Tag Archives: belief

Seen Any Burning Bushes Lately?

By Eugene C. Scott

The desert had grown comfortable for Moses. After forty years of caring for Jethro’s sheep, he knew every bush and watering hole as well as he knew the seams and stitches of his old camel-hair robe. When he first arrived in Midian, a fugitive from Egypt and God, wariness was a way of life. He noticed all–the cool slant of the sun in the morning, the twitch of a conies’ ear as he approached an oasis, the heat waves drawing alluring pictures in the midday heat. His nerves jumped at each breath of wind or bleat of sheep. And always he wondered if he had run far enough from Egypt and feared he could never run far enough from God.

Today, however, Moses drowsed as he followed his flock across the desert. His sandals scuffed a rhythm on the hard, dry desert floor. Horeb, the mountain of God, towered in the distance, its long shadow touching the noses of his lead sheep. But Moses noticed not. He had grown comfortable. So it is he walked an hour or more without perceiving the bright light that flickered at the base of Horeb. In the early days Moses would have seen it afar and worried if it were the glint of an enemies’ weapon. Today he shuffled almost upon it before the fire registered. And he only looked up because his flock veered off to the right of the burning bush.

Moses stopped and planted his staff in the dirt between his feet. He sheep continued ontheir well-worn route. Moses rubbed his old eyes and wondered how this bush came to burn. Then slowly he realized the bush was aflame but it did not burn–no crumbling branches, no ember, no ash. “Moses thought, ‘I will go over and see this strange sight–why the bush does not burn up.’” Exodus 3:1-4

Amazing what God resorts to to get our attention. Remember the one time you knew the correct answer to your math teacher’s question and you waved your arm until your biceps muscle seized and your arm plummeted to your desk like a dead weight? And your math teacher never noticed. She called on the kid sleeping and drooling on his desk next to you. I wonder if God feels like that? He burns bushes, throws lightning bolts, and generally makes a nuisance of himself, waving his arms around like an eager fourth grader, and we never notice.

I have a friend who, when he is out in the woods, always sees a deer or elk or coyote or grouse or rabbit or something. I can hike a trail for hours and never see a blessed thing. But then Jay joins me and suddenly the hills are alive. I once asked him if he attracted all these animals by wearing a special scent or failing to shower. He simply smiled and pointed out a six point bull elk watering fifty yards off the trail. Some people are just tuned in.

Jay loves the wilderness so much he becomes a part of it. He has trained himself to notice things most of us ignore. Dead tree branches transfigure into the rack of a buck standing behind a tree, and a flickering, golden oak leaf is really a doe perking her ear at a strange noise. Jay doesn’t miss much.

I’m sure by now you get the point. Most of us are like Moses almost missing God in a burning bush. We might even be worse than Moses and walk right by the durned thing. And the tragedy is God only occasionally speaks through burning bushes. The rest of the time his subtle voice is in the flick of a leaf or the blink of an eye. We rush down the trail of life claiming it leads through a barren wilderness, while God is dropping hints of his love and presence at every turn. Stop, look, listen. God is there.

Hebrews 11:1 reads, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Contrary to popular belief that verse does not advocate blind faith. It commends “the ancients” for hearing God’s voice and seeing his hand in everyday life. They trusted God in the supernatural world because they walked with him in the natural world. We can be certain of what we do not see only if we open our eyes to what God has put before us.

“When the Lord saw that [Moses] had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’

“And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’” But of course God knew where Moses was. Moses was really saying, “I’m here; I’m listening now; speak, my God.”

Life often grows comfortable–we habituate to its wonders. We drive the same route to work. And glaze-eyed notice nothing.  What must God do to get us to say, “I’m here; I’m listening now; speak, my God.”? Usually it’s something that burns like fire.

Eugene often misses God and good things right in front of him. Fortunately God is patient with him and keeps trying. Eugene also co-pastors The Neighborhood Church.

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Harry Potter and the Church Part I

By Eugene C. Scott


Like J. K. Rowling’s wonderfully weird invention of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Jelly Beans, her Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and God’s equally wonderful and weird church are both humanity flavored hope. Sometimes they’re sweet and sometimes disgusting.

The truth is Rowling gave Hogwarts the same humanity flawed quirkiness that God created the church to reflect.

In chapter six of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” a confused but expectant Harry Potter stands on platform nine and three quarters waiting for the Hogwarts Express–a magical train that will take him–for the first time–to Hogwarts, where he will be schooled in magic. Once there, Harry’s life changes dramatically.

