Thursday, May 26, 2011
Many of you saw, or rather couldn’t help but see, billboards for the past six months guaranteeing the rapture on May 21. I admit that I rolled my eyes at yet another self-proclaimed prophet who swears they know the hour and day of the Apocalypse (see a list of some of the failed predictions at http://www.religioustolerance.org/end_wrl2.htm). This particular “prophet” has now predicted the end of the world four times (May 21, 1988; September 7, 1994; May 21st, 2011; and now he's rescheduled it for October 21, 2011), and happened to rake in $80 million from contributors between 2005 & 2009.
NPR did before and after stories of the May 21st followers. Many of these people and families had quit their jobs and budgeted only to live to that date. Some choose to believe the date was off by a few days or weeks. Others claim it must have been a spiritual rapture, and that salvation is no longer possible. One more level-headed man said, “we obviously don’t understand the Scriptures the way that we should.”
The humility exhibited in the last statement might be the healthiest approach, and one that we could incorporate into our lives. The danger of a premillenialist eschatological view is that people believe they can escape the problems of the world, being sucked up into heaven. The non-chosen are left to deal with catastrophes while the chosen look down from the clouds. This begs the question: Why care for your neighbor, work for peace and reconciliation, and care of creation if God’s just going to snatch you up before destroying the world? Doesn’t this view negate the work Jesus asked us to do—loving our neighbor, healing the sick, caring for the poor and oppressed? Maybe, after countless failed predictions throughout Christian history, we might just realize that there is not a magic get out of jail free card. As followers of Christ, we must do the hard kingdom work he describes in the gospels through parables and examples.
While there is apocalyptic language, much of it refers to events that have already occurred (like the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE). Some passages talk about Christ returning, but the writer of the Gospel of Matthew cautions in Matthew 24, “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (NRSV). Wouldn’t it be far more beneficial to spend time meditating on the parables and actions of Jesus rather than obsessing over and potentially misusing the more obscure and puzzling literature of the Bible, especially if we take it out of context and misunderstand the meaning? Jesus’ words and actions are timeless because they address real problems that require a response of hard work and an open heart. To lose sight of this for recycled, failed prophesies doesn’t do the gospel justice.
Monday, May 23, 2011
Preaching for the Missional Journey is a resource published by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and compiled by Charles B. Bugg who has served as a pastor, homiletics professor, and dean of Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity. This book of sermons by various preachers from around the country can be used in bible study, Wednesday night studies, planning teams, and retreats. The hope is that these resources might help your faith community to live into a missional existence. As Bugg says in the introduction, “The church is on mission not because a few persons in the church have a ‘thing’ for missions but because the Spirit is the creative and energizing force for the whole community of faith” (4). In this way, the church may follow God out into the world instead of clinging to long-running programs that may not be working anymore.
The first sermon is written by Rev. Darryl Aaron of First Baptist Church on Highland Avenue in Winston-Salem. He discusses the idea of facing a time, like Esther, when we “have to live out our private purpose for the public good” (11). He sites Rosa Parks and others who are tired of injustice and must take a stand for what is right, encouraging you and me to be ready to be called by God to “risk something big for something good” (13). Rev. Robert Baker, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Kentucky, encourages us to stop “playing church” like children going through the motions and “be the body of Christ” (19). Rev. Amy Butler of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, DC, shares that letting the Spirit move in our congregations may be chaotic and change the way we operate, “blowing everything out of order, turning things on their heads, creating a situation that breaks every conventional idea of what God and church and faith are supposed to be” (33). We must be open to this as those on the Day of Pentecost, and look for new possibilities. Rev. Emily Hull McGee, Minister of Young Adults at Highland Baptist Church encourages us in a dual sermon with her father, Rev. David Hull, to see ourselves as the innkeeper in the story of the Good Samaritan and view ourselves as “entrusted with the job of tending wounds, creating hospitable space, bringing about healing, and supporting the recovery process” (65). Rev. Carlos Dario Peralta of Encuentro Ministries asks us to focus on impact over church attendance, and view God as “alive and active, transforming people and communities around the world” (81). In doing so, we can learn to “build bridges that bring us closer rather than walls that separate us” (81). These preachers and many others help to point toward a vision of the church as a living entity where members branch out into the community, with every member being a minister to people of all backgrounds. We do this not to gain church membership numbers. Instead, we do this because we are called by God to serve one another for the sake of the Kingdom, not the institution.
This resource is hope-filled and energizing, and could be used in a variety of settings. There are questions for reflection at the end of every chapter, as well appendices in the back with examples and further resources. To learn more or purchase this resource, check out this link to the CBF store: http://shop.1asecure.com/prod.cfm?ProdID=374301&StID=10604.
