Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Missing Book of the Bible

Years ago I bought a hefty paperback entitled "The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden." It included pseudepigraphal works like the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Lost Gospel of Peter. I found it fascinating.

When I first heard about the Dead Sea Scrolls, I immediately bought a copy. When the Gnostic library of Nag Hammadi, found in 1945 in Egypt, was finally published, I devoured it. In my first church in Illinois I even turned the Wednesday night prayer meeting into a study of the Old Testament Apocrypha, to the puzzlement of those good Midwestern Baptists.

People love spiritual mysteries. It accounts for the popularity of books like Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code." The tenth chapter of Revelation mentions a missing book of the Bible. Up to this point the apostle John has been dutifully writing down all he has seen and heard during this visionary trip to heaven. He has recorded the words of the Seven Seals and the Seven Trumpets.

Now he sees an angel with a little book, the Book of the Seven Thunders. "When the Seven Thunders spoke, I started to write it all down, but a voice out of Heaven stopped me, saying, "Seal with silence the Seven Thunders; don't write a word." (Revelation 10:4) John was not allowed to reveal the contents of the Seven Thunders. But he is allowed to eat the book. (Rev. 10:10)

There is spiritual truth that can be apprehended but not recorded. There is truth that is sealed with silence. I am not talking about occult religion or Gnostic teaching. I am talking about intuition and communion. The Gospel is fundamentally about relationship with God. Relationships cannot be put into words, regardless of how much Hallmark tries.

The apostle Paul talks about an experience like John's Revelation experience. Paul says he was caught up into the third heaven; he did not know whether he was in the body or out of the body. "He was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter." (2 Corinthians 12:4)

The Gospel involves a spiritual experience of God that cannot be encased in doctrine. When we try to speak of such things, out comes only paradox. It is "the exceeding grace of God in you.... His indescribable gift!" (2 Corinthians 9:14-15)

There is richness in sacred silence that can only be incarnated in our lives. We are His missing book. "You are an epistle of Christ ... written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart." (2 Corinthians 3:3)  

Friday, January 29, 2010

Atheists in Foxholes

I have been a pastor for thirty-three years and I have never seen a deathbed conversion. I have stood sentinel at a lot of deathbeds. I have had spiritual discussions with many critically ill people. I have invited dying patients to accept the life that Christ has to offer. But I have never seen a last hour conversion. I won't say they don't happen. I have heard and read stories of such accounts. But I have never witnessed them. It is my experience that people die the way they live.

Furthermore people live the way they die. They say there are no atheists in foxholes. Perhaps. But once the shooting stops, people leave their religion in the foxhole. Revelation 9:13-21 gives a symbolic picture of a great war in the Middle East involving two hundred million troops and weapons of mass destruction. It says that a third of humankind dies in this World War III. I will let the polyester preachers with their television prophecy programs fill you in on the details of the countries and dates. (Just realize they don't really have a clue either.) I am more interested in what happens after the war.

"The remaining men and women who weren't killed by these weapons went on their merry way-didn't change their way of life, didn't quit worshiping demons, didn't quit centering their lives around lumps of gold and silver and brass, hunks of stone and wood that couldn't see or hear or move. There wasn't a sign of a change of heart. They plunged right on in their murderous, occult, promiscuous, and thieving ways." (Rev. 9:20-21 - The Message)

People don't change. That is my experience. Extreme circumstances might temporarily bring about religious sentiment. People tend to be very reverent at funerals. But when things get back to normal, the heart returns to its sin.

One of the messages of the Book of Revelation is the hardness of the human heart. No amount of sounding trumpets wakes people up from their spiritual slumber. No amount of divine wrath poured from heavenly bowls turns people's hearts to God. The plagues of Egypt only hardened Pharaoh's heart. External circumstances do not change the soul.

The only hope is the inner work of God in the human heart. People don't change; God changes people. This is the mystery of salvation. This is the gift of Christ. This is the sealing of the Spirit. This is the grace of God.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Details in the Devil

I recently heard a debate between a Buddhist, a Christian and a Humanist. (No, this isn't a joke.) It was sponsored by the Veritas Forum and held at Columbia University. (Buddha, Man, and Jesus: Three Perspectives on Life.) The three intellectuals discussed a variety of religious topics, but the most heated discussion concerned hell. The Christian was scorned and attacked by the other two panelists for holding to the traditional New Testament doctrine of hell.

In chapter 9 of Revelation the abyss of hell opens its mouth and out comes a swarm of demonic creatures straight out of a horror film. (Revelation 9:1-11) They add an important element to Revelation - evil. Not some type of "natural evil" like natural catastrophes. Not the evil of the human soul. This is intentional conscious evil in the universe headed by an Evil One.

There is a spiritual darkness at loose in the world. These dark forces are important features of the Book of Revelation. Without these characters Revelation would be a boring and tepid affair. All good stories need a villain. In Revelation the devil and his minions play the evil roles. The archetypal battle between good and evil makes up the warp and woof of the book.

