Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming. It is close at hand— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was in ancient times nor ever will be in ages to come.
Before them fire devours,
behind them a flame blazes. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, behind them, a desert waste— nothing escapes them. (Joel 2:1a-3)
I had a vision yesterday. First, I saw a wave moving across the land, shaped like one of those tubular waves that surfers love. It was not made of water. It was made of locusts, and fire followed it. Then I saw fireworks in the sky, and the Lord said, “See, I am going to do a new thing.”
This is not the first time I’ve had a vision of locusts and fire. In the previous one, when I asked God if this could be prevented, he replied, “Look around you, it’s already burning.”
He also assured me, and instructed me to tell others, that “Those who dwell in the Kingdom will not be harmed.”
God uses two kinds of prophecy: historical prophecy and apocalyptic prophecy. Historical prophecy reveals events that will happen in the course of human history. For example, the fall of Israel and Judah, the Exile, and the return of the remnant to Israel were all predicted by the prophets and occurred in our historical timeline. Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple which happened in 70 AD.
In contrast, apocalyptic prophesy predicts what will happen when God reveals and fulfills his final plan, at “the end times.” These prophesies deal not with individual nations or persons, but with the eventual form of God’s Creation, including the New Heavens and the New Earth. The nations are conquered. There is one ruler, and that is Jesus. But here’s where it gets confusing: The “end times” were inaugurated with Jesus’ resurrection. The battle against evil was won. The Kingdom was established… but not fulfilled.
For example, Joel writes,
Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls. (Joel 2:28-32)
The first part has already happened at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit has been poured out, and that will not be undone. Prophesy and visions have returned to the people of the Lord. But the second part has not yet happened. We live in the times between the inauguration and the fulfillment.
So are my visions of locusts an indication that the end is upon us? Probably not. God still works in human history in the lives of nations and people.
It should be clear to all of us that we live in a nation that fails to live up to God’s commandments. We worship wealth (You shall worship no other Gods but me). We reward the accumulation of wealth (Ah, you who add field to field…). Our system seeks the lowest possible wages to make the products we use (Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts). We wear $200 jeans made by folks who make two dollars a day (The laborer is worthy of his wage). We use cell phones and laptops made with cobalt mined by children as young as 5 years old (Children are a heritage from the Lord). We blame the poor for being poor (Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy). We burn the earth’s resources like there’s no tomorrow (For children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children), and we think nothing of it (Your wrath has come, and the time for… destroying those who destroy the earth).
In past visions, God has told me that any parent, when words fail, will find other ways to discipline their wayward children. We are his wayward children. We have failed to heed his word. We have great potential to do good in the world, but we consistently fall short.
Bear fruit worthy of repentance. (Mt 3:8)
Where is our fruit? We export weapons. We resist helping refugees. We resist anything that infringes on our fossil fuel addiction.
Where is our fruit? Suicides are up 200%. Overdoses are up almost 300%. Mass shootings are up. Antidepressant use is up. Does this sound like a nation that takes joy in the Lord?
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:15-17)
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
Look at your way of life. How much has it changed since you professed your faith? Does your way of living cause others to look at you strangely? If not, maybe you should look again.
It’s never too late to change. One of the consistent patterns in God’s prophecy is this: warning, punishment, forgiveness, and redemption. The sooner we repent, the less punishment we receive.
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. (Jonah 3:10)
But those who are stubborn receive the full wrath of the Lord.
Now I will shortly pour out My wrath on you and spend My anger against you; judge you according to your ways and bring on you all your abominations. (Ezekiel 7:8)
We’re stubborn. We don’t even like to admit that we have sinned. So let us contemplate John’s words:
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. –Deuteronomy 6:5
“Idolatrously we turn our faith and hope toward the immanent powers of technology, medicine, economic security, powerful leaders, military might, and the global rule of our empire to bring about the new world we hope for.” (Douglas Harinck, 1 & 2 Peter, 136.)
Ever since our deliverance from unclean spirits in August , my wife and I have expressed a willingness to help others plagued by darkness. We testified at two churches, and we talked to people that seemed to be tormented (not everyone is, but there are many who are). We cast out a few demons that were causing physical ailments in people we know. There were even a few healings unrelated to spirits. And we kept our own family clean from spirits trying to return, no small accomplishment in itself. But as for freeing people the way we were freed–not yet.
(When I say “we did” and “we kept,” I’m giving ourselves credit for things that we don;t really have power to do. All deliverance and all healing comes through God and the Holy Spirit. Yes, even healing through medicine comes through the Spirit. So we didn’t exactly keep ourselves clean, but we did stay vigilant and ask the Spirit for help. When I say “we did,” what I really mean is, “We showed up and the Spirit worked through us.”)
Last month, several people began talking to us about deliverance. I told my wife, “I think our deliverance ministry is about to begin.”
And we waited.
