Heaven v. Retirement

All Saints Sunday 2012

Pastor Maria was supply pastor this morning. She is a hospice chaplain and when she talks about the departed saints in Christ, there is a special concreteness about a topic often discussed in platitudes. She talked briefly about heaven and that got me to thinking about where I am in my life journey, and that led to this essay.

Most of the articles on this blog are more than a decade old. A lot has happened to me since then. They represent where I was at one point in my life. What I wrote then is authentic and it stands as a snapshot in time with its own validity, but I daresay if I were writing these articles today, they would be different, and the topics would be different.

I retired from the paid workforce at the end of 2010. I’ve saved enough money so that now I can do pretty much go where I want and do what I want (I don’t have extravagant desires). I have a wonderful wife and friends. I’ve certainly attained rest and haven’t had any tears of sorrow for a while. Is this heaven?

With the exception of not being reunited with my departed loved ones and the occasional minor physical ailment, I think that I’m in the popular view of what heaven is often thought of. Is that it?

Eternity  is a problem. One of the problems with being retired and seeming to have “all the time in the world” is that it never quite seems the particular time time to do something. To really have all the time in the world and beyond would seem to take any sense of urgency out of everything. I could be wrong, but it seems that just doing nothing but feeling blissful would get old.

I try to stay busy in my blissful estate. I write a lot on another blog that has become somewhat popular. I volunteer with a civic organization, I work on Habitat for Humanity houses, I sing in the church choir and run their web site. Life, however, isn’t particularly challenging and it can be boring sometimes.

So I think that Heaven, if it’s all it’s cracked up to be will not be like retirement. It will surely be rest for the weary, healing for the troubled soul, and the putting right of what was wrong before, but eternal rest? I think not. Perhaps I need to learn more about living in the moment from the Buddhists to appreciate heaven more.

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Mark of the Beast discovered

And he causes all, the small and the great, and the rich and the poor, and the free men and the slaves, to be given a mark on their right hand or on their forehead, 17and he provides that no one will be able to buy or to sell, except the one who has the mark, either the name of the beast or the number of his name. 18Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for the number is that of a man; and his number is six hundred and sixty-six. Rev 13:16-18. NASB

imageIn Hebrew, like Latin, letters stand for numbers. The Hebrew transliteration for “Nero Caesar”, the inscription on the Roman coin shown on the right, is NRWN QSR or 50 + 200 + 6 + 50 + 100 + 60 + 200 = 6661.

The inscription is on the forehead. There are also Roman coins with a figure on the obverse side whose right hand points to the word “Augustus.”

1The calculation comes from Bruce M. Metzger’s book, Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation.

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The Saint Lays Dying

The winds of change are blowing raw
And the Saint lays dying.
Fear and uncertainty twists our bowels
And the Saint lays dying.

“Have no anxiety about tomorrow,” coached our Master.
But the wind is raw,
Bad change is coming,
And the Saint lays dying.

Shall we celebrate the life of the Saint–
He who has run the race and kept the faith?
How can we celebrate while his widow grieves,
And we ourselves grieve?

And what of the Saint
Now that all of his humanity is nearly stripped away?
There is no dignity in death
The way we do it now.

Where is the assurance?
Where is the courage?
Where is the faith
When a machine beats his heart?

We huddle together and pray
For the Deus ex machina.
“Lord, deliver us from our dilemma,
From having to face the pain.”

Our gentle Master reminds us
That we all die a little every day:
The plant closes,
Our child moves away.

The earthquake and the flood and the fire
Sweep away the things we love.
Things can never again
Be made to be the way they were.

“At least we have our family!”
And that is gone.
“At least we have our health!”
And that to is gone too.

How can we celebrate
Our own little deaths?
How can we celebrate
The race with end not in sight?

Our gentle Master reminds us
That unless a grain of wheat die
It cannot bring forth fruit.
“ABSTRACTION!” we sob.

So the mighty God of the Universe
Makes a penciled notation in the “Book of Life”.
The Saint rises from his bed
And Walks.

A little more time we are granted
To grow and to prepare.
But not too long–
Not too long.

Abba says: “Call any time day or night.
I’ll make coffee and we can talk.
We really need to talk.
Don’t put if off.”

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First International Conference on Sexuality

Perhaps this is a good opportunity to take a historical perspective and to recall the very first conference on sexuality.

Minutes of the First International Conference on Sexuality

[Editors note: Some of the early parts of this transcript have been damaged due to extreme age and in particular the exact date of the conference has been lost--however it is known to have been several billion years B.C.E..]

