Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Tao of Meekness

I am a follower of Jesus who loves the Tao Te Ching, the ancient poetic classic written by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu five hundred years before Christ. I loved it before I became a Christian, and I have loved it ever since. It is no accident that the Chinese translation of the Gospel of John begins, "In the beginning was the Tao." It is a quote from the Tao Te Ching. Tao means "Way" in the sense of the eternal Way, echoed in Jesus' words, "I am the Way the Truth and the Life."

I am not engaging in religious syncretism that compromises the gospel of Christ. I am professing the teachings of the apostle Paul who wrote, "Since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." (Romans 1:20). "God has not left himself without a witness" among all the nations. (Acts 14:17)

Theologians call it natural or general revelation. The apostle John was testifying to this when he wrote, "In the beginning was the Logos" (the Greek word for Word). When John chose that word, the concept of Logos already had a rich history in Greek philosophy, analogous to the role of Tao in Chinese philosophy. The apostle was connecting the general revelation of God available to all peoples to the specific revelation of God in Christ.

Truth is truth wherever it is found. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu understood the virtue of meekness. His words are a better commentary on the beatitudes than any Christian writer I have ever read. He knew what Jesus meant when he said, "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." (Matthew 5:5) Lao Tzu wrote:

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don't try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don't compare or compete,
everybody will respect you. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 8)

He also wrote:

Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.

The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.  (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 78)

Jesus said, "He who has ears to hear, let  him hear." I say, "Are we meek enough to hear?"

Friday, February 26, 2010

Jerks in the Kingdom of God

Twenty-seven years ago my father died after a three-year battle with cancer. In one year I lost both grandfathers and my father. I was the eldest male in the family at the ripe old age of thirty-three. My soul ached. I clung to scripture for comfort. I opened the Bible to Romans 5 and tried to persevere to find meaning and hope in my suffering. But mostly what I felt was grief.

I think grief is the most difficult experience in life. I find it worse than physical pain or illness. It is an aching void in the soul that nothing can fill. No words will comfort. Yet Jesus says that mourning is one of the blessings of the spiritual life. "Blessed are those who mourn."

I don't think he is speaking about losing a loved one, or a job or a home. I think he is talking about losing everything when we choose God.

During WWII Kamikaze pilots used to cut their hair and fingernails before their suicide mission so that their family would have something to bury. They considered themselves dead from that moment on. Likewise Christians are dead when they give their lives to Christ. The apostle Paul stressed this repeatedly. "You died with Christ, died to the world."  "We died to the world, crucified with Christ, and were buried."  "I no longer live, but Christ lives in me."

When we die, we lose everything. We can take nothing with us through the portal of death - neither loved ones, nor possessions nor egos. So it is when we decide to follow Jesus. We have to leave it all behind. That is why we mourn. The reason why most Christians do not mourn, and consequently do not experience the comfort that Jesus promises in this beatitude, is because we have not left it behind. We try to take it with us.

There is a bittersweet moment at the end of the movie "The Jerk" with Steve Martin. Martin's character has lost everything in bankruptcy.  He is leaving his mansion a broken man, yet desperately clinging to the remnants of his former life. As he departs, be begins to grab bits of stuff. He says sobbing, "I don't need anything... except this. All I need is this ashtray. That's all I need. And this chair. All I need is this chair and this ashtray. That's all I need. And this remote control, and this paddle game, and this lamp...."

We say that all we need is Jesus, but we try to bring all sorts of stuff from our former life into our new life in Christ. It won't fit. According to Jesus, entering the kingdom is like going through the eye of a needle. We can't take anything with us.

That is why we mourn. And it is proper to mourn. In fact it is absolutely necessary to mourn. Those who are blessed will mourn, and then they will be comforted. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Looking For Loopholes

Comedian W.C. Fields spent the last weeks of his life in a hospital. A friend stopped by to visit him and caught him reading a Bible. Knowing that Fields was an avowed atheist, he asked him why he was reading Scripture. Fields replied "Just looking for loopholes."

That is the way most of us read the Sermon on the Mount. The opening verses of this famous sermon are the beatitudes, a succinct summary of what it means to be blessed by God. It would not be the list I would compose. If asked to enumerate the blessings of God I would list family and health, friends and freedom, and even material security. But Jesus starts his list saying, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:3)

Preachers usually spiritualize this verse to suit their audiences. It is easy to do; after all it says poor "in spirit." But when Jesus preached this same sermon a second time in the Sermon on the Plain, he changed it to simply, "Blessed are the poor." I guess his "apostles in training" had also been looking for loopholes.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." This has to do with unattachment to material things. It is an inner attitude of nonchalance to the things of this world. If we are possessed by possessions, we cannot be possessed by God.

I will be honest. I am neither poor nor "poor in spirit." Likely you aren't either. If you have an annual income of $50,000 a year you are in the top 1% of the wealthiest people in the world. I have a house, two automobiles and health insurance (for the time being). My tendency is to look for loopholes to protect my assets. I want the blessing, but without the price tag.

