Unknown-2A few weeks ago I started a blog series about Hell, and the main point I hope you take away from this is that for most of us the Christian doctrine of Hell probably isn’t what you thought it was.

Hell is the stuff of Hope, of fairy tales of dreams.

Not because all the people you don’t like are going to go there, but because the Christian doctrine of Hell means that God hasn’t given up on His good world and all the things that are broken in Creation, God is going to set right.

I don’t know anyone who is a fan of sex-trafficking or genocide or unchecked greed. And the good news of Hell is that God is going to rid the world of all these cancers.

But the rub comes in the realization that God takes it much more seriously than I do. It’s one thing to say that I’m against sex-trafficking and quite another to look through my internet history in the ways that I’ve been complicit with the very system I protest.

It’s one thing to denounce Bernie Madoff for his greed, and an entirely different thing to look at the tag on my shirt and ask where it was made and the conditions that it was created under. It’s much more difficult to start asking “Why did the shirt cost so little?” Because the truth is someone, somewhere else is bearing that cost.

Now it’s easy to turn this into another kind of moralism…(as in God is going to send me to Hell for shopping at the GAP). But the truth I’m getting at here is that we hate lots of things that we are actually involved in perpetuating.

We ask for God to get rid of the evil in the world, but often without realizing that would involve God getting rid of us.

Every beauty queen talks about world peace, but we are not beauty queens. In the words of Joshua Ryan Butler, “Even our beauty queens are not beauty queens.”

The Controversial Selfie taken between Miss Israel and Miss Lebanon

The Controversial Selfie taken between Miss Israel and Miss Lebanon

Remember last year when Mrs. Israel tried to take a selfie with Mrs. Lebanon and they started the most passive aggressive Instagram war? Which actually might lead to a real war!

This is the point of Hell, we are the very ones who’ve set God’s world on fire.

Tongues Of Fire

Let me give a real practical example on how the Bible talks about Hell that is something everyone can relate to.

It’s interesting to me that the Bible often talks about gossips being in Hell. Because we live in a time where other sins are over-emphasized, this one strikes us as odd.

Unless you’ve ever been burned by gossip, and if you have than you totally understand.

One of the greatest desires of the human heart is to know and be known, to be in close community with other people and to live together in peace.

But a person who gossips destroys that, maybe out of their insecurities, or envy or ambition, but they destroy it all the same. And because of their destructive nature, that kind of behavior, that kind of spirit is excluded from God’s new and good world.

But notice how the Scriptures talk about it:

Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. –James 3

The tongue can start a fire that destroys human community. In just a few words, I could absolutely destroy someone’s reputation, I could ruin another person’s life, question their integrity, make false allegations and cast a shadow on their entire career.

I can do all that with words. And so can you. And if you do, be sure that it will spread. That’s what fire does.

But pay attention to what the Bible says, “that fire comes from Hell.”

James seems to think that Hell’s destructive power is released through us, not God.

James seems to think that when I’m gossiping in the office about a co-worker, I’m not just innocently making chit-chat or even just being a jerk. I’m actually breathing hell into the office.

I love the way Joshua Ryan Butler says this:

Hell gains entrance into God’s good world through us. God is not the architect of hell, the creator of its soul-destroying power; we are. We unleash its wildfire flame into God’s good world.

Burn Victims

Some of us get this because we’re a burn victim. Maybe you lost your job because of that rumor, or your marriage because of a spouse’s constant criticism. And it’s easy to just write that off as human behavior, but the Bible calls it sin, and a not just a sin that leads to death and hell, but one that comes from Hell.

You know the great irony of gossip? It’s that the punishment is in the crime. The judgment is in the sin.

When I was in college, I had a friend who had a handicap, and it was a certain kind of handicap that lended itself to being mocked. And several of my other friends would make fun of him. When he was out of the room, they would start cracking jokes about him.

If you read this blog regularly, you know that I’m not one to brag (I’m proud to say.) But probably the most Christian thing I did while I was in college was not let people make fun of my friend,

I’m telling you this because I noticed the strangest thing started to happen. I realized something that the low self-esteem I had struggled with for years started to go away.

I realized that some of the guys who had made fun of my friend, the ones that I had stood up to and asked to stop, later started coming to me to talk about some of their deeper struggles.

Looking back on it, I realized that they figured out in that moment that if I wouldn’t gossip about my handicapped friend, I wouldn’t gossip about them either.

8E512807-F9BB-48DC-BEA9-F95C91BC6B95The great irony about gossip, is that it does the exact opposite of what we think it’s doing. We think it’s tearing others down, and building us up, but what really happens is that the Hell you create eventually consumes you too.

If you gossip, you begin to assume that others are doing the exact same thing about you.

Just like God, we create worlds with our words we just create the wrong kind of world.

So we bully that effeminate kid in the youth group. Or we talk about the person who doesn’t have enough money to buy the clothes that make her look normal. We gossip about that woman who had an affair, or we talk about other races like they don’t belong.

We create an invisible barrier that keeps some people inside and some people out, and we do it with our words. We create worlds with our words that are too small for certain people, and most of the time we discover that they are the kinds of people that were the most drawn to the grace of Jesus.

But what we sow we will always reap, and for the person who gossips, after all those years of creating that world, when he or she is the one who sins, than they immediately know where they stand.

We know the labels and words that “they” are saying about us now, because we used to say those words about other people. We know that the kind of worlds that we used to be a part of, and that we don’t belong to now, because we helped create it.

And we’re miserable, we’re alone and isolated, because we live in a graceless world that we made ourselves, we’ve released the destructive force of Hell into God’s good world and now it’s fire is burning our lives to the ground.

We are consumed by Hell.

That’s not just some theological idea. That’s a reality for so many people.

That’s the Hell you say.

On September 1, 2015

The Good News of Hell: Curtains Up

“Hell is paved with the skulls of Priests.” -an old French saying


Two weeks ago, I was shocked with the rest of the world to see the NY Times special report on the theology that ISIS had built around rape. The report detailed how ISIS leaders had encouraged their men to pray to God before sexually assaulting their female slaves, and how they would even say things like “By forcing myself on her, I’m getting closer to God.”

It’s no secret that religion can make people worse people just as often as it makes them better. For every Dr. King or William Wilberforce there is also a KKK Grand Dragon or a Fred Phelps, people who are certain that God hates all the same people they do.

And that’s why I’m wanting to do this short blog series on Hell.

I believe much of the problems in the world, and almost all of the problems in the church could be solved if people took time to silently consider their lives before God. I’m talking now about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not the idolatrous gods that we construct for ourselves, those gods who happen to like puppies and private jets and everything we do.

I believe that If we let the piercing gaze of God cut through all of our pretenses and defenses, if we stood still and let ourselves feel the grace and judgment of God our lives would change.

Love and Judgement

Now being judged by God might not sound fun, but I’m convinced it what every person in the world is hungry for.

Buried in the same report about ISIS raping women in the name of God there was a small YouTube clip recorded at one of the slave auctions, where ISIS fighters were buying women with their guns. Saying things like “Today is distribution day.” or “Where is my Yiziti girl?” They even candidly admit they’re buying female sex slaves as if that was a perfectly normal part of what it means to be a man. isis-slave-market_video

I don’t care who you are or what you believe, I’ll bet that makes you angry. I’ll bet that if you thought about it long enough you might find yourself longing for a way to make the ISIS men be punished for their evil in some way that corresponded to the evil they were inflicting on others.