In this magical castle filled with moving staircases, strange rooms, stranger people, talking portraits, and ghosts, Harry, among other things, will cement life-long friendships with Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley while discovering that even the best witchcraft and wizardry school is full of quirks and imperfections and–more-so–quirky and imperfect people.

As I have enjoyed J. K. Rowling’s classic stories as pure fun reading, I also have been challenged by some of her deeper themes. Did she, for instance, intend to draw parallels between the mythical castle called Hogwarts and God’s mysterious community called the church?

Intentional or not, the parallels are there.

Relationships Define the Church and Hogwarts

Contrary to popular belief, the church is not a building nor an institution. It is a community. Yes, most often the church meets in a building and–unfortunately–becomes far too institutional. Hogwarts too is a particular place and has rules–most of which Harry breaks. But this is not what defines Hogwarts.

At Hogwarts, Harry, the orphan, finds his family. Through his friendship with Ron Weasley at Hogwarts, Harry is unofficially adopted into the Weasley clan. It is at Hogwarts also that Harry meets his godfather, Sirius Black and is mentored by a father figure, Albus Dumbledore.

Like Hogwarts, the church, first and foremost, is a community. A family thrown together in a myriad of relationships. Orphans all adopted by Christ.

I grew up in what is commonly called a dysfunctional family. We weren’t completely dysfunctional, however. We did two things very well: fight and meddle in each other’s business. What we did not manage was to foster intimacy. We loved each other to the best of our ability. Still my family was a lonely, chaotic place.

Then I became a follower of Christ and was adopted into this quirky, imperfect family called the church. Like Harry, it was in this completely foreign and unexpected place that I discovered true family. I am who I am because of God speaking and working through the family members I have met in various churches. I have served in six churches over the last 32 years. In each one God has introduced me to people who have become life-long friends. We have, as the great theologian and poet Paul said, “carried one another’s burdens.” We have cried, laughed, fought, feasted (a lot), and lived life together. Rowling was brilliant in drawing Harry as a hero who needed friends to accomplish his mission. And Hogwarts as the place those relationships formed and thrived.

This too is us.

The Church and Hogwarts Are a Mix of Angels and Demons

Much to Harry’s dismay, however, Hogwarts is far from perfect. It is there, under the Sorting Hat, that he discovers his own dark side. It tells Harry, “You could be great, you know, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, no doubt about that.” But Ron warns him, “There’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin.” Should Harry join the darker, more prone to evil House of Slytherin, or the more benign House of Gryffindor? Each of us, whether follower of Christ or no, face the same choices.

No wonder so many wars and wonders have been wrought in the name of God. 

In Hogwarts Harry battles his nearest enemy, Draco Malfoy. Hogwarts, like the church, contains not just angels but demons (so to speak). In the church I’ve been and met both. Like Harry, all of us who have spent more than 10 minutes in the church carry and have inflicted wounds.

Rowling invents a fictional school that rings true because it is such a real mix of sinner and saint. Just like the church.

If Harry imagined Hogwarts as utopia, he was sorely disappointed. This may be why so many of us give up on the church. We are drawn to its divinity but are driven away by its humanity. Our unrealistic expectations are as much a part of our disappointment as are the actual flaws thriving in the church. I plummet emotionally each time the church–or more correctly people, including myself, of the church–don’t live up to my lofty ideals.

Though I understand well the pain that the church can inflict (from personal experience as well as theoretically), the load that weighs heaviest on my pastor’s soul is trying to convince people that the church is both more and less than they ever imagined. More in that it is about being human and being in relationships while also being in relationship with God.  Less in that it is about being flawed humans who need each other.

And in that way the church reflects humanity and human community perfectly. Harry could have never become who he was born to be without Hogwarts and all the pain, joy, disappointment and triumph mixed together in one.

Imagine had Harry, as do so many people today in regards to church, refused to board that mysterious train bound for Hogwarts, one of the best stories written in modern times would have never come into being. So too, when any of us refuses to join that infuriating, dangerous, glorious, Christ-community God calls the church. What real story might you be missing?

Eugene C Scott is co-pastor of one of those wonderfully weird places called The Neighborhood Church.

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What If “The Hunger Games” Were True? A Book Review

By Eugene C. Scott

What if?

