Lift Up Your Heads!

An Advent Reflection from Philippians 4 and Isaiah 12

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

– Philippians 4:4-7  (NIV)

Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things;
    let this be known to all the world.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion,
    for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.

– Isaiah 12:5-6 (NIV)

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Photo credit: @AuburnU on Twitter

When it comes to academics (but not housekeeping, alas) I’m quite a perfectionist. I’m the teacher now, but I still stress about deadlines and the quality of my work even when no one is waiting with a red pen to give me a grade. Not surprisingly, back when I was a graduate student at Auburn, I dealt with a lot of stress and anxiety, especially while preparing for my comprehensive exams.

I have a crystal-clear memory of the autumn afternoon in 2002 when I walked out of Haley Center after finishing my last exam. I looked up and was astonished to notice that the trees lining the parking lot had turned a brilliant shade of red. They stood out beautifully against a crisp, sunlit blue sky, and I had to pause and take it all in. For weeks, I had been so busy and so anxious that I had missed much of what was going on around me. I’d had my nose pressed so tightly to the grindstone that I had forgotten to look up.

In our “hustle, bustle, and buy” Christmas season, it is easy to become over-scheduled and stressed out in what should be a season of joy, peace, and beauty. This year, let’s try to slow down and not worry so much about getting everything done and making everything perfect. All that we need is already here.

Scratch the to-do list. Enjoy your friends. Love your family.

Experience Immanuel, God with us.

The Lord is near. The Holy One of Israel is among us.

Lift up your heads!

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Photo Credit: @AuburnU on Twitter

The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . . all over the Interwebs!

After spending a couple of years reading quite a bit of theology, but not that much of the Bible itself, I was in the mood this year to get back to the core of things. So, in spring 2015, my book group at Weatherly Heights Baptist Church explored some of the parables of Jesus using Amy-Jill Levine’s book Short Stories by Jesus.

I enjoyed reading and discussing the parables immensely (of course, it helps that I have a fabulous group of folks to do it with!), and I liked the interpretations that Levine had to offer although getting to her main points took some slogging through lots of background and citation of obscure sources. If you are academically inclined or especially interested in learning about 1st-century Judaism, I recommend her book. I also enjoyed reading up on the parables in Robert Farrar Capon’s three-volume set Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus.

However, if you aren’t up for heavy reading but would like a refresher course on (or an introduction to) some of the parables, here is a list of additional sources that I assembled as we worked our way through the parables in Levine’s book, plus a couple more.

There are some standard interpretations included here, and some creative ones. If you are in the mood to be puzzled and provoked by Jesus’s stories, dive right in!

Parable Readings from around the Web:

Charles Spurgeon’s 1884 sermon on the parable of the Lost Sheep (long, but I found it interesting that his take aligns in some ways more with Levine’s than with Luke’s framing of the story as about repentance. The emphasis is more on Jesus searching for lost souls than on repentance).

James Buckley, “Seeking, Saving, Finding”: A blog post on LGBTQ inclusion in the church, using the parable of the Lost Coin. 

The Good Samaritan: A blog post with two contrasting readings of the parable–one Christocentric (The Good Samaritan = Jesus himself) and the other more along the lines of Levine’s interpretation.

“Jesus Doesn’t Want You to Be a Good Samaritan” by David Henson. This is a GREAT reflection on a possible deeper meaning of this parable – the logical next step from Levine’s analysis, I think. More from Henson below.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . .” (Parable of the Yeast, Mustard Seed, etc.)

Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Sermon on Faith, Doubt, and Mustard Seed Necklaces.”

Alyce M. McKenzie, “Strange Scripture: Reflections on the Five Parables in Matthew 13” (Contains the Parables of the Yeast, Mustard Seed, and Pearl of Great Price)


Parable readings by Episcopal priest David R. Henson (Fair warning: David does creative readings of the sort AJ Levine dislikes. I find them intriguing, but they should, of course, be taken with a grain of salt!):

The Lost Sheep

The Prodigal Son

The Good Samaritan (This is a link to the first of three retellings of the parable; you can get to the other two by clicking the links at the top of the blog posts.)

The Wheat and the Weeds

The Parable of the Talents

The Ten Bridesmaids

The Parable of the Sower (I really like this one!)


“The God who Throws Seeds Everywhere” – Morgan Guyton on the Parable of the Sower

Moonshine Jesus Show Lectionary Cast on the Parable of the Sower (20 minutes of audio)


Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20.1-16)

Carl Gregg (Unitarian Universalist) – Jesus’ Parable of the Job Creator, the Day Laborers, and #OccupyWallSt Gregg hits upon a few of the same points as Levine.

Jack Mahoney, SJ (Jesuit) – “The Parable of the Living Wage?” – This one is a little dense, but it has some good points. It touches on some other parables that we have read as well.

Sr. Rose Pacatte (Catholic) – “What the Parable of the Vineyard Workers Really Says” – Another  social justice-oriented interpretation.

