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On November 24, 2015

OMG: Signs and Wonder

“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” -Henry David Thoreau


When I was a boy one of the Bible stories that I was the most fascinated with was also one that I found the most disturbing. It was the story of King David bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem.

The Ark had been captured by enemies of Israel, the Philistines years earlier. Because the Ark was known as the located presence of God on earth, it was a huge victory for the Philistines and they put the Ark in their Temple to their god Dagon. But that was a mistake.

In an amazing twist, the Philistines had to get rid of the Ark because God gave the Philistine people (and I kid you not this is in your Bible) hemorrhoids. So they send the Ark away and it winds up at a small Israelite village where it stays at a man named Abinadab’s house for years.

Finally King David decides to bring the Ark back to Jerusalem and he makes a big deal about it. He puts together a parade and King David dances as the Ark finally returns home. A happy ending to a great story right? Almost.

The Ark of the Covenant as seen in the historical documentary "Indiana Jones"

The Ark of the Covenant as seen in the historical documentary “Indiana Jones”

Because at one point the Ark starts to slip off of the ox cart that they’ve put it on, and a guy named Uzzah tries to catch it. He reaches up to grab the Ark and stop it from falling.

And God strikes him dead.

King David gets really upset because, you know, this does seem a bit of overkill. After all, Uzzah was just trying to help. And no one should get killed for that, I can understand maybe giving another bad case of hemmoroids, but death?

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

That story never made sense to me. It seems to be out of character of a good God to do something like this.

But in college I had a professor point out something to me that I thought was fascinating. It’s just this intriguing detail from 2nd Kings. Look at how the Bible introduces us to Uzzah:

They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart

Uzzah has grown up with the Ark of the Covenant hanging out in his living room. He had grown up with the Presence of God and he has lost his ability to appropriately appreciate it. Uzzah lost his awe and wonder because it’s always been right in front of him.

I’m a B.U.I.C.K., a “Brought Up in Church Kid” and I can’t tell you how relevant this story is to me. Not only did I grow up in Church  I’m also a preacher, I hang around Christians all the time, I’m always thinking about God/theology/church and I can easily fall into the trap of Uzzah.

I see this all the time with ministers, and most often in the mirror. It’s easy to become inoculated to the Gospel, and forget how much I need God, and how small I really am in the grand scheme of things.

On my worst days, I, like Uzzah, start to believe that I need to protect God. And I lose the profound reality that Dallas Willard points out, “I don’t defend the Christian faith, the Christian faith defends me.”

The sin of Uzzah wasn’t touching the Ark, it was the loss of being able to see the Ark for what it really was. 

And this is a sin that we religious people struggle with particularly.

There’s a reason that all throughout Scripture God is harder on religious people than non-religious ones. There’s a reason why Jesus is much harder on the Pharisees than all the immoral people of his day.

Because there is a way of approaching God that thinks we have figured God out, that we have mastered God. There is a way of approaching God with familiarity that makes us feel big and God seem small.

When people first realized that Jesus had raised from the dead, they were terrified. The first response to the Gospel wasn’t how can I use this? Thats the way religious people think. The first response was’s fear and trembling.

This is bigger than you, the world is now a stranger place, it’s a little bit scary, and incredibly hopeful.

This story is better than we know, but we’re too close to it to realize how wonderful it really is.

Looking Up

Remember what happened when Jesus ascended into Heaven? The first Christians stood staring up into the sky in awe for so long that Angels actually appeared and asked them “Why are you standing here looking into the sky? Jesus will return, so you know…get to it.”

The Ascension of Christ by Rembrandt

The Ascension of Christ by Rembrandt

I like that. I like that the Angels told the first Christians to start doing something about the amazing thing they’ve just seen God do. They remind us that God’s people aren’t supposed to just sit around and enjoy their goosebumps.

But these days I wonder if the angels wouldn’t encourage us to remember to Look up again and spend some more time staring in the sky.

All through the Bible, we are commanded to “Fear the Lord” but that doesn’t mean be afraid. In the original language it  means sustaining a joyful, astonished awe, and wonder before Him.

It means to look up

I don’t think it was an accident that the wise men, the first people to recognize Jesus for who He really was, were stargazers. They were people who were so used to looking up that they were in tune with the music of the cosmos. In the words of Jonathan Martin:

When they followed the stars far enough, they ultimately found themselves eyeball-to-eyeball with Jesus. I’m convinced that if we follow the wonder back to the source, if we follow the beauty all the way home, we’ll find Jesus too.

This is the heart of wonder, a sense of being overwhelmed by the universe and realize our inadequacy in the face of it all. It is to realize that there is a vast and wordless mystery that is reaching out to you. To be sure, there is a way that religion can turn into a self-reinforcing certainty where we just become an echo chamber for what we already believe. But that kind of religion is not the way of Jesus, it is the way of Uzzah

in the words of the Christian poet Christian Wiman:  

“When I hear people say they have no religious impulse whatsoever … I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life… Never? Religion is not made of these moments; religion is the means of making these moments part of your life rather than merely radical intrusions so foreign and perhaps even fearsome that you can’t even acknowledge their existence afterward. Religion is what you do with these moments of over-mastery in your life.”

The Engilsh word miracle comes from the Latin words miro (to wonder) and mirus (wonderful) The early Church was known not primarily for it’s power (it was a bunch of peasants and fisherman after all) but for it’s wonder.

The early Church was not known for it’s certainty, there was a kind of humility that characterized the Christians in the book of Acts, it was known for not always knowing what to do.

In a word it was known for having faith.

These days it seems like when we talk about signs and wonders we either talk about the certainty that God works or our certainty that He no longer does. We have a box, and we expect God to fit inside of it. But the first Christians were the ones who had learned that God no longer fit inside any of the boxes they had tried to give him.

Consequently, whenever God did something they were just as surprised and filled with awe and wonder as everyone else.

Maybe that’s what it means to say the early church was known for her miracles.

She was known for her wonder.

On November 17, 2015

OMG: The Glory and The Suffering


One of the most surprising parts of the Bible for people who are reading it for the first time, is how often the words Glory and Suffering show up in the same breath.

Obviously, it’s common sense that those two words don’t belong together. Glory involves power and resources that we use to avoid suffering, suffering involves weakness and death and misery.

We know that there’s no glory in suffering, and so we do everything we can to avoid suffering.

And more and more we are avoiding glory.

Wonder And Suffering

So I’m writing a short series on the need that we modern people have for awe and wonder, and trying to raise questions about why we have lost it. But today I’m at one of the most challenging posts to write.

It’s challenging because I’ve lived a relatively charmed life. I’ve never been in the hospital, I’ve had good health, a stable family and good friends.

But I’m writing it because I’ve been in lots of hospital rooms and funeral homes and cancer wards. I’ve learned some wisdom from being in the house of mourning, and I know that there are ways that suffering can either make us bitter or better people, and so at the risk of clipping the wrong wire in disarming this bomb, I’d like to venture a couple of observations I’ve had over the years.

