Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Life Is a Mystery

Life is a mystery.
That’s what it is.
Crazy, wild, mean.

Does anyone really know what it is?
I don’t think so.
That’s why we have religion.
It tries to tame the wild beast.
Give it some meaning.
Point the way and say it’s ok.

Is that what Jesus did?
And so they killed him.
His meaning wasn’t their meaning.

They meant money and power.
Temples and tables.
Full of money and meanness.
Dead lambs and throat-slit bulls.
All for a price, of course.
That’s what they meant.
To tame the beast.
The wild mystery.
We call life.

They thought in terms of conquest.
Who’s in and who’s ought.
Who’s naughty and who’s nice.

Jesus tried to tame the beast.
With tiny words of kindness.
A welcome to little children.
And the lady at the well.
And Mary who wanted to be a disciple.
And sit at the feet of the Master.

There’ll be none of that, they said.
That’s not how the beast is tamed.
Our way or the highway.
Make your choice.
The crown of gold.
Or the cross of misery

So they tamed him.
And we’ve been scratching our heads ever since.
Their way, or his.
Their way is money and power and glory and war.
His way, hmmm … different.
Frightening is his way.
Terrible and true.
Unsure and not so safe.

How do we tame the beast?
Ride the mystery?
Talk to the storm?
We call life?

The crown of gold.
Or the cross of misery.

Today you’ll be with me in paradise.
Or is it?
Can there be something here?
To tame the beast?
Ride the mystery?
Go to the source and drink?
Cool water …

On a hot day?

No Price Too Great

The tragedy of Harvey reminds all of us what it means to be a nation, a "more perfect union" of those who take care of one another in the moment of need.

I'm crushed as I see the photos pouring in from Texas ... the loss of homes, the loss of everything ... a monumental cleanup that will take months, and years.

Life, for many, with the loss of loved ones, will never be the same.

In moments such as this, I'm glad to be an American, because America is yet a nation with heart, with kindness and soul and tenderness.

These are values that must never be lost.

It's incumbent on all of us to preserve these virtues, to strive with all our might to keep the good, to give ear to our better angels, to pay attention to our best instincts.

Certainly, goodness and mercy are expensive, but there is no alternative.

We Americans pay our taxes with gratitude, we foot the bill and pay the price, to be a nation of goodness and mercy and hope, for all who are here.

We do these things for the betterment of life for all. I can't think of any other reason to be a nation that claims exceptionalism as its descriptor.

So, let us be exceptional:

In love and kindness, generosity and humility, in mercy and assistance, in sacrifice and tenderness.

This is our stellar legacy; let it also be our bright future.

And get out our checkbooks ... our sisters and brothers in Texas need our help, and that of our government, our collective good will to seek one another's welfare.

For these ends, for this purpose, this is no price too great.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Praying for the Dead

As an act of love, I started praying for the dead a good many years ago.

The idea was basic: I prayed for them in life, so why not continue to pray for them after their death?

It's a simple prayer - I say their name, and then say, "Jesus my LORD."

I'm more conscious of this these days, as a number of the The Dead now are included in my daily prayer journal ... their names added before their death ... and upon their death, I add a Celtic Cross or a Star of David by their name.

Do the dead need our prayers?

I don't think so.

But might they want them?

I believe so.

And I believe that God, in some kind of a gracious way, passes on these prayers to those we loved in life, and those we continue to love even after their death.

As to their status?

They are before God, bathed in glory and cleansed with God's light ... in other words, they are at peace, at rest, content and hopeful, as none can be in this anxious existence. Their hope is pure, and completely centered in God's goodness, a virtue we can only dimly see and partially experience.

And for what do they hope?

Well, as the spiritual puts it, "that great gettin' up morning" when all is made new! As for this, they no longer see through a mirror dimly, so their hope is pure and without anxiety.

And I believe that as the Spirit of God communicates our prayers to them, there is added to their joy our joy in loving them, and so their own joy continues to grow, because eternity is dynamic and ever-expanding, much like the universe, world without end.

