Adventure and Calm

I just finished reading Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” to my kids and I was a bit struck by the final two chapters. Where most books would merely state, “a year later Bilbo finally was home and remembering his journey,” or something of the sort, Tolkien spends two whole chapters on the return home.

Bilbo wants to be back in the calm of the shire. But he also mourns the loss of his adventure the entire way home. And he never really recovers from it. He never enters back in to his local society and he’s always more in touch with the people who stop by to visit and remember the adventure.

I identify with all of this. I love the calm of America. And I desperately mourn the loss adventure I felt in ministry in China.

I have no solution, I only found commiseration in a Tolkien book, and maybe some near-tears too.

You Might be a Universalist Because Your Theology of Hell is All Wrong

I’m increasingly running across people who say something to the effect of, “God can’t send people to hell. I can’t reconcile that with the graceful loving God that I know. Therefore he must send no one to hell.”

Now before I get too deep in to this, I should clarify, I am not at all a universalist. Heck, I spent a decade of my life trying to tell people about Jesus and train others to do the same. But I have to say that idea of our loving, gracious God sending people to a place of tortue, burning, and eternal torment is something I can’t totally grasp either. Maybe that is how things are. But I don’t think I’m entirely convinced.

There are quite a few verses in the new testament that give us an idea of hell. Matthew 13:42&50, “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, Mark 9:43, “where the fire never goes out.” Matthew 25:41, “the eternal fire prepared for the devel and his angels.” Revelation 21:8, “the firey lake of burning sulfur.”

I mean, those seem pretty damn (ahem) clear right? The interesting thing is the Bible gives us almost nothing on heaven (besides a descending city). Why is there so little written about heaven in the Bible? I buy that the puritans were interested in painting a picture of hell so horrifying that folks would be scared in to heaven, but I don’t buy that the writers of the Bible would (again, I could be wrong about this).

C.S. Lewis’ “Great Divorce” gives a picture of heaven I think is probably near-prophetic. I’m not sure we’re going to know exactly what it’s like (the new Jerusalem sure sounds a lot more like a city than C.S. Lewis’ picture paints for example), but as far as what we’ll be let in on in this life, I think it comes about as close as we’re going to get.

Likewise I think his picture of hell is something we don’t often consider. Lewis paints hell as an almost-dark city where everyone has everything they want, but they’re miserable. They’re separated from God, which is the only thing that could truly make them happy.

Essentially heaven, in Lewis’ imagery, boils down to “communion with God.” And hell boils down to “separation from God.” That is, those who go to heaven get God in his fullest, and his perfect creation. Those who go to heaven get themselves in their fullest, and their imperfect desires.

The picture I often like to use as an example is that of a child and eating. If we left our kids to decide what to eat, they would choose ice cream and candy for every meal—always. They would constantly feel terrible, and hungry, and then go in search of more ice cream and candy.

Likewise hell is people getting what they ultimately want, themselves. Their own decisions. So hell becomes a place where they get exactly that. Want a bigger house? Want to live further from your neighbors? Just move, get what you want. But we know those things aren’t actually what satisfies us. Still, we eat more ice cream, but are never satisfied.

Hell is getting yourself. It’s like fire and brimstone in terms of joy (i.e. not much), it just also has the continual allure of pending satisfaction (just one more bowl of ice cream and everything will be great). The images of eternal fire and weepeing and gnashing of teeth, of the firey lake of burning sulfur, I think they’re images depicting the misery of the lost striving to find fulfillment in being their own gods.

If people who don’t believe are eternally tortured by a gracious God, I understand why that’s hard to accept. If people are given over to themselves for eternity by a gracious God, it’s honestly not much better (any better?), but it’s something we can somehow grasp.

I’m not a universalist.

I believe in this life (on this side of death) the believer, in pursuing God, gets a glimpse of heaven now—communion with Him does make everything else go strangely dim. And in this life the non-believer gets a glimpse of hell now—vain pursuit of self-satisfaction.

I want to eat food that satisfies. I want to know what health feels like. Ice cream looks nice, but is empty when consumed exclusively and without the guidance of someone who knows better how to satisfy me. Like most of the world, it has its place if it’s viewed as a part of a “balanced diet”.

Are you a universalist because you haven’t really sorted out what you think about hell?

My Church Attendance Problem: or Profound Cognitive Dissonance

When talking to people about their lives in China there was always this one profound disconnect from logic that drove me crazy. When people would honestly tell me about struggles in life and what made them miserable, I’d ask for details.

“There is so much pressure in life,” they would say.

In a large part (though not exclusively) because of the one child policy, most people in their mid–30’s or younger were an only child and felt the need to support both their parents and their two sets of grandparents. Many of these parents sacrificed everything they had so their kids could go to college and get a good paying job. As such these folks grew up and got a decent job and now their parents feel they owe them something in return.

What they owe could be money to pay things back, but usually it’s the pressure to buy a car (always brand new, always financed), and then an apartment (often bought on a 75 year mortgage), and then find someone to get married to so they can have a kid (grandparents raise the kids usually, and they find a lot of meaning in life through this). Marriage was almost never about finding someone you enjoyed being with, or were in love with, but someone who was your social equivalent and would make a “good wife” (have kids, be loyal etc…) or “good husband” (by providing the things mentioned above).

