Reflections on the Literary Works of Rob Bell and the Emergence of Light
I was in Washington DC one day, headed for my connection on the Metro, when I saw a woman sitting on one of those cement benches that line the wall of the subway. She wore a stylish purple-knit hat, with dangling gold earrings, and a sophisticated fleece jacket, all of which seemed to complement the hue of her delicate brown skin. But this was not what I noticed about her as I descended down into the subway, finally free of the crowded streets above. I saw a woman, alone, with her face in her hands. And as I walked by like everyone else, I stopped, turned around, and retraced the steps I had taken until I was kneeling by her side.
She didn’t look up at first. I asked the first question that came to my mind, “Are you hurt?” and she began to cry openly, her face buried in her hands. When she looked to her side and saw me there, her first question to me was, “Are you an American?” I was surprised by her question, but as she began to open up to me it became a bit clearer.
As it turned out, this young woman had just been sexually assaulted by a white man in the subway, and the white male police officer she told had done nothing about it.
As I sat there with her, my arm around her stooped shoulders, what she kept saying over and over again, as if it was the only thing she could think in her state of shock,
in that indescribably hopeless space of time where one grasps for that something inside of you that has so suddenly gone missing,
what she repeated over and over again was,
“It doesn’t matter what your name is, it doesn’t matter how many degrees you have, it doesn’t matter what you are trying to do. All they see is another black woman in America, and things have never changed.”
The next day I left DC to return to Olivet. On the way I read the book Sex God, by Rob Bell. Thinking about it then, and still, I wish I had had the words to tell her what reading this book cleared up for me. It wasn’t a touch or a grab that did physical harm, it had done something more: in violating this woman that man had stolen from her a piece of her humanity and she ached for it internally. Maybe someday he will realize he is breaking off pieces of his own humanity as well. I wish I could have expressed, could have conveyed to her, just how immeasurably valuable she is, to giver her back the humanity she so desperately ached for, that had been stolen. Because this, a touch, really is about that, our humanity, and her aching is the cry from a state of brokenness that was never meant to be. We can feel it in our veins, the weight of it pressing on our hearts, the tears that want so desperately to be shed for it but instead are held behind the hardened walls of fortification against a world so full of darkness and hell.
I think that is what I will remember most about my experience in DC for President Obama’s inauguration.
We don’t have to live like this.
I was sitting in Starbucks reading Velvet Elvis. I don’t remember the page. It was one of those- reading but your mind being somewhere else-types of reading, when suddenly something came to me. Some people might consider this sort of thing an epiphany. It was just a thought.
I skimmed the page again and found the thought wasn’t connected to the page’s subject matter, go figure. So I put down the book and worked to understand the idea that had just seemed to plant itself of its own accord into my mind.
What was the thought about? Bitterness. Forgiveness. What it really means to forgive someone and not walk around with bitterness against them.
I thought of people that had hurt me throughout my time at Olivet, how I would feel if they were standing in front of me at that moment. I realized the bitterness and the urge to defend myself that surfaced came from a belief that they had succeeded in taking something from me in some way; that these people held over me the faults of my own imperfect humanity. I was a hostage. And I wanted to be free.
I used to think that forgiveness had everything to do with the offender- the victim deciding to let the person that had wronged them off the leash and forget the whole thing. But I came to find that freedom from bitterness doesn’t come through forgetting.
I thought of the woman I had met in DC on my way through the subway. Remembering her immeasurable value, and the ache that she suffered, I had both of those too. And it was time I realized that the value God gave me, that he gave all of his people, can never be taken away. It must not, because every day we are as valuable to Christ as the day before and his love has no limits and no end.
And so the power that I gave my oppressors was just that, something that I gave them.
But they didn’t have it, not really. I only convinced myself that they did.
Now I’ve come to realize they don’t have power over that something that I need: my own humanity, my own confidence. That only I can give or surrender.