Last week, my wife felt moved to share her experience of deliverance with a woman she had just met. The woman, whom I will call Sarah, was clearly moved and asked if we could help her family. Her husband, Bob, is a meth addict, had been up for several days, and was approaching a state of psychosis. He’d tried to stay clean before but hadn’t been successful. From what Sarah described, her family was experiencing a complex interaction of emotional wounds, addiction, and demons. Sarah called us later that night and begged for our help. We agreed to come to their home two nights later.
We had no idea what we’d be walking into. Would Bob be high? Psychotic? Violent? Could we even be of any help in this situation? My wife and I both have backgrounds in substance abuse, so we didn’t expect to be surprised, but we were very much aware of the chaos that adorns the lives of many addicts and their families. We brought with us another friend who is very strong in prayer.
We arrived to find that Bob had slept a little the night before, but had used again. He claimed the drugs were bogus, that he wasn’t really high. His twitching, constant talking, irrational trains of thought, and inability to sit still said otherwise.
We prayed, and then talked a little about deliverance. We made sure they understood that whatever we accomplished that night would be just a band-aid, a temporary reprieve to give them breathing room to work the steps, get some help, and prepare for a full deliverance. As we chatted, it became clear that both of them thought the other was the problem–not unusual in an addict-codependent relationship. Sarah’s complaint against Bob didn’t need to be spoken, it was obvious. He was paranoid and almost impossible to talk to. Bob accused Sarah of not being fully committed to the relationship, which Sarah denied. In fact, Sarah made a promise aloud to all of us that she would approach deliverance with 100% commitment and honesty.
“Well,” Bob said, “there’s no point in going forward with this right now.”
He got up and left the room, and returned with his glass pipe.
“I need to get rid of this,” he said. “What should I do? Flush it?”
“Don’t flush it,” my wife objected. “That will mess up your plumbing.”
“Put it on a plastic bag and smash it,” I suggested.
Bob headed for the kitchen, and I followed. He was so twitchy that as he fished under the counter for a plastic bag, he knocked the pipe against the counter and broke it. Glass showered over the counter and the floor. Bob swore.
“It’s no big deal,” I assured him. “Let’s just get a broom and clean it up.”
As Bob swept, I could hear my wife in the other room talking to Sarah about deliverance. Our friend stood in the space between the two rooms and prayed loudly.
Bob argued with Sarah about what dustpan to use. Then, as he emptied the shattered glass into the trash, he said to me, “You can hear Sarah telling lies about me out there, right?”
As we returned to the living room, it was clear that talking wasn’t going to get us anywhere. We began praying. Then we broke some curses, including the curse of addiction. Bob squirmed on the couch, obviously miserable. I anointed him with oil and bound the demons of methamphetamine, not knowing if it would do any good. To my surprise, he calmed down, and we proceeded with the deliverance process. Bob actually became somewhat rational by the time we finished.
But it didn’t last. Ten minutes after we left, Sarah called. Bob was preventing her from taking the car to go to her mother’s house, and she was scared. I called Bob, and he accused my wife and I of taking Sarah’s side. He couldn’t hear anything I had to say, and soon lapsed into unintelligible accusations, then he hung up.
My wife and I sat at home later, processing what we’d experienced. On the one hand, it was clear that the Spirit had worked through us. For a time, at least, the Spirit had calmed even the effects of Bob’s being high. But on the other hand, their insanity had returned almost as soon as we’d finished. We consoled ourselves in the hope that we had planted a seed that might sprout at some point in the future–if Bob lived long enough.
The next day, I reluctantly called Bob, expecting another unintelligible stream of accusations. This is what he said:
You’re not going to believe this, man! I went into my job, and they were going to fire me but instead they just gave me a few days off. So I drove home and I thought about using, but I turned on some worship music instead and I got home without using. Then I had this really powerful experience of Jesus. I went down to Sarah’s mom’s and I got my son, and I apologized to him for being such a bad dad, and I promised to do better. And he was like, “What are you talking about?” So I sat on the couch and held him. Then I got up, and something took hold of me and threw me to the ground, and I started choking. And I don’t know where the words came from, they didn’t come from me, but I said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, leave me alone!” and then it released me. And I have felt such peace ever since that moment. My son drew a picture of what he saw, and it was like a huge green cloud coming out of me. I’m telling you, man, something has changed. I’m not going to use anymore!
I was stunned and awed. I’ve had powerful spiritual experiences, but nothing like that. Here was a man who, less than 24 hours earlier, had been on the verge of psychosis. Now he was both clean and rational. I commented on the amazing experience, and reminded him that this was just a reprieve. God had given Bob grace, and now Bob needed to respond to that grace by working the steps and following through with the deliverance process. He assured me he would, but I had my doubts.