Did you ever wonder why we are so much more shocked and undone by suffering these days? Our ancestors suffered much greater loss than modern people.  In medieval Europe around one of every five children died before their first birthday, and only 50% of all children survived to the age of ten.The average family buried half of their children, and these are children who died at home, not tucked away in some sanitary hospital. Life for our ancestors was filled with far more suffering than us today. But we have thousands of diaries and journals and letters that show us how much better they handled their grief than do we.

Dr. Brand examining the hand of a leprosy patient. Image from

Dr. Brand examining the hand of a leprosy patient.
Image from

Dr. Brand was a medical doctor who spent much of his life in third world countries working with leprosy patients and the world’s poorest people. And when, after years of medical missionary care, he returned to the U.S.A. he said:

“In the United States…I encountered a society that seeks to avoid pain at all costs. Patients lived at a greater comfort level than any I had previously treated, but they seemed far less equipped to handle suffering and far more traumatized by it.”

Why does a culture that has more access to health, wealth and prosperity than any other culture in human history not have the resources to handle suffering?
I think it’s related to our declining ability for awe and wonder.

The God of the Storm King

Remember the story of Job? Some think it’s the first book written in the Bible. It’s the story of a happily married father of 10, who’s got everything he ever wanted….until he doesn’t.

In the course of a few days and one chapter, Job loses his entire family and fortune to a storm, and then Job’s “friends” invite themselves over to help him make sense of his great misfortune.

They explain to him that God has done this because Job was a bad person, that Job had this coming, but Job knows that they’re wrong.

For almost 40 chapters, Job is sitting in ashes, mourning his family and arguing with his friends. Finally Job begins to ask God the question that his friends already presume to know the answer to, “Why?!! Why did you allow this to happen?”

And in some of the most beautiful chapters of the entire Bible, God shows up because of that question…and yet He never answers it.

He does something much better than answer the question. He reveals Himself. And that is enough.

But notice how God reveals Himself, in a storm. The word is literally a “Storm-wind” Remember how Job had lost everything? In a storm! Remember Job was worried about this from the beginning. He said if God did appear to him, “He would crush me with a storm” (Job 9:17)

If I was grading God on His pastoral skills here, he would have failed. He takes Job’s greatest fear and shows up in it.

I like the way that Pastor Tim Keller talks about this moment:

God comes in the most fierce, overwhelming, majestic form possible—as the Storm King. Job and the readers of the Old Testament would expect that God in this form would immediately destroy him.But he does not.

Instead God restores him.

Ancient Christian Syriac Art from the Book of Job (via Matt Stone)

Ancient Christian Syriac Art from the Book of Job
(via Matt Stone)

In my experience, suffering always makes our world shrink. We close in on ourselves and begin to catalog all the way that life has failed us. I get that, I do that. And we must be very patient with ourselves and each other when this is happening.

However, when suffering leaves us there, it is the kind of suffering that can make us bitter, because it’s the kind of suffering that can’t see past itself.

The holocaust survivor Victor Frankyl after being freed from Auschwitz said that he learned that we can go through anything if we have a vision for why our suffering matters.

But in the secular view, suffering is not seen as a meaningful part of life but only as an interruption. So we either try to manage the pain or get rid of it.
I think it’s interesting that when God shows up as a storm, He begins to raise his own questions. God shows up as a skeptic, and the questions he ask are much more dark than the ones Job raised.

I love the way G.K. Chesterton talks about this:

Verbally speaking the enigmas of Jehovah seem darker and more desolate than the enigmas of Job; yet Job was comfortless before the speech of Jehovah and is comforted after it. He has been told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.

One of the reasons that suffering is harder today is because our world has become so disenchanted. We can’t imagine how redemption can come from our pain, because we are blind to anything past what we see.

But Christians, the people of the resurrection, believe in wonder. We believe that God does what only God can do with our suffering, even if we don’t get to see it, or know exactly how it will happen.

Think about it, God’s glory is revealed at Job’s greatest moment of suffering and he finds that it doesn’t remove his suffering, but it transforms how he suffers.

I’ve seen this time and time again, people go through suffering can find that it moves them toward God not away from Him. I’ve seen people come out on the other side with greater joy and expanded souls.  Because the great theme of the entire Bible is how God brings us into joy not just despite suffering, but through it,

What’s interesting about the book of Job, is that there actually was a reason behind Job’s great suffering. One that only the reader knows, but never Job. And God could’ve told Job about it.

He could’ve told him about the bet that Satan had made with God, he could’ve mentioned how much God had staked on him.

God could’ve even told Job about what would happen through His story. He could’ve said “because of you people who are suffering for thousands of years will find comfort and hope.”

But God doesn’t. He only shows up in his pain. He shows up in his storm, as a storm, but bigger than his storm.

And Job finds that is enough.

For Job, wonder was the cure.

On November 3, 2015

Jesus Died Singing

NWNLogoMay2015So this past week I sat down again with my good friend Luke Norsworthy to put a tidy little bow (read clean up Luke’s heresy) from all his interviews in October.

I love to share these podcasts here, because there are things you can say in a podcast that you can’t in a blog or a sermon, and Luke’s got a great podcast. He’s consistently in the top 100 for Christian podcasts on iTunes because he does great interviews with some of the most fascinating people.

Through Luke I’ve got to hang out with N.T. Wright, and last month he introduced me and a few friends to Richard Rohr. And while I hate to admit this, my long-suffering years of friendship with Luke are starting to pay off.

So this past week after a brief exchange of insults, Luke and I talked about what we learned from hanging out with Richard Rohr.

And the one part of the podcast that I’d like to build on here, was when we dealt with Richard Rohr’s comment that “Christianity has a lot to do with how we deal with our pain.”

Here’s why I think that’s so important:

Living Life Numb

G.K. Chesterton was a Christian in Britain in the beginning of the 20th century, right around the time that prohibition was beginning.

Chesterton was not a fan of prohibition in any form (he weighed 400 pounds) but just because he didn’t like prohibition, doesn’t mean that he thought anyone should drink. He once heard an argument from someone protesting prohibition, and the person argued that  you should drink wine like medicine. Chesterton responded by saying:

The one genuinely dangerous and immoral way of drinking wine is to drink it as a medicine. Never drink because you need it, for this is rational drinking, and the way to death and hell…[this kind of] wine-bibbing is bad, not because it is wine-bibbing. It is bad, and very bad, because it is medical wine-bibbing. It is the drinking of a man who drinks because he is not happy. His is the wine that shuts out the universe, not the wine that reveals it.

That’s a relationship to wine that shuts out the universe, not the wine that reveals it.

G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton

I love that.

In the book, “Fault in Our Stars” one of the main characters has a line that is haunting. He says “Pain demands to be felt” But we don’t listen to that demand very often. In fact, we are experts at avoiding it.