So its not that forgiving is giving in and forgetting, its reclaiming what is your own God-given gift of humanity within yourself, taking away their power of oppression and treating them like any other human being- with love. Because they are just like you too.
Forgiveness, in a way, is forgiving yourself, not the other person.
The funny thing is, a few chapters later Rob Bell did write about this in Velvet Elvis. Sometime I’ll have to read through the book again to find out where it is.
So here there is continually a move from bondage to freedom, because
We don’t have to live like that.
As a college student I feel pressure. Pressure to succeed in school. Pressure to be the perfect employee. Pressure to meet deadlines and read ages worth of books, and know the depths of the world’s culture and history, and participate in clubs to build up the unbeatable resume, and know what is going on in Washington DC and any region of conflict at any given moment. I feel pressure to be brilliant, so that someday I will accomplish glorious things, so that someday the world will change.
A lot of times you hear people talk about being suffocated under the pressure, and not being able to take it anymore so they break down or give up. Well, that’s not me. I’m just saying I feel the pressure.
Its understandable how people get to that point. Lucky for me I don’t have that type A of a personality. But it makes me tired, and at times causes me to draw back in order to keep people from seeing my less than first-rate knowledge, and at other times walk away all together because there is just too much to wrap my mind around. It’s too big. I’m too slow. That’s about it.
In Rob Bell’s video Everything is Spiritual, at one point he says something about us being human beings not human doings. This really resonated with something I’ve been thinking about for the past few weeks now.
I want to be successful and know everything so that I can best bring about and be the change I believe the world so desperately needs. I’m also very busy with working my way through school.
Over Christmas break one of my friends exclaimed, “Kristen you are so goal oriented.” She had been staying with my family for the past few days and saw me working for hours at a time on some application for after graduation. Before then I didn’t realize how right this statement was. If there is something important to me that I want to get done I don’t want to do anything else until it is finished. Here is the problem then: at school there are so many ideas, and subjects, and issues to dive into. There are so many readings, and papers, and tests. At school, and in life, there is no finished.
So in a way I never want to stop. But I always burn out. And maybe that’s a good thing.
The other week I was thinking how much I felt like a machine, like some robot could live my life more efficiently too. I was fed up with learning about problems and never doing anything to solve them. In the Bible the message is pretty clear that we are supposed to rest on the Sabbath day. But that’s not for me. I want to make a difference. I want to change the world. So I work, work, work, work.
And I wonder why my roommates always ask my permission to use the shower, or apologize for trivial things that seriously don’t need to be apologized for- these two things really get on my nerves. It was like we had just met and our relationship was walking on eggshells. I wanted them to calm down, layback, you know? Then I realized that in my conquering mentality I had never really taken the time to truly get to know my roommates. We were, after four months, still in the most basic level of friendship, because I hadn’t given them the opportunity to get to know me. Because I was busy, the way I liked it. So in the burnouts I’ve realized that if I’m not careful I can miss out on the wonderful people around me.
But that is kind of a tangent.
What I meant to say has more to do with this-
I don’t read the Bible, at least for right now. There is just too much there to get through, to wrestle with, and throw out to understand. So I’ve put it on the shelf. It’s been there for about nine months now. But we’ll get to that later.
I also don’t really go to church anymore. So it’s an odd time to suddenly feel the urge to take seriously the idea of it being important to keep the Sabbath holy and resting, whatever that means.
So like I was saying, the other week I was thinking about how much I felt like a machine. I was talking to a friend of mine about how I wanted to be more than a machine, reading and typing, and reading and typing. About how I wanted to get to know some of our friends better in the department, but their expectations and high regard of us as seniors kind of kept me from doing that, because if they really got to know me they would find out that I don’t know a lot more than they think I do. I found out my friend knew exactly what I was talking about (what a beautiful thing). Eventually I tossed up an idea that had occurred to me the day before, some escape from life defined by measurable productivity, some application of what it seemed Jesus would like people to do on his remembrance day: we live next door to the poorest community in all of Illinois, and we study politics and philosophy all the time longing for the day we can adequately employ all that we’ve been learning, and hope that it will be good enough. Well, why don’t we do some sort of service-Sunday, go out into the streets and just serve our community and nothing else- no church, no homework.
