our children, our jobs, retirement.
We’re worried that things won’t change—
won’t get better.

For most of us, if we’re honest, our hope boils down
(not to minimize either the stress or the hope)
to matters of convenience—to a greater ease of being—
an easier being for us.
Most of what we’d like to be different—
a matter of convenience—
more money coming in, less going out,
a better (somehow) job, marriage, house, banana bread recipe.
And heaven equals simply a better version of what is—
a not here here and now continuous with the here and now.

But there are also those in desperate need of the hope
of the affirmation of a not here here—a not here now
because their here and now is defined not
by what are essentially wants they wish were other than they are,
but by needs.
These are the Lazaruses of our day—
the all too many whose most basic needs
(amidst our culture’s catering to wants) go unmet.
And there are far too many children as Lazarus in the world around us.

These are those without the power to or even the hope of
changing their circumstance—
of changing what is.

For them heaven equals an unequivocal promise of hope:
there will come a break into what is—
a breaking—an in-breaking—
a not here here and now discontinuous with the here and now,
and what is will be no more.
There will be a great equalizing (we hold this truth to be self-evident);
there will be justice.
You will have what you need and more.
And those who ignore you—
those who have so much more than they need—
who don’t even know what they need—who don’t think in those terms—
don’t have to think in those terms—
will …
think in those terms—
have to think in those terms—
and face the implications of having
prioritized personal wants over the needs of others.
Heaven’s justice, whatever else it involves,
prescribes that individual wants
do not supersede each and every individual’s needs.


Well now that’s all quite different
from suggesting heaven equals the ultimate reward for some
and, correspondingly, hell equals the ultimate punishment for others—
both states of being graphically described to motivate us
to do whatever we need to do to gain the reward and avoid the punishment.

More traditional thought
and free license for the imaginations of preachers and writers and artists
to reach for our very best imagery and our very scariest—
(or what we think might be best and most scary).
This is what you want; this is what you don’t.

But our best and scariest turn out to be rather shallow, don’t you think,
if heaven simply equals more of what we want,
and hell simply equals what we don’t—
if heaven is pictured as mansions, crowns, streets of gold
to include us among those circles we consider most exclusive … now,
and hell is imaged as physical torment—
a theologically sanctioned torture chamber.


Now honestly is that a good enough motivation by which to order our living?
Obviously, there’s no denying (in our culture)
that lucre motivates the order of many a living—
to the sacrifice of other priorities,
or that fear can lead us to ignore other priorities
in desperately seeking safety.
And the hope of a reward, the fear of punishment
has obviously been (at the very least)
effective enough to lie now almost unquestioned,
at the heart of all discussion,
as integral to our faith and faithful to our God.

At a gathering of preachers, someone, in fact,
asked, “If we don’t have heaven as blessed after-life to promise people,
what have we got?”

I have always enjoyed asking myself and others though,
“Would you be a Christian if there were no heaven?”
“Hell yes!” (Sorry, couldn’t resist!)
For there is a richness to living in the way of Jesus that is its own reward.

Interesting to consider author and journalist Daniel Pink’s book,
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
in which he suggests that while basic need constitutes our most basic motivation
(we are driven to eat—to survive),
when basic need is met,
reward and punishment function as a more complex motivational strategy.
If our basic needs are met, then we are driven
by the hope of reward and the fear of punishment.
He suggests most corporate management is based on this observation
(and much theology, we note—
and no small amount of preaching).
Pink concludes though (and this is critical),
that there is yet a more complex motivational reality
that is not only not touched by the promise of reward and the threat of punishment
but that that can actually be undermined by imposing such.

A way of doing (and being) that is its own reward.


So what have we got?
Well, we apparently have heaven, at least for some,
not as a qualitatively different reality,
but as a modified reality.
We take what we know and wonder how it could be better.
And so we imagine, for example, that there won’t be any tears.

Why is it, do you think, that we so often take what’s most profound
and make of it something cheaper?
What kind of wonder-full is no tears?

We’re not going to cry in heaven?
What’s up with that?
Nothing’s going to matter enough to us to make us cry?
There will be great rejoicing in heaven for one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7,10)
but no weeping for one who doesn’t?
That’s kind of cold.