Dallas Willard once said that pain is what happens when we bump into reality, and I’m learning that most of what I do, most of what I see our culture doing, is selling us ways to avoid bumping into reality.

This is not a blog about alcohol. There’s obviously lots of ways we cope, we eat, we Tinder, we escape into our PS4’s or our fantasy leagues or Netflix. We sell ways to cope, ways to take the edge off, and to be fair I know why so many of us avoid reality, because reality can be hard, it hurts.

People die, people can be mean, people disappoint, and frankly we’re not that great ourselves more often than we’d like to admit.

We want to be numb, because to feel hurts too much, but then we miss out on the life that is really there to be had.

Redeeming Pain

A.J. Swoboda points out that when Jesus was at a party he made buckets and buckets of wine. For people who were already tipsy, Jesus gives them even more. Jesus was known for his parties, in His day, He was even criticized for being a glutton and a drunkard. He takes God’s good world seriously, but he doesn’t drink wine for medicine,

He drinks it because God made a good world and there is good in this world and it’s worth more than just fighting for, it’s worth toasting to.

But there is one time that Jesus doesn’t drink. It’s when Jesus is hanging on the Cross in the most excruciating pain of His life. He’s offered a spounge that has been dipped with wine mixed with myrrh.

It was the ancient world’s equivalent to Hydrocodone. It was given by his executors who saw how much pain He was in. They were offering him the most humane option they had. To take the edge off. It would have made Jesus numb.

And Jesus refuses, He doesn’t want to be numb. Pain must be felt.

"I Thirst, Vinegar Given To Jesus," by James Tissot

“I Thirst, Vinegar Given To Jesus,” by James Tissot

I live in America, where we know how to make pain go away. We have medicine, food, sex, entertainment and wine, all of which are good and wonderful gifts from God in His good world, until you start to use them like medicine.

Over the past few years, I’ve developed a few bad habits that I’ve since confessed and repented of. I don’t have to tell you what they were, they were fine things in themselves, but the problem is what I was using them for.

I developed habits to help me escape, to take the edge off.

Brene Brown points out that we, as a culture, are the most addicted, over-fed, drunken, medicated culture that has ever existed. And she says the reason why is because we are trying to escape our pain.

But pain demands to be felt.

A Sad and Beautiful Song

I’m reading a lot from the old Christian mystics these days. Jullian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila and Margaret Kempe, and without fail all of them believe that God is found the most clearly in suffering. That when we suffer, something happens if we let it that causes our soul to expand. We become more magnanimous, more compassionate, more like God when we go through the difficulties of life.

Last year I found myself lately praying a prayer that makes me nervous. “Whatever you need to do to me God to make me into the person you want me to be, I surrender to you.”

Immediately I start thinking about people I love dying, or losing my health, but this past year I realized that the suffering wouldn’t do God’s work in me, because I wouldn’t let it.

I rarely let myself feel the pain I already have now. I try to take the edge off, and in doing so I rob myself of the opportunity for God to do His best work.

There is a kind of rhythm to God’s project in the world: death-to-life. One of the basic Christian moves is to embrace the world’s suffering — including my own — for the sake of God’s bringing redemption and new life through that act of surrender. That’s how Jesus did it.

Just ask the older people in your life; most of them will say that their hardest times brought some of the most growth, and sometimes in hindsight they even come to see them as some of the best times of their lives.

I think that’s what Rohr means when he says Christianity is largely about our relationship to pain.  Because God can redeem our pain in ways we can’t even imagine.

You know what the last words of Jesus were? “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” It was from a Psalms.

It was a song.

The love that moves the sun and stars, the love that sang Creation into existence, sang as His own world grew dim.

Jesus didn’t die numb, Jesus died Singing.

And yes, it was a sad song, but Jesus died singing. Because that’s what God can do with people who enter into their pain.

I don’t want to be numb to the great gifts of God’s good world, I don’t want to take the edge off of hearing my children laugh or spring in West Texas or telling stories with my guard down around good friends. I want to be able to see with clear eyes God’s good world.

I want to receive life as a gift.

I want to die singing.

On October 27, 2015

OMG: No Wonder

But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. -St. Paul


I remember when I stopped believing in God.

It was right around the time I started to figure God out.

I had been going to seminary for quite a while, and ignoring all my professors’ warnings I began to become more and more prideful about what I knew, and started to look down on all those other stupid people who didn’t quite “get it.”

Christianity became for me a system, the Bible became a textbook, and God became an idea, and my soul became dull.

The Mystery of God

One of the challenges of seminary, or just with growing up with faith in the West is that we focus a lot on being right. That was the main point of the Protestant Reformation and all the different denominations that came out of that. Each group had their own particular slant of doctrine, and each one was certain they were right.

But I’ve learned that if you approach God with the idea that you will figure God out, you will at best fail, and at worse think you succeeded.

I’m not the only one with this story, plenty of preachers and pastors out there have discovered the most difficult time in their life was when they were in a season of learning about God/Bible/Christian History.

And it’s not because we were learning stuff that made us disbelieve in God, I think it’s because we were approaching the mystery of God in the wrong way.

I like the way fellow pastor A.J. Swaboda talks about his time in Seminary:

For the first time, the Bible became a textbook.  Writers get writer’s block.  Seminarians get reader’s block.  After a long time, you sort of forget how to read the Bible like a child and start to think you are a smart person.  In a way, seminary ruined the Bible for me. Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said that he couldn’t read King Lear anymore, “having had the advantage of studying it accurately at school.”  What he meant was that there’s a way to study a book though which you lose the point of the book.  I began to do that to the Bible…I had to learn how to come back to the Bible as a child. The enemy of wonder, I learned, can be knowledge.

To state that a little differently, I believe the enemy of wonder is always pride.

To Know What We Don’t Know

There’s a time in the Bible, where Moses asks to see the Glory of God. Moses has just led the grumbling, complaining Israelites out of slavery and they are headed to the Promised Land.

But Moses has some questions for God.

Moses wants to know more.

So he asks God to show him God’s glory, and God says to him:

“I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence…But, you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back.”

Think about this. We’re talking about Moses, the legendary leader of Israel, the one who God gave the Torah and the 10 Commandments to, and who would later go on to be a spokesperson for the NRA.

Moses Before His Days Advocating for Gun Rights

Moses Before His Days Advocating for Gun Rights

But God tells him, you can only see my back.

Some Rabbi’s point out that the word here isn’t really about the back of God. What God is actually saying to Moses is “I’ll let you see where I just was. I’ll let you see the After-ness of God looks like.”

I think it’s because to know God is in many ways to also know that you cannot fully know God.

And while this might just sound like semantics, I think it’s a fundamentally different way of approaching the Divine, one that can save our soul.

I’ve learned that I can’t approach the Bible or God like a scientist trying to prove something. As if God could be crammed into a test tube.

Even scientists know this is true.

In the words of Albert Einstein:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.

