Monday, September 17, 2007

Get Quoted in a Book!

I am currently trying to write a book about hell. It will discuss Christian views about hell (both ancient and modern), Bible verses that talk about hell (there isn't all that many), effects that belief in hell have on people, and Universalist theory. What's missing currently is the opinions that "regular people" (as in, those that don't write books, preach sermons or run crazy websites) have about hell. I invite anyone interested to tell me what they think of hell. Non-Christian opinions are especially welcome. I will certainly consider all opinons posted. If my "book" ever becomes an actual book (and I hope it will) you might even get quoted!

The questions below are ones you might want to adress. They are not meant to be restrictive, just ideas to get you started.

What is hell like?

Who gets sent to hell?

What is the purpose of hell?

Is hell escapable?

What does hell tell us about the nature of God?

Or anything else of interest/value. thanks in advance!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Quick Update

Holy crap, it's been a crazy week. I had 3 job interviews in 2 days, one of which was conducted by people with an extremely warped sense of humor (I never thought I'd be asked if I was a member of the KKK, or had my sex life discuesed in an interview.) I got 2 job offers, cancelled my 4th interview (which would have meant a 5 hour drive) and am now employed! My employers don't like being linked to people's personal web pages, so I won't, but if you call or email me I will gladly discuss details.

To relax afterwards, I went river fishing. The North Saskatchewan has been shockingly prolific lately, and I landed a couple of massive sauger (a relative of the walleye) and a big pike who jammed himself under a log, and when I got him out jumped so high into the air he knocked himself out. After a week of pure stress, life is good again

I am now off to Winnipeg to get to know my fiance's extended family, and get lots of presents. I will be back in a week.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

"Survival" Camping

First of all, a big thanks to everyone who commented on my previous post... some kinda record, for me at least. (If you haven't taken the quiz yet feel free to do so.)

So, I recently spent 4 days and 3 nights living by myself in the White Goat wilderness, armed only with a set of clothes, a sleeping bag, a lighter, a fishing rod (with spinners) and a butcher knife. (No tent, food, and so on.) I am now much thinner, and much wiser. Here are the things I learned...

Physical fitness is largely mental. "Only a total princess couldn't hike up this hill" is great motivation for going fast.

Getting eaten by bears is not a big problem. Getting cold, is. It IS possible to stand ankle-deep water in an ice-cold mountain lake, and still have your feet warmer than your hands.

It is, in fact, possible to a make a natural shelter that keeps rain out. I burrowed under the roots of fallen tree, leaned some logs against it, and filled the gaps with moss. Shockingly, it kept out rain. Un-shockingly, it was less comfortable than my matress.

It is also possible to fix a pair of crotch-torn shorts using a stick for a needle, fishing-line for thread, and a knife make the holes.

Fishing is much more interesting when you it is your only source of food. Especially for cutthroat trout, which seem to have two moods, "sit at bottom of lake doing nothing" and "insanely hungry." At one point, I got 6 fish on 6 casts. The first 3 came off the hook at my feet. I wanted to cry.

Contrary to popular opinion, fish does NOT taste better when covered with ashes instead of batter.

You can use a butcher knife for just about anything, from cleaning fish, to chopping wood, to stirring the fire, to sleeping with it in your hand because everyone else has made you paranoid about bears.

People suck. Especially the ones who disturbed my solitude by douseing my dry kindling in water and used my knife-chopped wood to make friggin' coffee. (Without malice on their part, but still...)

Gideon Bible pages are too thin to be good fire-starters. Now don't get worked up, guys, I only used the "introduction", not the actual pages of scripture... sheesh.

Human beings in Canada are wusses. This includes myself. I can't believe I missed salt, my bed, and the internet. Imagine, there are still people today who have to hunt/gather their daily food, and who go every day knowing a predator could eat them. It used to blow my mind that people in, say, Africa, could just sit around all day without dying of boredom. I think I could grow used to it, given time.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

the Nature of God

You there. Yes you! Person reading this blog! Please take my little multiple-choice quiz, by posting a comment with your answers. Feel free to justify your answers and make up your own. If you are not a Christian, you can always use option d) I don't believe in God/Christianity/the Bible.

Question 1:
Mel is gay and Christian. This makes him
a) a fraud, not a real Christian. Extra wrath for him!
b) a man struggling with the sin of homosexuality. We should pray for his healing.
c) a courageous man who happens to interpret complex scriptures differently. Welcome to our church!

