Celebrating the Death of Osama bin Laden?

FBI Updates Most Wanted Terrorist List

Upon hearing of the death of Osama bin Laden, the Rev. Ken Ehrman of Minnesota sent an email blast to members of his local church inviting them to come that evening to discuss how they felt about it.


Given such short notice, he had no idea how many might respond, but 20 people came. They discussed the ambivalence a lot of us are feeling at the awkward celebration of the death of another human, even one so infamous as bin Laden.

Beyond a remarkable testament to Rev. Ehrman’s pastoral leadership, I think his act also points to something I felt need of but was missing in my own reaction to this news–a way to process my feelings, to deal with great uneasiness.

There is something that says I should not be dancing and singing in the street in the face of loss of life. The whole of the Christian story is about renewed, redeemed and restored life.

Bin Laden’s actions and words were utterly evil. He was an instrument of death. He spoke for death. And this is an offense to all that is decent and good and uplifting. It stands in stark contrast to all that we hope for and believe we should pursue as people who follow one who said, “I am come that you may have life and may live abundantly.”

There are some who will contend that in killing bin Laden, redemption is completed. And others will make the case that vengeance is justified. Many will make a biblical case for it.

But there is that lingering, haunting passage of scripture in which Jesus tells Peter to keep his sword sheathed when the soldiers come for him. His way is not to exact vengeance nor to live by the sword. But to lead toward life.

What, then are we to make of our ambivalent feelings? And how do we come to grips with them?

I think Rev. Ehrman got it right. We come together as a community of faith. We pray. We share honestly and openly our humanity, our doubts, our fears, our frustrations, and we lay them before God. We ask for strength and wisdom. We seek to support each other. We seek understanding. And we seek to learn more about The Way, as the early Christian path was known.

I think a faithful response is reflective and prayerful. Humble. Life seeking. For we have within us the same passions and hubris that can lead us to take as well as give life. And this capacity should make us very humble and cautious of our driving emotions.

Above all, unlike bin Laden, I believe as followers of Jesus we must seek the leading causes of life, a phrase my friend Gary Gunderson has popularized, lest we behave with the same disregard for the sacredness of life that we so deeply and strongly reject.

The Buddha Was Wearing a Rolex

The Buddha was wearing a Rolex. He was filling my room. Expanding slowly but steadily. I could not get my breath, and I felt as if he were suffocating me.

I was in a hotel room in Cambodia shortly after the Pol Pot regime had fallen and Vietnam had invaded. I had read a story in National Geographic prior to travel in which a Buddha in the ancient city of  Angkor Wat had been defaced by someone who scratched a crude image of a Rolex watch on his wrist. I’ve never actually seen this Buddha, but the image stuck in my subconscious.

A couple of days earlier, our film crew had stood at the edge of a killing field, the mass graves of victims of Pol Pot’s murderous reign, as a worker unearthed human remains and counted skulls. The grass was ankle high, and I was eaten up with mosquito bites.

I had contracted malaria.
I recall awakening throughout the night feeling hot. I lay on the tiled floor of my hotel room because it felt cool to my cheek. In the morning my colleagues got me to a health clinic run by a humanitarian organization, and I was given medications that soon brought me back to a more normal state. The Buddha left. But I’ve never forgotten him.

I was fortunate. My co-workers recognized the signs of malaria and got me to medical care quickly. The medications and a skilled physician were available. Unlike the circumstances that confront millions of people sick with malaria on the African continent, neither cost nor travel were barriers to getting treatment.

Many of those who deal with the disease, particularly mothers, don’t know what causes malaria. They have no access to medicines or health services. Lacking knowledge, they act too slowly, if at all, and their loved ones die. Others seek out herbal healers who proffer remedies that risk damaging the kidneys or livers of the sick.

Bishop Nkulu Ntanda Ntambo says in the documentary, “A Killer in the Dark,” the deaths that result from this lack of knowledge are so common that his family simply considered the rainy season the season of death. The family, living in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, moved from one village to another when death struck.