Einstein isn’t just talking about the best way to live here, he’s talking about realizing the truth!

Masters of the Universe?

Did you know that a staggering 96% of the known universe is dark matter?  That means we have no idea how to even study it. I once talked to a University Physics professor and he told me that everything humanity knows about dark matter can be written down on a 3×5 card.

Amplified image of invisible Dark Matter

Amplified image of invisible Dark Matter

Which means, all the certainty we have about how the universe works and the nature of reality, is all based on the small 4% of the Galaxy that we can even wrap our mind around.

We’re just not the masters of the universe that we’ve thought we are.

During the Middle Ages, one of the things that I appreciate the most was that people were aware that their theories of how the universe works, were in fact, theories.

A theory was valuable because it was helpful, not because it was certainly true. And so their language back then was much more humble. Someone who was trying to describe the universe would say something like “Things appear to be this way.”

For all the grief we give those who have gone before us, I would say at least they knew what they didn’t know.

There is a direct correlation between pride and loss of wonder. Between our certainty in our systems and doctrine and progress we’ve lost the ability to sit humbly with the mystery of what we don’t know.

In the words of A.W. Tozer:

The God of Abraham has withdrawn His conscious Presence from us, and another God whom our fathers knew not is making himself at home among us. This God we have made and because we have made him we can understand him; because we have created him, he can never surprise us, never overwhelm us, nor astonish us, nor transcend us.

We don’t know what we don’t know about the Creation, There’s no way we can ever fully know the Creator.

We want to know God, many of us are proud because we think we do.

But the Back of God is all people ever see in the Bible.

It turns out that’s enough.

On October 20, 2015

OMG: The Cup of Wonder

Entertainment is what the church does when it isn’t satisfied in God. -A.J. Swoboda

“Here we are now. Entertain us.” -Nirvana

UnknownSeveral years ago, Dan Kimball was looking for more in life. He had grown up without any church background, and he kept finding himself more and more drawn to Jesus. So eventually he talked his friend Randy into going with him to an old Presbyterian church by their college.

For those of you who can remember the first time you went to church, you know how foreign it all can seem. Dan and Randy didn’t know when to sit or stand. They didn’t know the words to any of the songs. They just tried their best to fit in like they belonged there.

And they seemed to be doing well, until it was time for Communion.

This church was passing an actual cup and a tray of crackers down the aisle, and when the woman next to Dan handed him the cup she mumbled something about blood and how “this is for you” and something about flesh. But Dan didn’t quite hear her. He dipped the bread in the cup, because that’s what he saw others doing, but he didn’t understand what he was doing or why they were doing it.

Then Dan handed the cup to Randy. But since he didn’t understand what was going on, he didn’t say anything. He just shrugged his shoulders and gave it to him.

The problem was that Randy had seen that the woman who had handed the cup to Dan had said something to him as she gave it to him. He could tell it was something that was important to what they were supposed to be doing, and now Randy was going to have to hand the cup to the stranger next to him.

The Cup of Wonder

So after Randy dipped his cracker in the cup, he handed the cup to the woman next to him and he looked her in the eye and with great confidence he told her, “Here it is: the Cup of Wonder.”

I’ve been to seminary, I’ve taken communion thousands of times in my life, and I can’t think of a better way to describe it than that.

Communion at it’s best is the Cup of Wonder

The Dull and Distracted

I’m doing a blog series on the human need for awe and wonder and today I’d like to press my point a bit more on why this matters so much.

There are plenty of things that Christians in the West could do better, there are obviously plenty of moral failings, we’ve become too political, too apathetic, too materialistic, too judgmental etc.

But that is not the greatest challenge we face. I would argue those are just symptoms of this one crucial problem we have.

We don’t see God well anymore.

I like the way the Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon says this:

“… The most critical issue facing Christians is not abortion, pornography, the disintegration of the family, moral absolutes, MTV, drugs, racism, sexuality, or school prayer. The critical issue today is dullness. We have lost our astonishment. The Good News is no longer good news, it is okay news. Christianity is no longer life changing, it is life enhancing. Jesus doesn’t change people into wild-eyed radicals anymore; He changes them into “nice people…”

Did you know that boredom is a modern problem? It’s a word that never really appeared until a hundred years ago. It didn’t show up until we started assuming that every moment needed to be filled with something exciting and distracting.

And to solve this new problem, we’ve created lives that are filled with everything….but God.

Even our language reflects this. Did you know that the word entertainment, literally means to put something between us? The word amusement literally means “without the Spirit”

We fill our lives with noise and the complain because we can’t hear the voice of God. We crowd our lives with lights and then lament because we can no longer see the stars.

And if that rings true to you, I’d like to ask you to consider your own life for a bit.

It easy to pick on the cliche of Christians talking about having their quiet time, but…

  • When was the last time you said “Wow” and meant it?
  • When was the last time that you felt overwhelmed by a sense of beauty and gratitude?
  • What does an average day look like for you?
  • What stories are beneath all the stories that you watch/hear/consume?

Disciplines for Wonder

I once read about a man who did a social experiment where he spent an entire week in the mountains, followed by an entire week of watching cable television. At the end of his time in the mountains he felt appropriately small. He knew his place in the universe.

But after his week on the couch immersed in television, he thought primarily about himself and what he wanted. He had been taught once again that he was the center of the world.

I think the greatest enemy of our wonder is our calendar.

Every moment of every day, we are training our eyes how to see, and while it’s true that church can often feel boring, and often it can feel like a waste of time, I believe wholeheartedly that church is a discipline. It is one of the best ways I know of to train our hearts how to see the world well.

Some days of course, the church feels more like a discipline. Some days belonging to a community, singing together, praying together, taking communion feels route and boring.

Pastor A.J. Swaboda points out that in his experience, many churches answer to the problem of boredom is to manufacture something that’s exciting…but unreal:

We do Christianity the way many do pornography: glossy, shiny and unreal. And the results of both are almost exactly the same – momentary bliss followed by a desire to experience the real thing because what we just experienced was a complete sham.

At the heart of all Christian gatherings for all time, is an ordinary loaf of bread and cup of wine, and we believe that in some mysterious way, we are drinking wonder.

Just like any discipline, there are days that are harder than others, and just like any discipline, the goal isn’t the discipline, but what the discipline allows you to do, the kind of person it allows you to become.

Did you know that the word Wow, actually comes from the Scottish word for vow? It comes from the idea of binding ourselves to a sacred commitment. I believe that Wonder comes from being disciplined to see the world as it really is.

Because think back to that man who spent the one week in the mountains, and another in the television. Which perspective was really true, more attuned to reality? If the universe really is this majestic place, and I’m really that small, which story is real…and which one is not?

Cathedral Designed for the Discipline of Wonder

Cathedral Designed for the Discipline of Wonder

The classic Christian word for this is humility, and it is the pre-requisite for all awe and wonder. Humility means being small enough to see the greatness of something and to feel unworthy of it, and privileged to be able to enjoy it.