And it’s not even what it says in the book of Revelation (twice)
where we never read that there won’t be any tears,
but that every tear will be wiped away (Revelation 7:17)
or where we read that God will wipe every tear from their eyes
while simultaneously there will be no crying (Revelation 21:4)—
which is quite the trick!

And what’s the richer reality, really? That no one cries?
Or that everyone will be comforted in their every grief and all their suffering—
that there won’t be any sustained crying—
any incessant weeping?
There won’t be any uncomforted pain.

In this here and now, everyone cries.
But not everyone is comforted.
Which is to say that not everyone is loved.

In this here and now, everyone cries,
but not for the same reasons.
Some cry because they go to bed hungry and wake up scared.
Some cry because they have little reason not to.
Because there’s little they have to value
and few who value them.
Others cry because they have much to value
and many to value them.

So actually whatever current circumstance, we have a modified reality—
heaven as a modification of what we know—
just more or less extreme—
continuous and discontinuous with individual experience,
but grounded in human experience.

Heaven starts with what is, always,
and assesses it—judges it as either be-worthy or not—
based on how we think God wants life to be
for each person created in the image of God—
based on who we believe God to be.

So heaven’s not a complete break from human experience.
Our images of and language for it are derived from what we
understand to be the best and richest parts of living.

What is is thus simply the starting point.
Heaven evolves out of what is—
not for the sake of a reward—not for the sake of exclusiveness,
but for God’s sake—for justice.

(Interesting (no?) to consider that many of those who so vociferously
denounce and reject the theory of evolution
employ it in their conceptualizing heaven!)

So what if—what if we envisioned heaven
as a reality modified not on the basis
of how what’s good for some of us already
could be better, but on the basis of how what’s good
could be the bottom line for everyone?


So, in the here and now, to those whose here and now
cannot be judged be-worthy for God’s sake—
those who await an in-breaking of God—for justice,
should it be enough for those
whose here and now is assessed as more be-worthy—
should it be enough for us to proclaim to the Lazaruses of our day,
“We know. Things aren’t supposed to be the way they are.”
Is it enough to simply acknowledge that their circumstances should not be?

Not if there’s no effort put into changing the way things are.
Only if there’s effort being put into changing the way things are.

Heaven is justified by God-with-us,
and our faith is justified by us-with-them.


Heaven equals a way of being (a potential way of being)
characterized by who God is—
a way for everyone to be as God is—
a time and a place for everyone to be as God
on earth as it is in heaven.

Heaven’s the trajectory of our here and now into God.
Heaven is the momentum of the godly
into the redeeming of creation.
And since a trajectory and momentum include
both the starting point and the end point
(the now and the not yet), the question for us all becomes:

Am I living into it now?
Am I part of that momentum? that inexorable (I believe) movement into God?
Am I living in a way characterized by my hope and expectation of heaven?
Are my choices, my actions, my relationships, my priorities
grounded in God … or, in anything else?
Am I growing into God?
Or have I given up on working toward that possibility
and now project it into some place and time
unconnected to the here and now—
into some not here here and not here now
when God will arbitrarily make it all right.

I am a part of God in the here and now.
I am part of heaven and the movement toward heaven.
I am, of course, also part of the way things are in the here and now.
God help me!


Heaven equals the intersection
of Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness
and Jean Pierre de Caussade’s The Sacrament of the Present Moment.
It’s not just the fullness of the here and now—
the gift of the artist’s way, but God with us here and now—
the gift of God—
a heavenly redefining
of the fullness of the here and the now and the not yet?


Heaven equals God. It is thus and always will be. It always has been.
And God is with us always (Immanuel!)
not just accepting what is—what we’ve done—who we are,
but always moving with us toward a being more—
a being more reflective of who God is
and thus toward a reality more reflective of who God is.
And all creation eagerly awaits those who commit to God’s way—
here and now. So, again, am I living into it here and now?

Because heaven can’t wait; heaven doesn’t wait.

Heaven equals where we’re going
because God is where we are …
which is … heaven.


comments and questions for your consideration:
• When you think of heaven do you think of (a) a not here here and a not here now; (b) a here and now; or (c) both?

• What are your images of heaven? Are they (a) material; (b) spiritual; (c) relational; or (d) all of the above? (And before we reject material, shouldn’t we consider the wonders of creation that God blessed as very good and wonder why (on earth) God would just pick us humans to populate heaven!