You might even find yourself praying for God to give them a new kind of Distribution Day.

Because we all have a sense that the world is off kilter, has gone off track and needs to be set right.

But it’s not just the evil in ISIS or political institutions for large corporations. All of us have a sense that something is off inside of us too, and while our culture has abandoned the ancient categories of sin and salvation we’re searching for the same thing we always have. The Love of God.

And that’s the thing about God’s judgment, it’s never divorced from God’s great love.

Think about it, when we accept grace we are also accepting judgment of the wrongdoing. Grace before it’s anything is an indictment, it’s saying that I’ve fallen short and need mercy.

The problem is that Christians reflect the judgment of God often without reflecting the love that the judgment is based in. We draw lines of who’s in and who’s out without regard to the many passages in the Bible that talk about God’s judgment in surprising ways.

Think about the most famous time Jesus talks about the judgment and specifically who God will sentence to Hell.

It’s in Matthew 25, in the parable of the Sheep and Goats, God judges humanity, and he separates them into two groups, the Sheep and the Goats. This parable is one of the most famous stories that Jesus ever told. I can make an argument that this parable has been the very basis for things like human rights, for our idea that there should be human equality. It’s been the impulse behind creating justice and mercy ministries, prison ministry and caring for the sick and homeless.

But the point of this story isn’t just that we should be doing certain things, it is that the things that we have done with our lives will one day be fully revealed.

When the Curtain Comes Up

Joshua Ryan Butler points out that Jesus isn’t performing a magic trick here. He’s not turning people into sheep or goats, he’s only revealing to themselves, often to their surprise, what kind of people they already are.

In the eyes of the community, the preacher may be a fine upstanding citizen (and maybe they see themselves as such) but in the Day of Judgment God will reveal all, and some will be surprised by how they stand before God.

There will be a day when people will have to ask the surprising question “LORD when did I rape you?” “LORD when did I lynch you?” or “LORD when did I picket your funeral?”

There will be a day when the lies we willingly tell ourselves won’t work anymore, one day the curtain comes up.

I know Christians often come across as judgmental toward the world, but that’s often only because they haven’t spent time allowing God to search their own hearts. It’s interesting to me how often we refer to God’s judgment as something toward outsiders, when the overwhelming majority of the time in Scripture it is toward the people of God.

Think about that famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” you’ve probably heard of this sermon before. It’s an awful sermon. I hate it. I’ve never read it…but I hate it, because I already think I know what it means.

But…would it make you think twice if you realized that this famous sermon is not a sermon preached from a street corner, but from a pulpit? It’s not written to wayward sinners, it’s written to church people. It’s written to those who consider themselves fine, upstanding citizens and the preacher is asking them to consider their lives under the gaze of a God who sees all and knows all, a God who isn’t fooled by what we say we believe or how we behave only on a Sunday morning.

Think back to that Matthew 25 passage again, the criteria for how Jesus judges us isn’t on what we think about God, it’s how we treated people who were made in God’s image. Here’s how Butler says it:

Jesus identifies with the vulnerable. How we treat them is how we treat him. But this has a flip side. When a deadbeat dad walks away from his child, he walks away from Jesus. When the cheerleader overlooks the girl sitting alone at lunch, she overlooks the Savior of the world. When the rich man ignores Lazarus, he ignores the presence of God.

And in light of this kind of judgment by this kind of God, people are given a new ethic by which to live and view their lives.

Once more here’s Butler:

Jesus doctrine of hell levels the playing field. This is one of the things I have come to love about it. It does not elevate me above the world; rather, it humbles me before the world. As a man, I need to come to grips with the fact that lust is not allowed in the city where all God’s daughters are to be treated honorably, with respect, and lifted high. As an American, I need to understand that nationalist superiority will not be allowed in God’s Kingdom, where the nations are healed, where Iraqis and Afghans are at the center of the celebration, where we rejoice together in God’s presence. As a pastor, I need to accept that self-righteousness and hypocrisy will not be allowed in Jesus’ city, where religious folks seem to have a harder time getting in than most.

God is not cruel, no matter what our caricatures about him might say, but God’s judgment will reveal all the ways we’ve been cruel to each other, and condemn all the ways we’ve used his name to justify it.

God will one day reveal all, and He isn’t fooled by the masks we wear, no matter how stained glassed they might be.

“From now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view…Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. -Paul in 2nd Corinthians 5

diverse city screen2


Two weeks ago today, I had the privilege to go with 10 black preachers and 10 white preachers in Churches of Christ on a bus ride all over the South to see where some of the most historical Civil Rights events had happened.

It was one of the highlights of my life.

We worshipped in Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, we spent time in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham (where four little black girls were killed by a KKK bomb). We saw where Rosa Parks got on the bus, we marched over the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, and we got to spend several hours with Dr. Fred Grey, a life long preacher in Churches of Christ, who also happened to be the lawyer for Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

 We got to see and touch (and pretend to preach behind) the very pulpit Dr. King used. It was the pulpit they used when filming the movie Selma, it was a piece of history and it was just standing out in the open in the church basement Bible Class room.

In one of my favorite moments from the trip, someone asked our tour guide/church member “Why don’t you have Dr. King’s pulpit in a case or behind plastic protection?”

She said ‘Because were going to be using it Sunday at 9:30!”

In other words, “We are a church, we were just doing church work then, were doing it still and we’re going to keep doing just good local church work.”

That’s what impressed me the most about this trip, all these churches were so, well churchy.

Did you know that the Deacons of Dexter Avenue Baptist fired the next preacher after Dr. King? Like any church, they have argued and fought over everything from paying utility bills to what kind of songs they would sing. They are a regular local church, warts and all.

But looking back through history, we know now that weren’t just that.

They were living the dream.

But I’d like to ask who’s dream?

Paul the Prophet

The classically trained scholar Sarah Ruden, tells a story in her great book “Paul Among the People” about being in an ivy league class talking about classical literature when the subject of St. Paul came up. And one of her peers began to rail against Paul for his condemnation of sorcery.

Her classmate said that to her sorcery meant “just the ability to project my power and essence.” And just about everyone in the class nodded their head in agreement. Yes, Paul was such a repressive brute.

Sarah said she would have sighed too, except that suddenly an image flashed into her mind of just what kind of world St. Paul lived in and just what sorcery would’ve meant in his Greco-Roman context.

She remembered reading the Roman poet Horace’s story of a small boy buried up to his neck who had been left to starve to death while staring at food, so that his liver and bone marrow, which must now be filled with his frenzied longing, could serve as a love charm.

They would change the meal out 3 times a day, with the most delicious of foods so that the starving boy would be driven out of his mind with longing as he slowly died from starvation.

And then a rich man would buy his bones as a love potion because he thought some girl was cute.

Reading that probably bothers you, but I want you to see the world that Paul was actually planting churches in, so you can see that Paul isn’t just railing against Harry Potter. He was taking on something that we can see clearly now as evil. But only because we have been given his Christian imagination.

Paul spent his life taking on some of history’s most institutionalized systemic evils. He was taking the truly good news of the Gospel to the entire known world, and changing people’s imagination for how things ought to be.

He was giving the world his dream about the Kingdom of God.

The problem we have when we talk about Paul is that we take cruise ships to see the cities that he walked months to get to. We watch videos or look at pictures to see where he, as a middle aged man, backpacked and bled to be at.