So, if you've ever wondered about praying for someone dead, let your heart lead ... as in life, so now in their death, pass on your love, and let God filter it as only God can do, to pass on to your loved ones the kindness and life of your heart.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Revelation Lecture

Revelation Lecture 
Women’s Bible Study, 2010 - 2011
I am grateful for the opportunity to spend time with you in God’s Anthology. It is the joy of my ministry to open the pages of this amazing text with God’s people and together, discover anew the story of the Triune God in the midst of our story.
The Bible is one primary means by which God reaches the heart and mind of the world with the hopeful message of Jesus Christ. When we fill ourselves with the images and stories of the Bible, we give voice to the Holy Spirit in our spiritual formation. These stories and images are the language of the Holy Spirit, and through them, the church finds its purpose: to love God and neighbor!
Keep up your studies.
Stay in the text above. And remember, don’t read to understand, read to get better acquainted. God will open your mind and heart at the right time. Read with energy: use a pen, a notebook, write in the margins. Grow into the text, and the text will grow into you, too. Glory be to God!
What Revelation Is Not

  • The Book of Revelation is NOT SCARY. Remember, if you read something in the Bible, and it scares you, you’re misreading it.
  • The Book of Revelation is NOT A ROAD MAP of the future, but a poetic reflection on the struggle of God’s people in a hostile world and God’s ultimate victory over the forces of evil.
  • NOT SECRET INFORMATION about future events; attempts to plot coming events are inappropriate to the purpose of the book. John’s letter was written to the church of his time, not to us, not to Americans, not to the 21st Century. How vain and silly to think that God had only us in mind for this material, as some dispensationalist teachers suggest, and worse, the fiery preachers of fear (now, mostly an artifact of the past, yet present in certain forms of fundamentalism and culturally marginalized churches). Yet, we can read and learn – not some imagined sci-fi future, but rather how to endure, how to remain faithful, hopeful and focused. How to stay in God’s love and live God’s love in a sometimes crazy, and sometimes hostile world, a world of upside down values (chapter 18), driven by relentless self-interest. How to bear witness to real hope and real peace; how to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth!
Written at the earliest toward the end of the first century, a time of uncertainty and growing persecution, Revelation is a book for anyone living in hard times. 
Who is John? We don’t know. He’s not the disciple found in the gospels. But we share his faith in the love and victory of God!

