The Descent into Hell

I have been reflecting upon Holy Week. I am a pastor, so that’s what I do.

This week, I have been specifically reflecting on Judas and his betrayal. To start, I think we are pretty hard on Judas. While the author of John’s Gospel sees him as just plain bad (he used to steal from the common purse, he was evil, etc), the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) say that Judas was influenced by the devil.

As I have described before, I’m not so sure the devil, as described in the Synoptics, is the dark god of our nightmares. Judaism is a monotheistic religion, as is Christianity, so we are cautioned to be careful of dualities that bring us to the conclusion that the devil is the god of the underworld. The devil … the satan …  is best described by the Greek word diabolos. The diabolos is the distractor … the one who uses my distractibility … my attention deficit … to pull me off the path. The devil is the “ooh, shiny” among those who follow Jesus.

And Judas is someone who is off track.

Some authorities suggest that perhaps he was a zealot who wanted nothing more than to throw off Roman oppression. Some have also suggested that perhaps he believed in Jesus, but what he believed about Jesus was wrong. If he was looking for the Military Messiah to restore the reign of King David to Israel and bring it into a power unlike the world had ever seen, he had the wrong person in Jesus of Nazareth. In that scenario, it may well be that his “betrayal” was because he believed that Jesus, if backed into a corner, would finally become the Military Messiah Judas thought he was.

Then there are those who suggest that Judas might have simply given up on Jesus. Jesus was not meeting Judas’s expectations. The ministry of Jesus was destined to fail. Especially with his eyes set on Jerusalem, the most dangerous place to be, Jesus was doomed, and Judas just wanted to let it end. There is a hint of this among the disciples in John 11, when Jesus begins his journey toward the tomb of Lazarus. In that story, it is Thomas that says (despondently, sarcastically, or perhaps even with some derision), “Let us go with Jesus to Jerusalem that we may die with him.” (I know some think that sounds noble, but I hear it differently.)

Regardless of what is behind Judas’s action, he betrays Jesus. We are told he betrayed him with a kiss. What an image. An act of love and devotion that leads to death.

Regardless of what Judas might have expected, Jesus gave in. He did not resist. He was arrested, tortured and killed. And Judas was despondent. One text tells us that he hung himself and the chief priests used the silver to buy Potter’s Field (see Matthew 27:3-10), while another says Judas bought the field himself and then fell headlong into it and “spilled his guts” (sorry for the grossness, folks, but that’s the image we find in Acts 1:18-19). Mark and John do not mention anything about Judas following his betrayal. What we can assume, however, is that Judas found himself in a hell of his own making, and many have assumed that, because of his acts, he is the one disciple who is spending eternity in hell. But are we really sure?

Jan Richardson is the writer of devotions in the Upper Room Disciplines (the devotional guide I use) for this week, and she spoke the greatest truth for me in Tuesday’s devotional reading. She reflects  on John 12, where Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” These are her thoughts:

We sometimes make letting go such a hard thing. We resist giving up. But what if it is not about giving up but giving in? Falling into dirt, as Jesus says here. Going where grain is supposed to go; following the spiral within the seed that takes it deeper into the dark but also – finally, fruitfully – out of it. (Disciplines 2018, pg. 111)

When we find ourselves in darkness and despair … often because of the very things we have done (sometimes with very good intentions), we fear there is no way out. When we can embrace the wilderness of conflict and seek neither to dehumanize nor be dehumanized by those who disagree (sometimes sharply) with us, we find ourselves in the dark. Sometimes owning up to our own demons, our addictions, our overwhelming fears gives us a feeling of what hell is like.

The good news is that Jesus is unafraid to storm hell’s gates. Jesus is unafraid to reach boldly into our darkness.

The Roman Catholic version of the Apostles Creed has an interesting addition that we Protestants don’t use. The creed says that Jesus …

suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
He descended into hell;
on the third day He rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from there He will come to judge the living and the dead.

Judas found himself in hell (no matter how we define hell). I wonder what this affirmation might mean for Judas (and all of us who are prone to Judas-like behavior). This Saturday, we celebrate what is called Holy Saturday. At Wellspring, we have probably more than a hundred kids and their parents hunting Easter eggs and enjoying our Easter Eggstravaganza. We celebrate Easter fully … one day early.

But in the ancient church, this Saturday is known as the Harrowing of Hell. Jesus is giving hell … well, hell … to use our modern vernacular. The gates of hell are broken down. Jesus is claiming that there is no place that is beyond the reach of the loving embrace of God, and there is no one … NO ONE … who is beyond the reach of grace. So I wonder if Jesus went there perhaps because Judas was there, and perhaps Judas and the criminal to whom Jesus promised salvation and maybe even the one who scorned Jesus are with him.

Now that I think about it, I think there was a word of forgiveness for those who were the architects of hell … the Romans who abused their victims and subjected them to the horrible effects of unrestrained power (see Luke 23:34). And surely this was the same forgiveness offered to the religious leaders who were complicit in his execution.

