God, Gays, Heaven, and the End of the World

Some say that there is no such thing as bad publicity. If that is so, then, it has been a good few weeks for the Bible.

But maybe not.

First, except for those living off the grid in a cabin deep in the Montana wilderness, we all know that certainly (probably? maybe?) the beginning of the end comes this Saturday, at 6:00 PM, New Zealand time. Harold Camping has often been wrong and never in doubt. But he always hedges his bets. His earlier prediction was detailed in a book 1994? with its carefully placed and distinctly ambiguous mark of punctuation. Now he ratchets up his precision (though some in his ‘camp’ say his math could be wrong – there always seems to be an ‘out’). The Bible, his followers say, is always right, and so we wait.

Then, recently, the Presbyterian Church (USA) reached a milestone as the tally of those presbyteries supporting a change in the church’s constitution which would allow actively gay clergy reached the total necessary for approval. This was not unexpected and generated much media conversation about what the Bible does and does not say about homosexuality. The religion editor for the Orlando Sentinel quoted a scholar who, while having the integrity not to try to deny the Bible’s opposition to homosexual sex, nevertheless dismisses such opposition as hopelessly colored by the primitive times in which those prohibitions were written.

Finally, Stephen Hawking has declared that heaven is no more than a fairy tale for those who are afraid of death. In the wake of that claim, which should come as no news to anyone, media has been all over actor Kirk Cameron’s Facebook response and relatively silent on the response of Bishop N. T. Wright (a fairly smart man in his own right) which was respectful and reasoned.

The media loves a tussle, because we love a tussle. But if we are not careful in all of this, there will be serious collateral intellectual damage. The great temptation for any of us once we get hold of a book which possesses authority is that we will want that book to say what we want it to say. If WE believe that communism is right, or capitalism, or whatever, we will want the Book to side with us and we will begin to read it that way.

And for others, hearing people argue passionately opposite sides while claiming the same authority will cause many to determine the book itself has no value. If the book can be made to say whatever its handlers want it to say, then it says nothing at all. If you can prove anything from the bible, then you can prove nothing, and the book is worthless.

As a pastor all of this makes me very cautious in my approach to scripture. We all need to come to the text with deep humility, aware of our own biases and weaknesses and of the ease with which we could slip into error. My prayer, and the prayer that I hope others pray for me and for other pastors, is that when I speak with the Bible as my authority, that I will do so with care, speaking clearly that upon which the Bible itself is clear, and with restraint upon every other thing.

The End of the World, Part III

Subsequent to my posting titled “The End of the World” we had, as you all know, an earthquake and tsunami which did incomprehensible damage to the people and nation of Japan. That touches us all differently, but for some like the young man in my church who grew up in Japan, the impact was deeply felt.

But the earthquake led inevitably to people determining that this was another harbinger of the end of the world, because Jesus mentioned earthquakes in some of his prophetic teaching. I understand the longing for Jesus’ return. But there have been earthquakes in abundance since Jesus spoke, and wars, and rumors of wars. It may be that we are misreading those texts.

Which leads me to encourage your listening to the last couple of Christian education classes at the church I pastor. Ra McLaughlin, a superb teacher, has been teaching a class on basic biblical interpretation which we have only recently begun to record. But the two classes we recorded, posted here and here, have both been on the subject of the interpretation of prophecy. I think that all should find these very helpful.

Finally, though, as people in these matters wrestle with and debate the questions which swirl around the issues of life and death, present and future (in theological parlance, ‘eschatology’), Richard Lovelace has the best word:

“We must also insist that there is one factor of belief which almost always tends to disturb the practical usefulness of any eschatology: the notion that we can be certain now where we are on the eschatological time line. This is especially true if we assume we are near the end of the line, as so many have in past history….” (Richard F. Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life, page 413)

The End of the World, Part II

A couple of weeks ago I posted with the title, “The End of the World.” One reader saw my title and thought I was referring to Harold Camping’s latest date for the return of Jesus. I was unaware that Mr. Camping was still in the date setting business, having been wrong so often before, or that there were still those willing to take him this seriously.

But as these things go, I was reminded of the simple adage that in pointing a finger at another, there are at least three pointing back at me. Harold Camping is easy to mock and easy to scorn. His mishandling of scripture and his rejection of church history and the wisdom of fellow Christians are all worthy of critique. His mistakes and his sin have led many astray, and that is to be lamented and condemned.

And yet what of me? Reflecting on this reminds me of the fear that often comes upon me when I contemplate stepping into the pulpit. I am charged with the responsibility of rightfully presenting the truth of God. And so I am driven to ask, “Am I getting it right?” Knowing the importance of doing so, and knowing as well my weaknesses, I am in awe at the weight of the task.

The preacher’s frustration is to think that no one is listening. His fear is the knowledge that they are.

[That might even be “tweetable”, there!]

The End of the World

I have grown used to Christians making generalizations lamenting the present state of life in the world, assuming a moral degradation from some idealized standard, and suggesting that such is a clear harbinger of the End of the World.

I have grown used to it. I just don’t get it. Earlier this year I read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century and if ever an era revealed End-of-the-World colors, it was the 14th century. But we are still here.

My patience wears thin, though, when the idealized standard is localized to something like the 1950s and some historic event (“…when they took prayer out of our schools…”) or another is erected as the watershed moment. Yes, THOSE 1950s when my black friends endured dental work without anesthesia and Colin Powell, later so distinguished, would drive through the south having to turn his wife into the woods to relieve herself, as they were unable to find a restroom she was free to use.

There never has been a golden age. We might even want to argue that things are so much better today than they have been at any time in the past.

But that is not my purpose. My purpose is for us to look critically at any and every era and train ourselves to see God’s providential hand of grace through it all.

In the following quote, John Frame is critiquing those critical assessments which judge contemporary life as defective because they have departed from a high and therefore pure standard. His comments are applicable as well to any effort to locate a pure golden standard anywhere in history and outside the hope of the Gospel.

So the problem is not history; the problem is sin. Culture is bad today, but Sodom and Gomorrah were probably not any better, nor were Tyre, Sidon, Ninevah, Babylon, Rome, Capernaum, or Bethsaida.

Popular culture is bad, but high culture is too. Beethoven was a devotee of the secularism of the French Revolution, Wagner of German mythology, and their music makes a powerful case for these false worldviews.. The problems of high culture go back a long way. It is not that high culture has been infected by popular culture; if anything, the reverse is true. And folk culture has always had alongside its humble virtues a lot of bawdy tales, class warfare, ignorant populism, and disrespect for the holy.

It is always wrong to try to single out one element of culture as pure, even relatively pure, and blame all of society’s ills on some other element. That is almost always self-serving: we like what we like and we want to blame the evils of life on the culture we dislike. But perhaps we need to have a more biblical view of sin. Sin is not limited to one segment of society or one segment of culture. It pervades everything. And whatever good there is comes from God’s common and special grace.

The Doctrine of the Christian Life, Page 887.

Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

2539809379_7979c078f9_o_medium.jpg

The picture above is of the ‘cloud of witnesses’ welcoming Rays batter Reid Brignac ‘home’ after his game winning home run late Monday night.

Can the reception of God’s redeemed people be anything less when He calls us home?

I’m moved by the thought.

Heaven Is Not Your Home

I encourage all Christians to listen and give attention to this message by Dr. Richard Pratt:

Heaven Is Not Your Home

This was delivered to a gathering of the Central Florida Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. I am not sure when, and I’m not sure how it came into my possession. However, it is a significant expression of the truth that what God is doing, and therefore what WE are to be doing, extends beyond personal salvation. It includes personal salvation, but is so much broader than that.

Meditative reflection upon the nature of the kingdom that Christ is building will impact how we see and direct our own efforts in ministry. I cannot stress the importance of this enough. Give it a listen.

* * * * *

This message is posted with the permission of Third Millennium Ministries, of which Dr. Pratt is the founder and president.

The 14th Century Perspective

My wife just emailed me to tell me that another severe earthquake has hit Chile. I don’t know what really has been the damage, and my sympathies go out to those who must be suffering greatly

Apart from the tragedy that such things are, I know what someone will soon tell me. Soon, someone will be telling me that this is just another sign of the end of the world and of the eminent return of Jesus.

Maybe it is. But there are two things that lead me to discount such interpretations of current events.

First, when Jesus speaks of natural disasters and rumors of wars in Matthew 24 and in Mark 13, his emphasis seems to me to be that these things are NOT to be taken as signs of his eminent return. His very point seems to be that we cannot accurately read these things as harbingers of the eminent end.

But Secondly, I can’t grasp how we can be saying that things are so bad. Yes, absolutely, if we were in the city center of Port Au Prince or Santiago, we would be overwhelmed with the suffering and the sorrow. I don’t mean to discount that. But what I wonder is by what historical measure can we so assuredly declare, as I’ve heard many do, that things are so bad that Christ must return? The implication of many and the expressed affirmation of others is that things could never have been as bad as they are for us. I seriously question that.

I have on my night stand a book I’ve been wanting to read for some time, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. The author, Barbara Tuchman, has written what many believe to be a riveting and fascinating story of life in the 14th century. This would be the days during which Europe’s way of life, no, very existence, was threatened by corrupt church politics, public immorality, the incursion of ‘heathen hordes’, a 100 Years War, and the death of 1/3 of the population due to the Black Death, the bubonic plague.

I think any citizen surviving the 14th Century would probably laugh at us for claiming that we have it bad.

I think we as Christians need to be less confident in our knowledge of ‘what God is doing’ and more confident in what he has called us to do, and then just do it.