“What if” is frequently the central question submerged in good fiction. C.S. Lewis asked, what if a Christ figure came into a completely different world from the one we know? In answer to his question, Lewis invented Aslan the Lion and Narnia. J.K. Rowling seemed to ask what if there were an invisible, magical world existing alongside ours and in that world of wonderful, powerful magic, love was the most powerful force of all? Hogwarts and Harry Potter sprang to life.

Suzanne Collins, author of the New York Times best sellers, The Hunger Games Trilogy, asked an age-old science-fiction question: what if the world as we know it was destroyed, leaving only a remnant of human life.

Collins’ trilogy tells the sad, violent story of Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year-old girl living in the dystopian world of Panem–all that is left of the United States after a nuclear war–with her emotionally broken mother and her 12 year-old sister, Prim. Panem is divided into 12 districts ruled from the Capitol by a malignant government. The outlying districts function as slave labor. The ultimate tyranny of the Capitol is that once a year two children, ages 12-18, are chosen from each district to compete to the death in The Hunger Games. The chosen children must murder each other with only one walking out scarred but alive.

Collins is a good writer and an even better story-teller; her best talent being pacing. Her prose is nearly invisible and sparse, which fits the story. But the books do contain literary elements. Collins lays in many bigger themes worth mining for, if one chooses to do so.

Katniss is as conflicted and as complicated as this type of story can bear. Her complacency with and repulsion to the evil in her world is realistic. Her search for love and for her purpose is obvious but well told.

Also to Collins‘ credit, the high level of violence fits the story, if not the YA label the book carries. Like Rowling, she is not afraid to kill off several main characters.

These books deserve the stir they have caused and are not only worth reading but are worth discussing.

Especially meriting conversation is one “what if” Collins may not have placed in the books intentionally.

What if God did not exist? Nowhere in the three books is there any hint of a belief in a higher power. It’s as if religion were the main target of the bombs. No character uses spiritual language, even in non-technical, slang ways. When one character close to Katniss dies, Katniss almost pictures an after life, but not quite. No one cries out against God for the evil God is allowing nor does anyone cry out to God for help. Rather a song Katniss’ father taught her, that she remembers in her toughest times, seems to reflect a belief that in the world of Panem, this difficult, unpredictable, unfair, unjust world is all we get.

Near the end of the last book, one character comforts Katniss by telling her humans may yet evolve away from senseless evil and into love. Maybe, maybe not.

This is not a criticism of Collins or the books. The books do contain humor, love, and insight. And Collins may have built her dystopian world this way on purpose. There are two books of the Bible where God is never mentioned. God’s absence there is as powerful of a message as being there. Sometimes a need is best pointed out by its absence.

What would the world look like without God? Unfortunately, because of our refusal to grab God’s outstretched hand, there is violence and ugliness worse than in The Hunger Games. The difference being that without God there is no real reason to believe we can learn and change. Evolution promises no such advances.

Fortunately, God’s presence gives real hope and tangible help. Looking at history the only cultures to seriously slow the march of evil have been those directly impacted by the intervention of God and the Incarnation of Christ. And even those cultures have been flawed. Imagine where we could be without Christ coming? Unintentionally or intentionally The Hunger Games imagines that world.

For my part, this is what I liked about these stories. They left me with questions.

Too much story-telling in the Christian world seems afraid to let God narrate to the reader out of the story and therefore, the human narrator provides pat answers and unrealistic solutions. I believe God can and does speak even through stories that contain no overt mention of God.

It could also be true that Collins may actually believe there is no such Person as God. Thus a fictional world that contains only the slightest thread of human hope may actually exist for her and for many others. I don’t know. Our continual propensity toward evil makes such a belief more plausible.

This, along with a story well told, is what brought tears to my eyes at the end of The Hunger Games Trilogy. I was crying for Katniss as an archetype of the modern person.

Eugene C. Scott is co-pastor of The Neighborhood Church

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All the World’s a . . . Dance: The Trinity and You

By Eugene C. Scott

“Country road take me home. . .,” John Denver warbled from the CD player as our Jeep jolted down the lonely miles of country roads in the Canyon Lands of Utah. “. . . to a place where I belong,” John sang in complete incongruity to how out-of-place we were among the soaring rock formations and sinking canyons breaking the pastel expanse of the desert. We had not seen a home in hours and the last time we did it was a meager, wind-bitten outpost set against this glorious wilderness.

