To Brielle

There is a girl I know whose middle name is “Stinkin’.” Well, not exactly. That’s just what I always interject into her name. It’s not cruel or mean, you see, but simply one of those things you pick up by being friends with someone through high school. I’m sure most of you have given or received something along those lines in your life.

Alas, for my own friend, the name has taken something of an unfortunate significance. It has become prophetic. I once simply called for “Stinkin'” for ironic fun. It was the insult with no teeth. The problem today is that her life has caught up to this name. Her life stinks. I do not refer to her own choices or character, which pertain only to God. I mean events which have befallen her. My stinkin’ friend has come to bear a stinkin’ body, a body wretched with the burnings of death within. With this and other stinkin’ problems have come a stinkin’ mess for her own heart and mind. She’s found confusion and chaos which do not belong in a good world to a good friend. Her cosmos collapses, and it stinks.

Of course, all of this must be tempered with a very simple observation. “Stinkin'” is not really her name. Her actual middle name is Brielle. And Brielle is a very different name. There is nothing awful or distasteful about Brielle like “Stinkin’.” Instead, Brielle is lovely. “Stinkin'” may denote a very miserable creature indeed, but Brielle speaks of a goddess. It is short for Gabrielle, a feminine form of Gabriel, which means “man of God” or perhaps “God is my strength.” You can hear either of those meanings in the short and sublime name Brielle. You’d be forgiven for mistaking it for the name of a divine being itself. Brielle suggests qualities of lightness, femininity, vitality, elegance, laughter, and the good. It is a name to elevate and dazzle with simple and innocent glory.

The name Brielle, then, stands in stark contrast with “Stinkin’.” One speaks of all that is wrong and mournful, the other of all that is right and merry. This makes the turn of life bizarre. Why does Brielle, the real name, seem to speak of a fantasy while “Stinkin’,” the fake name, seems to speak of the real world? How can such a thing happen? And since it does happen, is there any justice?

Perhaps these questions have no accessible answers. Maybe they are hidden in the mind of God. But God has a peculiar habit of speaking His mind. And what He has said on a few occasions leads me to question these questions with a radically different question.

What if Brielle is real?

What if “Stinkin'” is a sham?

I cannot but suspect that my friend is Brielle after all. For this age is the age of shadow, and only the age to come is the real thing. In this age, she struggles and suffers as though God Himself has turned against her. But if anything is the sham, I believe with all my heart it is this age. The age to come is the light, the truth in which perhaps Brielle, not “Stinkin’,” is the authentic character. Perhaps she is destined to glory. And in this case, why not name her by her true name? She is Brielle, whose strength is the God who named her. The stink may last for a night, but I see the first rays of joy coming in the morning.

In this spirit, then, I have a message to my friend. To Brielle:


As I sat on my bed, an angel of God carried me away, and said, “Come, I will show you the ruined goddess, whose has suffered, suffers now, and shall suffer again. The eyes of the Lamb are upon her day and night.”

So I looked, and behold, I saw a young girl upon a bed, wearing a blue gown, with a mark across her forehead which read, “MYSTERY: BRIELLE ABANDONED.” And men in white robes were coming and going with scrolls, speaking, but I could not hear their voices. They looked upon the girl and frowned. Some appeared distressed, some appeared confused, and some appeared angry. As I looked at their faces, I wept.

Suddenly I heard a loud voice from above the angels, saying:

How desolate sits Brielle,
pitiable among people!
She has become like a widow,
alone in her distress.
She weeps bitterly in the night;
her tears are on her cheeks.
All her gates are desolate,
and her temple lies in ruins.

It began in her temple,
corruption emerged in the stones.
Moth and rust came to feed,
and they would not be satisfied.
The enemy has stretched out his hand
over all her treasures.
She says, “I am in distress;
my inner parts are in torment!”

Then I looked again, and the eyes of the Lamb were fixed on the girl. They shone like the sun, and it seemed to me that they were glistening with tears. Then another voice spoke, and I perceived that it was the voice of the girl. She said:

My God, my God why have you forsaken me?
Why are you far from helping me,
far from the words of my groaning?
My tears have been my food day and night,
while they say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
I am the one who has seen affliction
under the rod of God’s wrath.
Yes, He repeatedly turns His hand
against me all day long.

And I wept again when I heard the girl’s words. I wanted to speak to her, but I found I could not open my mouth. In my distress, I looked and saw the Lamb, who was still gazing at the girl. Drops of blood came down His face, and He scratched at the scars of His slaughter. So I said to the angel, “Who sinned that this girl should be made desolate under the Lamb’s eye, her or her parents?”

And the angel said, “Neither her nor her parents have sinned.”