• Are your images of heaven continuous or discontinuous with your experience of what is?

• Would you be a Christian if there were no heaven or no hell? Why or why not?
• When you think of what you love to do, what is the best motivation for you do do those things? When you think of things you don’t enjoy doing, but have to do (for whatever reason), what is the best motivation for you to do those things?

We might describe a great variety of positive experiences as “heavenly.” Do we need “heaven” to be one thing?

• Do I consider myself responsible (or partially responsible) for heaven? Or do I consider heaven to be all God’s responsibility?

• Does heaven demand a way of living?

thoughtful songs worth your consideration:
about heaven:
Brett Dennen and Natalie Merchant, “Heaven
Mark Erelli, “God Loves Everyone
about living into heaven:
Mark Erelli, “Here and Now”
Mark Erelli, “The Only Way

One truth of our world
is that Jesus is widely known through the people of God—
those who claim the name of Jesus—
those who profess to walk in the way of Jesus.

Whatever affirmations Scripture makes about Jesus
or the teachings of the faith—
that is all either undergirded or undermined in the living of those who claim Christ.

It’s part of the experiential truth of that image
of the community of faith as the body of Christ.
In that Scriptural image, of course, Christ is the head.

In the actions and attitudes of the people of Jesus
it, more often than not, I’m afraid,
appears we are headless—mindless—brainless
and, because it’s not the mind of Jesus in us, also heartless.

We are, more often than not, a body hypocritically hijacking itself.

I’ve not been able to verify what I’ve heard—
that Ghandi was turned away from a worship service
because of his ethnicity
and later said he would be Christian (he was much impressed with Jesus)
were it not for Christians (so much less impressive),
but he definitely thought the greatest hinderance
to the spread of Christianity
was Christians themselves.

That’s the risk God takes.
Trusting us.
Trusting us to be the community that will help define who God is in the world.
That’s the risk God has always taken in relationship to people.

Always interesting to reconsider
(on a parallel line of thought) the expectations
of the coming of Messiah (the first coming)—
expectations of Judge, judgment,
punishment of the wicked and the vindication
of the faithful and thus and thereby of God—
expectations in stark contrast to the actual events
of Jesus’ coming who came himself to be judged.
Interesting to consider the expectations of the second coming
no different from the first—Judge, judgment, punishment and vindication.
So will God be judged again? For trusting us? For risking investing self in us?
and in judging God again, will those with eyes to see—
see, again, our own judgment?

To reconsider judgment
is really all less a matter of considering God judging us
as God trusting us.

And our own vindication is again a matter of God’s,
but the difference is critical.
It’s not that we are vindicated by the power of God’s authority over eternity,
but that we and God are vindicated by the power and authority of love.


Is my respect for/appreciation of/belief in God
somehow validated/justified
by affirmation of the power and authority God wields?

Do I need God to have the authority of eternity
to be a God in whom I want to believe?
To be a God I deem worth believing in?

Do I expect God to have what the world thinks of as power
while God rejects such power in expectation of us?


And we need to think about revelation (the process not the book).
How much of Scripture is revelation
(what we don’t need to experientially know, but is revealed to us)?
How much of Scripture is true beyond our ability to know?

Another way of considering the question:
what is inspiration?

Is it inspired to speak of God
in the very terms of power with which every culture speaks
(and has always spoken) of God?
Is that an inspired vision of God when
we are culturally and indeed I believe ontologically conditioned
to admire and covet power.
claiming it through the God we claim

And what is thus revealed?
In our thinking about God does God reveal self to us?
or does our thinking about God reveal more of us ….
Or, of course, both?
We are created in the image of God
and we return the favor,
recreating God in our own image.

Does God as power reveal God in power
or only power’s appeal?

I acknowledge the ever-possibility/probability/inevitability
that in trying to get a perspective on God
I can’t get beyond my own perspective—
sensitive to the bias that creates through me.

It is my consistent prayer that I am found by Truth in my attempt to articulate truth.


The utter certainty with which some ascribe the power of eternity to God
must face the challenge posed within the particular juxtaposition of those
whose lives testify to the priorities of God
but whose lips don’t profess God the way we want them to.