The problem we have with Paul is that we aren’t bleeding for these truths, we are bored with them. And we forgot just how deep, radical and beautiful they really are.

You may see Paul as some oppressive, sexist, pro-slavery and anti-freedom guy who talks too much about sex because he’s single and doesn’t get to have any.

But every category that I just mentioned is one that Paul gave you, and spent his life fighting against.

Before MLK had a dream, Paul had a vision and it’s one that we need more than ever today.

Racism and the Kingdom of God

These days we talk a lot about racism. We say things that sound so obvious, like “You shouldn’t be racist.’ But I’d like to ask why? Because for thousands of years no one really thought that was a problem. Of course, you would consider your race to be better than others, it was your race after all.

20 Church of Christ Preachers with Preacher and Civil Rights Leader Dr. Fred Grey

20 Church of Christ Preachers with Dr. Fred Grey (Preacher and Civil Rights Leader)

We say things like all people are created equal like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. But why would anyone think that? It’s not obvious, in fact, the exact opposite it true. The equality of human beings is actually anything but self-evident.

The senior in the wheelchair doesn’t strike anyone as equal to the virile young man. The boy with Down Syndrome is anything but equal to the young winner of the recent beauty pageant. Unless…

You have in someway been shaped by the story of the Bible, a story where the image of God is in everyone, no matter their age, gender, appearance or status in life.

The problem with today’s world is that we have these revolutionary ideas but we don’t know where we got them. It’s not just a part of being a good human being to be kind to the people you disagree with, mercy isn’t the default nature of mankind, and justice isn’t the default state of the universe.

The problem with the Western world is that we have just enough Christian roots to know the problem, but we’ve forgotten the solution.

Did you know that the word kindness comes from the word kin, as in your family. This is because we tend to like people who are like us.

But Jesus had a different vision.

His people were, His family would be a family of a thousand different backgrounds, races, statuses nationalities and kinds.

Jesus had this radical idea that because of His work on the Cross we wouldn’t try to build their identity on who they were better than, but by the overwhelming, overpowering love of God.

This is what Jesus started and Paul planted. The Church is a city within a city, a church of different’s that can make a difference.

A Diverse city of people.

A Church of a Different Kind.

If you are in Abilene, we’d love to invite you to join us at Highland on Sunday mornings at 8:30 (a capella) or 11 (instrumental) this fall for this series, if you don’t live in West Texas you can check out the podcast here.

“I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”-C.S. Lewis

Unknown-2Jesus once said that it would be harder for a rich man to enter Heaven than it is for a camel to go through an eye of a needle. I’ve read a lot of commentaries on that verse, and I’ve heard and given more than my share of sermons about it.

Most of the time people spend the majority of their energy trying to explain why Jesus didn’t mean what He said.

But what if Jesus did? And what if He’s not just trying to be mean to all of us rich people? What if he’s trying to explain ultimate reality to us? Notice Jesus says “It’s hard for the Rich to enter Heaven” not “God will keep them out of Heaven.”

As if this whole thing isn’t about a cruel God who keeps us out, but a good and loving God who will always give us what we want, even if we choose our own destruction.

A Parable of Pain and Paradise

One of Jesus most memorable stories comes from the Gospel of Luke, it’s just a few verses after Jesus tells the religious people the story of the Prodigal Son, about God’s limitless grace and forgiveness, and then he starts talking about Hades and dying and torment and fire.

So did Jesus just have a bad day?

The story Jesus tells is a parable about a beggar named Lazarus who is laid every day at a rich man’s gate.

All we know about the rich man is that he dresses well and he eats well, and Lazarus just hopes to eat the crumbs from his table.

But death, the great equalizer, comes to them both, and Lazarus goes to paradise where he’s in Abraham’s bosom, and the rich man goes to torment where he does this:

Then the rich man called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

And Here’s how Heaven responds:

 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

Now this sounds pretty dark, and our temptation is to just ignore it, and focus on other places were Jesus talks about puppies and rainbows.

But the problem with ignoring this story of the Rich man and Lazarus is that it’s too close to the other stories Jesus tells about God that we like. It’s too close to the good stories that we admire, the ones that we tell all the time and put on our Precious Moments Bible because they give us goosebumps and cause us to tear up as we hear them.

Everybody loves the story of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan. I mean those stories rock Jesus! Give us more of that, not this Wes Craven made-for-tv horror script.

But what if I told you that this story and the Prodigal Son story are basically the same stories?

The Good God and The Older Brother

It’s interesting that the word Jesus uses to describe the agony that this rich man is enduring is the same word Luke uses to describe the loss Mary and Joseph felt when they lost their 12 year old Jesus in the Temple. It’s the same word Luke uses later in Acts when Paul is saying goodbye to his dear friends for another mission.

The Rich Man and Lazarus is one of the most common stories painted in Christian History

The Rich Man and Lazarus is one of the most common stories painted in Christian History

Torment in this story doesn’t come from fire and sulfur, it comes from inside, it comes from losing something that was precious to you.

And what does the rich man lose? He’s lost the very stuff that defined him. After all, he’s not rich anymore.

God doesn’t judge this man by putting him in fire, God judges this man by taking his riches (the very riches that had prevented him from seeing Lazarus) away.

And notice what the rich man’s response is. He never asks to get into Heaven (!) instead he asks for Abraham to send Lazarus to him. The rich man is still under the impression that he is above Lazarus and that Lazarus should serve him. It might be helpful to understand the word the Rich man uses here, he asks for Abraham to pempon Lazarus, (to send), which is where we get the word Pimp.

Lazarus is seen as a commodity to be pimped out as the Rich Man sees fit, and the Rich man’s definition of mercy is another person definition of cruelty.

I like the way Joshua Ryan Butler says this:

The rich man is in denial. He still lives in the old order of things, where he was king and Lazarus was lower on the social ladder. He refuses the Great Reversal that God has accomplished. This is not a penitent sinner saying, “God I’m sorry! Please forgive me! I want to live with you!” Jesus’ parable reveals his heart, he’d rather reign in hell than serve in heaven. 

And notice that Heaven doesn’t turn it’s back on him. Abraham doesn’t call him sinner or fool, Heaven is wide open to this rich man but not on the terms that the rich man expects.

In Butler’s words:

“Heaven calls him son, but it doesn’t call him rich man…This is an expression of fatherhood of filial devotion, of care. This is not a stone cold heaven shut off to a sorry, penitent sinner trying to come inside. This is the new Jerusalem, with gates wide open and a son who is stuck in the old world, weeping at the toys he wouldn’t share that have now been taken away.”

Heaven calls him son, but it doesn’t call him rich man.

And the rich man doesn’t like that option, and so he remains outside.

He is the older brother, angry that the world that he thought he had mastered had been turned upside down. And now that he’s realizing he no longer has everything under his thumb, he refuses to accept God’s Great Reversal. He’s rejecting the invitation to come into the party, because he doesn’t like the terms of the party.

Also notice that there is a chasm (very much like the gate this man had set up outside his own home) but now it’s not keeping Lazarus out, it’s keeping the rich man out.

The rich man can’t enter into Heaven from where he is, or more importantly as he is.