She loved the idea.
So the next Sunday we tried it out. I didn’t get on my computer all day. We drove around Kankakee and looked for ways to serve our community. Without giving all the details, nothing we tried worked out. But we had community with each other all day.
What a refreshing feeling to simply engage in the experience of being alive with a friend and not needing to produce anything of measurable value to the world.
Long story short, I think there is something more to this keeping the Sabbath day holy thing than I was previously aware of. And while it used to mean nothing to me but a waist of time, I’ve learned how precious it can truly be. I think I’ll try it again sometime. Because we are human beings, not human doings.
Because productivity does not define our worth as culture so often says it does,
We don’t have to live like that.
Last week I had a meeting with one of my professors here at ONU. The week before that I had run into him in passing and found what should have been a normal hello-and-goodbye conversation stirred a lot of questions I have been struggling with for some time, as well as a hope that maybe he could help me untangle the crippling mystery behind them. So we agreed to meet sometime next week…I don’t believe I gave him any warning as to what we were going to talk about, probably because I wasn’t sure myself.
After coming back from the Middle East, from places like Egypt and Israel-Palestine, I was undoubtedly influenced by the people I met and the ideas and history that I studied there. I came back in love, as well as internally disassembled. The question that has yet to leave me since is one that has been since the beginning, but is pulsing, burning, and bleeding today in my life as much as ever.
This began at the end for me. I was broken when I entered into the life of Jerusalem. I saw a people of subjugation, beautiful-giving-loving people, Arabs struggling to survive in the place that they call home because God’s chosen people of the Old Testament, the Jews, wanted the place to themselves. The weight of the burden they daily carried was comparable to that which drives so many people to flip the switch and turn out the lights, in hopes that the lack of their continued existence will do better good for the rest of the world than to continue on living. To look fondly upon the face of genocide, not out of hate, but out of a desire to make things better for somebody, anybody. Because when the world is a nightmare and there is no hope in sight, there is no beauty in rainbows or the laughter of children or fleeting moments of happiness. These are the pastimes of the ignorant in our nightmare where there is no clearly defined villain, and people are pawns in a chess game, where the one who can go out with the least amount of global repercussion should lay down their king so that in the morning when everyone else wakes up, and we are gone, there may be peace.
And so I began to wonder, if the world would just turn its eyes for a moment, and the genocide of the people I so loved and ached for would be done, and the morning would come for the world to continue on without us, would it be worth it?
I hated this question, but not as much as I hated the conflict.
In a way there was something romantic about the whole idea.
And then I remembered God.
In any other story this would generally be the point where things would start to get better. But in the Old Testament didn’t God tell the Jews to take Jerusalem for themselves? To conquer places like Jericho and leave no man, woman, or child alive? If God exclusively chose the people of Israel to be his, and promised them a land already inhabited by other people that they would need to destroy…doesn’t that make God some sort of divine instigator? And if I could look at these people suffering in Israel today and know this is wrong, how could God not agree? How could my morality be better than the God who in all ways is necessarily greater than anything we can possibly imagine?
Now for me the Bible is not something in the past, it is living and active today. The conflict in Jerusalem today is the Bible acted out in living color. The question is: What is the character, the nature of God, really?
For the past nine months this has been as much of a crippling mystery for me as I’ve ever experienced. Because everything you do is defined by who you understand God to be. And when the answers you are fed go against your basic gut nature, when the people your heart longs to free are defined as the objects of God’s wrath, you are stuck in a holding cell of your own conscience, not able to move forward or backward, because to go backward would be to shut down and to go forward would be to fight against God himself.
So I stopped being fed the answers. I turned off the morphine of the Scriptures. I isolated myself from what must be corruption. I needed to hear from God, and nothing less than his direct, unfiltered revelation was going to do.