Such certainty must account for stories of Scripture
like that of Lazarus, who by by no virtue of his own, ended up in heaven
in a simple reversal of earthly circumstance,
like that of the sheep and the goats
who wen divided on the basis of some having done this
and some having done that,
are all shocked to discover what it means.

Utter certainty does not conform to God encounter.


I have thought much about the cliché: “No pain, no gain.”
It’s accepted without question in the conditioning context:
it hurts to stretch and break down muscles
and rebuild them stronger and more elastic.
It’s accepted within the sacrifices required to learn a trade
(if I want to get into med school—score well on the LSAT,
I hit the books).
It’s accepted in the job market.
You have to make sacrifices to accomplish and achieve.

What about what we might call ontological challenges to growth?

In order to grow,
I often need to overcome aspects of me—
aspects of who I am.

It’s biblical. You have to be pruned.
And I do need parts of my being excised—
certain prejudices, certain blinders, assumptions,
certain habits—ways of thinking and speaking and acting.

Sometimes “but it’s who I am!”
is just a pathetic excuse for avoiding the hard work
of growing into a better who you could be—
the immature clinging to the idea that growing into a better person
isn’t hard work.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child,
I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child
but when I became an adult,
I put an end to childish things.
And when I because a wiser man,
I put an end to manly things.
If I grow, it is parts of me I put an end to.

This is part of who I am (that should sometimes constitute confession).
It’s not part of who God is (that’s based on my Bible study, reflection,
and the conversations and teachings within my faith community).
I don’t want it to be part of me anymore
(such is the courageous commitment to growth).

I overcome the me I am
in fierce committed struggle
to become the limping me I want to be.


What About the Flat Tire?
What flat tire?
The one the missionary had on her way to church
that kept her from delivering that sermon
that kept someone from God?

(For want of a tire the missionary was late.
For want of a missionary the sermon wasn’t delivered.
For want of a sermon the visitor didn’t hear the word.
For want of the word a soul was lost.
For want of a soul the kingdom was lost—
all for the want of a tire.)

That tire?
No, not that one.

But the one that makes you realize you
are limping along in the way of God—
the one that makes you notice being off-balanced—
off-kilter, cattywompassed—
the one that causes you to pull over and come to a stop
and have to make a change
in order to go on.

That one.


comments and questions for your consideration:

• Whom do I value as a representative of Jesus?
• How do I consider my own representation of Jesus?
• Does my consideration of my own representation of Jesus ever lead me to change? Why or Why not?

• Have I considered my being to constitute God’s risk?
• What’s it like to consider my judgment also God’s?
• What kind of power do I need God to have?

• How much am I like my God and how much is my God like me?

• What do I do with someone who embodies the teachings of Jesus
more clearly than I do, but does not claim Jesus?

• What is there about me (who I’ve been) that I’ve put away in my growth?
• What is there about me (who I am) I should consider putting away to grow some more?

• Is it more important for my understanding of God
to invest God with power no one else has,
or to have God validate as power what we all can have?

The utter certainty and virtually venomous vehemence
with which some locate others outside their ultimate circle of inclusion
has always unnerved me.
Does it somehow translate into their feeling better about—what?
a/ about themselves?
b/ their place inside that circle?
c/ whatever faith story they claim that both identifies
and justifies identifying people as included or as excluded?
All of the above?

It’s really not so much their annoyingly confident, absolute certainty
about the actually unknowable that’s disconcerting,
but something more basic—more primal—more instinctive.
And all we have to do, disturbingly, is look to our
elementary school playgrounds and lunch rooms (or remember them).
It’s fundamentally and experientially true:
somehow the being excluded of others bolsters my own sense of being included—
or bolsters my sense of the value of being included—
a value that would lessen were everyone included
(that’s a basic theory of supply and demand, isn’t it?
If everyone has something, clearly it’s not worth much).

It’s the complete opposite of what we learn as family—
of a love not threatened or cheapened by the inclusion of more into it,
but deepened and enriched.
Of course, even in family, you work through the initial
reaction of child to baby—
those wonderfully honest exclamations:
“Can we take it back now?”
“How long is she staying?”
You work through that though … or you don’t, I guess.
Hopefully, you do. Ideally, you do.
And a family remains fundamentally incomplete until all are included.

And yet even for people with a rich and positive experience of family,
beyond family, exclusion of others is still experienced as affirmation of self.

I still so clearly remember being in chapel with the at-that-time girl of my dreams,
and when it came time for a prayer
with every eye closed, I felt her hand slide into mine.
And I felt great wonderful stupendous excited hopeful celebrative valued
I felt special—
until the prayer ended, and I opened my eyes
to see she was also holding the hand
of whoever was standing next to her on her other side as well ….
And I didn’t feel any of what I had been feeling.
I didn’t feel special.

So at that basic, primal, instinctive level
the very idea of universalism sucks
because no one’s special,
and therefore I can’t be.


Immaturity sometimes sounds just like what it is, doesn’t it?
Whether that’s people cheering a number of executions,
or cheering those who would die for lack of health insurance,
or someone frustrated at not being the only one whose hand a girl holds—
just so some of us can be assured of our “specialness.”


So unnerving and disconcerting as it may be to me
how others exclude—the attitude with which they exclude—
what they cheer for in their exclusiveness,
somehow it doesn’t surprise me
that what surprises me about what others do
doesn’t surprise me as much when considered in light of what I do—
including and excluding.

Because we all do it, don’t we? Almost all of us?
Do you know someone who doesn’t?

I know I too often insist on what I think of as the specialness of my identity
by virtue of something that sets me apart from others
(she’s holding only my hand).
I define too much of myself against someone else
or a group of someone elses (I’m not like them)
instead of just as I am (I am … that I am?).

“I am that I am” though is an identity uninformed by context,
while I, all too often, am my context
(as always, so much easier to condemn
in our amorphous—polymorphous politicians
than to even notice and acknowledge in ourselves!)—
I am too often where I am—
too often and too flexibly, who I’m with and not who I’m not with—
what I’m feeling in the moment—
what I want in the moment—

while we are certainly not created to be contextless,
we are created (is it too much to ask?)
to be essentially consistent through contexts.

So it certainly appears all this including and excluding—
all this defining of self against others,
it’s really not about me wanting or needing
to feel special just to feel special.

It is rather tied to my sense of self—
me being protective of my sense of self—
indicative of the precariousness of my sense of self—
the precariousness of my identity,
and thus the importance of that identity being valued by who I’m with.

Maturity has less to do with not needing my identity valued by others
as it does with not needing it always to be valued by those I’m with—
as it does choosing the community who will help define who I am.


And of course it’s not just my identity so precarious,
of which I’m protective,
but God’s—
precarious, let’s be clear, not in its truth,
but in my understanding of it—
my interpretation—
not in the transcendent truth that God is as God is,
but in my idolatrous thinking
God is as I think God is

That’s a faith statement, isn’t it?
By which I mean it’s specifically something we believe to be—
not something we empirically know to be,
or theoretically conceive to be.

Because while I tend to—I think most of us tend to
think of God as imminently engaged in specific contexts and relationships,
it’s as one consistently and authentically wholly (holy) transcendent.
Never contextless,
but always essentially consistent
through any and all contexts …

as we wish we could be … think we should be …,
but all too often aren’t.

We create and sustain and protect our identity
by distinguishing ourselves from some and identifying ourselves with others.
Yet God we distinguish from all (holy Other),
and are left with what?

And so now I’m reminded of that silly question
about whether a tree falling in the forest
makes a sound if there’s no one there to hear it.

I’ve always been of the mind that the tree makes sound
whether anyone hears it or not.
That sound is true—not beholden to an audience.
But do soundwaves not perceived by ears that hear
just constitute the possibility of—the potential for sound
were they to be given an audience—ears that hear?

Is the truth of sound not an independent, autonomous truth,
but an interdependent, relational one?

Now, I’m not suggesting that God is only if God is perceived—
that God is an interdependent, relational truth,
but that there’s no one with ears to hear Holy Other.
There’s no one to hear the Word in the fullness of its transcendent power and authority.

And any word we’re capable of hearing is necessarily so much less than the fullness we posit and is also necessarily interpreted by the ears that hear.
God in my experience is always my interpolation of God in my experience
So my faith statement is still whatever I hear of God
is my perception of truth ever independent of me
yet named by me—claimed by me.

