Descending into Hell
By Dr. Chris Dorn
If ever asked whether I have ever doubted the existence of God, I would have to answer that I have not. To me the evidence that the visible universe is the product of an intelligent will is overwhelming. But then I also think that John Calvin is right when he states that deep down no one really asks whether God exists, but rather what sort of God it is who exists. In other words, we don’t ask whether God exists, but whether God is good. Of course, we hear and confess in our worship that God is good, but in our hearts we want the bedrock assurance that God is good to us. That does not always come so easily, especially in those dark times when this assurance is shaken.
Does the Presbyterian tradition contain the resources to help us in our anguish as we wrestle with this question during those dark times? It does. As Rev. Helen reminded us at the meeting of session earlier this month, a distinguishing feature of the Presbyterian Church (USA) is that it does not possess a single confession of faith, but rather a number of confessions. In addition to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, it has adopted six confessions and atechisms from the Reformation era (Scots Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, Second Helvetic Confession, Westminster Confession of Faith, Westminster Larger Catechism, and Westminster Shorter Catechism). To these it has added four confessions (Barmen Declaration, Confession of 1967, Brief Statement of Faith, and Belhar Confession) that were forged in the fires of political and ecclesiastical conflicts in the twentieth century.
It would be worthwhile for members of First Presbyterian to become more familiar with this rich confessional tradition, and perhaps in the future an adult education course dedicated to this topic can be organized at our church. But for now, I want to focus on the Heidelberg Catechism. First published in 1563 to consolidate and promote the Protestant reforms at the Church of the Rhine Palatinate (southwest Germany), the Heidelberg Catechism has profoundly stamped the spirituality of Presbyterian and Reformed Christians until recent times. Organized into a series of 129 questions and answers for use in teaching Reformed doctrine, it served as a primary text for catechism classes in Reformed and Presbyterian churches, even as late as my parents’ generation. In fact, young people were required to commit much of it to memory.
Rest assured that we will not be so ambitious here. We want only to single out question and answer 44, which attempts to interpret a phrase in the second article of the Apostles’ Creed:
Question: “Why is there added [in the Creed], ‘he descended into hell’?”
Answer: “To assure me that in times of personal crisis and temptation that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, especially on the cross, but also earlier, has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.”
I want us to reflect on this affirmation—that Christ’s suffering somehow delivers me from my suffering. What can this possibly mean? David Kelsey, professor emeritus of theology at Yale Divinity School was puzzled over this very question. To explore it, he wrote a powerful little book titled Imagining Redemption (Louisville: WJKP, 2005). What does it mean to say that God redeems (sets free) in Christ? But Kelsey does not begin with theological concepts. Rather, he begins by telling the moving story of a family he knew for more than twenty years. I reproduce the story he relates in the book here.
The man was a professor, the woman a part-time secretary. Both led busy and active lives and were involved in their local church. They were raising two daughters and a son, Sam. On the Friday before the Fourth of July weekend, two months before his eighth birthday, Sam’s father discovered the young boy in the house, collapsed on the floor. Sam’s breathing had become labored, and his face was turning blue. They rushed Sam to the hospital. In the emergency room, the doctor, the nurses, and the intern attempted to get Sam breathing on his own. When they failed, they began to hand-pump oxygen into his lungs as they strapped him onto a gurney and wheeled him to the intensive care unit. There the surgeon had to perform an emergency tracheotomy and connect Sam to a respirator. Then Sam went into a coma.
Sam spent almost four months in the ICU, three of which in a coma, before he was able to breathe on his own again. For the next seven months Sam stayed in a rehab hospital, where he had to learn to walk again, use his fingers, hands and arms. Almost exactly one year after the onset of his illness, Sam was discharged from the hospital.
But the trouble for Sam and his family was only beginning. Sam acted out at home and at school. His academic performance was poor. And he had difficulties interpreting other peoples’ responses to him. For example, he was unable to recognize that he wasn’t being “funny” but was instead infuriating everyone with whom he tried to interact. Psychological tests later showed that he had suffered subtle types of brain damage, likely caused by the oxygen deprivation he had suffered at the onset of his illness.
The strain of all this on the family was overwhelming. Sam’s sisters, in early adolescence at the time of Sam’s illness, withdrew from the family’s life into their rooms or into their friends’ lives and families. Their father was emotionally unavailable to them. He felt paralyzed by a fear that is common in those who feel overcome by life’s adversities.