Allen Ross (prof. at Samford’s divinity school), “The Workers in the Vineyard” – A fairly standard, more spiritualized interpretation about grace.


David Henson, Radical Reversals: Lazarus, Abraham, and the Myth of the Righteous Rich (A Homily)

Rethinking Hell (Progressive Christian Resources)

Some Christians insist on the scriptural reality of a Dante-esque hell of eternal horror. Some of us, however, have a hard time reconciling the idea of a loving God with traditional doctrines of hell, or we have objections to fear-based theology or to belief systems that over-emphasize the afterlife and turn Christianity into little more than a religion of requirements and rewards. As it turns out, there are biblical alternatives to the hellfire and brimstone approach.

There are scriptural arguments to support not only the belief in eternal conscious torment for the unrepentant in a literal fiery hell, but also the belief in annihilationism or conditionalism (that those who are unreconciled to God are simply annihilated, rather than existing eternally) and even the hope for universalism (that all souls are eventually reconciled to God). In his documentary Hellbound? Kevin Miller claims that the amount of scriptural support for these three positions is roughly equal (see his list of scriptures here, and find a link to the documentary website below).

What this means is that we don’t have to accept an understanding of hell or the afterlife that is inconsistent with our understanding of a loving God who through Christ is reconciling the world (all of it!) to Godself.

Below are resources to listen to, watch, or read that present various arguments for annihilationism/conditionalism and universalism, beginning with an excellent and thorough discussion from the podcast That God Show. If you are looking for alternatives to eternal conscious torment, here are some places to begin:

LISTEN:

 “The Biblical Alternative to Hell” (Podcast) That God Show, Episode 17 with Benjamin L. Corey and Kurt Willems. Synopsis: “Most of us grew up believing that those who reject God will spend eternity in a literal place called hell, where they are consciously tortured day and night, for ever. But is that what the Bible actually teaches? Not quite– in fact, the Bible doesn’t teach hell as we were taught it at all. In this episode, BLC sits down with Kurt Willems to talk about hell, and the theology of “conditionalism.” If you’ve ever questioned hell, but didn’t want let go of something that was in the Bible, this episode is for you– you’ll walk away with your Bible intact, and a totally different view of hell.”

“The What the Hell Show” (Podcast) from The Moonshine Jesus Show. Mark and David tackle the topic of hell. They aren’t as thorough as Benjamin and Kurt, but in my opinion, the MJS is always worth a listen.

WATCH:

Hellbound? A Documentary by Kevin Miller (Currently available for instant viewing on Netflix). Synopsis: “If God is our pure, all-loving creator, can he really turn his back on sinners and allow them to suffer for eternity in hell? Where did this vision of hell come from? Is it possible we’ve got hell wrong? Or are recent challenges to the traditional view merely an attempt to avoid the inevitable? “Hellbound?” is a feature-length documentary that seeks to discover why we are so bound to the idea of hell and what our views on hell reveal about how we perceive God, justice, the Bible and, ultimately, ourselves.”

READ:

Benjamin L. Corey’s “Letting Go of Hell” Blog Series. This series has some excellent, easy reads that make great starting points for exploring biblical alternatives to eternal hellfire and brimstone. The post “What Jesus Talked About When He Talked About Hell” is particularly eye-opening for people who have never been taught about the actual Greek words translated as “hell” in the New Testament. BLC also gets down to the nitty gritty of whether eternal conscious torment is “biblical” with “25 Bible Verses that Disprove Eternal Conscious Hell.”

“What [the] Hell? Is Annihilation Within the Bounds?” This is another Biblical case against eternal conscious torment, from Prof. Ed Christian.

Rob Bell, Love Wins. In this controversial book (which was influential enough to cause the Southern Baptist Convention issue a resolution to double-down on the reality of eternal conscious torment) Rob Bell makes a scripturally-based argument for a kind of Christian universalism. The book references C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, which offers another alternative take on hell. You can also find Rob Bell discussing his views in youtube videos like this one.

Kurt Willems also has a blog series on hell: “Hell Yes. Hell No! Or Who the Hell Cares?”, and more recently he suggested that Christians give up the doctrine of hell for a year to see how it could revolutionize our relationships with others. Food for thought: “Giving Up Hell for a Year.” 

Mark Sandlin, in “Hell: Yeah, I’m Going There -or- Hell yeah, I’m Going There,” has a different take on hell that overlaps somewhat with Rob Bell, but with a unique spin on how we’re all going to hell (but that’s not the end of the story!).

Rethinking Hell: Exploring Evangelical Conditionalism: This website put together by a variety of evangelical Christians contains blog posts, podcasts, and other resources related to beliefs about hell, particularly conditionalism.

