A Hell of a Tone of Voice (Some thoughts on how we talk about what happens after we die)

A while back, I was asked to participate in a panel answering questions about heaven and hell. The group had spent a couple weeks in a series looking at what Scripture says about what happens after we die. They were asking questions about heaven and the various ways people have understood “hell”: is hell eternal conscious torment? Is it annihilation—a case where we are, and then simply are not any more? Is there a case to be made for Christian Universalism – where after a time of suffering, all souls are restored to God? What about Martin Luther’s idea that death was sleep? Was CS Lewis onto something when the faithful Taarkan (a Muslim-figure) is allowed into Aslan’s eternal Kingdom in The Last Battle (whereas Susan Pevensie, who wore lipstick, was not?And why would a good God allow for a place like hell, anyway?

I had several other teaching commitments that week and so declined the invitation, but even if I hadn’t been busy I possibly would have said no, anyway. My sieve-like memory knows that I studied this stuff  before, but the content is mostly gone. It’s been a long time since I read up on the various theories of eternal punishment, and I would have had to brush the dust off some of my theology books and do some serious reading.

But the invitation itself got me thinking: what have I believed about this? And, are there reasons to revisit this topic now? I certainly grew up believing that hell was a place of eternal conscious torment, but some of the Bible scholars and teachers I have learned from don’t agree. And certainly, given how upsetting and offensive the idea of eternal conscious torment is (It’s the ultimate version of “my way or the highway”, isn’t it? Even for people who never got a chance to hear about God’s way…), I resonate with the desire to understand this in a way which reflect God’s goodness and mercy and compassion , which annihilation and christian universalism both seem to allow for.

I was a little surprised to find myself thinking: it doesn’t matter what conclusion I come to on this.  Not really. God-fearing people have come to different conclusions on what the passages referring to Hades and Gehenna and punishment mean, and I don’t know that I can sort it out with a new, independent rigorous study of my own. But what matters more to me is this: the tone of voice we discuss this in. Because even if I’m not sure what Jesus meant by the all the hell talk, I’m sure of this one thing: whatever he meant by it, he considered it VERY important to avoid, and a VERY good reason for people to trust in him instead. It’s better to suffer egregious bodily harm in this life (lose an eye! or a hand!) than to have two eyes and two hands and go to hell. Whatever hell means (and Jesus would know), he warns people to go to ANY LENGTH to avoid it. He went to hell himself to keep us from there. Whatever hell means, he assures us it’s not somewhere we want to be. Weeping and gnashing of teeth sound awful, even if they’re hyperbolic.

So even if it is true that we are annihilated, or we suffer a while and then are reconciled to God (and maybe this is the case, I don’t know), Jesus doesn’t seem to think that those options should be something which, when explained, we should feel we are comfortable with. If anything, one of the ways we might know we’ve come to the right conclusions about hell is that we respond the way Jesus says we should respond: with urgency. with grief. with seriousness.

I remember Dave, one of my campus pastors, teaching a few of us students twenty years ago about how to prepare and teach a small group bible study. We were discussing the passage in 1 Thessalonians about the Lord’s coming, and someone in our group got a little “firestone and brimstone-ish” in his conclusions. Dave commented that even if everything my friend was saying was true, he’d missed an important thing in the passage: 1 Thessalonians was written to comfort believers, not to threaten them. And so, whatever we made of the content of the passage, the tone of our conclusions on the paragraph should be wrapped in the comfort of the letter’s context.

I’ve carried those words with me since: we need to pay attention to the tone of voice of the speaker. I still don’t know what exactly happens after we die: how our spirits and bodies might be separated or joined again at resurrection, how conscious we’ll be, what the first and 2nd resurrections might look like, or what hell is like. But I’m sure about Jesus’ tone of voice on which I want for me, and which one I definitely don’t want for me or anyone else. And that is sobering as hell.


Photo credit: free stock photos from Pexels.com

Women, Leadership & The Bible

Confession: When I heard that a book called “Women, Leadership and The Bible” had been released, my first thought was “just what we need… ANOTHER pushy book on women in the church.”

41EyH70ZyYL._AA160_But this is not that book, and in fact, the more I’ve read and the better I’ve got to know Dr Natalie Eastman—the author—the more excited I have been about it. Women, Leadership and The Bible is not a book that tells you WHAT to think, it’s a guide to HOW to work through the questions (and even identify the questions!), and to find answers in scripture yourself. The subtitle of the book is truthful: “How do I know what I believe? A Practical Guide to Biblical Interpretation.”