What are we to make of evil? There is no doubt that there is an abyss of evil in the human heart, a shadow side of the psyche that is often unacknowledged and projected onto our enemies.  We vilify and dehumanize others and thereby make them easier to imprison, torture and kill. After all, they are not fully "human" like we are. This accounts for Auschwitz and Abu Ghraib, slavery and abortion.

But there is more to evil than human depravity. To limit evil to human beings is just another form of anthropocentrism. There is evil in the heavens. It is no accident that evil is pictured as a fallen star; it comes from above. After all, the story of Lucifer says he was an angel in God's court before his fall.

The symbols of Revelation point to a reality that we deny at our own peril. As Van Helsing says in the 1931 Dracula film, "The strength of the vampire is that people will not believe in him." The same goes for the devil.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Disaster Waiting to Happen

Let's face it. Revelation is a disaster. In fact, it is one disaster after another. It reads like one of those popular disaster movies about earthquakes, volcanoes, meteors, tsunamis, epidemics, or a new ice age. Revelation reads like a cosmic disaster film.

There's an earthquake, (8:5) "hail and fire mingled with blood," (8:7) a third of the living creatures of the sea dying, (8:9) a volcano polluting rivers and springs causing many humans to die (8:10-11) And that is just in six verses of Chapter 8! Wave after wave of divine and human violence fill the pages of Revelation. As much as Christians try to portray the book as one of hope, it is actually one disaster after another. ... mostly caused by the hand of God.

In the wake of the Haiti earthquake, there has been a lot of talk about God's role in natural catastrophes. Even news anchors could be heard asking, "Why did God allow this to happen?" There is no such theological hand-wringing in Revelation. God's angels blow trumpets of disaster and pour out bowls of divine wrath with no sense of remorse. My mother refused to read the Book of Revelation. It scared her to read about God doing such things.

The Hindus were wise enough to divide up divine responsibilities among their three supreme deities. They separate Brahma, the creator, and Vishnu, the preserver, from Shiva the destroyer. Shiva gets stuck with the job of doing all the bad stuff, which leaves the other deities' hands clean.

Christians don't have that neat type of compartmentalized God. We have one all-powerful and all-good God responsible for all of it. "I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things." (Isaiah 45:7) A truly omnipotent God is a big PR problem for Christians. How do we deal with the destructive and wrathful side of God so clearly portrayed in Revelation?

Most Christians try to defend God, explaining how somehow all bad things contribute to a greater good. (Romans 8:28) I too trust in the providence of God, but most attempts at theodicy (explaining evil by vindicating God) leave me cold. They always sound like rationalizations and platitudes. I prefer the answer of my son, who has been though some tough times in his life. He often reminds me, "Dad, it is what it is!"

Revelation is what it is. Nobody attempts to rationalize a painting or a symphony. It simply is. God is what he is. (Didn't he say that in the burning bush? "I am who I am.") As far as we are concerned, God says, "Be still and know that I am God." (Psalm 46:10)

The world is a violent place, and it won't get any better as the end approaches. Jesus didn't sugarcoat it. He said there would be wars, famines, pestilences and earthquakes until the end ... and then it gets worse! (Matthew 24:6-7) Bad things happen, and ultimately the buck stops with God. He is big enough to take it. So I won't make excuses for God, and neither does Revelation. So sit back and read the greatest disaster script ever written.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Silence in Heaven

I saw the film "The Seventh Seal" by Ingmar Bergman long before I ever heard the passage about the seventh seal read in church. The Book of Revelation was not publicly read at the mainline congregation I attended as a child. It is strange to think I read words from Revelation in a Swedish film's subtitles before ever reading them from a Bible. During my freshman year of college, I sat in the dark auditorium where "art films" were shown on Friday nights, and watched a knight play chess with Death. The theme of the film was the silence of God in a world ravaged by death. I was in my "death of God" phase, and my young mind imagined the film filled with profound spiritual significance.

Revelation 8:1 says simply, "When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour." It is not until we read about this silence that we realize that up to that point Revelation has been filled with noise. If we were actually seeing this divine drama on a stage (as my seminary professor James Blevins said it was intended to be seen in his book "Revelation as Drama"), then we would have been bombarded with loud noises up to this point. Now suddenly the action stops, and there is a half hour of silence, mingled with incense as the silent prayers of God's people ascend to the throne of God (8:3-4).

My prayer life is mostly silence. I also pray with words. I intercede for those I know and love. But words normally come only after a half hour of silence. My "quiet time" is literally a time of silence during which I do nothing but listen to the Spirit. Truth be told, I try and listen to the Spirit. Mostly I listen to the incessant internal dialogue going on in my head.

Even after all these years of maintaining a discipline of contemplative prayer, my mind remains a hurricane of thoughts and feelings. That is actually how I picture my mental state. I visualize my uncontrolled mental gyrations as a whirlwind. Physical aches, people's faces, stray ideas, feelings, and insights whirl around my mind like the debris raised by the Kansas tornado in the Wizard of Oz.

