Rob Bell on Hell

See the video: http://vimeo.com/20272585

This is probably worth a view; its' causing quite a stir related to his book to be released at the end of March: Love Wins. Who, exactly is in hell? Has Rob Bell gone universalist? Would that be the end of the world if he did?


Non-Cooperation With Evil

To our most bitter opponents we say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.
-- MLK


Why Group?

A new guy joined us for group last night, and perhaps in light of that (but a great exercise either way) Jack offered each of us the opportunity to express our expectations for small group. I was surprised how clear and defined my own expectations are, and surprised again how selfish my list sounded – but I think it’s a good list. Here's it is:

1. Authenticity. I don’t want to waste time pretending to be something I am not, or hearing you do likewise. Group is a sacred place where we determine to be honest, including our fears, difficulties, and failures.

2. Confidentiality. Authenticity doesn’t happen without a reassurance of safety. It’s hard enough to risk rejection in the group by letting you know my crap, I certainly don’t want it shared outside the group.

3. No advice. I enjoy and learn from the advice that sometimes will surface in group, but that’s not why I come. I simply need to be heard an accepted. My true challenges have little to do with needing guidance. I pretty much know what I need to do. More often, I simply need to be honest with myself, and honesty in group helps me do that.

4. Presence. The thing I really come to group for is to be with the guys. When there is a good exchange of ideas and I am challenged (as actually happens at every group), I consider that a bonus. The most significant thing for me is simply the time spent with people who know me well, and whom I know well, and where there is mutual concern.

5. Change. If I leave group with more knowledge, that’s nice, but what I really want and need at the end of the day is to be different for the time spent. Positive life change is my litmus test for time well spent.

What’s your list?


What's Next?

I’ve been wondering about the relative value of assuming the existence of an afterlife. Really. I think it might frequently get in the way of things. For those not religiously disposed, that probably sounds like a non-statement. For those who are, (and who hold typical convictions found in my circles) that might sound a bit heretical. Let me narrow my scope to what I am familiar with: that flavor of Christianity often found in suburban America. I wonder if we wouldn’t be more inclined to make the most of our time now in this life, if we had no strong convictions about the great beyond.

Assume for a moment that this temporal life is it. I don’t think you need to dismiss faith to engage the exercise. I’m told that there’s good evidence that belief in an afterlife was only a late developing, unclear, and disputed concept for the people of Israel before Jesus. But there’s no doubt Israel was a people guided by faith in God and faithfulness to God.

Do we really need the promise of eternal bliss to find God faithful? Are we so tied to heavenly reward that we would walk away from God without it? I think not. I think if it was removed from our vocabulary as if never conceived of, there would remain a strong (God given) impulse to honor and serve him -- and to do it by honoring and serving the people around us.

To me there is something liberating about this. I can’t fully identify why, except perhaps that the idea of heaven is usually tied to its opposite. And there's an idea I honestly find hard to accept without difficulty. Yes, I know the arguments for the necessity of hell. I think I know them pretty well. And I struggle with it.

Maybe we think too little of ourselves. Maybe we think too little of God. If he is real, he deserves our faithfulness to him regardless.



Things I have learned about myself recently:

I am much less inclined than I used to be to see others who believe differently as outsiders, or to define “my” group as those who express their beliefs in a way very similar to me. At the same time, I seem to identify strongly with people who may have belief expressions very different from my own, but have core motivations/intentions very similar to mine, such as a Christ-like adherent of another faith.

I really don’t think I value defined teacher/disciple relationships as much as I value collaborative/partnership relationships where teaching and learning are taking place. Likewise, I think the most appropriate understanding of Jesus' call to "make disciples" is to facilitate others becoming students of Jesus.

The relationships I value the most are those where enough similarity exists to facilitate understanding, but enough difference exists to both keep me challenged and where I believe I have something to contribute.

Seems to me to be a good place to be, but I wonder if some in my own faith community would be comfortable with all this. I certainly hope so, but I suspect the reaction would be mixed.



Today my sister in law referred to me as an "older man".  I got quite a kick out of feigning offence, but she was on to me.  I'm pretty predictable.  This made me think about maturity -- mostly, how I lack it.  I was running this same thought through my noggin earlier this week.  It's funny that every generation seems to see itself as having "arrived".  Along the lines of, "Can you believe they thought that way back then?  Sure is a good thing our culture grew out of that!"  This shows up in science, religion, medicine, social understanding, politics, etc.  I wonder how advanced Civil War surgeons thought their techniques were in the late 1800's compared to the middle ages.  We assume that we have most everything arranged properly, even though history proves consistent progress and growth.  If we are part of that continuum (exclude the "imminent rapture" folks), then we certainly should admit that 100 years from now (or 20 ... or 10), folks will look back on our own outdated and backward way of understanding the world in 2010 and remark, "Can you believe they thought that way back then?  Sure is a good thing our culture grew out of that!"

I know some will argue that the older ways of understanding the world were better.  Perhaps there is some truth in this, but on the whole, I don't think that dialing the clock back significantly raises understanding.  People made strong and (to them) compelling arguments that slavery in the US was justified.  Folks with emotional or brain-chemical imbalance were committed to prisons.  Suspected witches were burned.

This all makes me think that we should approach our current levels of knowledge and understanding with generous amounts of humility.  It could all be outdated before we assume room temperature.


Watching over "The Truth"

I recently read about two studies that contain similar observations about why we believe (or not) what we do.  

The first details the typical thinking patterns of conspiracy believers.  The study asserts that "... each of [the believer's] convictions about secret plots serves as evidence for other conspiracy beliefs, bypassing any need for confirming evidence."  These beliefs critically depend on "selective skepticism": conspiracy believers don't trust information from the government (or other suspect sources), but interestingly, they will accept any source that supports their existing views.  Conspiracy believers also frequently interact with like-minded people, suggesting that “conspiracy thinkers constitute a community of believers.”

These folks typically believe that they are uniquely able to find “the truth,” and convey it to others in the hope of impacting the larger community.  They are also more likely than usual to jump to conclusions based on limited evidence.  “It seems likely that conspiratorial beliefs serve a similar psychological function to superstitious, paranormal and, more controversially, religious beliefs, as they help some people to gain a sense of control over [the] unpredictable."
The second discusses the ways that we maintain false beliefs.  The researchers discovered very strong support for the concept of "motivated reasoning," a now-familiar idea in which people unconsciously seek out information that confirms what they already think, instead of rationally examining evidence that confirms or disproves a particular belief.  The study concludes that "... for the most part people completely ignore contrary information."

The fact is that we become significantly and emotionally attached to our beliefs: our very sense of self and ground for morality is entwined with them, and we have the ability to generate elaborate rationalizations for them, easily appealing to unjustified evidence.

I believe a relevant question for us to examine is to what extent we exclude ourselves and our own beliefs from these conclusions.  It seems to me that religious beliefs could easily be inserted into this discussion -- in fact, the writers of these studies assume that relevance.  Are those of us with spiritual convictions really immune to the trap of believing what compels us from fear of the larger unpredictable world?  Are we willing to objectively examine what we hold true?  I'm increasingly convinced that this is exactly what is required for us to move forward as a local and global community, and no small number are engaged in precisely that.


If you believe in hell ...

... you should at least care that people could end up there ...

It makes me wonder if believers who do hold that hell exists aren't often rather uncaring.  Selfish?



Last night’s small group meeting made me realize in a fresh way the powerful influence that our background story has on our lives. For good or ill, it seems we either continually try to avoid something painful from our past, or we continually try to retain or restore something from our past that we valued. This gets pretty complex, since most of us are oblivious to the force of these influences, but any good therapist (at least those I’ve encountered) will confirm that awareness of this dynamic can bring a certain amount of power over it. The danger is when that desire is completely under the radar; we can become almost defenseless against its force, unable to resist.

For me, and due to various reasons, I know that my striving consists of seeking approval. Often to a very unhealthy degree. Many of us have this general inclination, but I will even allow the people closest to me to experience disadvantage or even hurt because I don’t want to upset the equilibrium of approval from others who aren't so close. Funny that I care more about approval from those at a distance. I suppose we tend to take more liberties with people who cannot easily detach from us.

All this makes me think that I need to be more conscious of it. I developed my own game about this recently: after a typical conversation with a friend or acquaintance, I ask myself if I would have responded and acted the same way if everyone I knew was actually present, watching the conversation. This does seem to work. It’s an uncomfortable exercise for me, but it makes things much more obvious.

What are you running from that you don’t want to experience again? What are you clinging to that you can’t stand to loose?