As if all this were not enough for one family to undergo, three years after Sam’s return from the hospital, his mother suffered a psychotic break from reality. She was diagnosed with a major depressive disorder, for which he had to be hospitalized. When she came back home, she was still very depressed. Sam’s father was unable to cope with Sam and his wife, his two daughters, and manage his responsibilities at work. The state’s Department of Children and Youth Welfare Services and Sam’s dad agreed that Sam needed to be placed in a residential care facility that specialized in children with severe behavioral problems. In the meanwhile, Sam’s mother committed suicide.
What possible difference could Jesus make in this terrible situation? Let me focus on one among several ways that Kelsey addresses this question. He invites us to consider Jesus as the fellow sufferer who understands. “God understands what you are going through; God is going through it with you, because he has bound himself to humanity in Jesus Christ.” We may expect to hear something like this from a well-meaning pastor or friend, who is trying to comfort us in our own hells. And there is something true here. To know your suffering is understood by
someone, especially by God, is comforting. To be comforted is to be calmed and soothed; it is to be empowered, strengthened to soldier on. But is characterizing Jesus as the fellow sufferer who understands really adequate? No, it does not entirely capture what it means that God works in and through what Jesus does and suffers. We can imagine Sam and his family responding: “Lord, we really appreciate your concern and your understanding. It does help us to carry on. But could you not change things for us?”
There is something more. According to Kelsey, the power of the evil that devastated the lives of Sam and his family lies in this: it binds them to the past. Terrible situations freeze people in time and close them off to new possibilities for the future. We all know people like this. They cannot let go of what happened to them. They do not allow for any new joyful event, any new creative activity, or any new relationship. And why? Because nothing can be allowed to be more definitive of who they are than that terrible situation in the past.
For example, as Sam becomes more capable of managing his own affairs, he still cannot allow himself to live with more freedom because of who he is. He has defined his identity in terms of one who is dependent on others because of his disabilities. He lives as though he has always to keep his self-definition as a survivor of a terrible situation before the public eye. As he matures in his ability to make friends, he does not succeed in maintaining a social network, because he has forged his identity around that one who has lost the support of his family. Lacking a support system is part of his identity.
It is the same for Sam’s father. He has organized his entire life around his perceived responsibilities for Sam. He is totally defined by who Sam needs him to be. Both are distorted identities,in bondage.
Kelsey here makes an important distinction that help us to understand how Jesus’ suffering sets free: God’s identifying with our suffering in the suffering of Jesus—this is not just God’s way of understanding what we are going through. It is the strange way God loves us. In fact, it is just this love that sets free the distorted personal identities like Sam’s and his father’s from their bondage to the past. God’s love in Jesus’ suffering is the most “embracing context of their lives.”
To say the most embracing context of their lives is to say here that there is nothing greater than this love. “I am convinced that neither height nor depth, neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons…nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38). That embracing context cannot be warped, constrained or in any way defined by the past; there is only God’s free and loving creativity in the present. Sam’s and his father’s identities are opened to the future and freed from bondage to the past when they are defined by God’s love now.
It’s not that this terrible situation is erased, as if it never happened. That is not what redemption means. But the poison has been drawn out of it. It has been stripped of the power it once had. It has been enfolded into something greater, something that is big enough to contain it. And it is by living into this something greater that Sam and his father can be set free from the terrible things they have undergone in the past. God’s loving them in Jesus’ suffering is greater than these things. They have only to trust that it is this love that makes their lives worth living.
Living into that trust takes time. But it is not the trusting itself that will deliver them from their bondage to the past. It is God’s loving them that will do that.
In Christ God descends into our hells. That is what the Apostles’ Creed affirms. That is what the Heidelberg Catechism attempts to interpret for us. But we are missing the point if we see in this only the assurance that God understands and gives us the strength to endure. No, there is more. In descending into our hells he sets us free from them. And that is good news worth preaching to suffering humanity.
On the Calendar this month…
10/2 – 9:30 A.M. Quilters
10/3 – 10:30 A.M. Travelogue for Presbyterians on the Go
10/6 – World Communion Sunday
8:30 A.M. Harkness Handbells practice
10:00 A.M. Worship, Communion Sunday School
11:00 A.M. Fellowship
11:30 A.M. Children’s Choir
10/9 – 9:30 A.M. Quilters
10/10 – 1-3 P.M. Prayer Shawl Group
10/13 – 8:30 A.M. Harkness Handbells practice
10:00 A.M. Worship, Sunday School
11:00 A.M. Fellowship
11:30 A.M. Children’s Choir
10/16 – 9:30 A.M. Quilters
10/17 – 1-3 P.M. Prayer Shawl Group
5 P.M. Soup Kitchen, Team 2 Cindy Rozich, Captain
10/20 – 8:30 A.M. Harkness Handbells practice
10:00 A.M. Worship, Sunday School
11:00 A.M. Fellowship
11:30 A.M. Children’s Choir
10/23 – 9:30 A.M. Quilters
10/24 – 1-3 P.M. Prayer Shawl Group
10/27 – 8:30 A.M. Harkness Handbells practice
10:00 A.M. Worship, Sunday School
10/27 – 11:00 A.M. Fellowship
11:30 A.M. Children’s Choir
10/30 – 9:30 A.M. Quilters
10/31 – 1-3 P.M. Prayer Shawl Group
2 Alexis Parvin
4 Ernie Ross
6 Jim VanSyckle
8 Nancy Satterlee
11 Dr. Chris Dorn
12 Anna VanSyckle
20 Sue Thompson
29 Mike Fuhrman
October 17, 5:00 P.M.
Captain, Cindy Rozich
VETERANS DAY MUSICAL TRIBUTE
SUNDAY NOVEMBER 10th, 6PM
Mark your calendar and invite your family and friends to this event.
More information to follow in bulletins and in next month’s FPC newsletter.
Gas and Electrical Expenses for August
Gas – $91.09
Electric – $180.94
Income and Expense Report for July
Monthly budget needs $5437.08
October Worship Stewards
October 6 — World Communion Sunday – Liturgist: Lee Hunsberger, Greeters/Ushers: Duane and Judi Emlinger, Bill Robinson
Communion Preparers/servers to be announced, Fellowship: Marilyn McKay
October 13 – Liturgist: Perry Gregory; Ushers/Greeter: Lavonna and David Hoover, Pat Gustafson; Children’s Message: Dr. Chris Dorn Fellowship: Ross and Steele
October 20 – Liturgist: Kathy VanSyckle; Ushers/Greeters: Marcia and Ernie Ross, Linda Steele, Children’s Message: Judi Emlinger Fellowship: VanSyckle/Campbell
October 27 – Liturgist: Shelly Reglin; Ushers/Greeters: Keith and Lynn Sterner, Norma Kilpatrick; Children’s Message: Dr. Chris Dorn; Fellowship: Christian Ed
New Bible Study
Plans for a women’s Bible Study group are underway. We will begin in mid October with a five week study using the book The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henry Nouwen. We plan to meet in the evenings, beginning at 7 PM, to allow those who work during the day to attend. Wednesdays or Thursdays are being considered with members meeting in homes of those wishing to host.
If you are interested in being a part of this beginning study, please sign up in the fellowship area or call/text Carol Campbell at 419-937-5754. Indicate which night would be preferable to you, and we will select the one when the most people can attend! Once we know how many interested folks there are, books will be ordered. It is hoped that this will be the beginning of one or more Bible Study groups in the church! Let us hear from you!
The Presbyterians on the Go will continue meeting the first Thursday of each month at 10:30 A.M. for a travelogue. Everyone is welcome to come, young or old.
There will be no travelogue on September 5th, instead we will go to the Commission on Aging for lunch.
Restorative Justice Conference
On Saturday October 19, 2019, the Third Annual Restorative Justice Conference : Radical Forgiveness will be held at Cathedral Square Center 360 Division Ave. South, Grand Rapids.
It is organized by students in the Calvin Prison Initiative program at the R. A. Handlon Correctional facility with a theme of Radical Forgiveness. Kate Grosmaire, author of Forgiving My Daughter’s Killer: A True Story of Loss, Faith, and Unexpected Grace, will deliver the keynote address. This is a free event (registration required) with lunch provided. If you are interested in attending, please let either Pastor Chris or Margaret Gregory know. We plan to car pool.
Can you please help Carter?
Carter is a 14 year old boy who has autism and attends Saranac school. His grandmother is helping him by asking people to collect plastic caps/tops from bottles, laundry containers and any other item that has a plastic top. His goal is to obtain 250 pounds of these items to build a recycled bench by the time he graduates. He will begin the 8th grade soon and this is a class project.
He is very excited about this and I have permission from his mother to ask our congregation to help him reach his goal. Could you save any plastic top and put them in our shopping cart? Carter thanks you for your help.