Question 2: 1 Samuel 15:3... "Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants.". God's motive is requesting the death of the infants is
a) Anger. The sin of the Amalekites is so vile that it infects even their babies who become guilty by association.
b) Practicality. A nation at war, like Isreal, can not reasonably adopt orphaned babies.
c) Mercy. He is welcoming the kids into heaven, rather then forcing them to grow up as desised orphans.

Question 3: The doors of hell are
a) Red hot, gleaming with the eternal wrath of God.
b) Locked from the inside, because men remain too stubborn to repent and enter heaven.
c) the gateway to salvation, after the sinner has repented and been purified.

Question 4: You are watching "The 40 year old Virgin" with Jesus. He is
a) Angry. Promisquity and cursing offends His Holy Nature.
b) Sad. Why must you waste your time on such drivel that pollutes your mind?
c) Amused. That Steve Carell is funny!

Question 5: The doctrine of double predestination is(
a) True and a reflection of God's Perfect Soveriegnty.
b) Biblically supportable, but morally troublesome.
c) A horrible travesty and a slur on the Love of God.

Question 6: Is AIDS God's punishment for sexual sin?
a) yes
b) no, because it also infects innocent children
c) no, because God would not cause such suffering

Question 7: At a Hindu worship ceremony, miraculous events occur. This shows that
a) the Hindus are worshipping demon-gods, which have evil powers
b) God's goodness transcends the religion of human beings
c) we should all convert to Hinduism.

Question 8: Those that never hear about Jesus are
a) all going to hell (see Romans 2)
b) saved if they respond to what little they know about God (see Romans 2)
c) as much God's beloved children as Christians

Question 9: On Judgement Day, God's response to this quiz will be:
a) Anger at such blasphemy. Less rewards for Filth-Man.
b) Sorrow at such confusion. It's all so clear in the Bible!
c) Pride at Filth-Man's honesty. Searching for truth gets you extra rewards!

I'm not a very good Christian. After 24 years at it, I still haven't figured out the fundamental spiritual question: what is the nature of God?

A very wise person once asked me "why must God be good?" I had no answer. There is no logial reason I can think of why a god couldn't be vindictive, or hateful, or capricious, or use the Earth as His personal playground. Skeptics love to argue that the God of the Bible portrays all these characteristics. (I was dicussing "Bible controversies" with a friend the other day. I mentioned eternal security, women's roles in the church, and predestination. He suggested "the Old Testament".)

I, for one, am not equipped to discuss the "goodness" of God. It is too big a topic for me, too broad, and too philosophically complex (is whatever God does "good" by definition)? But I do feel prepared to ask "does God act the way we would expect a good human being to act"? Jesus certainly did. How about now?

When C.S. Lewis choose to portray God (or Jesus, I guess) as a Lion in the Narnia books, he made a brilliant choice. Lions are awesome. Who doesn't love lions? They are beautiful, majestic, and flat-out cool. Just let one look at you though. Just let it stare at you with its dead golden eyes. If that's too much for you, look away, and notice that it's forearms and chest are massive, a perfect wrestler's build for taking down prey much bigger than you. Much as you admire the lion from a distance, get within range and you become nothing but meat, and both of you now it.

Just like lions, God scares me. I'm fascinated with, but afraid of God. I can't help wondering if the fundementalists are right, if God is just waiting to pour out his wrath and anger on a sinful, fallen world, a world that he created and is going to destroy. And even if He does, does that make Him wrong? I don't feel qualified to judge God's morality, but I do need to determine my own response. Should I worship an angry God so that He doesn't smite me? Or should I worship a gentle God, out of gratefulness that He won't? Such questions...

I think I need to decide what I believe about God's nature before I read the Bible. The Bible is just too confusing otherwise. God punishes and God rewards, God smites and God forgives, God predestines Pharoh to destruction, God calls all people to himself, and Filth-man keeps scratching his head. Wonder how we got so many denominations? Try reading the Bible... not just the parts you like, but all of it. Most Christians, I think, have a basic idea of God in their head. This idea helps them understand difficult passages ("well, we know God is loving, so there was a good reason for smiting that person") and make sense of the general mess of scripture.