I began to say, “Then why does she suffer?” But as I opened my mouth, the ground shook, the bed split, and the girl fell to the ground. Her gown was torn, and she wept bitterly. I turned and said to the Lamb in a loud voice, “Will you not help her?” But the Lamb was not there. And there was blood where He had stood.

The angel said to me, “Did the Lamb help the girl?”

“No,” I replied.

Then the angel growled like a beast, and I shrunk back in fear. He continued to speak. “Come. I will show you the aid of the Lamb.” So he took me away to a dark sanctuary. He lit 7 candles, and the room was filled with light and a sweet smell. I looked, and I saw the Lamb bound to an altar. His fur was soaked with blood, and He gasped as He breathed. He cried out in a loud voice,

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Then He was not, and I was taken back to the girl. I heard her sing a terrible song:

My days vanish like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is afflicted,
withered like grass;
I even forget to eat my food.
Because of the sound of my groaning,
my flesh sticks to my bones.

As she finished her song, I turned and saw the Lamb once again. He stood at an exceedingly great distance. His fur was no longer bloody, but white. He stood taller than He had before, and fire was in His eyes. He mounted a white horse and came galloping toward her, but He was still a long way off. But the girl did not see Him, and she wept over her miseries.

Then I was overcome by her predicament. I said to the angel, “Why can she not see Him?”

He said in a soft voice, “She can see you.”

I was startled at this, and I looked, and the girl was looking at me. I tried to speak and could not. But I saw the Lamb coming on the horizon, and my mouth opened:

Brielle, Brielle,
why do you mourn?
Why is your face downcast?
Do you not see?
Have you not heard?
The Lamb is coming,
and He rides near even now.

The Lamb has seen you,
and He has heard your divine tears.
He will rebuild your walls,
and He will cleanse your temple.
Your ruins will become shining gates,
and towers will rise from your ashes.

The Lamb holds a hammer,
and nails are in His hands.
He is a carpenter,
the son of a carpenter.
He is skilled at building,
and He makes all things new.

I heard the Lamb.
He spoke to me by His eyes.
His gaze was upon you,
and in His face, I saw your own.
Hear Him, hear Him,
for this is what the Lamb says:

“I will make peace flow to her like a river,
and healing like a great flood.
You will see, you will rejoice,
and you will flourish like grass.
Her compassionate one will guide her,
and lead her to springs of water.”

I pray, then, Brielle,
hope in the Lamb!
He rides with the clouds
and comes with the winds.
But do not be dismayed,
and do not be distracted.

The Lamb, the Lamb,
He is your hope.
Do not forget Him in your distress.
Do not fail to call on His name.
He has not always seemed a friend,
but He has always been the Friend.

Yes, Brielle, He is a paradox,
and His name is Mystery.
He does not always take your side,
but He is always on your side.
He does not always join your cause,
but you are always His cause.
He does not always agree with you,
but He always defends you.
He is not always what you want,
but He always wants you.
He does not always secure you,
but He always rescues you.
He does not always approve,
but His love always proves.
He does not always get you,
but He is always for you.

Do you not see?
Have you not heard?
The Lamb, the Lion of Judah,
He knows your distress.
Out of all people, you two have suffered,
He and you have been God-forsaken.

But the Lamb was not forsaken—
what does this mean for you?
His flesh was destroyed,
but He was restored evermore.
But His flesh is your flesh,
and His bone is your bone.

When I finished speaking, an angel carried me away. He said, “Come, and I will show you the goddess who has suffered, suffers now, and shall suffer again. But after suffering for 10 days, she was found by the Lamb.”

Then I saw the girl once again, no longer in a blue gown but a white dress. A crown sat on her head, and on it was written the name of the Lamb. She was no longer crying. Instead, the Lamb wiped away every tear from her eyes, and she laughed. The song of her laughter filled the air, and no sadness could be found for 144,000 miles.

Then a voice like a trumpet declared:

Look, I am making all things new!
What is dead will come to life,
and what is empty will be filled.
And I will give the goddess to the Lamb,
and He will be her God and she will be His bride.

When the voice finished, there was silence for half an hour. The Lamb and the girl walked together until they passed over a great hill, and from the hill came sounds of joy greater than all the joy heard on earth. I smiled, but an angel grabbed me and said, “Behold, you have seen many things. These things shall shortly come to pass, but they may not come to pass at all. What you have seen can only take place if the girl hears the words you have been given. Let her hear them, and believe, and all these things shall be. But if she does not hear them, or if she cannot believe them, all is lost. The Lamb longs for her. He is gazing upon her now. She is Brielle, woman of God, and He is her God. She is Brielle, whose strength is God, and He is her God.”

To Brielle, and to all who know her, or love her, and suffer like her, be grace and peace from the Lamb. These things must shortly take place. Amen.

