Sunday, May 31, 2009

The one who endures to the end

Ever had one of those experiences where you've read a passage time and time again, but then you see something you'd never seen before? I had one of those recently, reading up on desolation and God's presence.
Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matthew 24:9-13)
I have usually thought of standing firm in terms of not being deceived, not giving in to the increase of wickedness, not falling away in the face of persecution if it comes to that. True enough; it's all there. I had managed to miss how central a part of "standing firm" is not letting our love grow cold, how central a part of falling away is betraying and hating each other. How often do we Christians figuratively hand each other over to those who hate us? How often do we think that the god-haters of our day would like our group (our group must be the good guys of the Christians, right?) if only we publicly disown each other (the other group that contains the bad guys, of course). Or even inside my own home, when exhaustion kicks in, it is easy to see perseverance in the easy terms of getting through another day. Is getting through another day really what it means to persevere?

The devastating effect of the increase of wickedness is that love grows cold. Given that Jesus speaks of goodness -- the greatest of the laws -- as being love, that deserves a second look. Given that love is the very nature of God, letting our love grow cold deserves a second look. Wickedness causes our love to grow cold, and coldness is wicked. Perseverance with Christ is not a grim determination. It is a determination that our love will not grow cold, for either him or our family and neighbors.

Lord, have mercy.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The abomination that causes desolation v. the cross of Christ

Jesus, and before him Daniel, prophesied concerning an abomination that causes desolation. In the holy place, in the Temple, something was set up and worshiped besides God -- therefore, the presence of God left the Temple. Desolation.

Years ago someone pointed out to me that Jesus announced "This house is left to you desolate, for you will not see *me* again ..." (Matthew 23:38-39) the last time he left the Temple before his crucifixion. He equates the Temple being desolate with leaving it himself; interesting, as far as understanding his identity. In the next conversation, he speaks of the abomination that causes desolation and the destruction of the Temple. One obvious fulfillment was during the invasion in 70 A.D., when sacrifices were offered in the Temple to a pagan idol rather than to the only God.

But Daniel's prophecy seems to keep fulfilling itself. I think whenever we worship something besides God, that's the abomination, and desolation is sure to follow. It tends to happen in the holy places -- where somehow, something goes badly wrong when people try to control a religion which was never ours to control in the first place. Jesus had spent the majority of Matthew 23 talking about abuses of religion at the hands of religious leaders. It had come to the point where the leaders of the holy people did not recognize that they themselves were a key part of the destruction. This pattern has repeated itself throughout history: the holy place which ought to be kept pure is instead the center of corruption. It even becomes the center of enmity towards God. Then there is no more holy place. God walks out and does not look back except to field questions about when, how, and why this place must be destroyed.

When there is no more holy place, where do you look for God? Following Jesus' movements the last few days of his earthly life, when God leaves the holy place he goes to the accursed place. If his people cannot come to him, he will go to them. If there is no more holy place, then he will hallow every place, even a supposedly condemned and accursed place like the hill where the executions take place. And so even the desolation of the Temple is turned for our good; now all places harbor the presence of God. Especially the accursed ones. There is no darkness so deep that he is not deeper still.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The gospel: how central is Jesus' death and resurrection?

The gospel of Matthew has 28 chapters; the last 8 of them are spent on the week stretching from Palm Sunday to the Resurrection. The other gospels have a similar emphasis: not only the largest section, but the pride of place as culmination and climax is given to Jesus' death and resurrection.

I remember, years ago watching Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, the scene -- was it a flashback? -- where a woman caught in sin was forgiven by Jesus. The look in her eyes when Jesus was led off to execution seemed to ask a question: if Christ is executed, is forgiveness still the last word for me? Or am I next?

Death takes all of Jesus' miracles and gives them over to the powers of darkness, where we hear a mocking, "So what?" to them all. If Jesus stays in the tomb, eventually the miraculous bread is gone, the storms are back, sickness is back, forgiveness is gone, death is back, and that is the last word. If Christ is not raised, that forgiveness he announced to us is not the last word. If Christ is not raised, the powers of darkness win and the kingdom of God is not among us.