Bored as Hell: The Well-Behaved Bible and the Stunting of Spiritual Growth

This week in my Sunday school class, we began a study of Peter Enns’ book The Bible Tells Me So: Why defending scripture has made us unable to read it. I was proud of myself because I actually made it to class (more or less) on time (and there are witnesses who can attest to this, I promise!). Some of my WHBC friends know that I’m usually the one who pops into Sunday school about twenty minutes before class ends.

I could blame this on my preschoolers (and some mornings, believe me, they deserve it!), but if I am perfectly honest, I have to admit that for years, I’ve been a bit ambivalent toward Sunday school classes. In fact, for a few years of my life, I was ambivalent about church itself and rarely went except for the weekends when I happened to be visiting my parents.

I never turned away from my faith, and I never strayed (too far) from the moral code that came from my church upbringing. So why did I take a three or four year vacation from having a church home and spiritual community?

Well, there are several reasons, but here is one of the biggest: I felt like I had no more to learn, and I was bored. By the time I got my undergrad degree, I had pretty much earned my “church diploma” as well. So why go back?

I know what you’re thinking. Of course I had more to learn. No one knows it all at the ripe old age of twenty-two.

Which leads to the next question: Why did I feel that way? And the answer: Because the churches of my youth weren’t actually teaching very much, particularly when one has a whole lifetime to spend learning it. 

I figured out this connection between boredom and my disengagement with church several years ago, but our discussion of the beginning of Peter Enns’ book gave me some clearer ideas about the root of the problem. Enns writes that Christian conservatism requires a “well-behaved Bible” in order to function. The Bible is too often treated as a clear-cut “heavenly instruction manual,” and preachers and teachers jump through all sorts of hoops trying to make an ancient and complex group of texts live up to unrealistic expectations that include everything from historical facticity to scientific accuracy.

The parts of the Bible that are too messy or challenging–the ones that Enns says “don’t behave”–are either kept out of sight or are treated awkwardly. On the other hand, the parts that support the particular focus and ideology of conservative evangelicalism are trotted out and led around like docile prize ponies in a never-ending circle. Or at least that’s what it has sometimes seemed like to me.

As Enns notes, the task of making the Bible “behave” takes a lot of energy and creates a lot of stress, and as I look back on my early Christian education, I can see that it was shaped at least in part by avoidance (of biblical difficulties and of alternate interpretations) and by ignorance (of well-meaning teachers who were also hampered by a limited theological and Biblical education).

As I left my teenage years behind, I began to grow weary of the repetition. Every Sunday school quarterly seemed to have to same lessons on the same stories. All the object lessons had the same obvious and familiar morals. And no matter what text the pastor chose for the sermon, it invariably came down to the exact same point: the status of my personal salvation.

Did I need to walk the aisle and accept Jesus as my Savior? Nope. Did that when I was six. No hellfire and brimstone for this kid.

Did I need to rededicate my life to God? Maybe. But I’d done it a few times already, and besides, as a southern Baptist, the phrase “Once saved, always saved” was pretty much branded on my backside.

Did I need to be freed from the evils of smoking, drinking, drugs, or promiscuous sex? Nah. I had managed to grow up into a relatively decent and self-controlled person without any serious detours down the road to perdition.

According to the lessons of my youth, I already knew what I was supposed to believe, do, and not do. And frankly, when I went to church, I was bored as hell.

I kept growing as a person and a scholar, but for the most part, my spiritual maturation came to a halt because I had mastered understanding and believing in a narrow view of the Bible and Christian life.

The meaning of the Bible came down to being almost exclusively personal: it was about my salvation in the afterlife and my personal moral choices here on earth. (Of course, I was also supposed to worry about everyone else’s eternal salvation and their personal moral choices, but that was secondary, and besides, I had paid my dues by spending three summers as a student missionary.)

I appreciate the lessons that I learned as a young Christian and the values that I still retain from that part of my education. However, ten years, two churches, and several wonderful spiritual mentors later, I know that what I got as a child and young adult was only a small portion of a much larger picture.

I have come to know (or at least believe) that Christianity is about much more than guaranteeing the future of my eternal soul, and that the apex of my life as a Christian was not the day circa 1984 when I walked down the church aisle to “ask Jesus into my heart.” That was only the first, and perhaps the easiest, of all the questions I needed to learn to ask. 

The central message of Jesus, and the Bible as a whole, is not a personal invitation to escape eternal punishment that we need to accept and then share with others. The real invitation is to become a citizen of the kingdom of God here and now, and to actively participate in creating that kingdom on earth by giving love, making peace, and promoting justice.

It’s not about saving ourselves; it’s about sacrificing ourselves in the pursuit of God’s passion for justice and peace. It’s about radical transformation, both of ourselves and the world. It’s about wrestling with a complex, unruly Bible that offers us glimpses of God’s dream for the world and how we can bring it about. That’s the work of a lifetime, and now I know that I’m a lifetime student.

Needless to say, I’m not bored anymore. And I’m looking forward to Sunday school next week.


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