This is why Christians used to build Cathedrals, not to waste the churches money, but to help us acknowledge how small we all are. It’s why belonging to a church matters, especially one that doesn’t always do what you like and when you want it,  not as a way of keeping God from sending you to Hell, but as a way of seeing Heaven breaking out right here among us.

Churches matter, not because they are the only place to meet God, but because they show us how to meet God everywhere else.

They show us we are small.

It’s where we drink from the Cup of Wonder.

On October 13, 2015

OMG: Like A Child

“When I was a child I thought like a child, when I became a man I put away childish things, including the need to be grown up.”-C.S. Lewis

UnknownA few months ago, I had a great opportunity to go with my 6 year old daughter to visit Razorback stadium in Fayetteville Arkansas. I’ve grown up watching every Razorback game on television, I’ve taught my kids the Arkansas fight song, I’ve dreamed about getting to walk on that field since I was a little boy, but I never considered what I would do once I got there.

As soon as we got there, I was awe-struck. So many memories came flooding back to me (many of them very, very sad because heck, we’re not Alabama) and then I noticed that my 6 year old daughter had taken to sprinting the field.
In the heat of a July day. She was running the entire field from endzone to endzone. And as soon as I saw her, I knew that was the very thing that I very much wanted to do, but I was too grown up to do it.

We were with some friends from college, and they had used their connections with some big-wigs at the U of A to make this happen, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of them.

Back when I was in college, I lead a spring break campaign to Fall River Massachusetts. One day, our van was running an errand and we realized that we were going to be coming close to the New England Coast, and all of my college friends started begging me to stop to see the ocean.

So we did, and I’ll never forget what happened next.

A7378188-8705-4F9C-80C7-1BEB65551E15It was my friend Josh’s first time to ever see the ocean, and he jumped out of the van and ran into the ocean fully clothed,

On a cold, New England day Josh ran into the Atlantic like he was a 6 year old boy.

He never considered the consequences of being in wet jeans for the rest of the day, he just saw the ocean for the first time and he was too excited to think past that moment.

I still keep this picture on my computer it reminds me of two things.

1) Don’t be too grown up for my own good.

2) I still regret not getting in the ocean.

Growing Up Without Growing Old

Did you ever wonder why we do this? Why do we, as we grow older, become less and less willing to put ourselves out there?

I’m writing this the week of yet another reboot of the Peter Pan movie franchise. Yet another time we are telling the story of those boys who never grow up. Why do we keep making these movies? I think the answer is obvious…because we will watch them.

And to be sure, part of the reason we are so fascinated with Peter Pan and not growing up is because we are afraid of death, but a better, more pure reason is because we intuitively know that kids know how to live, or maybe it’s better to say they don’t know how to live just yet.

They haven’t learned all the ways that the world might hurt them, or how throwing yourself fully into anything leaves you open for ridicule, but the greatest thing they haven’t learned yet, is that just because something happens all the time doesn’t mean it isn’t a miracle.

For a child, every bird in the backyard is a wonder. Every star is a sign, and every sunrise is a marvel.

I’m starting to believe our children are right.

Have you seen this video before? It’s of an older man, who is seeing an escalator for the first time. And he’s struck with a mixture of fear and wonder. Others are just calmly walking past him and using the escalator out of second nature, but this man has wisdom that they know not.

He knows something in a way that those inoculated to the sight do not. He knows that it is no small thing to see moving steps that can transport you from one place to the other. He can see what they can no longer see, because they’ve seen it too many times and have grown blind.

I believe this is the great gift that children give to our world. They know what we have forgotten, a person sees something truly when they see it for the first time.

The Vulnerability of Wonder

I love the way that G.K. Chesterton talks about this in connection with our modern lack of wonder:

All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork….It might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life.

It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that God has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

Did you catch that? God has the eternal appetite of infancy, for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we?

We have sinned because we learned somewhere early on that wonder, true awe and wonder, makes us vulnerable to any cynic, it exposes us to anyone who has learned to see through everything and yet see nothing.

We have sinned because we learned to use sarcasm and humor to cover over the fact that we’ve lost the ability to enjoy God’s good world the way a child can.

We have sinned because we sat in the car while our friend ran fully clothed into the ocean.

And while I may forever have a funny story of a friend doing a silly thing in the cold New England sea, but I will never know what it felt like to feel the water on my toes on that brisk spring day.

I was too grown up for my own good.

I’ve learned that life has a way of beating the wonder and joy out of us.

Over time, we begin to roll our eyes a bit more frequently, one day at a time we become a bit more skeptical and jaded, and we call it becoming wise, but what it really is, is us just becoming one more spectator.


So back to that day in Razorback stadium this summer…When I saw Eden sprinting across the field in 100+ degree weather, I knew what I was supposed to do as a dad, I should shout a warning about a possible heat stroke or tell her again how we had talked about being on her best behavior.

But watching her made me think again of my friend Josh standing in the ocean and I knew in the moment I was being given an opportunity for joy.

So in front of several friends, and a U of A corporate big-wig, Eden and I sprinted the slowest lap around the field they’ve probably ever seen.

Because, in the words of Lewis, when i was a child I though like a child, but now that I’m grown up, I put away childish things…Including the need to be grown up.

On October 6, 2015

OMG: Awesome Gosh

The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.”-G.K. Chesterton




I want to begin a short series today on wonder and awe and our need to be able to discover our place in God’s good universe. But I’m convinced that all of that starts with being able to find God in it first.

When I was growing up, the gravest sin that I could think of committing was taking the LORD’s name in vain. I wasn’t sure exactly why or how to do it, but I grew up knowing that if I said “God” I had better be praying.

To that end, my parents, my friend’s parents and just about every adult in my life enforced a rule. Not only were we not allowed to say “Oh my God’ but we couldn’t use any words associated with God.

We couldn’t even say “Gosh” which I always assumed was just God’s informal name, or maybe a divine cousin or something.

I may sound like I’m complaining, but I assure you I’m not. This actually developed in me a sense that talking about God mattered. If we said God’s name we had better mean it.

I still remember the first time that I saw Niagra Falls. Watching millions of gallons of water pouring over the cliff, I remember feeling appropriately small and whispering “Oh my gosh.”

Old habits die hard.

I grew up never saying “Oh my God” and I plan to raise my kids with that same rule, until I can teach them that phrase is a special one that only belongs in those moments of great awe, fear and reverence.

I hope that they have plenty of opportunities to say it.

Growing up, we were worried that we would take God’s name in vain, I’m beginning to be concerned that a generation is growing up that is taking God’s creation in vain.

Finding Wonder In Rainbows

Maybe you saw this video from a few years ago, it’s about a man who was in Yosemite part and he suddenly noticed a double rainbow in the sky. And he totally lost it.

Watch this video, and you’ll see what I mean. This guy has appeared on several national television shows and keeps insisting that he was sober while this was happening, and he keeps being asked.