Monday, May 16, 2011
When it comes to human suffering, natural disaster confronts Christianity with a real theological and intellectual challenge. We can assign the suffering of war to the sinfulness of our world. We can see the suffering of those who hunger linked to the corruption of governments and systems that keep people locked into poverty. We can work against the suffering of those who are abused because we can work against the abusers in hope of stopping them. When human suffering finds its cause in other humans, we can make sense of it and address it within the frame of sin, forgiveness, redemption, and justice.
The natural disaster, however, is different. We cannot assign an earthquake and tsunami to some Middle Eastern tyrant drunk with power. We cannot easily link the earth’s shifting ground to evil men who prey on children in human trafficking. We cannot neatly find another human to blame…which leaves God.
The new vocal atheists have already made their opinions known. Sam Harris, author of “The End of Faith” and a prominent atheist thinker and commentator, published the following on a CNN website blog: “Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary. Take your pick, and choose wisely” (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/03/20/finding-faith-amid-disaster). For Sam Harris, natural disasters that create human suffering reveal a multiple choice test for the reality of God. A, B, or C – make your choice. For someone as intelligent as Sam Harris, I am disappointed that his thinking comes down to a multiple choice.
Christianity cannot dismiss the real challenge natural disasters and the human suffering that results from them present to the faith. We, like atheists, struggle with questions as well. Why did it happen? Why did so many have to die? God, could You not have stopped this? The real challenge, however, is not about God’s existence. The real challenge is whether we can submit to the mysteries of life and death, admit there is power greater than we can control, and that as much as we would like to create a God whose only interest is being “nice” by our standards, we have no right to create God in our own image. The earth shakes and the oceans roar. We stand in worshipful awe of creation when we watch the sun rise above the watery horizon of the Atlantic Ocean. We stand in fearful awe of creation when we see the footage of a tsunami wash away houses and cars. But, we do not claim that these competing moments dismiss the reality of the Creator. Does the earthquake and tsunami, then, point to an “evil” Creator? Not it all. The Bible consistently assigns evil to humanity because evil is linked to sin. The natural disaster can be devastating and cause a great deal of suffering, but earthquakes and tsunamis and hurricanes are not “evil.” These natural events are part of a created world that exists in a tenuous balance of earth, water, and air, all held together by the mysteries of gravity and atmosphere. That life exists at all on this planet is a wonder – a wonder of the goodness of God.
So, Sam Harris can have his multiple choice. He is not looking to explore the mysteries of these things but have “reasons” to be free from God. I struggle with the suffering I see in Japan. I’ve got questions. I’ve got some frustrations that I’ve shared with God. But, in the midst of the suffering, God is present. God is at work for good. My faith centers not on “reasons” for God’s goodness, but the powerful “evidence” of God’s goodness at the cross.
The Lord be with you all, Randy
Randy Carter is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Hillsborough. This article was originally printed in their church newsletter, The Messenger.
Monday, May 9, 2011
by Dr. Don Gordon
I found out at the gym this morning that Osama bin Laden had been killed Sunday night (EST). The master-mind of the 9/11 attacks which killed more than 3,000 Americans was shot by Navy Seals in a daring move against his heavily fortified compound in Abbottabad, just inside the eastern border of Pakistan. Bin Laden was true to form in this final assault, using one of his wives as a defensive shield when the bullets started flying. He never regarded the lives of women and children as deserving of special protection during his reigns of terror. They continued to shield him from the consequences of his assault on humanity. Bin Laden’s dead body was buried (dumped?) within 24 hours into the sea. President Obama made the announcement to the American people and the international community in a nine minute televised speech not long after the assault took place. The President offered assurances to families who had lost loved ones in the 9/11 bombings, applauded the skill and courage of those who organized and carried out the raid, and concluded that justice had been done.
In the streets outside the White House and along the pavement of Ground Zero in New York, Americans spontaneously erupted in celebration at bin Laden’s capture and killing. The ten year hunt for bin Laden was over. Two wars—in Iraq and Afghanistan—had begun as a response to his actions and influence. For young Americans who have never known a time when their nation was not under terrorist threat, this death is especially satisfying. A sense of justice has been achieved. An evil man has been eliminated. The death of innocent lives has been has been met with some retribution, albeit a belated case.
How are Christians supposed to respond to the death of bin Laden? No doubt, the reaction is shaped by our proximity to those who have been killed, injured, and made sacrifices in these wars on terror. Our reactions are also shaped by our nationality and geography. American Christians will no doubt react differently to bin Laden’s death than Iraqi Christians or Pakistani Christians. There are Christians in those countries even though they live precariously as minorities. Acknowledging the impact on so many variables in our lives, are there any Christian principles that should shape our own response to the death of a merchant of evil? Fully aware of my own biases and limitations as a Christian who is also an American, I offer a few principles that come to my mind.