How to Read Revelation

Rev. 12:7 & Daniel 10:13 & 21; 12:1

  • Listen to Handel’s “Messiah” before reading the Book of Revelation, especially the “Hallelujah” chorus.
  • Rent movie, “Michael” ...  ... Revelation pulses with the power of God engaged in the defeat of the enemy.
  • Read the Book of Daniel.
  • Read Revelation at the end of the Bible. The editors decided to put it there for good reason: It speaks of the end. But the end makes sense only if we know the beginning and everything in between.
  • Read from the perspective of a prison cell, or someone facing imminent death, not living in the lap of luxury. 
  • “I am coming soon!” (3:11) was a great comfort in such a context.
  • “To repay” (22:12) ... for those who have lost everything at the hands of the enemy, the promise of God to right every wrong, and to justify God’s people, would only be heard as good news by those early Christians living in such dangerous times.
  • “Blessed are those who wash their robes” (22:14) ... the message of hope, that the love of God in Christ is stronger than all the forces of evil, and for each believer, strong enough to carry us into the kingdom of everlasting life.
  • It is Jesus who sends the angel for the churches ... and the Spirit and the church invite Jesus to come (Rev. 22:17) ... the link between the church and the Holy Spirit ... “everyone,” i.e. every individual believer ... the second half of the verse is an invitation to all.
  • Revelation likes numbers: 
  • Think: “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” – why three? Too cold, too hot … and just right. It’s a device. The numbers of Revelation are devices, as they were throughout the ancient world with its love of numbers.
  • Two -  two great witnesses (11:3-12), two beasts (13:1-18) ... cf. Matthew 18:15ff, 1 Timothy 5:19
  • Three - divine number, Trinity.
  • Four - primitive people saw earth as flat disk with four boundaries: North, south, east, west ... four walls of a house; four winds ... Four living creatures: 4:6; Four angels stand at four corners of earth, 7:1; Four Horsemen, 6:1-17
  • Seven - complete
  • Seven churches (1:4 - 3:22)
  • Seven golden lampstands (1:12)
  • Seven stars (1:20)
  • Seven Seals (6:1 - 8:1)
  • Seven Trumpets (8:2 - 11:19)
  • Seven Bowls (15:1 - 16:21)
  • Seven last plagues (15:1)
  • Twelve
  • 7:5 - 8, twelve thousand from the tribes
  • 12:1, twelve stars on the woman’s crown
  • 21:12 - 14, twelve gates, and names of twelve tribes of Israel, twelve foundations and names of twelve apostles.
  • 22:2. twelve kinds of fruit.
  • Be at peace with those elements that defy interpretation: 
  • (13:18) "This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six."
  • The “beast” is a Roman Emperor. Think of Christians living in the worst of times – think of underground churches in China during the Cultural Revolution; Christians under Stalin, and faithful Christians in Nazi Germany.
  • The numbers of Revelation defy any final interpretation - not because of some hidden mysticism, but rather because we don’t know the interpretive framework (at best, we can only make an educated guess).
  • Revelation is Apocalyptic Writing:
  • The writings of John the Seer (as he is sometimes called) are filled with end-time visions of the final victory of God. Yet the road to such a victory is violently opposed by the social forces of empire and commerce (chapter 18).
  • The transition from a realm of sin to the kingdom of God is not an easy one. The road to Calvary is a hard road, and the road to final victory is equally painful.
  • When we read of the violence, two things: 1) remember the earlier guideline “to read this from the perspective of a jail cell”, and 2) to note that the violence is of God, and though horrible to contemplate, and even worse to experience, it is the glory of God to wrench His creation from the clutches of the abyss, to rescue a world headed toward certain disaster. This rescue is effected by God, since human resources and power are of no avail;  only by an extraordinary Divine effort can the course of the world be redirected to its original design and purpose.
It’s also helpful (sort of) to note that these things occur in heaven – John is witness to a “movie”: “Come up here, John, to see what must take place (4:1) and John sees these things “in the spirit” (small “s”, i.e. a vision within in his own spirit; or capital “S” – in the power of the Holy Spirit. Either way, John “sees” the final plan that leads to glorious victory.
The Theology of Revelation
  • 1:1, God gave this message for God’s servants: regarding events “soon” to happen (when read from the perspective of suffering, “soon” can’t be soon enough).
With the initial message of assurance made clear, God now begins to look at seven churches which embody the frailties and faults, and the glories and joys, of most any church anywhere at any time: 
  • The Churches – already well established, well beyond the first blush of conversion and that “first worship service.”
  1. Ephesus: You have abandoned the love you had at first (2:14)
  2. Smyrna: “You will be tested, but be faithful until death, and I will give you a crown” (2:9-11).
  3. Pergamum: false teaching (2:14)
  4. Thyatira: false teaching
  5. Sardis: “You  have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead” (3:1)
  6. Philadelphia: “You have little power, but you have kept my word patiently, and I will keep you from the hour of trial ... I will be there soon, so hold on” (3:8-11).
  7. Laodicea: “You are neither hot nor cold” (3:15).
  • Praising God: 4:11 – with a loud voice from myriads and myriads, the book is suffused with the sounds of praise, because Christ is alive, and the destiny of the universe is in His trustworthy hands. So, worship Him, and no one or anything else.
  • 1:17ff, “Do not be afraid: I am the first and the last ... the living one ... once I was dead, but now I am alive forever more ... and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.
  • 22:9, “Don’t worship me [the angel]; worship God!
  • Waiting: 6:10
  • The link between heaven and earth, chapter 3  - 4. Above and beyond the toils of being faithful is the glory of heaven. God be praised, the church and its failures and successes is not the decisive element. The church does not determine the outcome. That, and that alone, belongs to the Great God Almighty on the Throne and to the Lamb at His right hand.
  • Newness to come: new name (2:17, 3:12).
  • Chapter 18: a critical review of the world powers aligned against faithfulness ... to the oppressed and downtrodden, it’s all good news; to those who possess power and enjoy its fruits, the message is disturbing ... materialism, greed, power ... which is why it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a person of wealth to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24).