I spoke with Bob again this week. Eight days after our meeting, he’s still clean, and he’s begun making an inventory of his sins and gateways. A week clean may not seem like a lot, but when you’re an addict, it can feel like an eternity.
What will happen next? That depends on whether Bob and Sarah follow through. God gives us grace, but it’s our job to respond to that grace with fruits worthy of repentance. As Paul makes clear in Colossians 3:1-17, new life in Christ is not just a matter of professing faith, but of cleaning up our old behavior and living in love and compassion.
I voted on Tuesday, mostly because I wanted to support a local candidate for state delegate who was an unusual choice: A Democrat with an actual platform that addressed concerns I think need to be addressed, including security, health insurance, and such. As a Christian, I don’t always vote. When presented with two really bad candidates for president, for example, I’m unwilling to compromise my values. Evil is still evil, regardless of the party it represents.
The line I’m not willing to cross is not always clear, however. For example, I was pleased to see that my state’s soon-to-be-former governor lost. For one thing, he supports the repeal of Roe v. Wade. As a Christian, I’m opposed to abortion. But as an American, I recognize that there is no consensus on when life begins, and I’m not willing to impose my beliefs on others. Christianity is a choice, not a requirement. I do wish that every woman who considered an abortion would hear the baby’s heartbeat before she made her decision. I wish that birth control was universally available and free. And I wish we had structures in place to facilitate the easy adoption of babies born to parents who can’t or won’t raise them. And yes, I wish that Christian values were more widely practiced. It’s a shame that many young women these days see their value primarily in being a sex object for men (and it’s hard to place the blame for that on women). But I can’t in good conscience impose my beliefs on those who haven’t chosen them where there is no societal norm to support it.
The election has once again focused my attention on the relationship between Christian and nation.
I remember an email I received back in 1998, before Facebook, when people sent their political rants as emails rather than memes. That particular email claimed that Muslims could not be American citizens because their primary allegiance was to Allah, not country. Even then, at a time when I was not Christian, I understood the irony of that claim: a Christian is likewise called to give his or her allegiance to God and only God.
How is it that we miss this? Perhaps it’s because when we proclaim Jesus as Lord, we don’t know what a Lord is. We don’t have lords anymore, so it may be a confusing term for us. Here’s what Google Dictionary says:
“Lord (n.): someone or something having power, authority, or influence; a master or ruler.”
In other words, a lord demands our allegiance. And the Bible itself tells us we cannot serve two masters (Mt 6:24).
Put another way, if I proclaim Jesus as my Lord and Savior, I cannot also pledge allegiance to a flag or a nation– not without lying to either one or the other.
The Bible also tells me to be subject to authority (Rom 13:1. 1 Pet 2:13). That, too, can be confusing. But consider the context. In Romans, Paul has just finished arguing for a radical Christian life of feeding the poor, blessing those who persecute us, and overcoming evil with good. Likewise Peter is about to argue that we should suffer injustice at the hands who have authority over us and persecute us despite (or because of) our doing good. Clearly “be subject” is not the same as “obey.” We are to live out our values as a community, accepting the price when our values conflict with those of the State.
Yet somehow the American Christian message often holds up our nation as the spearhead of Christianity, suggesting that allegiance to the nation is equivalent to allegiance to God. This is the nation that committed atrocities in King Phillip’s War, massacred the Pequots, and used biological warfare in Pontiac’s War. It’s the nation that stands alone in having used nuclear weapons against people (and those people were civilians, not soldiers). It’s a nation that has squelched democracy in Central and South America, Iran, and many other countries. And it’s a nation that, when attacked, invaded a country that had nothing to do with that attack, beginning a war that continues to this day.
Who would Jesus bomb?
Don’t get me wrong: I know that no nation is perfect. My ancestors formed and founded this country, and I’m (mostly) proud of what they did. There’s a lot of good here, too. But to equate the United States with God… well, it makes God come up a little short. Our nation is not the ideal representative. And no other country is, either.
As a Christian, I am called to follow Christ–to the Cross if necessary. I am called to live as he lived, do what he did, and teach as he taught, regardless of what my nation’s leaders say or do, and even if they do it to me. God’s grace makes this possible. And God’s grace demands a response from me. The New Covenant, like the old, has two parties.
Yes, Paul writes,
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph 2:8-9).
Yet his next words are:
“For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph 2:10).
Jesus, for his part, says,
“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (Jn 14:12).
Paul tells us that the nations are part of the problem, and ranks them with evil spirits as our enemies:
“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).
Why? Because even in a democracy like ours, those with power seek more power. Power corrupts. By definition, our leaders are corrupted. As Christians, we seek not the ideal earthly government, but nothing less than the Kingdom of God with Jesus as its ruler.
How do we somehow think it’s enough to profess, and to live the way everyone else does? How do we ignore Jesus’ instructions to love one another, to love our enemies, to feed the poor, and to give our last copper coin? How do we put our faith in armies and police forces, in walls and in guns, and not in the saving grace of God through Jesus Christ?