Maybe even they are not beyond the reach of Jesus. Maybe Jesus is coming to offer a new life to EVERYONE whose life is pretty hellacious right now.

So are you beyond Jesus’s grasp? What about me? Sometimes I find myself in that place that feels like hell. Nothing is going right. I feel cut off and “blessed assurance” is but a fleeting dream.

Try this. When you find yourself in whatever hell you are experiencing, don’t be frantic about it. Stop and listen! Jesus is breaking down the gates. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, just reach out your hand. Do you feel it? It is the hand of the crucified reaching for you!

Orthodoxy or Orthopraxis

Thinking a lot about orthodoxy these days. Orthodoxy literally means “right belief” or “right opinion.” In church life, we talk about orthodox theology as that thinking about God considered by the church to be correct and true. The problem is that our God is not a static God. The notion that God is “the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow” implies that we have a static, unchanging God.

In reading those who are, in my mind, sages or mystics, I have come to see God as One whose nature is perpetual motion. An ever-expanding God even as the universe is an ever-expanding universe. I see God as one who does not let me get to one place and stand still … in my thinking, in my relationships, as a pastor and, perhaps most especially, in my own understanding of God.

I decided early in my life that I was going to be a lifelong student. Always learning. Always growing. There have been times when I was tempted to think I “had arrived” … that I finally knew everything there was to know … about life … about God … about relationships … about me. Man, was I wrong!

When I opened myself up to the “ever-expanding God,” I began to learn things I never before had dreamt. I learned of a God who is so much more compassionate and loving than I ever thought possible. I learned of a Jesus who practices justice in new and evolving ways. I learned of ways to think about social justice and how to create space for human dignity that I simply had not considered before.

I learned that people … regardless of how God created them to be … regardless of the color of their skin or their sexual orientation or their language or their income levels … bear the image of the creator in them. I learned from Jesus that when I care for the poor, it is not because I am being Christ to them … it is because THEY ARE CHRIST TO ME! I don’t bear the face of Jesus in my encounter with the poor. They bear the face of Jesus to me. I invite you to read Matthew 25 more closely!

Orthodoxy tends to freeze us in time. We are caught up in attributes of God only as described by Christians who went before us. I fully respect the traditions, creeds, and affirmations of my spiritual ancestors, but I also absolutely will not give up the notion that God is speaking to me and my contemporaries. Our contemporary experience of the divine also counts as we live into our faith today!

So instead of orthodoxy, I tend more toward orthopraxis. Orthopraxis literally means “right practice.” It means that, regardless of what creeds or affirmations I inherited from my spiritual ancestors, I am called to do good … to love God and neighbor … in increasingly creative ways.

We, who are heirs of this strange practice known as Methodism, are all about praxis. There are those who claim what they call “Wesleyan Orthodoxy,” but I don’t think such a thing exists. If John Wesley had been truly orthodox (adhering strictly to the rules and teachings of his Anglican Church), he certainly would not have ordained people when he was not a bishop. If John Wesley had submitted himself to the restraint of those in authority over him, he would have stayed within his own parish (a strict geographical boundary of who “belonged” to your own local church). He preached everywhere, especially where he found the poor, the hard-living people, and those for whom the church was irrelevant or dangerous.

Last year, I attended the gathering of Uniting Methodists, and Dr. David N. Field was a keynote presenter. During one of his presentations, he noted that many across the theological spectrum in our United Methodist Church often quote Mr. Wesley’s famous line: ““I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation.” (from his Journal Entry, June 11, 1739). Yet, according to Dr. Field, what we don’t grasp is that the statement is itself an act of ecclesial disobedience (think civil disobedience but in opposition to church law).

In other words, Wesley was not orthodox. He did, however, know fully what orthopraxis was about. He did not care as much for the talk, but he cared deeply (and devoted his entire life) to the walk.

So today, I am committing myself to orthopraxis. Living out the gospel of Jesus Christ in every way possible. Reaching the poor, making disciples, inviting people to follow this one who taught us about a new way that was so much more than “right thinking” or “right opinion.” Let’s follow the one who taught us about the love of God and all of our neighbors. At Wellspring, we just say “all means all”.

I invite you to join me in this walk of faith … praxis … that leads us straight to the heart of God.

Partners in Creation

To say that Rabbi Irwin Kula has become an influence in my life would be an understatement. I have been tutored by this rabbi through his book, Yearnings: Ancient Wisdom for Daily Life – Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life. Rabbi Kula, in his chapter on Inspiration and Illumination shares insight about the first story of creation, found in Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a. Of this story, he says,

The world began with an act of supreme creativity. Something was made out of nothing, and life began its glorious unfolding. There’s such a wonderful order to it all: each day yielding a new form of life; every day seeming to reach such a satisfying conclusion; then humankind created “in the image of the Creator.” … How marvelous to imagine that humankind was made in the image of an artistic genius worthy of being named the Creator, God, or all that is. St. Thomas Aquinas called God “Artist of Artists.” … The world was left unfinished so that humans could have a part in creation. (Yearnings, pp. 183-184)

As I read and reflected on this, something significant hit me about the opening stories of Genesis. The section of the Bible generally known as the primeval story is contained in Genesis 1-11, and they start with this beautiful story of creation and then end with the unfolding of the judgment on the people who built the tower commonly known as the Tower of Babel. What interests me here is that the opening story, as Rabbi Kula so well describes it, is a story where people are invited into the creative process. It is godlike for us to engage in the creative process and thereby reflect our creator as we engage in the very act of creation.