But “A Killer in the Dark” also shows how community health workers who train families to use bed nets, clean up their environment and reduce standing water can stem the progress of this disease.

It also shows how the disease can be overcome as it was during the construction of the Panama Canal. The French abandoned the canal due to the toll of malaria on workers. When research finally connected the disease to infected mosquitoes, abatement measures were carried out that allowed workers to complete the canal.

The effort to combat this disease is continuing, and the documentary shows how the efforts of faith-based groups are making a vital contribution to reducing its deadly toll.

Moreover, the methods they use empower whole communities to act so they can enhance and improve community life. No more will these communities accept with resignation that malaria deaths are a natural part of the changing seasons, a part of the cycle of life and death over which they have no control. It is possible to imagine no malaria.  And to make it so.

Pauley Perrette, of NCIS fame, provides the narration for the United Methodist upcoming TV special called “A Killer in the Dark: An Extraordinary Effort to Combat Malaria.” The program, which will air on many NBC affiliates May 1 (check local listings), documents the daily struggle in Africa against malaria and highlights the work of Imagine No Malaria to wipe out a devastating disease that’s killing 2,000 people every single day. The program is presented by the National Council of Churches under the auspices of the Interfaith Broadcasting Commission and is produced by United Methodist Communication.


Storytellers on the Front Lines

As I lay on the hood of a Land Rover, propped against the windshield and gazing into the marvelous night sky above Luuq, Somalia, I heard a swooshing sound followed by an explosion that shook the earth. My reverie was quickly broken.

My friend, cinematographer Burton Buller, came out of a tent and exclaimed, “They’re shooting at us!”

They weren’t shooting at us, and he was joking, but they were shooting over us at a bridge not far away.

We were in a refugee camp situated between opposing Somali forces in the Ogaden rangelands, documenting conditions the world cared little about and would as soon ignore.

I thought of this as I considered the deaths of British photojournalist Tim Hetherington and Getty photographer Chris Hondros in a mortar attack in Libya yesterday. Two other journalists were injured.

Getting the story, even under circumstances that are life-threatening, is a driving force for many journalists. They are drawn to the power of storytelling, the conviction that the world must know what is happening, especially in places where life hangs in the balance.

They have an unexpressed desire to make a difference, especially for those who lack the means to tell their own story. They enable others to speak of their experiences, hoping that perhaps the world will care, the policymakers will work for change, the guns will be silenced and the people freed to pursue their lives.

We need the storytellers. They remind us of both our capacity for inhumanity as well as our capacity for human decency. They hold before us the mirror of our humanity. And in doing so they remind us of our worst, and best, perhaps, in the unexpressed hope that by knowing each other more deeply and fully, we can become more truthful, just and dignified. We can become the people we say we want to be when we are at our best.

But to tell this story they must be in harm’s way, for it is in these places, places of extremes, that the drama is played out graphically and with the risk of ultimate resolution – where life or death weigh in the balance.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says 16 journalists have died this year – 44 in 2010. Journalists are under attack in Libya. Throughout the Middle East Spring, they have been among those who pay the price for the wrenching changes that are being pressed on authoritarian, corrupt regimes.

Yet they continue to tell the stories. They continue to remind us who we are and who we aspire to be. Let us pray for them all and be thankful they are reaching out to us, holding up the mirror of reality, and sometimes making the ultimate sacrifice that we may see and know, and care.



“O For a Thousand Tweets”

As some of my readers know, I always travel with enough technology to ensure that no matter where I am, I am never out of touch with what’s happening in the world or back home.

John Wesley on horseback

John Wesley reportedly logged more than 250,000 miles on horseback during his career, traveling around England to share the Gospel. I can’t help but wonder, what would the founder of Methodism have done if he had all of the high-tech tools that I have today?

The man who viewed the world as his parish would be delighted at how easy it is to connect with Methodists in far-flung places like Mozambique or Vietnam. With his Facebook account, Wesley would have thousands of friends. Of course, since he wrote his journals in code, he might be tempted to do the same for his Facebook page, which could be challenging for the rest of us.