We say, "God bless America" but do we really want America to be blessed by God's standard? The American Church is the wealthiest group of Christians in the history of Christianity. The total income of American churchgoers is $5.2 trillion. It would take just one percent of the income of American Christians to lift the poorest one billion people in the world out of extreme poverty.

But we do not use our tithes and offerings to aid "the least of these my brothers." (Matthew 25:40) Instead we build expensive church buildings and pay religious professionals to produce Sunday morning entertainment that we euphemistically call worship. How can we say the love of God abides in us? (I John 3:17)

Think of the most spiritual people who have ever lived. All of them were poor in the world's wealth. To our shame, many nonchristians have taken the standards of the Sermon on the Mount more seriously than us who profess to be Jesus' followers.

In his autobiography, Mahatma Gandhi writes that when he read the New Testament "the Sermon on the Mount went straight to my heart." Speaking to the British he said, "When your country and mine shall get together on the teachings laid down by Christ in this Sermon on the Mount, we shall have solved the problems not only of our countries but those of the whole world."

When Gandhi died he owned six worldly possessions, the most valuable being a watch, spectacles, sandals and an eating bowl. When he was asked why he never became a Christian since he admired the Sermon on the Mount so much, he answered, "When you can convince me that Christians live by it, I will be the first to become a Christian." Truth be told, we hang ourselves with our own loopholes.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Bear and a Man on a Mountain

Last autumn I visited my son for a week at his home in South Tamworth, New Hampshire. His new bride was in California visiting a very pregnant friend, so I took advantage of her absence to have some alone time with my younger son. One day while he was at work, I decided to take a hike up a little mountain behind his home. It is so little that it is called Little Larcom. My plan was to sit on the rocky outcrop at the summit and meditate. I like to pray on mountaintops. I know I am not any closer to God, but I feel that way.

I got to the summit and was settling into a posture of prayer, when I heard a bellow. It is nothing, I thought. Then I heard some thrashing in the undergrowth. A moose? No, I have heard moose before, and this is no moose. It sounds more like a bear. (I had come face to face with a bear once before, so I have some experience with bear sounds.) Well, I can't concentrate on prayer when I might have a bear at my back. So like the fool that I am, I decided to approach the noise and see if I could get a glimpse... maybe even a photo ... of the critter.

More thrashing and growling. Yep, it's a bear! And it is coming my way! It had clearly smelled an intruder and was defending its territory. My mind went to the Old Testament story of bald-headed Elisha and the bears that rushed out of the woods, mauling whomever was in their path. (2 Kings 2:23-25) You never saw a bald-headed 230-pound man get down a mountain quicker than I did! And I did some mighty powerful praying on the way down!

When I finally reached the bottom, I met a native calmly walking her dog and carrying a bear bell. (I recognized the bear bell from our visit to Yellowstone years ago.) I figured she would know about the mountaintop guardian. "A-uh," she replied, "There are two mother bears with cubs in this valley. She was just defending her own." 

The most powerful spiritual teaching ever given was proclaimed on a mountain. It is not what you might expect. When I climbed Little Larcom, I expected a pleasant commune with the God of nature. I expected a "still small voice" and heard the roar of a bear. The same thing happens when you really listen to the Sermon on the Mount.

In the coming weeks I am going to be exploring the Sermon on the Mount in this blog. I do not shepherd a congregation now. I am "a free-lance pastor," as a colleague described his situation recently. In short, that means I can offend anyone I want, without bearing the consequences. (Pun intended.) So let's climb a mountain. It's been a while since I heard a bear roar.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Climbing the Tree of Life

As a boy I was a climber of trees. I guess most boys are. While growing up, my favorite spot on earth was high in an old pine or oak. At my grandfather's house in New Hampshire, I built a tree house (actually just a platform made of a few planks) as high as I could in a tall white pine. I envied the Swiss Family Robinson and Tarzan, because they got to live in trees.

In Sunday School, my favorite Bible story was about Zacchaeus, the little guy who climbed the sycamore tree to get a glimpse of Jesus. Later on the story became even more meaningful when I learned that Christ climbed another type of "tree" to save me from a Fall. (Galatians 3:13)

The Garden of Eden also fascinated me. The storybooks always pictured the serpent entwined around a sturdy branch on the Tree of the Knowledge offering Eve some fruit. At some point during my Christian education, I must have made a comment about wanting to join the snake. For I remember being sternly warned that the serpent was "bad," and I should not want to be anywhere near him. Too bad, I thought. He had the best seat in the garden.

The Book of Revelation ends the way Genesis begins - with the Tree of Life. This wondrous tree in the New Jerusalem is much better than the old Edenic variety. It is no longer a solitary tree in the middle of a garden. In New Earth, the Tree of Life grows on both sides of the River of Life that flows from the throne of God. "The Tree of Life was planted on each side of the River, producing twelve kinds of fruit, a ripe fruit each month. The leaves of the Tree are for healing the nations" (22:2).