If you watch the video, you’ll find yourself laughing, and another part of yourself will be slightly jealous. Because this man knows how to see a rainbow.

I love the way the musician Michael Gungor talks about this video:

Tens of millions of people watch this viral YouTube video and laugh at the absurdity of a (supposedly sober) grown man weeping and screaming in…pleasure over something as simple as moisture playing with light in the sky. But all of this makes me wonder if we should be laughing with Double Rainbow Guy rather than at him?

Most of us watch him with the assumption that our jaded indifference to the colors of the rainbow is the norm, and that he is the less-than-sane one. But maybe he saw something that day that you and I haven’t yet seen in a rainbow. Maybe he feels something that all of us would feel if we learned how to really see.

In other words, one man sees rainbows and can’t stop laughing from joy, we can’t stop laughing at him…and we think he’s the crazy one.

I think it’s interesting that boredom is a modern invention, and interesting that almost everyone these days is bored.

The world for the centuries before us saw the world as enchanted, it was unsafe and adventuresome and risky. We used to live in a universe that had a heartbeat.

And while, secularized people are resistant to the idea that a world without God is a world without awe, I think it’s indicative that Charles Darwin after establishing his doctrine of natural selection described himself as having lost the ability for wonder.

Here’s how Darwin described himself:

“Up to the age of 30 or beyond it, poetry of many kinds…gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare…Formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great, delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also lost any taste for pictures or music…I retain some taste for fine scenery but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did…My mind seems to have become a machine for fringing general laws out of large collections of facts…the loss of these fastest is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.” -Charles Darwin

I know that plenty of Christians have beaten up on Darwin through the years, but I find this kind of honest self-appraisal refreshing. He sees the dangers of a world without beauty and wonder.

I don’t think that evolution has to mean this, after all no less than Pope Francis recently affirmed that evolution is probably how God created the world, and I have many godly Christian friends who have no problem with reconciling Darwin’s ideas and the Christian doctrine of Creation.

Surprised by Heaven on Earth

The problem isn’t between science and God, the problem is when we use an explanation for Creation as a means to dismiss the Creator.

The problem comes when we look into the sky and see only moisture mixing with light in the sky and can not see the rainbow.

I’ve noticed that what you look for is what you will find in this world, and what you seek you will find.

One of my favorite stories in the Bible is in Genesis 28, it’s where this guy named Jacob is on a road trip. He becomes tired and decides to rest for the night.

Genesis actually tells us that he stopped at “a certain place” which is an ancient idiom that was used to say this is not a very special place, there are no landmarks there, it’s just a rest stop.

But Jacob goes to sleep and suddenly everything is transformed around him, He sees a thin space between Heaven and Earth with angels ascending and descending and when he wakes up Jacob exclaims, “Surely the Lord was in this place, and I was not aware of it”

One of the points of this story is that Jacob had been metaphorically asleep, and he finally woke up.

It wasn’t that God just showed up somewhere, God had been in the place the whole time and finally Jacob showed up.

And Jacob immediately said “Surely God is in this place”

Or in other words, “Oh My God.

Or for those of you who grew up like I did, “Awesome Gosh.”

How to Start a Riot - A Film SeriesAs long time readers of this blog may know, a few years ago I wrote my first book “How to Start A Riot” about the early Christians in the book of Acts. It was a book that I’m still fond of, and still go around talking about at churches and conferences.

But it’s also a book with ideas that are hard to capture with words on paper. So….

Last year, I went with a producer for Leafwood Press to Israel, and we went all over Jerusalem to the places that were central in the book of Acts. We wanted to talk about what these early Christians did, and how they did it.

Our hope was that we could make a quality small group/Bible class resource for people who were interested in hearing these revolutionary stories and seeing the places where they happened.

And today, I’m very happy to announce that readers of this blog get the first opportunity for a sneak peak at this, and I’m pleased to get to offer you a special 30% off discount as readers of this blog.

You need to know that, while this was shot, edited and scored by professionals, it is not slick.

The producer and I walked/hiked/climbed (and occasionally took a taxi) all over Jerusalem. We were filming in the heat of July, and in July the Holy Land is as hot as….well…the not Holy Land.

Since last July, I haven’t thought much about this project, but I got to sit down and watch these videos for the first time a few weeks ago and I’m proud of what we put together. I hope these videos can help equip churches and Christians to be able to see the book of Acts in a new light.

Because making them certainly did that for me.

The Bible Made Strange Again

One of the great things about doing a project like this, is that it can make you see your own story from a new perspective. It can help you see again just what a  revolutionary and compelling and controversial thing we are doing when we follow Jesus.

One of  the days that we were filming there, we chose to film a segment in the Jewish Quarter, right on the Temple Mount. And as we were shooting the video, a small crowd started to gather around us. Mostly the crowd was composed of men wearing yamakas and they were intently listening to what I was saying into the camera’s.

The problem was that I was reading from the book of Acts, in the section where Stephen, the first Christian martyr is saying stuff to the Jewish religious leaders that would get him killed.*

Here’s the passage I was reading:

“The Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says:

49 “‘Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me?
says the Lord.
    Or where will my resting place be?
50 Has not my hand made all these things?’

51 “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit!  Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him, you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”

Suddenly, as I was reading this, I noticed there was a crowd gathering. And I had a few different thoughts flash into my mind.

One is that there’s a reason that Stephen was killed after saying these words. They were offensive then, and suddenly I realized that they are still offensive and provocative.

I began to realize that it is one thing to read the book of Acts, from a church stage in Texas, and another to read it where these stories actually happened with people similar to those original cast of characters.

As soon as we had finished filming, one of the Jewish men who had respectfully waited for us to wrap, immediately came up and with a raised voice said, “What you believe is a bunch of Crap-ianity”  And then proceeded to tell us that Jesus was actually able to perform miracles because he had sold his soul to the devil.

You know, just like the last time you preached at your church.

We found out later that it’s a common occurrence for people to have rocks thrown at them for filming in the Jewish quarter on the Sabbath, something we failed to notice. And I’m not telling you this to make you think we were particularly brave (I had no idea that this was a bad idea), or to make the Jewish people seem hostile (they were mostly very kind to us during our stay), but because we set out to film “How to Start a Riot’ on location, and we almost accidentally did just that.

Because these little ideas were revolutionary in the day these stories happened, and they still are today.

If you’re interested in this DVD for your church Bible class or Small group, or just would like to study Acts more in-depth on your own, I hope you check out this resource.

This is a 2-DVD set and it includes 12 segments filmed in Jerusalem. Each segment is 12-15-minutes, and it explores what it means to belong to the community of God and how to Support Your Local Revolution. The series also includes access to an online companion booklet to guide and enrich discussion.

