Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

Last week my congregation finished reading the Bible in a year.  We were treated to a presentation by a local Theologian and educator, Adam Ericson, to a means of interpreting the Revelation of John which offered us a vision of a loving God, of a healed earth, of a goal rather than a condemnation.

And yet there were those in the audience who persisted in asking, “What happens after? Isn’t there a judgment? Isn’t awful?”

Well, thank God we got through the book last week, in any case, because this week Harold Camping and his Oakland based “Family Radio” are getting a lot of press with their prediction that the world will end on Saturday (again, he was wrong about that thing in 1994 – oops!).  Camping, an erstwhile engineer, foresees the end times through a complicated mathematical formula that incidentally places Noah’s Flood in space and time, as well as the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.  A credible argument for either of these events would in themselves be newsworthy to the academic community.  But in the absence of said credibility, Camping’s theories depend in credulous congregants deceived by fiction in the form of Theology and film in the place of fact.

Now, there is little doubt that the book of Revelation contains a warning to a certain people of the consequences of their actions if they persist in their current behavior.  And in a departure from my usual uber-liberal soap box, I would further argue that we as liberal churches do not do a responsible job of addressing Revelation.  It is not as though there aren’t other ways to approach the idea that history is building toward a single end point. A dichotomous and much more ancient alternative to the “blood soaked Jesus” of Revelation is the Jewish concept of tikun olam: the healing of Creation, the ultimate return to the Garden through reconciliation, peace, re-ordering and righting of all that has fallen away from grace.  But whatever option for education a community chooses, it may not turn its face away from the concept of an end times.  The result is a congregation which is not equipped to speak to these episodes when they arise. We, as liberal Christians, are afraid of the louder voices of our conservative brothers and we shy away from the confrontation.  While I think that is a shame and a failure on the part of the liberal church, it isn’t the focus of this essay today.

What struck me about Adam’s presentation last week, was the persistence of “what happens after.”  There were no questions about the main subject of his presentation, which was “how should we be until then,” that is, no one said, “what are we being warned against? What are we to do?”

Many years ago this month, I lay on the floor of our family room, an eighteen month old in my arms and two elementary school students in their beds and had this very conversation with God.  I had cancer and it would be five long days before we knew how serious the disease or course of treatment would be.  I went through all the steps: I bargained, I was angry, etc.  And while I am blessed with a truly atrocious memory, the one thing I do remember is all the things I regretted.  There were dozens of things I had left undone.  (My dad had always said, “The things you regret in life are the things you did not do.” This always struck me as bad parenting, but it turned out to be true.) I had not seen the Northern Lights, I had not published any novels, I had not told my children that I loved them enough, I had not had enough sex.  There were others, but you can see that the list was pretty wide-ranging.

We are told, not just in Revelation, but over and over in the Bible, that the world will end. We don’t know when, Jesus didn’t know when (Matt 24:36), which means God doesn’t know when.  And if God doesn’t know when, Harold Camping doesn’t know when. But we know the end is coming for each of us, a pale horse in our future whose rider is cancer or something else. 

Now, I don’t believe the world will end Saturday.  If I did, today and tomorrow would be easier, I’ve got a 3 stage huge bar mitzvah, two choral performances for two different children and a Brownie horseback riding outing.  

But I don’t have to believe the world is ending Saturday.  I only have to know the world is winding up, history is progressing toward something. And what matters is what we do today, this minute, and in every minute between now and the parousia, personal or communal, public or private, immediate or in the future.  Will we have regrets on the last day?  Will that element of us that is eternal, our legacy in the form of children or work or music or security or justice…. Will it be a part of the healing of Creation?

That seems to me to be the ultimate lesson in the idea of an end times, be it in the words of John in Revelation or the lessons in the first book so Genesis: are we making the kingdom of heaven on earth? 

Whether or not we are, we are praying for it.  We are praying for an “end times” that realizes God’s will for us, and we are praying that our lives will contribute to that end. We only have to be more intentional when we say these well-worn words aloud:  
Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done.
On Earth as it is in Heaven. 

1 comment:

Adam said...

You are on to something here, Shay! Right when mainline liberal protestants need Revelation the most, we ignore it! It implores us to follow the Way of the Lamb. Instead of inflicting violence into the world, we are to participate in God's healing of it and God's love for it - sacrificing ourselves, if necessary. It takes lion-like courage to live out a nonviolent love as we following the Lamb. I think people are so obsessed with what happens after because following the Lamb now is too radical for most. We would rather use violence in the name of security/justice than take the Way of the Lamb seriously. I get that. Honestly, I don't want much to do with the Lamb. But there it is, at the center of the throne of God, calling us to follow.

And thank you, Shay, for your personal reflection. You are wonderful.