I once read that largest single living organism on earth is an aspen tree in Utah. It is known as Pando or the Trembling Giant. It appears to be many trees, but is in fact one massive root system with many trunks. This "tree" weighs over six thousand tons. It is considered by some to be the oldest single living organism on earth, having an estimated age of eighty thousand years. That is how I picture the Tree of Life in the garden of New Earth.

Robert Frost wrote a poem entitled "Birches." He reflects on seeing white birches in New Hampshire leaning unnaturally toward the ground. He writes: "I like to think some boy's been swinging them. / But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay. / Ice-storms do that."

So when you get to heaven and are walking along the streets of gold by the riverside, you may see some branches of the Tree of Life that look as if some boy's been swinging on them. If you see such a tree, look high into the highest branches. You may discover that I got there before you and have found the perfect spot. To paraphrase Frost's closing line: One could do worse than be a climber of trees.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Searching For Shangri-la

I remember when I first read Lost Horizon by James Hilton. I was a preteen and came across an old yellowed paperback copy that my mother owned. It was a rainy summer day. I found a comfortable chair next to an open window. With a showery breeze blowing in, I entered the mystical city of Shangri-la. 

I would read it several more times in future years, as well as watch the old film by Frank Capra. The most poignant scene is at the very end when Robert Conway returns to the Himalayas, desperately searching for - and eventually finding again - his lost paradise. It was the first time that the hunger for heaven awakened in my soul. C. S. Lewis describes a similar childhood experience that he had in seeing a miniature garden in Surprised by Joy.

It doesn't matter if you call it Shangri-la or Shambhala, Eden or El Dorado, it reappears with frequency in the mythology and literature of the world. It is Melville's white whale and the medieval Holy Grail. It represents the search of the human soul for the dwelling place of God.  Jesus told his disciples he knew where it was. Furthermore he promised to reserve a room for them there, and one day return to take them home to live there forever. (John 14:2-3)

Revelation 21 pictures it as the New Jerusalem with pearly gates and streets of gold. It is no ordinary city. It is a perfect cube of light, a heavenly Holies of Holies, coming to earth. But this is not our earth. The old heaven and earth had been rolled up like a window shade to reveal a new heaven and new earth.

This place is clearly not on any map or even in this universe. This is the spiritual city of the soul. We need to remember that the whole book of Revelation is a vision that the seer John had while "in the spirit" on an Aegean island. This is mystical language describing a spiritual experience.

John himself is the "new creation." (2 Corinthians 5:17) Shangri-la is not in Tibet. It is in the human soul. By his grace, God makes us a new creature and comes to dwell in us.   As Peterson's translation so colloquially renders it, "Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women!" (21:3) As Jesus said, "The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, 'See here!' or 'See there!' For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17:20-21)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The "Judge Not" Juggernaut

 "Judge not, lest ye be judged!" I have had those words thrown at me like a javelin when I have ventured an opinion on some topic of morality. "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." That is another hardball that is thrown at Christians to shame us into silence.

It doesn't matter that these verses are taken out of context and that other biblical verses calling us to judge correctly are conveniently omitted from consideration. Furthermore, it never seems to dawn on the speakers that they are using those words to judge others. Nevertheless the zingers are still effective in bringing any reasoned discourse to a halt. As the adage says, "When in doubt, shout!"

In his book unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity... and Why It Matters, David Kinnaman explores the most common attitudes that young people have toward Christians. They are all negative. Two of the top six are that Christians are judgmental and hypocritical. Ouch! Who threw that!

The truth is that it is impossible not to judge. You can no sooner "not judge" than you can have a one-sided coin, breath in and not out, or only eat and not .... Well, you get what I mean.   We live in a world of duality - light and dark, front and back, left and right, good and evil, male and female. You can't have one without the other. It is the nature of existence.

The creation story of Genesis says that as soon as God created light on Day One, he had to separate the light from the darkness. Get it? Without darkness there would be no light! The postmodern phobia about judging just means people don't like being judged. But we don't have a choice.

Revelation 20 pictures a Judgment Day, a heaven and a hell. (Once again, you can't have one without the other.) It is not just those judgmental Christians that believe these things. Every religion of the world from Hinduism to Islam, has some type of judgment after death. Buddhism has layers of hell that makes Dante's Inferno look like a pleasant visit to a sauna.

There is no life without death. We didn't choose to be born, and we cannot choose not to die. We cannot choose not to be judged. Nor can we choose who will be the Judge, any more than a defendant gets to choose who sits on the bench. But we can influence the outcome of the judgment.

You can read the basis for the final Judgment in Revelation 20:11-15. But before you reject this concept as unenlightened, unspiritual or unchristian, let me just say one last word: "Judge not, lest ye be judged!"

Friday, February 19, 2010

Millennium, Smillennium

I have never liked how Christians divide themselves up into factions based on their view of the millennium. On more than one occasion I have been asked the pigeonholing question, "Are you Pre-, Post-, or A-millennial?" For those readers who are eschatologically challenged, that question refers to the timing of Christ's return in relation to the thousand-year reign of Christ mentioned in Revelation 20. (Please don't ask me to explain any further, or I will fall asleep at the keyboard.)

