It’s Just a Matter of Time

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In everyday life, “What time is it?” is an important question. Whether we are waiting for our shift to end, hurrying to file our tax returns before the post office closes, or sitting in the pew wondering when the wedding ceremony will begin, the time of day is relevant.

It is also important to know the time on the world-historical clock. Is postmodernity unstable? Is the time at hand when, under the weight of its own self-righteousness, the postmodern world will splinter it into cultural shards? Will nationalistic fervor degenerate into racial and ethnic hostility? The ancient historical book known as 2 Chronicles praised the “men of Issachar, who understood the times” and therefore knew what needed to be done. Do we?

It is also important to know the time on the theological clock. Where are we in the timetable of salvation history? Are we, as people frequently ask, in the “last times”? Is our shift as curators of the world about to end or has it not yet truly begun?

This last set of questions is more complicated than people sometimes think, since it is difficult, from where we now stand, to see the celestial clock. Besides that, when it comes to the spiritual side of things, we are living at the strange intersection of spiritual time zones.

My family recently spent five days in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We stayed on Lake Gogebic, which is about the same distance from Detroit as is Washington, D.C. The lake is the largest in the U.P., and we rented a house at the half-way point between the lake’s north and south ends. The timeline between Eastern and Central time lay a few hundred feet from our rental property.

So when we went north in the boat, we were on Eastern Time. When we went south, we were on Central Time. If someone in another boat had come up to us on the lake and asked us the time, we might have replied: “We can’t tell you what time it is until we know which direction you’re headed.”

That would not be a bad answer to give someone who asked the time in reference to God’s program for humanity. “It depends,” we might answer, “on which direction you’re headed.” It would be an appropriate answer for much the same reason it would have been on Lake Gogebic. We are at a place where cosmic time zones meet, so what time it is depends on which direction one is headed.

Just as the hours on the clock are divided into a.m. and p.m. (from the Latin terms “ante meridiem” and “post meridiem”, meaning before and after mid-day, respectively), God’s program for humanity is divided into two ages. The biblical writers assumed the reality of these ages and referred to them frequently.

Jesus, for example, spoke often of “this age” and the “age to come.” St. Paul could differentiate between the two: this present age and the age about to burst on the scene. The author of Hebrews places humanity at “the end of the ages.”

In biblical thought, the present age is out of joint. The spiritual time zone humanity occupies is full of chaos. In the age to come, however, God will transform that chaos into a peace and justice that is maintained by love.

Telling the time is further complicated by the fact that the time zones representing this age and the next don’t just meet, as at our spot on the lake; they overlap. The future is not waiting for us to enter it; it has crossed over to us. This is the shared understanding of the New Testament writers: when Christ came into the world, he brought the new age with him. People aligned with him have already synchronized their watches to the age to come. They order their days by it.

When Christ comes again, which all the New Testament writers expected, the overlap of the ages will end, the old age will be past, and the new age will begin. Everyone will then synchronize their watches and order their days – or have them ordered for them – to the age to come.

First published by Gatehouse Media

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PARTY-PLANNER: The Joyous God

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The Bible is full of talk about the preparations Father God has made for his children. According to the Apostle Paul, God prepared in advance the good works he wants his people to do. Jesus spoke of “The kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” “God,” said the author of Hebrews, “is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” It is “The new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor mind conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” “On this mountain, the Lord almighty will prepare a feast…” According to the author of Hebrews, the salvation that is coming is even now ready to be revealed; it has already been prepared.

It’s not just preparations in general the Bible talks about, but preparations for a party. Think of the 23rd Psalm: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Isaiah 25: “The Lord almighty will prepare a feast, a banquet of aged wines. The best of meats and the finest of wines” (Isa. 25:6). We see this in the last chapters of the Bible, when the wedding reception for the Lamb of God is held. God is not only a planner; he is a party planner. He is the party planner. He loves a good party.