Drowning depravity in God’s love with furry bats

I have just finished Ted Dekker’s Circle series for the second time in my life (the first was many years ago). If you’re not familiar with it, it is a pretty worthy entry in the realm of Christian fantasy. Like a surprising percentage of Christian fantasy, it involves two parallel realities with the main character, Thomas Hunter, visits back and forth (although one is not so much another reality as a radically changed version of earth 2000 years in the future). Most interestingly, Thomas switches realities by dreaming. Every time he goes to sleep in one world, he wakes up in the other.

The basic idea of this second world (which receives no unique name) is that what was spiritual in our reality take physical form there. Angels and demons are large, bat-like creatures called Roush and Shataiki, respectively. Satan is a massive Shataiki named Teeleh capable of both beautiful and awful appearance. Sin manifests itself as a disease which affects the skin, joints, heart, and mind. God, who goes by Elyon in this realm, puts His own power and presence in lakes which can usually be breathed. There are several other thought-provoking connections of this kind, but unfortunately I’d probably give too much away to mention them.

It is in this context that the Circle books, Black, Red, White, and Green, trace a story in each reality. In our world, Thomas Hunter fights to stop the impending apocalypse (of which he learns from the other, future reality) caused by a biological weapon. In the other world, he finds himself mixed up with the whole sweep of redemptive history as it is played out in this new mix of the physical and spiritual.

At this point, I’d simply say “Read it” before explaining anything more about what happens. But there are a few things I’ve been thinking about in its wake that I’d like to mention. Some of these are hinted in the title, but some are not.

First, Dekker’s main emphasis would have to be God’s love. Much of the series is devoted to the experience of Elyon’s love for the people of the other reality, often through their swimming in Elyon’s waters or, also importantly, through human romance. Elyon also appears on several occasions, always expressing his love for his creation and inspiring in Thomas or whoever a powerful sense of reciprocal love. Granted, some of this comes through in ways which I don’t find theologically agreeable (there is, for example, no sense of even a qualified divine impassibility), but as a sign and pointer to the love of the true God it is worth the read. No matter how you feel about the details, it will push you to consider just how much God loves us all. Much of this comes through the other reality’s explanation of their religion as the Great Romance, which patterns all of life after Elyon’s love for his creation and focuses especially on how this can be expressed through marriage. Elyon’s pattern, which the people are encouraged to follow, is to choose, to pursue, to rescue, to woo, to protect, and to lavish. I think this is nutritious food for the Christian imagination.

Second, one of the most powerful images you will find in the series is baptism as a literal drowning into blood-water. I won’t give too much away about the plot connected to this, but I do want to highlight some good stuff here. To follow Elyon, his followers drown in red water and then return alive. This alone is powerful, showcasing the radical commitment baptism is meant to express, its efficacy, and how it binds us to Christ’s death and resurrection in our own lives.

The baptismal imagery is even better, though, because of water happens as they drown. They experience great pain as they see in shock and horror the blackness of their own hearts, and they are forced hear Elyon scream in anguish at their evil. This all happens before they can return, before they come out of the water alive. This combines with a wider theme of the series in exposing evil with all its awfulness. The descriptions of the Shataiki and their doings can be incredibly disturbing at times, along with the violence they inflict on Elyon’s people. If these books were made into movies, they would probably need to be rated R (maybe PG-13 if they had a squeamish director) for terror and frightening images, even if these in fact don’t make up a ton of the story. The lengths to which certain characters are simply consumed and seduced (sometimes more literally) by evil and darkness can also be disturbing in another way. All of this makes for a rather accurate depiction of what sin actually is and how God actually sees it, unlike the more tame and less offensive mental images we tend to harbor to excuse our depravity.

Third, Dekker’s theology is, like a lot of Christian fiction writers, strong in some areas but weird in others. He focuses more than I can understand on free will, and I say that as someone who’s not a Calvinist (in the classical sense). His commitment to a free will theology/theodicy/philosophy leads to a few oddities here and there (such as Elyon telling Thomas, “I have a lot riding on you”), but most weirdly to the suggestion that we need full free will so much that there will remain through all eternity the possibility of yet another Fall, yet another need for redemption. This has various problems, I think, but I’ll grant that it has more logical consistency than what many free will-focused theologians suggest about life after death. That said, he still makes it clear that Elyon is all-knowing and has a comprehensive plan for and through all of the free decisions of his creatures. And of course, like most evangelicals these days, he’s definitely into the bloody, Left Behind-ish, premillenial, apocalyptic literalism that taints so much eschatology, even if this comes out much differently in his other reality’s apocalypse.

