Thursday, June 20, 2013

Common Questions About Hell

What about Purgatory?
Purgatory is an “in-between” state in Catholic theology meant to delineate the space between when we die and when we go to heaven.  It is a condition in which the souls of Christians are made ready for heaven.

Evangelical Christians find the doctrine of purgatory suspicious for three reasons: [1] because it’s not found in the canon of the Scriptures, only in the apocrypha (specifically 2 Maccabees 12.41-16); [2] because the doctrine didn’t appear for almost 1100 years after Jesus left the earth; and [3] because purgatory depends upon special “revelation” given to the Catholic church during the Middle Ages. By appealing to the authority of the church at a time when it was selling indulgences to release souls from torment, this doctrine has no credible basis for belief among Protestants.

What about people who have never heard about Jesus—do they go to Hell? 
Jesus said “no one comes to the Father except through me,” meaning that there is only one way to escape Hell and enter Heaven: a relationship with Jesus.

However, just as Jesus is the only way to Heaven, we must understand that there are many ways to find Jesus.  Some find Jesus through intellectual belief, some through dreams (like Pharoah), some through visions (like Balaam), or prophesies or strange experiences.

We cannot overlook the creativity of God to get the gospel out.  God wants people to be saved and is capable of revealing Himself to all in order for every single person to be given a justifiable opportunity to embrace their Creator. 

What about babies?  Do they go to Hell?  
This is a disturbing question that’s asked a lot, especially among people who grew up in very religious homes where there is a lot of anger and hellfire and brimstone kind of talk.  If they lose a child, they get terrified that the baby is going to end up in hell.

Consider this, however: “Shall not the Judge of all the Earth do what is Just?” (Genesis 18.25).

Since we know God is good, and He is the Judge of all, we can be confident that God will not unfairly damn any soul – especially innocents or invalids – to eternal torment.

In 2 Samuel 12, we read about King David’s son dying as an infant.  It is a sad story, but in the midst of that sadness we read about David’s assurance that he will see his child in the next life. David has this unshakeable confidence that he will be with his dead child in the presence of God.

Finally, we know that Jesus had a special concern for children. Jesus gathers the children to himself and said: “Suffer not the little children to come unto me” (Matthew 19.14). 

If you know someone who has lost a child and they’re worried about this (God forbid that you would ever be in that situation or that they would), you can give them all manner of comfort.

Is there a last chance for redemption at the time of our death?
No. There is a spectacular responsibility on the way you live right now.  Live now the way you want to live for eternity.  If what you want ultimately is to be with God then, then you must begin to be with God now.

Is there anything wrong with “Last Rites?”
Not necessarily.  In fact, I think the idea of giving your life to God and committing your soul into His care with your dying breaths is a beautiful and sincere notion.  Some people, however, use the Last Rites as a cop out.  They plan to live like fools, rejecting God in this life, and then quickly beg for forgiveness at the end to sneak their way into God’s good graces.  In a case like this, which – sadly – is surprisingly common, we must ask ourselves how sincere our “last-minute” repentance truly is—if it is insincere, we risk Hell.  Are you willing to risk an eternity in torment on a gamble like that?

Do you believe eternal positions are fixed at death forever more?  Why or why not?
The people who go to Hell are there because they don’t want to be with God.  The Scriptures really seem to indicate that once you are there in Hell, there is no way out.

I love God, but have made mistakes and still prospered.  Am I going to Hell?
That’s such a sad, sad question.  I, too, love God and I have made mistakes and still prospered.  I make mistakes all the time.  I get mad at my kids.  I lose my cool.  Ben jokingly said that it’s never safe to take me to a conference of church leaders because it’s like taking a Pit Bull to a playground…you’re just waiting for an “incident” to occur.

I am riddled with sin and God has still prospered me. I feel so gracious, so grateful and thankful to God for the life I have.  I don’t think I’ve ever been happier. I don’t think my family has ever been better.  That’s what we call grace—God’s grace for me, loving me in spite of my sin that while I was still a sinner, Christ died for me.  He died just because he loved me in all my crap and all my garbage.  He would die again tomorrow for me, for the person I am now.   Whatever good things in this life I enjoy, I enjoy because of his grace, his common grace poured out to all humanity.

The last question I would separate from the previous statement. 

“Am I going to Hell?”

I don’t know. I don’t even know who you are.  Even if I knew you, I wouldn’t know if you’re going to Hell. The question is:  Are you right with Jesus?  If you make mistakes, do you repent?  Do you thank God for his grace?  Is your life oriented towards Jesus, to make him Lord, to confess that he is Lord?  Do your actions belie your belief that he is, in fact, raised from the dead and God is, in fact, at work in you?