I have no doubt that Wesley would be ahead of most clergy in using the Internet and social media. A man who knew the power of the printing press, he would ensure that all of his churches had a Web site. With his love for the music of the church, he probably would have an iPod loaded with Bach and a ringtone on his phone that played, “O For a Thousand Tongues.”

One thing is certain: Wesley knew the power of communications and made the most effective use of the media of his day.

Methodism’s great communicator would be using every tool at his disposal to spread the faith, build up people and speak prophetically to the issues and injustices around him. In the 18th century, he excoriated slavery in his writing, but today, he could use video storytelling and new media to attack this blight on humankind. With Twitter, he could tell people in real time about the conditions he encountered in the coal mines of England.

Twitter would also enable Wesley to share ongoing updates from the road, apprise his followers of upcoming sermon topics, and exhort truants to attend Sunday school or class meetings.

And can you imagine what Wesley could do with video conferencing? He could potentially address multiple churches at a time on Sunday mornings, hold Bible study on a mass scale and give a keynote address at the next Council of Bishops meeting.

Being the founder of a connectional church, Wesley would immediately see the value of using LinkedIn to build a network of believers. An avid reader, he would carry his extensive library around with him on an e-reader such as Kindle or the iPad.

If I could meet Wesley, I would show him one of my favorite new gadgets, the Livescribe smart pen. This handy device enables me to record meeting conversations and keep digital notes for use in my blogs.

Perhaps I could get him to sing a few measures of “O For A Thousand Tongues.” John Wesley singing Methodism’s signature song – now that would be a ringtone.

Malaria is No More. Say What?

I got up this morning to an email that referred me to an article in the NY Times in which a representative of Malaria No More says the organization is about to close up shop. Why? Because malaria is coming to an end. Say that again? No more malaria?

Yes, according to the spokesperson for Malaria No More, their mission is accomplished.

No, the mission is not accomplished.

The fact is, children are still dying of malaria at an unconscionable rate. The provision of bednets over the past decade is reducing the incidence of malaria, and for that I am grateful. But bednets are no panacea, and they certainly have not ended this disease of poverty. What happens in three years after the current nets have deteriorated and are no longer effective?

More lasting solutions are required

  • Income generating work is needed so that people can afford to replace the nets.
  • Environmental reclamation and water management are necessary so that mosquitos have fewer breeding places.
  • Continuing research into potential immunization and effective treatment is still needed.
  • New medicines are required as the parasite develops immunity to existing combinations.
  • Training of community health workers to recognize and treat symptoms at the outset of the disease must be carried out.
  • More community health clinics are needed.
  • Rehabilitation of underfunded hospitals and national health systems and support for their overworked personnel is required.
  • Topping off salaries of competent health personnel so they don’t seek jobs in the developed world is necessary.
  • Communications programs to inform mothers and fathers about how the disease is contracted, what they can do to prevent it, how to recognize it before their children are too sick to respond to medications are needed.
  • Preventive measures such as residual indoor spraying are needed for those times when people are not in bed and under nets.

The Malaria No More spokesperson called this organization’s efforts “a project.” No, a project is making a garden planter. Ending a disease of poverty is a lifetime commitment. Preventing the deaths of 5 million children a year is not a project in which you decide after you’ve tired of it, you claim victory, fold up shop and go on to something else.

I can only imagine what those researchers who have dedicated their lives to this disease are thinking about today’s proclamation.

And this raises another significant point. One-off projects that appeal more to the self-interest of the donor than to the larger problem are not the solution to long-term diseases like malaria, diseases that have plagued humankind since we started walking upright. This is why I’m very skeptical of the anti-institutional rhetoric that surrounds entrepreneurial, individualized social do-goodism. You know, one person can change the world stuff. Maybe, maybe not.

Institutions are cumbersome, bureaucratic, frustrating and maddening. I’ve criticized the institutional church as much as anyone. But it gets the job done at scale when it comes to missions such as ending malaria. It will be present with dying children and weeping mothers for the long-term, long after I’ve gone, long after the disease du jour has passed. And with strategic partners, the institutions we call mainline denominations have the capacity to cover a continent. This is scale that will make for lasting change. In this battle, nothing less will do.

