Fun Facts of Lent, Day Forty-Three: Hell and Heaven

I don’t believe in Hell. There is a fundamental flaw I see in the theology of hell, because Jesus is supposed to be the only way to eternal life. Though horrific, eternal damnation is still a form of eternal life. Beyond that, it seems terribly human and not at all Divine to think that life is a pass/fail test, and a few wrong turns during the 70 years you’re on Earth can sentence you forever. There’s no grace in that, and radically unjustified grace is the foundation of so much of what Jesus taught.

Last time the subject came up in Sunday school, the kids posed the same question everyone asks: “What if someone says they’re sorry at the last minute?” They followed it up with the even better question: “What if they wait a minute too long?” In response I asked, “Do you think anything can ever be too late for God?” They didn’t think so, and agreed that you probably still had a chance to repent even after death. In fact, they thought that chance might remain there forever.

The closest approximation I’ve ever read to how I view God’s relationship to the afterlife is The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. In it, hell is a lot like the real world, except there are infinite resources to build. So when you don’t like your neighbors, you just move farther and farther away from them. There’s a bus that comes by often, and you are always allowed to ride. It takes you to a sort of middle ground between heaven and hell where things are wonderful and strange and dangerous. From there you have the option to move up into heaven. No tests, no punishments, you can just go. The thing is you can’t take any baggage with you, and people like their baggage. Baggage is everything they held so tight to on Earth. So they get back on the bus and go home. But the option is always there. God’s timeline is not our timeline.

Eternity is a strange idea, and a very inhuman one. It’s part of why I don’t really believe in Heaven either, at least not as commonly depicted. If the Twilight Zone taught us anything, it’s that a world where everything goes right isn’t paradise at all. Therefore if there is an afterlife, it must bear no resemblance to the life we live here on Earth. This is where my love of science runs into my faith. I have this theory that consciousness is a real thing that exists in the universe, just like any other form of matter. And like matter, it can change its state. Right now my consciousness is in the human state. It can do things like control a body and learn from its surroundings and write very long blog posts. But before it was in my body, it was in another state. Perhaps it will return to that state once it leaves my body. Perhaps it will just go into another human, or another animal, or get squished down into a virus (or maybe it has to split up to be a virus, I can’t be sure since I haven’t done any controlled trials). However I think it’s just as likely that it will take on a whole new form. Maybe it takes the form of background radiation in the universe. Maybe pieces of consciousness obey gravity and they pull together when they are freed from the human state. Maybe if enough of them come together they can spark life in a new place far from here. Maybe that’s how we got here in the first place.

The idea that after you die your essence will become a new form – a form that doesn’t remember itself or anything it ever did, a form that may not even realize it exists at all – might be a bit unnerving. But I don’t look at it that way. To me it sounds like a great and grand adventure, possibly one I’ve been on many times before. And as always my God, the God that is the very universe itself, will be there with me.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Forty-Two: The Surface of Last Scattering

I love science, and astronomy is my favorite of all. Astronomy is beautiful, captivating, awe-inspiring. I took an Astronomy class back in college, and I remember one day we were learning about the expanding universe and the history of the cosmos since the Big Bang. Everything in the universe is slowly moving away from everything else, like points drawn on the surface of an inflating balloon. When we look out into the distance, every single thing is running away. Astronomy is really the study of cosmic history. Because light is all we have to measure and light takes time to travel, everything we see has already happened. Even the sunshine on your face is a few minutes old.

Phases of the MoonWhen we look out into the past, we can only ever see as far as the time already elapsed. And when we look as far as we possibly can, we see this fuzzy wall from when photons were first combining into atoms. It’s as though there was a fog around us right after the Big Bang, and every day the universe inside the fog gets a little bigger. But the fog is always there, blocking our view. There is always that moment beyond that we can’t quite see. They call it the Surface of Last Scattering.

When I first learned about this, it sounded like a sermon. As humans we have this constant drive to think and grow, to always know more than we did before. There was a time when we couldn’t know anything more about space than the naked eye could teach us. We built telescopes and we could see more, but the atmosphere got in the way. So we went up into space and put telescopes on the other side. Now we can see so much more than we ever could, and there’s yet another wall we haven’t gotten over. There’s always something just out of reach.

For me, that is God.

That piece of knowledge you don’t have yet is God. That feeling that you know is right but can’t understand is God. If there is anything your human mind can’t understand, that thing is God. We say that ‘God is love’ and toss the thought aside like so many embroidered pillows. But consider for a moment that the feeling you can’t quite pin down, the one strong enough to push you to do something you never thought you would or could (for better and worse) – that’s God. God is the chemicals firing in your brain. God is the unified theory that reconciles General Relativity with Quantum Mechanics. It is everything that is currently beyond us, and it will be the next thing beyond us once these current mysteries are solved. God is the unknown. God is the mystery.