What does it mean that Christ descended into Hell?
Jesus proved his love for us by descending into Hell – a theological bit of pizzazz rarely talked about, though ultimately very significant.

Here it is in a nutshell:

We believe that Jesus died and descended into the depths of Hades (Ephesians 4.8-10).  He did not suffer, for his suffering was completed on the cross (John 19.30).   He preached to those tormented because of their sin (1 Peter 3.18, 20; 4.4), spreading the fragrance of himself even into Hell (2 Corinthians 2.14-16). He departed (Acts 2.27, 31), bearing the keys of Hades (Revelation 1.18) and destroying Death itself (Hebrews 2.14).

The doctrine of the descent into Hell is first and foremost a doctrine about love, God’s love for us, and the power of that love to go to all lengths, to descend to all depths and to go through virtually every barrier in order to redeem a wounded, huddled, frightened, paranoid, alienated, and unfree humanity.

Did God create Hell?  If so, why did He create something from which we need saving?
The most accurate theological answer is that Hell is not necessarily a place that God created.  It’s a place from which God has withdrawn.  It’s the place where he is not, rather than the place where everything is as he wants it to be.

So, why did he need something from which we need saving?  The question is maybe misplaced.  The question is:  Will you live with him? That’s the real question.

If you’re a Christian and you continually sin, is there ever a point where you can cross the line, where you sin too much and are condemned to Hell?
No, you can’t sin too much for the grace of God to make up the difference.  There is always grace for you (cf 2 Corinthians 12.9).  Think about when Jesus told his disciples to forgive not only seven times seven, but seventy times seven (cf Matthew 18.22).

When I worked for Campus Crusade, we used to say that question is misplaced.  Imagine that in order for you to get to heaven, figuratively speaking, you would have to live on the moon and the only way you could get to the moon was to jump high enough to arrive there under your own power. In other words, you had to be good enough or athletic enough or whatever super power enough to jump from here to the moon. Some of you might be able to jump only 6 inches and some of you might be able to jump four feet, but nobody can ever jump all the way to the moon. 

So, in effect, the question of our relative sinfulness is moot, because nobody is sinless enough or not quite so sinful as to ever make up the difference.  God’s grace covers for everybody, no matter how crappy you are, which I’m particularly happy about.

The question as to whether there is ever a point where you can cross the line or sin too much—the question refers to that scripture about the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.  There’s a blasphemy of Holy Spirit—one sin which can never be forgiven (Mark 3.29). Basically, if you do this one sin, you blaspheme the Holy Spirit and automatically go to hell.  The whole idea of the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is the ultimate rejection of God. 

The only way you can blaspheme the Holy Spirit is to reject God, reject God, reject God, reject God, and then die.  Even if you were still alive and rejecting God and rejecting God and rejecting God, there’s still grace. There’s still grace for everybody.  There’s still space for everybody, because Jesus, again, is standing there saying, “Come, come to the banquet.  There’s room for everyone.”

So, if you’re a Christian and continually sin, is there ever a point where you can cross the line or sin too much?  No, not if you keep fighting and trying to live as God intends you to live, not if you keep repenting, not if you keep inviting the Spirit to change you.  Just don’t give up.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Weeds

excerpted from Life and Times of Billy Ryman, First King of America 

The farm flourished and the staff continued to increase alongside the profits. The north property was purchased for a small fee, and construction began immediately on a new home for Billy and his growing family.

During construction, a very old oak tree was felled to make way for the back bedrooms, and Billy decided to use the wood. The tree had been in that spot for generations, tall, thick, strong, and mighty. It only seemed appropriate to honor the tree’s memory in the house that now stood in its place.

Billy ordered the wood cut and set aside until the house was complete. Then he got to work. He sawed and hammered, cut and drilled, sanded and stained, until he had completed a coffee table of impressive size. 

He brought Sarah and his workers to the barn where he had constructed the table and had each of them carve their name into the legs of the table. Then he helped his worker, George, move the heavy table into his office in the new house.

“This table will stand in my office as a reminder of the great oak tree which once stood in this place, and as a reminder of all the people who have loved and supported me in this new venture,” he told George as they placed the table in the room. 

Near the beginning of the harvest, George woke up especially early one day and went outside. As was his custom, he began strolling the fields and wondering at the good fortune of his friends. But there was something troubling him as he inspected the long rows of tilled earth. He ran back to the house to tell Billy.