As we pounded out the miles, I wondered why more of us don’t call these wild places home? I remembered I had once dreamed of living alone in a teepee in the wilderness.  Like me, so many of us romanticize rugged individualism and the wilderness in songs, paintings, and books. And many of us yearn for the singular beauty of the desert or an isolated mountain.

Yet the majority of us sink our roots nearer to communities than canyons. Why is it only the hardy hermit or crazy coot can live out in barren places? Certainly the harshness of wilderness life plays a role. That there is no hot, running water, not to mention no Quickie Mart, may indeed be an ingredient. But there were no Quickie Marts for most of human history and even back then folks chose to gather in communities rather than brave the solitude of their vast and wild world. So ease of life cannot be the major factor in why we gather rather than scatter.

I tried variations of my lone wolf in the wilderness dream before coming to the conclusion that not only did I like people but I also needed them.

God is the cause of our need for community. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image in our likeness. . .’” (Genesis 1:26) This simple sentence contains as much information about human life as a DNA strand. For centuries theologians and philosophers have held those words under their microscopes mining them for meaning. Most have concluded being created in God’s likeness means we derive our personhood, emotions, intellect, will, etc. from God. In other words, all the attributes God shines we reflect–albeit in a severely smoky mirror. We are who we are because God is Who He is!

Thus we come to the words “us” and “our” in that ancient sentence. Here is our first introduction to God as three-in-one. Trinity may be one of the toughest concepts about God to understand. I’ve heard various attempts to describe God’s three-in-oneness. The simple chicken egg, they say, is made of three distinct parts: the shell, the whites, and the yoke, but there is only one egg. Others focus us on complex chemicals to see how God can be three-in-one. H2O can be a solid, a liquid, or a gas, and still be water. Today modern molecular biology informs us that every whole is made up of millions of other wholes. In essence models of Trinity are all around us.

An older and better metaphor for understanding God as Trinity can be seen in the Greek word perichoresis. It means to dance: peri = around and choresis = dance. For thousands of years the ancient Greek Orthodox Church pictured the Trinity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a holy and sacred dance.

Eugene H. Peterson, in his book “Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places,” describes it this way: “Imagine a folk dance, a round dance, with three partners in each set. The music starts up and the partners holding hands begin moving in a circle. . . . The tempo increases, the partners move more swiftly . . . swinging and twirling, embracing and releasing. . . . But there is no confusion, every movement is cleanly coordinated in precise rhythms . . . as each person maintains his or her own identity.”

Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage.” But it may be more true that all the world’s a dance and Father, Son and Holy Spirit are the caller. There is nothing we do without “dancing” with God and others in relationship.

How are we created in God’s image? God is in relationship and we too were created to be in relationship. Our human need for community is not just an analogy of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; it is one of the attributes of God we reflect. Just like God is love and God is just, God is community. The Father exists in relationship with the Son and the Holy Spirit. The great darkness and pain of God the Son on the cross was the breaking of that community for the first time in history. The great victory of the resurrection was the healing of that Holy Community and the mending of the tear in our human relationships with God and one another.

We need to live near other people and be intimate with one another because God created us in their image–the image of Community. Our need for one another is God designed. Therefore, those hermits hacking out a life in the wilds of our world are bucking God’s plan. And John Denver’s longing for home was planted in his heart by God. I love and need the solitude of a desert horizon or mountain vista. I hear God’s voice and see God’s strength in the barren places. But I feel God’s warm arms and know God’s forgiving love and healing touch best when standing among my God ordained community of family and friends.

Eugene co-pastors The Neighborhood Church. More info go to tnc3.org.

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A Postcard from the Pacific Rim: Maui, Hawaii

By Brendan Scott and Eugene C. Scott

Expectations. Most times what we expect to happen trips us up and gets in the way of seeing and experiencing the more oblique, twisted, fun, real side of life. For example on a trip to Maui one would expect a sunburn, sand between the toes, jungle waterfalls, and serious beach time. These would be good things. But when we take off our expectation colored sun glasses, it’s amazing some of the crazy, fun, real things you can experience. On a recent vacation with my family my son Brendan and I decided to record some of the unexpected things we saw and experienced in a blog. Brendan also writes a blog at guatspot.wordpress.com.

Signs from God?

Quick trip to heaven? Turn left.

Some things go without saying . . .

Shouldn’t you also deploy wings?

. . . yet some people still feel the need to say them.