Then the premillennialists further divide themselves into Pre-, Mid-, or Post- tribulation ....zzzz..... (Oh, did I just nod off? Sorry.)

For a while I called myself a pan-millennialist - meaning that it would all "pan out in the end." But that joke got old quickly. Then I tried to expand the options with concepts like quasi-millennial, supra-millennial, or trans-millennial. No one liked my answers. I am obviously not taking the issue seriously enough.

What I really want to do is shout, "IT'S A BOOK OF SYMBOLS, FOR GOODNESS SAKE! DON'T TAKE IT SO LITERALLY!" But then I would be accused of really being a closet amillennialist. A friend recently gave me a disc with twenty lectures that prove the superiority of the amillennial position over premillennial dispensationalism. I was bored after fifteen minutes. So I guess I am not a amillennialist.

I wish more Christians would see symbols as windows to a spiritual reality beyond doctrine. You don't explain things like the millennium; you step through them into the reality that they point toward. It is like the old Zen story about mistaking the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself. The symbols of Revelation are like Alice's looking glass, a portal to a different world. If you ask me if I am "Pre, Post, or A," then all you are doing is showing me you don't get it.

If John wanted to teach history or theology, he would have written a history or theology book. But he wrote an apocalypse. The closest thing to it today is a "graphic novel." Graphic novels look like comics, but they aren't for kids. They are all about the narrative and the pictures. If someone has to explain them to you, then you have missed the point.

Revelation is spiritual imagination. If you don't have one, then you can always choose between Pre, Post or A.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Who is that Masked Man?

When I was a child I regularly attended the movies on Saturdays - that is, when there wasn't a game to play or watch. Like all boys my age, oaters were my favorites. These were classic Westerns that had archetypal good guys and bad guys. You could always tell the bad guys by the background music and the color of their clothes. The hero likewise could always be identified by his white horse and white hat.

So it is with the greatest oater of all time - the Book of Revelation. (Remember how it started with the four horsemen of the Apocalypse?) In the second half of chapter 19, the Lone Ranger finally arrives on the scene to save the day. A white horse appears, and on the horse is a Rider whose name is Faithful and True. Three guesses who this guy is! Right, this is the long awaited return of Christ. He enters on stage to save the day with his cavalry on their white horses right behind him.

The long awaited Battle of Armageddon is actually anti-climactic. In one sentence the battle is over, the villain and his minions are defeated, and the victory celebration begins. This is the highly anticipated hope of evangelical Christians.

Last Sunday we celebrated the Lord's Supper at our little Baptist church. The pastor closed the service with the traditional words of the apostle Paul, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes." Then he added his own heartfelt addendum: "Lord Jesus, come quickly!" This is the true spirit of Revelation. The Bible ends with these words.

I am enough of an evangelical to have my heart stirred by such words. I feel uncomfortable in time. I yearn for eternity. This human role that I am playing in time and space is already old. I have had enough glimpses behind the curtain to know that this world is a stage and we are all players, as the Bard said.

I have read the script. I know how the story ends. I am impatient for the Director to wrap up the show, so I can set aside my persona and enjoy the cast party. Lord Jesus, please come quickly!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Secret Chord

When Canadian singer k.d. lang sang at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, I thought I was witnessing a scene from the Book of Revelation. She was dressed all in white standing on a towering dais, surrounded by an audience of thousands of people, also dressed in white. And she sang a beautiful rendition of  Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah." 

The song begins with the story of King David who first used the sacred word in his psalms: "Now I've heard there was a secret chord that David played, and it pleased the Lord .... It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift, the baffled king composing Hallelujah."

Scientists tell us there is background radiation that permeates the universe, white noise emanating from the Big Bang, the moment of creation. It can be heard as static on radios and televisions when no earthly signal gets in the way.

The Hindus say this sound is the sacred syllable AUM (also spelled Om). Lao Tzu, the philosopher of ancient China, called it Tao. The Greek philosophers called it Logos, meaning Word, the basic principle of the universe. The apostle John opened his Gospel with this same Greek word and says that the Word was incarnated in Jesus.

I have heard the chord, and I suspect that you have also. The psalmist said that the heavens sing it day and night. Not with words, but with an audible silence that goes to the ends of the cosmos. "Their words aren't heard, their voices aren't recorded, But their silence fills the earth: unspoken truth is spoken everywhere." (Psalm 19:3-4) The apostle Paul described it as "words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words." (I Corinthians 2:13)

I hear it when my heart is quiet enough to pay attention to the Song beneath the noisy ramblings of my mind. But it is not AUM or Tao I hear. I hear Hallelujah! Handel recorded it in his Hallelujah Chorus. The apostle John wrote the words to the song in Revelation 19:1-4.