I believe every Christian woman should be able to handle the scriptures FOR HERSELF. Natalie Eastman is passionate about women being better equipped to ask better questions, to find better answers, to know what you believe and how you got there… and in this book she’s created a fantastic go-to resource which is thoughtful and thorough in approaching questions about women in scripture, but in fact questions about anything in scripture.

Eastman is so committed to women having the tools they need to wield the Word that, not only did she write a book, but she’s also developed a range of online tools and training videos for women to use everywhere. And when she asked if I would be interviewed for her series on how I go about interpreting the Scripture, I couldn’t say yes fast enough…. even though being videoed is seventy six times more terrifying to me than public speaking. Yes, friends, THAT’S how much I want to support this project.

So for you, readers? Here is the link to my interview on Natalie’s blog series: on studying the bible for all its worth. (the first six minutes or so are introduction, and then the interview goes another 35 mins or so. Also, my youngest kid makes a guest appearance at about 7 minutes 🙂 CUTIE PIE ALERT) You can click on the image to take you to the video, too.


Also, take a look at some of the FANTASTIC resources available at the Women, Leadership and the Bible website.. I mean, seriously, look at this line up of guest speakers on everything from handling tricky topics to a host of women sharing one tip they’ve gleaned about bible study… all streaming right to your little screen at the touch of a button.

AND – I have one copy of Women, Leadership and The Bible to send to a lucky reader. Enter below, and tell a friend. (Sorry, entrants must be in the USA or Canada….)

Enjoy, friends. This is a good one.

a Rafflecopter giveaway



Celebrating The Chutzpah of Crazy Jewish Moms

Confession: following Crazy Jewish Mom on Instagram is one of my social media guilty pleasures.

Kate Seigel created the account just a few months ago, and already has nearly half a million followers. On it, Kate shares “daily posts of actual texts with my neurotic, Jewish mother,” screen shots of her Mom’s hysterical (in both senses of the word) concerns about Kate’s safety (she lives in Brooklyn), her weight (hit the gym already), and most frequently, about Kate’s PROSPECTS.


Despite the fact that Kate has a job (she works as an associate producer at Conde Naste) and has a boyfriend (Superjew), her Crazy Jewish Mom is relentless in her zeal to see Kate married to a Jewish guy with Money Prospects; preferably a doctor. So she can have babies. Stat. Because, at 25, Kate’s eggs are catapulting towards their expiry date and She. Wants. Grandchildren.




My husband caught me wheezing with laughter late one night, and asked what was going on. I showed him the Crazy Jewish Mom account, which he immediately ruled out as being a fake. Surely no-one could be that crazy? But Spiegel insists that the texts are legit, and Heavy recently ran an expose on the mother’s identity.

I’ll admit that Crazy Jewish Mom’s texts seem alarmingly Over The Top: I can’t imagine my own Mom ever sending me anything in the same vein, but as I’ve been thinking over Crazy Jewish Mom, I’m reminded that what this Crazy Mama wants is remarkably recognizable: she wants her child to marry well and have children. She wants her to be safe. And if she has to call up her Crazy Side to make it happen, she’s willing to do it.

Crazy Jewish Mom may be a one of a kind Instagram sensation, but she is one in a very long line of sensational Jewish moms whose behavior may have seemed crazy at the time, but was borne out of love. One of the first Jewish moms in history, Rebekah, pioneered the path of crazy mama-bearness as she orchestrated for her favored son Jacob to receive his father’s deathbed blessing rather than his brother. The deception involved tricking a hearty stew and dressing smooth-skinned Jacob in goat’s fleece, so that their near-blind father would mistake him for his significantly hairier sibling. “Obey me,” hustled Rebekah, “so that he may bless you before his death,” (v10), and when Jacob protests she accepts full responsibility: “your curse be on me, my son; only obey my voice, and go.” (v13)

Anything, anything, to secure a blessed future for her darling boy.

Just a few generations later, Tamar worked up a highly sketchy plan when her Father-in-law, Judah, reneged on his promise to give her, a widow twice over, a third son by whom she could bear children and continue the family line. Knowing that Judah had no intention of giving her a Sperminator, she took matters into her own hands and stationed herself dressed as a prostitute along one of Judah’s trade routes. (She may as well have been following CJM’s advice: No ring on finger? Do not linger!)

Not recognizing her, Tamar’s Father-in-law propositioned her, and she secured his signet ring and staff as a downpayment for the fee which he promised later. Months went by, and Judah heard that his widowed daughter-in-law was pregnant (SCANDAL!), and sent for her to be stoned to death for her infidelity. Instead, she sent a note. With a signet ring and staff. “Remember these?” was the message.