The 30% off discount is available through the ACU Press website for a limited time and the code to enter at checkout for the discount is: StartARiot 

Once again, I don’t get any money for this. All my proceeds go to the Highland Church of Christ, and specifically our vision for “A Restoration Movement”

*To be clear, Stephen was himself a Jew, critiquing the Jewish leaders as an insider working toward a prophetic reform. That’s what got him killed.

“I am thoroughly convinced that God will let everyone into Heaven who can stand it. But standing it may be a more difficult matter than those who take their view of heaven from popular movies may think.

I often wonder how happy and useful some of the fearful, bitter, lust-ridden, hate-filled Christians I have seen involved in church or family or political battles would be if they were forced to live forever in the unrestrained fullness of God.

The fires in Heaven may be hotter than those in the other place.    -Dallas Willard


For the past few weeks, I’ve been doing a blog series, revisiting the Christian doctrine of Hell, and today I’d like to bring that series to an end. I’d like to thank everyone for the incredibly positive feedback I’ve gotten from this series, and if you’re just seeing this series for the first time, you can start here to catch up.

Now I’d like to close this series by addressing the one question people ask the most about Hell.

Who’s going…and Who’s not?

Heaven Isn’t An Elitist Country Club

I think it’s interesting that this is what we want to know the most about the age to come. We really want to know who’s in and who’s out.

And the people who get the most attention are the ones who talk with the most certainty with the answers to those questions. As in ‘Bob’s out, Susie’s in” kind of certainty. We even developed an evangelistic campaign on it “If you died tonight, are you certain that you’d go to Heaven? Are you really sure?”

To be sure, I’m all for people viewing their life through the lens of eternity, but too often I think we forget who God is, and what Heaven is really going to be like.

Over the past few years I’ve started to have this hunch that being in Heaven in age to come, is not going to so much of a pass/fail test as it is revealing what we really desire.

A few years ago, I was leading a Bible Study with a several unchurched people and one family who were already Christians. We were going through the Gospel of Matthew and we got to the story of the Parable of the Day Laborers.

It’s a story Jesus tells that emphasized the radical unfairness of the grace of God, and to illustrate I talked about how the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, just before he was murdered in prison had given his life to Jesus and been baptized.

And that’s when the Bible study took an unexpected turn.

The only other Christian there was immediately disturbed. He said, “You mean to tell me that Dahmer, the guy who did all those horrible things is going to be in Heaven?”

And I said, “Yes, I think so, and I think that’s what this parable means.”

And he said, “I don’t want to be in Heaven with Jeffrey Dahmer. I won’t go in if he’s there”

To which I said something like, “Okay…suit yourself I guess.”

So now the Bible study had one less Christian than we had started with, which was not the direction I think evangelism is supposed to go.

Jeffrey Dahmer, Brother in Christ

Jeffrey Dahmer, Brother in Christ

But this is very much the way Christian theology talks about Heaven and Hell. God gives everyone what they want. And I have a hunch that if we spend our lives developing a Christianish version of morality and self-righteous pride we aren’t going to like Heaven, in fact we might even choose to avoid it.

East and West

One of the times that Jesus talks about Hell comes immediately after he heals a Roman centurion’s servant. That sounds fine to us, but in Jesus’ day it would have infuriated the religious people around Him.

Remember, Rome were the bad guys, they were the ones who had oppressed, killed, tortured and destroyed the Jewish people, and Jesus treats one of the bad guys like a human being.

He even does a favor for him, but from the oppressed Jew’s perspective it gets worse.

After Jesus heals the Centurions servant, he is amazed by the Centurion’s faith and says this to the very uncomfortable crowd:

“Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Notice that Jesus seems to think that God’s judgment is going to be first for the people of God, the ones who are sure that they are the good guys, and others are the bad guys.

Notice that Jesus also says, Many will come.

Everytime you hear people mention Jesus words about the Narrow Way to Heaven, you should also remember that Jesus thinks that the narrow way is going to jam-packed with people coming.

And they’re coming from the East and the West, which is the direction of Israel’s enemies’ (East was Babylon and Rome was to the West) in another Gospel Jesus mentions people coming from the North and South (the North was Assyria and the South was Egypt).

Jesus seems to think that Heaven is going to have multitudes of people streaming in from all directions.

Isaiah sees a day when the Kings of the nations come streaming into God’s holy city. Revelation pictures a Heaven filled with people from every tribe speaking every language.

Jesus is wide open to anyone coming into God’s holy city, and not everyone likes that, they (we) want a better gatekeeper than Jesus.

Now that’s not to say that Jesus is saying that anyone and anything can come into God’s new Creation. Remember that’s the point of Hell, God gives us our wish, and for those who would perpetuate the evil that Creation has grown tired of God will say “Not here you won’t.”

Still Heaven is wide open to the entire world, and it’s going to have many streaming in.

But there is a catch.

The Gates of Heaven

Because this City is built on Jesus, and His presence is the center of it all, not everyone will want it.

In the helpful words of Joshua Ryan Butler:

The gates of God’s kingdom are wide open for the person in Hinduism, but in order to enter the party, something significant must be left at the door. God’s party is a place where the outcast are given the best seats in the house, where the hungry are welcomed to the head of the dining table, where the last become first and the first become last…God is for the Hindu. Jesus welcomes them into his city. The Great Physician extends his embrace with the healing the cross has made possible. But there are idols that must be left at the door.”

Heaven is wide open to the Christian moralist, but if you are unwilling to see the grace of God given to someone like Jeffery Dahmer than something significant must be left at the door.

Heaven is wide open to Muslim, but at the center of Heaven is a Crucified God who shows the world His power through His weakness and death, and so to enter something significant must be left at the gate.

The Gates of Paradise, by Lorenzo Ghiberti. (note the Roman Centurion ushering people in!) © 2004 -- Ron Reznick [#Beginning of Shooting Data Section] Nikon D2H Focal Length: 28mm Optimize Image: Color Mode: Mode II (Adobe RGB) Noise Reduction: OFF 2004/10/27 08:46:54.7 Exposure Mode: Aperture Priority White Balance: Color Temp. (6300 K) Tone Comp: Less Contrast RAW (12-bit) Metering Mode: Multi-Pattern AF Mode: AF-C Hue Adjustment: 0° Image Size: Large (2464 x 1632) 1/100 sec - F/2 Flash Sync Mode: Not Attached Saturation: Exposure Comp.: -1.0 EV Sharpening: Normal Lens: 28mm F/1.4 D Sensitivity: ISO 200 Image Comment: [#End of Shooting Data Section]

The famous Gates of Paradise, by Lorenzo Ghiberti. (note the Roman Centurion ushering people in!)
© 2004 – Ron Reznick

Heaven is wide open to the Nationalist American, but because Heaven will be filled with people from every nation and every tribe, something significant is going to have to be left at the gate.

Heaven is wide open to the materialistic consumer, but after spending a lifetime consuming advertisements that place you at the center of reality, something significant must be left at the gate.

Carol Zaleski once quipped, “Our ancestors were afraid of Hell; we are afraid of Heaven.  We think it will be boring.”