Institutions Provide Scale, Sustainability, and Systemic Change

So, hate ‘em or love ‘em, institutions are necessary because they are the way we organize to achieve scale, sustainability, long-term presence, endurance and systemic change. It’s fun and easy to kick them in the shins, they are so vulnerable to such attacks. But one-off projects that don’t seek to create lasting change, empower people to develop their own solutions, and create a living wage so they can enjoy a measure of security are just one-off projects. They vanish as quickly as the fog in sunlight.

The real risk here, however, is that a premature claim that undermines the current progress to end malaria is dangerous to the extreme. This happened once before. In the 1950s malaria was almost wiped out. The world pulled back and decreased funding. A strain of malaria developed in southeast Asia that was more virulent than the prevalent strain. This new parasite ravaged the developing world, gained a foothold and has been depleting Africa of its children, its economic gains and its health care systems for the past sixty years.

We cannot pull back from this fight and allow that to happen again. It would be disastrous.

And so friends, don’t think for a moment that the fight against malaria is over. I hope I’ve even motivated you to join this fight that takes the life of a child in Africa every 45 seconds. I hope you go to the Imagine No Malaria website and send $100 or more to help The United Methodist Church train community health workers, create and train hospital boards of directors so they can re-create more effective hospitals and health delivery systems, purchase and distribute more bednets, create agricultural development and similar programs to help people earn a living wage, educate parents about preventing malaria and recognizing its symptoms, provide medications to rural clinics at the end of the road where poor people have no other healthcare.

This fight is a long way from being over, and it isn’t a project. It’s a commitment to a healthy life for all of God’s children. And we need to see it through–to the last child, in the last village at the end of the road, and beyond.

(April 2, 2011–An afterthought. How could such a claim as this escape the fact-checking and editorial process at the New York Times?)

(April 5, 2011–Since I posted this on Saturday, April 2, the staff of Malaria No More issued a statement saying the organization has never claimed “mission accomplished,” is not closing its doors and will only close after the goal of of ending malaria deaths in Africa has been accomplished.)

The Ivory Coast in Revolt

As I write, rebels are moving into Abidjan, Ivory Coast after having taken the capital city Yamoussoukro, 143 miles north. It’s a fast-moving story, virtually invisible on U.S. mainstream media. However, it’s exemplary of the new media landscape and the resources it makes available to us.

I’m particularly concerned because I have friends in the country. A colleague has just concluded an interview via Skype with five employees in a radio station in Abidjan that our organization funded in a partnership with others in The United Methodist Church. Gunfire was audible in the background.

Besides direct contact, the most reliable sources of information are international news organizations providing updates from the scene. France 24 English language service is originating video and audio coverage from Abidjan.

As I write, I’m watching France 24 on an iPad with its live video stream, reading email from various sources and monitoring Twitter. I’m also surfing the web viewing Reuters,Yahoo and BBC to double check what I’m seeing on Twitter. While U.S. news organizations are not covering the revolt, these global counterparts are providing on-the-scene updates.

In this circumstance, non-profit information services are filling in some of the blanks. Staff of United Methodist News Service are in direct contact with church officials in the country and are monitoring and updating information as it’s available. I’ve also read releases from Medecins Sans Frontieres, AlertNet and the U.S. Catholic News Service.

This is a circumstance in which as concerned citizens we must seek out a variety of news sources. We must approach the news with a degree of skepticism and check multiple sources. I trust some sources more than others, of course, but in a fluid story it’s not unreasonable to verify reports as best we can. And we are blessed with multiple sources, most of them online.

This is the new media landscape.

How Blogging is Changing Journalism

The Internet undermines the power structure of the past 500 years of publishing. Since the invention of movable type, those who owned the presses controlled the information and how it was distributed. No longer. Power is shifting.

Anyone with a cell phone, laptop, or access to a computer has the ability to publish at will.