I went to the Christian bookstore the other day, hoping to find a book on hell reccomended to me by my pastor. The store had one shelf of unhelpful theology books, compared to about 8 shelves of romance. (A Christian romance must be the most boring book ever written. "He looked into her eyes, and felt weak with the desire to begin a Harris-approved courtship, cumulating suprisingly quickly in a demure, alcohol-free wedding.") So it's up to you, my friends/bored people surfing the internet. Answer the questions above. Then tell me what you think about the nature of God.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Matthew 5: 21-26

I recently got to preach in church on the above-mentioned verses. While I am not taking up blogging regularly again, I decided to post the text to my sermon below. Please remember that this is a “written version” of a spoken sermon. Written language is different from natural spoken language, so if you think the writing is sub-par, I already know that. If you disagree with the content, on the other hand, I’d like to hear it.

Matthew 5: 21-26 (NIV)

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

These words are spoken by Jesus as part of the “sermon on the mount”, I find this a difficult section to speak on, because it is both hard to understand and hard to accept.. Doing research into various understandings of what is going on, I found two main trains of thought on interpreting this verse, which overlap somewhat. I would like to go both. Neither are easy. One challenges our conventional theology, the other our lifestyle.

The 1st school of thought says that this passage is primarily about the wages of sin and final judgement by God. Let’s go through the verses again.

“You have heard it said.. “you shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgement.”
Jesus’ audience had had “heard it said” in the ten Commandments, given by God. The punishment for non-compliance was the death penalty. “Though shalt not murder” is also prominent in every legal code I have ever heard of. Every society forbids murder, and reserves the harshest penalties for those who do. Nothing new so far.

“But I say to you, whoever is angry with his will be subject to judgement.”
“Brother” in this case refers not simply to siblings, but to all believers, or even all of mankind. This verse was apparently controversial ever since Jesus spoke it; some ancient manuscripts add the clause “angry without cause” while others do not.

“Whoever says to his brother “raca” will be subject to the Sanhedrin.” Raca is an a 1st-century insult we will discuss later. The Sanhedrin was the high Jewish counsel, a sort of Supreme Court that could sentence persons to death by stoning.

“Whoever says to his brother “you fool” shall be in danger of the fire of hell…”

Let us re-read… “Whoever says to his brother “YOU FOOL” shall be in danger of the FIRE OF HELL!” Which person on earth has never called another human being a fool, an idiot, stupid, or a moron? I certainly have- particularly my biological brothers. Does this mean that we are all doomed and will be sent to hell when we die? What is Jesus getting at?

According to many interpretations, Jesus is preaching about the severity of sin. He’s saying in affect: “You think that you’re okay in the eyes of God as long as you don’t’ kill anyone? I tell you that even if you just insult anyone, you are sinful and excluded from God’s presence”… In this interpretation, Jesus’ speech is the first part to a textbook “turn or burn” gospel message. The message is that all human beings are doomed. Curiously, however, Jesus does not follow this up with good news about salvation, or mention that he is the cure for sin. Instead, he starts giving examples of everyday life. Let is skip ahead to the “prison” story.

This story can be seen as a mini-parable on final judgement.

"Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. (That is, get stop sinning) Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, (the judge being God) and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny."

The prison is, of course, hell, so if we don’t repent we will go to hell for ever and ever… except the story doesn’t say that. The prisoner is freed once he “pays the last penny”. This is one of the genuine “problem verses” for evangelicals. Catholics who believe in purgatory (that is, a place of painful cleansing before one is pure enough to enter heaven) love to point to this verse. So are Universalists that believe that hell is temporary and, at some point, escapable.

I would love to write more about the nature of hell, purgatory, and the second-chance doctrine. However, I’m not sure that’s what these verses are about at all. There’s a whole other school of thought applied to this verse… the school of thought that says this verse is less about the things God will do to us if we sin, than about the things we are doing to ourselves, more about the consequences then the punishment of sin.

As Evangelicals, we are often accused of taking the Bible too literally. However, Rob Bell suggests (paraphrased) maybe we aren’t taking this verse literally enough. Rob, and others, start by pointing out that when Jesus talks about “Hell” the word he used in the original translations was “Gehenna”. Gehenna was named after the Valley of Hinnom (Gen Hinnom) a garbage dump (that is, an actual physical place) outside the city of Jerusalem. Gehenna had actual “eternal” flames, as the trash was being burned 24/7. The valley of Hinnom is mentioned several times in the Old Testament, as a place where Canaanites and backsliding Israelites sacrificed Children to Molech. This made it the place where the most grievous of sins were committed (the murder of the innocent in worship to a false God) and gave Gehenna the kind of negative, haunted connotation we might today associate with Auschwitz.

At some point, “Gehenna” became a symbol for punishment after death. There is some debate as to whether Jesus’ listeners would have associated Gehenna as after-life punishment, or as the literal place. There is also debate about the nature of Gehenna- some see it as place of temporary purification (purgatory, if you will) and others as eternal damnation.

