Rapture: In Other Words, Impatience and Distraction

I would be lying if I said the recent silliness of Harold Camping’s Rapture predictions and the subsequent commentary which followed before and after had not caused an interior restlessness and conflict within me.  Not that for one moment I believed any of Camping’s nonsense, but the fact that I am Christian put me, unfortunately, under the big tent of Christianity which Camping chose to turn into a circus.  And, I felt, once the circus lights went out and the event was over, there would be a lot of crap to clean up.

Predictions like Camping’s do not adhere to orthodox Christianity, as N.T. Wright explains here.    Rather, “end of times” scenarios follow more the politics of distraction and impatience than Christian doctrine.  One only has to point to words of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew (“No one, not even the son, knows the day or hour…”) to render Camping’s predictions moot.

However, I, like many Christians, found myself defending my faith as a whole, for many chose to paint the entirety of Christianity with Camping’s brush.  My unfortunate fascination with comments left on various news stories, such as I find on CNN.com or NPR.org, found this tendency in abundance.  Many were vitriolic dismissals of faith in the “invisible man in the sky,” or at its worst, a secular call for the eradication of all religions (at which I wondered what the implementation of their plan would be like should they have their way).  A shared agreement with the ridiculousness of Camping’s assertions was secondary to a general bashing of religion.

On both sides, as mentioned before, this event followed more the politics of distractions and impatience than Christian doctrine.  Our sound bite culture thrives on the new gossip, the new product, and the new conflict; distractions are embedded into our culture.  Why settle for what you have now?  Here’s what’s next.  Yesterday was old news, and this story is just breaking.  And what better stories are there than the odd, the weird, the sensational?  Therefore, it is no surprise that the news jumped on this fringe group.

In the realm of Christianity, talk of Rapture and End Times distracts us from who we are called to be in Christ, in the here and now.  CS Lewis uses his demon Screwtape to drive this point home in letter 15 of The Screwtape Letters:

“He [God] does not want men to give the Future their hearts, to place their treasure in it.  We do.  His ideal is a man who, having worked all day for the good of posterity (if that is his vocation), washes his mind of the whole subject, commits the issue to Heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him.  But we want a man hag-ridden by the Future- haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth- ready to break the Enemy’s commands in the present if by doing so we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other- dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes who end he will not live to see.  We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.”

This is the position Camping and other end-time theorists put themselves in when divining supposed Rapture scenarios.  Does it not also follow that a notion of impatience is built into this as well?  In my Anglican tradition, we are called within the liturgy of the holy Eucharist to proclaim the mystery of faith: “Christ has died.  Christ has risen.  Christ will come again.”  We live in anticipation of a new creation initiated by Jesus in his death and resurrection.  Wright notes in After You Believe that this is not a waiting room mentality but a “call[ing] to be genuine, image-bearing, God-reflecting human beings.  That works out in a million ways, not least in a passion for justice and an eagerness to create and celebrate beauty.”  Wright also notes that this anticipation is not one of destruction for “the vision of Revelation 5 is not a vision of the ultimate end…but of the heavenly dimension of the present earthly reality.”  What we see in Camping’s world-view, then, is less a joyful anticipation of this reality than a forced demand for some event of finality, a drawing up of borders and walls rather than a participation in the infusion of God’s love into the world.  The latter allows God to work as He will, and to join Him in that work, the former is an impatient stomping of a child not getting his way.  A metaphysical tantrum, if you will.

Small wonder then that the culture as a whole gets impatient as well.  “This is what you say you stand for, but what we see is something completely different.”  A valid and truthful observation and the honest vitriol are usually pointed to this hypocrisy.

Our gospel reading today from John redirects the Christian to what should be the focus of his/her faith: Christ himself.  “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or else believe me for the sake of the works themselves.  Truly, truly I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do.”  And what works are we talking about here?

Heal.

Love.

Give life.

Feed the poor.

Reach out.

Bless.

Judge Not.

Tell stories.

Offer yourself.

Give thanks.

Raise up.

We announce the kingdom in these ways.

I get caught up in theoretical arguments and theological debates, mostly as an observer.  And this week was no exception.  However, as one of my fellow congregants as Ascension Church stated, “You always look for something redemptive out of crazy.”

Situations like Camping’s false predictions force us as Christians to ask “What are we really all about?’ or more to the point “WHO should we really be about?”  Because God works through, regardless.  And my attention was thankfully redirected back to this.

Someone asked a nun this week on her blog what she thought about all this Rapture talk, with the impending end of the world on Saturday.  She gave a prompt, Spirit-inspired reply:

“Ask me about it on Monday.”

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The Avalanche and the Rose

I am currently reading, among other books, Yours, Jack, a collection of letters by C.S. Lewis to various correspondences.  I was particularly caught by the imagery he uses in a letter to Edward Lofstrom in January 1959.  He is responding to Lofstrom’s letter on who Jesus was:

 

“Of course.  ‘Gentle Jesus’ my elbow!  The most striking thing about Our Lord is the union of great ferocity with extreme tenderness…Add to this that He is also a supreme ironist, dialectician, and (occasionally) humorist.  So go on!  You are on the right track now: getting to the real Man behind all the plaster dolls that have been substituted for Him.  This is the appearance in Human form of the God who made the Tiger and the Lamb, the avalanche and the rose.  He’ll frighten and puzzle you: but the real Christ can be loved and admired as the doll can’t.”

On the Incarnation

Merry Christmas to all!  My wish is that all will find the Hope and the Peace of this day!  Here are some reflections on the Incarnation by CS Lewis:

from Miracles, by CS Lewis:

In the Christian story God descends to reascend.  He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time, and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life; down to the very roots and seabed of the Nature He has created.  But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him.  One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated burden.  He must stoop in order to lift, he must almost disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders…

 

from “The Grand Miracle” in the essay collection God in the Dock:

The Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing nature up with Him.  It is precisely one great miracle.  If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left.

This is the Morning.

“The term is over: The holidays have begun.  The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

So states Aslan at the end of the Narnia series, in The Last Battle.  I have been listening to the series via audiobook for the past couple of months in my car, as I drive to work, church, run errands, etc. and I find it wonderful divine coincidence that I should finish the series on Easter Sunday.  Many Lewis fans may allude to the scene at the Stone Table in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe today, given it is the strongest resurrection parable in the Chronicles of NarniaBut somehow the last passage of Last Battle evokes that Easter feeling of a New Beginning, of a Great Story just beginning to unfold.  A story of life after life, a rolling back of stone to release empty space, a recalibration of reality, of everlasting Spring.

Now, I suppose the irony of going back to school tomorrow should taint this a bit, but it doesn’t.  It did at times over the course of my Spring Break; a sort of looming dread of settling back to grade papers, discipline students, getting up before the sun, the weariness of a teacher just trying to make it to the end of the school year.  I felt I was procrastinating on my lesson plans.  There were times to buckle down which, through my laziness, I simply allowed to drift by.  But now, in the late morning of Easter Sunday, as the glorious ringing of the bells during the Sunday liturgy at Ascension still echo in my ears, and a warm blue sky lights up my room, and the knowledge that this world was meant for goodness and love, no matter how we conspire to twist things to the contrary, I feel I am ready.  Ready to lead my seniors to their own new beginning, to lead them to their transition from high school students to the world beyond my classroom.

And the wonderful thing is this feeling is only a mere part of the joy.  Things are certainly put into perspective on this day.  Responsibilities still remain, the mundane chores of maintaining house and home and preparing for work go on, but these things are under a light: by grace I am moved forward, rather than pulled down by the weight of despair or worry.

So the term is not quite over yet, but it is a new morning.  Christ has risen.  He has risen indeed.

Episcopancakes

Shrove Tuesday has ended, and Lent officially begins tomorrow.  I spent the night flipping pancakes and at Ascension, and enjoying the fellowship of new friends in Christ.  I came home smelling startlingly like a slab of bacon.

Tonight was my last night of coffee, my requisite sacrifice for Lent :-(.

On Shrove Tuesday:

Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the ritual of shriving, when the faithful confessed their sins to the local priest and recieved forgiveness before the Lenten season began.

As far back as 1000 AD, “to shrive” meant to hear confessions. (Trivia note: the term survives today in the expression “short shrift” or giving little attention to anyone’s explanations or excuses).

Historically, Shrove Tuesday also marked the beginning of the 40-day Lenten fasting period when the faithful were forbidden by the church to consume meat, butter, eggs or milk. However, if a family had a store of these foods they all would go bad by the time the fast ended on Easter Sunday. What to do?

Solution: use up the milk, butter and eggs no later than Shrove Tuesday. And so, with the addition of a little flour, the solution quickly presented itself in… pancakes. And lots of ’em.

Today, the Shrove Tuesday pancake tradition lives on throughout Western Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia, but is most associated with the UK where it is simply known as Pancake Day with a traditional recipe, although these can be as varied in the UK as there are British households.

In France, (as well as here in the US – or more famously – in New Orleans) it’s known as Fat Tuesday which kicks off the Mardi Gras festival with wild celebrations just before the austere Lenten season.

In Sweden, Fat Tuesday translates to Fettisdagen, and in Lithuania it’s Uzgavens. In Poland, traditional celebrations take place on a Thursday a week before Ash Wednesday and so it’s Tlusty Czwartek, or Fat Thursday.

Christianity and Time: Or “Yeah, I’m Late for the Presentation”

The Feast of the Presentation, or The Presentation of Christ at the Temple, also known as Candlemas, comes 40 days after Christmas, and celebrates the presentation of the baby Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem by Mary and Joseph according to the Law of Moses, as described in Luke 2: 22-38.

At the temple, the child Jesus is honored by Simeon and Anna, the former “righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel,” the latter a prophetess, “of great age.”  Each is able to see the Messiah before they die.  Simeon was “inspired by the Spirit” to go to the Temple to meet up with Mary and Joseph; Anna was apparently already there, as it is written “she did not depart from the temple, worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day.”

Good timing.

I mean, to be there just at the moment Mary and Joseph enter the Temple, after, presumably, an 8 mile walk from Bethlehem- that’s a wonderful piece of directed serendipity.  Especially for Simeon, “directed by the Spirit.”  What must it have been like to feel pulled toward the Temple on that particular day?

Ever since I renewed my faith in Christ, and explored it in terms of the liturgy and monasticism, the issue of time has occupied much of my thoughts.

What exactly should be the Christian concept of time?

There are many facets to this question, including the warning of Christ that “it is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority,” the idea that God is “beyond time,”- that He is past, present, and future, and Christ’s admonishment “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.”

In my studies of Christian monasticism, time is a prime feature, with the day divided into the Divine Hours: Vigils, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline.  This is meant to be a vigorous schedule with the primary goal of bringing the observant closer to God.  It is a rhythm, or pace of life contrary to our fast-paced American culture, with its emphasis on instant gratification and the self-centered now.

I know there is a contrast in emphasis in the Christian calendar vs. the secular.

But how to live in both?

How do I live with the notion of an Infinite (never ending) Love, and when it is time to take the trash out?

I want desperately to integrate myself into a more Christ-like outlook on life, and this includes how I deal with time, of which I never seem to have enough.  If I inserted myself into the feast of the Presentation, it would be a day later, after Mary and Joseph have left Jerusalem, and I would be wandering around the city with a half empty cup of cold coffee, looking at my watch, and wondering by how many hours I probably missed the Holy Child.  Dejected at having missed them, I would proceed to get drunk at some Irish bar (do they have Irish bars in Jerusalem?).

An old Carthusian monk, in an interview featured in Into Great Silence, said “The past, present, future are only human terms.  In God, there is solely the present.”

I long to live in that present.

The Paradox of Christianity, or Wandering Tree Remains

Of the myriad thoughts which have bounced around in my head lately, an urge to change the name of this blog has surfaced and warrants consideration.  On my “About” page, I describe myself as “the tree who has troubling standing still,” but since I have decided to settle, spiritually, in Christianity, and now, I think, as a member of the Episcopal Church- well, the desire to have a name more “rooted,” so to speak, has entered my thoughts.

A moment of recap might be necessary.  Over the past few months, I have been trying to find a new church to call “home.”  I became disenchanted with my church, for a number of reasons, mostly through my own prejudices and rationalizations, as I soon realized, but distance was also a primary factor and I longed to find a church closer to my house.  This led to a reassessment of the denomination I had called home for three years- I am not a cradle Episcopalian, so the exploration seemed reasonable.  I checked out a number of churches with a wide number of approaches.  However, I love the liturgy of the church, and find time at the Table a necessary part of my celebration of Christ.  In addition, my decision to leave Emmanuel Episcopal had nothing to do with the welcome and love I received from the congregation.  This, in fact, was what made it so hard to leave.  And so, after wandering into the Church of the Ascension– an Episcopal Church much closer to me, and receiving the same type of welcome- well, that was it.  I think the Episcopal Church will have to put up with me for while.

Anyway, back to the name change.  Could I really say I was still “wandering”?  The implication of that word connotes a lack of direction, an aimless meandering.  Someone who has “wanderlust” has a strong impulse to travel, and what good is that word if you want to feel that you have arrived?

The addition of the word “tree” might be an appeal to balance this sense of wandering- a rooted fixture in the earth, which is moved only by great disturbance.  But in reality, it seems only to add to the confusion, and maintain a sense of paradox.  Trees don’t wander.  No one expects them to.

Ah, but then comes the reminder.  The reminder of an insight I had a few years ago.  The Christ-centered life is itself a paradox, and therein lays the beauty and mystery of the faith.  Inherent in Christianity is the unexpected.

To wit:  A Virgin gives birth.  God becomes Man.  Death on the cross leads to life.  Water changes into wine.  Fishermen become the disciples of the Rabbi.  Blind men see.  The crippled walk.  Five loaves of bread and two fish feed five thousand people.  The last become first.  Love wins.

