Thursday, May 29, 2008

hell

There is an interesting set of theological reflections on “What to say about hell” in the latest Christian Century (June 3, 2008). Here is the article...

There is indeed an anemic tendency in the church to minimize hell or do away with it. We often don’t know what to do with it. The roots of hell lie deep in Scripture, so we cannot simply do away with it, much as we’d like to. Hell is also rooted deeply in human experience. If, as Paul Griffiths defines it, hell “is that despairing condition in which separation from God seems to be final and unending,” then hell is real for many people, and real, probably, for all people some of the time. There are many people for whom hell is a daily reality, for whom a lack of faith is unavoidable and excruciatingly painful. Sometimes, major depression is hell, a prison with no apparent exit.

It’s perhaps too easy for comfortable, First World Christians to doubt the existence of hell: it’s not so easy for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the oppressed. As John R. Franke implies in his reflections, Matthew 25:31-46 is a key text in understanding hell: those sent into the eternal fire are those who ignored the plight of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. Since God has taken the side of the oppressed and marginalized, when we do the opposite, are we not in danger of hell?

And, it it true that salvation loses its meaning and urgency if we aren’t saved from anything. If we are saved by the grace of God, through faith, through a trusting relationship with God through Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, then there must be the possibility of rejecting that relationship, of turning away from God instead of to God. That turning away is hell.

There is much to reflect on about hell in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle. At one point at the end of the world of Narnia, the Narnians are all moving toward Aslan (the Christ-figure of Narnia). As I remember it, if they approach Aslan with love and joy, they keep on coming into Paradise. If they turn away from Aslan in fear and loathing, they run off and are seen no more. It seems that we need the possibility of hell if faith is to be a genuine, uncoerced friendship with God.

One of the best reflections was a quote from William Stringfellow (quoted by editor John Buchanan): Jesus “descended into Hell. That is very cheerful news... There is nothing that I have known this side of Hell that is unfamiliar to Him. There is nothing known to me which I am wont to call Hell which He has not already known. Nor is there anything beyond these realms which, even though unknown to me, He does not know.” Jesus has descended into hell. There is no part of God’s creation, including hell, where the Savior has not been. When you are in the depths of despair, know that you are not alone: Christ has been there too, and God is with you there too. As Christ suffered death and hell, God suffered too. You are not alone in the depths. You are not abandoned. Your hope may be restored.


Yet, as theologian Robert Jenson once noted (in a class I attended), there is also a certain logic of Christian theology that tends toward universal salvation – even St. Paul concluded about his fellow Jews, “And so all Israel will be saved...” (Romans 11:26). There is a logic of salvation that is ever expansive. Paul shares the “hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). The Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ effects the salvation of not just those human souls who explicitly believe in Christ. God’s salvation is cosmic.

In the Christian Century, Martin Marty was perhaps the clearest about this. Those who relish the reality and everlasting nature of hell perhaps too much (for others, at least) also need to be aware of what they are affirming. Is God a cosmic torturer, punishing non-Christians with never ending water torture (euphemistically called ‘waterboarding,’ as if it were somehow anything other than drowning someone to the point of death over and over again), fire torture, beatings, and flaying alive for ever and ever? Is God the keeper of a cosmic, everlasting Abu Ghraib prison for billions of people? If Christ returned today, would 4 billion + people really get a one way ticket to everlasting torture, as many, more conservative Christians often believe? What does that say about God? I know: God is just as well as loving. But does that penalty actually fit the ‘crime’? Will the screams of torment in hell really make the joys of Heaven more sweet? Could you enjoy Paradise with God knowing that most people created in God’s image are in everlasting agony? Could God? Of course, hell is not understood by any of the theologians in the Christian Century in this tortured and torturing way – as it was described to me as a “Trailblazer Boy” at Bible camp.

A related question arises: Is there a part of God’s creation that will be eternally unredeemed? Does the possibility of reconciliation with God end with death? As Jurgen Moltmann noted, we must believe in hell, but it is not necessary to believe either that anyone is there now, or that anyone will be there forever. Will God ever give up on any of God’s creatures? Was it not 3rd century theologian Origen’s belief (hope?) that in the end even the devil – a fallen angel – will be saved? I think it was the rap singer Agape who once asked, “Would you be disappointed if everyone made it into Heaven?”