In the midst of this mental storm I make my way gradually to the center. Usually after about twenty minutes I find myself in the eye of the storm. There in the center, I hear the silence of God. It is the silence Job heard in the whirlwind. It is the still small voice that Elijah heard on Horeb. It is the voice of God that Adam and Eve heard in the Garden of Eden. (I am told by those more knowledgeable in ancient languages than I am, that the Hebrew word for the "sound of the Lord" in the garden in Genesis 3:8 actually means a storm.)

The silence of God dwells in the depths of the human soul. It is the abode of the Holy Spirit who indwells my human spirit in the Holy of Holies of this earthly tabernacle of my body. It is a quiet and spacious garden, an interlude in the drama of my life. When I enter this interior garden, then for a half hour I hear the silence of heaven.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Hate the Hate. Love the Haters.

This morning I read a news account of the mass burials taking place in Haiti for the victims of the earthquake. They are numbered at 150,000. A huge number, but they can be counted. Yesterday I heard a message on abortion. Forty million children killed by abortion in our country. Terribly huge numbers ... but they could be counted. I read yesterday that nine million children die every year of malnutrition and easily preventable disease in the world. Over 25,000 each day. Can that be true? I can't get my mind around such numbers.

John saw "a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues." (Revelation 7:9) Who were they? We are told, "These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation." (7:14) In other words they are the victims of hate - persecution - religious violence. I have often heard that the number of Christians martyred in the twentieth century was more than all the previous centuries combined. And the twenty-first century is shaping up to be even worse. And Christians are not the only ones suffering. Baha'is are being persecuted in Iran. Tibetan Buddhists are persecuted in China.The hatred spewing from the extremist Muslims is itself the product of historic violence against Muslims. Hate gives birth to hate.

But we need look no further than the American culture wars to see hate. The rhetoric of the ruling party in Washington sounds like a hatefest. Am I the only one scared by the hatred in the eyes and the voices of the Democratic leaders in Washington? When did liberal Democrats become a hate group? But the Republicans are no better. Let's be honest - and objective - if such a thing is possible. Both parties hate. They just hate different people and groups for different reasons. "None are righteous, no not one," as the Bible says. Although there seems to be no shortage of self-righteousness! Right wing or left wing - they are both wings of the same bird of prey.

The only solution I know is to break with the hate and the haters, even if it means being the hated. Become a lover - lover of God, lover of enemies, lover of "all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues." Bless your enemy and do not curse (Luke 6:28; Romans 12:24) - no matter who they are and what the issue involved. Stop the hate. Stand with the Lamb who was slain. Hate killed Jesus. Only His love can stop it.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Singing On the Mountain

What is it about a mountain that brings us closer to God? In all the sacred literature of the world, the divine is apprehended on the mountaintop. In the Hebrew Bible there is Mount Moriah, Mount Sinai, Mount Horeb, Mount Hermon, and Mount Zion to name only a few. In the Christian scriptures there is the Mount of Transfiguration, the Mount of Olives, Mount Calvary, and the Sermon on the Mount. The Greeks have Olympus. The Tibetans have Mount Kailash, the Japanese have Mount Fuji. The Egyptians, Babylonians and Mayans built their pyramids and ziggurats to be archetypal mountains.

In Revelation we see the people of God - the symbolic 144,000 sealed by God - gathered on a mountain. There has been much speculation and argument about the identity of these "servants of God." They are clearly identified in Chapter 7 as Jews - whether literal descendants of Abraham or representative of the whole people of God is a matter of debate. But I am not interested in debating. I am interested in joining with them. The Book of Revelation does not stir me to speculation; it prompts me to inspiration.

Chapter 14 tells us they are gathered on Mount Zion, singing a "new song" in worship. Every year I make a pilgrimage to the mountains. For me the sacred peaks are the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I stand before Mount Chocorua or Mount Washington, I stand on the edge of the Great Gulf and sing a song to the Creator. Every time it is a new song. The ancient mountains never get old for me. "They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness." (Lam. 3:23) The spaciousness of a mountain vista opens up the spaciousness of my soul.

Even though I go to the mountains, I also experience the same type of spaciousness in prayer. There is a tale that Muhammad once sought proof of his teachings by ordering a mountain to come to him. When it did not move, he maintained that God had been merciful, for if it had indeed moved they all would have been crushed by it. "If the mountain won't come to Muhammad, Muhammad must go to the mountain."

My experience is that when I can't go to the mountains, the mountains come to me. There is a spaciousness in my soul when I am "in the Spirit" in contemplative prayer. I experience a spiritual vista of the Holy Spirit. Looking into the depths of my human soul in the arms of God's Spirit is like peering across a vast canyon or gazing across the ocean. "There's a wideness in God's mercy like the wideness of the sea." Then with the apostle John, I hear the strains of the 144,000.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Tears in Heaven

El Greco, The Opening of the 

Fifth Seal 1608-14 Oil on canvas

In 1991 Eric Clapton wrote the song "Tears in Heaven" following the death of his four-year-old son, Conor, who fell from a window of the 53rd-floor New York apartment. The words of the refrain are: "Beyond the door there's peace I'm sure. And I know there'll be no more tears in heaven."

This is the traditional view of heaven. How many times have I reinforced that view by reading these comforting words at funerals? "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Revelation 21:4) It's true, but not until the "new heaven and new earth" at the end of the book.