I think we’re afraid of Heaven in lots of ways. And the point of the age to Come in Christian theology is to become the kinds of people who belong there and then, here and now.

It’s easy to slide into talking about Heaven and Hell by threatening others and marking off our Naughty and Nice list, but the point of Jesus’ teaching on Hell almost always  is that God is very, very good.

Too much of Christian history has been religious leaders using Heaven as a tool of terror instead of the great source of hope that it actually is for God’s good future. It is a future without sex trafficking or poverty or slavery or greed filled with the presence of God and the Reign of King Jesus.

It is a future that is open for all who want it.

So take heart, If you want God more than you want to be right, if you want to be with Jesus more than you want to avoid those you consider to be the wrong kinds of people than well done, good and faithful servant…

You will get just what you want.

“Of every malice that earns hate in Heaven, injustice is the end;

And each such end by force or fraud brings harm to other men.”

–Dante in The Divine Comedy Canto XI:22


One of the more interesting parts about our contemporary conversations on Hell to me is that the people who are the most against it in the next life are the ones who enforce it’s logic the most in this one.

So we fight for justice and equality, we struggle to sleep at night thinking about how to stop sex-traffickers and pay-day lenders. We work tirelessly to level the playing fields, expose corruption and greed and put the bad guys away.

And then we squirm when we hear about Hell.

To be sure, I understand why. That’s why I’ve been doing this series. The Hell that I grew up believing in was very uninspiring. It was all fire and brimstone and torture with very little rationale behind the whole thing.

It was often based on a handful of verses taken out of their context and made into a threat for people who didn’t believe (translated as thinking) the right things or in the right ways.

But the way Christians have believed about Hell for a long time, is much better, deeper and more inspiring than that.

For example, the great poet Dante.

When Dante wrote his poem “the Divine Comedy” he tells about a vision he had in which he is given a tour of Hell by the Roman Poet Virgil. And while in Hell he discovers that the ones who are being punished are punished in a way that connects their crimes against humanity to their punishment.

Like Charles Dicken’s Ghost Marley, who was doomed to carry around chains for every greedy farthing he collected, the greedy people in Dante’s Inferno were forced to carry around heavy loads and fight with the other greedy people.

Likewise, in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, one of the most poignant things that he does is connect the person we are becoming in this life, to the kind of person we will be in the age to come.

Because who they were now, is who they were then.

Hell didn’t change them it only exposed them.

The Grace of Hell

There’s this one scene in the Great Divorce, where someone we are only introduced to as a Big Ghost, but who was once a man, finds his way from Hell to the edge of Heaven where he bumps into someone he used to know, but hardly recognizes.

His name was, Len, he had murdered a mutual acquaintance of theirs during in his lifetime. And the Big Ghost is appalled to find him in Heaven, while He, a fine upstanding man during his life is not.

Here’s the conversation:

Ghost: I gone straight all my life…I done my best by everyone, that’s the sort of chap I was. I never asked for anything that wasn’t mine by rights. If I wanted a drink I paid for it and if I took my wages I done my job, see? That’s the sort I was and I don’t care who knows it.”

Len:”It would be much better not to go on about that now.”

Ghost: “Who’s going on? I’m not arguing. I’m just telling you the sort of chap I was, see? I’m asking for nothing but my rights. You may think you can put me down because you’re dressed up like that (which you weren’t when you worked under me) and I’m only a poor man. But I got to have my rights same as you, see?”

Len: “Oh no. It’s not so bad as that. I haven’t got my rights, or I should not be here. You will not get yours either. You’ll get something far better. Never fear.”

Ghost: “That’s just what I say. I haven’t got my rights. I always done my best and I never done nothing wrong. And what I don’t see is why I should be put below a bloody murderer like you.”

Len: “Who knows whether you will be? Only be happy and come with me.

Ghost: “What do you keep on arguing for? I’m only telling you the sort of chap I am. I only want my rights. I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.”

Len: “Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.”

Did you catch this? The ghost couldn’t bring himself to ask for something he didn’t deserve. He couldn’t bear the though of ultimate reality not being fair, and he couldn’t let go of the view he had of himself as a good person and certainly better than a murderer.Unknown

And so he found his way back to the bus that brought him.

Heaven in Lewis vision is something like bumping into ultimate reality and Hell is choosing not to live there.

Hell has been described as God’s way of giving people what they want. I think that’s really what it is. But in truth, Hell is God’s way of giving everyone what we all want.

Hell is justice. Hell is mercy. At the same time.

I think it’s interesting that in C.S. Lewis’ version of Hell, buses run daily between Heaven and Hell and anyone can leave whenever they want. People in Hell can even decide to stay in Heaven.

But almost no one does.

Truth is Hell

David Bentley Hart points out that the way Christians in Eastern Orthodoxy talk about Hell is that there really is no distinction between the fire of Hell and the light of God’s glory.

Eastern Christians say that what is really damnation is the soul’s resistance of the beauty of God’s glory, its refusal to open itself before the divine love, and it makes the divine love God seem unbearable.”

In other words, If you spend your life thinking God is a monster or that you are the hero of the story, you aren’t going to like Heaven. You might even prefer to be anywhere else, including Hell.

In C.S. Lewis’ vision these ghosts from Hell can’t stand the pain of becoming real. They are transparent ghouls, and the light of Heaven can transform them, but it will strip them of all the deceits they hold dear.

It’s heartbreaking really, not because of some theory of the afterlife, but because of the uncannily accurate way Lewis describes human nature, and the Divine response to heal it.

From Jesus, to Dante to C.S. Lewis, the thing that is the most inspiring about Hell is also the thing that is the most disturbing about it.

It is that God’s judgment will be done, but this good and beautiful God won’t judge the way we do.

So at the judgment, Jesus tells us many of the goats will be surprised to find out that they’re goats. Maybe they were elders at a church who also grew rich on predatory lending to the poor, a practice they had justified in their mind and long since dulled their guilt for.


Dante Alighieri and his Inferno

Maybe they were preachers who were so concerned about their image that they failed to confess their own sin and need for the Gospel. Or the self-righteous business woman who harbored anger so long that it set her own soul on fire.

It’s interesting to me that in Dante’s poem, so many of the people in the Inferno were Pope’s and bishops and priests. Quite a risk for someone writing in the Mideaval ages, but also one that would have rung true for most of his readers.

Heaven is God’s way of stripping all of our illusions and laying the world bare, and some of us would rather live a lie than live with God.

That’s true today, and it will be true in the great tomorrow.

The thing that I think is brilliant about Lewis’ point with buses running between Heaven and Hell is that God wills that all should be saved, but God gives us what we want.

And no one in Hell wants to get on the buses.

Because who we are now is connected to who we will be then.

That’s justice, it’s God’s good judgment telling us what we already know is true.

The gates in Heaven are always open. But those in Hell don’t care.

So God gives you all the Hell you want.