But the conclusion of the primeval story ends with humans wishing to engage in a different creative process. Combined with our yearning to share in this creative process is the longing to “make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4). Then further mix it with the judgment that befalls the man and the woman described in the second creation story (starting in Genesis 2:4b) because they longed to “be like God,” and we have an interesting story that unfolds.

What interests me here is that we are people who are invited into the creative process, yet we suffer from this tendency to lose our way in the partnership. We want to go it alone … to make a name for ourselves … to cut God out of the deal because, quite frankly, we are pretty sure we can do it better ourselves.

As I reflect upon my life, I think I see the truth in this. I am a native Texan, and with that comes a bit of an attitude and a belief that I can actually pull myself up by my own bootstraps. An image that brings a smile, if you think about it a minute. There are times in my life when I have acted impulsively. I have acted according to my own interests and pretended that it was for the good of others … the church … the community … the world. There are times when I have acted out of fear … as though I might be forgotten, or worse, irrelevant … if I didn’t take decisive action myself.

In the opening story of creation, we are invited to be co-creators with God … those who tend the creation that God provided. But we are prone to distrust, and we give up on the partnership. Then it all falls apart.

So where does this lead us? Ultimately, this becomes for me another facet of my central theme: “Let go and let God.” It doesn’t mean that I am passive and simply sit by letting God do all the work. It does mean that I am actively engaged in helping create a world like God intended it to be. I seek to create a world where justice is the norm. I seek a world where, as we at Wellspring put it, all are welcome and all are accepted! I want a world that is a reflection of our expansive creation born of an ever-expanding, all-consuming God. That means that I want a world where there is no “us versus them” thinking and where we all seek a common unity born amidst our diversity and inclusivity.

But that doesn’t happen without trust. I have said before that there is a difference between what we consider belief and what we consider faith. Belief is, for many of us, an effort to get our heads around something … to give acclamation to a principle or person or deity. We tend to associate belief with an act of ascent.

Faith, on the other hand, is about trust. It means that I am fully incapable of getting my head around who God is, but I am confident that God can get God’s arms around me. It is that notion that, no matter what I face, God’s got this. When I then move through life and ministry with that kind of trust, I am available for reflection, reproof and appropriate change. It is this faith that has led me to a greater level of inclusiveness and given me a voice on such matters when I previously had a far softer voice.

Today I received an email from a reader. Someone who has been cut off from the church … by the church. She had read my blog titled “Feeling Unmoored,” and described how her life felt unmoored after having been cut off from the church because of who God created her to be. It was then that my reading of both an email and an incredible book came together for me. I am called to partner with God in creating a world where people like this child of God are given a place among the people of God.

So you are invited. You are invited to be partners with God as we seek a world like the one described in the opening passages of Genesis. You are invited to create a world that the creator, the “Artist of Artists” might well call very good!


Noise. It is almost like there is a perpetual disturbance around me these days. Like waters that will not stay still. A moment’s peace and then more noise. The To-Do List stays long. There are not enough hours in a day. The time for creative writing and sermon planning seem to grow shorter. Even when that time comes, the noise in my own mind becomes so loud that creativity is shut out.

Our denomination is full of noise. We are trying to decide if we United Methodists might be able to figure out how to stay united. Groups who want control are tightening up and becoming more organized (perhaps “galvanized” might be the better word here). Tensions are growing in the debate over who gets included and who doesn’t. Whose theology rules over others. It is noisy in my beloved church right now.

But the church is also full of noise as the children of God raise their voice and hands in song. The noise of fellowship and hospitality. The noise of people building community.

Our culture is full of noise. Political noise. Violent noise. The noise of racism, sexism and white supremacy. The noise of children being shot. The noise of blame and hatred.

But the noise of hope is also heard as people care for one another, reaching beyond their own prejudices, walls and city limits to share the limitless power of love.

As I reflect on these noises, a song comes to mind. It is sung by one of my favorite singers, Neil Diamond. The song is Beautiful Noise. In it, I am reminded that those things I count as noise come together to create a symphony. Even the hard parts … especially the hard parts … are where God intends to make music.

In music, harmony and dissonance combine to create color and tone. Having listened to a great deal of music, I know this truth: the symphony is boring and lacks movement if it is ALL harmony, and the symphony is unbearable if it is ALL dissonant.

Listen closely, and you will hear it. Listen and perhaps you will hear God speaking through the noise to create beauty and movement. Beauty in our diversity and a movement that takes us ever closer to the heart of God. Somewhere in all of this noise, God is seeking to let a symphony of heavenly proportions emerge.

What do you hear in the noise around you?