At the beginning of Revelation, John goes "beyond the door" (4:1) into heaven and sees the souls of martyrs on their knees crouched at the base of an altar weeping a traditional Jewish lament and asking God for vengeance on their murderers. "They were gathered under the Altar, and cried out in loud prayers, "How long, Strong God, Holy and True? How long before you step in and avenge our murders?" (6:10-11)

Christians who have met violent deaths crying in heaven? And asking for revenge? (Revelation 6:9-11) You won't hear this scripture text read at any funerals! But the visions of Revelation are much more complicated than funeral parlor homilies admit. To be quite honest, I don't like this scene in Revelation. It disturbs me. It doesn't fit my theological categories and moral sensibility. There should be no tears or cries for vengeance among "saints" in heaven! 

That is the problem with Revelation. It is art. It gives voice to those minority themes that don't fit our systematic theologies. No wonder it was the last book to make it into the Bible and why Martin Luther initially took it out of his canon. He considered Revelation to be "neither apostolic nor prophetic."  He said, "Christ is neither taught nor known in it." Luther recognized the difficulties of the Apocalypse.

But it teaches an important truth: heaven and earth are connected. Time and eternity are one. There is no final peace in heaven until there is peace on earth. It is all connected. There is not a two-tiered universe. You know ... the idea that this life may be a "vale of tears" but after death we will enter a tearless state of heaven. The "uni-verse" is by definition a whole.

We are connected to one another. We cannot live happy peaceful lives in America while our brothers and sisters are suffering elsewhere (for example, Haiti.) If one part of the body of Christ suffers, the whole body suffers. (I Corinthians 12:6) Death does not break the bonds of the Body of Christ. No one is saved until we are all saved. There is no true joy for any until there is joy for all. There is no justice until there is justice for all... on earth or in heaven.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Christians and War

Across the pages of the Apocalypse comes the thundering sound of hoof beats. From the serene songs of heaven, the focus of Revelation shifts to earth to show four riders galloping across the landscape. (Revelation 6:1-8) They are not difficult to recognize. They are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They are War. Jesus said that there will be "wars and rumors of wars" until the end.

Last month we witnessed the bizarre scene of an American commander-in-chief, fighting two wars, being handed the Nobel Peace prize. In his acceptance speech, Barak Obama gave a justification for the war in Iraq and expanding the war in Afghanistan. Peace activists protested in Oslo. Obama was clearly embarrassed. He did not attend most of the events in his honor, including lunch with the King of Norway and dinner with the Norwegian Nobel committee. He said that this was not an award he would have given himself.

It is interesting to note the relation of religion and war. The Buddha was born of the warrior (kshatriya) caste in India. So was Mahavira, the founder of Jainism. Both rejected war to embrace peace. The most famous sacred text of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita, is a dialogue that takes place on a battlefield, where Arjuna (another prince of the warrior caste) is talking to his charioteer (Krishna in disguise.) The whole dialogue is God trying to convince Arjuna to do his duty and fight. The Gita is part of a larger sacred work, the Mahabharata, the greatest war epic in history.

Muhammad was a merchant who took up the sword to spread Islam by jihad. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with holy war, beginning with Israelites under Joshua exterminating the native peoples of Canaan in the name of Yahweh. Jesus was named after the warrior Joshua (both bore the Hebrew name Yeshua), but Jesus fought a spiritual battle instead of an earthly one. Even though Jesus was a pacifist, a thousand years later Christian horsemen of the Crusades rode across the Holy Land in war.

As a young man of 19 years old, I was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. In the first Selective Service draft lottery in 1969, I was unlucky enough to get Number One. I would be the first to go. I confronted the issue. I struggled within my conscience with only the help of an underdeveloped religious upbringing in the liberal Protestantism of the 1950's and early 60's. Would I say Yes or No to Uncle Sam's invitation to take a trip to Southeast Asia? I read Jesus and Schweitzer, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Then I said No, and for many years considered myself a pacifist.

The years have tempered my pacifism, but not my opposition to war and my compassion for the victims of war. Whether it is Barak or Bush, Osama or Hussein riding the warhorses, the result is the same. The Four Housemen of the Apocalypse ride today. The rest of the book is about how God's people will respond.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Do you want to know a secret?

People love a mystery. It is what attracts people to groups like the Freemasons, Rosicrucians, and Mormons, who provide secret knowledge and secret ceremonies for the initiated. It was the heart of the Mystery Religions of the Roman Empire in ancient times. It was the lure of Gnosticism, the second and third century rival to historic Christianity, which offered secret spiritual "knowledge." It accounts for the present-day resurgence of the occult. The word occult (Latin occultus, meaning clandestine, hidden, secret), refers to "knowledge of the hidden."

Revelation is the "unveiling" of mystery. It is what accounts for our two thousand year fascination with the book of Revelation. In Revelation 5 there is a picture of the classic "secret scroll" sealed with seven seals - meaning securely and divinely sealed. No one can open this book and read the knowledge within. No one is worthy to reveal its contents, and therefore John "wept and wept and wept that no one was found able to open the scroll, able to read it." (5:4)

But then One appears who has the authority and ability to open it - a Lion, who on second glance, is actually a Lamb - the apocalyptic symbol for Christ. In other words, Jesus is the Key! He is one of whom it was said, "What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open." (3:7) He unlocks the mystery of time and eternity.

