Book Review: The Great Divorce

In preparation for a sermon series on hell, I have a large pile of books to read through.  Some I skim, while others I read intently.  The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis is one of the books that I read thoroughly.

I love narrative theology.  It’s much more enjoyable to read.  And listen to. (Jesus may have been on to something with the whole story telling thing…)  Our world needs more stories.

But what I found most amazing about The Great Divorce was the way that it painted vivid pictures of heaven and hell in ways that are accessible for all readers.  Not in terms of vocabulary or plot, but in terms of acknowledging all the different approaches to afterlife.

You can read of second chances and no second chances in the same chapter.  Same with the ideas that everything is predestined or it’s all based on choice.  Hell as a place of conscious thoughts vs. not, as a place or torment vs. not, as a place you can leave vs. not, purgatory vs. not… it’s all there.  The genius of C.S. Lewis shines through everywhere.

There is so much going on in this book, but here are 3 thoughts that have stuck with me (both when I first read the book ten years ago, and again recently):

1)       His description of hell:

a.  Shades of reality.  It’s like our world, but worse. Grey, dreary, always raining, bland, heavy and half-alive are the adjectives I’d use to describe his hell.  You can have anything you want, but it will not satisfy.

b.  Alone.  You don’t like your neighbours?  Move.  You can do that.  You can move as far away as possible from anybody who bothers you.  And in the end, you can be the king of your castle, pacing back and forth, muttering to yourself about who annoys you and how you’re better than everybody else.

2)      His description of heaven:

a.  Shades of reality.  It’s like our world, but better.  Vivid, colourful, joyful, light, passionate, and fully alive are the adjectives I’d use to describe his heaven.  Everything is better than in our world, more real, but the kicker is that you don’t really care, because all your needs are satisfied.

b.  Community.  I found the spirits coming back for the ghosts to be quite comforting.  And it’s that exact community, (the people that drove us nuts here on Earth that are in heaven), that keep some of the ghosts from entering heaven.  But if only the ghosts would let go of their hang-ups, the hang-ups would cease to be hang-ups.  There’s something deep in that.

3)      His description of our present lives and how they intersect with heaven and hell.

“Son,’he said,’ ye cannot in your present state understand eternity…That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say “Let me have but this and I’ll take the consequences”: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why…the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven, : and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.”  (Chapter 9)

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So, in the end, maybe our present lives are all about heaven and hell.

Or, maybe heaven and hell are all about our present lives.

Either way, C.S. Lewis has done something I have a hard time doing; writing about an issue where people who disagree think that the writing supports their own worldview.  I have much to learn.

Oh yeah.  And read the book.

Final Verdict:  5/5 stars.  A good read that’ll make you think and hopefully invite you to live a fully alive life.  (Plus it’s short.  Short books are good when you have small children, because it not only takes less time to read, but when they drop it on their toes, it doesn’t do any eternal (see what I did there?) damage.)

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I met Justin Trudeau. And Terry, Carolyn, Maria, and Ted.

Byelections are fun.  Instead of over 300 seats being contested across the country, right now there are only four.  So that means plenty of opportunities to meet politicians who usually don’t come to little ole’ Southeast Manitoba.

I heard through a friend that Justin Trudeau was coming to town, and that he was having an unpublicized lunch at a local restaurant.  How often does any leader of a national party come to Steinbach?  So naturally, several of us (conveniently) arranged to have lunch at that restaurant where Trudeau was going to be.

I knew that he’d be meetin’ and a-greetin’ us common folk (he even went to say hi to the dishwashers), so I figured that when he came to our table, this was my best chance to influence federal policy.

So I’d have one shot at it.  What would I say?  What would I ask?  Inquire about the increasing militarism of Canada?  Canada’s dismal record on attaining Pearson’s 0.7% of the GDP to be designated for international development?  Canada’s role in climate change?  Oh the choices…

I said this to Justin (and here we are posing for a picture):

justin

“Please increase the funding for education on First Nation Reserves.”

