Transcending Hell

Transcending Hell

“Some want to live within the sound
Of church or chapel bell;
I want to run a rescue shop,
Within a yard of hell.” 

C.T. Studd

Some think of Hell as a literal place of punishment, awaiting sinners on the other side of death…

  • an eternal destination for the damned…
  • a deep abyss, beneath the earth….
  • a burning lake of eternal fire and brimstone…
  • a state of eternal torment and suffering, where there’s never-ending weeping and gnashing of teeth (what is teeth-gnashing, anyway?)…
  • the underground lair of the Devil and legions of demons…
  • unending, irreversible separation from God.

I’m increasingly doubtful of Hell as a post-life destination.  I just don’t read much evidence in Scripture to support Hell being more than a metaphor for eternal separation from God, which I do believe in.  I could be wrong.  Maybe Hell is a literal place.  I guess we’ll all find out, eventually.

To me, belief in an eternal Hell feels more like a threat, motivated by fear.  God doesn’t need threats to attract us.  God is good, and the offer of eternity with God is very good.  God doesn’t need the fear or threat of an eternal hell to motivate us.  That sounds a bit too mobster for me.

But, that being said, I do still believe in Hell.  Perhaps there is an eternal state of Hell, for those who choose it (for more on this, read C.S. Lewis’ Great Divorce).  But, if Hell is separation from God, Hell isn’t necessarily a future destination.  Hell, for some, is a PRESENT reality.  Hell can be anywhere, anyplace, anytime.

Hell is anywhere a person feels cut off from God.  I don’t really believe anyone or anyplace – including Hell – is cut off from God, entirely.  Psalm 139:7 asks, Where can I go from your Spirit?Where can I flee from your presence?”  The answer?  “Nowhere!”  But, undeniably, there are times, places, situations, experiences in this life when a person might FEEL cut off from God…

  • When a victim is abused or assaulted.
  • When a person is trapped in addiction.
  • When trust is betrayed.
  • When a person is sliding deeper and deeper into depression.
  • When someone has lost their way, and keeps wandering farther and farther and farther astray.
  • When a person is belittled or dehumanized for their age, gender, ethnicity, skin color, nationality, religion, or sexual orientation.
  • When fear is greater than love.
  • When a person is a victim of injustice.
  • When lies speak more convincingly than Truth.
  • When a person is caught in endless, grinding cycles of poverty.
  • When EVERYTHING seems hopeless.
  • When a person is haunted by the sins of their past.
  • When it feels like there’s nowhere to go, and no one to turn to.
  • When a deepening darkness blots out the fading, dimming, failing light.
  • When pain – physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual – overwhelms.
  • When a person cannot escape the consequences of their sins.

I recall a recent conversation about the success of so many conservative, mega-churches, and how many have transitioned from being historically “traditional” to something much more modern and contemporary.  I wondered aloud if their success has anything to do with their belief in Hell?  I wonder if believing “lost” people go to an eternal place of suffering motivates members to “save” people, no matter what it takes, before it’s too late.  I don’t wonder.  I’m sure that’s the case.

But, what if the Hell people need saving from, most, isn’t in their future?  What if the “lost” are already in Hell, in this life?  What if the “saving,” lost people need, isn’t just from a future Hell, but a current and present one?

What if Hell exists in…

  • broken homes and families,
  • poverty-stricken neighborhoods,
  • brothels, strip-clubs, porn-studios, and red-light districts,
  • the bottles or needles of every addict,
  • loneliness – real or perceived,
  • racist/discriminatory attitudes, practices, and policies,
  • where the abuser’s hand touches the victim’s flesh,
  • unsafe school yards,
  • the bully’s threats and verbal assaults,
  • corrupt, unjust governments and leaders,
  • the hearts of many men and women, children and teens, young and old, friends and family, neighbors and coworkers,
  • prisons, homeless shelters, mental hospitals,
  • the minds of the mentally ill,
  • the bodies of the sick and dying,
  • the news of a tragic death or suicide,
  • broken, betrayed hearts…

What if the person/people we live with, work with, ride the bus with, eat lunch with, do business with, is/are currently living in a Hellish state, and we don’t even realize it?  What if they desperately need us to realize it?

What if the job of the Church, and Christians, is to rescue people from their current Hell; not to avoid their Hell, or to stand back and judge them for it?   What if the job of the Church, and Christians, is to set people free from their current Hell, and to invite them into a new, better, godly reality?  What if our job is to be Heaven on Earth, even in the midst of the Hell people are currently enduring?  What if our job is to enter the Hell of others, while remaining deeply anchored in a higher spiritual reality?  What if our job is to find them in Hell, and lead them out?