This is certainly true in my life. I have been a lifelong student of the spiritual traditions of the world. Academically and personally, I have extensively studied the scriptures, teachings and practices of the world's religions. I have practiced the spiritual disciplines and read the sacred scriptures. There is much truth in the spiritual traditions of the world. I have great respect for the great religions.

But Jesus holds the key. Jesus is the Key. Being in Christ, the veil of this world falls away and one can see into the heart of the universe. What people yearn for through religion is fulfilled in Christ.

Christ is the Light by which all else is seen. Without him, nothing is seen. "The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!" (Matthew 6:22-23)

He sees all things (the meaning of the seven eyes) and he holds all power (the meaning of the seven horns.) (5:6) In him we can see and are seen. As Meister Eckhart said, "The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me." Christ is my sight and my knowledge and my light. Without him, all is darkness. In Him, the mystery is revealed.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Song of Creation

The universe sings the song "Holy, Holy, Holy!" In Revelation 4, the four "living creatures," representing all sentient beings on earth, are singing a song to the Unseen God. Can you hear it? "This is my Father's world, and to my listening ears all nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres." The universe sings! "This is my Father's world, the birds their carols raise, the morning light, the lily white, declare their maker's praise."

Perhaps we could even venture to say that the song of creation is antiphonal, like many of the Old Testament psalms. There are two parts - sung by Creator and creation! Genesis tells us that the Lord spoke the universe into existence. Do you think he spoke in a boring monotone?  Did the One who created the songbirds simply drone them into being? Surely he sang them! Job 38:7 says that at the dawn of creation "the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy." Is it too much to think they learned to sing from the Composer?

Emerson said that music is the language of heaven. Surely God speaks heaven's language! "This is my Father's world:  he shines in all that's fair; in the rustling grass I hear him pass; he speaks to me everywhere." And the creation responds, "Holy, holy, holy!  Lord God Almighty! All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea."

The word "holy" has two meanings. First it means "set apart." This is the transcendence of God. As the great hymn based on this text says, "Holy, holy, holy!  Though the darkness hide thee, though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see, only thou art holy; there is none beside thee, perfect in power, in love and purity." As Otto said, God is "Wholly Other"

The other meaning of "holy" is whole, as in holistic. Holy means one. The Shema says, "The Lord our God, the Lord is one." (Deuteronomy 6:4) This is the immanence of God. Revelation 4 describes the primordial, eternal and eschatological harmony of God and his creation. In spite of the dissonance of sin, suffering and evil in the world, there is a harmony that encompasses it all. It is all working out according to God's plan. It is a divine symphony. "This is my Father's world; The battle is not done. Jesus who died shall be satisfied, And earth and heaven be one."

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Imageless Image of God

Many times I have heard the Christian God disdainfully dismissed as an old man with a beard sitting in heaven. I always wonder whom these skeptics are talking about. Perhaps they are thinking of children drawing crayon pictures of God in Sunday School, but this is not the God of any mature believer I have ever known.

When John gets his first glimpse of “the One on the throne,” this is his description: “At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne…. From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder.” (Revelation 4:2-5)

The God of Revelation is not described as a superlative humanoid, but as radiant, dazzling color, brilliant light accompanied by the sounds of a mighty storm. In Revelation, the book of symbols and images, God is the imageless God. This is consistent with the Biblical proscription against depicting God in images. The first two of the Ten Commandments is devoted to this instruction about God.

This is the Only One who is worthy of worship, which is the action of the fourth chapter of Revelation. Humans, animals and angels bow before and worship this imageless One. The God that can be contained in images – visual or intellectual - is a deity that has been idolized.

This does not mean that we can say nothing about God; that would leave us with no gospel (good news) to proclaim. But it reminds us that all descriptions of God must be taken as human approximations, imperfect symbols for a symboless Reality. Even words are symbols. Even thoughts fall short. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

This theological road has been called the via negativa – that the best way to describe God is to say what God is not. Take away all human images for God and you are left with the True God. It is known as apophatic theology.

It is the God of the burning bush of Moses, who when asked for his name responded enigmatically with a non-name, “I am who I am.” It is the God of silence heard by Elijah on Mount Horeb. It is the God of Job in the whirlwind, the God of the pillar of fire and cloud in the wilderness. It is the God of the empty space between the cherubim’s wings on the ark of the covenant. It is the God who will not be contained in any box but only incarnated in human flesh – supremely in the Son, but also in us.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

All Dogs Go To Heaven

Peaceable Kingdom , no.5  [Isaiah11:6-8]
by Geoffrey Thulin - mixed media, 2004

Occasionally during my years of ministry, people would quite seriously ask me this theological question: Will my dog (or cat) be in heaven? American humorist Will Rogers said,“If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.’ Writer James Thurber said, “If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons.”