The version of Hallelujah that k.d.lang sang does not have the original lyrics. She chose to sing a later version. (It went through four revisions from 1984 to 2008. You can read the account of the revisions here.) The last verse was changed from words of faith and praise to words of doubt and violence. She sang, "Well maybe there's a god above. But all I've ever learned from love was how to shoot somebody who'd out drew ya.... It's a cold and broken Hallelujah."

I cannot imagine why anyone would change a song of worship to one of despair, but I guess the darkness of the human heart should no longer surprise me. The closing words of the song, as originally written by composer Leonard Cohen, are these: "I'll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!" To that I can only say "Amen! Hallelujah!"

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Without a Trace

Archeology has always fascinated me. At one point during my ministry, I subscribed to no less than three different archeological journals! Most interesting to me are the so-called "lost civilizations." It amazes me that whole cities, and even empires, can vanish without a trace. Jungles, deserts and oceans swallow civilizations whole. Empires rise, fall and vanish completely. When the ruins of an unknown metropolis are discovered in some desolate corner of the world, often there are few clues as to the language, culture or fate of the residents.

Cultures are fragile and temporary phenomena on this planet. Empires collapse into dust. In Revelation 18 the symbolic city of Babylon burns and crumbles. Its economy is shattered. (18:11-17) Its art and music destroyed. (18:21-24) It becomes nothing more than a ghost town (18:1) and eventually disappears into the sea like the mythical Atlantis (18:21).

So it is with all cities and cultures. So it will be with American culture. It is hard for most of us to fathom this reality. Our country will one day cease to be. This nation has existed for a little over two centuries - a blink of an eye in world history. It is already showing the signs of cultural obsolescence. Likely even the name of the United States of America will be forgotten. Certainly the names of all the politicians, businessmen and entertainers will be lost.

If this is true of nations and civilizations, the powerful and famous, how much more is it true of us? Let me tell you something you may not like to think about. You will be completely forgotten. (Ecclesiastes 2:16; 9:5) No one will remember our names ... not even our own descendants. Can you name any of your great-great grandparents? You have sixteen of them! So is our fate.

All that will remain of us is that which is eternal. If man is truly more than an animal, if we are the intentional creation of God, made in God's image with an immortal, spiritual essence... then that is all that will last.  Therefore the cultivation of the spiritual life is of supreme importance.

Yet our American culture is obsessed with the temporary - temporary fame, temporary prosperity, temporary pleasure, temporary happiness - and the permanent is forgotten. Learn a lesson from Babylon. "The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever." (I John 2:17)

Monday, February 15, 2010

We Have Met the Enemy

The best ending is a surprise ending. Suspense films weave intricate webs of hints and innuendos, twists and turns, trying to misdirect the audience. We diligently try to figure out "who done it." Who is the real villain? The mark of a good film is when all the clues are clearly present, yet we are completely fooled. The Sixth Sense was such a film. I never imagined that Bruce Willis was a ghost. Yet when I saw the film a second time, all the clues were there in plain sight.

Revelation has this type of surprise ending. But most readers are so ignorant of apocalyptic symbolism, and so blind to our own sinfulness, that we fail to see the identity of the villainess when she is literally "unveiled" in Revelation 17.

The Whore of Babylon is the culmination of the Book of Revelation. She is the revelation of Revelation. In this apocalyptic narrative we have seen all sorts of heroes and villains come across the pages of the book. Finally in chapter 17, the archenemy of God's people is revealed. Who is it? The Whore of Babylon is a frankensteinian replica of the Bride of Christ. The enemy of the Church is the church - an imitation church!

Protestants have historically identified the Harlot as the Roman Catholic Church. She is a church, and she is obviously in Rome. So who else could it be, right? Wrong! As any aficionado of suspense films knows, it is never the obvious choice.

A few years ago I read the book Revolution in World Missions by K.P. Yohannan, the founder of Gospel For Asia. He describes coming from India to the United States for the first time. He saw the obscenely opulent church buildings of American Christianity, and he was rightly shocked. On the other hand we, like the proverbial frog in slowly heated water, don't even notice anything unusual. We are "dressed in purple and scarlet, festooned with gold and gems and pearls" (17:4) and do not see anything wrong with that.

Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna was another book that impressed me in the same way. The American church, both Evangelical and Protestant, is dressed like a Pagan Priestess, but we don't even notice. We are "brimming with defiling obscenities" (17:4) but do not see anything blasphemous in the way we do church.

Walt Kelly, creator of the Pogo comic, first used the phrase "We Have Met The Enemy and He Is Us" on a poster for Earth Day in 1970. It woke us up to the environmental truth that we are committing global suicide.

We need the same wake-up call when it comes to our Christian faith. The enemy of the church is not "out there" in some villainous papacy, Muslim fundamentalism, secular humanism, or New Age spirituality. We have met the Scarlet Harlot, and she is us.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The God of Disasters

Pat Robertson said that the earthquake in Haiti was a curse from God for a supposed pact that Haitians made with the devil to free them from French occupation. (There was no such pact, but let's not let the facts get in the way of a convenient theodical argument.) Most Christians scoffed and looked down their noses at this televangelist who remains an embarrassment to their religion.