It’s true that following Jesus is not easy. Neither he nor any other New Testament writer said it would be. I fall short. I’m sure almost everyone does.
But to put our allegiance in the nation rather than in Jesus is nothing short of idolatry, one of the worst sins the Bible recognizes. The prophets condemn it (e.g. Hos 2:2, 16-17). Paul identifies it as the source of all debasement (Rom 1:24-25, 28).
Let me be blunt: to be a “patriotic American” is to be an idol worshiper. Yes, I’ll vote in an election when moved to do so. I want what’s best for the people of America. I’m a Christian, how could I not? But my allegiance is not to this nation or to any other. It’s to a Kingdom that has been established here on earth, but has not yet been fulfilled.
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians contains some disheartening passages with respect to women. In particular, 1 Cor 11:2-16 and 1 Cor 14:33b-36 are the ones that have caused the most trouble. These verses are problematic not only because of what they appear to say, but because they seem somewhat incoherent. The former presents three arguments, yet the footnotes in the NRSV make clear that translators have had to torture the middle one to bring it in line with the others. The latter contradicts what Paul has said elsewhere in the same letter, namely it says that women should be silent in church when he’s already said twice that women do not have to be silent in church.
What gives? Paul may be many things, but he’s rarely incoherent or self-contradictory. Thus, as I read these passages again this week, it struck me that something is wrong with the way we interpret them.
Consider two things about Paul’s writing. The first has to do with his style: he often quotes arguments and then rebuts them. This is seen clearly in 1 Cor 6:12-13:
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.
Keep in mind that Koine Greek had no quotation marks. The only way we know that Paul has quoted someone else’s argument, unless he says so explicitly, is by context.
The second is that, apart from his letter to the Romans, Paul always writes to address specific issues in a church. In 1 Corinthians, he says he’s writing “that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you… For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you…” (1 Cor 1:10-11). This is the theme of the entire letter. Yes, he addresses some other issues, including a situation of sexual immorality among the members (1 Cor 5), spiritual gifts and the nature of the church as one body (1 Cor 12), and the nature of Christian love (1 Cor 13). Yet each of these can be seen in the context of the letter as a whole as arguing for unity in the Corinthian church.
It is noteworthy that 1 Cor 11 as a chapter goes on to discuss abuses at the Lord’s Supper, and corrective measures to be taken. Again, this is in the context of division within the church (vv. 18-21).
Some scholars have suggested that the three arguments about women that begin the chapter are in fact quotes of what Paul has heard from members of the church in Corinth. This has been dismissed by other scholars because, aside from a few short instances in 1 Cor 6, Paul has not done so in this letter without specifically identifying such arguments. Similarly, many scholars agree that it seems likely that the opening salvo in 1 Cor 14 is actually a quote he has heard from Corinth, but they dismiss this as improbable because he has not done so elsewhere.
Yet the result is a letter that, on these two issues, makes Paul virtually unintelligible. Particularly in the second, why would he tell women to be silent in church when he’s already discussed and approved of them teaching and prophesying in church? It’s nonsensical. Which begs the question: what if Paul did quote other arguments in both places? Read with that in mind, the issues of logic and style in the two passages quickly resolve themselves. Knowing what I do of Paul, I find it inconceivable that the illogical reading is the correct one.
Here, then, are my renditions of the two passages, which I offer as true to Paul’s style and his well-recognized ability to argue a point effectively. I’m no Greek scholar, but I have taken advantage of the ambiguity of certain conjunctions, and I have used the alternate translation noted in the NRSV.
I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. And I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.
[But some of you say,] “Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.”
[Others say,] “For this reason a woman ought to have freedom of her head, because of the angels. For in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. And just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God.”
[Still others say,] “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.”
Now, if you are disposed to be contentious— [Let me be clear:] We have no such custom, nor do the churches of God. (1 Cor 11:2-16)
[Some of you have said,] “As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
So, did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached? Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized. (1 Cor 14:33b-38)
In this last paragraph, “did the word of God originate with you?” the Greek uses the masculine version of the pronoun “you.” Clearly this accusation is not addressed to the women of Corinth! It seems far more likely that it addresses those who have voiced such an opinion.
Viewed in this way, the 1 Cor 11 passage seeks not to criticize the church because women have their hair uncovered, but to resolve a dispute about that issue by stating emphatically that there’s no such tradition, so quit arguing about it. Likewise, the 1 Cor 14 passage seeks to silence those stirring up controversy over the obviously-prominent role women had in the Corinthian church.
Both are consistent with what we know of Paul, who partnered with both men and women in spreading the Gospel, and whose friend Priscilla became a church leader first in Corinth and later in Rome.