Sign above toilet ——>
<——Can dogs on Maui read signs?

Random Observations:

We’re staying in the same area in which actress Helen Hunt, the “Mad about You” star, lives. Yes, she is still alive and no, she didn’t disappear after “As Good As It Gets.” Consequently we have experienced dozens of Helen Hunt sightings. The only one we can confirm, however, was a week previous when Dave, our generous host, saw her being interviewed by Jay Leno on TV.

We’ve seen as many trucks with surfboard racks as tool racks. And even then many of the tool racks double for surfboards. The question seems to be surf or survive?

And don’t even get us started on convertible Ford Mustangs. Apparently car rental companies have figured out how to get them to reproduce like rabbits.

Multiplying Mustangs

Overheard:

A woman behind us on the beach:“How’d all this sand get in this?”

Dee Dee on seeing a dead mouse on the porch: “I wish I could be brave.  I just can’t.”

A young mother with her daughter climbing down–as we climbed up–to a rocky crag over-looking the vast, wild blue pacific ocean as it pounded onto volcanic rock cliffs formed eons ago. “There’s nothing up there.”

Ashley on the best places to snorkel. “Swimming with dolphins is fun but after a while it’s irritating. You just want to say, ‘Dolphins, stop being so happy!’”

Emmy on snorkeling anywhere. “I don’t need flippers to snorkel. My feet are better than flippers.”

Danger in Paradise:

Our gracious hostess, Linda, loves Maui. She knows its history ancient and modern, (did you know Hawaiian Hula dancers did not–I repeat–did not wear grass skirts), the correct pronunciation of words like humuhumunukunuku’āpua’a
, the best restaurants (Star-Noodle and The Gazeebo), beaches, and activities (Maui Ulalena). Linda is not only a Hawaii historian but a nurse. Thus she knows how and where every shark attack, drowning, broken neck from surfing, freak hiking accident and deadly food-borne illness took place.

Late each night Linda enthralled us with tales of death, danger and destruction. One such tale was of a doctor and his wife being lost at sea in their kayak and how a shark attacked and the wife lost her leg. The doctor washed up on one of the islands and the wife was never seen again. Locals suspect the doctor was the shark.

Linda told another gripping story about nine Japanese tourists standing too close to the edge of the cliff we had climbed the day before. As they stood admiring God’s handy work, a rogue wave smashed against the cliff and washed them all out to sea. Cameras and all. Tragic but there was a partially happy ending. Some Hawaiians dove in and swam over and saved several of the tourists. “Nothing to see up there” indeed.

Danger is sometimes deceptively beautiful.

Paradise in Paradise.

Expectations. We were up at 3am. on day two of our holiday in Maui driving to the 10,000 foot peak of Haleakala Volcano to watch the sunrise. Our rental Ford SUV climbed slowly up the dark, twisty road–the most elevation gain in the shortest distance anywhere on the planet. We arrived at the dormant craters‘ edge at 5am. God had scheduled the sunrise this day for 5:38am. It would be an hour-long show–like watching flowers filmed in slow motion as they bust out of the ground and blossom.

Sunrise over Haleakala Volcano

Spectacular!

Two things:

One: The road less travelled by is sometimes crowded. But still worth it. Several hundred others braved the early hour, the dark, and the cold to witness God reinventing the day.

Two: It amazed us how something so mundane and predictable as the sun rising one more time in a succession of daybreaks that has not stopped since the beginning of time could also be so extraordinary.

 Aloha.

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How to Know if You’re a Control Freak

By Eugene C. Scott

Several thousand years ago dung beetles enjoyed god-like status. They earned this high honor by toiling day-long collecting balls of dung between their tiny horns and rolling them across the hot desert floor. Some observant Egyptian noticed this little rolling ball of dung resembled the sun’s movement. Soon the belief was born that the sun was moved across the desert sky by a huge, invisible dung beetle.

The Egyptians–and most other ancient peoples–considered the powerful, life-giving forces, such as the sun, water, fire, fertility, in nature gods–or, at least, directly controlled by a god such as a dung beetle. Thus they developed religious and sacrificial systems that they hoped would please these capricious gods. In Egypt essential crops flourished or failed based on the Nile River.  If the gods were angry it might flood and wash all their food away. Or dry up. If the gods were pleased, the Nile might over-flow its banks just enough to water even the most distant fields.

These ancient religious systems became what people turned to when life got difficult.

