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?

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.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Kay Warren on the loss of her son

I've been thinking lately about some of the losses people around me have experienced in the last few years and the pain that they're dealing with still. We've seen far too much of this in the Grace Church family.
This morning, all of this reminded me that I've been meaning to check out Kay Warren. Kay (yes, her husband is Rick Warren, of The Purpose-Driven Life fame) has had a lot to share over the last two years about loss and grief and hurt because, in April of 2013, her son Matthew took his own life. He had suffered from mental illness, and eventually he decided that the pain just had to stop. While not entirely surprised, his family was entirely devastated.

Last year, as the first anniversary of Matthew's death drew closer, Kay wrote a post on Facebook which exploded across the internet. Among other things in it, she said:

As the one-year anniversary of Matthew's death approaches, I have been shocked by some subtle and not-so-subtle comments indicating that perhaps I should be ready to 'move on.' … I have to tell you – the old Rick and Kay are gone. They're never coming back. We will never be the same again.

Don't tell me to get over it.
Don't tell me to go on with my life.
That life is gone. Period.

Her words echo the frustrations and struggles of so many who are mourning, and the rest of us need to take note.

When I decided to look up Kay Warren, I discovered an interview she did with Christianity Today about a year ago, Kay Warren: A Year of Grieving Dangerously. The interview's relatively long, but I can't exaggerate how worthwhile it is. If you've lost someone and experienced that hurt, if someone close to you is burdened by the pain of loss, please read this interview. I would excerpt a bit of it, but to me almost every line was pure gold. Just read it.

Matthew Warren's death is a tragedy. At the same time, the Warren's loss has resulted in an incredible gift to the rest of the world: Kay's honest and poignant reflections and testimonies. For thousands of people, her messages have offered hope and named truths that they just hadn't been able to find the words for. Maybe they will be a gift to you too.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

learning the lingo: Lent

Churches like to use secret codewords to bewilder and befuddle the uninitiated. Terms like "Advent," "VBS," "DS," and "intinction."
Ok, so we don't like to bewilder and befuddle folks, but we do it all the same. There's church lingo that, unless it's explained to you (unlikely), it may take some time to decode and decipher. But that's where this series comes in! In these "learning the lingo" posts, I try to demystify some of the churchy language that might leave people feeling a little out of place.

There's one church word that, if you're in a more traditional worship environment, dollars to doughnuts you will hear in the weeks ahead. That word is "Lent." What are people talking about when they talk about Lent or "Lenten" activities coming up at the church?

Lent is a period of 40 days (not counting Sundays - more on that later) starting on Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras, and ending with Easter Sunday. This 40-day stretch of Lent is one of the "seasons" in the church year, something I've written about before. Just like Advent is the season leading up to Christmas, a time for getting ready for that holy day, Lent is a time to prepare for Easter, the day of Jesus' resurrection. Lent's a more serious, somber season, characterized by repentance - this goes back to the ancient church, when baptisms happened on Easter Sunday each year, and all candidates for baptism used the 40 days prior to Easter to get their hearts and lives ready for baptism.

The main shape this repentance takes during Lent is fasting. That one should come as no surprise. Even if you're not from an area heavily steeped in Roman Catholic tradition, you've probably heard of 'giving something up for Lent' - if nothing else, it's an occasional plot device on TV and in movies. Fasting is a classic expression of penitence, as well as a spiritual practice for intense periods of seeking God (for instance, take David, after the debacle with Bathsheba and Uriah, in 2 Samuel 12, or Jesus in the wilderness in Matthew 4).

Why don't Sundays count towards the 40 days of Lent? Because Jesus rose from the grave on a Sunday, the first day of the week is always a day for celebration and feasting - not fasting. No matter what season you're in, Sunday isn't a day for penitence and self-abasement. It's a day to party! So the 40 days of Lent only count Mondays-Saturdays.
(You may notice that devout Catholics will not eat meat on Fridays during Lent. This is the same principle as the Sunday celebrations, except in reverse: every Friday in Lent is a remembrance of Good Friday and Jesus' death, hence the extra strictures.)

A couple of other quick Lent facts:
  • Every season in the church year has a designated color - Lent's color is purple. Don't be surprised if you see purple runners and purple banners appearing on altar tables and walls in your sanctuary this week.
  • Sunday services during Lent will often involve extended times of confession, to help worshippers engage the penitential nature of the season.
  • A lot of United Methodist churches (including my own) have a tradition of gathering for Lenten lunches or suppers one day a week during this season.
Whatever is going on at your church this Lenten season, I hope you'll find a way to participate and begin preparing your heart for Easter. That's the real purpose of this season, so get busy and don't waste the opportunities it brings!