Nobody expected any of that.  We expect catastrophe and hurt.  The catastrophe in Haiti is devastating, but we expect that in this hurting world.  What we marvel at even more, however, is the outpouring of help and aid and support, and the images of neighbor helping neighbor.  A selfish world wakes up and becomes giving.  That’s what is unexpected.  We are not used to seeing it on a scale that rivals destruction.  Tolkien called it the “eucatastrophe”- the sudden, unexpected turn to good, the serendipitous event.

And Tolkien, as well as a couple of other well known authors, incorporated trees into the unexpected as well.  Saruman never expected the Ents to revolt against Isengard, or that Fangorn would awake to consume the forces of evil.  He thought Shakespeare did not go far enough in Macbeth when “Great Birnham Wood” was prophesized to rise up against Macbeth (turning out to be the illusion of Siward’s forces camouflaging themselves).  Lewis has the trees dance around Aslan in Prince Caspian and the movie has a wonderful sequence of the trees defending the Narnians against the Telemarines.

There are other wonderful paradoxes inherent in trees as well.  They stand silent, but for many centuries we have used their fiber on which to etch thousands of stories with ink.  We have used them to communicate, to create, to express, to reveal.

The last paradox is the most important of all.  When one finds Christ, it is only the beginning of a journey.  There the true search begins, for once we are found, it is our commitment to “come and see.”  We are not meant to sit but follow.  We are not meant to wait but “go out into the world.”

So the name stays.  Wandering Tree remains.  At times a cedar in Lebanon, at times a withered fig tree, at times a fruitful tree in the center of a garden.  But at all times, hopefully, conscious of the wind, the Spirit, which rustles its branches.  And I have not arrived, not yet.  There is still much “wandering” to be done.  But the Land is not barren, and every step I take has meaning.

A lingering question- do you have a blog?  If so, why did you choose the name you gave it?  Have you ever wanted to change the name of your blog?  Why?  Post your response in comments!

Help Haiti

One of the direct commands of Jesus we as Christians should always adhere to is to help those who are poor and in need.  Haiti has been devastated by a 7+ magnitude earthquake.  Here are three outlets which you can use to help.  Donate today.  Donate now.  $35.  $50.  $100.  $1000.  Whatever you can do.  Just do it:

Oxfam America: Haiti Earthquake Response Fund

IRC:  International Rescue Committee: Haiti Crisis

World Vision: Haiti Earthquake Relief

Advent Reflection: Caravaggio’s Madonna of Loreto

Two pilgrims, an old man and an old woman, kneel on stone steps hands nearly clasped but more rightly said to be cupped, walking sticks resting on their shoulders.  They kneel in front of Mary and the baby Jesus, Mary appearing as though the two had just caught her attention and she has turned suddenly to look at the them, perhaps brought out of some personal rumination.  The Christ child looks down on the pilgrims, chubby, naked, index finger pointing.

What kind of fights did Mary and Joseph have with each other?  Did Joseph ever feel insecure about the Virgin Birth?  Did he, in moments of weariness and weakness (perhaps Jesus never slept completely through the night) lash out at Mary?  “He’s not mine, anyway!”  yelled out in a fit of impatience and frustration, knowing full well he just lost it, the immediate apology forthcoming, but:  Did Mary ever leave?  Run off to clear her head of an argument, perhaps taking the Christ child with her, the one entity she felt completely bound to, and was it during this walk that she came upon the two pilgrims?  And perhaps, after hearing the clatter of sticks falling and the cries of praise for her and for Christ, after turning and seeing glistening eyes and weathered faces, after seeing her newborn point to the old couple and smile, did she think of her argument with Joseph?  Of how petty it all was in the face of what Was to Come, and all of her anger slipped away, pity and compassion returned to her face, and the faintest glimmer of a halo returned encircling her and her Babe’s head?  Was Joseph just out of frame, witnessing this?

Does our anger of the present blind us to what or who we hold in our hands for eternity?

“Excellent!”

Part of the Advent reading from Phillipians this week (Phil 1-11) is verse 10, of which a portion says “so that you approve what is excellent.”  And of course, child of 80s and 90s as I am, I immediately thought of that wonderful benediction from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure: “Be excellent to each other!”

What does excellent mean in this context?  How do we see it, much less approve of it?  Paul wishes that our love would “abound more and more” which gives us a clue that the giving and receiving of love, a love which grows and grows and nearly leaps to connect with people helps us see excellence better.  Excellence, then, is not merely a solitary concept, but something that happens in relationship to something else.  A single thing is not excellent until it is communicated or interacted with in love.

So, yes, a flat tire can be excellent- when you help someone fix it.  A broken relationship is excellent- when time is given between people to heal and grow again.  A book is excellent- when the reader really connects with the story, and joins the author on his/her adventure.  Food is excellent- when it is used to feed the hungry.  And waiting is excellent, when we share our anticipation of the coming of Emmanuel.   And all of this done with love.  When we are excellent to each other.