The Question of Trust

This is important to all of us because at root is a fundamental question of trust. Who do we trust for information that we act upon; that informs our understanding of the events, ideas and values that shape our world; and that aids us in forming opinions about the events and policies that affect our lives and those of billions of others around the globe?

For years, professional journalism was the only game in town because presses, radio and television stations were expensive. They were in the hands of corporate owners, and professional journalists were the gatekeepers of information. They set the agenda by deciding what to cover and how to report it.

With the disruption of the Internet, the business model of newspapers, general circulation newsmagazines and broadcast news can’t be sustained.

“The People Formerly Known As The Audience”

A second disruptive result is occurring simultaneously. When broadcast media were the primary means of getting information, we (the audience) were passive receivers of what others decided we should read, see or hear. We were atomized sitting in our cars listening to radio or watching TV at home. Journalism was a lecture.

Jay Rosen, journalism professor at New York University and a leading thinker and practitioner of journalism and new media, has coined a phrase, “the people formerly known as the audience,” which captures what’s happening. The social location of content creation has shifted. Today we comment, do our own research, challenge and bypass the gatekeepers. We participate. We blog.

Blogs are our own personal printing press, TV or radio station. Blogging is an irritant to journalism. It’s changing journalism, and that makes some journalists pretty frustrated.

Six years ago, Rosen said the debate about whether bloggers are journalists was over. But I was surprised to read recently that he thinks it’s back. And judging from the quotes from journalists and bloggers he provided in a speech at South by Southwest, it’s nastier than ever.

The Principle of Objectivity v. POV

One of the norms challenged by citizen bloggers is a fundamental principle of objectivity of professional journalism. Blogs thrive on point of view. Objectivity was an attempt to free reporting from the biases of the writer, source or reader. It was a way to apply scientific method – observable fact – to reporting, according to the editors of Telling the Story, a primer on journalism from the School of Journalism, University of Missouri-Columbia. It was an ideal.

But blogs don’t labor under this ideal. They are personal. Few bloggers make an effort to apply unbiased observation in their posts.

Objectivity evolved (erroneously, say Kovach and Rosenstiel in The Elements of Journalism) into a role of neutrality for reporters. Neutrality results in an attempt to provide balance.

Dan Gillmor, a journalist who now teaches at Arizona State and is an influential analyst and practitioner of new media, says the attempt to provide balance can result in an “unfortunate tendency of assigning apparently equal weight to opposing viewpoints when one is backed up by fact and the other is not, or when the ‘sides’ are overwhelmingly mismatched. This is often called ‘providing balance’ by journalists who are typically afraid that one side in a political debate will accuse them of being biased in favor of the other side. It is not ‘balanced,’ of course, to quote a supposition or a blatant lie next to a proven fact and treat them as having equal weight.”

Objectivity creates another pernicious unintended consequence. Rosen says the price of professionalizing journalism was the de-voicing of the journalist. Journalists are taught to write so they don’t betray their own personal passion for the content. We are served up a lot of stories that reflect this straightforward treatment.

The Cumulative Process

Blogs are cumulative, not fixed around deadlines or news cycles. Sometimes we’re able to see the blog in process. Journalism delivers a fixed product, gone over by a succession of editors, revised into a final form and published. Recently, we’ve begun to see stories online that are updated, or corrected, but the editing process remains dedicated to providing a finished product, not iterations of an ongoing conversation.

Finally, what this says to me is that if I want to be informed and knowledgeable, I need to participate in the online culture of sharing, researching and providing content – not necessarily as a professional journalist but as an engaged citizen. The information landscape is radically changing, and I need to understand both its strengths and limitations.

The best way to do that is to participate in it. I think it’s the only way to develop your own voice, and to learn the limits and strengths of the new media. And as we learn, we will also develop even sharper skills – along with justified skepticism – that can help us discern whom we can trust.

The Relief Effort in Japan

Sailors aboard USS Ronald Reagan move food and water onto helicopter for Japan relief. U.S. Navy photo by Commuication Specialist Apprentice Michael Feddersen.