I have heard some Christians say that some groups over-emphasize the cross of Christ: that it is not so central to Christianity, that Jesus should not be portrayed on it, that Christian thought and devotion and artwork overemphasizes what happened there. But Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, and Paul all put the focus on Jesus' death and resurrection. We can shy away from it because it is difficult to wrap our minds around. We don't necessarily appear at our most sophisticated when we struggle to grasp and articulate everything that has happened there. Paul said it very succinctly, that given the choice of talking about miraculous signs, or wisdom, or Christ crucified, he knew what he would choose: "While I was with you, I resolved to know nothing but Christ, and him crucified."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

My proverbs for parenting

I was scanning through Proverbs looking for material on parenting. I found a whole collection, but wanted to mention just the two that struck me the most. First, this familiar one:
Hatred stirs up strife,
but love covers up all faults.
(Prov 10:12, & echoes in 1 Peter 4:8)
Which reminded me that it's not strictly true that love is blind; more that it is cleansing and redemptive. It is cause to celebrate when someone loves us, and our own love likewise has the power to give others cause to celebrate with relief and the gladness that comes with acceptance.

Proverbs 31 also has a gentling, humanizing vision of being a parent:
The Torah of kindness is on her tongue (Proverbs 31:26)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The gospel: How did Christ want us to think of him?

So now, 2000 years after Christ, how do we think of him during his absence? Great moral teacher? No doubt. Once and future king? Maranatha, come, Lord Jesus. Example beyond all others? Yes, that too, I suppose. The last thing I want to do is suggest a limit to how we think of Christ. But Christ himself set a direction for how we are to think of him until he comes. Knowing he was going to be absent for a long time, he knew how he wanted his people to think of him in his absence.
In the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying "Take and eat. This is my body, given for you. Do this to remember me."

In the same way after supper he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it to all of them saying, "Take and drink, all of you. This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, to remember me."
I believe that, in doing this, Christ meant to frame for us how we think of him through this long stretch of time. He specified how we are to remember him -- how we should think of him in his absence. In telling us how to remember him, he framed how we should understand him, why he came, what he was doing.

He has no wish to be reduced to an abstract -- a teacher, an example, a king. He remains flesh and blood. He does not wish us to think of him first and foremost in terms of what we do, whether learning or obeying or following. He wishes us to remember him as a gift, given for us, poured out for us. We are to raise the cup and celebrate forgiveness in Christ. We are to remember him in all his humanity first and foremost as a gift, as forgiveness, as life-giving, as our very food and drink. Anything we do for "religion", it must begin with remembering him in all his earthy reality, because that is how he asked us to remember him.

Our hunger for God cannot be satisfied by the abstracts that we construct, or the theologies that we build, or our observances and devotion and study, any more than our physical hunger could be satisfied by reading nutrition labels and studying recipes. Our hunger for God can only be satisfied by God. It is not the kind of hunger than can be satisfied by thinking about God, or by taking God for our example, or by learning from God and obeying God; of course we do these things, but by themselves they are frustratingly empty. The only way to satisfy our hunger for God is by having God. That is what Christ has us remember: Christ given for us, God with us.

Monday, May 11, 2009

How many kinds of good news count as 'gospel'?

Here I want to take a close look at how many kinds of good news are presented in the gospel in the New Testament. When we talk about the good news, we often focus on Jesus' death and resurrection -- and for good reason. This pair of events, more than any other events, shatter our hopelessness and constitute good news. Still, there are other events that fill out the picture in the gospels.

  • When Jesus calms the storm, it is good news. And we know the kingdom of God will not be a place where natural disasters threaten us.
  • When Jesus heals the sick, it is good news. The kingdom of God is not a place where illness robs us of our strength or our lives.
  • When Jesus heals the crippled and paralyzed it is good news, again a promise of what the kingdom of God is like.
  • When Jesus feeds the hungry and gives drink to the thirsty it is good news; the kingdom of God is a place of plenty.
  • When Jesus forgives sins it is good news; the kingdom of God is a place of forgiveness and relief, where God has created clean hearts.
  • Even the visit to the Samaritan woman at the well is good news. The kingdom of God is not a place where shameful secrets in the past separate us from friendships with our neighbors.
  • When Jesus turns water into wine, it is good news. He blesses the wedding feast as a foretaste of the feast to come.
The New Testament records many different events from the life of Jesus, many more than just these. How many kinds of good news count as "gospel"? All of them.

In the next post I will consider how we know that Jesus' death and resurrection are central to his mission and to how we should think of Christ. But for the moment, I'd like to ponder the wideness of the reach of God's goodness, and how many things are encompassed in the gospel.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Worst gospel presentation ever?