But it did little good. Unfortunately, still children died, crops still failed, life–like the Nile–still ebbed and flowed seemingly without respect to religious sacrifices.

Today scientists laugh at such superstitious beliefs. We know the sun is not the god Re but a star, not pushed across the sky, but a point earth orbits. Science replaced superstition. We watch the weather patterns explained and pin-pointed on the nightly news. Science has given us cloud seeding, en-vitro fertilization, the cure for polio, and brilliant inventions and technologies by the thousands. When life gets hard we have doctors, pharmaceuticals, technologies, and governments we can turn to.

A phrase from my childhood embodies this faith in science most of our world holds. “If they can put a man on the moon, they ought to be able to __________(fill in the blank).”

Unfortunately, children still die, crops still fail, tornadoes devastate, new diseases spring to life and confound and kill us while paying little homage to our scientific advancements and prowess.

Christians call such total dependence on science foolish. Christians believe there is one God who created all these things science has discovered and mastered. In line with this belief we have designed sophisticated worship liturgies that give people access to deeper meaning and connection with God. Theologians have developed systematic theologies that attempt to answer the big questions about life and God. Gifted preachers lay out the five keys to life with purpose. The promise is that when life gets hard these liturgies, systems and practices including prayer and other spiritual disciplines bring Christians healing and wholeness.

Unfortunately children still die, crops fail . . . .

Depending on your perspective and belief system you may read the three world views above and sing that sweet song from the children’s show “Sesame Street,” “One of These Things is Not Like the Other?” And each–superstitious, scientific, or spiritual–is a very different way to understand and live in the world.

But they also each have a foundational similarity. Control. Or more accurately a desire to control. The ancient Egyptians lived in a dangerous, unpredictable world. Any thing that promised even a modicum of control over that world was welcome. And their superstitious practices fit the rhythm of the seasons of life just often enough to hold out the promise of control over the mighty Nile like a carrot on a stick.

Science too, especially in its naive early days, flat-out promised to wrest control from nature and lay it in our hands. And the promise has often been fulfilled. At least tentatively. Antibiotics, heat and air-conditioning, cell-phones, air travel all put us above and beyond nature. But just as often, or more so, science has not fulfilled its promise of control. We did put a man on the moon but we often cannot fill in the blank that would give us the cure to this or that disease or the answer to so many questions. Never-the-less, most of us believed and still may.

Christian spirituality also often degenerates into attempts to control God and his world. Systematic theology unwittingly promises that if we understand God we may know how to get him to do our bidding, purpose driven lives are lives we can likewise understand and control, prayers of Jabez seem to bind God to expand our borders, and five keys to a happy life, word of faith theology, pocketbooks of God’s promises, frenzied scripture memory programs all–even, like science, though they contain some truth–appeal to our deep desire to live in a world we can keep under control.

The truth is from ancient Egypt to modern science to today’s  Christian spirituality we are control freaks.

But superstitious behavior nor mighty dams nor words of faith will tame the Nile much less God.

“Vanity, vanity, all is vanity,” wrote King Solomon. By this the great king did not mean that the pursuit of knowledge scientific or spiritual is vanity. But trying to use that information to gain control over things, people, and especially God is foolish.

Fear grows in neat garden rows fertilized with the promise of control. What if I lose control? is the weedy question that grows here. And it strangles faith. Because faith flourishes in the open fields littered with rocks and pot holes and dung. In this field faith is not the thing we use to control God and life but the thing we use to believe God is good and loves us in a life that sometimes is not under control and is not going the way we expected.

How do you know if you’re a control freak. Pinch yourself. Are you human?

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Thoughts On Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” and the Sad State of American Christianity

By Eugene C. Scott

I’m coming late to the Rob Bell lynching. In case you’re coming in late too, Bell is swinging from the gallows for writing a book titled “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”

Despite the megalomaniacal title, Bell’s book shouldn’t have earned him a golden noose. This is not to say that what Bell writes about heaven and hell is not controversial or important. Rather I believe the size of the controversy dwarfs the contents of the 198 page book. Others–Bell cites a few of them–have said and written similar things about “heaven and hell and the fate of every person who ever lived” without stirring as much dust.

So why the excitement? Because Bell is part of the American Evangelical star-maker machinery: hip, good preacher, mega church, author of a previous best-selling book called “Velvet Elvis,” huge following, and conference speaker–though he won’t be speaking at as many conferences because everybody is mad at him. Bell is a Christian celebrity. If I had written this book–or you–only our friends and family members would have called us heretic.