Why this?

The federal government is in charge of education on reserves, and they budget 7000-8000 dollars per kid per year.  Off reserve, provincial governments budget 10000-13000 dollars per kid per year.  So that means each child going to school on a reserve is getting underfunded by several thousand dollars per year.  For 10 years of schooling, that’s up to 50,000 dollars less per student that’s been invested.  Think of all the supplies, curriculum, libraries, sports equipment, technology, and quality of teaching, not to mention all the communities that don’t have high schools.  The on-reserve graduation rate is 45%.  One of my friends teaching on a reserve says they have good, qualified teachers turn down positions because the salaries are two thirds of what they can make off-reserve.

I mean, really.  Think through the long term ramifications of underfunding education for an entire segment of the population.

(On a related note, how many of us send $30/month to sponsor kids in developing countries?  I know many of us do.  Maybe we should get World Vision or Compassion Canada or Plan or MCC or any other agencies to fund education in Canada… My cute little 5 year old sponsored kid from Ethiopia is now a 17 year old man with a moustache, so I guess I’ll have $30/month freed up fairly soon…)

So, I told Justin to please increase funding for education on reserves.  He agreed, and shared about how First Nations are the fast growing demographic in Canada, have some of the highest poverty rates, and how helping provide a quality education not only helps their communities, but also Canada’s economy.  It sounds like we can kill multiple birds with one stone here…

And then I thought that was it.  But no… the local Liberal candidate, Terry Hayward (who’s a nice guy), overheard me speaking about education.  He called me the next week and said, “Carolyn Bennett, the MP and Liberal Critic for Aboriginal Affairs is in Steinbach.  Do you want to meet her?”

“Why, yes I do Terry… yes I do.”

So I did.  Here we are (along with Liberal Senator Maria Chaput).

photo

I told both of them the same thing, and they both agreed that education levels should be on par with the provincial standards. Carolyn said that they did have a plan in the Kelowna Accord, that it had hard targets for funding and graduation rates, but that was cancelled fairly quickly when the Conservatives won the last election.  And then she also said that people in Ottawa were recently spinning numbers to make the discrepancy not so big (they were including kids from reserves finishing high school  off-reserve, which means that they have to pay the local school boards equivalent tuition).  Sigh.

I am fully aware the Liberals were in power, and then the Conservatives, and that it’s all a game and everyone spins everything to what they want.  But at this point, I don’t care who caused it or who will fix it.  Just close the funding gap already.

I live in a riding that is predominantly Conservative, so I figured I’d also work that angle.  So I went for coffee with Ted Falk (he’s a nice guy too), the local Conservative candidate.

ted

I figured I’d throw him a bone right off the hop and I told him I wasn’t going to hold him responsible for the behaviour of Mike Duffy (smile).

I explained a little bit about the underfunding of education, and he very honestly admitted that he didn’t know very much about it (honesty is so refreshing from politicians), but that he was willing to learn.  While we disagreed about some other things regarding treaties and the Indian Act and the supports the federal government provides, we both agreed that on reserve students should be as equally funded as off reserve students, and that education was probably one of the best ways to ensure a bright future for all Canadians.

So there you go.  I met Justin, Terry, Carolyn, Maria and Ted, and we all agree that the funding gap should be addressed.

Good.  I’m glad we’re all on the same page.  I now look forward to someone doing something about it.

Book Review: Erasing Hell

While reading Erasing Hell, I texted one of my friends the following:  “I want to take a pen and poke my eyes out.”

That pretty much sums up how I feel about this book.

Chan and Sprinkle wrote this book in a few months.  It shows.

Why did they write it in a few months?  Because it’s meant as a rebuttal to Rob Bell’s Love Wins.  In interviews, Chan said that he hopes that his book can be read as a stand alone book.  Poppy cock.  Besides the Bible, he quotes Rob Bell the most, mostly stating why Bell is wrong.  Please call a spade a spade. If you’re going to write a book about why Rob Bell is wrong, please come out and name it as such.  I’d prefer the title:  Why Rob Bell is wrong and I am right. At least that would be more honest.