First, earthly justice is inferior to divine justice, but it is the means we have to limit the emigration of evil to the four corners of the world. Dietrich Bonhoffer, the Lutheran pastor who participated in plans to assassinate Adolph Hitler, didn’t start out wanting to kill Hitler. Eventually, however, he came to believe that the assassination of Hitler would save a nation, and much of the world, from horrendous evil. Sometimes the imperfect justice meted out on earth is better than unmitigated evil set loose on innocent people. Simply put, the killing of one man is sometimes the lesser of two evils.
Second, killing and death are never times of celebration except to the extent they are precursors to resurrection. I don’t presume to know with divine certainty the eternal destination of any man, but the evidence of bin Laden’s life doesn’t lead me to believe he is "bound for the promised land." In that case, we are faced with the stark reality of a lost, evil soul bound for hell. Christians don’t rejoice that people go to hell. We rejoice that God is the good, just, eternal judge of all people, and that his judgments are expressions of his perfect love and holy character. We rejoice in a holy, perfect God even while we lament the sinfulness of humanity and the terrible consequences that are deservingly received.
Third, Christians are called to be peacemakers in a broken world. This brokenness leads to the need for policemen, armed force, and legitimate authorities using appropriate means to protect the masses. Yet, Christians are called to be different than others. We’re called to turn the other cheek, walk two miles when asked only to walk one, and to love our enemies. This radical ethic should be driving us to make peace, absorb evil, and suffer patiently in obedience to the model of our Savior Jesus Christ. This does not mean we have to become doormats to the world (which is broken), but it does compel us to seek peace more than war, pray for our enemies more than plot their demise, and cooperate with others in promoting goodwill toward humanity.
This is not a recipe for every individual Christian’s response to the news of Osama bin Laden’s capture and killing by the authority of the government of the United States of America. It is simply my effort to offer a word I hope is pastoral, thoughtful, and most important, faithful to the guidance of the Good Shepherd, who came to take away the sins of the world.
Don Gordon is the pastor of Yates Baptist Church in Durham, NC.
Dr. David Gushee, professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University: http://www.abpnews.com/content/view/6377/9/
Rev. Amy Butler, Calvary Baptist Church, Washington, D.C.:
Dr. Tim Moore, pastor, Sardis Baptist Church, Charlotte (scroll to page 2): http://www.sardisbaptistcharlotte.org/userfiles/newsletter/file_534hUqH2_05-06-11.pdf
EthicsDaily Staff (Baptist Center for Ethics): http://www.ethicsdaily.com/faith-leaders-cite-justice-caution-celebrating-bin-ladens-death-cms-17858
Monday, May 2, 2011
Last night, I watched the breaking news story that Osama bin Laden was killed during a gunfight in Pakistan. I sat there, processing the news and trying to figure out how I felt, wondering how this would affect our country and the world. I fell asleep, feeling nothing emotionally, but praying that this military victory would move us closer to the end of our decade long war and bring our troops that much closer to home.
This morning, I awoke to see images from late last night. College students and passers-by partying outside the White House, near Ground Zero, throughout Boston, at a Phillies and Mets game, and on West Point’s campus. I felt a visceral reaction of disappointment. For me, bin Laden’s death is not an occasion for celebration, but one of solemn remembrance for all the soldiers and civilians who’ve died because of his actions. It’s an occasion for caution, as violence usually begets violence, and the government is already issuing warnings to Americans abroad fearing al Qaeda’s revenge. It’s an occasion for thoughtfulness, as bin Laden’s death does not rid the world of terrorism, suffering, or death.
It was telling to me of all the scenes of jubilation, the most poignant were photos released from our soldiers oversees watching the President’s press conference last night. Rather than cheering, they sat solemnly, knowing that this was not the end and that one man’s death will never bring back the thousands of troops and civilians who’ve died. Perhaps the most poignant remarks I heard today were from Carie Lemack, co-founder of the Global Survivors Network, who lost her mother on September 11, 2001. While she felt a sense of relief that no one else would die by his hand, she has been disappointed in the amount of media attention bin Laden and his violence have received over the last decade. Rather, she wants the voice of those who work against terrorism to “be louder than those who advocate for terrorism.” With this violent figurehead gone, what hopes do you have for the future of the world? What good can we do together for peace and justice? Is God calling you to better your church or community? May we always be open to the Spirit with us.
Let us pray for our troops and civilians still in danger. May God be with them and hear their cries and fears.
Let us remember those who have died, both military and civilian, in the last decade due to bin Laden’s actions. May they be with God and in peace.
Let us pray for the survivors of war and terrorism. May God walk with them in their grief and be with them throughout the healing process.
Let us pray for the weakening of terrorism in all forms and the strengthening of peace around the world. May we see the in-breaking of God’s kingdom on earth.
Lord, hear our prayer.