Judah’s verdict on the situation is stunning: “She is more righteous than I,” he concludes (v26). He knew he owed her a family, and had failed to do so. And so, Tamar too, joined the ranks of famous Crazy Jewish Mamas, giving birth to twins by Judah.

I don’t think a discussion of Crazy Jewish Moms would be respectable unless we also made mention of Naomi, the Crazy Jewish Mother-in-Law, who herself showed something of a flare for the dramatic: “Don’t call me Naomi (which means pleasant)!” she cries in her grief. “Call me Mara (which means bitter), because the Almighty has made me bitter.” I’m so sad I’m changing my name.

However, her screaming soon gives way to scheming, and when Ruth providentially finds herself scouring a neighbors field for left-over food, Naomi is quick to point out that this neighbor is in a position to be more than a little neighborly towards them, as he is in fact Boaz: a relative who can bail them out of their situation. This, then, is the plan she suggests to guileless Ruth: take a bath, dress up fancy, put on perfume, and then wait until after the work party when Boaz is sleepy and full of wine and passes out on a pile of wheat on the threshing floor. Then sneak up to him in the dark, and uncover his feet (and here, read Jewish for “feet”, which means “nether regions”). When he wakes up, coaches Naomi, he’ll tell you what to do.

I’ll bet.

Crazy. Jewish. Mom.

Each of them careful, clever, and risking all to secure the best future for their children. Each of them wanting their children to receive the full blessings of Abraham’s promises.

Jesus had some crazy Jewish grandmothers: Rebekah, Tamar and Naomi’s schemes all gave them featured spots in the Messiah’s genealogy. And so it seems to me that there’s something innately blessed about that heritage of Crazy Jewish Moms: seeking the best for their children, and God being able to redeem the crazy in surprisingly wonderful ways.

Of course, not all ambitious moms were so honored. Samuel and Kings tell of a host of crazy Jewish moms who hatched EVIL plots to bump off contesters for the throne so that their sons might be king (I suppose these days, if you substitute “Cornell Plastic Surgeon” for “King” you might see some parallels), and Jesus himself had that famous conversation with James and John’s mom who came over to quietly negotiate a “spot in glory on his right and his left” for her two boys.

Maternal ambition doesn’t get a free pass on the crazy.

But I do think God knows that Moms have a soft spot for doing what we can to see that our children have every opportunity, and miss no blessing. And I am mindful that, on this side of history where the blessings of Abraham have been fulfilled in Jesus and are passed down to all those who are of his “seed” by faith, that wheedling to make sure our kids are best positioned for a full life remains part of my job as a Mom.

Of course, that has nothing to do with introducing them to a man with an Ivy League education, and everything to do with introducing them to Jesus. Even if that means crazy things like reading them the same book at bedtime year after year after year, being nosy about who they date, and insisting that they go to church.

Because I want them to have the very best prospects for the future, I’m embracing a little Crazy Jewish Mom in me, too.


Who put the X in Xmas?

who put the x in Christmas?

I have a page of notes in front of me: preparation for a talk from the Psalms and the Gospel of John. The page is full of tiny writing, and – in keeping with the shorthand custom I learned while at seminary – has no small amount of X’s and Θ’s.


The Greek word for God is ΘΕΟΣ (Theos), and so I write the first letter, a Theta (Θ) as a shorthand for God.

Similarly, the Greek word for Christ is ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Christos), and so I write the first letter, a Chi (Χ) as a shorthand for Christ.

The Early Christians did the same thing. The reason that the Fish became an emblem for early Christianity was not because of the large number of fisherman among the early disciples. The reason early Christians identified with a fish was because it had credal value. The Greek word for fish, ΙΧθΥΣ (Ichthus, from which we get ichthyology, the study of fish), also became an acronym for the foundational truths of the faith. The early Christians were the ones who believed in Jesus Christ, the Son of God (and) Savior).

In Greek, you would write those words this way:

IΕΣΥΣ (Jesus)

ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Christ)

θΕΟΥ (of God)

ΥΙΟΣ (Son)

ΣΩΤΗΡ (Savior)

Put the first letters together… and it spells “fish”.


So, this is just to say that I’m one of those Christians who has a list in my house that say “Xmas presents”. And I mean nothing but honor in writing it this way.

Just in case anyone was wondering.