This is not the place to discuss 1 Timothy, which was written by a different writer, though attributed to Paul. It, too, contains some passages that many women find troubling, but it was written decades after Paul’s death and addresses a different time and context.
Ephesians is another matter entirely, and one which deserves a blog post of its own. Suffice it to say for the moment that the most repeated command in that letter’s passage on marriage is that husbands treat their wives with agape, the love of God, an observation that sheds further light on the opening admonition in 1 Cor 11:3.
The goal of this post is to reconsider these two problematic passages in 1 Corinthians with a rational approach that expects Paul to use the effective rhetoric for which he is so well known, and which our current translations fail to deliver. Admittedly, this leads to the conclusion that Paul is actually arguing the opposite of what many traditionalists think he’s arguing. You’re welcome to disagree with me. But it bothers me to be satisfied that Paul was having an off day when he wrote this one, and thus produced not one but two passages that don’t make much sense, and both on the same general topic.
“In the most radical and existential uniqueness which he is, man has to reckon with the fact that this mystery of evil is not only a possibility in him, but that it also becomes a reality, and indeed not insofar as a mysterious, impersonal power breaks into his life as a destructive fate.” (Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, trans. William V. Dych (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1996, 102-103.)
I encountered the following sentence as an undergraduate. It is a pivotal thought on evil in one of the most important books by Karl Rahner, the most influential Catholic theologian of the 20th century. But what does it mean?
Diagramming the sentence suggests that it is self-contradictory. So what is Rahner trying to say? I’ve puzzled over it for ten years, and I still don’t know. His “pivotal” thought makes no sense. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a translation error, though my understanding is that Rahner was no more intelligible in his native German. His brother, when told that Rahner’s work was posthumously being translated into English, is said to have quipped, “That’s wonderful. I hope someday they translate him into German!”
Obviously precision is important when postulating a systematic statement of the nature of God, his Creation, and our relationship to both. Many theologians, like Rahner, go to great lengths to express complex thoughts in precise terms.
Unfortunately, the result is unreadable for even many university-level readers.
This level of theology creates an ivory tower, a bastion of particular intellect that develops its thought in enforced isolation from the world by virtue of its unintelligible diction. (How’s that for a wordy sentence?)
In other words, Christians and theology live in separate worlds that can never (or at least only rarely) meet.
Can you imagine if Jesus spoke like that? How many followers would he have gained? Instead, he spoke in simple concepts. “The Kingdom has come.” “Feed the poor.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
We take Jesus’ simple concepts and discuss whether they are prophetic or apocalyptic, pre-millennial or post-millennial, and the veracity of dispensationalism.
Perhaps these are valuable intellectual exercises. Surely some people enjoy such parsing. And I have to admit, Rahner challenged my horizons when I studied him as an undergraduate. Yet I can’t help but wonder how much this level of thought contributes to the Kingdom of God.
This semester, we’re reading Charles Scobie. He’s much more readable than Rahner, but just as wordy, dissecting and analyzing (not always effectively) the main points of Christianity. The 1,000+ page book contains five (5!) chapters about Jesus. He’s written more about Jesus than the Gospels themselves!
This reminds me of a quotation attributed to Rabbi Hillel, a pre-Christian Jewish reformer:
“That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow; this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary…”
In my congregation, there is a woman whose brain was damaged in an accident when she was a child. She reads at what I would describe as about a third-grade level. Yet she is one of the most loving, Christ-centered people I have ever met. If you want to know what the Kingdom looks like, meeting her is far more demonstrative than reading Rahner.
The truth is, I don’t really hate theology, but I do fund it tedious and often distracting. Often wonder which is the better use of my time: reading 1,000 pages of systematic theology, or going out and doing what Jesus told us to do.
This is the day that the Lord has made! (Psalm 118:24)
I’ve been thinking lately of my friend, Margarita Mike. We called him Margarita Mike because he got sober when he was in college, stayed sober five years, went out and drank one margarita, and came back. He stayed sober another five years.
Then Mike decided he could have another margarita. This time, things didn’t go as well. He couldn’t stop. He’d been drinking for eight months when I called him about a business situation for a mutual client. I asked him how he was doing.
“I’m not doing well at all,” he replied. “I can’t stop drinking. Would you have coffee with me sometime?”
I readily agreed. Helping people get sober as I got sober is one of the top priorities in my life. We agreed to meet the next afternoon at a local coffee shop.
That night, I got a phone call. Mike had wrapped his car around a telephone pole. My friend was gone.
I have always wondered whether things would have been different if I’d met him for coffee the day we spoke. Maybe they would have. Maybe they wouldn’t. The point is, I’ll never know–because I didn’t. I know from experience that alcoholism is a deadly disease. I almost died from it. I’ve been to more funerals than I can count on my fingers and toes.