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The Family Business: Doing the Work of God

Nelly Trocmé Hewett, 85, grew up in France in a town of about 900 people and “lots of cows.” Her dad pastored the village church and her mom was a model of hospitality, always inviting people into their home. It was not until years later that she realized her town and her parents were taking in Jews to save them from Nazi genocide. Her community, and 12 others in south-Central France, rescued between 3,500 and 5,000 people. And she was oblivious to it all.

How often we, like Nelly, miss what is happening around us. Because we don’t see it, we think nothing is happening, that God is on break. But Jesus helped us to see that his Father is working all around us, all the time.

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When God Moved to the Old-Folks Home

In Jesus’s world, God is present and a power to be reckoned with. He is not stuck in heaven, a semi-invalid, waiting for the best kinds of people to come join him. He is active in the nitty-gritty details of life.

Some people don’t believe it. Not just avowed atheists, either. The practical atheist, including many church-goers – the kind of people who say, “That’s all well and good, but we need to be realistic about this” – have relegated God to the celestial nursing home. They may visit him on Sundays or they may not, but they don’t expect to meet him on Main Street.

The generation most responsible for moving God to the nursing home came along prior to the founding of our nation. Indeed, some of our founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, advocated such a move. It’s not that they didn’t believe in God; it’s that they didn’t believe in the God of Jesus, the one about whom the prophets and apostles wrote.

People like Jefferson believed in a creator God but not in a sustainer God. Or say rather they allowed God a room – an expansive suite, even – in the home for ancient deities, but gave him no say in current affairs. The old gent had a role to play in his heyday but he is really out of touch now.

Of course, they did not mind if the more sentimental members of the family wanted to call on him on Sundays. If one had time, it was quite a nice thing to do. Go up and visit, by all means, but for heaven’s sake don’t bring God down into our living area. It is humans who run the show, for good or ill.

In the eighteenth century, the humans who ran the show were mostly white, Western, and well-educated. They did not, by and large, deny God’s existence, though some leading French thinkers came ever so close. Instead, they denied God’s relevance. Who, in the train of scientific advances, needed to invoke a deity?

In the Enlightenment, it was science that promised hope, order, and peace – all the things religious people looked to receive from God. Science was the new and powerful deity on the block and those who aligned themselves with it expected to have power in the world.

With the ascendency of science, knowledge became the realm of the specialist. Or say rather that knowledge went through a civil war and its territory was drastically reduced. The things that had once counted as knowledge – the poet’s knowledge of love, the priest’s knowledge of God, the peasant’s knowledge of work, friends and of the earth itself – was no longer accorded the title.

Beginning with the Enlightenment, knowledge was limited to what could be measured, not just once but repeatedly in double-blind studies. Truth was reduced to facts, and then truth itself was dismissed as irrelevant. In a world without God, truth is immaterial; as immaterial as God himself. Facts, and what one can do with them, are all that matter.

There have been positive results of this gradual revolution, but some negative ones as well. For one thing, the artist, the poet, and the theologian are regarded as superfluous. They have dreams and fantasies – often quite lovely – but they must be, as N.T. Wright once put it, “set aside when we (metaphorically and literally) get ‘down to business.’”

In this setting, a wall has been erected between science and faith that has diminished both. It has made faith a matter of feelings, not of truth, and faith cannot survive in the truth-deprived chamber of feelings. It has left morals relegated to a place outside the body of knowledge, a mere footnote one can easily ignore.

In a world where knowledge is shorn of morals, monsters roam free. Consider, for example, the crushing of the poor by multinational trade. Those with the know-how exploit those without it, then punish the pitiful creatures when they try to join their ranks.

This is the kind of thing that happens when God is moved to the old-folks home. Some members of the human family are going to be surprised when he returns to take the reins – and the reign – of the family business.

First published by Gatehouse Media, 6/29/2019

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The Empty Promise: Salvation Without a Savior

If it were not for Christmas and Easter, it is doubtful network executives would think of producing a show with exclusively religious content. When the holidays do roll around, producers seem to draw from the same small group of scholars, most of whom are outside the pale of orthodoxy. Some are even atheists or agnostics.

Some of these scholars approach the biblical evidence with the presupposition that the events recorded there did not actually happen. They deny the Gospel accounts are based on eye-witness reports, as their authors purported them to be. Instead, they assume them to be fabricated – or at least grandly embellished – by the early church as a way of giving their movement legitimacy.

What one ends up with is religion without God – a religion in which God is superfluous. God’s very existence becomes a matter of little consequence. St. Paul might have described such a religion as “a form of godliness but denying its power.”

The absence of God in these religious constructs is no accident. Since at least the late eighteenth century, there have been powerful forces that have worked to separate God from the earth; to lock him in heaven (or fantasy land, as some might have it) so that humans can go about making the world right in their own way.

We haven’t done a very good job. More people died by oppressive violence in the last century than in all previous centuries combined. Communist regimes alone are responsible, according to some estimates, for the death of 100 million people. But violence has not been limited to communists nor did it end with the last century. In the first two decades of the new millennium, there have been genocidal conflicts in Sudan, Myanmar, Iraq, Syria, and the Central African Republic. There have been civil wars and mass casualties in these and other regions, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, and Yemen.

Some of these conflicts have a religious backstory, which suggests to some people that faith in God is not only unable to deliver humanity from brutality but is responsible for it. So people, especially in the West, look to other means of deliverance. Psychotherapy was once thought to be such a power; economic equality still is. But chief among the God-alternatives is Education.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has written: “Education is the key to eliminating gender inequality, to reducing poverty, to creating a sustainable planet, to preventing needless deaths and illness, and to fostering peace.”     Long before Duncan, the chief priest for education was the atheist philosopher John Dewey, who believed the construction of a new social order would come from the modern school, not the antiquated church.

Most people would not go as far as Dewey, who insisted there “is no need for the props of traditional religion.” Yet, like him, they look to lower-case gods for deliverance, especially to education. There is, however, little reason to believe that education can now succeed at what it has so far failed to deliver, but if one refuses to acknowledge God, there are few other places to turn.

Some people are looking for salvation without a savior, justice without a judge, and utopia without a heaven. Not surprisingly, such an arrangement leaves humans – especially those from the enlightened West – in control. It promises a salvation that will deliver the world from greed, bigotry, and all forms of oppression, while leaving us unchanged.

People want justice without a Judge. Justice, in the abstract, is a favorite theme these days, but the idea of a judge is off-limits. We all want justice—but don’t you dare judge me.

People want utopia without a heaven. Of course, that hope was held out by a previous generation of communist thinkers—even as their regimes were busy eliminating 100 million undesirables. Today, in some circles, a redesigned socialism is promising freedom and fulfillment, but it’s just another lower-case god.

Salvation without a savior is a pipedream. Perhaps humanity could save itself, if it were just our circumstances that needed to change. But it is not just humanity’s circumstances which must change; it is humanity itself—and that is the job of an upper-case God, humanity’s creator and redeemer.

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Jesus Reveals God: Father

My wife Karen became a mom before I became a dad. At least, our awareness of parenthood happened at different times. She became a mom on the day she learned she was carrying a child. I didn’t become a dad until our son Joel made his grand entrance into the world.

It is strange to look back on. Karen and I had been married for a little over three years. It was just the two of us: apartment hunting, getting jobs, losing jobs, changing housing, and pastoring a small church. It was just the two of us, and I loved that. Then suddenly – three weeks before Karen’s due date – it was the three of us.

One moment I was not a dad, the next moment I was and everything had changed. From the moment that little boy was born, I was connected to him. I would willingly die for him. His wellbeing was more important to me than my own.

I am father to three sons, and I still feel about them the way I felt then. I want their best, intend their best, and will do what is in my power to help them achieve their best. Though I am a very imperfect father, my love and commitment to them is a reflection – distorted and inaccurate but real, nonetheless – of God’s love and commitment to us. He too is a father. He is the Father.

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The Insurgency of Love Is Looking for Recruits

In 2007, President George W. Bush ordered the deployment of more than 20,000 soldiers to Bagdad and the Anbar Province in Iraq. The objective was, in part, a “unified, democratic federal Iraq that can govern itself, defend itself, and sustain itself…” The operation, which the army dubbed, “The New Way Forward,” was popularly described as “The Surge” in the U.S. media.

I want to be part of a different kind of surge, one in which tens of thousands of ordinary people are deployed with the objective being, in part, a unified, respectful, and just America. Those deployed would be positioned on both coasts and in Middle America and would include people of every race, language, and ethnicity in the country.

They would defend against the disrespect and contempt that are pulling our country apart. They would do so by showing respect to everyone, including their enemies; by showing compassion; and by treating people as subjects of God’s loving rule rather than objects of political or economic conquest.

I want to be part of the insurgency of love. That insurgency started a long time ago, under the leadership of the extremist Jesus of Nazareth. Some readers might object to calling Jesus an extremist, but the term is apropos. Jesus called for extreme love for God – “with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”; and for extreme love of neighbor, where “neighbor” is defined as anyone near you, including one who needs help. He said we should love such a person as we love ourselves.

The insurgency of love could undermine the current surge of contempt in our nation and around the world. It would do so by seeking what is best, even for one’s adversaries. Rather than attacking those who disagree with us or withdrawing from them, it would mean going to them with their interests in mind. Jesus’s way of putting it is to “be well-inclined toward your adversary quickly” (Matthew 5:25, literal translation).

The insurgency of love would show the same kind of goodwill to everyone: to other drivers, to slow-moving store clerks, to children and spouses, to liberals and conservatives, to people of other religions and nationalities. The insurgents would routinely ignore the lines society is always drawing to exclude people.

This does not mean they would agree with everyone or relinquish their convictions. I, for example, am strongly pro-life. I believe that some future generation will look back at the latter years of the twentieth century, when around one out of three pregnancies in the U.S. ended in an abortion, as a time of bewildering barbarity. Yet I acknowledge that people in the abortion rights camp are pursuing what they see as good, even though they do so in a way I see as bad. To treat them with contempt will solve nothing. For them to treat me with contempt will not help either.

Yet, as a member of the insurgency, I must never let the contempt of others cause me to abandon my post. Indeed, I must see it as a reason to continue my efforts. Evil, including assault and cold-hearted withdrawal, can never be overcome by more of the same. Understanding this, the great insurgent of love St. Paul ordered us to “overcome evil with good.” He understood it is the only way evil can ever be overcome.

All my training in the insurgency of love comes from Jesus and his followers but if someone is drawn to the insurgency who does not acknowledge Jesus, let them come. They will need access to the insurgency’s arsenal, which includes the strange weapons of forgiveness, listening, and blessing, or they will go unarmed. I know God supplies these things to those who enlist, but if they seek them elsewhere, let them do so for, as Jesus himself said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

As for myself, I count on God’s supply and depend on Jesus’s instruction to carry out the mission. I believe in its eventual success, convinced that the side of love has already been victorious in the insurgency’s most crucial battle, waged on a hill, far away, many years ago.

First published by Gatehouse Media

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What Jesus Revealed About God: God is Light

The most religious thing I heard when I was a boy – and I heard it often – was from my mother: “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” I hardly thought about God at all but, if I had, I could not have imagined him playing in the dirt with me, or riding a bike through mud puddles, or crawling through the damp, narrow cave at Cascade Park.

All of us start with distorted ideas of God. He’s a celestial policeman, looking to bust us for having a little fun. He’s an upscale version of the most religious person we know – all into candles and hymns and long prayers. He’s a kind of cosmic vending machine, spitting out favors … but only if our account is sufficiently funded by good deeds.