We maintain the idea of the transcendent Other, unknowable, inimitable,
and yet we speak of God’s imminent, presence as love—
knowable and imitable.
In our tradition, we name Jesus the Word made flesh—
the fullness of the unknowable made known to us—
the Word striking our ears in such a way that they might hear.

We distinguish God from all (holy Other),
and then identify God with one
in whose abundant living
the fullness of God is pleased to dwell.

So there’s also the suggestion
that this imminence is in no way the lowest perceivable denominator
between God and us,
but precisely the fullness of God
the transcendent not separate from—
not other than, but holy within the imminent.

So though we speak of God choosing a vulnerability of being,
is it a matter of choice?
Or is the very being of God vulnerable in its essence?

And we run bang into a conundrum.
For if, as we see manifest in Jesus,
God wields the power and authority of love in relationship,
then even just thinking in terms of imposing reward and punishment
(let alone actually doing it … heaven for you … hell for you …)
can only be in that “love’s” lack of integrity.

Ultimatums and judgments
don’t work so well in the maintenance of loving relationships
(remain a part of the dissolution of relationships).

Love accepts what is—
acknowledging what is as the place to start.
Encourages more, sure.
Hopes for more—
works for more—
anticipates more.

We sometimes give up on love.
Issue our ultimatums and judgments.
Sometimes, sadly, for good reason.
But there is such a vast difference
between giving up on love
and suggesting love gives up on us.
Because God giving up on love
would constitute God giving up on God’s own true authentic self.
Is that part of our imaging God?

Loving within chaos, God works toward
not an order imposed upon every aspect of creation
but a dynamic, relational, organic ordering
(words and ideas that all defy too rigid a structure,
too absolute a systematization)
starting always with what is.
God works toward not a tame order,
but a wild, unpredictable ordering.

Within that ordering—
as part of that ordering—
as love within chaos,
I am not assessed and judged by God’s transcendence,
but known and loved within God’s imminence
that is, somehow, transcendent.

And what exactly is it
that’s not assessed and judged but known and loved?
My identity—who I am
as one informed by God or not—
as one shaped by the priorities of God or not.

More than anything I specifically say and/or do,
it’s the accumulated sense of me from all that I say and do—
all that I don’t say and don’t do.

That’s what the imminence of a loving relationship is all about.
A wedding may consist of fine sounding words—
formulaic vows, impressive and dramatic symbolic action,
the marriage is made of lives intertwined
through the good times and the hard times,
the health and the dis-ease.
that shape the reality of home and family.

What many attribute to God’s actions—
and therefore God’s will and God’s plan,
may more simply represent the consequences of the lives we lead—
the choices we make—the priorities we choose.
We live into heaven.
We live into hell.
God always loving within the chaos—
encouraging hoping working anticipating … more.


comments and questions for your consideration:

• If, as Paul suggests, we are stewards of mystery (1 Corinthians 4:1),
what role does/should “utter certainty” play in our faith?
• If we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12),
what role does/should “utter certainty” play in our faith?
• If pride goes before destruction (Proverbs 16:18),
what role does/should “utter certainty” play in our faith?

• From whom do I distinguish myself with pride?
• With whom do I identify myself with pride?

• If a family remains fundamentally incomplete until all are included,
can we imagine heaven complete without everyone included?
• Why or why not?

• If God’s transcendent power is made manifest within the immanence
of Jesus’ life, what’s transcendent about it?

• Is it more important for my understanding of God
to invest God with power no one else has,
or to have God validate as power what we all can have?

Love Wins begins with a Preface—a relatively short introduction
in which, from the very get-go, it’s abundantly clear
Bell considers “everybody everywhere”
(those who consider themselves believers in this faith tradition
and those who consider themselves believers in that faith tradition,
those who don’t consider themselves part of a faith tradition,
those who consider themselves atheists and agnostics)—
Bell considers “everybody everywhere”
(Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell,
and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York: HarperOne, 2011, vii)
included in and a part of the story of Jesus.

Now on the one hand, that’s simply part of traditional evangelical thought—
with our: “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations”
and our priority of the so-called Great Commission.
On the other hand though, traditional evangelical thought
linking Jesus to the fate of every person who ever lived
has always hinged on the prospect of everyone everywhere
ultimately having to respond (or submit) to Jesus as Judge
and as Final and Authoritative Arbiter of Eternity.