No one expects that today is the last chance. Sometimes it is.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because of a couple of situations I’ve run into. One was a woman I rode the elevator with at the hospital. I didn’t know her and didn’t speak to her. Yet I could feel that she was toxic, so oppressed by darkness that it was rolling off of her. We got off the elevator and went our separate ways, and I said nothing. Surely she’ll realize her torment and seek help when she’s ready… right?
The other was someone I know fairly well and consider a friend, but not a close friend. As we were praying together, I felt a deep heaviness from this person. As I focused on it, I realized it was a curse. (Yes, curses exist. And Jesus died cursed so that our curses may be broken.) I brought up the subject of curses as an invitation, but my friend said nothing. We parted with no further discussion.
I have some knowledge of the ways of darkness. My family was tormented for five years. We experienced accidents, depression, psychosis, substance abuse, and illness, not to mention a ridiculous series of random setbacks in our lives. We became self-destructive. More than once, I was close to suicide. My wife nearly died twice from reactions to benign medications.
The torment of darkness can be fatal. And it’s surely miserable, especially compared with reconciliation to God. Moreover, if we believe what Christianity teaches us, the repercussions of what we do today can follow us beyond death. I’m not talking about merely accepting Jesus as Christ to avoid going to Hell. There’s far more to it than that. Sometimes, as any addict will attest, Hell follows us.
Yet most of us, including myself, don’t approach our religion with the urgency this suggests.
There are those who stand on street corners wielding a Bible and a hand-made sign proclaiming that you need to find Jesus today. I wonder if anyone listens to them. I hope so, but I never did.
There are those who go door-to-door and teach [their version of] what the Bible says. They are committed, loving people, and I think sometimes they do some good.
Most of us accept that other people are responsible for their own spiritual health. Yet when my own spiritual health was in jeopardy, I was unable to solve the problem myself. I needed help. This was as true last year when I sought deliverance as it was 32 years ago when I got sober. In both instances, I had no idea how to solve the problem. I needed someone who did.
Since Mike’s death, more than five years ago, I never put off meeting with an alcoholic or addict who asks for help. I also confront someone who appears to need help but not be willing to admit it. It often doesn’t help. Statistically, some 90% of alcoholics and addicts die from their disease. But I’m one of the 10%, and I want them to have every chance to be one, too. And never again do I want to be a day too late.
Why don’t I take the same approach with those who are suffering spiritually? I hate confrontation. I don’t have the confidence; after all, I’m new to this myself. Maybe I’m afraid of being labeled a religious nut. Maybe I’m afraid of damaging a friendship.
Would I damage a friendship to save someone’s life from addiction? Risk being labeled a nut? Step out on a limb and take a risk? You bet I would.
But religion is a private thing… right?
In a nation in which suicide rates are rising, violence against people unknown to the perpetrator is rising, drug overdose rates are rising, and antidepressant use is rising, I’m not so sure that’s true. We are a spiritually sick culture, and that sickness affects us all.
I’m tired of going to funerals of people who died too young, and seeing misery on the faces of people who are materially well off compared with much of the world. Not when there is an answer.
The challenge set before me, then, is to take the same attitude with those who suffer any kind of spiritual malady as I do toward those dying of addiction. I have been saved from misery, and it’s my responsibility to pass that on, today.
That’s what this month’s marquis asks at a local church. And while it’s clever, that’s not the most important question for me.
All my life, people have told me, “Be grateful you’re alive.” That never made sense to me. Even in my earliest memories, I wasn’t glad to be here. My undiagnosed autism made my life a challenge, and I found myself asking, “What’s the point?” I was suicidal at age 15. The suggestion that we suffer in this lifetime so we can be in Heaven in the next was, to say the least, unsatisfactory, It spoke of a cruel, even sadistic, God that I could not accept.
I rejected that god and became an atheist at age 13. Later, as I sought help with my addictions at age 25, I graduated to agnostic. That’s a natural state for an autistic person who often needs to see in order to understand.
When I got serious about exploring a spiritual life, I tried several churches. All of them proclaimed a message of future salvation. None of them addressed my primary questions: How do I live in this world? What do we do about suffering? When I accidentally stumbled onto Buddhism, I heard a different message. It wasn’t based in faith in things unseen, but in a practical set of steps to take to address the problem of individual suffering. Summarized, the Buddha’s first sermon, the Four Noble Truths, can be stated this way:
Life is suffering.
If there is suffering, then there must be a cause. That cause is attachment.
If there is a cause, then there must be a means to remove that cause. That is nonattachment.
The means to nonattachment is the Eight-fold Path.
This made more sense to me than anything else I’d ever been told about life and how to live it. I became a Buddhist for several years.
Then the 1992 riots devastated the city I lived in. It was clear to me that people who could behave that way were in a lot of pain. This brought up a new question I had not considered: what about other people’s suffering? Was it enough to simply relieve my own suffering?