Piece of Advice #1 for Chan and Sprinkle:
photoIf you are going to write a book that’s a rebuttal of Rob Bell, you should probably come up with a cover design that doesn’t look like a Rob Bell book published five years earlier.  

Piece of Advice #2 for Chan and Sprinkle: If you are going to write a book that’s a rebuttal of Rob Bell’s Love Wins, actually do so.  Don’t just cherry pick a few parts you disagree with.  Write about the entire book.

There are so many reasons why I could barely finish this book.  Let’s start with a few.

1)       Poor Bible reading skills.  Right at the beginning the authors claim that Jesus sends the unbelievers to hell and the believers to heaven in Matthew 25 (p.75).  That is simply not true of this passage.  Jesus separates the sheep and the goats not on belief, but on what they did for the least of these brothers and sisters.   The authors are reading their understanding of hell into the text, when really, they shouldn’t.

2)      Simply a matter of words? They write “Again, it’s very easy to get caught up in arguments and word studies and theological views, and yet miss the main point.” (p. 104)  Umm….  Arguments and word studies and theological views makeup the main point.  The word studies and theological views ARE the point.  That’s why Rob Bell wrote his book.  And that’s why you wrote your book. And that’s why you quote all sorts of theologians and commentaries and do Greek word studies.  WORDS ARE THE POINT!  THERE IS NO POINT WITHOUT WORDS!  WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS ABOUT HELL AND WHAT WE THINK ABOUT HELL IS ALL ABOUT THE WORD STUDIES AND THEOLOGICAL VIEWS!

3)      Who goes to hell?  Maybe this is the same as point #1, but on page 125, they write, “Racism, greed, misplaced assurance, false teaching, misuse of wealth, and degrading words to a fellow human being – these are the things that damn people  to hell?  According to Scripture, the answer is yes.”  I’d agree with this, and so would Jesus, since he said all that.  But once again, where is the question of belief/unbelief? Last time I checked, the only people Jesus condemned to hell were rich people and religious leaders (which doesn’t bode well for me…).

4)      The authors ask (p. 153),  “Are the images of fire, darkness, and worms to be understood literally?”  They answer not necessarily.  They are meant to be metaphors.  Hmmm… So you can use the exact same Scripture passages as both literal and metaphor?  I don’t get how you do that.

5)      The book is 200 pages long (with big font, lots of spacing, and lots of footnotes), of which the last 25 are a chapter from another Francis Chan book.  Who does that?

So, if you like your existing worldview on heaven and hell and are okay reinforcing your beliefs that billions of people are going to hell (and conveniently, not you), then read this book.  It’ll give you some good fodder for your street preaching repertoire.

If you are looking for a deeper read, there are far better resources out there (some of them by authors not named Rob Bell).   I’ll hopefully write about them in the future.

Final Verdict:  1/5 stars, with apologies to the trees who died in the process of printing this book.

Instagram, Green Flip Flops, and Naps

The following is an adaption of my sermon preached on October 13, 2013.   The live version had pictures of fish and videos of squirrels, so forgive me if this feels bland.

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Luke 17:11-19

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.

Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?  Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?”  Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

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There is an app out there called Instagram.  Basically, it’s like Facebook, but just for pictures and short videos.  You take a picture, put a fun filter on it, and share it with your followers.

By following someone on Intsagram, you can usually get a good picture of what’s going on in their lives.  And since most of us have cameras in our pockets, we are able to document much of our lives. simply take a picture of whatever’s in front of us at the moment.   There are highs, there are lows, life hums along normally.

But there are moments in our lives where something deeper is going on.  Where whatever is in front is more than just what’s in front of us.  Moments that are screaming out at us to pay attention.  Like, really pay attention.