Bell suggests, again from the very get-go,
that the traditional concept of Jesus as Judge is up for debate—
that there are legitimate questions to ask about the whole arbitration of eternity.

A lot of people have been threatened, offended, confused by such suggestions.
Well, of course they have been.
That’s pretty much inevitable when a dominant perspective is called into question.

But while the whole judgment-for-all-eternity thing
is indubitably a dominant perspective within Christian tradition,
it’s worth noting, on the one hand,
that both our faith and our holy texts have deep roots
in the minority perspective,
and both, in fact, consistently offer contrasting
(if not downright contradictory) images and ideas.
It’s worth noting, on the other hand, that the priority of orthodoxy
(a strict adherence to the dominant perspective)
was not integral to the early church—
was not integral, in fact, until Christianity was itself made a dominant perspective.

Orthodoxy didn’t really get to be important until
faith was seized upon as a political means used to control people.

Orthodoxy has more to do with political history than faith history.


Also suggested (or implied) in the Preface
is the perspective that the Jesus story fits into the God story—
fits into the bigger story of God.
Jesus’ story is, after all, the story of God’s love.
Jesus came to us because God so loved the world.

One current in the stream of Christian thought,

though another current might suggest the Jesus story
is so much bigger than we ever allow it to be—
bigger than we can possibly fathom
and is inseparable from the fullness of the God story.

The writer of the gospel of Mark and the writer of the gospel of John
might well fall into different currents in the stream here.
Well, no might about it! They disagree in their representations of Jesus.
(Read both Gospels simply asking yourself,
are they talking about the same Jesus?)

Now to state the obvious
(which all too often does not go without saying),
two people for whatever reason writing about me
might well disagree in their representations.
That doesn’t call me into question,
nor does it call either of their perceptions of me into question.
It might make for some interesting and important conversation!

I still well remember introducing my then wife-to-be
to my most significant friends.

Either way (whether the Jesus story fits into the bigger God story
or constitutes the fullness of the God story),
it’s not just that the Jesus story has been hijacked.
True enough.

It’s even more disturbingly true that the God story has been hijacked,

and hijacked at times by the Jesus story—
a Jesus story too small claiming too much,
or too big yet not claiming enough.

Maybe something so true will inevitably be distorted,
yet even so, point to more truth than anything else we know.


Bell states he writes explicitly for those disturbed and offended
by the hijacking of the Jesus story—
the implication again being that some dominant interpretations
of Scripture in traditional theology (accepted as “orthodoxy”)
constitute a distortion of something more true.

He does not write for those who hold the dominant view,
the hijackers, one would presume—
the ones his book thus disturbs and offends—the loud ones
who doth methinks protest too much!

It’s such an important point to make in our culture
(whether you end up agreeing with Bell or not):
you can adhere to the dominant view and still be wrong.
Not only is our faith not a democracy,
but even in a democracy the majority’s not always right … just more.

Back to Jesus hijacked though,
at a deeper level, it’s not just about a particular image of Jesus (Judge)—
a function or role of Jesus (Arbiter of Eternity),
but what the wider stream of Christian tradition (not just evangelical)
from the very earliest years,
has always acknowledged as “the scandal of particularity”—

that God would be one man—
that the fullness of God would be pleased to indwell one human being …
which is to say that truth—ultimate truth—would be found in one story—
that universal (I use the adjective advisedly!)
truth would be manifest in one story.

That scandal is thus also the implication
that this one story is everyone’s—
whether they acknowledge that or not.

Now what business do I have telling anyone else my story is their story—
they just don’t know it?

Well, none, really.
And that’s the point.

It’s not the story that’s the problem,
but what we do with it—have done with it—will do with it.
Not God’s word made flesh,
but the way our words assume flesh.

For if I say to you or to anyone else, “My story has to be your story—”
I ask for the impossible.
Call it the scandal of perspective.

Not sure I consider perspective scandalous,
but (to carry this to the n’th degree) I acknowledge,
when sitting together with someone in the same room,
that I’m looking at it from this particular chair
and you’re over there on that sofa,
so we’re actually seeing the same room differently.