At least one of the theologians – Alyssa Pitstick – seems to have a clear “if-then,” conditional theology of salvation; as in, “if you have enough faith, keep God’s commandments, and desire Christ’s return, then you will be saved.” The problem with that perspective is that it does not comfort terrified consciences, and it puts the work of salvation on our shoulders. In her defense, Dr. Pitstick does include a quiet “by his grace” after the “if,” but it is more accurate to have a “because-therefore” theology of salvation: Because God so loves you, and because Jesus died for you, and because God raised him from the death, and because God’s Holy Spirit has been given to you in your baptism, therefore you have the gift of faith, the gift of a relationship with God, the gift of eternal life, even if you feel as if you do not believe, or obey, or desire Christ’s return enough. It is gift, all gift.

The reflections in the Christian Century end with a beautiful piece by Amy Laura Hall, who asks, “What if one of God’s own beloved may be so violated as to vitiate her own capacity to opt for God? What if the grinding prism of violence comes so to bear on a body as to render the mind incapable of receiving grace?” We indeed have a Savior who has suffered everything we have suffered, including being forsaken by God. We have a Lord who understands our struggles, our doubts, our inabilities to trust or believe. We have a God whose grace is bigger than all the evil that has been done to the hearts, minds, and bodies of God’s children. We have a Savior who will one day heal even the deepest pains and comfort all grieving, troubled hearts. Can anything separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord forever? No thing can.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Music and the Word

Here are my latest sermons (for the Sunday in between - Holy Trinity - we had a presentation from our JUMP team that went on a mission to Jamaica in January, so I did not preach):

2008-5-11 Pentecost A

2008-5-25 Proper 3A


I want to share some concert experiences of the past year, in reverse chronological order.

1. This past Friday, my whole family and I saw Lost and Found in concert in Pelican Rapids, MN. Now, if you do not know Lost and Found, you are missing out. It is a two person band, and they play the Speedwood style of music - think speed metal with an acoustic guitar and piano. It sounds strange, but their music really grows on you. Check out their website - www.speedwood.com

I cannot speak too highly of Lost and Found. Without too much hyperbole, they are perhaps the best theologian/songwriters since J.S. Bach. They distill a Lutheran theology of grace into high energy musical prayers or poems. My kids love them - we got to sit front row center. Their recent major albums - This, Something, Something Different, and Pronto - are destined to be classics. This was the fourth time I've seen them in concert, and they are a lot of fun to see live (at the Lutheran Youth Gathering in Atlanta in 2003, I and some of our church youth went to see them two nights in a row). They played in the Pelican Rapids High School gym, and how they interact with the crowd and improvise songs about their experience in each town and venue is amazing and hilarious. For example, the Pelican Rapids fight song lyrics were posted on the wall, and they worked out a Speedwood version of it.

Lost and Found is a small band in terms of fame - they are not selling out stadiums. They publish their own albums, and you can find them selling cd's and t-shirts with their manager after the show. But that also makes them extremely independent and approachable. Check out their concert schedule and find one near you.

2. My wife Mindy and I went to see Wilco in Fargo on May 1. They are simply amazing in concert. I was a fan of Uncle Tupelo from about 1992 (at the tail end of their short career), and have followed the music of Uncle Tupelo's children, Jay Farrar/Son Volt and Jeff Tweedy/Wilco, off and on since then. But, from bad timing and the busyness of life, this was the first time I've seen Wilco live. They played for almost three hours - coming back for three encores as the crowd went wild. Good songwriting, good musicianship, and tons of energy. Check them out at www.wilcoworld.net

3. Last summer, my family went on a road trip to Missouri to see my cousin John Schmalzbauer and his family. It was a wonderful trip. John is a sociologist of religion, with an interest (among others) in Ozark religion. He introduced us to his friends from the band Big Smith, a group of cousins who play Ozarks music with a fresh sound. They have some great albums, including a wonderful double album of children's music. We got to see them perform in an outdoor concert in Branson. Check them out at www.bigsmithband.com