And for me, that’s something to believe in.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Forty-One: The Book of One Man’s Revelation

I’m not really into the Book of Revelation, and I’m not alone. It was not accepted into the Armenian Church until 1200. It has never been recognized by the Eastern Orthodox Church. Martin Luther proposed removing it from the Bible (along with Jude, James, and Hebrews). These four books are still listed last in the German-Language Luther Bible.

The New Testament did not come to us fully-formed. There were a lot of councils and arguments and conventions that got us where we are today. For example, there are only four gospels in the Bible, but many more exist. Did we make the right choices when we decided what was and was not the Word of God? We can never know. At the Council of Constantinople in 629 the book of Revelation was approved by a single vote.

It just doesn’t fit.

Revelation is one long dream sequence. While it pulls on lots of Biblical ideas and imagery, it doesn’t quote the Hebrew scriptures directly very much (certainly not in the way the rest of the New Testament does). Its depiction of Jesus is very different than the earthly one we see in the gospels. And there’s a lot of evidence that it isn’t supposed to be about the end times at all, but rather a commentary on the government that was in power at the time it was written.

There’s a certain beauty to the book for sure, and if it really was political commentary it’s brilliant. If all it ever did was inspire Prince to write a super sweet song, that certainly makes it worthwhile as a piece of art. But as prophecy? I just don’t buy it.

In Sunday School I had the kids make their own Bible bookshelf out of construction paper, and it was color-coded by writing type (history, gospels, letters, etc). The Book of Revelation was the same color as Psalms and the Song of Solomon: Poetry.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Forty: How Bishops Are Made

Every diocese will be a bit different, but I’d like to give you a basic idea of the process used to get a bishop in the Episcopal Church (based on my memory of the last time we got a new one).

It starts with a Search Committee. This committee goes out and finds a number of good candidates. These candidates would be priests who have felt the call to the episcopate, and may have already stood for election in other dioceses. There are pretty clear pros and cons when looking at priests from both within the electing diocese and from other dioceses. A local priest would already be familiar with the region and its needs. A newcomer would bring a fresh perspective and wouldn’t be beholden to existing relationships. The committee would also be looking for a diversity of candidates, choosing people that represent more than one gender, race, etc.

The search process is often rather secretive, mostly to keep gossip in check and prevent people from getting their hopes up. Once the candidates are announced, the diocese may choose a number of ways to get the word out about the nominees. The last time we had an election, all the candidates went on a “walkabout” through the diocese. Several congregations hosted days where the nominees came, spoke, and answered questions from whoever showed up to ask them.

While bishops are elected officials, politicking is understandably frowned upon. It still happens of course (sometimes people do it on your behalf whether you want them to or not), but in general people in the church are supposed to “stand for election” rather than “run for office.” So walkabouts and the like are necessary if the people are to learn about the potential bishops.

Finally, a special convention is called to vote. The diocese already meets for convention once a year, and the lay representatives at conventions come from every congregation in the diocese. All active clergy attend as well. Depending on your diocese’s canons, you may have others brought in to represent special interest groups, such as a Youth Presence. I honestly don’t remember how I ended up with a vote at the special election, but I have to think it was as one of these special representatives.

Our election was at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, and included a good deal of prayer before the vote. Because there tend to be six or seven candidates, there is never a clear winner on the first ballot. However frontrunners will quickly emerge, and after the second or third ballot the candidates with the fewest votes voluntarily drop out of the race. Eventually the number of options is small enough that one person receives a majority.

In the church we say that people enter positions of power “God willing and the people consenting.” While the bishop is democratically elected in practice, in spirit they are made by God. It’s God that calls someone to be a bishop, God that brings them to the diocese where their skills are needed, and God that moves the voters to decide. When you are sitting in the cathedral with your ballot in hand, you have to let the Holy Spirit guide your thoughts. You have to let go of who you like and what you want, let go of your assumptions and prejudices, and let your heart lead you to the right name.

Does it always work that way? Of course not. People are petty and foolish and really great at ignoring the Holy Spirit. But we try. And hopefully enough of us are doing it to get the correct person in office. I can’t remember how many ballots we went through last time, but it was at least four. It was a hard day. A couple of the candidates were from our own diocese, and it was difficult to see them drop out of the race. But in the end we had our bishop, and it certainly seems like we made a good choice.