What if Hell isn’t an eternal state, but only lasts as long as a suffering person must wait for you or me to crash down the gates, keeping trapped inside.

What if our job, Christians, isn’t to avoid Hell, but to dive into the thick of it, shining our light into the inky darkness, releasing the prisoners and rescuing the captives, transcending Hell together, into God’s glorious light?

Transcend:

transitive verb

1ato rise above or go beyond the limits of

bto triumph over the negative or restrictive aspects of 

cto be prior to, beyond, and above (the universe or material existence)

2to outstrip or outdo in some attribute, quality, or power

intransitive verb

to rise above or extend notably beyond ordinary limits

Who do you know currently residing in Hell?  What are you going to do about it?

Another question to ponder, Church:  based on my definition of Hell, have we (The Church) done more rescuing FROM Hell, threatening WITH Hell, or treating people LIKE Hell?  Think about it.

 

Look for the good

Look for the good

A requirement of my Doctoral program was a weekly Church Leadership class, for which we read a book per week, and wrote a one-page reflection.

I’ll never forget the first book.  None of us like it, much, and said so in our reflections.  I don’t know why we thought criticizing the book was a good idea, since the Dean was the teacher and the one who assigned the book!  Obviously, HE like it.

I’ll also never forget his reaction to our reflections.  He said, more or less, “Your assignment was NOT to critique the book.  Your assignment was NOT to focus on the faults and failings of the author’s ideas.  Your assignment was to LEARN about leadership.  You can always learn SOMETHING, whether you like a book, assignment, class, etc., or not.  In my class, I don’t want to see another critique.  I want to know what you learned.”

That’s one of the best lessons I’ve ever learned, and I strive to remember it every day.  By critiquing the book, I wasn’t learning anything.  I was evaluating the book based on what I thought I already knew about leadership, supposing I already knew more than the book had to teach me.  But, the point of the assignment was to learn.

How often do we miss valuable life-lessons because we’re judging, measuring, evaluating, or critiquing?  What arrogance!  What a loss!

I, like you, am constantly presented with opportunities to be the critic or evaluator.  But, what good does that do for me, or anyone else?  Instead, why not seek and affirm the good?

Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

It would be wrong for me to suggest Paul is saying something he isn’t.  But, when I read this passage, I sense Paul is saying, “Look for the good, even when it’s less than perfect.  Affirm the good.  Celebrate the good.  Focus on the good, wherever you find it.”  

Let’s be honest, consistent perfection is an impossible goal to achieve, especially when you consider how opinionated, biased, and subjective we are.  What might be perfect to you, may seem deeply flawed to me (and, of course, I would be right!).

If perfection is a score of 100%, when I was in school 90% and above was an A, 80% and above was a B, 70% and above was a C, 60% and above was a D, and anything below 60% was failing.  C was considered average.  Think about that.  Average: normal, typical, to be expected.  C grades – 30% less than perfect, is the norm!  Of course, everyone wanted As and Bs.  But, notice, you could still get an A or B without being perfect. And, Cs still got degrees!

There’s an old joke about pastors, and other professions too, I suppose.  ” Do you know what they call a pastor who got straight As in seminary?  Pastor.  Do you know what they call a pastor who got straight Cs in seminary?  Pastor.”

And, on a ten-point grading scale, even a failing grade potentially gets more right than wrong!  I still remember Mr. Pfingstag’s Algebra II class in High School.  On many occasions, the entire class failed his tests.  As he returned our graded tests, he would say, “Here’s a good E!”, meaning “This is one of the higher Es.”  Though, I don’t recall a “Good E” ever being much of a compliment or consolation!  It was still a failing grade!

My point?  Perfection is impossible.  But, better than average happens all of the time.  Most things – not all, most – are more good than bad. Rarely is something 100% perfect, or 100% flawed.  A half-empty glass is still better than an empty one!

Never forget the timeless wisdom of Forest Gump, “Life is like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you’re gonna get.”  I have a particular dislike for coconut, for instance, which I inevitably choose.  But, while my single coconut-filled chocolate may be disgusting to me, it might be someone else’s favorite, and is certainly not a reflection on the rest of the chocolates in the box (especially the chocolate-covered cherries!).

When we’re critical, we’re often ignoring much that is still good and valuable, focusing on the small percentage of little things we dislike or disagree with, blinding ourselves to what is helpful, positive or informative.