Flying through the heavy front door and bounding through the kitchen and the den, he found the boss in his home office. Billy was seated behind a larger-than-life wooden desk. It weighed about a thousand pounds, and he had about a thousand pounds of paperwork spread around him in a great mess. Panting from his run, George said, “There’s trouble with the field, Guv.”

“What’s that, George? What kind of trouble?” Billy asked, pulling the reading glasses off his face and fixing his eyes on his employee with concern.

“Weeds.” There was an edge of defeat in George’s voice, but Billy wasn’t one to react strongly before he knew the whole situation.

“We always have weeds,” said Billy calmly. “What’s special about these?”

“There’s a lot of ‘em,” George replied. He led Billy into the fields to see the truth of it. Everywhere there were heads of grain sprouting, there were weeds mixed in and among them. They were so thick, it was difficult to even see the grain in some spots.

“Didn’t you use good seed?” Billy asked his English friend. As he surveyed the damage to the fields, the sense of dread that had started in the pit of his stomach grew.

“Oh aye,” said George. “The best.”

“Then how has this happened?” asked Billy, fearing he already knew the answer.

“An enemy has done this,” George replied.

“What enemy?”

“I know not. But that doesn’t get so bad by its lonesome. Someone’s been helping that, they have.” Billy considered this possibility, wondering at his adversary. Who would do such a thing to him? To his wife? And why? “But look Guv,” George continued, his face brightening as he jerked a thumb in the direction of the troublesome fig tree. “Not everything’s a loss then, innit?” And, miracle upon miracles, the barren fig tree on the property had not only bloomed recently, but abundantly.

“I thought those bloom earlier in the year?” Billy asked. He knew he should be excited at this news, but the problem of the enemy who had sown the weeds gnawed at him.

“Soon as the leaves come you know summer’s here. But I wasn’t looking.” George laughed to himself. “I was too busy with the fields.”

Billy laughed, too, but he was forcing it. He was trying to think of who he might have wronged or who might hold something against him enough to damage his crops in this way. “Don’t pull up the weeds just yet,” he told George.


“You may uproot the wheat, too. Best let them both grow until we’re ready to harvest, then we can get Claude to collect the weeds and burn them. He can store the wheat in the barn.”

The question of Billy’s enemy ate away at him, night and day, for many months. Though he racked his brain, trying to figure out who may have done this, he could not find anyone to blame. He was a fair and honest man, and he was careful to treat every person with respect. Going through the years in his mind, he remembered the uneasiness he had felt when arranging to purchase the fields from the previous owner, Mr. MacIntyre, but shrugged the feeling off. He had no reason to suspect the man. And yet, the uneasy feeling lingered.

That year, the farm suffered a painful loss due to the weeds, and it was a difficult time for Billy, his wife, and all of their employees. The enemy did not appear again; indeed, he would not reveal himself for some time, but his work was ever on the mind of the new landowner.

Matthew 24.32-36
Mark 13.28-32
Luke 21.29-33
and Matthew 13.24-30

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Understanding Leadership Types

Leaders fall into two main categories: task-oriented and relationship-oriented.
Task-oriented leaders strive for excellence and can push people away as a result.
Relationship-oriented leaders are great with people but can end up disappointed.

Task-driven leaders alienate people in pursuit of excellence.
Relationship-driven leaders suffer from disappointment and a sense of betrayal when their
endeavors collapse. 

All leaders must 
  1. Identify which type of leader they are. This is important to identify early on, as it will affect the kinds of decisions the leader makes in the future. 
  2. Identify their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Doing this will guide leaders into a wiser decision-making process.
  3. Grow in competency in the other type of leadership. To be most effective, leaders must find a balance between the two types.
  4. Understand the following:

  •       Vision, passion, and commitment to excellence are essential. No matter what type of leader a person is, these cannot be compromised.
  •       Ministry requires visionary leadership from the person in charge. Without vision from the person in charge, nothing will move forward.  
  •       We all only see out of one eye. We must remember our tendency to only see a situation from our own limited perspective.
  •       We don’t always play fair. At times, we will all allow our personal strengths and weaknesses to get in the way.
  •       We must connect tasks to vision. Doing so allows task-oriented leaders to keep the vision at the forefront, and it allows relationship-oriented leaders to remember why tasks matter.
  •       Not everyone is a leader. We should never try to force every person to fit into these two leadership types. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

How To Do Ministry: update

I might actually give some real advice at some point, just not yet.
This is my story about how hard it is to give advice I believe in.

I’m increasingly convinced of Mike’s idea to simplify the meta-categories, while complexifying the subcategories. This will keep it simple and allow me to be as egghead-y as I want.