For the very interesting and way sillier rules about making a Presiding Bishop (the highest office in the Episcopal Church), I invite you to check out my post from last summer when I blogged the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Thirty-Nine: A Holy Week Primer

Sunday – Jesus and His Bros Steal a Horse

Jesus sends two disciples ahead of him into Jerusalem to grab a ride. He says that if anyone asks why they are stealing a colt, just say, “The Lord needs it.” It totally works and Jesus rides into town like the grandmaster of the parade, with people throwing down their coats in front of him and singing.

Sunday (afternoon) – Jesus Totally Trashes the Place

The people of the city had set up a marketplace within the temple that pissed Jesus off to no end. He flipped the tables over, dumped money on the floor, and started chasing the animals around like a madman. He told them the temple should be a house of prayer, but they’d made it a den of thieves. When I told this story to my Sunday school class last year one of the boys was shocked for a moment, because when I said “Jesus flipped over a table” he thought I meant Jesus did an actual backflip over a table. I told him there was no Biblical evidence to support the idea, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

Monday – God Hates Figs

Jesus is hungry and sees a fig tree, but it’s not fig season so there is nothing but leaves on it. Jesus curses the tree and it dies instantly, marking the most petty use of divine powers since God destroyed Job’s life to win a bet.

Tuesday – Jesus Teaches

Jesus tells more parables and teachings, with a focus on end times, prophesy, and being prepared. The Pharisees make several attempts to trick Jesus into saying the wrong thing, but damned if he doesn’t have an answer for everything.

Wednesday – Anointing and Plotting

Jesus is anointed by the woman with the Alabaster jar. Meanwhile, the chief priests hatch a plot to arrest Jesus and get Judas in on it.

Thursday – Dinner with Me, Myself, and the Trinity

Jesus shares the Last Supper with his disciples, breaking the bread and passing the cup of wine. He’s making prophesies left and right, calling Judas out for his betrayal and telling Peter to stop being such a suck up because he’s totally going to chicken out when the going gets tough. Later, Jesus goes into the garden and prays, which is the weirdest thing for those of us who believe in the Holy Trinity because it’s basically a God arguing with itself. Also the disciples keeping guard fall asleep even though THEY ONLY HAD ONE JOB.

Friday (Early Morning) – I Told You So

Jesus is arrested and taken to the authorities. The male disciples start getting scared and hiding. People keep recognizing Peter and asking if he’s a friend of Jesus, and Peter’s all like, “Who me? Nah, you must be thinking of someone else” because it’s been nine whole hours since Jesus said this would happen and somehow Peter already forgot.

Friday (Day) – That Escalated Quickly

Jesus goes before a bunch of people for judgement – Pontius Pilate, King Herod (not the one from the nativity story, a different guy), and finally the crowd. It’s tricky because Jesus hasn’t exactly committed any crimes, and he must be guilty of something for the Romans to execute him. Eventually Pilate gives the crowd a choice: he’ll release Jesus or he’ll release a guy named Barabbas. The crowd chooses Barabbas, Jesus is crucified, and the female disciples weep at his feet.
Two things to keep in mind: Pilate’s wife straight up tells him not to kill Jesus because of a prophetic dream she’s had, but he seems to ignore this. Also, in Greek ‘bar’ means ‘son of’ and ‘abba’ means ‘father’, so the other guy’s name was literally “son of the father.” Interpret that as you will.

Saturday – Done Deal

The tomb is sealed and guards placed in front of it, out of fear that Jesus’s followers will come steal his body. But the followers are scared and in hiding, so no one’s going anywhere. If you really want to get a feel for the Holy Saturday vibe, I recommend listening to the entire Sigh No More album from Mumford & Sons. I do it every year.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Thirty-Seven: Religious Dress

I don’t belong to a denomination that engages in any kind of religious dress for lay people, and all our clerical and worship robes look the same regardless of gender. So on one level I’m not in a position to comment on religious dress at all. However when you are an openly religious person you are sometimes called upon to defend the actions of all religions. So perhaps this is one of those times.

The most common objection to religious dress is that it is oppressive to women, and in some cases this is true. As an outsider it seems to me that a full body covering (such as a niqab or burka) takes away a woman’s individuality and personhood, and makes it difficult for her to express herself in the public space. However the majority of muslim women do not wear full body coverings, and many don’t wear any kind of head covering at all. Burkas are a form of cultural oppression more than they are a religious one.

Additionally, we must remember that there are many forms of oppression. For example, a hijab doesn’t prevent a woman from doing daily activities or engaging with people in normal social settings. Christian women in the west don’t have to worry about wearing a hijab, but what do they have to do instead? They have to conform to societal expectations about women’s hair. Depending on your type of hair and the social circle you run in, a western female hairstyle can be considerably more restrictive, cumbersome, and expensive than a hijab. Therefore it is not that muslim women are especially oppressed by religious dress, it is simply that we have different ways of oppressing women in the west.