To me the decibel level of the outcry says more about the state of American Evangelicalism than it does about Bell or theology. Evangelicalism has blindly bought in (pun intended) to consumerism as a cultural ideal.

Duck into any Christian book/trinket/Jesus-junk store. Based on most of the products there, we are a community 1,000 miles wide and an 1/8 inch deep. At our local store you can buy “Christian scripture candy” called “Testamints.”

One company sports a name and logo that is oxymoronic: “Not of This World: A Christian Clothing Brand All About Jesus.” As if slick marketing and a cool logo is not of this world. And notice the books in these Christian book stores. Authors having a “platform,” read sales potential, often outweigh artistic writing or powerfully poised ideas.

This focus on celebrity and consuming things supposedly representing our All Consuming God has done far more damage to our sad state of faith than Rob Bell’s debatable theories on hell. Consider how many of us go to church to get our spiritual tanks filled, or hear a good sermon rather than to encounter God. The former are all consumer ideas not found in scripture.

Second, Bell’s book is controversial because he may or may not–it’s hard to tell–believe in hell as eternal punishment the way most other American Evangelical stars do. This is similar to (though more consequential than) a Hollywood star, say Lady Gaga, declaring herself a Republican.

Two of Bell’s main ideas in “Love Wins” are that heaven is not a place in the clouds but living in God’s presence and creation both here and now and then and there (after death) and also that hell is not an eternal fiery pit but rather separation from God here and now and then and there. The after life hell he posits is a redemptive place where those who do not chose God in this life will be able to, eventually.

His first theory–heaven begins here–is not new. Nor is it controversial, despite how most of pop Christianity wrongly believes heaven is only the place we go when we die. Orthodox theologians George Eldon Ladd and Dallas Willard also pointed out that Jesus brought the kingdom of God (heaven) with him when he came to us as Incarnate God and did not take it with him when he left as Risen Lord. If this idea interests you–and it should–read more about it in Willard’s “Divine Conspiracy” or Ladd’s “The Gospel of the Kingdom.” They are not easy reads but they are worth the work. As Bell argues, living as if heaven begins here and now makes a profound difference in our day-to-day lives.

Bell’s second major theme, hell is redemptive, also is not new. It is, however, troublesome and controversial. Bell does incredible interpretive and linguistic gymnastics to get to this point. But he never dives deep into his reasoning nor into any of the competing arguments. Even his prose style feels as if it skims the surface. He uses short, incomplete sentences that read more like bullet points than flowing narrative. This has caused some to accuse Bell of setting up and knocking down “straw-men.”

Hell must be redemptive, Bell argues because he cannot conceive of God not getting what God wants. In other words, “Love Wins.”

Bell reasons this on the basis that God is good and loving and it is inconceivable that a good and loving God would torture his creatures for eternity. Therefore he says, those choosing hell will only be there until they finally choose God.

Aside from the biblical problems this raises, it trips over other issues. First, why is God more loving to–in Bell’s words–“torture” people for only 10,000 or 10,000,000 years? If hell is not compatible with a loving God, then it does not matter how long one suffers there. One second is too long. This solution only reframes the problem but does not solve it.

Second, will people who had incredibly hard and indifferent hearts to human suffering and God’s love here on earth have the same hearts in hell? If so, how much time would they have to spend there to finally choose God? Will Hitler spend 10,000,000,000 years while the woman who murders only her husband spends only 1,000 years in hell? How does that square with unearned grace?

Third, though Bell claims he believes love only lives in freedom and that that freedom allows us to choose or reject God’s offer of eternal love and heaven, Bell’s hell seems to be a place–full of suffering–where all there will change their minds. That sounds more like prolonged determinism not love inspired freedom.

One positive thread Bell wove into “Love Wins” is questioning many status quo, popularly held Christian beliefs. Are these beliefs, such as heaven is only where we go when we die and hell is a fiery place presided over by a horned devil, biblical or do our pictures and ideas for them come from other, less inspired places? But the book is not in-depth enough to answer these questions adequately. That said, I do not believe Bell chickens out in the end, as some have accused. I find Bell lets the infinite nature of these questions remain somewhat of a mystery. I want stronger answers. But we mere humans may not have been given them. Finally, I have read these same questions and answers before and better explored in other places–but by less famous authors.

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