Formless and Void

I’ve linked to Rob Bell’s fabulously amazing video called “Everything is Spiritual” on this blog before, and I’m glad to do it again today, but things feel different now.  Bell is no longer the pastor of a congregation, having left Mars Hill Bible Church in 2012.  He is now living in California, doing spiritual weekend retreats, a Robcast, and hanging out with Oprah more than I’m comfortable with.  Like other pastors turned famous authors, Bell seems to have succumb to the pressure of his publishers to stay relevant and sales worthy, though I’ll readily admit he still has a strong voice and is certainly making a difference in the world.  I begrudge him partly because I’m jealous and partly because I can’t imagine being a priest outside of the context of a regular, ongoing community, but both of those are about me, not about Rob Bell.

Anyway, long preamble aside, this post isn’t about Rob Bell’s life choices, it is about the book of Genesis, which Bell opens up in a really neat way as his one hour and seventeen minute presentation/lecture/sermon begins in the video below.*

“The earth was formless and void… some translate it ‘wild and waste.'”

That’s where we find ourselves as the lessons open up on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, in a world that is formless and void; wild and waste.  The Spirit is hovering over the waters of chaos, and God is just about to act, simply by saying a word, the Word, but it hasn’t happened quite yet.  There is a tendency to rush to “let their be light.”  We want God to get to work fixing things so that they make sense to our human comprehension, but there is something quite beautiful about the Spirit of God hovering over the chaos.  I think, in times like these, in any times really, it would behoove us to pause, even if only for a moment and think about what it means that God was present, not just before it all, but in it all, especially in the mess and muck and wild and waste.  Think about what it means that God is present even in the chaos.

Just yesterday, an NAACP office was bombed in Colorado; a dozen people were killed in an orchestrated attack on a French satire newspaper; thousands of people were diagnosed with cancer; hundreds of women died in childbirth; and a child died of the totally preventable malaria every 30 seconds.  Some might say that the world is once again wild and waste, and they probably wouldn’t be wrong.  There is a tendency to rush toward the light, to ignore all the bad stuff and look only for God to speak a word, the Word, and make it all right, but there is something to be said, for all of us who live in the midst of chaos and void, for taking time to realize that God is present, even in the darkness.  Perhaps especially in the darkness.

In this Season of Epiphany, as we seek God in the light, I hope we’ll take just a moment to realize that many people live in deep darkness every day.  There is a (somewhat arrogant) tendency to insist that those people join us in the light, but as Christians, we have the opportunity to meet them in that darkness, knowing that God is there.  We aren’t called to stay there, mind you, for the Lord will speak a word, the Word, soon enough, and light will come and it will be good.  It might take a while for the spark to ignite.  In the meantime, we can join with the Spirit as one who is present, hovering over the chaos, offering a word of peace, of comfort, and most especially, of hope.

* You should totally take the time to watch it all. It is a beautiful example of Bell’s gifted storytelling and imaginative theology at work.

The Challenge of Trinity Sunday

Today marks the opening day of the Advanced Degrees Program at The School of Theology at Sewanee: The University of the South.  Classes run for three weeks on a  variety of topics, of which I’ll be taking two: “Ordination and the Eucharist” and “Preaching the Feasts.”  What that means for you is that you’ll probably be stuck reading blog posts that feature themes I’m learning about in my classes: It is the nature of the beast, I’m afraid.  Today, I’ll spare you my course work and instead highlight that the ADP schedule for both 2014 and 2015 are set up perfectly for me because the first weekend both years is Trinity Sunday, and I hate preaching Trinity Sunday.  Inevitably, I turn my sermon prep into the research for a theological treatise on the nature of the Trinity and then scrap it all because nobody wants to hear 45 minutes on the Trinity from the pulpit.  Of course, the problem with going the other way is that the preacher will usually end up in heresy.

The fact of the matter is that Trinity Sunday is hard to preach, but thankfully there are some great texts to preach from in Year A.  I’ll get to Matthew’s “but some doubted” later in the week, and instead focus my attention on trying to convince you to preach from Genesis this Sunday.