Points Worth Noting

Full of God's radiance 21:11

Everyone Has to Decide

  • Battle of Armageddon: 16:16, 19:17-21; the Battle of Armageddon (Harmegedon) is hardly a momentous event: the enemy gathers to make war, but the beast is captured, the enemy is killed, God is victorious. It’s over in a heartbeat. 
  • The Unholy Trinity: the Dragon (12:7-18), the first beast (13:1-10), the second beast (13:11- 17). Satan is the master counterfeiter. What God is, Satan tries to be, but only God can be God and the counterfeit can only be 666 – “close, but no cigar”. Yet, the possibility of being duped by 666 is real. While John assures the reader that God’s victory is on its way, and there’s no question as to the outcome, the power of evil is real, folks can be seduced by it, give their lives to it, live in its poisonous atmosphere, and sadly, those who live in it, are always dangerously close to dying in it, too.
  • The end
  1. Satan’s doom (20:7-10)
  2. New heaven/earth (21)
  3. Goodness preserved (21:24).
  4. River/tree of life (22)
  5. Curse finally removed (22:3)
  • 17:14, evil forces desire to make war, but the Lamb will conquer them, for he is the Lord of lords and King of kings.
  • “In a world like this, where free will and folly and ignorance operate, ten thousand things can happen to us which are not the will of God, but nothing can happen which it is beyond God’s plan and purpose to redeem and use.” Weatherhead, Why Do Men Suffer?, p.85
  • In the ebb and flow of time, evil plays a role, but God is the maker of boundaries, God restrains the hand of evil ... this far, but no further, and in the end, when the final work of Christ is finished, God’s love will overwhelm and destroy the forces of death ... at great cost to God (cross & death), but for our salvation.
  • Image of Heaven: not a pastoral scene, no private cottage on a remote mountain lake, but a teeming city, noisy, too ... a place where intimacy will no longer be difficult or frightening ... human relationships will be fulfilled and complete ... community will be infinitely joyful (hence Jesus: no marriage in heaven – Matthew 22:30).
  • Will we recognize each other? It’s a question of little relevance to the Book of Revelation. In heaven, everyone will be centered upon God. Yet when Jesus is on the mountain with Moses and Elijah, they are “recognized”. As one of my favorite professors said, “I’ll be canoeing in heaven”. And then to explain: The good things God gave to us here will still be good in eternity, but infinitely so. Family, friends, a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, a good book – you name it, and it will be there (21:24).
  • Yes, we will know each other - and we will have all the time in the new world to be with one another. There will be no more brokenness of mind and heart; nothing to separate us from another. Community will be complete with Christ at the center. No longer will we pray, “thy kingdom come” for all shall be made new. Hence, the temple is gone, and so is the sun (21:22-23).
  • What is death? death is the end of the mortal creature. We have no soul (as defined by popular religion and Greek philosopher) that has a life of its own and survives death. We are dust to dust, ashes to ashes and earth to earth. If there is any life at all for us (and there is; God be praised!), it is a gift from God: “I love you so much, I will give to you what can never be yours by right or by might, but only by my grace.”
  • What happens to us after death? We need to offer no more, no less, than God’s Word offers: Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Today, you will be with me in paradise!” The key word here: With me! Elsewhere in God’s Word, Jesus says, “Apart from me, you can do nothing!” (John 15:5). “In Christ” we have eternal life, because Christ is eternal, and with an unimaginable grace, at the command of His Father, He bestows upon us mortal creatures “immortality” (see 1 Corinthians 15). This is not something we inherently possess (as the Greek philosophers taught), but a mighty gift from God. Without it, only death, the “wages of sin” as Paul writes. But in Christ, the great reversal; at great cost to God. The powers of death are on notice: they no longer have the upper hand, and when Christ returns in glory, with the full rule of God, death will be no more! “Death be not proud. Death, thou shalt die” (John Donne).
  • Streets paved with gold ... what do we use for paving material? The cheapest (most plentiful) of materials, only because sand, gravel, limestone is so plentiful ... so with heaven’s streets paved in gold - only because it is of no value in heaven ... all the beautiful things so highly valued “in Babylon” are used for building materials in heaven - the beauty of heaven will be the all-consuming beauty of the triune God, everlasting light of the purest kind, and a great love. Our vision of God will be unimpeded.
  • The end (20 & 21), the curse is removed – 22:3. We shall be given a new and eternal life (see 1 Corinthians 15). As the Creed puts it: the life everlasting.
  • What about hell? Weatherhead suggests that when we die, we are thrust, full and complete, into the love of God, and for those who have spent a lifetime running away from God, denying God’s love and mercy, to be suddenly thrust into the heart of God’s love will be exceedingly painful, so horrifying, that it will feel like hell. But for those whose hearts are open to God’s love, who have desired to know God, serve God, those who have confessed their sins without excuse, those who have worshipped God and followed Christ, to be thrust into the heart of God’s love will be indescribable joy, relief and pleasure.
  • It is not ours to know or say what happens to those who die outside the grace of Christ (“judge not”), but surely it is ours to know and say what happens to those who die within that grace. I am a universalist; I believe that God’s grace will triumph – that no one and nothing will ultimately be lost. How God will effect this, I don’t know, but I believe the God who made heaven and earth and declared it all good will be able to manage this.