But what alternative explanation did they propose? Was the quake nothing more than a natural phenomenon outside of God's control? If that were true, it would make the Deity into a powerless demigod incapable of controlling what he created.

Was the earthquake simply not important enough for God to prevent? Really? One hundred thousand people die in a minute and it is not worth divine attention? The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed over two hundred thousand. How many people are important enough to get his attention?

The explanation I hear most often is that God "permitted" the earthquake but did not cause it. Does that really get the Lord off the hook? On January 28, a fifteen-year-old girl was severely beaten in a Seattle transit tunnel while three security guards watched and did nothing. They "permitted" the violence, and we are rightly shocked. Is this the type of God Christians believe in? I am as appalled by this type of evangelical deity as I am at Robertson's vengeful cursing god.

The other common solution is to lobotomize God, picturing the Divinity as less than a Person. The Cosmic It is not responsible. It doesn't think or feel. It is just a Force, an impersonal Power, the Energy of the universe. So let's all sing, "We are the World," give a few bucks and feel better. If there is one thing that is obvious to me, it is that God cannot be less personal, conscious or caring than humans are!

So what is the solution? Revelation 16 describes the God of Jesus Christ as "the God behind these disasters" (16:9), referring to the "bowls of wrath" that fill this chapter. In the end the buck stops with God.

I don't have any neat explanation for the age-old problem of suffering and evil. But I know the problem is in our thinking and not in God's nature. It is not that God is inattentive or impotent, callous or uncaring. It is certainly not that God lets the devil do his dirty work while he keeps his hands clean by only "permitting" bad things to happen.

It is that our mini-brains cannot comprehend the Big Picture. All the hand-wringing, name-calling and excuse-making will not change that truth. Somehow the solution centers in the Suffering God, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, (Rev. 13:8) the Crucified One who died on the Cross. The more we know Him, the more we understand the pain of the world.

(Artwork is "Haiti will reborn" by Haitian artist Frantz Zephiri)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Sitting By the Dock of the Bay

There is nothing quite like the early morning on a lake. All my life I have spent time each summer on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. I often wake up early - preferably at dawn - and go down to the dock and sit. Sometimes I take a canoe or rowboat into the middle of the bay and just sit and absorb the quiet. For me it is an elixir of peace that sinks deep into my soul. I am closest to the heart of God at such times.

The Book of Revelation pictures a sea of glass before the throne of God. (Revelation 4 & 15) The earlier passage pictures the denizens of heaven standing beside the sea, and the latter passage describes the people of God as standing on this sea of glass. For me this communicates "the peace that transcends understanding" (Philippians 4:7) that is ours in the presence of God.

On one occasion Jesus calmed a storm on the Sea of Galilee from the stern of a boat. It says simply, "and all was calm." The disciples, amazed at Christ's ability to bring peace to a raging lake, asked one another "Who is this?" (Luke 8:25)

There is peace in the presence of God. It is peace like a lake at dawn, as still as glass. In both scenes in Revelation, everyone present around or on the sea spontaneously breaks into a song of praise. I do the same. How can I not? A song to my Creator and Redeemer spontaneously rises in my soul, and my voice echoes across the lake of glass. And in response to the song, the doors of the heavenly temple open wide. (Rev. 15:5)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The World Without Us

I think Jesus was a gardener. I know the Bible says he was a carpenter. But in those days it was common for most families to grow their own food, and sometimes even have a small vineyard or olive grove to supplement their income. I think Jesus' heart was in growing things, not making things. You can tell by the stories he tells. There are very few building illustrations in his preaching, but lots of agricultural images!

I also have a modest garden in my backyard in which I grow a variety of vegetables. I have two favorite gardening seasons - planting and harvesting. Planting season is exciting for its sense of anticipation and expectation. Harvest season is even better. It is the culmination of all the weeks and months of work.

Revelation 14 pictures harvest season on earth. I could go into the details of the symbolism, but I would rather paint the big picture.

The earth has its geological seasons. They say the earth is warming. (I wouldn't know it from the mountains of snow in my yard, but let's say it is true for Al Gore's sake.) The earth has its ice ages and tropical eras, its winters and springs. We are entering the summer of the earth. Deserts are expanding, glaciers are receding, and ice caps are melting. That means global autumn - and harvest - is just around the corner.

Humankind has its seasons, and our end is approaching. Alan Weisman has a book entitled, The World Without Us,which describes the earth after the demise of the human race. His apocalyptic vision is worth pondering.

Each person has a life cycle. One day the world will go on without us. As I grow older, I become more aware of my mortality. One day my body will give out. It will be burned up, and my ashes scattered in the mountains to fertilize pines and maples. All that will remain is what I have done.

The East calls it karma. The West calls it judgment. Whatever we call it, it is true. Our works will follow us. "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Yes," says the Spirit, "that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them."  (Revelation 14:13)

The good news is that this is pronounced as a blessing to be welcomed like the autumn harvest for those who "die in the Lord." Praise God for the work of Christ, which followed him ... and by his grace follows me after my time on earth is over.