As Christians, Christ left us with a mission: to make disciples for him, baptizing them and teaching them. Because of this, some Christian groups have given their members guidelines on "presenting the gospel". The thing is, some of these gospels bear only a vague resemblance to the gospels in the New Testament. I think the word "gospel" needs translating these days, even for a Christian. The gospel is news about Christ -- an announcement that changes our knowledge of reality in such a radical way as to transform our lives.

I am putting together a future post on seeing what the gospel is -- of which the short version is "Jesus Christ" -- but here I want to separate that from my frustration at one approach to presenting the gospel. Here I will give what I believe may be the worst gospel presentation ever, something I consider to be a complete failure in the "good news" department. Certain parts may contain elements of truth, but that does not keep it from being a hideous distortion of the gospel. This is the distilled version of the worst of the worst I have heard over the years:
Every sin of thought, word, and deed is so abhorrent to God that you are sentenced to eternal torture. Even decency or living rightly with dedication and earnestness gets you no slack with God because you have not done it perfectly, and God demands perfection, which is beyond our reach. There is nothing within our power which can make things right. However, God in his mercy sent his son to bear our punishment, and God accounts our wickedness to him, and his goodness to us, if we believe it is true. Christ's death was acceptable in our place because of his innocence and because God subjected his son to the most horrible death imaginable for our sakes. Those who do not believe correctly about this are condemned in God's sight for not believing it.
The problems with this presentation run deep -- but it is close enough to many "gospel presentations" I have heard. It makes it sound as if our real problem is God's unreasonableness; with that as a starting point, there is no "good news" about us reconciling with him, and never will be. It also makes it sound as if the solution is satisfying God's appetite for wrath and torture on an innocent victim, with God being just as unreasonable as ever but now we're all clear to spend eternity with him. And then "faith" comes in -- here meaning the intellectual assent (or fearful capitulation, as the case may be) to the right set of propositions about why this all works and is good.

I wanted to voice my frustration with this presentation of the gospel before I move on to good news that we tend to forget or obscure.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Of Fellowship, Fundamentalists, and Girl Scout Cookies

I have long known that my current church affiliation is occasionally something on the fundamentalist side. I think I had heard someone mention before that scouting (Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts) was frowned upon. I had no clear idea why, but as I had bigger fish to fry I didn't really worry about it.

Then a year and a half ago my daughter wanted to join scouts, and I checked; there aren't actually any religious requirements to join and the Girl Scouts do not actually see themselves as a religious organization. They do not have any religious teaching, and defer all religious education to the hands of the child's own parents and/or congregation. Based on that, I figured it was safe to enjoy the benefits of Girl Scouts. I let her join, and she's been happily selling cookies and making crafts ever since.

I didn't think there was anything wrong with it, so while I didn't exactly put an announcement in the church bulletin, I didn't conceal it either. I wasn't entirely expecting the reaction when news began to get around. Oh, sure, some people are supportive, but generally very quietly. I can see why the support has been more quiet and private; but more on that in a minute. Meanwhile, I have been made the undoubted target of a Bible study on "fellowship" -- by which, in a way only our group could manage, the study does not mean "brotherhood and bonding with fellow Christians", but "why we should dissociate ourselves completely from anyone who is not in 100% agreement about all doctrine and most practices, including Scouts".

The Bible study has been drawn up by one of our younger elders. It is not at all up to the usual standard I expect for a Bible study. It is occasionally mocking or insulting. For example, when discussing concerns that Girl Scouts mention "duty to God" but are fine with people of all faiths, the Bible study puts it that it could be "Buddha, Allah, 'Heavenly Father', your particular voodoo spirit, or the little green man that visits you late at night". That came across as mocking, and seemed out of place in a Bible study. I think some of the rhetoric in the study is over the top. The verse "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul?" was brought up in this study, as if joining scouts is tantamount to losing your soul for worldly gain. (Really, the cookies aren't quite that good ... though maybe the Thin Mints. My daughter is mostly into the friendship and companionship with other girls her age, and they actually didn't make her sign away her soul in exchange. I think she benefits from it. It's why we're there.) The grand finale of the Bible Study is priceless.
Maybe it will take years, but what will you do on that future day if your child comes back to you and says, "Why did you let me do that? Why did you let me lie about God? Why didn't you stop me?"
It's hard to know whether to object more to the false accusation or to the emotional blackmail, or whether they're both missing what is, to me, the ultimate point: the Scout organization doesn't teach religion or have a profession of faith, and leaves all such in the hands of the parents and/or congregation.