… recognizes the Delegate from the Western Gondwanaland Coast

First, I want to make it clear that the entire concept of “sexual reproduction” is one which I find abhorrent. Mitosis was good enough for my parent and this idea of (ugh) “mingling” genetic material goes against the very integrity of our cell walls.

I want to read into the record at this time the entire text of our sacred scriptures: The Book of Creation.

“In the beginning was the ooze. And God moved across the face of the ooze and he divided the silt from the pure water. And God saw that it was good. And so the evening and the morning were the first day.

“Then God said, “Let there be LIFE!” and the water teemed with single-celled asexually-reproducing organisms. And God saw that it was good. And so the evening and the morning were the second day.

Then God saw all that he had created, and behold it was good and it was perfect. And on the third day God rested from all of his labors.”

The End

Our scientists have speculated that this “mingling” of genetic material may lead to DIVERSITY and even SPECIATION! We know from the BoC that each of our original ancestors was created perfect. We have asexually divided faithfully from that ancient time, each mitotic division perfectly reproducing each new generation without variation–without error.

We are each made in the IMAGE OF GOD and to change that would be wrong. God made Adam, not Adam and Eve.

Those genetic minglers (I say meddlers!) say that they are genetically different from the rest of us and that it is natural for them to divide both sexually and asexually. But this is impossible. We are each perfect replicas of our original prototypical ancestor.

There are those, the so-called “evolutionists” who raise the false hope that we can become something better through what they call “selection”. But I say, that we were made directly by God himself.

There CAN BE NO IMPROVEMENT. Change can only lead to decay and to death. I hesitate to talk about this, but it is known that there have been a few cases when the cellular division has not been completely faithful to the ancestor cell–and in such cases the divided cells die or are horribly deformed. Is this what we want to bring on ourselves and our next generation?

At this time the chair recognizes the representative from the Tropical Seas of the Antarctic.

My fellow creatures. I will be brief. I have the greatest respect for all of the other speakers who have been heard here today. But I feel deep in my protoplasm, that there is something more for us to become. I don’t think that we were made perfect, but with potential. I think that there are more chapters to be written in the Book of Creation and that we today have the opportunity to begin the course that will let them be written.

[At this point the document is again damaged beyond recognition except for a brief fragment regarding an "unfortunate accident" which befell the Tropical Seas representative. Ed.]

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“A revelation should be revealing,” Martin Luther.

The New Testament book of Revelation (or Apocalypse) is viewed in different ways:


Hands Off

Some folks don’t think much of  Revelation. It’s either too obscure or too bizarre to be worth the trouble. Some, like Luther, distrusted the book, giving it a subordinate status. The problem with this approach is that there is some good stuff in Revelation that gets overlooked.

Historical Analytical

Revelation, by its own words, was written to 7 churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). Reason dictates that the book had a comprehensible message to those original recipients. When in Chapter 13 it says “This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six”, Revelation must refer to a person that readers in the first century knew about, and later when it says (Rev 17:9 NRSV) “This calls for a mind that has wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated…” we should call to mind the ancient city that was built on seven hills (Rome). 666 is Nero, the two prophets are Peter and Paul, the baby attacked by the beast is Jesus–all fairly straightforward stuff. The problem with this approach is that Revelation was not written for the primary purpose of being a coded history–its original hearers already knew the history. Continue reading

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Left Behind?

Left Behind™: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins

The volume appeared in our church library, so I checked it out.

Some Christians read the Book of Revelation (from the Bible) as a road map for the end of time (instead of a highly symbolic message to 1st century Christians suffering under the persecution of Rome). The literal reading of Revelation as prophecy results in a framework where the Left Behind™ novel is set. I read the book to get an insight into the mind of those Christians who believe in these things, but what I didn’t expect was to get sucked into the story and actually care about the characters.

The story starts with a transatlantic airline flight where passengers suddenly disappear, leaving their clothes, most of the other passengers, and the flight crew behind. We later learn that all of the world’s children plus all (real) Christians have also suddenly disappeared. The novel’s characters are then those who are LEFT BEHIND.

If people who believe in the Left Behind™ theory were sincere, I would think their first step would to try to get an FAA rule passed that one member of every flight crew must not be a Christian. When both airline pilots are Christian and both get snatched away, the plane crashes (and presumably everybody left behind on board goes straight to hell) and that’s exactly what happens in the novel. Continue reading

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Law and Sanctification

This is an article about the relationship between Law and Sanctification.