What’s certain is that Gehenna was a disgusting place with connotations of evil The bodies of the criminals were sometimes burned there. This state of “Gehenna”, thinks Rob Bell, is less a symbol of God’s wrath than of our own condition if we persist in hatred. We don’t have to wait until judgment day; we can create hell right here on earth, and we do.

What Jesus also does, Philip Yancey notes, is link the visible sin of murder with less obvious, internalized (or “heart” sins.. He does the same thing with lust, linking it to adultery, in Matt 27: “You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.‘ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart”.

Anger (perhaps indulged anger or unrighteous anger i is a sin. Insulting others is a sin. Opinions vary widely as to what “Raca” meant… it may have meant “idiot” or “empty-headed”, been a sexual slur like “pansy”, or the sound of spitting at someone (ra-KAA!)… However, it is clear that it “Raca” is a harsh insult. “Fool” comes from the Greek word “moros”, from which we get the English “moron”. The word may also have meant “godless” or “heathen”. To a society (1st century Jews) which defined themselves largely by their religion and their relationship with God, calling someone godless- “without God” was surely a terrible insult..

I’m not sure the exact meaning of the words is important (Jesus uses the word “moros” himself in other speeches) as much as the attitude of the speaker… This is an attitude of contempt for others, superiority over others, and the desire to make another person feel inferior, or worthless, or evil. Such thoughts, and desires, according to Jesus, are in themselves impure. They are a sort of internal “murder” of other people and, left unchecked, the can escalate to actual murder. 1 John 3: 11-15 says:

This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother's were righteous. Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.

I’ve recently returned from South Africa, where I spent time working in one of the most violent places on earth, the Cape Flats in South Africa. The country of South Africa is a perfect illustration of the truth in this passage.

In most studies on the subject, SA ranks top 3 in all violent crime categories: murder, rape, assault, armed robbery, and so on. There are many reasons for this. The gap between the haves and have-nots is often cites, as well as incompetent policing, and an abundance of firearms. However, even though South Africa has a vastly superior infrastructure, and a wealthier populace, than other South African countries, it is much more violent. The key difference, I think, lies in the “heart sins” of South Africa, the terrible feelings human beings have for each other. The legacy of Apartheid (legalized segregation of the races, in which blacks were near-slaves without the right to vote) have left the various races in SA deeply divided, and (understandably) extremely bitter towards each other. What sparks a lot of the violence is exactly what Jesus describes… anger, spite, and hatred.

I should point out here that, due to the legacy of Apartheid, South Africans see everything in terms of race. (When South Africans tell stories, they generally list the races of the characters: “this black girl was talking to a white guy…”) To talk about South Africa is to talk about race. I know race is a sensitive subject, so I ask that readers not be offended and remember that in Canada, we are privileged to live in a society where we can afford to be color-blind and see past skin color. In South Africa, having the wrong skin color in the wrong place can get you killed.

One of my black roommates when I lived in South Africa was nearly assaulted by some partiers at my home because of his skin color. My grandparents know many white farmers killed by Zulus. The tension in South Africa is not just between black and whites but between various culture and it goes right back towards Jesus’ words.

A society where one culture can look down on another as inferior leads to a violent society. The rich harbor distrust and contempt for the poor. The poor have loathing and anger towards the rich. Men objectify women to the degree that they will force sex upon them and give them HIV. Human beings who have failed to heed Jesus words have created “Gehenna” here on earth, a place where people are treated like trash, discarded as worthless, and innocent children are sacrificed to AIDS, crime and gangsterism.

According to a recent Reader’s Digest poll, 98% of South Africans believe in “God” of some sort. 90% identify themselves as Christians, from wide variety of denominations.. Many South Africans of all races attend church regularly. This country has an incredibly high proportion of both “Christians” and violent criminals. Clearly, something is wrong, and I think again of Jesus’ words…

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”

Offering one’s gift at the alter refers to worship of God. In 1st century Jewish culture (as well as in 21st century evangelical culture) worship of God is one of the most noble of activities. However, according to Jesus, worship itself is less important than reconciliation with others. what good is it to do religious duties, if there is strife, anger and hatred towards your brother?” Note that Jesus doesn’t limit this to our own anger. He doesn’t say “if your brother is angry at you, and it is clearly your fault, go an apologize”. He just says “if your brother has something against you”… warranted or not, there is a problem and it must be solved. If there is strife, if there are conflict, or anger, or hatred it is our job to fix it. This takes priority even over worship. South Africa is good at worship, but poor at the “weightier matters of the law”.

