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I remember when Rob Bell came to speak at chapel when I was in college. Out of the 3,000 students on my campus, I am pretty sure I was the only one who had never heard the name Rob Bell prior to his speaking series on campus.
I had seriously thought about skipping chapel during that series. So many people from off-campus were flocking to hear him, and I was pretty sure I could find someone to sit in my seat so that I wouldn’t be counted absent. But, the more people talked about him, the more I wanted to see what the hype was about.
“Have you seen him give the message where he brings a live goat on the stage? I hear he’s going to do that one!” said one friend of mine.
“Oh, I hope he does that one!” another friend responded. “But, if he doesn’t, I hope he talks about salvation. No one does that quite like Rob Bell.”
OK, fine. I’ll go.
And, I did.
I had heard that he was going to be doing the message where he brought a live goat on the stage. That was something I just had to see. A live goat on the stage in our religious ivory tower. Amazing.
I took my assigned seat, which happened to be front and center that semester. I waited for the lights and the sound effects. I waited for the live goat. I waited for some kind of fanfare or entry music. This was Rob Bell, after all.
After a long, awkward silence and pause after the opening hymn and after our featured speaker had been announced, he walked out onto the stage dragging a simple chair. His hair was bleached blond, and he wore dark, thick-rimmed glasses. In his hand, he carried a simple sheet of paper.
He took a seat on the chair, and everyone in the chapel held their breath. And then he started reading what was on the paper.
“Theology – A. Good job, Rob. You studied hard for that one. Art history – B, but that’s OK because the teacher was really hard and I learned a lot. P.E. – C. How did you manage to get a C in gym, Rob? What is wrong with you?”
I couldn’t believe it. He was reading us his college transcript…and giving us a front row seat to that inner critic that plagues type A perfectionists.
And then he told us that God loves us even if we get a C in gym. God loves us even if we don’t make the honor roll. Scandalous and hard to believe, yes. But it is true. God’s love isn’t based on our merit. God loves us – period.
A lot of high profile cases and situations have been circulating through the media this week about religious freedom and what that means for corporations. Those cases are very complicated and sensitive, and I don’t want to address the specific situations in this post. Instead, I have found myself wondering if all these court cases, all these impassioned blog posts and interviews, all these polarizing TV shows and business stances are rooted in one thing: trying to determine how wide the umbrella of God’s love is.
As Christians it can be very tempting to push for legislation that promotes things that we value, and that is not always wrong for us to do. It is impossible to separate our religious beliefs from our political stances, even when we recognize and value legislation that protects the freedoms of religious groups (and non-religious groups) that are very different from our own. Our religious beliefs are at the core of who we are, and we can’t just turn those beliefs off when it comes time to vote, nor do I think we should try to do that.
However, I think sometimes we are so worried about the legislation because we aren’t sure we would be strong enough to continue with our beliefs if they were unpopular or came with legal consequences. We push for that legislation because we think it legitimizes our beliefs. We picket and protest and lobby because we think having certain laws on the books somehow assures us that we would be able to remain under the umbrella of God’s love.
With all our passion for government-sanctioned religion, I wonder if we’ve all become the Pharisees – the religious authorities who were convinced they knew what it took to remain in God’s love. They thought following every law (even the lesser known ones), solidified their place as God’s chosen people.
But who was it that Jesus pointed out and lauded? The widow who gave tiny coins – because they were all she had. The tax collectors who decided to stop cheating people. The woman who wasted expensive perfume to show her love for Jesus.
In our zeal to follow God, we have to resist the temptation to become legalistic and unbending in our stances. Because when we become rule-oriented and ferociously unyielding, it is because we think we know who God is. We think we have God’s love figured out, narrowed down, and we see ourselves as the sole distributors of it.
But, just as it was in the days of the disciples and the Pharisees, so it is now: God’s love is far bigger, far more unruly, far more offensive than we could ever imagine. Our militant assertions are not really manifestations of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Our hurtful words, our unyielding spirits, our crusade-mindednness paint pictures of a different kind of god – one we’ve invented ourselves.
As Anne Lamott once wrote, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Or as Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation” says poignantly, “Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” All this supposed goodness and rightness is nothing compared to the holy presence of God. All of it is dross. All of it is foolishness, really.
God doesn’t love only those who lobby for the right legislation. God doesn’t love only those who make sweeping claims about what the Bible says about one hot topic or another.
God loves us – period. Drawing boundary lines is a futile attempt to figure out who fits under the umbrella of God’s love when God told us to embody love.
Love. That’s it. God’s love offends us, and it should, because we are so far from worthy of it. But, God lavishes it upon us just the same. We are lavishly loved so that we may lavish love upon the world. We are loved so that we can love others.