In my world right now, it’s my kids.  But it isn’t always.

Sometimes it’s nature.   Sometimes it’s silence.  Sometimes it’s weddings.  Sometimes it’s conversations.  Sometimes it’s singing.  Sometimes it’s art.  Sometimes it’s a garden.   Sometimes it’s a book.  Sometimes it’s bonfires.  Sometimes it’s sports.  Sometimes it’s a canoe ride.

Rob Bell writes it as this:  Sometimes they catch you off guard;  sometimes they sneak up on you from behind;  sometimes you find yourself slowing down and becoming gripped with a certain stillness, like your heart is slamming on the brakes while it whispers in your ear:  This matters.  This is significant.  Slow down.  Pay attention.

These moments point past themselves to a larger reference point, to something or somewhere or sometime or someone beyond the experience itself.

These moments are almost transcendent.

And when we’re there, when we have those moments, what do we do?  Well, we take out our iPhones and take a picture of it and tag all our friends.

Okay, besides that.

Where do these places lead us?

I hope that these moments that transcend reality lead us to a place of wonder.  A place of awe.  And a place of thankfulness.

The lepers in today’s story.  10 of them called out to Jesus, and they went to the priest and were healed.  That was kind of a moment, wasn’t it?  That was probably worth a photo on Instagram.

And then we read that 9 of them were unappreciative jerks, and only one went to the source of his new reality with the words:  Thank you.

After he says thank you, Jesus words are quite phenomenal .

“Rise and go;  Your faith has made you whole.”

Some translations say well.  Others say whole.

Regardless, the man received his first blessing.  The healing.  The moment.  The photo on Instrgram.

But he also received a second blessing.  Him saying thank you leads to wholeness.

These transcendent moments we experience are phenomenal.  And when we are able to say thank you, that too, is phenomenal.

Gratitude draws us out of ourselves into something bigger and grander that we could imagine.  It pulls us out of our selfish world into a place where we want to create more of these moments and share them with the world.  It’s not only about us or our families or the people who see our pictures.  It’s about God’s world and out place in it.

For example.

In my house, we have two little children.  Zach is 7 months,  and Arianna is almost 3.  I’ll be lying to say if you that raising them is easy.  Zach is a cute kid who wake up at night a lot.  We’re tired. He was up at 5:15 this morning, ready to go.  For Arianna, well, she’s great when we come to church, but for us, watch out.  Terrible twos.  Nnnoooo! Sometimes, trying to get her to do anything is impossible.  Supper time!  No.  I’m not hungry!  And then she does flips on the couch.  It’s time to go to church.  I want my green flip flops!  You don’t own green flip flops.  Yes I do!  Okay.  We’re late.  Let’s go.  Get in your carseat.  No.  I want to do it.  And then she climbs in, gets all dirty from the side of the car, and then insists on buckling herself up to.  Normal 2 year old stuff, right?  I hope… Plus all of this with no sleep.  How some of you had 4 or 5 or 7 kids is beyond me.

I’d be lying to you if I said that it’s not exhausting.  Many of us have been here before.  I call it survival mode.  Phil Campbell-Enns calls it  “the Fog”.  It’s hard.

But then… There are moments like these.

I took this picture of the kids in June.

Thank you.

The moment is great.  But the gratitude points us beyond the dirty diapers and sleepless nights.  It’s points us to wonder and awe and wholeness.

Thank you.

Take a moment, and try to think of a transcendent moment in your life.  Where time stopped. Where your soul was saying:  Pay attention.  Remember this.   I’ll give you some time.

Do you have that moment?  Take a moment and say thanks.

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But, I think the story of Jesus healing 10 men with leprosy has more to it than saying thanks for blessings.

So, as you may or may not know, I turned 30 a couple of weeks ago.

I knew this milestone has been coming for a while.   But not just by looking in a calendar.  Or a mirror.