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Spirit Moving, & a Prayer for the Imprisoned and Persecuted

Here are some of my recent sermons:

Particularly this past Sunday, Ascension Sunday, the excitement and enthusiasm was palpable in our congregation. Lots of people attended, with some new people in the pews. The music was wonderful, our small but enthusiastic choir sang beautifully. The Spirit is moving in our church. I believe growth in numbers will continue to be slow but steady, as we focus on growing closer to God and one another, as we grow in faith. I encourage you to read the sermon for last Sunday. We are beginning to build on our strengths of hospitality and loving relationships. Our children's and youth ministry is growing. We just held our final Wednesday after-school program yesterday - we flew kites in our church yard as an image of the Holy Spirit breathing/blowing in the world. One kite was passed from child to child for two hours without coming down (it was a challenge for me to bring it down at the end - we get a lot of wind up on the hill on which our church is built - you bet that image will make it into my Pentecost sermon!).
God bless you this day.


Additionally: Last week, I participated in the National Day of Prayer in our community - it was an interesting mix of people of faith with different perspectives, to say the least. But I am glad to have been a part of it. Here is my prayer as written:

Prayer for the Imprisoned and Persecuted

May 1, 2008

Eric Lemonholm


God of justice, Lord of mercy,

You care for the poor, the oppressed, the widows, the orphans, the aliens, the hungry, the imprisoned, the persecuted, the tortured.

Jesus was himself a victim of persecution, torture, and execution.

Jesus was himself a victim of ‘extraordinary rendition,’ as he was arrested by his own people and taken to the Roman authorities for interrogation, torture, and crucifixion. Jesus bears the scars of torture.

God, you stand with the imprisoned, persecuted and tortured. You suffer with them. You call us to pray for them and speak out for them.

There are Christians around the world right now who are suffering persecution and imprisonment for their faith in Jesus Christ. We pray for them. We lift them to you, and ask you to comfort and strengthen them in their suffering. We ask for freedom and release for them. Work through your people throughout the world to help free those imprisoned for your sake. Restore our nation’s tarnished record of the treatment of prisoners, so we can have the moral standing to call for just treatment of the imprisoned and persecuted around the world. Where we have tortured individuals, or exported individuals to be tortured by rogue nations, forgive our sin, and restore our moral sense to treat people how Jesus would treat people.


Lord God, the nation of Iraq is being rapidly de-Christianized, after a nearly 2000 year history of Christians living there. Their leaders are being murdered in the streets; many Christians have either been killed or fled the country. We ask your forgiveness for the actions of our nation that have led to this tragedy. We ask for justice for those who are persecuting and killing innocent people there.

Creator of all people, wherever anyone is persecuted or imprisoned unjustly, you are there with them. You suffer with them, as Jesus suffered for them. Bring peace, justice, and reconciliation to all people of any faith who are persecuted. Bring freedom to all who are imprisoned.

God, one out of very 100 adults in America is in prison – over 2 million Americans, 1 million of whom are in prison for non-violent crimes, about 400,00 of whom are incarcerated for non-violent drug crimes. Our rate of incarceration matches China’s, and is many times more than any other democratic country; we spend $60 billion per year on corrections. 21% of U.S. inmates have been sexually abused while incarcerated. Over 50% of released convicts return to prison within 3 years.i And yet, the incarcerated remain largely outside of our consciousness. Forgive us, O Lord, for our neglect and disregard for the prisoners in our midst. Remind us of Jesus’ command to visit and care for those in prison. Help us change our failing corrections system. Change the hearts of both prisoners and our society, so that lives can be changed, addictions overcome, the scars of abuse healed, destructive behavior patterns broken.

We pray this all in the name of the imprisoned, tortured, crucified, and risen One, Jesus the carpenter of Nazareth, our Lord and Savior. Amen.


iSource: Wikipedia.