Because Heaven protects Lazarus, The Grace of God, in C.S. Lewis’ terms has created the fixed pains of Hell. God’s not going to let the bully rule the playground any longer, God’s not going to let that husband continue to beat his spouse or the super-power continue to exploit the developing world just because they can. (Butler 75)

But like the Older brother, the invitation still stands, the party is still wide open and the music and dancing continues, but the Rich Man can’t bring himself to enter, he doesn’t want to enter it because he can’t celebrate what is being so recklessly thrown about.

The Grace and Goodness of the Father.

Remember Abraham calls this man son. He addresses him in the same language that the Father address the older brother in the Prodigal Son story just a few verses earlier.

The problem with the rich man, is that Heaven doesn’t work like that. You can’t buy it or control it. In Heaven you can’t gate off your land or pimp someone else out. You can’t slave away and earn anything because every thing the Father has is already yours, and always has been.

You can’t be rich in Heaven because Heaven doesn’t have rich men, it only has sons and daughters!

And for some that is Gospel news that they have waited a lifetime to hear, and for others it’s torment, the loss of the only thing that they ever really loved.

In other words. It’s torment, it’s paradise.

It’s Hell and Heaven at the same party.


Maybe you saw this last week that Adrain Foster gave an interview where the well-known football player came out of the closet as a “kind of atheist.”

I really appreciated this interview and Foster’s respectful tone. I found myself agreeing with just about everything he said. I don’t believe in the god Foster doesn’t believe in either.

But what I found interesting was that when he was asked why he didn’t believe, Foster gave an increasingly standard response, He couldn’t believe a God who would beget fires-of-hell vengeance on the majority of people.

A few weeks ago, I was doing an interview for a Christian Radio station about Josh Ross and my recent book “Bringing Heaven to Earth” and at one point the host asked me why we didn’t talk about Hell.

The truth is we originally did write about it, but we had to cut a chapter for editorial reasons. We wrote about it initially because we wanted to make the point that God’s judgment is always a good thing and that Heaven is a place with no more evil.

But the host’s question disturbs me. Not because it was unique, but because it is a question lots of people seem to have. It is almost universally assumed that Heaven and Hell are just flip sides of the same coin.

But that’s not true.

Did you know that if you search your Bible for the words “Heaven and Hell” you will find 0 results? It’s easy to forget that Hell isn’t as central of a topic for Scripture as we think it is. In fact, Hell is a footnote!

Hell and Heaven don’t belong in the same category, because that’s not the story God is telling. The author Joshua Ryan Bulter points out that if instead of searching for Heaven and Hell we were to search the Bible for “Heaven and Earth” we would find over 150 results!

There’s not a single verse in the Bible, in either the Old or New Testament where Hell and Heaven show up in the same place. The Bible talks about Heaven and the Bible talks about Hell but not in the same breath, and no matter what you’ve heard from street preachers and Christian pundits, it certainly doesn’t talk about it with the same emphasis.

Because in the Bible, Hell isn’t the counterpoint to Heaven, Earth is.

God made them both, and his dream from Genesis to Revelation is to bring them together again.

The Wrong Story

I’d like to start a blog series today on the Good news of Hell, to try and reframe this idea. I’m going to be interacting with and borrowing from several different books,[1] including our own. And the reason I’m doing this, is because I’ve had too many conversations with friends walking away from the Christian faith, when what they were really doing is walking away from a caricature of it.

It seems like the story that we tell ourselves about God’s future is that we are sinners, and that God saved us, and that we will either go to Heaven or Hell when we die.

The problem with that story is that it’s all about me. It doesn’t tell us anything about God or God’s purposes in His good world, and it doesn’t tell a story, it just tells a series of propositions.

But we don’t live in propositions. We live in a real world with real people who don’t fit neat little categories for our ideas.

dghban2Christians have a popular reputation for holding up signs that label, dismiss and condemn certain groups of people for eternal torment, and doing it all often with glee. (To be fair, I don’t think this is a fair view of 99% of Christians, but serving in the soup kitchen doesn’t make the news).

I’d walk away from that god too.

It’s the wrong god, and that’s the wrong story.

Contrary to popular belief, Hell is not a word of torture and a God is not like Zeus, Hell is a word of Hope.

The Road to Hell

So what are we talking about when we talk about Hell?

Or a better question, what was Jesus talking when he talked about Hell?

First, it’s important to remember that Jesus is a Jewish Rabbi in the 1st century talking to other Jewish people who would’ve known the Hebrew Scriptures.

It’s important to know also, that when Jesus talks about Hell, he doesn’t use the word Hell. He’s not talking about some abstract idea or place underground.

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 5.36.25 PMHe’s talking about a specific place called Gehenna, or the Valley of Hinnom. It’s a place that you can find on Google Maps to this day.

When Jesus talked about Hell his point wasn’t so much what Hell is, His point was where Hell is.

Hell is outside of the City of God.

Jerusalem literally means the Peace of God, and Hell is outside of that.

A bit of backstory might help.

When Jesus mentions Gehenna, every one of his listeners would’ve cringed the way you do when you think of a place like Aushscwitz. It’s a place with some history.

There are several times in the Old Testament, where the Jewish Prophets would talk about what Israel was doing in the Valley of Hinnom. It was a place where they went to worship other gods. But the real rub was how they worshipped them.

Go look up Jeremiah 32:35 or 2nd Chronicles 33:6, or 2nd Kings 23:10,

Israel went there to kill and sacrifice their children to other gods, a practice that the God of Israel was always against.  The Valley of Hinnom became associated with people who offer child sacrifices. Which made God angry. If you’ve got a heart, l’ll bet that idea makes you angry too.

I think it’s fascinating that, when Jesus is talking about it, the fires of Hell are lit by human hands, not God’s.

And the really disturbing thing about those Old Testament stories is that the same people who would burn their children outside of the city, would then come back into Jerusalem and sleep at night.

This is the story that every person who heard Jesus talking would have known, but one that most of us never even consider when we talk about Hell.

God sees all the ways that we destroy His good world and each other and Jesus is saying, in the age to come that won’t happen.

If you insists on lighting the fire you won’t burn others anymore, you will only destroy yourself.

God will let us have all the Hell we want. But Hell is also God’s way of saying “Not here you won’t.”  

Hell is how God limits human evil, it is how God gives us our wish even while protecting those who we would wish harm upon. 

In the words of Joshua Ryan Butler, “Hell is cruel. Yet, to blame the cruelty of Hell on God is like an alcoholic blaming sobriety for the pain of his addiction.”

The Good News Of Hell

So why call this good news?

Because it is good news, at least for the children being sacrificed, for the victims of genocide and gossip and sexual trafficking, Hell is good news because it is God’s way of saying this is not the world I made and I don’t intend to let evil have the last word.

Have you ever noticed that people who have been burned by the fire tend to not mind talking about Hell?

I’m speaking now, not of the street preacher or the TV evangelist, but of the African American pastor who grew up in segregation or the Croation theologian who grew up among genocide.

All over the world, people who have faced oppressed and injustice don’t think about Hell like most middle class Americans do.

Richard Mouw, the former president of Fuller Seminary noticed this a few years ago. He and some of his middle-class, white male preacher friends were drinking coffee and talking about how much Hell bothered them.

They taught it and believed it because they thought it was what the Bible teaches, but it bothered them. Then a few days later he went to a conference where the worship services were led by African American urban pastors and it was all “Fire-and brimstone” Here’s what he said:

Upon reflection, I realized that these preachers spoke much more of social injustice—especially the sins committed against the poor and the oppressed—than did preachers I was accustomed to hearing . These black pastors knew firsthand what it’s like for people to be denied their dignity as human beings . Racial discrimination was all too concrete for them . They lived in a world where hunger and malnutrition and desperate poverty were the norm … It may be that our failure to think and speak about divine judgment is closely related to our refusal to face the reality of human evil . Even more important: it may have something to do with how much we actually feel the reality of human evil.