As search and rescue operations continue in Japan, relief efforts are under way by military and Red Cross teams. Nongovernmental organizations with medical personnel are sending doctors and nurses. U.S. religious NGOs have announced they will enter after their Asian and Japanese counterparts determine needs and make requests.

Church World Service reports on its website that it will work with the Japan Platform, a consortium of 32 non-governmental organizations, government service agencies and media outlets. The platform members are assessing how to respond. In addition, CWS, which has had a presence in Southeast Asia since before the war in Vietnam, says it will work through its Southeast Asia Regional Office with individual members of the Japan Platform.

The General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church, which has a small number of missionary personnel in Japan, issued a statement saying the board was praying for Japan and awaiting further word on how to proceed. The United Methodist Committee on Relief, the relief, refugee and development arm of the board, was similarly assessing how to respond under the difficult circumstances.

As I write this, no word has been issued by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church about how church-related colleges and universities with which it works in Japan have been affected.

The complex circumstances involved in this disaster make response immensely more difficult for even the most experienced organizations. The destruction of infrastructure by the earthquake and tsunami, plus the nuclear reactor crisis, makes it unique. These complications are challenging even the well-implemented disaster response capacity of the Japanese government.

Fortunately, most of the nations of Southeast Asia are technologically advanced and have persons with the skills necessary to cope with humanitarian needs. This, coupled with material aid closer to the scene, means that logistics of aid delivery can be more timely and less complicated than delivery from the United States and Europe.

Clearly, the rehabilitation of Japan will require long-term commitment. This is a strength of most of the U.S. religious non-governmental organizations and their constituencies. As the drama of Japan unfolds, it’s wise to contribute cash for the immediate humanitarian needs while also keeping an eye on the future and how we can contribute to the rehabilitation of the country when these various channels open.

Reflecting on the Tragedy in Japan

The crisis in Japan is unlike any other. As the third-largest economy among developed nations and well-prepared with a national disaster plan, the country was as prepared as any could be to absorb the disaster it is facing.

Despite this, the extent of destruction and loss of life strains our comprehension and calls for our deepest compassion.

Even across the miles, our hearts ache as we identify with the human suffering. The Japanese were dealt a blow by nature that humbles not only them, but us as well.

The outpouring of concern is an expression of our common humanity, something that we’ve seen before and something that I believe helps us to retain a perspective that’s often lost as we go about our daily routines.

Life is fragile. In a matter of moments, whole cities in Japan were inundated. Thousands of lives lost. Homes and businesses that had taken years to build were swept away.

The surging waters also destroyed the order that we take for granted. The routine that we assume makes up our humdrum daily affairs turned to a moment of sheer terror.

Inevitably, some implicated God in the tragedy. As I type this post, email brings me a press release about an evangelical author speaking to the subject, “Does God Let Bad Things Happen?” It’s a futile question. I don’t believe we can implicate a providential God in the evil of undeserved suffering.

Rather, we live in an ongoing creation. The earth, if not the whole universe, is evolving, and we fool only ourselves if we assume that our existence is fixed and secure.

To recognize this does not weaken faith; it makes it more complex, durable and dynamic. I pray for God to be present with us, to strengthen us, to enter into this contingent experience we call life.

It’s the difference between believing that God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, or is the one who brings death. We will never resolve the enigma of evil by asking where tragedy comes from. This is the wrong question according to Rabbi Harold S. Kushner in his classic “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” He cites German theologian Dorothee Soelle (“Suffering“), who says the more pertinent question is: Where does it (tragedy) lead us?

If the tragedy in Japan leads us to care more compassionately for one another; to give the whole of Creation the deep respect, wonderment and concern that it deserves; to value each day as an irreplaceable gift; and to bow before the Creator in humility and gratitude, then perhaps it will have led us to a more fruitful and productive state.

And for Christ’s followers, if it leads us to more fully appreciate and understand the God who is incarnate–present in this existence with us–and who, while enduring our suffering with us, also calls us to be servants and lift up others, then perhaps we will see that such a disaster is not God’s doing. Instead, we might see how tragedy can be an invitation to live the meaningful and abundant life that God intends for all.