(Artwork is Der Triumph des Lammes, der Fall Babylons / Ernte und Blutkelter by Matthias Gerung 1530-1532)

Sunday, February 7, 2010


The Mark of the Beast has been a very popular subject for those interested in biblical prophecy. Speculation has ranged from Social Security Numbers to Universal Product Codes (UPC). Some cartoonish depictions, circulated by groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, have taken the symbol literally and shown a real 666 tattooed on foreheads and hands.

I have a different idea. In researching my book, I came across another interesting book entitled Branded Nation by James Twitchell. He explores the concept of brand identity and the mythology that develops around brand names - stories that companies (and churches) tell their customers in order to promote their product and ensure brand loyalty. The symbols for these companies - like Nike, Pepsi and Apple - become cultural icons that are easily identifiable worldwide. These days even people (i.e. Tiger Woods) have their own logos.

If I were to identity the mark of the beast (and it is pure speculation; anyone who says otherwise is just selling you their brand of religion), I would see it as a brand logo. Revelation clearly identifies the mark as having economic significance (Rev. 13:17), and so it seems to fit. If the first beast is Big Government and the second beast is Big Religion, (see last blog) then the mark of the beast is the economic arm of this duo: Big Business and its marketing campaign.

Revelation says that devotees wear the logo on their foreheads or on their hands. Anyone ever see logos on caps? Anyone who has ever been marked with a handstamp at a fair or a concert knows about hand marks. But enough speculation. I feel a bit silly even suggesting a solution to this end-times riddle. The more important point is what it means to us today.

How entrapped are we by the branding culture? How many commercials do you have in your wardrobe? Do we really believe there is any significant difference between Burger King or McDonalds, Coke or Pepsi, Toyota or Honda? We are so easily sucked into the commercialization process that we become walking billboards - human advertisements for clothing manufacturers, sports teams, performers and products.

We willingly play the role of "consumer," wearing our patrons' marks on our sweatshirts and caps. Is it too much to suggest that consumerism could possibly be the religion of the Beast?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Church & the Antichrist

The most popular sideshow in Christian circles is trying to figure out the identity of the Antichrist. The Roman Catholic Church has historically been the main bogeyman for Protestants, being identified as the Beast of Revelation by such leaders as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Roger Williams and John Wesley.

In modern history, Hitler and other Hitleresque characters have been common targets. Faddish variations on this theme in recent decades have been identifying Ronald Reagan or George Bush, Bill Clinton or Barak Obama as the Big Bad Guy, depending on which party of the congressional oligarchy you embrace.

I will not add my voice to this specious speculation. My guiding principle is this statement from Jesus: "For false christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect." (Matthew 24:24) That means that the False Christ (Revelation 13:1-10) and False Prophet (Revelation 13:11-18) will be very attractive to Christians. So beware whom you champion.

It is more helpful to see these two beasts of Revelation 13 in general terms. The John who wrote Revelation also wrote these words: "As you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come." (I John 2:18) Each age has its antichrists. There are many incarnations of the two beasts before the final ones. Who are they today?

I paint the two beasts of Revelation 13 in broad strokes as Government and Religion, especially big government and big religion. In a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, Lord Acton wrote this famous line: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

The greatest danger to believers - now and in the "last hour" - are those who hold worldly power - political, economic and religious power. Power corrupts. The best defense against the Antichrist is to rob him of his power. Small government and small religion are the best defense against this Great Offense.

But Revelation says that this advice will not be heeded in the future. People looking for some Great Leader to solve their worldly problems will embrace the Beast. Those who look to religion to save them from their sins will get what they desire - the Anti-Savior.

"Are you listening to this? They've made their bed; now they must lie in it. Anyone marked for prison goes straight to prison; anyone pulling a sword goes down by the sword. Meanwhile, God's holy people passionately and faithfully stand their ground." (Revelation 13:9-10)

(Painting is "The Double Cross" by Fritz Hirschberger)

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Scope of Revelation

Last month ABC News reported that soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are using rifle scopes that bear Bible verses such as 2 Corinthians 4:6 "For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.." That verse is engraved in the tiny letters "2COR4:6" on the scopes, made by Trijicon, a Michigan-based manufacturer. See Article.

Other references include verses from the books of Revelation, Matthew and John, such as JN8:12, "Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." ABC has a slideshow of Trijicon scopes and verses here.

Trijicon has a $660 million multi-year contract to provide 800,000 more sights to the Marine Corps and the U.S. Army. And get this! The scopes are called the Trijicon Revelation, apparently in reference to the New Testament book. Just what we need! More propaganda ammunition for Al-Qaeda, who already recruits suicide bombers by portraying Americans as Crusaders invading Muslim lands!

Fortunately, in response to the recent publicity, Trijicon has agreed to stop putting the references on products supplied to the military, (article) but the propaganda battle has already been lost.