Because I write frequently on the topic of Grace (that oft-misunderstood subject) I get quite a lot of e-mail from folks stressing the importance of law, obedience, good works etc.–accompanied by lists of familiar scripture. I reply back with some explanation and other lists of scripture. What I want to do here is build a framework to explain my understanding the role of law and how it relates to sanctification.

Sanctification is the process through which the believer becomes more holy, or more Godlike in his or her character. Sanctification is understood as a life-long process.

For this discussion, it is essential to note that sanctification is a process during which the self matters less and less, and God matters more and more. It should also be noted that the stages of sanctification I describe are not rigid classes and individuals operate at more than one stage depending on the situation.

In this discussion, I use “Law” to denote both a written set of rules (which for the Christian are found in the Bible) and also a mandate to “do good” where possible.

At the very beginning of sanctification, perhaps at the transition between non-Christian and Christian, the self is most important and God is least important. In this stage of primitive religious sense God is seen as administering immediate rewards and punishments based on behavior. Examples of this mind set include superstitions. A person may believe that a disaster happened as a result of something bad the person did. That person believes that they are, for want of a better word, “magical” in that their own behavior “makes things happen” around them. God is seen as the agent of these events, but the concern is completely selfish. Such primitive religious attitudes can be found in the Bible in stories where a person is struck dead for touching the Ark of the Covenant. TV fundraisers use such motivations all the time: send me $50 and God will work a miracle in your finances. In this stage of sanctification, law works through immediate reward and punishment. The actions of God are seen as automatic. Continue reading

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Jesus Seminar (2)

Someone wrote to me:

I will take only a few presuppositions of the Jesus Seminar because a posting going through every presupposition would be much too large for this or any newsgroup; The Jesus Seminar based its examination on the presupposition, “The evangelists frequently attribute their own statements to Jesus.” How do they know this? Do they give evidence from an independent eyewitness source that challenges the contents of the Gospels. Their presupposition has no support. It would only have support were they able to quite some ancient author who heard Jesus preach and stated that Jesus did not say something attributed to Him by the Evangelists.

OK, that’s a fair objection. I’m going to comment on it, but not as a historian, because that is not my discipline. As you know, there are no independent witnesses to Jesus beyond the Gospels (and perhaps the apocryphal Gospels–but I don’t think we have much quality there). As a result, any attempt to discern what “Jesus really said” must be based, as I see it, on three things: the Gospels, what is known about the transmission of oral traditions in general and the literary form of Greek and Roman biography in particular, and what is known about the historical context, both of Jesus and of the Christian community from which the Gospel texts came. [The Jesus Seminar sometimes mentions that a saying attributed to Jesus is an aphorism which appears in other independent contemporary sources.] Continue reading

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Jesus Seminar

Someone wrote to me:

For their presuppositions to be valid, the Jesus Seminar must prove them and support them with scholarly sources. They have nothing to support their presuppositions. A true scholar does not base his or her work on speculation. A true scholar bases his or her work on source material. That is why I cannot consider the work of the Jesus Seminar serious historical scholarship. Actually, the more I read of New Testament criticism the more I wonder how anyone can take it seriously. Much of their arguments is based on the theory that a document they call Q existed. Yet, they have found not a single ancient manuscript of the Q (for Quella= German for source) document.

Very disappointing.

First, you persist in calling the criteria used by the Jesus Seminar “presuppositions”, as if they were prejudices pulled out of the hat. While it is true, that The Five Gospels does not go into a great deal of justification for the criteria they used, I am sure that you know of any number of scholarly works which to make the arguments for them. If I were to write a book on Calculus, I wouldn’t go back and provide the proofs for all the Algebra theorems that underlie that subject.

In a previous article, you claimed that none of the members of the Jesus Seminar were historians. I don’t know whether this is actually true or not. However, there are historians who make similar judgements on the authenticity of scripture (including E. P. Sanders who considers a number of sayings of Jesus to be actually those of the Christian community).

Finally, we know from the testimony of Luke himself that he did research and gathered material for his book. He witnessed nothing himself. It is plain to see that Luke borrowed much from Mark. What was the source of his other material? Some of the additional material is shared with Matthew. If Matthew was written when the text critics say it was (late), then Matthew had sources too. It seems reasonable that material common to Matthew and Luke come from a common source which was given the name “Q”. (Luke has additional material as well, beyond Mark and what is in Matthew.) Continue reading

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(Mark 8:12 NRSV) And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.”