Rob Bell and Hell

Yaweh. In Hebrew, "I AM WHAT I AM"

After reading reactions to megachurch pastor Rob Bells’s video trailer promoting his new book Love Wins, I thought he must be renouncing the faith! Bell is pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan. Then I looked at the trailer and I couldn’t figure out what was behind the ruckus.

He asks if we might see God as loving, not punitive. He asks us to entertain the thought that there may be other pathways to comprehend God. And he hints that hell might be a state of being.

These thoughts aren’t spelled out in depth, but we’re led to the book where, we must conclude, the issues will be discussed more fully.

This does not strike me as cutting edge theology. In fact, as I see it, it’s the hindquarter of late 19th and early-20th century debates between liberals and fundamentalists. In the 1930s and 40s, Harry Emerson Fosdick was more provocative than Bell is today. Fosdick wrote, “The fact that astronomies change while the stars abide is a true analogy of every realm of human life and thought, religion not least of all. No existent theology can be a final formulation of spiritual truth.” This led him to be called heretic, as Bell today.

This leads me to wonder if this flap is a sign of the maturing of the evangelical movement, of which Bell is a leader. As he and his contemporaries wrestle with the complexities that we all face today, faith must be more adaptable to the challenges life presents us if it is to be relevant.

As with all Christians, they struggle with good and evil, personal faith and social responsibility, piety and justice, divergent theological propositions emerge. Life is complex, sometimes vexing. It confounds simple answers.

Some of us have glimpsed hell. If you’ve had to stand by and watch your child die from a debilitating illness that couldn’t be treated, if you’ve experienced an addiction that continues to ensnare you, if you’ve been to war and are haunted by the inhumanity of the human race, you’ve been to hell already. Hell comes in many forms.

We need a faith relevant to the hellishness of the human condition. We also need an understanding of God that helps us to know that God’s grace is provided to us before we comprehend it; that it precedes us before we even know if we can believe in it and before we have the words to speak of it. God doesn’t command us to accept it, God beckons us to apprehend it. In a still small voice, we hear, “Be still and know that I am God,” and Christians see God incarnate in Jesus.

And that leads to my second hunch. Evangelical Christians like Bell are also coming to terms with life in a multi-faith, interconnected global society.

If we believe this is God’s world and we are the beneficiaries of God’s graciousness, and utterly dependent upon it, then who are we to assert that we can define the great I Am, much less to claim with authority for all time and all people, that we know how God chooses to be revealed? Is God limited to a single expression of revelation? And is this great mystery comprehensible to us anyway?

No, the very thought is humbling. And perhaps that’s where faith takes us today, to a humble place between hubris and muddled, discombobulated belief.

We have scripture, the creeds of the church and centuries of writing to guide us. I’m not suggesting that we turn away from our understanding of Christian faith. In fact, we need to dig deeper, question more. But we must approach our faith and other faiths with humility. As Bernard Schweizer suggests, it’s hard to imagine that Gandhi, the Dali Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi or (I would add)  Muhammad Yunus are destined to roast in hell.

Maybe faithfulness is in that sweet spot where we search for truth, seek the Holy and apprehend through the great cloud of witnesses who have preceded us, that God is indeed still speaking in many languages and voices.

Wesley’s quadrilateral–the use of scripture, reason, tradition and experience to comprehend the life of the spirit–is enormously helpful to me in this search. It provides me with checks and balances that allow me to weigh the spiritual search, religious dogma, history and personal understanding. It’s an inclusive method. It supports humility and leads me to listen to others, and for that still small voice.

And we could do worse than to listen; to “be still and know that I am God.”

(A note: After writing, this seemed incomplete. I realized I had not provided readers with an especially important part of my theological life–the basic grounding that I find most helpful–Wesley’s quadrilateral. I edited the piece by adding the next to last paragraph to provide this background. Changed March 12, 2011, 9:20 a.m.)

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