  • Yet evangelism remains central to the life of the Christian community – because it is it a far better thing to die in the grace of Christ than to die outside of it – to enter into the presence of God joyfully, willingly and eagerly – to know where we’re going, so that we live our days here as fully and as faithfully as possible. To waste not a moment in either fretful living or hedonistic self-interest.
  • It is fitting for us to pray for the "lost" ... those who do not know the love of God through God's revelation in Christ ... and surely it is our duty to seek the "lost" and help them back to God.
  • Nor should we be arrogant about "our" faith, because it isn't "ours," but always a gift from the heart of a loving God. “By grace we are saved, not by works, lest anyone should boast.”
  • Nor should we be silent in the company of friends and others who are distanced from Christ. The world doesn’t need “blabber-mouth Christians,” but it is our joy and our responsibility to speak a reasonable word when God gives us the opportunity. Remember, it’s no fun being “lost and blind” with regard to God. Folks may have all the riches of the world, but the “pearl of great price” is priceless and is ours only in the heart of God.
  • Essential views of the end:
  1. All will be saved: universalism
  2. Only the elect will be saved; the reprobate damned for all eternity.
  3. The elect will be saved, and the reprobate will disappear forever. The mind of the elect will be blessed by God in such a way that there will be complete peace about it.
Everyone Has to Decide … in light of their reading of the preceding 65 books what seems best, instructed by reliable teachers and grounded in the central traditions of the Christian faith. Remember: all theology is biography – our life, our values, our sense of right and wrong, how we grew up, life experiences, and a thousand other little things all add up to who we are and how see our world, how we read the Bible and interpret it, what the foundational words will mean to us – words like grace and peace, salvation and eternity, judgment and hell, forgiveness and mercy. 
The Bible is a chorus of voices: The Bible is hundreds upon hundreds of voices all calling at once out of the past and clamoring for our attention likes barkers at a fair, like air-raid sirens, like a whole barnyard of cockcrows as the first long shafts of dawn fan out across the sky. Some of the voices are shouting, like Moses’ voice, so all Israel, all the world, can hear, and some are so soft and halting that you can hardly hear them at all, like Job with ashes on his head and his heart broken, like old Simeon whispering, “LORD, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” The prophets shrill out in their frustration, their rage, their holy hope and madness; and the priests drone on and on about the dimensions and furniture of the Temple; and the lawgivers spell out what to eat and what not to eat; and the historians list the kings, the battles, the tragic lessons of Israel’s history. And somewhere in the midst of them all one particular voice speaks out that is unlike any other voice because it speaks so directly to the deepest privacy and longing and weariness of each of us that there are times when the centuries are blown away like mist, and it is as if we stand with no shelter of time at all between ourselves and the one who speaks our secret name. “Come,” the voice says, “Unto me. All ye.” Every last one [Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember, p.37].
Good and faithful theologians who have devoted their lives to the study of God’s Word and doing their best to give expression to it have gone with all three views.
  • There’s something to be bear in mind: why would you make any one of these decisions – what’s going on in your own life to make one of these “ends” more or less appealing to you?
  • Some desire a universal salvation with a curious kind of irresponsibility: after all, if God is going to save everyone, what’s the big deal? I can coast through life, and I’ll be saved, too. The Sugar Daddy in the sky sort of thing.
  • Some desire a hell, and perhaps they do so out of much hurt at the hands of someone or something, or perhaps out of a sense of pride – that I’m going “up”, and you’re going “down” – too bad for you, and goodie, goodie for me!
  • Wherever we come out on these questions, we need to examine ourselves carefully and read and re-read the Bible on these matters.
  • But however we finally decide (and maybe we’ll waffle back and forth over the years), to do so with great humility before the mysteries of God, and to be loving in all our thoughts, for the love of God is always greater than our grasp of it.
  • As in all such things, to speak boldly of the things we know, and reservedly of things hinted at. 
  • Is there is final hell for those who oppose God? 
  • At the very least, from the myriads that populate the eternal city, it’s likely that hell will be, thank God, sparsely populated, and only for a time.
  • And perhaps there will be a time when the fires of hell have burned themselves out. When spite and envy, when greed and malice, like some terrible wild fire, will simply run their course and die exhausted.
  • Perhaps like a smelter, once the dross has been burned off and the gold refined, there’s no need for further heat.
  • I, myself, am inclined to think of a final victory against every expression of darkness – that in the end, every creature, evening expression of life, every atom and molecule will know and rejoice in the glory of God – “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is LORD” (Romans 14:11 & Philippians 2:11).
The gift of the Book of Revelation is its faith in the final victory of God in the face of odds insurmountable for us. In the end, God! On that day, when all is made new, our suffering and our prayers will be vindicated, and the truth made known to all the world.
We needn't fear the day of judgment ... it's best understood as the day of vindication, when all wrongs are righted, sorrow banished, and sin is no more.
A time of no tears: because we will see God and everything will make perfect sense – we will be at peace with our life (as Jesus was with His scars).
It is a day to which every Christian can look forward to, a day for which our hearts yearn ... as the book itself ends, "Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen."