Thursday, June 28, 2018

Understanding Revelation

People have a lot of different reactions to the Book of Revelation. Some are confused by it. Others are afraid of it. Some are obsessed by it. Most are ignorant of it. The average person has likely never heard their pastor preach a sermon from the Book of Revelation. Most mainline pastors have never studied it in depth, much less led their congregation in exploring the last book of the New Testament.

But I Рin all my naivet̩ and egotism Рtook it upon myself to lead my first fulltime church after seminary in a weekly, verse-by-verse, study of Revelation that lasted six months. I had the confidence to attempt this because of a course I took in seminary, which was taught by a young professor (now deceased) named James Blevins.

It was an eye-opening course! When I enrolled in the class all I knew about Revelation was what I had read in Hal Lindsey’s bestseller The Late Great Planet Earth, published in 1970. (That dates me!) The Left Behind series of books and movies that dominated the 1990’s and 2000’s were only a twinkle in the eye of Tim LaHaye.

I assumed that the only way Revelation could be interpreted was in a futurist manner, meaning that it predicted events to happen in the future – our future. Dr. Blevins showed me another way; it should be read like the prophetic books of the Old Testament. It has to do with events in the time it was written.

Most of Revelation is about the near future from the Apostle John’s point of view. The author of Revelation says this repeatedly in the prologue and epilogue of Revelation. It takes intentional blindness to miss those verses. But Christians – if nothing else – are very good at self-deception.

Blevins presented Revelation as a cosmic drama, patterned after Greek and Roman plays performed at the great theatre in his adopted hometown of Ephesus in Asia Minor (present day Turkey.) He presented this view in his book Revelation as Drama (1984). That idea was not original with him, but it certainly was new to me. It really struck home to me when I later visited the ruins of ancient Ephesus.

Revelation was intended to be heard and seen – like John heard and saw it. To demonstrate his point our large seminary class actually performed the whole book of Revelation. (I was the “mighty angel” of Revelation 18:21). I will never forget the experience. Revelation came alive for me, and I actually understood it! It was like seeing a Shakespeare play performed for the first time. Incomprehensible Elizabethan English actually makes sense when heard live on stage.

I have never forgotten what I learned in seminary, and what I taught my first church in Southern Illinois.  I have kept the notes I used back then and referred to them throughout my forty year ministry. I have preached and taught Revelation in every church I have served. Finally after many years I have published my understanding of the Book of Revelation in a new book entitled Understanding Revelation.

In short it says that Revelation is more about Christ with us now than it is about deciphering clues to the date of Christ's Second Coming. That will be disappointing to date-setters, but good news (the literal meaning of the word “gospel”) to Christians seeking to make sense of this strangest book of the Bible.

Revelation is extremely relevant to today. Not because its prophecies are being fulfilled in today’s newspaper headlines, but because Revelation teaches timeless truths applicable to every historical era, including our own. I invite you to read Revelation and my book (preferably together). I hope that as a result you will come to understand the Book of Revelation a little better.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Father’s Day Ideas

Everyone celebrates Mother’s Day. Woe to any son or daughter who does not call – or better yet, visit - their mom on Mother’s Day! Mother’s Day celebrations have been around for over a hundred years. State celebrations of motherhood began in 1908, and by 1911 every state was observing the holiday.

Father’s Day was a lot harder to get started. Individual cities tried to get it going as early as 1910 but it would be decades before it really caught on. In 1957, Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith wrote a Father's Day proposal accusing the US Congress of ignoring fathers for 40 years while honoring mothers, thus "singling out just one of our two parents." Amen.

In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued the first presidential proclamation honoring fathers, designating the third Sunday in June as Father's Day. Six years later, the day was made a permanent national holiday when President Richard Nixon signed it into law in 1972. By the mid-1980s, the Father's Day Council wrote, "Father's Day has become a Second Christmas for all the men's gift-oriented industries."

A second Christmas? It does not feel like Christmas to me. My wife gets so many flowers on Mother’s Day that our house looks and smells like a funeral home. But Father’s Day? Not so much. Not that I am complaining.  I am allergic to most flowers. It used to be that I got my annual supply of new neckties on Father’s Day. But since retirement I wear ties only sparingly, so that gift idea has been sidelined.

Actually I don’t really want presents. I’ve got more than enough stuff. I do not need to attend a Father’s Day brunch or buffet at a local restaurant, if there are such things.  I get phone calls, and I appreciate them. I also get greeting cards. Handmade ones from my grandkids are my favorites.

I do not need presents. I just feel blessed to have children and grandchildren who love me and whom I get to see on a regular basis. Their hugs are all the gifts I need. Coming to church with me on Father’s Day would be nice. There is nothing this old preacher loves more than to see a pew full of descendants on Sunday morning. To be honest, the smile on their mother’s face when we are all together in church is the best gift this old dad can get.

So let me suggest a gift idea for those of you wondering what to get your father for Father’s Day. I suggest that those of you with a living father go to church with him. If he normally doesn’t go to church, then bring him with you. It will do him good to have his kids honor him in this public way.

But don’t make him dress up. Blue jeans are fine. That is what I normally wear to worship these days when I am not preaching! Then maybe take him to that Father’s Day buffet after all. The way to a man’s heart is still through his stomach.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Going Deeper

It has been almost two years since I retired from fulltime pastoral ministry, and people still ask me, “How do you like retirement?” My answer is always the same: “I love it!” I love the freedom to explore theological and philosophical matters more deeply.

When I was a fulltime pastor I had to be cautious about what I preached and wrote. That is why very few pastors are prophets – and vice versa. I always weighed the impact of what I said and wrote upon my parishioners and my church. My main concern was “growing the church.”  Theologically that meant reiterating the basics of the Christian faith.

Now someone else can feed the sheep, and I can delve into areas that were too risky to explore before. I can venture into unexplored territory without having to worry about the safety of those following me. I feel the need to ground my faith more firmly on truth. These days it is more important to me to believe what is true, rather than what is PC (politically correct) or EC (evangelically correct.)

So I explored nonduality, and didn’t worry about colleagues accusing me of pantheism or mysticism. My book Experiencing God Directly came out of that experience. I studied atheism, and ended up writing a book praising the New Atheism (Thank God for Atheists.) I propose that God is using the New Atheists as his prophets to speak to his recalcitrant church. That is not popular with religious folks, who tend to think of atheists as the enemy.

Most recently I finished researching and writing a book on the resurrection of Jesus, entitled The Evolution of Easter: How the Historical Jesus Became the Risen Christ. I explore how the story of Easter changed over the course of the first one hundred years of the Christian church. 

I trace the development of the story of the resurrection of Jesus from the early experiences of the apostles to the final writing of the gospels decades later. In the process I read gospels that never made it into the New Testament. In short I dug into earliest Christian history until I hit bedrock. Then I put what I learned into a book.

The questions I ask are too risky for some people to consider. The truths I uncover are unsettling to those trying to keep their childhood religion intact. But I am more interested in what is true than what is safe. I live by Socrates’ maxim:  The unexamined life is not worth living. I let nothing about my religion go unexamined. I am willing to throw any sacred cows into the fire.

In my book Thank God for Atheists I examine the basic premise of theism: Is there really a God?  In my book The Evolution of Easter, I examine the foundational event of Christianity: Did Jesus really rise from the dead? These are dangerous questions. Most Christians will not seriously consider them, for fear of losing their faith.

In the end I have come through this examination of Christianity with a stronger, but more nuanced, faith. In some ways I have become the unconventional thinker that I scorned during my conservative days. In other ways I have become the person of faith I wanted to be in my younger days. In the end I prefer unconventional truth to conventional wisdom. Dangerous truth is always better than prepackaged orthodoxy.

Now I preach with more conviction because what I preach has been tested. I invite you to travel this path. But I warn you, it isn’t easy or popular. As Jesus said, “Narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” But it is worth it.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Ashes to Ashes

I admit that I have not always been enthusiastic about Ash Wednesday services. As a Baptist the holiday has seemed too “Catholic.” Many Baptist churches do not even observe Lent. During my ministry I have always acknowledged the official start to Lent, but usually with a Lenten Bible Study. No ashes.

In my final five years as a pastor I participated in an ecumenical service held at a nearby Congregational church each Ash Wednesday. But never a palm ash graced my forehead. Then a few years ago they began offering ashes on the palm or the back of your hand. I gave it a try. It was meaningful.

Then last night I attended the Ash Wednesday service at the Community Church of Sandwich, where I was a pastor for many years. The words, hymns, and quiet of the service spoke to me. “Ashes to ashes,” the preacher intoned.

It just so happened that earlier that day my wife and I had gone out for a Valentine’s Day lunch at a Chinese restaurant. On the way home we caught a glimpse of snow-capped Mount Chocorua in the distance. She mentioned our plans to have our ashes scattered at the summit of that peak after our deaths.

“I wonder who will bring our ashes up there,” she wondered aloud. “Our kids,” I replied. “Maybe our grandkids.” Then a few hours later I was listening to the preacher say the words “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

For months I have been reading the first century Roman philosopher Seneca as part of my morning devotions. (I read a portion of the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Stoics.) I am on the second volume of a collection of works by the Stoic philosophers. I am presently in the middle of Seneca’s famous essay, entitled “On the Shortness of Life.”

It all seemed to fit. Suffering from vertigo for the last five weeks and having to walk with a cane has made me especially conscious of my vulnerability. I greet other people with canes. We compare canes. There is a cane camaraderie. A friend loaned me a crampon to attach to the end of my cane so I can navigate icy terrain.

I am now acutely aware of, and empathize with, older folks who have a difficult time walking. I know it is only a matter of weeks or days (I pray) before I am cane-free and skipping down the road. But for now I am very conscious that I am not immune to the Law of Entropy.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Infirmity and mortality put life in perspective. They bestow wisdom, which gives our days meaning. Life is precious because it is brief and fragile. “O Lord, teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) That is what I learned on Ash Wednesday.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Adventures in Vertigo

Three weeks ago, on January 9, our bags were packed. We were ready to go to Florida for a two month getaway, starting with a family wedding in Orlando. I woke up at seven o’clock, got out of bed, went downstairs to shower, and immediately the room began to spin. I could not stand up. I could not even sit up.

Surely this would pass, I thought. It did not. I yelled for my wife Jude. She rushed down and asked what she should do. Should she call an ambulance? I replied, “Definitely.” The forty minute ride in the ambulance was exciting. Being nauseous and riding backwards in a van is not fun. In the ER they feared a stroke. They did a CT scan. There was something unusual on it. Perhaps an aneurysm, the doctor said.

He said they better do an MRI. Forty-five minutes of torture later, nauseous, dizzy, and strapped into a mask and what felt like a strait jacket, I emerged. No aneurysm. No stroke. Just a small meningioma, benign growth in the front of my brain. An abnormality but harmless. Nothing to worry about. (I always suspected my brain was a bit abnormal.)

A wheelchair ride over to the ENT doctor confirmed a diagnosis of acute vertigo caused by labyrinthitis, an inflammation of the inner ear, likely caused by a virus.  “No problem,” the doc said. “It should clear up in 4-6 weeks. But if there is permanent nerve damage then full recovery could take 2-8 months.” “Thanks for the good news,” I replied.

For two days I lay in bed. I could not move without vomiting. I could not stand at all. I could barely open my eyes. I could not read or watch television. All I could do was listen to an audiobook and pray. They talked about sending me to a rehab hospital.

On the third day I arose. (The Biblical parallel was not lost on me.) I walked with the aid of a walker all the way to the door of my hospital room. Hooray! By my sixth day in the hospital, I could walk with a walker all the way down the hall. That meant I could go home instead of rehab. In the last two weeks I have graduated to a cane.

This Sunday I even made it to church to worship. It was my first outing in three weeks, besides a follow-up visit to the ENT. I was never so glad to be in church. To be welcomed and greeted and prayed for. To sing hymns. The previous Sunday we had to stay home and listen to a podcast of the church service on the computer. It just wasn’t the same.

Jude has been my savior, nurse and shower attendant. (Not as much fun as it sounds.) Prayer and meditation have been my constants in the midst of vertigo. While the world was spinning around me I reached out to the One who is the Center of the storm, calling out to the Lord who calmed the waves and wind on the Sea of Galilee. God is the Solid Rock that does not move, though the earth shift under my feet.

Today I am on the mend. I am still unstable on my feet. The walls and floor of our house still tilt as I walk. I still use a cane. I often catch myself by leaning against a wall. It has been a humbling experience.

While in the hospital the physical therapist asked me, “Do you normally get around without a walker at home?” I gawked at her, “Of course. Do you think I am an old man or something?” The look on her face confirmed her thoughts. I guess my bald head and grey beard don’t help.

I suddenly knew what it was like to feel like – and be treated like - an elderly person. Upon reflection I realized I am twice the age of the hospitalist and every nurse and aide who was treating me. Oh my! When did I become the oldest person in the room?

I thought of the way I have viewed the elderly throughout my ministry. That is how people are viewing me. It filled me with renewed respect, compassion and appreciation for older people, a club which apparently I had unknowingly joined.

Hopefully in a few weeks (rather than a few months) I will be back to normal. I am still hoping to make it to Florida sometime, but not until the spring at the earliest. In the meantime I will contemplate the joys of being officially older and hopefully a little wiser.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Pilgrim’s Progress Redux

 The author lived more than 300 years ago and is arguably one of the most influential writers in world history. His best-known work has been called “the second best book in all the world.” It tops The Guardian’s (the respected British newspaper) list of the 100 best novels written in English. 

It has been translated into more than 200 languages and is second only to the Bible in the number of copies sold worldwide. Wikipedia calls it “one of the most significant works of religious English literature, and has never been out of print. It has also been cited as the first novel written in English.”

No, this is not a work by Shakespeare. It is John Bunyan’s 1678 Christian allegory Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s more complete title is The Pilgrim's Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come. (Its original title would fill half this page!)

But the chances are you have never read it. In recent decades it has fallen out of fashion, even among devout Christians. I first read it when I was 18, when I spent a summer reading all the classics that my formal education did not see fit to assign me. That was the summer I also read Dante, Homer and Milton.

I fell in love with Pilgrim’s Progress again when I visited the John Bunyan Museum and Library in Bedford, while on sabbatical in England. It prompted me to read his other works and lead discussion groups on Pilgrim’s Progress in my church.

I have often wondered what Bunyan would have written if he were alive today. That led me to my most recent writing project, entitled The Seeker’s Journey, subtitled A Contemporary Retelling of Pilgrim’s Progress.

This is not your grandfather’s Pilgrim’s Progress! In my retelling of the beloved allegory, Seeker (who later changes his name to Pilgrim) meets Campus Crusader on his university campus. The evangelist instructs him to begin his journey by entering through a gate illuminated by a lamppost, which strangely resembles the one at the boundary of Narnia.

Instead of the Slough of Despond this modern Pilgrim falls into the Bog of Existential Angst, and then stays in the Town of Therapy for a while. Where Vanity Fair used to be, now there is Prosperity Gospel Ministries. Pilgrim visits the City of Megachurch where he meets people who suspiciously resemble Robert Schuller, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, and Benny Hinn.

The allegorical characters are still here, but their names are more familiar to modern ears. There is Judgmental, Bored, and Spiritual But Not Religious. Pilgrim meets Tolerant and Intolerant, Psychologist, Evangelical, and the Dark Knight of the Soul. Calvin and Arminius live in a cave overlooking the Valley of Dry Bones. Billy Graham and the Dalai Lama make cameo appearances.

In the Theologian’s House he encounters many interpretations of the Bible and Christ, all of which are recognizable from the American religious landscape – from Creationism to Feminism. Pilgrim visits First Baptist Church where he stays at the home of a Fundamentalist family. He fights the dreaded Apollyon, travels through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and encounters the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism.

These are just a few of the adventures that Pilgrim and his companions have on their journey from their home in the Shadowlands (shades of C. S. Lewis) to their Destination beyond the river. Along the way there are references to Harry Potter, Philip K. Dick, Talladega Nights, and Mark Twain. The ending will surprise you.

The Seeker’s Journey: A Contemporary Retelling of Pilgrim’s Progress is a humorous romp through the landscape of 21st century American Christianity, which I hope will get you thinking and laughing. It is available in both Kindle and paperback. I hope you enjoy it. I certainly enjoyed writing it.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Sloppy Gardener

A man went to sow seeds in his vegetable garden, but he wasn’t very careful. He dropped some seeds along the path on the way to his garden. The birds quickly found those seeds and ate them. He also sowed seeds at the upper end of the garden where the soil was shallow. Bedrock was only a couple of inches below the surface. Those seeds did not last long. They germinated, but there was not enough soil for them to put down deep roots. When it got hot and dry, those plants withered and died, because they had no roots.

Other seeds were sown along the borders of the garden where grass and thorns encroached on the growing area. Weeds crowded out these vegetable plants, depriving them of nutrients, water and light, and they soon died. But other seeds were planted in rows where the soil was rototilled, fertilized, and weeded regularly. They got full sun and plenty of water. These plants produced a large harvest. There was enough for the gardener to eat all he wanted, freeze some, can some, and still have enough to share with friends and neighbors! Dig deeply into this story and reap the spiritual reward!

(Original translation of Matthew 13:3-9, commonly known as the Parable of the Sower. American Paraphrase Version, copyright 2017 by Marshall Davis. All rights reserved.)