Thursday, June 28, 2018

Understanding Revelation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Father’s Day Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Going Deeper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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