How a Christian view of grace can mess with relationships

I am convinced that there is an insulating effect that comes from doing favors for people, especially favors for those who are "organizationally subordinate" to us. If I am in a decision-making position (at work, in my family, in the community, etc.) and I believe that deferral to someone else's preferences is a matter of "grace", it is easy for me to avoid contending with the fact that my outlook or understanding might be wrong. If I'm wrong, will I see it? Or will I be numbed to this possibility by the self-soothing fog of my own gracious favors?

There is another habit that believers can often fall into without seeing the dark side: love of neighbor. I mean more specifically, that particular Christian perspective that we are to "love" the people around us, even though we know we don't like them. You know, those who are less-than-acceptable morally, or perhaps those who are bit too loud, less responsible, or of another fashion sense.  Good grief.  How about we decide to like these people instead?  But you object that we can't force ourselves to like someone.  I reply that we can, if we step back several paces and realize that "they" are a lot more like us than the safety tape that separates us would indicate.

I suppose I just think we need to give more space to the opinions and  preferences of other people, and not build elaborate barriers from our religious traditions that keep us separate and superior.  We are neither.


Remembering Larry Bensky

I didn't know Larry, but I know the roads he used to ride.  Butler Road in North Baltimore County is a favorite for cyclists: a connector between safer and scenic roads.  The problem is that the road is both narrow and straight, and motorists tend to travel too fast.  Around 4:30 last Tuesday afternoon, Larry was riding west along Butler with a friend, enjoying the early spring air, safely on the shoulder, and was struck from behind along with Joel, his riding partner.  Larry died at the scene.  Joel continues surgery to try to re-attach his calf, among other things -- a rough road ahead.

Larry leaves behind a wife and 2 beautiful young daughters.  I certainly don't know why this happened, but it didn't need to.  Hundreds of cyclists in the area felt the same, and when we realized that long-pending legislation in MD that could have made a difference in Larry's situation was about to be blocked for a fifth year in a row in the MD legislature, cyclists mobilized.  About 65 enthusiasts rode to from Baltimore and other areas to Annapolis to mark the day, honor our fallen comrade, and ask the MD legislature to lay down an obligation for motorists to give cyclists reasonable room when passing.  Not complicated.

From what I understand, the legislation passed, and now only waits the Governor's signature.  A few other bike-friendly acts have been introduced in this session.  I don't know their status, but I hope the outcome is favorable.

Cyclists should respect the rules of the road, as well as motorists.  We certainly do not own the road either.  Motorists must offer more caution to others who rightfully share the road.  Any cyclists can tell you that too many drivers are either unaware of, or unconcerned about their own driving habits.  Delegate John Cardin has championed legislative efforts relevant to this, and it seems to have finally paid off.  Because of Larry.

Larry's widow, Tami spoke to the group and media with sensitivity and conviction.  So impressive.  Our hearts went out to her, and we were all overwhelmed that she could speak as she did only a week after the horrible event.  I suspect that when the "cause-energy" wanes for her, things will get much more difficult.  I hope she knows there is a community of thousands who care for her and her girls.  Most of us have suffered close calls, which is part of our motivation to stand with her - but honestly, we are all part of the same community, and we should all give a damn about what happens next door as well as across the globe.  There are times, though, when our attention is drawn to people close at hand, and we need to respond in a loving and human way.  I hope and pray that's what today boils down to: love for members of our community, and softened hearts for those even further away.

God bless you, Tami.


Re: A Man and His Bike

To the BRCC crew -


I'm honestly very touched by the fact that you all passed the hat for me and my cycling habit. I shopped Steamrollers (my first choice) when I originally planed on buying a fixie, and just couldn't spring for it. The bike is absolutely beautiful, and I appreciate everyone's generosity and the friendships that this group makes possible. It's really quite a unique group - I mean "unique" in a "underdog that makes it to the playoffs" sort of way, not a "special medication required" sort of way. Except for Rob. He's both.

Fyi, I did the math, and realized one can sell these rebuilt bike at a handsome profit. I hatched a plan with Eric to pull some sort of risk-and-crash stunt every few months. I'll be able to swap out donated bikes for a Dogma 60.1 Di2 in about 4 or 5 years ...

In all seriousness, I appreciate the well-wishes, and the thought and effort that went into this. You guys are the best!