Saturday 23 April 2011

Love Wins By Rob Bell

When the religious movers and shakers, the guys with the power and the influence, are vigorously driving people away from God with messages about how hateful and judgemental He is, what can you do about it? If you're Jesus, you walk around Galilee and Judea, teaching and healing in the name of God. If you're Rob Bell you write a book. Either way, the intent is to show that God really is a God of love and faithfulness. But in doing so, they also show up the haters as being far, far from God, and they will want their revenge.

The religious right in the US were out even before Love Wins was published - they didn't care what it said, they just wanted to attack Rob Bell. Here in the UK they're not so blatant, but I was interested to read in this month's Christianity magazine an article arguing that without Hell in the message churchgoers wouldn't be able to witness to Jesus. Curiously Greg Downes, the article's author, goes on to say that universalism - the idea that everybody will eventually be saved - only works if certain sections of Scripture are distorted or disregarded. The irony of this line is that Love Wins gives a lot of examples of Bible passages which Downes has to ignore or distort to dismiss the universalist position. Actually, I think Love Wins is probably the most overtly Scripture-based book that Bell has written.

Once you read the book, it is clear that Rob Bell is not proposing universalism anyway. What he is doing is pointing out that the Christian faith, the historical sweep of mainstream orthodox Christian thinking, is much broader than the bigots would have you think. Variants of universalism have been around a long time and are not necessarily anti-Biblical. The tension between salvation of a remnant and salvation of the whole world is a Scriptural tension: the range of passages is there and we have to accept that we are not God and we don't know everything. In the meantime we are called to be grace-full and loving in our differing interpretations.

For Bell it is God's love which has the last word, yet God's love allows the freedom to say 'no'. So he is not a universalist, but he does believe that God will give every chance He can for every person to respond by choosing life.

Bell's genius is that he writes very well and very clearly, in a modern open style which avoids the jargon and religious nonsense. He writes for anyone interested in living life better, free-er, deeper; for anyone who recognises a spiritual side to life, but needs more than the Pharisees with their blaring megaphones can offer.

This is very readable and interesting book: I don't agree with everything Bell says, but I do suggest you read it for yourself. I strongly recommend it.

Wednesday 6 April 2011

Hospices & Healing

Several weeks ago we had an excellent visiting preacher at Caversham Baptist. He preached about healing - which is easy to preach about badly, hard to preach well - and presented it in terms of the Kingdom of God breaking through into our 'ordinary' world. It is unpredictable and often unexpected, but when it does break in you can only wonder and give thanks.

He gave an example of someone he knew who has cancer, of a generally fairly treatable form, and was undergoing chemo. But there was a complication and she had been taken into hospital - very poorly indeed - where she just wasn't responding to treatment. Because she was so poorly they were about to stop the chemo, with long term consequences. The preacher and the young woman's mother prayed for her healing, then he left. A couple of days later, there she was, with her mother, walking into town, looking positively perky.

This story begs a lot of questions, of course. Was it God doing the healing, or was it the treatment at the hospital? If it was God, then why did she still have cancer, and still need the long course of chemo with no guarantee of the result at the end? Why didn't God just fix everything for her ... indeed why not fix it for everyone in the hospital? You could worry about the questions, or you could just look at this young woman who had been really unwell and now was out and about, living freely. And you could just thank God for that.

Some years ago, my wife worked at the Sue Ryder Hospice, out at Nettlebed. They've broadened their clientele a little since, but back then they mostly worked with people suffering from terminal illnesses. This gives a rather different view of what 'healing' means. In hospitals they tend to be mostly concerned with patching up your body and sending you home 'mended'. In hospices dealing with terminal care, the body isn't going to be patched: mending it isn't an option. Instead hospices look at enhanced quality of life, at relationships, at alleviating suffering: at the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the patient and of their friends and family. Many (although certainly not all) of the staff are Christians who regularly pray. But in most cases praying for longer lives for their patients isn't meaningful, instead they pray for healing and wholeness and peace, as each individual person comes to the end of their life.

At the church service, the preacher did one of those "raise your hand if you want to be prayed for" things. Fair enough, I guess, although I'm not a big fan. Then he did the slightly cringey, "I'm feeling there's someone here who has problems with their right arm" bit. In a congregation of some 80 people, ranging from 20's to 80's or 90's, there's bound to be someone with a sore arm. As it happened that included me, but to be honest I wasn't concerned about anyone praying for my arm. If we were going to have a time of prayer for the Kingdom of God to break through, I had a much higher priority.

Someone I know, and like, and respect, had spiralled completely out of control. Her life had crashed, she was in an utter mess, and it was not at all obvious how she could possibly get out in one piece. So I prayed for her, desperately. A day or two later, there was a development which looked like it was just going to make things worse. In practice, though, it moved her out of her pit of utter despair and into a place where she has the possibility of - slowly and painfully - rebuilding her life. She's not out of the woods by a long shot: sometimes it still looks as if she just wants to lose everything; but still she now has a chance at life and hope and rebuilding. As miracles go it might seem a bit low-key, and maybe it would have happened anyway, but that's no reason for me not to thank God for the change.