I don't often use this blog just to vent, and please pardon me for trying your patience like that now. I just need to be able to discuss this with my head on straight when it comes up again -- and it will. Sunday night's Bible study was -- what, four or five on one against me. I stayed calm and level-headed -- not easy to do with "Why did you let me lie about God" on the table. Interestingly, that segment of the quote was carefully skipped by the study leader, wife of the elder in question. I wonder if she realized that accusation was inappropriate and at least bordering on bearing false witness, or whether she actually agreed but knew we were out of time & wouldn't have a chance to sort through that can of worms.

To the best of my knowledge, with the research I've done, the concern seems to be based on a misunderstanding / misperception of the nature of Girl Scouts. I hope to pursue it from that angle. One of the ladies in the study has been reaching out in friendship to me, but still thinks Scouts must be a risk of spiritual harm to my daughter and is completely on board with the need for us to leave Scouts.

My thoughts on my daughter's spiritual well-being are these:
  • Odds, if we stay in Scouts, that she would come to believe that "your particular voodoo spirit or the little green man who visits you at night" is equal to God: something around 0%.
  • Odds, if we have to leave the church because the church as a whole decided that the scouts actually teach such a thing, that her trust in the general decency, sanity, and good judgment of Christians will take a hit: I don't have a number, but I bet it's closer to 100%.
Wish me luck. Prayers and insights are welcome too.

If you could use a laugh ...

Head over to Bonnie's for one of the top-10 funniest things I've ever read.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Twilight: Fantasy, Romance, and Gospel

Update: This post contains spoilers for the Twilight series. I thought it came out long enough after the books that it wouldn't be a problem, but judging by the comments apparently not ...

My daughter recently brought home her very first romance book: Twilight. I should mention that I've long been allergic to the whole genre as (I supposed) a mix of sappy sentimentalism and soft-core eroticism. But, determined that I was going to have some idea what my daughter was reading and whether it was appropriate, I started reading Twilight. I've since read the whole set of four. For those not familiar with the story: Vampire meets girl (book 1), long complicated romance spans several books, then she becomes a vampire (book 4) and they live happily ever after. The story is well-told, the characters are engaging, and I'm sure it will give me plenty of examples to explain the facts of life and complications of romance to my nearly-teenage daughter.

One thing that took me by surprise was how incredibly narcissistic the books can be. Not only does our heroine capture the eye of the most desirable of all the immortals, but she also ends the eternal strife between vampires and werewolves, and (once immortal herself) becomes one of the most impressive and powerful and beautiful of all the immortals. In the fourth book, she defeats the evil enemy vampire army almost single-handedly while all the other powerful immortals on her side have almost nothing to do except be in awe of her. Several times I had to put down the books and laugh at the sheer over-the-top aggrandizement of our first-person viewpoint heroine. I did manage to enjoy the story, but sometimes the author laid it on a little bit thick.

Another thing that took me by surprise was how much the vampire legends -- including this updated retelling of it -- are some sort of inverted variation on the gospel. In the classic evil vampire story, the immortal destroys the mortal, taking its blood to live. And this latest retelling focuses on another aspect of the legend: the immortal can grant that same kind of tainted immortality to someone else through a bite. These seemed like a nightmarish reversal of the Last Supper, where Christ sheds immortal blood and gives it to us as a gift in order to remove our tainted mortality, replace it with his own more wholesome life. The vampire version creates a life that has the potential to be an endless, bloodthirsty, parasitic nightmare. It is close to the opposite of the gospel -- except that in the Twilight retelling, there is also an element of the gospel: the love of two who are both now immortal, with a love that will not fade or die.

One last thing bears mentioning tonight: the way the bright-eyed, mesmerizing, inhumanly perfect fantasy world of the vampires (a la Twilight) made the normal human world seem colorless, dull, and uninteresting for our heroine. To judge by the status of the books on the best-seller lists and the intense devotion of some of the Twilight fans, some of the readers also think the alluring, seductive fantasy-world is more appealing than this one. For them as for Bella the heroine, everything else fades in comparison. That, to me, is the most striking opposite of the gospel in the whole book. Jesus' life is not the kind that robbed the mundane world of its beauty or significance; it is the kind that restored it, that made the mundane holy again.