That said, for a fantasy writer skeptical of formalizing or institutionalizing Christianity, he’s still remarkably conservative. Readers of the Circle series will not find hope for the salvation of unbelievers, certainly not universalism, nor any shyness about the Old Testament portrayal of God the Warrior, nor any indications of sympathy to the LGBT cause (indeed, his setup for the Great Romance seems to militate against this). This is refreshing in a day of more and more progressivism infiltrating evangelical circles and imaginations.

So, all that said, I don’t see much need for more of a conclusion. Just read the books. You’re up for a pretty fun story (though I liked it better before he added Green), and you will have loads to think about. If you’re anything like me, you will definitely find yourself provoked to thoughts of reverence, awe, and love toward God. That’s worth the 1600 pages, in my opinion.

Find the Circle Series on Amazon here

Jesus will judge Joe’s salvation, so you don’t have to.

Stop it.

Stop trying to discern who is “really” saved and who isn’t.

I say this as a simple message I’ve slowly learned from reading Scripture. Simply put: there is never a Biblical command or permission for us as individuals in the Church to make decisions about whether other individuals in the Church are actually Christians or not.

There are similar issues, to be sure. We are commanded to discern false teachers, but their position of authority and destructive impact, not to mention their peculiar relationship to the churches they teach, makes their case quite different from Joe in the pew. We are also commanded to discern between false churches and the true Church based on the criteria of love, holiness, and sound doctrine (specifically, a right view of who Jesus is). And finally, we are certainly commanded to judge between good and evil actions and lives, and to call our brothers and sisters to repent if they sin.

But, none of that is the same as a command or permission to decide whether Joe two pews down is a “real Christian” or something else.

There is no such command. Nor is there such a permission.

If Joe is participating in the life of the Church through a local congregation, we have only one proper response: accept him as a brother. If he is a living a life or espousing doctrines that contradict the Christian faith, we may and should by all means call him out and ask him to repent. If he doesn’t, we should certainly exercise church discipline up to and including excommunication, cutting him off and kicking him out. But until (and perhaps only until) that point, we are only allowed to treat him as a wayward brother, someone who has strayed from the truth and needs to return.

The one thing we have no right to do is try to decide whether we’ll see him in glory on Judgment Day. We can’t declare him “real Christian” or “fake Christian,” or speculate about the negative possibilities for his eternal destiny. Why? Because until he is removed from the congregation (which he should be if he persists in unrepentance), we have no ground to stand on from which to make such a judgment, even as a personal opinion. We have only one option: take his baptized identity for granted and treat him as a member of Christ’s Body. Apart from Jesus’ promise to be with us when two or three are gathered to execute church discipline, we don’t have any basis for saying otherwise. So our job is to treat them all as brothers until Jesus comes back to sort out His own household. He is the Judge who sees in the depths of the heart and knows the reality of all faith or pretending. He will make sure of who is His far better than we ever could.

So in case it’s not obvious exactly what I’m proposing, I’ll break it down:

Treat everyone in the congregation of the Church as a “real Christian.” Period.
If they sin or adopt heresy, call them to repent.
If they continually refuse to repent, boot them out.
Treat everyone outside the Church as outside of Christ. Period.

I think this solves lots of problems, and I think it’s Biblical. Nowhere in Scripture do we find commands or permissions to try to discern between true and false, real or fake, members of the Body. Instead, we find strong church discipline and letters which address whole churches as believers. We find acknowledgments than human judgment is utterly fallible and based on the outside, and that only God sees the heart for what it is.

Note that, again, none of this is to say we can’t judge sinful lives and behaviors as sinful, and even seriously so, or judge heresies as heretical. We must do these things, and do them consistently without compromise. But we aren’t permitted to go from “Joe is living sinfully right now [or for a long time]” immediately to “Joe isn’t a Christian.” We instead must bind ourselves to the form of the Church and its authority in this age, where we come together and go through the appropriate processes of discussion and discernment to execute discipline or encourage restoration.

Anything beyond that is a presumption of Christ’s own prerogative over His Church, a denial of His own right to discern and define His bride.

This is not, I want to emphasize, just a part of the “Don’t judge,” “You don’t know their heart!” or “Your Christian walk is just between you and God” cultures. We must judge right from wrong, darkness from light, goodness from evil, and obedience from rebellion. People’s actions do expose, to at least some degree, their hearts. And our walk with God is not our own, but is part of a collective pilgrimage of the whole Church in which we are all members of one Body whose lives affect and determine each other.

But none of that puts us in a place to discern the core: what actual relation someone in Christ’s Church has to Christ. How are we to know who will repent, who is going through a David/Bathsheba fall, who is disrupted like Peter, or who was like Judas all along? We cannot know from our limited perspectives what is really going on, and we must defer to Christ. Our only responsibility is to remove the wicked person from among ourselves, but love them before, during, and after.

Basically, as Romans 14:4 says, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”