As I pondered this, I became convinced that it was not. My meditation teacher said that compassion meant being aware of the suffering of others while remaining in nonattachment. Hindu teacher Ram Dass said something different: “There is a paradox: everything is the way it is supposed to be, and our job in this life is to work to end suffering.” This sounded better, but still lacked the promise of making things better. Later, I heard Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne say that if you have compassion, you must help those who are suffering. This made more sense. I followed this instruction for about a decade. I helped his organization with planning and strategy, learned a lot about community development, and eventually became a field researcher and strategist for the peace movement in Sri Lanka on a team that helped bring about the 2002 cease fire.
I came away from that experience exhausted, traumatized, and bitter. I vaguely sensed that something was missing. By that time, I had finished my BA in Theology. I’d had a very powerful experience of the presence of God. But it terrified me, and I ran away from God– or tried to.
It took years before I revisited the “God question.” When I did, it was because of suffering. This time, it was not the meaningless of life I struggled with, but grief over the loss of a baby. And this time, I was led inexorably though not unwillingly to Christ.
I have great respect for Buddhism. It does contain truth– though in my opinion based on 50 years of experience, not the whole truth. I still agree that the biggest question in life is not eternity, but suffering.
It is with this lens that I approach the Gospel. And the Gospel meets me there. Jesus’ ministry was not simply about salvation after death. His first proclamation in the oldest of the four Gospels is, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). The King James version said, “the kingdom of God is at hand.” The Aramaic Bible in Plain Englishreads, “the kingdom of God has arrived.” Darby reads, “has drawn nigh,” while Young reads, “hath come nigh.” Revelation adds, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Messiah… (Rev 11:15).
This Kingdom of God that Jesus announced is not some future event– at least not entirely. It is here, now.
Then there’s the Great Commission. Mark’s version (the earliest) reads,
Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues;they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover. (Mark 16:14-18)
The other versions omit references to healing, but Jesus says in Matthew for example, “Observe all I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20). This would surely include his earlier instructions upon sending them out for the first time:
[P]roclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. (Mt 10:7-9)
Then there’s John’s report:
“Do you love me?… Feed my sheep.” (Jn 21:17)
The Gospel cannot, in my reading, be separated from relief of suffering. Yet it is not our selves that do the work (John 14:10). This is what was missing from my life: I tried to do the work. It was an impossible job for a mortal. But nothing is impossible for God (Mt 19:26). And in John, Jesus tells us:
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. (Jn 14:12)
The Gospel is clear: God’s Spirit works in us and through us, empowering us to change that which mere mortals cannot change. The Kingdom of God is obviously not fully present, and suffering cannot be completely eliminated. But it can be reduced. That goal is what gives my life meaning, purpose, and connection with God, which in turn reduce my own suffering.
The burning question for me is not where I’ll spend eternity, but what to do about suffering, mine and others’. The Gospel answers these questions. In my opinion, any theology that doesn’t come to this conclusion not only misreads the Gospel, but is not very useful.
Gabrielle Glazier’s article in The Atlantic, “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous,” is an interesting read–thought provoking, despite the fact that it contains misrepresentations and misconceptions about AA and a good deal of irrational thought itself. I’ll come back to those points.
Let’s begin by noting the question, stated more than once, that if alcoholism is a disease, why don’t we treat it medically? The answer, obviously, is that medicine has little to offer the true alcoholic. As Glazier notes, alcoholism is a complex set of symptoms. Psychiatry has advanced a great deal since AA was founded in 1935, but it remains basically alchemy. What is known about the workings of the human brain is dwarfed by what is not known. And in practice, psychiatry itself ignores scientific method (and the well-being of the patient) in favor of generalized strategies untailored to the individual and unreliable in the hands of individual practitioners. Some time ago, over a three year period, four professionals diagnosed me with four different psychiatric conditions, each indicating a very different course of treatment. All four were wrong. We must remember that there is no test for chemical imbalance. There is no test for alcoholism.
It is also ironic that at a time when religious people and even scientists are rediscovering the power of prayer for healing, psychiatry is dismissing God as unscientific. Well, yes, it is. But science is beginning to admit that it does not have all the answers, and psychiatry in particular should be at the forefront of that admission.
Glazier notes that there is not a bright line division between alcoholic and nonalcoholic. That is true in a sense. Yet we know from scientific research that there are physical characteristics associated with alcoholism, including changes to liver cells that result in processing alcohol differently, resulting in physical addiction to alcohol. Part of the problem with the article is its fallacy of equating alcohol abuse with alcoholism. Our society has largely adopted this attitude: people who get in trouble because of alcohol are sent to AA by judges, by parents, and by treatment centers. Not all of them are alcoholic. Some may become so, and some are just going through a period of heavy drinking due to negative or positive conditions in their lives. (My brother had to “re-evaluate his drinking habits” while in college; he’s never had a problem since.)