Photo Credit: Jim – Ixthus door at Brite (Flickr Creative Commons)

Life as Dorcas: My Name As Gift, Burden and Calling

Today’s post is from my incredibly talented and kind friend, Dorcas Cheng-Tozun. I LOVE the way Dorcas lives her life, thinks purposefully, and crafts her words so beautifully to express things. I am so grateful she agreed to share her story of her relationship with her name as part of the Words That Changed My World series of reader submissions. 


Lone Tulip Dorcas


When I was young, I hated the first day of each school year. When the teacher was taking attendance, I always knew she had reached my name when she paused for a long time. “Dor… Doris? Dorsis? I’m sorry, I don’t know how to pronounce this.”

I would then raise my hand and correct her, simultaneously enunciating and softening the central consonant that was the bane of my existence. “It’s Dorcas.”

The laughter always came, and I would always stare straight ahead, refusing to make eye contact with anyone. Later came the questions from my classmates, who didn’t know much outside of their affluent, white suburban existence. “Is that a Chinese name?” Snicker. Giggle. “Or are you Japanese? Do your parents have weird names too?”

I would answer them directly because I didn’t know what else to do. “It’s a Greek name. It’s from the Bible. I’m Chinese, not Japanese. My parents’ names are Robert and Grace.” This was usually enough to confuse my peers into silence. But only for a few moments.

Biblical names are par for the course in my family, now Christian for four generations. After previous generations exhausted all the usual names, my parents wanted to get a little creative with me. But as new Chinese immigrants to the US, they had no idea what they were signing me up for.

By the time I reached high school, I had learned to hide my hurt well. But if anyone had been able to penetrate my outer shell of indifference, they would have found a heart full of shame—over who I was and who I thought I never could be, all because of a moniker that invited ridicule in a majority culture I was desperate to fit into.

The ninth chapter of Acts records a beautiful story of a woman named Tabitha, or Dorcas in Greek. She is described as a disciple “devoted to good works and acts of charity.” When she dies, all the widows in her community gather to mourn, clutching the articles of clothing she made for them. The Apostle Peter comes at the insistence of other disciples and raises her from the dead, the only record of Peter’s resurrecting someone. The town’s grief turns to celebration, and word of this miracle spreads throughout the region.

I love this story, but I have not loved bearing the name Dorcas. More often than not I have felt my name as a burden.

When I was in college, my eyes were opened to the burdens that less fortunate members of our society bore, burdens that were much more oppressive and degrading than a culturally inconvenient name. I then started a student group whose sole purpose was to build relationships with the homeless community near campus. My peers and I would go out and spend our weeknights asking questions and listening, in hopes of offering some dignity and care to struggling individuals.

One evening, a Vietnam vet I regularly saw named Jerry asked me to remind him of my name. As I always do, I hesitated before answering. “It’s Dorcas.”

His unshaven face, wrinkled and dusty, lit up. “From the Bible!” he exclaimed.

I returned his smile. “Yes! Most people don’t know that.”

He looked at me carefully. I couldn’t have been a particularly impressive sight—I was twenty but often mistaken for someone much younger—but Jerry held my gaze as he said, “You’re really living up to your name.”

Something inside of me stilled. I don’t remember what I said in response or what we discussed after that. But in the fifteen years since that conversation, I have not forgotten Jerry’s words. I thought of them when I decided to pursue a Sociology degree; I remembered them when I signed the contract for my first nonprofit job. His words stuck with me through more than a decade of development work, which took me from low-income communities in California to villages and cities in Malawi, China, India, and Kenya.

Now well into adulthood, I still occasionally run into the too-blunt adult who smothers a smirk before saying, “You must’ve been teased a lot as a kid, huh?” Whenever this happens, the old vestiges of shame threaten to return. But, thanks to Jerry’s words, I think instead of my parents and their pure hopes for me when they named me after a compassionate woman with a servant heart. I think of the amazing opportunities I’ve been given to try to change this world for the better. And I find myself being grateful for this unusual name that has helped shape an unusual life. It has occasionally been a burden, but the reality is that my name has always been a gift, a calling truly worth living up to.

Dorcas Cheng-Tozun HeadshotDorcas Cheng-Tozun is a writer, blogger, and editor who has found healing and hope through words. Previously she worked as a nonprofit and social enterprise professional in the US and Asia. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and adorable hapa son. You can find her online at  www.chengtozun.com or on Twitter (@dorcas_ct).

Photo credit: ‘Lone Tulip’, copyright here. Edited by Bronwyn Lea.

Garden-variety God-thoughts: growth

We planted our first vegetable garden when I was three months pregnant.

We pushed those little, dry, brown seeds of hope into that dark soil, and then we waited.

Sun, water, time.

Sun, water, time.