The Bible is a subject that seems to lead to extreme positions: either the Bible is perfect, or it is worthless. What I would like to do in this essay is to explore why people take the extreme position and to explain why the doctrine of inerrancy is actually a sign of the lack of faith rather than a sign of strong faith. An inerrant scripture is the sign demanded by those who cannot believe without proof. To call a belief in biblical inerrancy a sign of a lack of faith would seem to be paradoxical at the outset. Nevertheless, much of Christianity is paradoxical (one gains ones life by losing it, love ones enemies, God became human…). The value of paradox is that it cannot be simply understood and filed away, but rather it continues to goad one to thought.

Where does faith come from? Scripture says that faith is created by the Holy Spirit in the believer.

(Phil 2:13 NRSV) for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

When someone tries to create faith all by themselves [for more on this, see my article on Do it Yourself Faith], they are unable to make the real thing, and to compensate they replace faith with reason. If one wishes to trust God through their own efforts, then they must try to find evidence that bolsters that faith. These attempts are rampant in Christianity today, and they largely consist of attempts to give the Bible external authority. Examples are the pseudo-sciences called “Flood Geology” and “Creation Science” which attempt to fabricate evidence of things which support a literal and historical reading of the Old Testament origin stories in Genesis. Another is the misrepresentation of the level of agreement among Greek New Testament manuscripts (and some fables about Erasmus, the editor of the first published Greek New Testament). There are incredibly contrived interpretations of scripture to mask contradictions (e.g. the two accounts of the death of Judas), and even some questionable Bible translations (e.g., the NIV). Now even more esoteric faith crutches have appeared in the guise of statistical fallacies used to suggest that secret messages are somehow found by picking every 4,712th (for example) letter in the Pentateuch.

All of these are attempts to artificially create evidence for God by creating faith in an inerrant book from which God is then a logical conclusion.

(John 20:29 NRSV) Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

In classic Protestant theology, saving faith comes as the activity of the Holy Spirit working in conjunction with the external Word of God (which may be scripture or may be preaching whose foundation is scripture). However, scripture alone has no effect. From this, I would conclude that one who bases his faith in God on his faith in scripture (and that faith in scripture based on some miraculous quality of the text–like inerrancy, fulfilled prophecy, hidden messages, miraculously preserved manuscripts or anything else) is trying to reach God on his own merit rather than relying on the Cross of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

At this point, one usually says: “Yes, but we only know of the Cross of Jesus through the Bible”, and this is true. But we do not “know” that the Bible speaks truly of Jesus except by faith, and this faith is the creation of the Spirit rather than the creation we make by arguing about the external qualities of Scripture itself.

Let me be blunt here: if one bases his faith on God on faith in Scripture, then Scripture is primary and God becomes secondary; that is, Scripture takes the place of God.

Scripture is of immense value, but God must come first.

One mailing list writer put it this way:

Of course God is in control. But I think you’re taking some things for granted that ought not be taken for granted. I think you’re looking for security in the wrong place.

I believe that the Bible is the word of God. But I don’t think it’s a user’s guide and service manual that comes with the creation. It wasn’t handed down from heaven gilt-edged, leather-bound, in the King James Version, as some people seem to believe. It doesn’t give us definitive answers to all our questions or satisfy our curiosity.

The Bible is a remarkable collection of writings the tell us about who we are, and who God is, and what kind of relationship we have. The important things are crystal clear. I believe that God speaks to people through the words of the Bible, and is revealed in these writings. But our trust and confidence must be in God, not in the writings, in the Person, not the Book. We don’t have the kind of security that says, “Now I possess the Truth, now I have all the answers.”

The Bible introduces us to a loving God, and to Jesus Christ our Savior, and invites us to put our trust in this God and in this Savior. If we try to put our trust in our own knowledge or understanding, these things will disappoint us. God does puzzling and inexplicable things, but ultimately does not disappoint us. Rather, God keeps on surprising us with good things of which we never dreamed.

God’s revelation is incarnational. “In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” God became incarnate in a human being. God’s infallible truth comes to us incarnate in the Scriptures, that fallible collection from various authors, written over a span of more than a thousand years, that reflects the human limitations of the writers. God’s Good News has come to us in a fallible Church. God uses imperfect people, books, and institutions, and through them accomplishes his loving purpose. God redeems that which is imperfect, just as he redeems sinful human beings and transforms them. As we experience the love and grace of God, we also are set free to be loving and gracious.

It’s that “old Adam” in us that makes us think, “I don’t want to be forgiven, I want to be *right*. I don’t want to be redeemed, I want to *win*!” That’s our pride speaking. It’s very liberating to finally understand that when we think like that, we’re on the wrong track. We’ll never save ourselves. Only God can do it. It is accomplished in Christ. Deo gracias.

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