From the chair is my view of reality. You have yours from the sofa.
If you’re real, then you’re part of my view of reality from the chair.
Again, your view is different. I get that. I respect that.
But I’m not going to apologize for my view.

My God story encompasses all creation (including any/every you).
The Jesus story is the way I tell it best.


My friend Don Flowers shared with me Dr. David Walsh’s statement:
“The one who tells the story, shapes the culture.”
Strong word. Striking. Experientially true. Fair enough.
But it also makes of our story telling a competition.

What do we do with that?

A pastor friend recently noted
as much as she didn’t want to focus on current events in worship
(as opposed to referring to current events in worship I would suppose),
she was afraid not to offer an interpretation of current events
in light of her fear that the culturally popular version
would otherwise rest unchallenged.

In days when a Congressperson can make an ideologically-based,
completely false claim,
and when questioned respond with the statement:
“It was not intended to be a factual statement,”
well …, hers is a valid concern.

It’s not fair to lay competitive story telling
solely at the feet of marketing and politics as marketing ….
Religions have been in the game for millennia.
But the best of religion (rare as that is)
calls its own shadow side into question.
Marketing and politics don’t seem to help us
confront the worst of their/our tendencies.

And so instead of sharing stories around the fire
(if in deed such an idyllic scene ever existed!),
we’re all about imposing stories on each other.
“Reality as seen from this particular chair is more real!”
“No, it’s the reality seen from the sofa that’s most real!”

“I want to shape the culture (I think it needs to be a different shape)
and so I will tell whatever story I think will get me there.
The vital importance of the shape of culture entrusted to me
justifies whatever story I tell.”
That where we are?
All out there pimping our stories?

What if we were to instead consider our most beloved and sacred stories
stories to share to elicit someone else’s—
someone else’s most beloved and meaningful stories—
not in competition, but trusting that in the respectful sharing
in the “open, honest inquiry about the things that matter most” (Bell, ix)
(both the verbalizing and the listening),
we’re doing something vitally important—
something potentially transformative and redemptive.

Over the weeks of the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, people camp out
because many of the artists stick around after the scheduled concerts
and the best music consistently happens
as artists and festival attendees gather around the campfires at night
and share songs.
One leads to another leads to another, and it’s all about the joy
of having music to share—
or having a love of music to contribute,
and “the discussion itself is divine” (Bell, ix).

Remember the writers of the gospels of Mark and John?
How they disagree?
But did they argue?
Maybe they simply enjoyed the other story—
without being threatened.
Maybe they listened carefully to hear what another story had to say—
didn’t pretended to listen while carefully preparing their rebuttal,
but listened to enjoy—maybe to learn—
for Mark to hear John’s Jesus’ centrality through bigness,
and for John to hear Mark’s Jesus’ centrality through smallness.

Imagine that!

Jesus’ stories consistently draw people in
to determining how a story divides people
and then inverts the divisions—turns them inside out
in the surprise of who’s included.

Jesus, in other words, tells stories to bring together.

We tell stories to win … and we lose.


comments and questions for your consideration:

• Is theology a matter of majority decision (what most believe),
a matter of a selected majority opinion (what most acknowledged “experts” believe),
or invitation for every last person to participate in the conversation?
• Does theology even matter to you very much at all?

• Do you have a checklist of things you have to believe—
articles of faith that for you are non-negotiable?
• If so, what are they? What do they imply/suggest about your faith? About you?
• Might those implications/suggestions constitute your theology?

• Identify and consider contrasting (contradictory) images/ideas
from our faith tradition and/or our Scriptures.
• Are right and wrong the right (!) categories
into which to place theological conversation?

• What’s it like to consider the Jesus story part of a bigger God story?
• What’s different about considering Jesus the fullness of the God story?

• How do you acknowledge perspective (yours and others) in conversation
without letting it become the conversation?

• What are ways in which you see the Jesus story hijacked? the God story?

• Many of us have seem ashamed of our faith story
like it’s not the best one we have to proclaim—just one we have to profess.

• How do you celebrate your story without disrespecting someone else’s?
• Where do you experience competitive story telling?
• Why do you tell your stories? To whom do you tell your stories?
What’s your purpose in telling them?