That was only the beginning of my questioning. Needless to say, answers have not come easily if at all. If I had continued to pray the way I used to I’m sure I would have thanked God every day for the friend I found back at Olivet that has truly been with me through the thick of this, through the nightmares by night, and judgment by day, and the ever pressing relentless questions, while no one else seemed to understand.
And so in a way this brings us to the meeting I had last week with our dear professor. We sat down, and I told him I wasn’t sure exactly what we ought to talk about, but decided to begin by asking the question that most needed ventilation, “Who is God? What is his character?” He gave a small laugh- for what other question can be posed so simply and have so vast and complex of an answer, if an answer painted by words at all- and we began. Two hours later I walked out of that meeting with many new ideas to work through, some of which tie into ideas expressed by Bell and the emergent church, others not so much. The biggest idea has to do with the Old Testament, and the rest of the Bible.
Today, and everyday, we are struggling to know God. Caught between the knowing and not knowing, this is our journey. We have stories and experiences that we call our testimony- the closest thing we have to attest to who our personal God has made himself known to be in our lives. The writers of the Old Testament, the Jews, were the same way. What they wrote down was their best attempt to record their understanding of he who could not be defined by even a set name. Yhwh. Try to pronounce that. Sound like breathing? Imagine that.
The thing about testimony is, well, we are of this world, things of the made, and sometimes we get it wrong. Our constant barrier will always be the cultural filter through which we process thought and reason. I am not saying the Old Testament is a lie. By no means. It was the recording of people earnestly seeking after a God they could not clearly define, and in their imperfection, just like all of us, they made mistakes.
The difference between us and them is that since that time something divine, in the literalist sense, has happened. Jesus walked among us.
God was here.
And he made known another aspect of his character that is so crucial, so vital to who he is.
What is this aspect?
Jesus loved the unlovable. And that has made all the difference.
I am not a Jew. And yet I dine at the Master’s table. Because God never chose people to be exclusive, he chose them to be a light to show to each other and to the ends of the earth. Somewhere along the line we messed that up.
Imagine a father with two children. One he loved dearly because the child had so much potential to succeed. The other he neglected because he knew the child would never meet his expectations. While one child basked in the glow of his father’s delight, the other mourned for the love she so wished to receive. Wreathing in brokenness, gasping for love more precious than air. Is this right? Is this good?
The good news is
God doesn’t play favorites.
He came to bind up the broken hearted and set the captives free. For the illegal immigrants, and the homosexuals, and the unwed teenage mothers, for you and for me.
Because God is not glorified by an elitist hierarchy or an ever increasing level of prosperity,
We don’t have to live like that.
And at the culmination of this wreathing in chains and struggling in darkness, a small glimmering light has broken into the deep, dark, cold and flooding cave in which I’ve been stranded in by my blindness for some time now.
And so the journey continues, between the knowing and the unknowing. Trying to see beyond the cultural filter. And all the while attempting to love like Christ, who pored and pored himself out for us, without regard for personal advantage. Because we can love the unlovable, and fight for the cause of the defenseless. Because we were created for joy, defined by our faithfulness, not our productivity. Because we are forgiven amidst our imperfections. And despite our brokenness we are, you are, immeasurably valuable. Because of this
We don’t have to live like we did before.
And we can continue to be transformed by the renewing of our minds,
To live faithfully as sons and daughters of the Most High,
And in the freedom that we have in Christ.
Amidst this continuing journey I am finally learning what it means to search for uncertain-truth rather than certain-untruth. Thanks to YHWH, our bringer of hope, and the guides that he provides.
In turning from bondage to freedom, there is that moment of aniforah, that moment right between when a bird flexes its wings, crouches its legs, and takes flight, or that emerging from a long spell underwater and you greet that first breath of air with desperate appreciation. And it will come again.
Through this fortitude to question, to grapple, to get dirty in the restoration of this kingdom, we find release.
Because we get to live this way.