In Dante’s Paradiso, Beatrice guides Dante through nine concentric circles of heaven, each one closer to God. In the eighth circle of heaven are humans, and in the final sphere are the angels. Not an animal in sight. But in John’s Revelation, animals inhabit the area closest to God’s throne. “And in the midst of the throne, and around the throne, were four living creatures full of eyes in front and in back.” (4:6 NKJV) Peterson’s translation calls them animals: “Prowling around the Throne were Four Animals, all eyes. Eyes to look ahead, eyes to look behind. The first Animal like a lion, the second like an ox, the third with a human face, the fourth like an eagle in flight.” (4:6-7 The Message)

When I answer the question of pets in heaven I always refer people to the Peaceable Kingdom of Isaiah, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6) I picture the New Earth as a sort of Jurassic Park inhabited by every species that has ever existed in the history of the planet. Climate change may make species extinct, but they are not forgotten by God.

But to get back to John’s Revelation … animals are closest to God. Closer than humans, even closer than angels in John’s vision. According to John they are “in the midst of the throne, and around the throne.” I see them sitting on God’s lap and nudging him.

When I have my private devotions each day, my cat Pepper often comes to visit me. It seems he is attracted to my posture of sitting quietly cross-legged on the floor. While I try to be attentive to the Spirit of God, my cat will rub his neck against my hands and knees, and even place his front paws on my chest with his face as close as he can get to my face. I will oblige him with a scratch under the chin, and eventually he will settle down to have his quiet time next to me. His purring sets the backdrop for my prayer and meditation. Likewise God keeps pets around his throne.

God’s creation – every animal he has so lovingly created – is near to the heart of God. The closer we come to God’s creatures, the closer we come to God. That is why people who cannot stomach the church or church people can so readily experience the divine when in the woods among God’s creation. I confess that even though I have been a pastor for thirty-three years, my times of most sublime intimacy with God have not been in a church but in the mountains, by a stream or at the ocean. When I get up from my prayers and look out my bedroom window and see deer in our backyard, I know I am near to the throne of God.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Here Be Dragons

"Come up hither,and I will shew thee things."
Revelation 4:1 -Mark Lawrence, 2008.
Mixed media on canvas,60 x 40 inches
When guests come to our home, I normally see them coming long before they get a chance to knock on our door. I anticipate their arrival, open the door for them and say, “Welcome. Come on in!” Those are the words John heard. “Then I looked, and, oh! — a door open into Heaven. The trumpet-voice, the first voice in my vision, called out, "Ascend and enter.” (4:1) The Ascended Jesus was opening the door for John to visit his heavenly home.

Earlier Jesus had said, “Knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7) But John does not have to knock here. Just a couple of verses earlier, Jesus had said, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” But in chapter four, it is Jesus own front door; knocking isn’t necessary. Jesus opens his door wide, and with a loud welcoming voice declared to his beloved disciple, “Come in. I want to show you something!”

It is an invitation to Spirit. “At once I was in the Spirit.” (4:2) Did John have an “out-of-body experience?” A near death experience? No, he had an “in the Spirit” experience. This is a door to Spirit, the wardrobe door to Narnia, the gate into the Kingdom of heaven. John physically never left the rocky isle of Patmos, but “in the Spirit” he was in the kingdom of heaven.

Spatial categories do not apply to the Realm of the Spirit. Neither do temporal categories. Commentators get bent out of shape trying to chart the chronology of Revelation. The Realm of the Spirit cannot be charted. On old maps when cartographers came to the end of their knowledge of the world, they would leave the map unfinished and pen the words “Here be dragons.” We will see dragons in Revelation, and much more.

As soon as we enter through this door with John, we enter a different way of seeing and hearing. It is like entering into a Chagall painting. Colors have meaning. Numbers are symbolic. Sounds are metaphorical. Time does not go in a straight line. It goes in cycles and turns back on itself. When you enter this door you have to leave your left brain behind – the logical, sequential, rational, analytical, objective, dissecting way of thinking. Through this door you must use your right brain – the random, intuitive, holistic, synthesizing, subjective, holistic way of thinking. The door stands open. Come on in.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Menorah Christians

"Peace Menorah" by Joyce Brown,
22 by 14 by 12 inches,
reduction-fired stoneware

In the first three chapters of Revelation, the symbol of the church is not the ever-present cross we see in Protestant churches or the crucifix we see in Catholic churches. Not the “body of Christ” of Paul’s epistles or the living stone temple of Peter’s epistles. In Revelation the church is pictured as a menorah. “I saw a gold menorah with seven branches…. The menorah's seven branches are the seven churches." (1:12,20 – The Message) Christians would do well to recapture the spiritual symbolism of the menorah.

For one thing, we are connected to each other and to Christ. “I saw a gold menorah with seven branches, And in the center, the Son of Man.” (1:12-13) We are not independent lights but branches of a single lamp centered in Christ who is the Light. In the vision Christ’s eyes are pouring fire-blaze, his feet are furnace-fired bronze, he holds burning stars in his hand and his face is a perigee sun. (1:14-16) It is clear that Christ is the light of the menorah. In fact Jesus declared, “I am the light of the world” while participating in the menorah lighting ceremony in the Jerusalem temple (John 8). Likewise we are earthly vessels indwelled by the light of Christ.