And I would always ask, “To what end? Why do you want to have a kid? Because you want to? Or because it’s what you’re supposed to do? And how are you going to raise your kid to not fall in to the same pattern of giving that kid immense pressure, to the do the very things which cause you to be profoundly dissatisfied with life?”

After asking this there would be silence for a few minutes. Then a shrug and, “But this is how we live life here.”

Fatalistic and sad.

So then yesterday I’m talking with a friend of mine who grew up in the church like I did and is wrestling with a lot of the same things I’m wrestling with. I hate going to church on Sunday mornings right now. We’ve been to a million churches and almost everything about all of them drives me crazy. They’re overly concerned with the minutiae of things like how far apart the chairs or, or what color the auditorium is to be lit during each worship song—all at the expense of, you know, actually connecting people. Actually preaching the gospel etc… (though the good ones still pull this off sometimes).

And my friend asks, “Well, why do you go?” I go because I want my kids to enjoy church. I go to a big church because they’re the only ones with decent kids programs even though they’re the very ones that make me crazy for all the other reasons.

“Why do you want your kids to like church?” He asks.

“So when they grow up they want to be part of a church.” Is my embarrassing excuse for a response…. I want my kids to enjoy church now so they grow up as frustrated with church as I am, and they feel the need to keep going and to bring their kids because “That’s how Christians live life here.”

The cognitive dissonance that drove me crazy in China and I could not get people to see beyond is the same cognitive dissonance I’m now dealing with regularly. And I have no idea what the answer is.
gigantic-face-palm:

Observation on Living for Jesus

When I was young, I thought a Christian was supposed to stand out by the superficial things they did differently (not cursing, going to church on Sunday, listening to the right music, etc…).

Now I believe I can curse all I damn well please. Because it really doesn’t offend anyone but Christians anymore. And really only those still in the former camp (am I wrong about this?). But that I’m supposed to stand out by the way I love people, have patience for people, encourage people, and live a life valuing God and His creation instead of money, sex, fame, lust….

Honestly if you live like that, you stand out pretty substantially in this world.

No one asks why you don’t cuss. But people ask why you love the way you do.

Lamenting the Loss of my "Mission"

I’ve talked about this before. I need to talk about it more because it’s what I chew on all day, every day.

I lived as a missionary for ten years in Southwest China. I worked with and worked hard to support some of my biggest heroes. People who spent years in jail for their faith. People who sacrificed more than I can imagine for their faith. I feel like I’m the guy who fought on the front lines with bullets whizzing by my head; I came out completely unscathed, but the people who fought alongside of me were true heroes. They fought, they raided, they attacked and were even captured—but fought on.

I got to be there for it. And in some ways I fear it’s my “glory days” that I’ll always look back on with a bit of longing. I loved rubbing shoulders with the best. I loved caring for, ministering to, and going in to battle with the Lord’s “special forces.” But now I’ve been relegated to the post office.

As a soldier on the front lines, I always believed in my head that the post office was necessary. We couldn’t fight without it, therefore the role it played was essential. But my heart said it was a second class citizen.

Now I’m in the post office. By the grace of God I’m an important player in the post office. But in a real sense, I’m mad at God. I don’t care how important I am. I was willing to sacrifice life and limb on the front lines but, now that He’s assigned me to the post office, I’m angry at Him. “Screw you,” I think, to my commanding officer. You took away what I love. My feeling of glory. Of being someone of importance.

I know without question (in my head) that this assignment is the right one. That what I’m doing matters and how I do it unto the Lord is of absolute significance. But my heart hasn’t caught up. I miss the glory, the adventure, the sense that I was someone of utmost importance.

I haven’t adjusted to life in middle class America (the post office). But there are an incredible amount of lost people here. In some ways it’s more lost than China. And success for a soldier of Christ is faithfully doing what He’s assigned me to do (and this is where I’m assigned! Like it or not).

I’m not saying it’s easy (it’s not). But faithfully doing this here is what I’m called to do.

Lord give me wisdom, on how to do it. Help me to forgive you for removing me from the front lines, because I’m mad about it. I know it’s right. But I’m still mad.

Teach me to be the postman you’ve called me to be. And help me to do it for your glory.

I know my skills, my giftings, and my love of the Kingdom and the Battle are valuable and can be used by the Lord right here. But I’m not sure I believe what I know.

Patriotism in a Time of Trump

“Good men needed to be convinced that their country’s cause was just; but it was still their country’s cause, not the cause of justice as such. The difference seems to me important. I may without self-righteousness or hypocrisy think it just to defend my house by force against a burglar; but if I start pretending that I blacked his eye purely on moral grounds–wholly indifferent to the fact that the house in question was mine–I become insufferable. The pretence that when England’s cause is just we are on England’s side–as some neutral Don Quixote might be–for that reason alone, is equally spurious. And nonsense draws evil after it… A false transcendence is given to things which are very much of this world.”

  • C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves

I increasingly believe almost anything relevant to today, can be found in books written by those who have gone before us.

Shockingly relevant/salient.