As a side note, this “substance before style” approach to religion, which emphasizes our duty to our fellow man before religious ceremonies, can be found throughout the Bible. A couple of examples:

Isaiah 53: 6-7
"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?

Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”

Matthew 23: 23-24, Jesus speaking again.
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”

The advice in Matthew 5:25-26, can also be taken completely literally, without allusions to hell. Why go to court with another person? Try to settle differences peacefully. If you go to court, you might lose. In Jesus day, if you got sued, and couldn’t pay, you went to prison and your family had to pay off your debts,. Jesus makes the point that strife, no matter who is at fault, leads to suffering. So fix problems.

In South Africa, I got the chance to see a prison from the inside, doing both evangelism and skills teaching in prisons. Pollsmoor Prison, at least, could well be described as hell on earth. Freedom and food are limited, and disobedience is harshly punished. The cells are terribly overcrowded, with 50 prisoners packed into a 20-person cell. It is too hot in the summer, so prisoners bash out the windows, and they are then rained on all winter. . Prison is largely run by the “numbers” gangs, violent prison gangs that keep the population under control, provided the guards don’t interfere with their activities. Without adequate supervision from guards, newcomers “initiated” into gangs by one of two ways… stab a guard or be subject to gang rape. Fights are common, and insubordination is severely punished.

Curiously, prisoners don’t seem to realize what a “Gehenna” they are in. Almost everyone re-offends. They are so poor, and their communities are so violent, that many actually prefer prison. When they do their time, they go out and commit violent crimes again. In the outside world they are so utterly despised, their communities so broken, that that their preferred “family” is the violent gang that has sodomized them. This is how far anger, contempt, and hatred go.

In Canada, we live in a law-abiding country with enviable politeness, racial tolerance and lack of crime. Does this passage have nothing significant to say to us? Absolutely not… In fact, Jesus’ message is that sinning towards your neighbour is not limited to actually killing him.

South Africa is a lawless society. People get away with acting on the evil in their hearts, In our society, a better justice system- and a society less tolerant of violence and overt violence- keep these behaviours in checks. “You shall not murder”- we all get that, and we all agree with it. However, Jesus reminds us, actual murder is not the only problem. How many of us nurture anger towards others? How many of us insult others, or look down on others? I’ve never met a person that doesn’t. We may not commit crimes, we may not openly insult other races but if we harbour the thoughts in our hearts, we are also guilty.

During my time in South Africa, I feel I was wronged by two different Christian people I will continue to believe so to my dying day, but I can’t deny the affect this has had on me. I showed anger… I was furious, as my family and fiancĂ© can attest to.
The experience has made me more cynical towards missions, towards other Christians, towards whole other cultures, and made me focus on the negative qualities of others while ignoring the positive. It has harmed good causes, to which I might otherwise have donated money. Even on a small scale, hard feelings cause harmful consequences.

What are out own “heart” sins? Whom do we trivialize, dehumanize, insult or treat like crap? For whom do we create their own personal “Gehenna” here on earth? Those of other denominations or religions? (I have an aunt who was thrown out of her congregation for being baptized as an adult. Those that sin in more obvious ways than we do? (Yancey remarks that he used to be a racist. Now he looks down on racists instead, treating them with the same contempt he once had for blacks.) Homosexuals? Native Americans? How about the ugly, the overweight, the unintelligent? These are generally considered acceptable targets for ridicule in our society (the Homer Simpsons and Peter Griffins of the world, as it were). No one I know of can claim that these verses to not apply to them.

If the problem is hatred, the answer (according to Jesus) is reconciliation. He commands us to “be reconciled to your brother” in verse 24 and to “agree with him” in verse 25. As
Jesus says in one of the most famous passages of Scripture: Matt 5: 43-45 (NKJV)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”

Reconciliation is hard. It’s complex, not easy. Even the end-goals are sometimes vague. Should I continue to donate money to persons who may misuse it? Should I show my non-racism? I don't know all the answers. Not even close. Waht I do know is that the questions are vital and need to be asked. Reconciliaton needs to happen.

I have spent much of this sermon using South Africa as a model of what has gone wrong. Of course, this is not the whole story; I almost feel guilty using an entire country (of which I am, after all, a citizen) as a bad example. I feel it only fair to finish my sermon with some inspiring examples of reconciliation from South Africa.