We would like to thank everyone who helped with this event. A special thanks to DevinDowsett who catered our wonderful dinner that was enjoyed by all. Thank you to those who purchased tickets, donated items and/or money, purchased tickets for the raffle, bought silent and/or live auction items and helped with set up and clean up for that night. This first-time event was successful with FPC making a profit of over $9,000. We are blessed with community, faith and friendship.
Margaret Gregory, Perry Gregory, Barb Klenk, Lee Hunsberger, Shalyn Ralston, Norma
Kilpatrick, Keith Sterner, Warren Thompson, Sue Thompson
Please note that Rev. Jon Clifton has moved.
His new address is:
5785 Somerset Drive #B4
Bath, MI 48808
A minute for Session
Session Highlights These minutes are of the June 17, 2019 meeting.
- The 2018 Session minutes were approved without exception May 4, 2019 at North Park
- Presbyterian Church in Rockford.
- Oscar Edward Johnson, member #611, died April 29, 2019. His death has been recorded in the official membership rolls. On July 13, 2019, a Celebration of Life service will be held in the church sanctuary.
- Rev. Havlik gave a report of the June 11, 2019 presbytery meeting at the First Presbyterian Church in Hesperia. Rev. Linda Rubingh from New City Kids gave the morning message entitled Message of Abundance. There was a Faith Journey statement from Barbara Schreur as she is being examined for ordination. Lynne McQuown talked about the Youth Triennium. There was a liturgy and prayer to honor the works of the First Presbyterian Church in Albion, which was recently dissolved. Rev. Alice Ankutse gave the Ghana mission report. The presbytery has decided to add more churches to the Vital Congregation Initiative.
- A motion was passed to open a share account at the Portland Federal Credit Union.
- A motion was passed to approve a fundraiser for September 7, 2019.
- A motion was passed to accept Linda Kaufman’s offer to put together a pictorial directory.
- Lee Hunsberger, Co-Chairperson of the Budget and Finance Committee, has moved funds in low interest savings accounts to CD’s paying higher interest. The proposed budget reflects a conservative estimate of income and a realistic estimate of expenses. Currently, a deficit of nearly $4,000 is anticipated. Once the contract with Dr. Dorn is settled, it is anticipated there will be a bigger deficit.
- Dr. Warren Thompson, Co-Chair of Building and Grounds, reported the Girl Scouts have planted their community garden on the south side of the parking lot. A motion was approved to spend $350 for new lava rock to be added to the landscaping in the front of the church. After many attempts to fix the perpetual leak over the central entrance.
- Perry Gregory and Mr. Roof seem to have finally gotten it fixed. Rick Steele deter- mined the foundation was leaking from all the water coming off the roof, which was directed into the foundation drains. This was causing water in the furnace room. Darrell Curtis of Gutter Wizards of Ionia redid four downspouts to direct water away from the build- ing. He did the work at no charge. A thank you note was sent to him. Members of the committee are mowing the lawn, edging the sidewalks and applying fertilizer and crabgrass preventer to the lawn. Warren is checking into replacing the outdoor security lights with LED lights. It was discovered that our purveyor for the church’s gas was not Consumer’s Energy. Perry changed the gas back to Consumer’s Energy.
- The Membership and Care Committee has revised and updated the prayer chain.
- Church organist/pianist, Mike Kaufman, was placed on immediate leave until September 30th.
- Stewardship this year will included an explanation of Qualified Charitable Distributions. QCD’s are for anyone 70 1⁄2 with an IRA.
- The Pastor Nominating Committee, which is the 2017 session, on May 9th accepted Dr. Dorn’s proposal to continue at our church as our pastor. He will continue the process toward his ordination in the Reformed Church of America.
- A motion was passed to approve the 2019 budget.
- The next meeting is June 16, 2019.
Submitted by: Margaret Gregory, Clerk of Session
Please note our new website address and email address!!
First Presbyterian Church
125 E. Main St.
P.O. Box 125
Ionia, MI 48846
Church Office Hours – Monday through Thursday 9:00 A.M. – 12:00 P.M.
Newsletters, Calendar and more at 1stpreschurchionia.com
Sunday Services are at 10:00 A.M.
Parable of the Dead Church
A person once called a pastor to say he wanted to join the church. But, he went on to explain that he didn’t want to worship every week, study the Bible, visit the sick, witness to non-Christians, or serve as a leader or teacher.
The pastor commended him for his desire to join, but told him the church he sought was located in another section of town. The man took the directions and hung up.
When he arrived at the church, the man came face to face with the logical result of his own apathetic attitude. There stood an abandoned church building, boarded up and ready for demolition.