If I’m honest, a critical spirit comes naturally to me.  I seem predisposed to it.  I ALWAYS see things I’d like to change, improve, or fix – according to my personal standards, of course.  The upside, I suppose, of seeing what can be improved, is to actually make improvements, not just critical judgements; like when Jesus suggested removing the log in your own eye, so that you’ll be able to assist the one who has a teeny speck in their’s.  The downside is, critics can be JERKS.  Even “constructive” criticism is still criticism, and no one really wants to hear it!  I really don’t want to be a jerk…

So, here’s my suggestion.  When something or someone falls short of your impossibly high standards, consider the following…

  • The benefit of the doubt:  Maybe you misunderstood.  Maybe there’s more to the story.  Maybe you missed something.  Maybe there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation, you haven’t considered.  Maybe you’re wrong.  Maybe you just happened to get the chocolate-covered coconut.
  • Celebrate the Good:  Focus on the 50%, or more, that’s right and good, instead of what you found objectionable.
  • Acceptance:  Life ain’t perfect – like a box of chocolates.  We can always strive to offer our best, fix what’s broken, and improve what needs improvement.  But, life, even at it’s best, is a mixture of good and bad, better and worse, desirable and distasteful.  Accept it all as reality, and look for the good wherever you find it.
  • Humility:  Are you really so perfect?  Never burnt a meal?  Never bombed a test in Mr. Pfingstag’s class?  Never misunderstood something?  Never said something you wish you could take back?  Never taken half-measures?  Never spilled your milk?  Never changed your mind?
  • Receptivity:  Don’t slam your heart and mind shut at the first sight or smell of offense (or coconut).  Before passing judgement, force yourself to remain open.  Maybe what offended you, at first, won’t seem so significant in light of the whole.

Last Sunday, as I greeted members at the door, following the 11:00 am service, someone said, “That sermon wasn’t progressive at all!!!”  She seemed so surprised!  In a particular sermon, almost a year ago, as I was naming various labels or “boxes,” that might be applied to me, I said, “On some issues, I’m progressive.  On others, I’ve very traditional.”  All this person heard and remembered was two words, “I’m progressive.”   Two words have defined and colored every sermon she’s heard me preach for over two years.  I responded, “That’s really not unusual.  Most of my sermons are actually pretty traditional.”  She just shook her head, saying, “You confuse me.”

The problem, of course, is that words like “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “traditional,” “Republican,” “Democrat,” “Independent,” “Socialist,” “Christian,” “Gay, “Straight,” “black,” “white,” etc. are so emotionally charged, we immediately jump to conclusions when the word is used, without evaluating the whole.  Yes, I am “progressive” on some issues, and not on others.  No single word defines me!

Again, we’re so quick to judge, critique and evaluate.  I can’t help but wonder how much this particular person has misunderstood or misinterpreted my sermons, because she’s been critiquing me through the assumption that EVERYTHING I’ve said is “progressive.”  That’s inaccurate, unfair, and potentially a loss of helpful spiritual insight and teaching to her.

My advice – look for the good.

 

Kneeling Isn’t a Sin

Kneeling Isn’t a Sin

I should confess, from the start, I don’t watch professional sports.  I’m not into it.  I actually have some strong objections to professional sports, for a number of reasons.  But, for now, and for the sake of this particular conversation, let’s just say, professional sports aren’t my thing.

But, I’m aware, especially with the release of the new Nike ad, starring Colin Kaepernick, of the controversy surrounding professional athletes kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem.  Though the “kneelers” have many supporters, there are many others, including our President, who are deeply offended by their actions.  Everyone, on both sides, seem to have strong feelings, for or against.  Few, are neutral!

While my point is NOT to debate the rightness or wrongness of professional athletes  – or anyone else, for that matter – kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem, it only seems fair to begin by attempting to objectively explain both sides of the debate.

At the start of the 2016 season, NFL.com quoted Kaepernick, saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.  To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”  To Kaepernick, and others who have followed his lead, kneeling is an act of protest against the unfair treatment, and killing, of African-Americans by an unjust system of law enforcement and criminal justice, and the expression of their First Amendment right to free speech.

From the opposite perspective, encouraging the NFL to require players to stand for the National Anthem, in May, 2018, Fortune.com quoted President Trump saying, “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there, maybe you shouldn’t be in the country. You have to stand proudly for the national anthem.”  I’ve heard other’s, of similar perspective, argue that kneeling during the National Anthem is a direct offense and assault on all who’ve fought for our country, and the freedoms we all enjoy, including professional football players.