In 1994 the first all-race elections were held in South Africa. Many observers feared civil war. Afrikaners threatened to create their own “Volkstaad” (people’s republic) and while apartheid-era extremists drew up plans to exterminate all blacks. Even among black communities, tensions between Zulus and Xhosas especially, were high and often became violent. The IFP (Zulu dominated) and ANC (Xhosa dominated) supporters wages bloody turf wars.

Two Nobel Prize winners- Nelson Mandela and F.W. DeKlerk stepped into the mess to made a difference. DeKlerk, the last White president of South Africa, repealed his government’s racist laws, released Mandela from prison and helped institute the free votes.

When Nelson Mandela was elected to the presidency (as leader of the ANC, which won a majority) he insisted that he wanted reconciliation, not revenge, with White South Africans despite past injustices. He did not take away the property or rights of white persons, but welcomed that as full citizens into the new South Africa.

Remarkably, the ANC established the established the Truth and Reconciliation commission,. Wikipedia says “The mandate of the commission was to bear witness to, record and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, reparation and rehabilitation.” Apartheid-era human rights abusers were offered the chance to repent of their crimes and be forgiven by the new government. The TRC was headed by Nobel Prize Winner and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Reconciliation between races and cultural groups can also be seen at the individual level. Among younger South Africans, especially in the cosmopolitan cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg blacks, whites, Indians and coloreds form a group of best friends. I know a white entrepreneur who runs a wrestling club at a loss for hundreds of (primarily black and colored) kids as a ministry. Although still high, tensions between races are notably diminished from 10 years ago, and many of the younger generation are eager to be reconciled.

Nelson Mandela deserves much of the credit for this. He was imprisoned, and often tortured, for much of his life. He himself was an inmate of Pollsmoor prison. If anyone had a right to be angry, vengeful and condescending, it was Mr. Mandela.

I’m not sure if mr. Mandela is a Christian- certainly he is not an evangelical. However, he too, has grasped the significance of Jesus’ words. With Every reason to be hateful, Mandela choose reconciliation. I’d like to close with a statement from Mandela’s book “Long Walk to Freedom”.

"I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man's freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness... The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity."

That sound suspiciously like Jesus’ message. Jesus came, I think, to liberate us, to free us from the evil that is in our own hearts. Some day, we believe, this process will be complete, but it starts now. It starts with conscious awareness that the evil thoughts we have are real, harmful and dangerous. It starts with our desire to reconcile with each other. So I ask each reader: what heart sins do YOU have? And how can you go about the business of reconciliation?

Blog posts on related subjects:

Racial politics in South Africa:

South African crime from a spiritual perspective:

Various posts on South African problems: (This was before I had a title function, so you'll have to look for an interesting one)

Gehenna and the nature of hell. 6th post from the top, entitles "more hell".

The following sources helped me to prepare for my sermon:

Bell, Chip., If Looks Could Kill.

Bell, Rob. Sermon on hell.

The Bible: quotes from the NIV except where otherwise indicated.

Bruce, FF. The Hard Sayings of Jesus.

Hoke, David J. The Heart of Murder.

Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom.

Reader’s Digest, South African version. Survey on Religion on South Afrca.

Trinity study center online: The Sermon on the Mount.

Wikipedia: Gehenna, Nelson Mandela, Purgatory, Sermon on the Mount, South Africa Crime Stats, Truth and Reconcilation Comission.
Yancey, Philip. Soul Survivor, The Jesus I never knew, What’s so Amazing About Grace.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Great Finale

My life has been eventful since coming back from South Africa. In terms of ascending importance...

1) I caught two huge jackfish at coal lake. Nutritious, delicious, and waaayyy too many teeth
2) I went to the rib fesitval in Ottawa. BRING ME A DELICOUS MEEEAAAATTTT!!
3) I am now engaged to the lovely Kathryn Lochhead! We will be married on December 28, 2007 in Edmonton.
Kathryn says: "You didn't even write "I am happy!" Why should I write anything? It will sound cheesy! And I hate that picture take it off!"
This blog will now go into hibernation, until I think of a reason to start posting again, which may be soon or never. For everyone who read it, thanks and hope to keep in touch by less internet-geeky means. For those of you who are internet geeks, South Africa pictures may be up at some point on Facebook.
PS We are very, very happy

Getting on with life,


Sunday, June 17, 2007

A Waste of Life?

This will be my 2nd last post. I plan to write one more, after some potentially life changing (in a positive way) events have sorted themselves out, but that'll be it... I'm now back in Edmonton for the forseeable future, which is just not exciting enough (canoeing in thunderstorms notwithstanding) to warrant writing stuff people might want to read. Perhaps some day I'll have more adventures, and then I'll start filth-man up again.

I've been struggling to come to a conclusion about what, if anything, I learned in South Africa that is applicable to everyday life. (Something deep or spiritual, as opposed to factual.) And it wasn't until I was listening to a sermon by Rob Bell on my computer (thanks Jacob from where he alluded to something that Jesus said, something I found chillingly applicable...

Jesus tells a story... (Luke 12)
The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, "What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops." Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry." But God said to him, "You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?" This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.

Unfortuately for my attempts to understand theology, this story does NOT explain how exactly God speaks to the man, nor comments on this man's salvation or lack thereof... what it does do, however, is offer a chilling perspective on THIS life. The "rich man" seems to be doing exactly what he should be, after all... "Gee, I'm sucessful!Let me invest capital now, in order to keep all of my gains and secure a happy, comfortable life for myself!" What a loser, didn't he realise... no wait, isn't that exactly what must of US want out of life? Sucess, enjoyment, lack of hardship?

Then, of course, the man dies. The story doesn't say (as Rob suggests) if God kills the man because of his greed, or why he dies, but either way, what good has the stuff done him? He who dies with the most toys does not win, it seems, unless he is also "rich towards God."

I read a chapter in a book once, where the writer argued that Christians should not have ANY material goods beyond the basic food, clothing, and shelter (and perhaps a car to drive the rest of their stuff to the food bank.) He argued that it it, in fact, immoral for Christ's followers to be rich. I was immediately and loudly offended- like HELL poor people are getting my fishing rod and box of DVD's- but the thought continues to haunt me. I'm not too worried about God's wrath at my wealth (though perhaps I should be... "how terrible for you rich", says Jesus, and we're all richer than most everyone in Jesus' day) but I wonder what would happen if all Christians did, indeed, give all their unnecessary posessions away. Think of the suffering that we could remove if we worked and gained income for the sole purspose of using it to help others!

"Thankfully" for a Westernized (read filthy, filthy rich to those in Mitchell's Plain or Vijayawada or most of the planet) person who rather likes his posessions, the Bible isn't that straightforward... the famous "heroes of faith" passage in Hebrews lists several rich people among God's favorites. God often rewards people with stuff in the Old Testament. Think of Joseph's advice to Pharoh in Genesis 41: "And now let Pharaoh look for a discerning and wise man and put him in charge of the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh appoint commissioners over the land to take a fifth of the harvest of Egypt during the seven years of abundance. They should collect all the food of these good years that are coming and store up the grain under the authority of Pharaoh, to be kept in the cities for food." Maybe the Rich Man in Jesus' story was a fan of Joseph?

I think Jesus had another message in mind for this story, beyond the perils of having too much stuff (a message, by the way, that Jesus harps on repeatedly.) I think he's worried about a wasted life. In my vast pile of books I brought to South Africa to help me survive the boring flights, I had one called "Don't Waste Your Life" by John Piper. Unfortunately, the book was itself boring, and could be summed up very completely with the title. However, that doesn't mean he wasn't onto something. Jesus, like Piper, reminded his listeners that we all die. Someday. Hopefully not soon. Hopefully not painfully. But someday. (Sucks, don't it?)

In South Africa, that reality was never far from me. I wish I could say that I lived in constant threat of death and survived only due to my cunning, because that would be really cool, but it would not be true. I did not. I did, however, live in a country with close to the highest homocide rate in the world, and with road fatalities not far behind. A place where you a red light becomes a stop sign after dark so you don' that to sit there vulnerably, where there are shark-watchers on the beaches and many of the people you see are already infected with HIV. (Of course, HIV+ people are no threat whatsover to your health unless you choose to have sex with them, but they do remind you that life is terminal.)

I was robbed at knife-point and had a security guard point a shotgun at me. I captured thrashing, jabbing wildlife with a man whose head is scarred from a giraffe-kick. I worked in a prison filled with murderers without security present. Please don't misunderstand.. I was careful, and relatively safe, for most of the time, but the awareness that "if this goes wrong it could kill you" was never far away. In much of South Africa, you can sense the tension; it never really leaves. I imagine a person living in Hanover Park feels much like an Impala in Kruger; they must be on guard ALL the time. People look over their shoulders when they go for walks, and they lock their car 3 times just to be sure. It sucks.