When Christianity was outlawed in Rome, many pastors took jobs as grave diggers, carving out
catacombs, then sneaking Christians into them for prayer and the Lord’s Supper. The pastors would decorate the catacombs with Christian symbols. The Romans nicknamed them fossores, after ugly sand wasps.
Fossores dig holes in the ground, which they decorate, and in which they keep their children. I’m basing my model for how to do ministry on these Fossores, whose life, art, and work intersected seamlessly.
·         ART—Holy provocation, prophetic reorientation,
sacred imagination.
·         WORK—Change the church, heal the world,
translate the Gospel.  
·         LIFE—Shadow  God, spiritual formation, holy
I want to use the Fossorian model in 4 ways:
·         a redesign of
·         a published compendium on visual leadership
·         ministerial development classes at a local
university and at Westwinds
·         an ongoing blog series exploring the catalog of
                 art, work, and life. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

How To Do Ministry: update

A.K.A. a repeated attempt not to quit my job and become a truck driver

I  want to make visual resources people can employ to become better pastors. I also want them to feel as though they own these resources, not like they are borrowing David’s stuff. But cataloging these resources is tricky, especially when they’re visual. 

Mike Cole suggested I’m thinking about this project in the wrong way. He suggested I create a series of web offerings, since it’s easy to use multiple tags for projects online. Mike suggested I think of 3 simple categories. I was afraid that might over-simplify the components and thus render the model ineffective for quickly finding relevant information. But Mike reminded me I can use tags for as many subcategories as I need. He’s right. I’ve been thinking like a Gutenberg-er. I have over-complexified the model and under-appreciated the sorting capabilities of the web. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

How To Do Ministry: update

My ongoing quest to help people not suck at their jobs

I want to create a repository of practical tools and biblical insights concerning the spiritual life of a congregation.

I have to find a model that allows for the hybridization of what we do as pastors.
The purpose of a model is to help others make sense of a huge amount of information. In order to do this, you have to have a framework for them to see inside your head. I’m currently working with 4 major categories: leadership, spirituality, communication, and engagement. But each category has crossover points.
The orrery model for pastoral leadership was a total bust. Too complex. Only I could make sense of it. It was pretty, but dumb.
After an orrery, I tried a 4-way Venn diagram. This also proved to be far too complex for anyone to view and immediately understand. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

New Project: How To Do Ministry

A quest to help aspiring leaders become effective faster

Pastors often employ business or athletic models for ministerial leadership. Both require heavy adaptation, and neither is terribly functional, so I’m searching for an alternative.


Church leaders often request help doing holistic, innovative ministry like Westwinds, so I've begun searching for a suitable model to teach the varied components:
    •       Liturgics—why we do the things we do.
    •       Staffing—why we hire the people we hire.
    •       Budgets—how we use the resources we have.
    •       Relationships—How we work with our people.   
    •       Mission—Staying focused on the right things.
    •       Spiritual Formation—Teaching and growing.
    •       Pastoral Interiority—What goes on in our hearts and minds.
    •       Prophetic Artistry—cultural provocation and critique.
    •       Post-Christian Orthodoxy—How we follow the Bible’s teachings when it doesn't         feel like anyone around us cares.

I don’t want to over-simplify, but I do want to categorize the material so it’s easily readable and usable. Thus far, I have compiled nearly 700 diagrams & illustrations. I’m going to employ the visual model of an orrery—a 3D model of the solar system—and see how far  that gets me. 

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Listening To Scripture

An excerpt from Shadowing God.

Reading the Bible should not be reduced to some kind of requirement for good standing with God or the church. On the contrary, our relationship with scripture is more romance than rote – it actually makes a
difference in our lives, teaching, correcting, and training us how God wants us to live (see 2 Timothy 3.16-17). The Bible is pure, true, flawless, perfect, effective, precious, and powerful (Psalm 119.2). Nothing is to be taken from or added to it (see Deuteronomy 4.2), except (apparently) some maps.

For everyone who claims to know and love Jesus, the Bible must be the standard against which we measure every impulse, decision, and desire. All efforts to shadow God must begin with a sound understanding of scripture. The Bible presents to us God’s will, purposes, and designs for this world and anything that contradicts the clear teaching of scripture can be immediately identified as spiritually erroneous.

Don’t read the Bible for information,
read it for transformation.