Revelation pictures a war between good and evil. Revelation 12:7 says, "War broke out in heaven." The war begins in heaven between the Dragon (Satan) and his angels versus the archangel Michael and his angels. Then the fighting quickly spreads to earth. But it is not won by high-powered scopes on semi-automatic rifles. It says, "They defeated him through the blood of the Lamb and the bold word of their witness." (Rev. 12:11)

The spiritual battle is not against enemies of flesh and blood. It is a spiritual battle against spiritual foes. (Ephesians 6:12) But this spiritual battle is just as dangerous as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also involves physical death for the human combatants. It says of these spiritual freedom fighters, "They weren't in love with themselves; they were willing to die for Christ." The Biblical word for witness is martus, meaning martyr. We overcome by the blood of Christ and our witness to that victory on the Cross!

"They weren't in love with themselves...." Our biggest problem is that we are in love with ourselves, and therefore are not willing to give up anything, much less die, for Christ. Men and women enlist by the thousands to die for their country, but how many are willing to die for their Lord?

Just for the record, I have great respect for the young men and women in uniform fighting overseas. They are willing to lay down their lives for a cause. I only wish that more Christians would be willing to lay down their lives in the nonviolent war of the spiritual cause of Christ. That is where the victory will be won according to Revelation.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Street Preachers in Sodom

In a nearby town there is a small independent Baptist church that does street preaching. During the warmer months you will see them at the busy intersection in the center of town with placards and Bibles in their hands, yelling words about hell and salvation at pedestrians and motorists. Although I enjoy this sight as street theater, on a spiritual level it makes me uncomfortable. I instinctively want to distance myself from this particular style of Christian proclamation.

I once met the pastor of that church, and asked him about his street ministry. He is a nice fellow, not the stereotypical bigot that one might expect. It is just that he believes strongly that this is the only way to reach some people. The people he wants to address would never come to him, so he goes to them.

In Revelation 11:3-13 two preachers appear in the streets of Jerusalem, symbolically named Sodom. They are pictured with fire coming out of their mouths that consume their hearers. Now that is "fire and brimstone" preaching!  Then it says, "These two prophets pricked the conscience of all the people on earth, made it impossible for them to enjoy their sins." In response to the pricking, the authorities kill these two witnesses. The people cheer, "Good riddance" and call for a celebration.

In an interfaith dialogue at Columbia University (which I mentioned in an earlier blog), I heard a Buddhist say with great sincerity that he believed that religious proselytism should become a United Nations human rights violation. (He said this in response to the Christian panelist's presentation of the gospel.) According to him, this would ensure religious tolerance for all. Now THAT'S scary. When intolerance is championed in the name of tolerance, then we are in the realm of Orwellian doublespeak.

I heard similar rhetoric recently concerning Focus on the Family's pro-life advertisement entitled "Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life" to be aired during the Superbowl. Without ever seeing the ad, a pro-choice advocate denounced it as "hate disguised as family values," while clearly expressing undisguised hate for the sponsors.

The gospel will often evoke hate from its hearers. That is the meaning of the Cross. Christ was killed by the religious elite in the name of national security. May heaven help us if we become so intolerant of others that we need to silence their voices so we can enjoy our sins.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Looking in Stained Glass Windows

Since resigning as pastor, I now find myself on the outside of the "institutional church."  That doesn't mean I don't attend church. I attend worship every Sunday, but I don't have one church I call home. I am definitely not an integral part of any congregation. I am a "visitor" who is asked to sign colored cards, bulletin inserts and attendance books.

It is a strange experience for one who has spent the last thirty years at the center of congregational life. Now I am outside the stained glass windows looking in. I attended a dinner for pastors and spouses last week. It was nice, but I did not really belong.

I have been attending a small Baptist church most of the time since my resignation. I have also attended a large Evangelical Free Church nearby a couple of times. Most recently I have been attending a Presbyterian church. When vacationing in New Hampshire, I attend the multi-denominational church where I used to serve as pastor years ago. I feel like a man without a denomination as well as without a church.

In Revelation 11:1 the apostle John was given a measuring rod and told to measure the temple and the people worshiping in it. That is what I feel like I am doing. It is hard to find a church that measures up. I have become one of those people I used to disdain: "church shoppers." I feel judgmental sometimes, but I am really just looking for spiritual community.

I even find myself wondering if "organized religion" is my thing any more. It is a strange thought for one who has spent his entire adult life as a leader of organized religion.  I am meeting with a friend tonight who is talking about starting a house church. George Barna says that is the future of the Church, but I don't know if it is my future.

During this time my refuge has been my devotional life. My spiritual life is deeper and richer than ever before. Freed from the incessant need to find a message to deliver to my church, I am open to hear God speak to me.

That is probably why I am drawn to the Book of Revelation. John was without a church on the isle of Patmos when he had this vision of God and his church. He is commanded to measure the temple - the institutional religion of his day. Perhaps in the act of measuring the temple, which in the New Testament epistles is the symbol for both the Church (Ephesians 2:21) and the individual Christian (I Corinthians 3:16), I will see how I measure up.