In Edmonton, things aren't nearly so dangerous (thankfully), but the same principle applies, the principle I think Jesus was getting at. "Some time your life will end. What will you have to show for it?" Stuff, unless it's used to fulfil a larger purpose, is useless in and of itself. So what counts? Memories, perhaps? Historic Achievements? Good deeds? Relationships? Religious stuff?

Jesus and I are hardly the only ones to realize that people don't live forever here on earth. (After all, it's fairly obvious.) The Warrior Achillies in the movie "Troy" says it this way to a Trojan Priestess: "I'll tell you a secret. Something they don't teach you in your temple. The Gods envy us. They envy us because we're mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we're doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again. " Achilles hopes to attain immortality through his deeds, which will long outlive him.

As a Christian, who believes that we DO get to live forever, that we become more beautiful, more lovely, more happy after we die, things are a little bit brighter, but the pressure doesn't go away. We only have one life. What will we do with it? If the story Jesus tells is any indication, God is not too impressed with the "good job, nice house, fun times" American-dream life, and neither should we be. In fact, I'm not too sure how we should spend our life, though Achillies may be onto something... we want to aim high. Killing people with broadswords may not be the calling for most of us (though, for some Biblical characters, it was!). Instead why not try to solve world hunger, cure cancer, slow, put an end to all wars, clean up India, make Mitchell's Plain safe, fix Zimbabwe (ok, so this one might be stretching it) and maybe even do some evangelism? Or at least put a dent in the aforementioned problems? What is to stop us... Lack of comfort? after seeing Indian children sleep happily on concrete, you realize that comfort is relative. Danger? The most certain reality of all is that we will die some day anyway. Poverty? Jesus, at least, thinks that "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God."

I'll be the first to admit that I'm afraid of death. Very afraid... though I believe in an afterlife, I haven't actually seen it. I'm not too worried about the propect of God being mad at me and restricting my heavenly rewards or sending me to hell, though perhaps I should be. (If there is ONE thing worth worrying about, this one might be it, and it's not something people seem to consider outside of fundementalist churches.) I am, however, worried- deeply worried- about leading an insignificant life. A boring, regular, pointless life in which I have a bit of fun, make a bit of money, get old and fat and accomplish nothing of value at all. Wouldn't that suck?

I'm reminded again of my favorite movie, Gladiator. If you haven't seen it, do so now... , I'm constantly struck by the moral questions asked by the action thriller, and by the intelligent portrayal of an afterlife SO glaringly absent in most of Hollywood. (Oh, and a man fights tigers... very cool!) In the opening schene Maximus, the hero, gives a great motivational speech before his troops go into battle.

"Hold the line! Stay with me! If you find yourself alone, riding in the green fields with the sun on your face, do not be troubled. For you are in Elysium (heaven), and you're already dead! Brothers, what we do in life... echoes in eternity."

I love the two thoughts Maximum passes on to his men before they risk their lives. One is that what they do is important. Not just here, not just now.. but what we do in life, echoes in Eternity! The second is that, if that even if they die, so what?. If the worst that can happen is death, and death is the gateway to endless joy, what reason can their be to fear? May as well go out in a blaze of glory, trying to do something meaningful. William Wallace's line in Braveheart, my other favorite movie, comes to mind... "Aye, fight and you may die, run, and you'll live... at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin' to trade ALL the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take... OUR FREEDOM!"

As a Christian uncomfortable with the concept of hell (as extensively explored in these posts and I feel obliged to point out that many religions, including mine, do not promise that everyone will have a pleasant afterlife. I don't feel ready to tell other people where they are or are not going when they die, and what they should do to change it... However, many, many people are ready to do just that. I would, however point out that making one's peace with God, getting a so-called ticket to heaven, is really important... but it doesn't end there. As Maximus says, what we do in life, echoes in Eternity... If we accept this as true, this makes the important things even more crucial, and the insignificant things even more pointless.

Philip Yancey lists several characterists he would expect from a society with no belief in an afterlife. (Obsession with youth, concealment of the old and the sick, research into extending life, emphasis on physical safety, avoiding discussing death whenever possible, a hedonistic life style where "we eat and drink, for tomorrow we die). He then points out that this mirrors OUR society. If we believe, really believe, that what we do in life echoes in eternity, that meaningful things really do last for ever and meaningless ones do us absolutely no good in the long run, what impact should this have on us? How should we live our lives?

I'm not sure I have the answers. Not sure at all. But I do feel, for once, that I'm asking the right questions.