In the Jewish temple the menorah stood in the Holy Place. So we are a holy priesthood (I Peter 2:5-9) that stands on holy ground. According to Exodus 25:31-40, the menorah was lit by the priests every evening and cleaned every morning. (The Jewish day began in the evening and ended in the morning.) It is a good practice to begin each day by dedicating ourselves to God, and end each day by repentance, cleaning up the mess we made of our good intentions. It is called the Daily Examen in Ignatian spirituality.

The purpose of this menorah is to be a light to the world. Israel understood itself as fulfilling this commandment of Isaiah 42:6 to be a light to the nations. Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

Jewish sages say the menorah symbolizes the blending of the physical life (the gold) with the spiritual life (the light). Scientists say that we are all made of stardust. All physical matter was forged in the furnace of the stars and ultimately is the product of the “Big Bang,” the original creative explosion of light that began the universe. If so, then it is our nature to shine!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Other Side of Loneliness

This year I have begun to reread the classic work of daily devotions by Oswald Chambers “My Utmost for his Highest.” Today’s devotion was on being alone with God. He writes:

“When God gets us alone by affliction, heartbreak, or temptation, by disappointment, sickness, or by thwarted affection, by a broken friendship, or by a new friendship - when He gets us absolutely alone, and we are dumbfounded, and cannot ask one question, then He begins to expound.” He continues “There are whole tracts of stubbornness and ignorance to be revealed by the Holy Spirit in each one of us, and it can only be done when Jesus gets us alone.”

John was alone when he received the book of visions that we call The Revelation of John. God had to get John away from his church in Ephesus, away from his responsibilities as the last apostle. He had to get him away from his pastoral duties in order to speak this clearly to him. He had to uproot him from his home, friends and family, and bring him into exile on a tiny island in the Aegean. There imprisoned on Patmos, John was free from distractions, and then God spoke to him.

John had to be alone. Jesus had to be alone with his Father. He had to be alone for forty days before he began his public ministry, and then often retreated to “a lonely place” to be alone with God. How much more do we need time alone with God? Really alone … for days at a time. Regular times of spiritual retreat for silence and solitude. Time to be weaned from the gadgetry that connects us so tightly to each other and isolates us from God.

No cell phones or internet or Facebook friends to chatter endlessly about trivialities. No television or newspapers. Alone for more than a half hour of meditation. More than an hour of Bible reading and prayer. Alone long enough to be lonely – to experience the withdrawal symptoms of our addiction to noise and busyness. Alone long enough to regain our senses and begin to see and hear again. Then on the other side of loneliness we find solitude with God. And in that solitude communion - “alone with the alone.”

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

In the Palm of God's Hand

In her book, Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert describes the spiritual experience of “being in the palm of God’s hand.” As I was meditating on the first chapter of Revelation, I was impressed by the physical contact between the glorified Christ and his people. At first John sees what seems like a terrifying vision of an exalted Christ.

“His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.” (1:14-17)

But then there is physical and emotional contact. John says, “Then he placed his right hand on me and said: "Do not be afraid.” This fiery Christ touches him tenderly and speaks to him compassionately. Furthermore it says that the seven stars he holds in his hands are the “messengers” of the seven churches. Some see these as angels, others as pastors of the churches, and still others as the human messengers who were to take this epistle of Revelation to the seven churches of Asia. I think perhaps they are the prophets that were common in the early churches, who were inspired by God to bring a message of hope. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, they also felt God’s hand upon them.

God says to his people in Jerusalem in Isaiah 49:15-16 “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”

I am not a Gaither fan, but the words of Bill Gaither’s song come to mind, “He touched me, Oh, He touched me, And oh the joy that floods my soul. Something happened and now I know, He touched me and made me whole.”

The Christ of Revelation is not as a distant monarch sitting on a throne, but One who is on earth standing in the midst of his churches (represented by the lampstands) and touching John and the messengers of the churches. He holds us in the palm of his hand.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Question of Suffering

The question of suffering is the most basic of philosophical inquiries. The Buddha named it as the basic premise of his Dharma, his First Noble Truth: Life is suffering. He proceeded to outline the way to cease from suffering. Every religion has to deal with the issue. The Gospel deals with it by embracing suffering. The cross, “the emblem of suffering and shame” (to quote the famous hymn) is the symbol of the Christian faith.

The context of the Book of Revelation is suffering. You cannot understand the book apart from suffering. “I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” (1:9) By the time John wrote this book every other apostle had met violent deaths by martyrdom. He was imprisoned on the Alcatraz of the Aegean, the penal colony of Patmos, expecting the same fate. Revelation is written to those who are suffering by one who is suffering. This is why it is so misunderstood by American evangelicals. You cannot understand Revelation from the comfort of material prosperity and religious liberty.

Revelation is God’s answer to the question of suffering. If we aren’t asking the question, we won’t hear the answer. The suffering of Revelation is not existential angst or the illness and death common to all humankind, which the Buddha addressed. The suffering of the prophet of Patmos is religious persecution.