For me, the key question is: do both genders have equally restrictive rules? If you look at groups like Mennonites, the Amish, or Hasidic Jews you see strict codes for dress on both genders. Each has rules to follow. Each would stand out in a secular crowd. While the male and female clothing may be different, people rarely worry about the oppressive garments of Amish women.

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 8.48.09 PMWhat is more concerning to me is what happens in some conservative Christian and muslim communities: a dress code that allows men to look relatively “normal” in public, but puts a religious brand on women. The men can follow secular expectations and blend in very easily, while the women must wear their faith on their sleeve, and accept whatever consequences come with that. To me, this is a sign that some religious dress is less about God and more about men. And when I say men I don’t mean people. I mean men.

I’ve only engaged in a religious dress code once in my life. It was when I visited the infamous Westboro Baptist Church for their Sunday service. The women of the church dress in typical western clothes during the week, but during worship they cover their heads in accordance with the church’s interpretation of scripture. I knew this was their practice and I brought a scarf in my purse. No one told me to wear it, I did so voluntarily. When the service was over and I spoke with the parishioners, no one commented on my observance. I suppose because sometimes the people most concerned about religious dress are the ones not wearing it.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Thirty-Six: Seven Face-Slapping Facts About Santa Claus

  1. Saint Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra (in modern-day Turkey). He lived from 270-343, and died on December 6th (which is his feast day).
  2. Nicholas had a fairly normal upbringing and rise to religious occupation. He was the only son of wealthy Christian parents, observed canonical fasts from a young age, studied at a monastery, became ordained, and was eventually consecrated as a bishop.
  3. Many miracles have been attributed to St. Nicholas, giving him the nickname “Nikolaos the Wonderworker.” He is the patron saint of sailors, broadcasters, and pawnbrokers, among many others.
  4. There are a lot of stories about St. Nicholas, though many don’t appear until decades or centuries after his death and are less historical fact and more colorful lore. One has him resurrecting a trio of murdered clerks who were to be turned into meat pies by the wife of a homicidal butcher, which I only mention because it sounds like the inspiration for the old Sweeney Todd tales.
  5. One story that likely has some basis in reality is St. Nicholas finding out about a man who had three daughters, but no dowry for any of them. Without a dowry the girls would likely never marry and could be forced into prostitution. St. Nicholas secretly gave the man three purses of gold to serve as dowries. Some versions get a bit more fantastical with the details, the best one claiming Nicholas threw a bag into the window of the house for each girl the night before she came of age. The night of the final bag the father tried to see who the benefactor was, so Nicholas dropped it down the chimney instead. It fell into the girl’s stocking, which had been hung near the embers to dry.
  6. In 325 Nicholas attend the First Council of Nicaea, where he signed the Nicene Creed with the rest of the bishops. Prior to researching Nicholas, it never occurred to me that a church creed was something to be signed, like a Declaration of Independence.
  7. The hot-button issue at the council of Nicaea was Arianism, the most inside baseball thing I’ve blogged about so far. Arius and his supporters believed Christ was created by the Father, meaning he was separate from the Father, subordinate to the Father, and had a beginning in time. However the prevailing majority believed Christ was “begotten” by the Father from his own being, meaning they were still one and Christ had no beginning, just as the Father has no beginning. Legend has it that the debate got so heated that St. Nicholas punched Arius in the face.

Merry Christmas.


Fun Facts of Lent, Day Thirty-Five: The Gospel of Unfairness

In the Prodigal Son, a man wastes his father’s inheritance and is rewarded with a great feast upon his repentant return. This wouldn’t be so bad, expect his brother has been working dutifully for years and was never treated to such a feast. It isn’t fair.

In the story of the Laborers in the Vineyard, a landowner hires day laborers to work his field at the usual daily rate. Later that day he finds some more workers and hires them as well. He keeps doing this throughout the day, hiring the last group at 5PM. When it comes time to pay his workers, everyone gets the same amount of money. The ones who were there early grumble, but the landowner reminds them that they were paid exactly what they were promised, and he’s allowed to do whatever he wants with his money. Still, it isn’t fair.

The teachings of Jesus are full of this sort of thing. While some stories end with righteously even scales, others do not. These were always the hardest stories for me growing up. At the end of the Prodigal Son I wanted the father to say, “You’re right! I’ll tell you what, let’s throw a big party for you and your friends next week.” I didn’t mind the young son being forgiven, but I wanted the dutiful son to be rewarded. After all, he’s the one I identified with the most.

I think Jesus’s stories are sometimes unfair to remind us that God did not build a fair world. The scales will not always be even. Some people will get all the luck. Some people will face tragedy when they don’t deserve it. That’s just the way of things.

But wait, what about justice? Doesn’t Jesus talk about justice all the time?

He certainly does. For me, I think there’s a big difference between justice and fairness. Fairness happens to the individual, but justice is systemic. If your boss passes you over for a promotion you deserve, that’s unfair. If people with your skin color are consistently turned down for promotions, that’s injustice. Justice is something groups work for and groups benefit from. But fairness? Fairness is just luck and the weather.

It’s not easy to accept unfairness. The need for things to be fair is one of the first and most fundamental needs we have. If you’ve ever worked with school children you know there is no objection more important than, “but that’s not fair!”

Sorry kids. Jesus didn’t come to bring fairness. Grace is not fair. Love is not fair. The Kingdom of God, whatever it may be, is not a fair place. It can’t be, because this is not a fair universe and it wasn’t built by a fair God. Sometimes you’ll get the short end of the stick. Sometimes you’re the guy who showed up to work at dawn but still got the regular daily wage. It happens. Be grateful it happens. One day you may find yourself sauntering in at five o’clock, hoping the almighty landowner will be just a little unfair today.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Thirty-Four: Bible Translations

When I did my year of reading through the Bible, I spent a lot of time looking up translations. To give you an idea of how translations are judged, here are the top five I considered, along with a description of each from a First Presbyterian church website I referenced at the time:

English Standard Version (ESV), an “essentially new literal translation,” follows the tradition of the King James, American Standard Version, and Revised Standard Version. Published in 2001 by Crossway, it was developed by a translation team of more than 100 scholars, with the goal of being very accurate (word for word), and yet very readable. It has become quite popular, as it is more readable than other literal translations.

Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) is another new word-for-word translation that strives to be both literally accurate and readable. It is not as literal as the ESV or NASB, but is more so than the NIV. The Holman, published by Broadman & Holman in 2003, is the product of nearly 100 scholars.

New International Version (NIV), completed in 1978, was the product of 115 evangelical scholars. Within a decade it became the best-selling English version, a position it still holds! It combines contemporary, literary English with traditional biblical vocabulary. The NIV is copyrighted by the Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). NOTE: A major revision of the NIV was released in early 2011. While it only changes about 5% of the text of the last edition (1984), the changes are significant, and it almost reads like a new translation. This new revision also includes “gender-neutral” language when referring to people, similar to the NRSV (below).

New Living Translation (NLT), published in 1996, is the product of 90 Bible scholars from around the world, from various theological backgrounds and denominations. This is a very readable translation, while remaining more faithful to the original texts than the Living Bible (see above). Also published by Tyndale. An update was published in 2004.

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) – published in 1989 by the National Council of Churches, revises the Revised Standard Version of 1952. While following the literal tradition of the RSV, the NRSV eliminates much of the archaic language. One distinctive is the use of gender inclusive pronouns to replace male pronouns when the original writers meant both men and women. The NRSV does not change masculine pronouns referring to God, however.

I ended up going with NRSV, and I was happy with my choice. The key issue when looking at Bible translations is the relationship between the literal and the relatable. In theory you want something that gets you as close to a word-for-word translation as possible. But at the same time, you want a text that you can actually read and understand. Something that isn’t very literal doesn’t feel authentic, and something that isn’t very readable will be difficult to relate to.

In the middle of this you have instances where a literal translation becomes misleading when devoid of culture context. For example, in the story of Jesus turning water to wine, his mother Mary is the one who tells him they are out of wine at the wedding. Jesus responds, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” Most translations puts a footnote for this line to explain that in the original language, there is no negative connotation to the word ‘woman’ when used this way.

I like any translation that does away with archaic language when it can. The King James Bible may be sitting in a million motel nightstands, but nothing makes me feel more disconnected from God than prose use of the ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ pronouns. Speaking of King James, I’m also wary of any translation written with a political or denominational agenda, as King James most certainly was. One could argue that a version that purposely removes gendered language when the original text doesn’t specify gender also has an agenda, but I would argue that the real agenda was the one that made everything masculine in the first place.

I’ve done Bible study sessions where we read the same passage from multiple translations, and it’s amazing the differences you hear with even the smallest word changes. One version sounds inspiring while the other cautionary, one seems to honor a character that the other judges. Language is a tricky thing even when you start and finish in the same one. There will never be a perfect translation of the Bible. However there will always be a special place in my heart for any translation that lists Genesis 1:21 as “So God created the great sea monsters…”