I am now probably the second slowest players on my ultimate Frisbee team.  Maybe this is because I don’t exercise as much as I used to, or maybe it’s because we always recruit 19 year olds to be our new players, but either way, I am slower.  Not to mention how sore I am the next day when I lay-out for discs, which also isn’t as often as it used to be.

I also know that I am no longer in my early twenties because at youth retreats, I need to pace myself.  I used to be able to keep up with those teenagers.  My very first youth retreat as a pastor, I went to bed at 5 in the morning with the kids.  Now, I need to take a nap so I can make it to 11.

But maybe one of the biggest signs of me being 30 is that all of a sudden I have become remarkably more reflective of my life.   I am remarkably more self-aware than I was even 5 years ago.   I’m not quite sure why.  Some of it could be because the latest brain science shows that our brains stop developing around age 25, so I’ve had a good 5 years where my brain isn’t changing all the time.  Some of it could be because I’ve been working with Mel for 3 years, and that guy is fairly reflective and thoughtful and maybe he’s just rubbing off on me.

But either way, turning 30 has brought on some fascinating thought processes.

And one of them is regret.

Regret is more or less a new feeling for me.  I know that sounds funny, and it’s not as if I didn’t apologize for any mistakes I made before I was 30.  But I have now lived long enough to have made some decisions that I regret.

Many of my regrets are about hurting people.  That have hurt myself. That have left relationships more damaged than they were before.

They could be regrets for saying something stupid.  That’s a lot of what my regrets are.  Several years ago, my Aunt, my Grandpa’s sister, whom some of you may know, was in the hospital.  I went to visit her one day, and she said one thing that stuck out to me.  She said:  “Kyle, when you and I get to heaven, we’re going to have to answer for a lot of the stupid things that we said while here on Earth.  You’re Grandpa?  Not so much.  He’ll just get a free pass.”   We have this wonderful ability to say hurtful things, and it’s often to the people whom we love the most.

Some of our regrets could be quite practical.  We may regret the decisions we made about our jobs.  Our marriages.  Our kids.  Our finances.  Our spirituality.  Our emotions.  Or whether or not we should have clicked send on that email.

We’ve all made decisions or done things that we regret.

I often wonder about the 9 lepers who didn’t go back to Jesus to say Thanks.  Now technically, they didn’t do anything wrong.  Jesus didn’t tell them to come back and say thanks.

We don’t have to send thank you cards out after weddings.  It’s the polite thing to do, but it’s not a law.   The gifts were given as a gift, free of strings.  We expect them, but the love we have for the couple shouldn’t be dependent on thank you cards.

But I wonder… did the 9 come to a realization later on in life that they missed out.  That they should have gone to thank Jesus.  Maybe it was when they got home and their partners asked, Did you thank Jesus for healing?.   Oops.

Maybe it was years later, when people were starting to understand that Jesus was God’s son, and this new movement of Jesus followers was starting.  Yeah… I love this Jesus guy.  He healed me!  I called out to him before he even rose from the dead! Did you thank him?  Ummm… No.

Did they regret not returning to Jesus in gratitude?

A couple of years ago, my friend Aaron Epp decided that he was going to pray 5 times a day.   He tells the following story, full of regret.  But that regret leads him somewhere beautiful.

I’m kneeling in my living room with my head bowed and touching the ground, tears streaming down my face, telling God that I’m sorry. It’s the first day—and first prayer—of my month-long prayer experiment, and so far, things aren’t going so well.

I’m 28 years old and I grew up in the Mennonite church. I attended Sunday school and youth group, and I was baptized in Grade 12. During my first and second years of university, where I took English literature as well as biblical and theological studies, I preached the occasional sermon at my church.

But the best word to describe my faith life over the past four years is stagnant. My church attendance has been sporadic, and I haven’t regularly practised any spiritual disciplines. I’ve always considered myself to be a Christian, and I’ve always tried to be a good person, but I have not been growing very much in my faith.