That is, don’t pick up the Bible and flip through it looking for an answer to life’s particulars – should I marry this person, should I accept this new position at work, should I go on this adventure, etc. – because in all likelihood one of three bad things will happen:
You will likely not find an answer to your particular problem in that moment and so you will despair of there being any answers, wisdom, or worth to be found in the scripture.
You may find an answer, but it might not be a good answer. For example, you might find a scripture that seems to indicate you should marry this person instead of that person, only to discover later on that you don’t really love them and weren't really ready for marriage. In that moment, the natural human tendency would be to blame the Bible and blame God instead of acknowledging that there was something misguided about how you came to that answer in the first place.
Finally, you may find an answer and it might be a good one, leading you to believe that any time you need such answers you should just open the scriptures and see what’s there which will – eventually, if not immediately – lead you back into either of the first two problems.

I might remind us all at this point that the Bible is complex, written several thousand years ago by several dozen contributors under the inspiration of the Spirit; and, in order for us to find answers, we must take a more well-reasoned approach to looking for those answers--weighing in all the appropriate texts, reading commentary and studying context, etc.

How, then, should we read the Bible?

My favorite image for reading and studying the Bible comes from Columbia professor Walter Brueggemann, who suggests we treat the Bible as compost. In Brueggemann’s analogy we are asked to remember that the Bible is not the place of new spiritual insights. The Bible is thousands of years old and the canon of
scripture has been “closed” for some time.

Like a compost, the Bible is the repository of old growth, nutrients, and life. The best way for us to read the Bible is to mix it in to daily living by
memorizing it,
talking about it,
telling the stories from within the scriptures to our children
or our neighbors,
and playing,
so that the life of the scriptures fertilizes our everyday lives in an ongoing manner.

There are, incidentally, two kinds of composting: active and passive. Active composting, in which the conditions are more highly controlled, rapidly produces basic fertilizer. To continue our metaphor of the Bible-as-compost, when we memorize scripture (or spend time regularly reading scripture) we quickly gain a working knowledge of the Bible and a good understanding of who God is and what he’s like.
Passive composting lets nature take its course in a more leisurely manner, but often produces richer fertilizer. In spiritual terms, the more we let scripture pop up in our everyday lives, especially in storied ways –
like rehearsing episodes of Daniel off the top of our heads, or paraphrasing the parables of Jesus to friends over coffee, discussing what he really meant – the more saturated we become with the grand Story of God and the World.

For my part, I like to tease out complex theological problems with people who aren't Christians. I think of it as a good way to whet their appetite for the Story of God, and to get fresh perspective on whatever the issue happens to be.

I also like to tell my kids Bible stories, connecting the dots for them between the prophets and Jesus, or between different Old Testament episodes that occur around the same time. It fires their imaginations, and it helps anchor our home in the reality that we are part of this same story. One night, my daughter kept waking up with these horrible nightmares and so, finally, I climbed into bed with her and began to tell her a story. I felt nudged to tell her the story of one famous dreamer in the Bible, Daniel, and about his dreams in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar. I asked her if she had ever heard of Daniel and she had – knowing the story of the lion’s den by heart – and so we prayed and sang and talked about the fact that the same God who controlled
Daniel’s dreams was the same God who rescued Daniel from the lion’s den, and is also the same God to whom we now pray and believe that he is Lord over Anna’s dreams and will protect her like he protected Daniel. She laughed, snuggled, and fell fast asleep with no further interruptions from any monsters under the bed, glowing eyes in the woods, or creatures from the deep places of the earth.

That’s what I mean by using the scripture as compost. Let it fertilize life. That, too, is how we shadow God. In that moment with my daughter, I knew, based on my understanding of the scripture, and my longevity as a Christ-follower, that what God wanted in that moment was to reintroduce himself to Anna in such a way so she would be affirmed and grow, that she would have confidence that he is watching over her, and that her daddy is there bathing her with prayers, blessings, thanksgiving, and faith. God wanted to be there for Anna, and so I was there for Anna, reminding her of God – like a shadow. She can’t see Christ, but she can see Christ-in-me.

Don’t treat the Bible like a recipe book, a manual, or a self-help guide. Don’t read it like homework, or a contract, or legislation. Do read the Bible like a Grand Story, like an epic, an adventure, a romance. Do
treat it reverently, but play with it, sing it, perform it, and keep bringing it up in all those magical moments throughout each day when a little fertilizer is needed.

Let the scriptures marinate you. Let them penetrate you. Let them weave in and out of your thoughts and conversations. Once the Bible becomes a constant source of nutrition in your life, you will find that shadowing God comes more naturally. You’ll know the kinds of things God wants, just as you’ll know the kinds of things God does. You will be able to recognize godliness when you see it, just as you will be more willing to participate in godliness when you’re needed.