I think that exploring the Trinity in the context of the Creation Story is the most fun you can have on Trinity Sunday, Year A.  The role of God, the Word, and the Wind both before and during Creation make for an interesting study in how we relate to the Trinity to this day.  Do you find your relationship with God more through the Creator, the Creating, or the … (see the above video for various heretical ways to finish this statement).  What I’m getting at is that the Trinity has its thumbprint on creation itself, and the Genesis story invites us to take some time to carefully consider this fact.

In reality, however, you should watch Rob Bell’s video Everything is Spiritual and then preach Genesis 1 saying “hovu vah tovu” as often as possible.

Love Wins – a post about the word “the”

Jesus said to [Thomas], “I am the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14.6a)

Several years ago now, Rob Bell wrote a book entitled, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”  The book raised the ire of many an Evangelical leader because of Bell’s seemingly Universalist stance (In the midst of the brouhaha that lead up to the launch of his book, Bell denied that he was a universalist).  None other than leading Evangelical John Piper tweeted what was essentially the 21st century version of an anathema, excommunicating Bell for modern Evangelicalism and forcing him into the Oprah speaking circuit, effectively ruining him as a theologian (a post for another day, perhaps).  Many [former] Mainline Christians received Bell’s book with no more than a yawn, noting that this is really nothing we hadn’t heard before.

One can read the Bible cover to cover and reasonably conclude one one hand, that everyone is saved by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus or on the other, that God has elected only a select few to be saved and will send the rest of the reprobate to eternal damnation, or on any number of other hands, some gradation in between.  So, I don’t presume to speak the definitive word on this subject, mostly because anybody who argues that there is a final word on it is either a heretic, a liar, or insane.

I bring this matter up because Sunday’s Gospel lesson gives us the line I’ve quoted at the beginning of this post, with that pesky word “the” included three times.  Attempts have been made to soften the blow of Jesus’ claim by suggesting a translation that reads, “I am a way, a truth, and the life” or some such thing, but the Greek of John’s Gospel very clearly a definite article before each of the key words: way, truth, and life.  It is unambiguous that Jesus is making a very exclusive claim, which is clarified in the next sentence, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”  It seems clear, at least in this oft cited portion of John’s Gospel (cf John 12.32), that Jesus is making a very narrow claim about the salvation of God.

Let me suggest another reading, however.  What if Jesus’ exclusive claim that he is the only way to the Father is actually very inclusive.  Radically inclusive, even.  What if love really wins?  It seems clear in the Scriptures and in our Creeds that there will be a final judgment “of both the living and the dead.”  A final judgment infers that there will be a time between now and the end.  What if, in that interim period, the overwhelming love of God continues to work on the souls of those who have departed this life?  What if, the gift of grace continues to be offered again and again and again?  Sure, there is a chance that some will reject it, flat out, no matter what, but more likely, in my opinion, is the possibility that love will prevail; that in the end all will come within the reach of Christ’s saving embrace.  It won’t be forced or coerced, it’ll be nurtured and cajoled.  What if Jesus really is the only way to the Father and that ultimately everybody finds that way?  What if there is a hell, but in the end, it’s empty?

Like I said, I don’t have all the answers, and surely something in here has made me a heretic, but this is what comes to mind every time John 14.6 comes up.  Love can win, even with the word “the.”

formless and void

Some translate it “wild and waste.”  So says Rob Bell in his hour and seventeen minute homily entitled, “Everything is Spiritual.”  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  Now the earth was formless and void, wild and waste, and darkness covered the deep.  So begins the great creation story in Genesis 1, a lesson I referenced in my sermon for Holy Name Day and one that will be read this coming Sunday as we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus.

In light of the lesson from Acts, which I’ll deal with later in the week, and the Gospel which again brings us face to face with John the Baptist’s camel hair sport coat and organic diet, I’m struck by the “before” image of creation.





I’m particularly struck by this image’s relationship to me as a work in progress, still very much in need of form, still very much an empty space, still very much in need of some wrangling, still very much underutilized.  On some level, we are all formless and void, wild and waste.  On some level, God’s work of (re)creation is never ending.  For some reason, I’ll choose to go back to the chaos of the darkness and the deep, even though I know how good and pleasing light and life can be.  Weekly (or daily or hourly or by the minute) I choose to go back to before the beginning, but thankfully, God is still there, (re)creating the formless, wild void into something amazing and beautiful.

Something good.