And one day, the tiniest little folds of green poked bravely out of the ground.

Sun, water, time.

Sun, water, time.

Newly pregnant, I marveled at the parallels: a little life forming in an unseen place because a seed had been planted. But everything after that? The miracle of life, unfolding in my yard, in my womb.

Spiritual growth is like that too. A little seed planted in our hearts, perhaps something we heard long ago. A little water, perhaps a sprinkling of encouraging conversation. A little sonlight. A little time.

It gives me such joy to watch things grow: vegetables, babies, faith.

“So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.
– 1 Corinthians 3:7


Truth in the details

P1010065“Mom, can I have a quesadilla?”

Instead of my usual retorts (“No, it’s 4:30pm and I’m serving dinner soon”, “Sorry, quesadillas aren’t on the menu tonight”, “It’s may I have a quesadilla, not can I” – Yes, I am a grammar nazi), this time I LEAPT out of my chair and started rummaging in the fridge for tortillas and cheese.

Why? Because it’s the first time in four days she has wanted to eat. It’s the first sign that she’s starting to feel better. And so quesadillas it is, my precious girl.

You know sick kids are better when they want a snack.

It’s little details like this that bring the gospels to life for me and remind me that they are eye-witness accounts of things that really happened: After Jesus healed Jairus’ daughter, the first thing she did was have something to eat (Mark 5:43). Yup. That’s exactly what a recovering child does. And after Peter’s mother-in-law was healed, the first thing she does is get up and work in the kitchen (Matthew 8:14). Yup, that’s exactly what I do.

It’s little details like being told that when Jesus calmed the storm, the disciples had to wake him up; since he was sleeping in the stern of the boat, on pillow (Mark 4:38). Two little details, included in the story because that’s just how they remember finding him.

Like John the fisherman telling of that amazing day when they came across the resurrected Jesus and he told them to throw their nets to the other side so they’d pull in a large haul of fish. The fisherman-narrator tells us that that they pulled in not just a large number of fish, but 153 of them. I wouldn’t have counted the number of fish (John 21:11). John did, and the detail smacks of truth.

They say the “devil’s in the details”. But for me, I see the ring of truth there.

On the fourth day

Photo credit: Ben Hwang - 8 Asians (Flickr Creative Commons)

Photo credit: Ben Hwang – 8 Asians (Flickr Creative Commons)

In the beginning of the week, the cupboards were bare and empty. And the woman said “Let there be shopping!” And there was shopping: bread and milk and coffee and fruit and every green thing filled the cupboards. And the woman looked at all she had bought and said “It is good.”

On the third day, the woman had a headache. And she said “let there be tylenol*!” And there, in her bathroom, was tylenol. And there was evening (more tylenol) , and there was morning (more ibuprofen): The third day.

On the fourth day, the woman still had a headache. And she considered her circumstances, and that perhaps, in all the shopping glory, the decaf coffee had been switched with the caffeinated coffee. And she said “let there be caffeine”. And so she mixed her two bags of unmarked coffee together – to make sure there was at least 50% caffeinated beans – and brewed it. And she took some, and gave it to the man who was with her. And the headache went away. And it was very, very good.

Laugh in translation

I laughed out loud to discover that the verse in the New Living Translation (NLT) which reads:

You guided my conception
and formed me in the womb
.” (Job 10:10)…

… reads as follows in more literal translations:

Did you not pour me out like milk
and curdle me like cheese
?” (NIV)

Hilarious! 🙂

** For those who are tempted to think that this is just another example of why the Bible is confusing and ridiculous, here’s a quick precis to explain a bit about the Bible translation process and how such apparent anomalies can exist 🙂

The Bible was originally written in Hebrew and Greek (with a teensy bit of Aramaic). We have a variety of translations in English. They are all pretty good, but the differences between them are marked. This is due to choices one has to make in translation. When translating anything from one language to another, you often must decide whether you’re going to translate the literal meaning or the word, or translate the implied meaning of the word. So as an example: if you were translating the sentence “I’m feeling blue” from English to another language – you could either opt for literally translating the word “blue” as a colour, or you could choose the word “sad” to convey the meaning of the English expression.

Literal” translations, such as the NASB and ESV, choose to translate the idiom word for word, if possible, and rely on our learning of Hebrew and Greek thought to interpret the meaning. Others, like the NLT, choose try to interpret the meaning of the idiom as faithfully as possible into English. The NIV is considered to be a bit of a “middle-road” translation between the two approaches. I wouldn’t have known it, but apparently “milk-pouring” and “cheese curdling” are Semitic idioms referring to procreation!