through the wardrobe

Monday, February 01, 2016

Christians in the voting booth

If you are a dedicated church-goer and consider yourself a committed Christian, then your faith probably has a big impact on your politics. In fact, in the United States many of the hot-button political issues are the issues that are significant to Christians: you believe the Bible has something to say about abortion or marriage or refugees, and so you support candidates whose platforms, you feel, are in line with scripture. Following Jesus means I need to vote for [your candidate of choice here], and it's as simple as that.

Or is it?

Dr. Christena Cleveland (a recent addition to the faculty at my alma mater, Duke Div), in an article for Christianity Today, has some bad news for all of us Christian voters: it's really not that simple. Her piece, "All Christians Are Biased Voters," makes the point pretty clear: other factors, beyond your faith, influence your vote as well - factors like your personality, your race, and your life experiences. Studies show that people who otherwise you'd expect to have pretty similar views will diverge sharply along these lines. In other words, nobody, she argues, votes just what the Bibles says, just what Jesus teaches. There's more impacting our decisions than that.

As I was reading her story of teaching undergraduates about these factors that affect our politics (where students insisted, "come on, Dr. Cleveland, you have to admit that [my party’s] values best reflect the values of Jesus”), and as I read her description of our "bias blind spots," I found myself thinking, "sure, but I've thought through all this stuff, and my votes really do reflect Jesus' teachings!"

Keep telling yourself that, Nance.
The thing about a blind spot is, you can't see it. I can't see it.

We'd all like to think that, if people really read their Bibles, if people really prayed, if people really let the Spirit guide them, then they'd think like me, they'd vote like me. And during the long campaign season, it's easy to get frustrated with your fellow citizens and their positions ('how could anybody in their right mind support ____________??'). I think this is especially true on Facebook, where other perspectives can be pretty in-your-face: "Share if you think Donald Trump will make America great again!"; "Share if you think a woman's place is in the White House!"; and on, and on. We're all so sure that we're right, and they're wrong. We're voting the Christian way, and they're not.

Well I'm not going to tell you the 'Christian way' to vote. I'm starting to think I'm a little too biased for that.
But I can tell you one thing: during election season, especially on Facebook, we all have the choice between holier-than-thou and humility. And I think, in this case, there really is only one Christian response. 

For more on all of this, check out Dr. Cleveland's article (it's not long!): "All Christians Are Biased Voters."

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

learning the lingo: sanctification

"Sanctification" (also "sanctify") is one of those churchy words that you probably will never hear uttered more than 50 feet away from a steeple. It's supposed to be an especially important idea for Methodists, but what does it mean? If you're not fluent in churchese, you might not be clear on this. What's a preacher talking about when she talks about sanctification?

I happened on a nice definition earlier that I wanted to pass along. According to United Methodist bishop Scott Jones, in his book The Evangelistic Love of God and Neighbor, sanctification "is becoming the kind of person who fulfills the Great Commandments." Remember the Great Commandments? Jesus was asked what the single greatest commandment was in all the law, and he said, quoting the Old Testament:
'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:36-40)

So sanctification, according to Jones, is becoming the kind of person who fulfills these two commandments, becoming the kind of person who loves God and loves your neighborsand loves yourself, since he says to 'love your neighbor as yourself'. The goal of sanctification, Bishop Jones says, is a life shaped by love: "One loves God, oneself, and others." (I personally believe you have to include the animals under 'others' or 'neighbors' here too.)

There are a lot of other ways you can talk about sanctification - usually people emphasize becoming holy, and "sanctify" does come from santcus, the Latin word for 'holy' - but to me, this is so simple and clear that it's hard to beat. Sanctification means becoming the kind of person who fulfills the Great Commandments, who loves God, himself, and others, whose life is shaped by love.

Now the bigger question, besides 'what does it mean?', is 'am I experiencing sanctification?' Am I growing into that person Jesus called me to be? Am I seeking opportunities to grow and to exercise my love for God, my love for others, and my love for myself?

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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

David Bowie (1947-2016)

Sunday the news broke that musician, actor, and artist David Bowie passed away at age 69, after an 18 month battle with cancer. He had released a new album just last week, which now we know was a sort of parting gift from the music legend.

My wife, Emily, is a devoted Bowie fan and has been since before I met her. (She ordered his new album a few weeks back, and it should come in this week, though the listening experience will be very different now.) I had never really listened to his music until we were married. I'm still no connoisseur, but now I do get excited anytime I hear "Heroes" and "Modern Love," and I appreciate a good parody. I would say that, to me, his greatest work is the film The Prestige... if it weren't for "Under Pressure."

Bowie and Freddy Mercury wrote and recorded "Under Pressure" together in 1981. I know it's probably cliché, but this is my favorite Bowie song, and here is a chilling isolated vocal track of the song (apologies to the rest of Queen!) that I wanted to share in honor of, well, both of these men. What music.

"Love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night, and love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves. This is our last dance..."


Wednesday, January 06, 2016

"Let your light shine..."

It's January 6th, which means today is Epiphany! Epiphany is the day when many Christians remember the coming of the Wise Men to see Jesus and bring their famous gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
It's also a day when we think about God's light: the light of that star that led the magi to find the child, the "dawning radiance" of God's glory that has risen upon the world in Jesus (Isa 60:1-3 CEB). In our Epiphany celebration on Sunday, I preached on that Isaiah passage, connecting it with Matthew 5:14-16: while Jesus is the light of the world that dawned at Christmas, the followers of Jesus are also called "the light of the world," whose goods works should shine that light on others.

In that spirit, I want to offer some verses from Charles Wesley (1707-1788) as an Epiphany mediation for us:

Freely to all ourselves we give,
Constrained by Jesu's love to live
    The servants of mankind.
Now, Jesu, now thy love impart,
To govern each devoted heart,
    And fit us for thy will!
Deep founded in the truth of grace,
Build up thy rising church, and place
    The city on the hill.
O let our faith and love abound!
O let our lives to all around
    With purest lustre shine!
That all around our works may see,
And give the glory, Lord, to thee,
    The heavenly light divine!

Charles Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Edition, Vol. 7, 704.

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Friday, November 20, 2015

a Christian Nation

We want the United States to be a Christian nation. Unless it costs us something.

It may cost our gay neighbors something.

It may cost our Muslim neighbors something.

It may cost the Buddhist 6th-grader something.

That comes with the territory. It's the price they pay. But it won't cost us a thing.

It won't cost us any money. We'll continue to buy cheap products made in unsafe working environments by underpaid workers.

It won't cost us any comforts. We'll keep on coveting the newest thing and adding it to the abundance of our possessions.

It won't cost us our revenge. We're going to execute that low-life scum for what he did to our loved one - vengeance is ours!

It won't cost us our security. We'll just turn away the foreigner and the stranger if welcoming them seems like it could be risky.

Being a Christian nation comes with its costs. Just so long as we don't have to pay them.


Monday, August 10, 2015

faith, loss, and comfort

I was recently re-reading A Grief Observed, the journal that C. S. Lewis kept and eventually published after the death of his wife, Joy Davidman. I had forgotten this, but the foreword in my edition was written by Madeleine L'Engle. Now, the last time I read this book - it's been close to a decade - I probably didn't know much about Madeleine L'Engle. I know I hadn't read any of her books at that time; I may have been aware that she wrote the classic, Newbery winner A Wrinkle in Time. But today I have read a handful of L'Engle's novels, and I'm married to a woman who adores her writing, and so it was a pleasant surprise when I saw her name on the cover. She wrote this foreword just two years after the death of her own husband.

There was one passage in particular that stood out to me as I read (re-read, I guess, but I didn't remember a thing about it) the foreword. L'Engle suggests that a grieving believer is left with faith and assurances more so than answers or 'facts' about their loved ones. She quotes Lewis: "Don't talk to me about the consolations of religion, or I shall suspect that you do not understand." Then she goes on:
For the true consolations of religion are not rosy and cozy, but com-forting in the true meaning of that word: com-fort: with strength. Strength to go on living, and to trust that whatever Joy needs, or anyone we love who has died needs, is being taken care of by that Love which began it all.

For Madeleine L'Engle, religion doesn't comfort you in the sense of making you feel better in the face of loss - religion offers you the strength (fortis is Latin for 'strong') to keep going and to entrust your loved one into the hands of Love (1 John 4:8).

How has your faith or your faith community brought you comfort in the face of loss? Have you found faith to provide strength and trust, or another kind of comfort?

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Thursday, May 07, 2015

the rapture and the Bible

For the last few weeks, a group of us at Grace have been working our way through a DVD study led by a New Testament scholar and retired Church of England Bishop, N. T. Wright,  called Surprised by Hope. The six-session study focuses on topics like the resurrection, heaven, Jesus' second coming, and more, which have led, each week, to really fun discussions on these and other related topics (like Hell, new heavens and new earth, and the "rapture").

It's the last of these I wanted to write a bit about, because there's a lot of confusion here. (If you live outside of the US, you might be confused just by the term, since churches around the world don't usually ever talk about a rapture.) Many of us have been taught an awful lot about the rapture, but I've discovered over the years that most of what I was told growing up simply doesn't fit in with the scriptures. So, the big question is: what does the Bible have to say about the rapture?

Let's take a look, and see what we see.
  1. The first thing to notice is that, if you check any concordance you'll find that the term "rapture" isn't in there. Check the King James, the NRSV, the NIV, the New Living Translation, whatever you want: it's not there. That's a non-biblical term someone came up with to name an event they thought they were finding in the Bible. Ok, but what about the event?
  2. The book of Revelation, the place most Christians would look for insight into the 'end times', 'last days', end of the world, however you want to describe it - Revelation doesn't describe any rapture. There's a moment (4:1) when a voice from heaven says "Come up here," but that's simply John's invitation to enter heaven and receive his vision of the throne of God, the seals, and the lamb (see Revelation chapters 4 and 5). There's also a statement to one church that Christ will "keep you from the hour of trial that is coming..." (3:10), but that doesn't imply any kind of evacuation (see John 17:15, for a clear example, which uses the same Greek word for "keep" or "protect"). You can look anywhere else in Revelation, and you won't find any description of God rescuing believers from the earth before a time of "tribulation." It's just not in there.
  3. The popular Left Behind book series, which is built around the idea of the rapture and subsequent tribulation, takes its title from Matthew 24. This chapter describes "the coming of the Son of Man," when "two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left" (24:40-41). Those who are taken, people assume, are raptured, and those others are 'left behind' to suffer through the tribulation. (For example, listen to Larry Norman's song or the popular cover by DC Talk, "I Wish We'd All Been Ready.") However, if you read the other verses there in Matthew 24, that's clearly not what's going on: For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left... (Matt 24:36-40) The comparison with the flood in Genesis makes it pretty that you don't want to be "taken." People were taken when "the flood came and swept them all away." Noah and his family were the ones "left" after the flood, the only survivors. In other words, in Matthew 24, you want to be left behind. That means you aren't utterly destroyed. So, being "taken" here isn't referring to the righteous being delivered; it's about the destruction of the wicked.
  4. The other verses most often associated with the rapture, as far as I know, are in 1 Thessalonians 4. Here Paul talks about "we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord" (4:15), "the sound of God's trumpet" (16), "the dead in Christ" rising (16), and those "who are left" being "caught up in the clouds together... to meet Christ in the air" (17). Some pretty familiar phrases - the popular hymn "Midnight Cry" is based in-part on this passage. But what is not here is an indication that those believers "caught up in the clouds" with Christ are leaving behind non-believers who will suffer through a tribulation, or anything of that sort. Instead, Paul seems to be describing the general resurrection of the "last day" (as in John 11:24), when Jesus comes "to judge the quick and the dead, and his kingdom shall have no end," as we say in the Creed. Nothing in this passage suggests a Left Behind-style rapture scenario. 
Many will tie the "rapture" to 1 Thess 4, like does here.

We started by asking, What does the Bible have to say about the rapture? To me, it seems that the answer is... not very much. The verses that people talk about the most in relation to a 'rapture' only really read that way if you force that interpretation on them (or maybe take them out of their contexts). And if these verses don't tell us about a rapture, what verses do? And if we can't find the Bible talking about it, then why are we?

The concept of the rapture wasn't really established until the 1830s, by a man named Darby. There's a reason that no one in Church history believed in such a thing for the first 1800 years - it's pretty hard to find this idea in the Bible. And though it's frequently taught in churches, there are still many today who can't find it in the Bible. Craig Keener, an evangelical New Testament scholar, has said about the rapture, "I am reasonably certain that today the majority of evangelical biblical scholars (as well as virtually all other Christian biblical scholars) reject it." Those bright people who read and study the Bible as thoroughly as they can, talk with other experts about it, and read Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic for a living, those people don't see the rapture in there.

I don't have all the answers about Jesus's return, the resurrection of the dead, or what happens when God makes all things new and the old passes away (Isa 65:17; Rev 21:1, 5). I believe in these things. I have ideas about them, scriptures that I lean on - but I see through a glass, dimly. I haven't got all the answers.
But the rapture is one answer that I was told through all my years growing up that I don't believe is much of an answer at all anymore. I don't see it in the Bible, and I don't see what it would have to do with God's plans for the world anyways. And did I mention that I don't see it in the Bible?
I think we can have hope and be encouraged by what we await from Jesus; I don't want people to be uniformed about that (see 1 Thess 4:13, 18)... but that's exactly why I don't teach the rapture.


For another, nice piece that covers a lot of the same ground, see this article by Catholic apologist and Bible scholar John Martignoni.

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