My point, here, is not to argue for either side of this debate, or the rightness or wrongness of this particular form of protest.  A brief study of the facts will demonstrate, incontrovertibly, racial discrimination does, in fact, exist, in our law enforcement and criminal justice systems, to shocking degrees.  If you don’t believe that is true, study the facts.  Like I said, the facts are undeniable.

But, the facts aren’t really the point, are they?  Something about the act of taking a knee deeply offends some Americans – I mean, REALLY offends!

Some players who kneel have thoughtfully articulated their motives and intent.  Kneeling, thus far, is not a violation of NFL policy.  Kneeling, doesn’t break the law.  In fact, it doesn’t even seem to have significant impact on game attendance, viewership, or profitability.

But, it sure does make people mad!

So, yesterday, after a sermon on discipleship and spiritual transformation, I was asked my position on the kneeling controversy, and if my denomination has an official position for or against it.  I have to imagine this person wasn’t listening to my message, if kneeling was the topic on his mind.  It’s not the first time I, as a pastor, have been asked my opinion on this.  Usually, the person asking is against the players kneeling, and assumes I am too.  And, asking me, as a pastor, implies the “asker” assumes the act must have some theological significance.

In other words, if it offends, it must be a sin.

It’s not.  It’s not a sin.  Kneeling, during the playing of National Anthem, may be offensive to you.  It may even be “wrong.”  But, it’s not a sin.

Whether or not professional athletes kneeling during the National Anthem is the “right” expression or venue for protesting this particular issue isn’t for me to say.  As a white man, who has never experienced the particular injustices being protested, I have no right to judge or condemn the rightness or wrongness of the particularity of the protest.  Arguably, if the act has offended, it’s achieved it’s purpose.  The question is whether those offended will condemn the act, or willingly listen and learn about the reason for the protest.  And, will the protest lead to real societal change?

Christians – particularly white, patriotic, American Christians – offended by players kneeling, ought to keep in mind Jesus’ awkward relationship with the authorities of his day.  Jesus offended, with frequent regularity.  The religious leaders – the Pharisees and Sadducees – were constantly offended by Jesus’ actions, by his teachings, by his lack of respect for their religious practices and traditions, and even their positional authority.  You may recall Jesus treating the political rulers, Herod and Pontius Pilate, rather dismissively, saying he was the King of a heavenly kingdom – which happened to be invading the Earth!

Though Paul taught about maintaining peace with political authorities, he also said, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”  (Ephesians 6:12)  In essence, earthly governments and laws can be evil, and evil must be exposed and resisted.

The entire Book of Revelation is a deeply-coded protest against Caesar and the Roman Empire.  I’ve no doubt Caesar and his supporters would have been deeply offended, if they just could have figured out what all those colors, numbers, and beasts represented (them!)!

And, like Jesus, in New Testament times, offending the governing rulers often led to dire consequences!  Offending those in power, and in the majority, often does.  Maybe, that’s the point players are trying to make.

But, we live in a different place and time.  We live in a nation of laws, intended to be just.  We live in a nation that allows, and supports, freedom of speech – even when it offends.  When injustices occur, in our nation, public protests result; like it or not.

So, what is the appropriate Christian response to NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem?  There isn’t one.  But, may I, humbly, suggest the following…

  • Remember, the Bible always sides with those who are victims of injustice.  Whether you agree with this particular form of protest, or not, learn about the injustice it is protesting.  Don’t allow the offense of the protest to blind you to the reality being protested.
  • Remember the Bible’s teachings about not judging, allowing for diversity of opinion, and even loving your enemies.
  • Remember, the Bible affirms the sacred value and worth of every person – even the person who offends you.
  • Remember the biblical teaching on humility.  You might be wrong.
  • Remember, patriotism is not the same as faith in Christ.  While you may deeply love your country, love for the Kingdom of God is something entirely different.  Our primarily allegiance is to a heavenly King and his laws.  What offends you, politically, isn’t necessarily a sin.
  • And, perhaps this is an opportunity to reflect on how the values of professional athletics align (or don’t) with the values of the kingdom of God.  Maybe, from a Kingdom perspective, there’s a lot more sin to be offended by in professional sports, than whether or not a player stands for the National Anthem!  But, that’s a conversation for another blog.

Perhaps some advice, for Christians, from the Book of James, is a good way to close… My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,  because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1:19-20)

Have I offended you?