Jesus helped people see God clearly and, in doing so, debunked many false ideas about him. Because of Jesus, people who thought God disliked them discovered that he really loved and wanted them. When they walked away from a meeting with Jesus, they were saying, “Wow!” about God.

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Take Advantage of Second Chance Opportunities

The Bible is full of stories of people who tried and failed or who failed to try. There was Moses. He tried to do something for his people, failed, then spent the next third of his life in self-imposed exile, a fugitive from his own failure.

King David rose from humble beginnings to the place of supreme power and highest privilege. He became the greatest of all the kings of Israel. Yet, at the apex of his power, he fell, both morally and socially.

Elijah was the chief of biblical prophets. He went toe to toe with the leading power of his day and came out on top. But after his historic stand, his courage failed and he copped out. He then was filled with self-loathing and got so depressed he isolated himself from others and prayed to die.

There was John Mark. He signed up for Paul’s and Barnabas’s missions trip to the eastern Mediterranean, then backed out part way through. My dad used to say – more times than I cared to hear – “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” But when the going got tough, John Mark quit going and went home.

The biblical illustrations are plentiful. There was the Apostle Paul himself. In his younger days, he had engaged in violent religious persecution. There was the strong man Samson, the miserable prophet Jonah, greedy Zaccheus, and the dying thief on the cross. They all failed. They failed spectacularly, but they all got second-chance opportunities.

Moses, living in self-imposed exile and hindered by personal insecurity, got a second chance. His first attempt to help his people failed miserably, but out of that experience he gained knowledge and received a calling that transformed him into a remarkable leader.

King David was given another chance after his fall. In fact, it was after his failure that his dynasty was established. Elijah, who experienced severe anxiety and depression, once dropped out of public life entirely. Yet he returned to national and international prominence and spiritual usefulness.

John Mark, who abandoned the Apostle Paul when things got tough, also got a second chance. In spite of his woeful first performance, he was enlisted for a second mission. Years later, St. Paul – who once resolutely refused John Mark a place on his team – said that John Mark was “useful” to him in the work of the ministry. John Mark went on to pen the oldest of the biblical Gospels, the Gospel of Mark.

Paul himself got a second chance and never ceased to marvel that he, after the terrible things he had done, was provided opportunities to serve. Jonah and Samson, both of whom failed spectacularly, later succeeded spectacularly. It was not too late even for the thief on the cross.

No one better illustrates the biblical theme of second chances than St. Peter. On the night before Jesus was executed, Peter insisted loudly that he would be true to Jesus, even if everyone else – the other disciples – proved untrue. He insisted he would die before he would deny his master. Yet within the space of a few hours, he had denied Jesus three times.

The Bible tells the story of Peter’s second chance. He not only got another opportunity to serve Jesus on a national and world stage, he even got a chance to do what he failed to do the first time around: stay true to his master even though it meant dying a martyr’s death.

All these people and more beside received second chances. That was not because of who they were but because of who God is. We may think we don’t deserve a second chance and we’re probably right; but then, we didn’t deserve the first one either. It isn’t about the kind of things we deserve but about the kind of person God is and the kind he wants us to become.

He is not merely the God of the second chance, but of the third and fourth and hundredth and thousandth. This is because God, as revealed by Jesus, is not just concerned that we get into heaven but that we become the kind of people who can thrive there.  

First published by Gatehouse Media, 6/8/2019

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The Lord’s Supper: What’s It All About?

http://lockwoodchurch.or/media (Listening time: 24:27)

When the 14th century theologian and Bible scholar John Wickliffe said the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper remains bread and wine even after it has been consecrated, the pope labelled him “the Master of Errors.” This table has come between Christians ever since. Indeed, when the divided church has sought reconciliation, it has been Holy Communion, more than any other issue, that has stymied the effort.

What are we to make of the Lord’s Supper? Is there anything about it on which we can agree?

There is. Whatever your understanding of the Eucharist, we can agree that sharing Holy Communion has Kingdom of God implications. Click on the link below to learn more.

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