I now attend a church that ends every worship service with a word from the persecuted church, communicated from the Voice of the Martyrs ( At first I thought it strange to end the service with this “benediction” (literally “good word.”) But now I understand. It puts the worship service in perspective before we head out the door into the world. It reminds us that this bubble of liberty and prosperity in America is not the world experienced by most believers. The real world for Christians is churches burned by Muslims in Malaysia yesterday for using the name of Allah for God. It is believers in India burned alive by Hindus for daring to hold a private Christian worship service. It is Christians targeted for genocide in Burma by Buddhists, the state religion of that country. On the other hand, nowhere in the world are Christians killing nonchristians for practicing their faith.

Revelation is a letter written to the persecuted church; the churches and individuals are named in chapters 2-3. If we want to hear this Word of the “One who died and is alive” (2:8), “the Lamb who was slain” (5:12), we need to stand beside the persecuted church and hear with their perspective. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Avatar & Jesus

Recently I saw the new 3D film “Avatar.” (Right up front, let me say I loved it.) There were enough spiritual references to keep my mind turning long after the closing credits.

The first is the central concept of an avatar. In the film an avatar is a person whose consciousness (soul?) enters into a created body in order to live on the foreign planet of Pandora. Avatar is, of course, the Hindu word for an incarnation of God. The figure of the avatar Jake Sully is clearly the Christ figure of the film. (It can’t be coincidence that the avatar’s name is Jacob, the name of Israel in the Bible.) He saves the world by incarnating into the body of, and becoming the leader of, the people called the Na’vi (which is the Hebrew word for prophet.) There is even a death and resurrection of the avatar at the end of the film.

Another theme is brokenness and suffering. The planet is called Pandora. In Greek mythology, Pandora is the equivalent of Eve, the first woman, who is credited for bringing suffering into the world by opening the famous “Pandora’s box.” In the film the world of Pandora is broken and suffering, caused by human sin. The hero, the avatar Jake Sully, in his human form is a paraplegic, a broken man, who is healed physically, emotionally and spiritually through his incarnation as a Na’vi. The avatar saves and heals the world, and he is saved and healed in the process. The plot of the film is incarnation and redemption – cosmic and individual.

A third theme is the interconnectedness of all creation. Everything on Pandora is connected – planet and people and all life – in Ewya, the goddess of Life. The obvious New Age parallel is that Ewya is the earth mother Gaia. But am I reading too much into it to also see in Ewya the consonants of the divine name Yahweh? Whether male or female (and of course God is above earthly genders) the message is that the Source and Ground of all creation is divine. Man is alienated from that divine ground and therefore abuses creation, whereas the original state and the goal is communion with God, man and creation.

After watching the Hollywood film Avatar, I returned home to read the Biblical book, the Revelation of Jesus Christ. It would be easy for me to contrast the differences between the two, for there are many. But instead I prefer to affirm the parallels. In the movie Avatar I see a universal knowledge of God in the heart of man (Romans 1), a sense of the sacredness of God’s creation, the fallenness of man, and a yearning for God’s incarnation and salvation in Jesus Christ.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Great Unveiling

Revelation means literally ”an unveiling.” When a new work of art is being presented to the public for the first time, there is an official unveiling. The Book of Revelation is the unveiling of the handiwork of God. John is invited to enter (“Come up here!” 4:1) into a heavenly gallery of visions painted by the Artist on the fabric of time and space. Revelation is the grand opening of a divine art exhibit! If you want to understand Revelation, read it with artist’s eyes.

John was on the Aegean island of Patmos (I like to picture him on the beach), deep in prayer and meditation “in the spirit on the Lord’s Day” (1:10). Suddenly the curtain separating earth and heaven, the material from the spiritual, was pulled back. The lid of the ark was taken off, the fabric of space and time was torn asunder, the veil separating the outer court of earth from the heavenly Holy of Holies was torn in two from top to bottom. And John saw with spiritual eyes.

He who has eyes to see, let him see. There is a spiritual reality right before us, but we do not usually see it. The Kingdom of God is in our midst, all around us, and within us (as Jesus is variously translated as saying in Luke 17:21) but we do not see. We do not see unless the eyes of our heart are enlightened by the Spirit of wisdom and revelation. Revelation is an invitation to John – and to us – to experience a different level of reality.

“I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” (Ephesians 1:17-19)

Friday, January 8, 2010

Revealing Jesus

I love the Book of Revelation. Not because it reveals the future, but because it reveals Jesus. Eugene Peterson's translation of the Bible ("The Message") begins Revelation with the words "A revealing of Jesus, the Messiah." This is the original title of the book. Most people study Revelation to learn about the future. I am not interested in eschatological speculation ; I study it to learn about Jesus.

Revelation is an art book. It is a book of symbols. It is not primarily for the mind to understand, but for the heart to apprehend. It goes beyond the rational mind to speak directly to the heart. You will not find in this blog theories on the end times and the dating of the second coming. But I pray that Christ may be revealed, that you might see a clearer picture of Jesus.