In my experience, often the people who are the most outspoken opponents of the doctrine of Hell embody it’s logic the best.

One example I recently read was that an atheist lawyer may protest loudly on the injustice of hell and simultaneously fight to keep child abusers and a Bernie Madoff off the streets.

By the lawyers actions they’re showing the biblical story’s logic of hell; that for our world to flourish, there are some harmful powers that must be kept at bay

The lawyer is trying to keep certain destructive forces outside of the city. The lawyer is being like God. He or she  is working toward a just, beautiful world without oppression or bullying or greed running unchecked.

I love the way Joshua Ryan Butler puts this:

We want this story to be true. This story is, at its core, that of the good king returning to establish his redemptive kingdom and kick out the oppressive, enslaving powers that have hurt and destroyed for far too long. It is a classic story. The stuff of fairy tales, novels, and blockbuster movies.

The stuff of hope.

It is the Good News of Hell.

[1] These books are Skeletons in God’s Closet by Joshua Ryan Butler, Heaven, Hell and Purgatory by Jerry Wallis and The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

NWNLogoMay2015This past week, I sat down with my friend Luke Norsworthy for his podcast to wrap up his podcast guests during July.

Despite his appearance in the picture below, Luke is a great interviewer and I highly recommend subscribing to his podcast. He is the Oprah of Churches of Christ and has interviewed just about every author I’ve ever read.

This past week, we sat down to talk about a few things that I think were very important, after a brief exchange of insults we talked about his interview with pastor Nadia Boltz-Weber and the challenge of loneliness in church leadership.  We talked about the Rise of the “Dones” (which is, contrary to how it sounds not a new Star Wars Movie) but rather a conversation about why people who were once leaders in church are now leaving the church. And we talked about why the Enneagram has made me decide to only get on Facebook on Wednesdays.

One of my favorite parts of the podcast was when we talked about the doctrine of Moral Progress. This idea that many people have that the world is slowly getting better and better. I disagree with that notion. I think it takes a huge leap of faith.

I’ve had a hunch for a while that this is the age that has the least right to call itself progressive, because while many people want things to change, no one can agree on the direction of the progress.

Pushing Back on Progress

For those of you who don’t have time to listen to the whole thing, Here’s the gist of something I’ve been thinking for a while, has all of our “progress” created more medicine or missiles? I’d sincerely love to hear your response to that question.

I consider myself progressive, I like to be able to question things and I think the Gospel cares a lot about social justice, but somewhere along the way we started thinking that progress just meant jettisoning anything because it was old, and I think that’s a really bad way to only move backwards.

These days I often hear people dismiss anything just because it happened in the past, and I’ve begun to think do we really think that we’ve gotten so much better? Sure we don’t have black and white water fountains any more (Praise God!) and we’ve developed a lot of new technological marvels, but I think if people from any previous age were to come and visit they would have plenty of critique for our “progress”

Luke Norsworthy during his "New Kid On the Block" phase

Luke Norsworthy during his “New Kid On the Block” phase

I think Christians from another age would ask us about our Nursing Homes and why we’ve marginalized our senior citizens without much regard for their dignity.

I think they might ask us about our over-connected lives and yet our increasingly great loneliness.

I think they might question all our bragging about the the progress we’ve made with women’s equality, and ask why women still aren’t paid equally to men and why they are now expected to look like a broomstick on a diet.

They might point out that yes it’s true that we’re progressive, because culturally speaking Super-model’s are progressively getting skinnier (they weigh 19% less than the average woman) and when the average weight of women drop in the culture so does the average weight of super-models (soon they will be weighed in grams)

That’s progress, but according to the Christian ethic, it’s progress in the wrong direction. As I’ve written before, I believe the greatest vision for tomorrow comes from the prophets of yesterday.

We also talked about White Privilege and White Guilt and how Churches must approach Racial Reconciliation differently. This is not something that Christians do because it’s a trendy, or because it’s seen as cool, we do this because this is central to the Gospel. In the words of Paul, we do this because “Christ’s love compels us.”

I love being on Luke’s podcast because it’s possible to say some things in a podcast that you can’t say in a sermon or a blog. And if you’re not already listening to this podcast than you can subscribe to it here.

Luke is a great interviewer, an even better friend, and as you can see, a horrible New Kid on the Block.

As always, we must persuade [others] with love… And we remind ourselves that love means to be willing to give until it hurts.” – Mother Teresa

UnknownI want to talk today about the incredibly controversial Supreme Court Decision that has changed and is changing the face of morality in America. It’s the decision that has Christians talking about America losing it’s way and turning it’s back on God.

I’m speaking of course, about the SCOTUS decision in Roe Vs. Wade

I’ve never known an America where abortion wasn’t legal. I’ve never known a Christianity that didn’t care deeply about this and often in ugly ways.

And by the way, I get it. I hate abortion, I rarely speak out on it, like many people in my generation because I’ve never seen a productive discussion come out of the quickly escalating shouting matches.

But strange as it may seem, I believe that the Roe vs. Wade decision and the recent SCOTUS ruling in favor of same sex marriages are tied together (not that same-sex relationships are in a same category with abortion, but) because the real underlying point of disagreement between the Church and modern Western culture is the purpose of our sexuality.

In many ways, Christians in the West are still trying to work out all of the implications of the Birth Control, and our recent ability to sever the connection between making love and making babies.

Mary Eberstadt in her book “Adam and Eve after the Pill” writes that this is the defining cultural event of the 21st century:

Time magazine and Francis Fukuyama, Raquel Welch and a series of popes, some of the world’s leading scientists, and many other unlikely allies all agree: No single event … has been as consequential for relations between the sexes as the arrival of modern contraception.

I believe Christianity is more liberating for women than we can imagine, and Jesus calls us to work toward gender equality, but one thing I’m growing more skeptical of is our cultures great promises for a correlation between greater freedom and greater happiness.

I think it’s indicative that for all our progress we’re not getting happier, actually we are losing our joy

Christian Homes and Modern Families

Historically, a Christian theology of marriage and sexuality says that God designed this relationship of total self-giving, in which each spouse gives of him- or herself to the other, remaining open to the blessing of children “when it is God’s will”-the Book of Common Prayer

In other words, for 3,000 plus years, the ideal vision of human sexuality was a means of getting us outside of ourselves. It was literally about making something other than you, When a man and a woman came together they created a soul, a new world, they made love and they actually made a little person.

I love the way Rob Bell once said this:

Is that where the phrase “Making Love” comes from? An awareness that something mystic happens in sex, that something good and needed is created. Something is added to the world, given to the world. The world is blessed with something that it desperately needs. The man and this woman together are in some profoundly, mysterious way good for the well-being of the whole world.

or in the words of Diedrich Bonhoeffer:

Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God’s holy ordinance, through which he wills to perpetuate the human race till the end of time. In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to his glory, and calls into his kingdom.

Bonhoeffer, wrote this from a prison cell as he was waiting to die. He was executed as a single man who would never be married. But he saw marriage as a temporary arrangement(!) And as a way of linking generations together. Once that is divorced from our sexuality than the story of our sexuality has fundamentally changed.

But this isn’t a blog about contraception, it’s a blog about the relationship of the Church and the State.

I have never known a world where Abortion wasn’t a fundamental point of disagreement with the culture and Christians around me, Even while making exceptions, Christians and Christianity for a variety of reasons, and across the conservative/progressive spectrum seem to be against abortion.

But I have known Churches that have been refused to let politics set the agenda for what it means to love and sacrificially live out the way of Jesus.

For example, at the church I currently serve. 50 years ago, we started a ministry called Christian Homes. Where they took in those at-risk single mothers, housed them, protected them, covered over their (at the time very real) shame, and set up foster and adoptive homes for their children.

Christian Homes protected the dignity of these women back when it cut against the spirit of a 1950’s hyper-moralism, and then they protected the dignity of unborn children when the tides of culture turned toward a more permissive version of sexuality.

I don’t talk regularly about this issue, and maybe I should. But I’m so proud of my home church for their vision, sacrifice and compassionate way of living out the way of Jesus. They just intuitively knew that what it meant to be a good local church involved protecting and serving the least of these.

And that’s why I wanted to do this series on the Church and the Court as a way of laying some ideas out for a better way to handle a controversial SCOTUS decision this time around.

Make Love Not War

Did you know that in 1995, Norma Leah McCorvey, the famous “Jane Roe” of the Roe vs. Wade case became a Christian? In 1995, she was baptized and eventually became an outspoken opponent of abortion.

In his book, Vanishing Grace, Phillip Yancey tells that the most surprising part of the story was how the person who influenced her the most was her greatest enemy, the director of “Operation Rescue” the Anti-Abortion group. The director changed McCorvey heart when he stopped treating her like a villain.

McCorvey's baptism in 1996 (from CNN)

McCorvey’s baptism in 1996 (from CNN)

The director publicly apologized for calling her a “baby killer” and started spending time with her as a person. The pro-abortion forces had washed their hands of McCorvey because of her past history with drug addiction and promiscuity she was not exactly the poster child for any public movement, but thank God Jesus followers didn’t.

McCorvey went on to write a book appropriately titled “Won By Love” that detailed how her heart had changed not by lobbying but by the relentless love of God and the people who finally began to see her as a person and not as an issue.

I realize that the world is not what it ought to be. For some of us it can feel scary and threatening. We’re watching the societal mores and norms change at a breakneck speed. But remember that the world Jesus started His church in was filled with infanticide, Jesus would’ve known all about it, and as far as we know, He didn’t preach on it. Instead he created a group of people and commanded them to “let the little children come to me.”

And they did.

This group of people captured the world’s imagination by adopting the discarded babies that had been previously unwanted. These first Christians pioneered a new ethic of love for children.

Previously children weren’t named until they were older because the parents didn’t want to get attached in case they died or decided they didn’t want them. But Christians began to give them names at birth. That’s where we get the idea for children’s “Christian names” The term God-Parents was coined for Christians who cared for children who weren’t biologically their own.

Remember in Ancient Rome all kinds of sexual relationships were celebrated and even worshipped, and in that world the movement of Jesus not only thrived…it won especially those people over. Women flocked to this new Jesus movement because they were finally in a group that didn’t reduce them to their bodies or sexual usefulness.

I think it’s important to remember there is a difference between the Church and the world. Because the Church at her best is good for the world by not being like the world. We are a counter-culture for the good of the culture.

And in order to be that again, I think internally, we Christians have some work to do. We’ve got to work out the ways that we’ve been complicit in the bigotry against people with same-sex attraction and confess it and repent of it. We’ve got to revisit our theology of sexuality/body/marriage and repent of our idolatry from where we’ve made the good gifts of God into little “g” gods themselves.

I believe that this is real opportunity for Christians in America to learn again how to be disciples of a man who lived in 1st century Roman occupation, and who changed the world not by accumulating power but by laying down His life.

I believe this is an opportunity for American Christians to become more like Jesus…To Make Love not War.

Because people aren’t won by war, but they are by love.


After this past month’s historic ruling by the Supreme Court, I’ve hesitated to write anything. Not because I don’t have convictions, but because I don’t want my words used as a weapon, sparking more inflammatory shouting between groups that are growing further and further apart.

I’d like, if my words can do anything, for them to serve as a kind of medicine for people who are confused and anxious. I’d like for them to serve to heal those who have been, or are being injured by the subsequent, widening social divide (a divide that I think we are going to continue to see grow).

And if that resonates with you, than please read on, I think I have some good news for you.

The Suffering of Shame

Three months ago, at the Q conference Dr. Michael Lindsay, the President of Gordon College (who was recently at the center of a discrimination controversy between LGBT rights and a Christian college) gave a talk where he brought up the famous ASCH social conformity experiment.

You’ve heard of this experiment before. It’s where a test student is brought into a class and shown a picture of 3 separate lines all with differing lengths.

An Original Card in a ASCH Experiment

An Original Card in a ASCH Experiment

The teacher then asks the question “Which one of these lines is longest?” And each member of the class verbally responds with their answer. The catch is that everyone in the class has been coached to give the wrong answer, and the real experiment has nothing to do with a person’s ability to measure lines. It has everything to do with a persons ability to not conform to what everyone else around them is doing.

And the answer was shocking. About 75% of the test subjects wrote down that the answers that were obviously wrong but conveniently popular.

Now we don’t need a social experiment to tell us that, it’s something that we all experience everyday. We all have a strong need to conform, to be liked, and to be like the people we like. But while this is a very strong pull on the human heart, conformity has never been a Christian virtue. In fact, from the beginning it was assumed that Jesus followers would be a different kind of people than the rest of the world.

But that involves some level of discomfort. In fact, I would argue that what most of my Christian friends are calling persecution these days is not persecution (In light of the very real persecution that our Middle-Eastern brothers and sisters are facing at the hands of ISIS, using that word shows a lack of global awareness).

We’re not struggling with persecution, we’re struggling with popularity, and the loss of privilege…a very real struggle to be sure, but not quite persecution. And that’s a struggle that the LGBT community is already very familiar with.

For hundreds of years, to be gay, closeted or not, was to live a life of great shame, either internally or externally. I certainly have plenty of gay friends stories that come to mind as I write these words, I’ve sat and cried with them and I’ll bet some of you reading this have too.

I’ve found that people who have known suffering often are very empathetic, compassionate people. In my experience with gay friends, that’s certainly been the case. It will be easy over the next few weeks and months for us to focus in on the louder, more shrill voices of cable television or articles designed for clickbait.

But there are better stories than those, and today I’d like to highlight one.

The very next presenter at the Q conference was the popular blogger and prominent LGBT activist Andrew Sullivan. And he said some of the most wonderful things to a room full of Jesus followers. I found him deeply empathetic and articulate as he responded to Michael’s talk:

“I found what Michael had to say very moving., and the spirit that he offered it in more moving still. And the personal hurt that he clearly experienced, I want to ask his forgiveness for. It really pains me to think that people would stigmatize, demonize, and attack people for the sincerity of their religious faith, whatever that religion would be. And I think that the Gordon College thing was a clear step beyond anything we’ve seen before. There is an element of intolerance…I think the experience of feeling out of sync with the culture, and being demonized by it is a terrible feeling to have.”

Watch the video and notice how gracious and compassionate Sullivan is. And then listen with just as much of an open heart as you can to his next statement.

A Church for the World, Not a Worldly Church

“I would just ask in return, that people understand that for centuries gay people were thrown out of their own families, their own churches, put in jail, hanged in this country, executed around the world. That the gay people went through an unbelievable trauma in the 80’s and 90’s in which 300,000 people died. Which is 5x the number of people who died in the Vietnam war during the same period of time…and where were you all?…The experience that many people here (at the conference) are now having was the core and total experience that gay people in many Christian societies experienced forever. We were jailed, we had hormones inflicted upon us…the number of young people killing themselves (within Evangelical communities) is real.

Now I’m accountable to a tradition, and to a people who believe that the greatest joy a human being can have is found in discovering the pleasure of God.

On our better days the reasons conservative Christians have drawn a line in the sand here is because we believed the pleasure of God is worth giving up everything else for, and we, perhaps mistakenly, have tried setting up a society that reflected (and at it’s worst imposed) that.

I come from a tradition that follows a celibate man who I happen to believe was the happiest man who ever walked the face of the earth. But not everyone comes from that tradition, and so those outside of it are now asking for, and receiving, the very things I would probably ask for were I in their shoes.

They’ve done the work of changing the culture by creating culture. Something not to be dismissed. The LGBT community has entered into and worked hard in every arena of society…from entertainment, politics, education, religion and literature.

They’ve exerted an inordinate amount of influence in a incredibly short amount of time and that’s something that any group of people who is interested in shaping the world should learn from.

Being counter-cultural is the call of Jesus for His Church. Hearing from my friends across the world Christianity is doing better than ever, it’s just not taking the form of Christendom anymore. There’s a vibrancy that happens to the church when Christianity is not assumed in the host culture.

As the British Christian Mark Woods pointed out recently in Christianity Today:

The immediate consequence of this ruling, then, is an invitation to do some theology. One of the painful things for observers of the evangelical scene on both sides of the Atlantic has been the reluctance of ‘pro-marriage’ (= anti-gay marriage) campaigners to distinguish their idea of the Church from their idea of the state, as though the two were coterminous…Evangelicals (and others) have got themselves into a knot because they think the state is trying to define Christian marriage. It isn’t; it can’t, and it never could. But the long history of Christendom has allowed Christians to think that the two are the same. Most Americans have always been keen on the separation of Church and state; well, now’s the chance to find out whether you mean it.

I agree wholeheartedly. The Church is a kind of way of being in the world that is different than the world. At our best we are a church for the world and not a worldly church.

At our best we try and build bridges between injured people and help represent Jesus in the most accurate way, and to do that we’ve got to remember to love the person right in front of us. To do that we have to apologize for some stuff we shouldn’t have done, we have to search our hearts for bigotry that the Bible never supports in order to correctly articulate what it does.

At our best we realize that God gave us these stories/doctrines/ideas not for harm but for health and healing. At our best we remember that truth is not designed to injure, and we suffer along with and bear the burdens of brothers and sisters whose discipleship calls for greater sacrifice.

May God forgive us when we forget that. And thanks Andrew Sullivan for forgiving us too.

Intergenerational 3 Reasons

The first time I walked into the 10 person church I grew up in, I was terrified. It was obvious that we weren’t members, we didn’t know any one, and we weren’t late, we were a few minutes early, and they were long minutes.

I still remember the church smelled like dust and old songbooks and everyone was just slightly older than Abraham Lincoln…and then there was me.

Growing up, I was by far the only kid in the church, I was the youth group.

And yet, when my parents were going to ground me from something, they’d ground me from Wednesday night church. And I would weep, because those people were my life, they literally made my life.

And I’m a preacher today, heck, I’m a Christian today because of those older senior saints investing in me.

I grew up in an intergenerational church. I wish everyone could. In my opinion, the only reason churches aren’t anymore is because it’s a lot easier to have a church where everyone thinks/acts and views the world a certain way.

But there is a cost to this (did you notice the generational divide two weeks ago on your Facebook feed over the SCOTUS decision? or when we talk about racism or really any social issue?)

But these kinds of conversations don’t belong on Facebook, they belong at a potluck.

And because this is such a hard thing for churches to do. I’d like to give 3 brief reasons about why this is such a big deal, and why our churches need to put in the effort to make it happen.

1. The Bible & Jewish/Christian History Commands and Celebrates It

Have you ever noticed how much time the Bible spends telling us to pass this story off to the next generation? In the Jewish faith, this is not just a requirement, it’s something that you are indebted to do.

In Jewish history, telling the next generation the story of God is something like the discharging of debts. And the younger generation has a religious obligation to not just listen, but to place themselves in the story. To really feel like they are Abraham or Sarah or Hannah or David.  They have to know this story, after all one day they’ve got to pass it on too.

Did you ever wonder why the Bible spends so much time on genealogies? While they may be the most boring parts of the Bible, there is a reason they are in there. With every name, they are celebrating that these are people who served the purposes of God for their generation. They passed the story of God from their parents on to their kids.

Have you ever noticed how much Jewish people have shaped and blessed the world, and how thought they are such a small group they have such a disproportional amount of influence? Sociologist have pointed out that the major contributing factor for the Jews ability to create culture and influence society is that each generation doesn’t have to re-invent themselves. They know who they are. They don’t have to bear the crushing weight of constructing their own identity.

it’s so simple, but very profound. It’s that they do generational life together. In every festival, in their most sacred moments, the youngest child will ask the oldest man questions like “Why is this night different than all the rest?”

And they will pass the story off from one generation to the next.hands-216982_1280

Think about how much time Paul spends in his letters (written often from jail) telling the churches he planted such practical things like “Older women need to teach the younger women how to do these things…”

Paul basically invented Pintrest from prison because he knew that it was vital for older generations and younger generations to be in fellowship with one another.

This is certainly true in my own life.

Growing up, the people who made the biggest difference in my life were much older than I was.

They taught me how to preach, and how to be kind to one other when we disagreed, they taught me how to be married, how to be a widow(er), and how to die.

I taught them how to program their VCR’s.

But we’re not very good at this these days, and it’s starting to deeply affect us.

2. It’s Vital to the Health of the Church

Patheos blogger Tim Wright points out that about 40 years ago, the Baby Boomer generation started walking away from almost every institution that their parents had built. And in an effort to win them back, innovative church pastors and leaders began starting churches that, for the first time, were geared for one specific generation.

Sometimes we talk dismissive about “Seeker-services” or “Seeker friendly” churches, but in my experience that comes from a really good desire to be welcoming and hospitable. The problem is that these churches were targeting Boomers during their parenting years, and so in order to create Seeker friendly churches, they also created environments specifically for their kids.

At first, it was just during Bible Classes, but then they started to create entirely separate church times and gatherings for the children. Again, this was all done for noble reasons, trying to evangelize the de-churched Baby-Boomer population, and it was very effective. It only had one really big downside:

We raised the largest unchurched generation in American history.

Here’s how Tim Wright says it:

“By segregating our kids out of worship, we never assimilated them into the life of the congregation.  They had no touch points.  They had no experience. They had no connection with the main worship service—its liturgy, its music, its space, its environment, and its adults.  It was a foreign place to them.  And so…once they finished with the kids/or youth program, they left the church. With good intentions we attempted to raise kids to be Christians, but we didn’t raise them to be Churched Christians.  And perhaps that, in part, is why so few of them attend a church today.  We’ve essentially “Sunday-Schooled” them out of church—because we never assimilated them into church.”

An institution exists to pass on a way of life from generation to generation, and one of the great tragedies of our day is that we are investing huge amounts of resources, and some of our most creative people are giving their lives to create Churches that will only last for one generation, because we’ve failed to think past the immediate moment.

3. The Church is the Family of God

A few months ago, Christianity Today did an article on what happened after all those Baby Boomer Christians grew up. Not the majority of them, but many of them, across all the different denominations started leaving church after their kids became adults.

And when CT started asking them why, they discovered that these Boomers had grown up with the dangerous notion that church was something that was for people with a nuclear family and after you had put in your time, and raised your kids, it was time to move on.

But that fails to realize this one large thing, early Christians baptized Eunochs (Didn’t see that coming did you?)

Remember what a big deal the Bible makes about when they baptized Eunochs? That probably confuses most modern readers, but remember a Eunuch was someone who couldn’t have kids.

Unlike what you may have heard before, a eunuch wasn’t a marginalized, oppressed person. Generally speaking, they were pretty big deals in the kingdom they were associated with, because a eunuch was someone who had thrown in his lot completely (and I mean completely) with the royal dynasty. By, ummm, doing what he did, he had forfeited his right to ever having a family. He was giving his future over to the kingdom he was in.

There’s a time in Matthew 19, where Jesus mentions this. Right after He finishes a pretty strong teaching on divorce, Jesus endorses celibacy by saying:

For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

Live like Eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.

And then, do you know what the very next verse in Matthew is?

Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.

Do you see what’s happening here?

Jesus is saying the Eunuchs are welcome into the family of God, the children are welcome into the family of God. Jesus is saying that for parents without children and for children without parents, you have each other because you both have me.

The Church isn’t for families, the Church is a family. 

That’s the institution Jesus started, that’s the family Jesus created

And It gives you great life, but it first requires that you lay yours down.

One Generation at a time.

RacismThis past Wednesday night Churches all over Abilene held a prayer vigil for our Christian brothers and sisters in Charleston, trying to stand in solidarity with a people who were hurting and remind ourselves that, in the words of the Apostle Paul “When one part of the body suffers, we all suffer along with it.”

It was a great evening filled with preachers/elders and pastors from several different churches singing hymns and praying for our city, churches, country and even Dylan Roof, the perpetrator of these evil acts.

For my part of the evening, I stood up to a crowd of racially diverse people and said the most counter-intuitive, most terrifying thing I could think to say.

I told them I was a racist.

Racism and Me

Whenever racism becomes a topic of media coverage, I cringe. It seems like the talking points are already solidified and many of us rush toward postures of defense and blame.

So let me get this out there. I am a racist.

I grew up in rural Arkansas in the 80s, not that it was my parents’ fault, they were incredibly hospitable and open to other people, not that it was my state’s fault, there were plenty of people who were doing lots of good work for reconciliation, but racism was in the air.

I grew up with the flag that everyone is talking about hanging on my wall.

As a tangent, I like the way that the conservative Southern Baptist Convention president Russell Moore talked about this,

“The Cross and the Confederate flag can co-exist for only so long before one of them sets the other on fire.”

That was true in my own life.

And I’m so grateful that the Cross won that battle.7595927876_56f66e7446_o

I grew up in a church of ten people. Most people would call that a small group, but it was my entire church, and I love the people from that church.

When I went to college, I would come back a few times a year to preach, and I would try to bring some friends with me to encourage my church family. One of those Sundays we had brought about forty people with us, and right before it was time for me to preach, Brother Foy, the patriarch of the church, stood up to introduce me.

This is funny in itself, because I was the only person there who knew everyone. This was the church I grew up in, and these were my friends who came home with me. But tradition is tradition, and if someone other than Foy was preaching, he was going to say something.

So Foy stood up and the first words out of his mouth were, “I can’t help but notice that all of our guests are white.”  Immediately I was worried about where this was going, because Foy was crazy. He was crazy for Jesus, but he was crazy. If he felt like something was true, he would say it without regard for how you felt about it, and I could tell this was about to be one of those occasions.

“We have forty extra people with us this morning, and every one of them is a white person.” Then Foy pointed at the African-American teenage boy sitting on the second row and said, “I brought an African-American this morning. Why didn’t you?” (Obviously, political correctness was not Foy’s strong suit.)

“Now Brother Jonathan, come preach the word to us.”

Then I had to stand up and preach to a group of people who were just made to feel like they just stumbled in from their Klan meeting.

But to be honest, looking back, I’m glad Brother Foy asked that question. I wish all our churches had someone asking questions like that.

Whenever I get frustrated with church, this is the story that brings me back. It is a story that reminds me of why I need the church, even when I don’t want her…maybe especially when I don’t want her.

Elegant Racism

In his great little book, I Told Me So Gregg A. Ten Elshof talks about the pervasive nature of self-deception. This book is about how intelligent, self-reflective people often lie to themselves, oblivious that they are doing so.

Then Elshof says this:

We assume that each person is the unquestionable authority on the question of which beliefs he or she has.

In other words, none of us really knows clearly what we believe.

That is the nature of self-deceit. We need each other to help us see the blind spots we have. I think this is the reason that we Christians aren’t able to move very well on issues of race.

We have made this into the unforgivable, and therefore an un-confessable sin, and when the topic rears its ugly head we rush to prove how innocent we are, we scapegoat public figures and point out our own “squeaky clean” record instead of asking the dangerous but Gospel-bringing question…”Where is this in me?”

We are often guilty of what last year, an article in the Atlantic calls, “Elegant Racism” the kind or racism that has learned to be polite about its indifference. But the Gospel can help us here. Because when we are aware of the love of God we are able to be suspicious of our own virtues.

The well-known Social Psychologist Brene Brown points out that shame’s survival depends on not being able to talk about it. We’ve done that with racism. Everyone is so afraid to be “that person” who says or does something stupid and offensive that we just remain silent.

We clam up and ignore the sin we see right in front of us, and in the mirror. And sure it might be a bit racist, but at least it’s a more elegant form of it.

I believe that when churches don’t allow or create spaces to openly confess and receive forgiveness for sins like this, is dangerously close to believing that racism is a sin stronger than the Grace of God.

And that is a lie.

My generation quotes the verse “Do not judge” often. But the point of that verse isn’t that Christians can’t call each other out, the point is that we call each other out cautiously…confront others the way you would like to be confronted, and make sure that you have dealt with the beam in your own eye first.

Around thirty years earlier, when Foy had already been a Christian for a decade or two, he also became convicted that he was a racist. And for Foy that was unacceptable. So he moved to a predominately African-American town and spent the rest of his career teaching at a predominately African-American school.

He lived out the word repentance, and now he could call others to it as well.

He often took me and other young people to African-American churches, just so we could rub shoulders with people we weren’t familiar with, and help us to see how much we had in common.

From the time when I met Foy, he had African-Americans (and people from several different ethnicities) living in his house with him. He was Shane Claiborne before it was cool. And from the time I was a kid we were a racially integrated church in a racially segregated world.

I am a racist, I have prejudices and discriminations that I’m not proud of. But praise God that the church helped me know it, she taught me that it was wrong, and showed me how to repent.

I am a racist, but I don’t want to be, I don’t have to be, anymore.

This blog is a re-purposed version of something that I originally posted on Patheos