Last year, the word “integrity” haunted me. If I say I’m a Christian and yet I’m not working on my relationship with Jesus Christ, am I living with integrity? In an effort to grow in my faith, and inspired by the Muslim faith tradition, I decided I would dedicate myself to praying five times a day throughout all of January.

I cried during that first prayer on that first day because I felt ashamed of myself. I repeated “I’m sorry” over and over. For some reason, I thought that God was upset with me, like he might be asking, “Why haven’t you spent more time with me over the last few years?” If you asked me to picture him at that moment, I’d describe a man standing over me with his arms crossed, a disapproving look on his face.

The lead pastor at the church I attend put me at ease a few days into my experiment when I met with him to discuss some things. I told him about the experiment, and he said, “God is always thrilled when we want to spend more time with him. It brings joy to God’s heart.”

Suddenly, the image of God that I had from that first prayer changed, and I was reminded of the parable of the Prodigal Son. I pictured God with his arms outstretched, wanting to embrace me, happy to have me back.

Did you see it?  The movement from regret to gratitude?

The prodigal son is full of regret.

The son said to his father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

The father’s response?

“My son who was dead is alive again.   He was lost and now is found.”  So they began to celebrate.”

If those 9 lepers felt regret about not thanking Jesus and went and found him saying:  “Sorry Man.  You healed us.  We were jerks.  Forgive us.”  I’m sure that Jesus would give them a hug and say:  Rise and Go.  Your faith has made you whole.

Take a moment, and try to think of a moment in your life that you regret.  I’ll give you some time.

Do you have that moment?  If you’re like me, there’s probably lots of them.  Take a moment and share your feelings with God.

And when you’re done, imagine getting a hug.  Rise and go:  Your faith has made you whole.

“So why do you take some parts of the Bible literally and not others? Why Matthew and not Leviticus?”

I was having a fascinating conversation with a friend recently, and we started talking about chemical weapons and Syria and how the world reacts.

At one point in the conversation, I said to him, “I just can’t get around the fact that we are supposed to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us and bless those who curse us and that those of us who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

“Did Jesus ACTUALLY say those things?”

“Yeah.  These ones I’m sure he did.”

“So why do you take some parts literally and not others?  Why Matthew and not Leviticus?”

We all pick and choose our favourite texts, and ignore the ones we don’t like.  (Note: If anybody tells you that they don’t pick and choose, or that it’s pretty straight forward, tell them to pucker up and give you a holy kiss, just like the Bible instructs them to).

So how do we pick and choose?  Why some verses and not others?  How do we read our Bibles?

People write entire books about this and devote entire university courses to this.  So naturally, I’m going to do incredible injustice to all those professors and theologians and share a rough understanding of how I read Scripture and let it shape my life.

  1. My first “lens” is Jesus – My Bible is not flat.  Not every verse gets equal weight.  Imagine taking a book, opening it up in the middle, and putting it spine side up (so it forms a bit of a pointy, hilly, thing).   The spine is the birth, life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Those are the most important parts.  I read everything before the gospels as leading up to Jesus, and everything after the gospels as a result of the gospels.  If I truly believe that Jesus is God incarnate sent to the save the world, taking him fairly serious would probably be a pretty good start.
  2. My second “lens” is to treat Scripture not as a building block, but as an anchor point (think of a boat attached to a dock).  I have five anchors in my life.
    1. Scripture
    2. Reason
    3. Tradition
    4. Experience
    5. Community

Our theology, worldviews, ethics, morals and every day decisions starts with Scripture, but gets filtered through reason, tradition, experience and our faith communities.  This eliminates much of the need to greet each other with holy kisses, keep slaves, or cut off our right hand if it causes us to sin.

Are these the most perfect, air-tight lenses on how to read Scripture?  No.  But they provide a pretty solid framework.

Will we still disagree?  Yes.  But as long as Jesus is the centre, I think we’re on the right track.