But the main complexity in treating true alcoholics– those who have both the physical addiction and a mental compulsion to drink– is that alcohol is a treatment for an underlying condition. Despite Glazier’s assertion to the contrary, AA well recognizes this fact: “Our liquor was but a symptom. So we had to get down to causes and conditions” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 64). Of the twelve steps, only one of them even mentions alcohol. The others speak of finding a higher power, admitting fault, forgiving others, and setting things right.
The underlying condition of an alcoholic is difficult to identify. When I was drinking, I would have told you I was drinking to kill the pain. But it wasn’t physical pain. It was a deep, psychic pain. I might have told you it was the pain of living. Today, I would characterize it as a deep spiritual dissatisfaction with life that only alcohol (and various other drugs) could relieve. Until I found AA.
Therein lies the problem: Glazier relates that doctors in Finland are using a drug called naltrexone to block the components of alcohol from reaching the receptors in the brain. This would work for a person who drinks for the effect of getting drunk. Why drink if alcohol does nothing for you? But imagine for a moment that alcohol is the only thing you’ve found that makes life bearable. Take it away and life becomes unbearable. Naltrexone makes the alcohol not work. Will you live in agony, or stop taking the blocker? For an alcoholic, the answer is obvious. Absent some other way to ease the pain, we will return to alcohol again and again, regardless of the cost to our health, our families, and our careers.
Glazier, a self-described non-alcoholic, relates that she tried naltrexone and found that her desire to drink diminished. My wife (a recovering alcoholic thanks to AA) relates that to trying my prostate medication to see if it makes a difference. Absent the mental and physical addiction to alcohol, which non-alcoholics can’t grasp, an experiment like that is meaningless. Can Glazier imagine wanting a drink so badly that she would leave her baby alone in a crib while she went to a bar or liquor store, or drive drunk with her child in the car? So badly that she would drink the night before she was scheduled for a court-ordered urinalysis test to verify she was still sober? So badly that she’d drink even while taking antabuse, which would make her vomit violently and uncontrollably when she did so? So badly that, like my uncle, she would drink even if her liver had failed and the doctor told her that one drink would kill her? I seriously doubt it. I wonder of she can imagine the efficacy of naltrexone in those situations?
How can this underlying pain of an alcoholic be addressed? Carl Jung said a massive psychic change was required. AA suggests a spiritual experience. Buddhist practitioners have had success with intensive meditation. There’s been some success with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). But in general, psychology and psychiatry have little to offer. Psychology too often fails because alcoholics themselves do not tell the truth. We fear giving up the only thing that makes life bearable, and we lie and obfuscate to ensure that doesn’t happen. Psychiatry fails because, well, it’s a science only when compared with astrology. They don’t know why an alcoholic is so maladjusted to life. How can you fix something when you don’t understand its cause?
AA offers a simple (but not easy) approach that creates a spiritual experience in the practitioner. Yes, it works. I’ve been sober 32 years. But does it work for everyone? Obviously not.
As an aside, I’ll be the first to admit that AA is difficult for atheists. I was an agnostic when I got sober, and that was a challenge. The difficulty for atheists is obvious if you go to a meeting in Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka or Thailand: there aren’t many sober Buddhists. Using AA as an atheist can be done. I’ve known atheists who have. (They often don’t remain atheists, though; the spiritual power of the process eventually causes them to acknowledge faith in God, though it may take years. I myself, formerly agnostic, am now a seminary student.) But I agree that AA is not necessarily for everyone.
Here we run into one of the first misconceptions about AA: the claim cited in the article, originally made in the 1955 version of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, that 75% of the people who came to AA stopped drinking. That number is now closer to 5-8%. But that’s not what the original claim says.
“Of alcoholics who came to A.A. and really tried, 50% got sober at once and remained that way, and 25% sobered up after some relapses…” (Alcoholics Anonymous, xx, emphasis added)
Two things are of note: first, they were dealing with alcoholics, not problem drinkers. Oldtimers who got sober in the 1950s told me that back then, hospitals wouldn’t take an alcoholic, and health insurance wouldn’t cover their treatment. People detoxing would often go into seizures in a meeting, and no one called an ambulance because it wouldn’t come. The social stigma against alcoholism was so strong at that time that you had to be pretty far gone to go to AA. You just didn’t see the casual DUI driver or tippling college student in meetings.
The second point is the phrase “really tried.” The Twelve Steps are not rocket science. AA wisdom says that no one is too dumb to work them but some of us are too smart. They demand a level of honesty and willingness that most people just can’t muster. They demand a level of commitment that comes from the certainty that there is no other possible way to survive. The dying alcoholic is a good candidate for this program. The DUI driver trying to stay out of jail or the binge-drinking college student trying to please his or her parents is not.
As more and more sources send drinkers to AA, the proportion of alcoholics who are willing to “really try” drops. Obviously, so does the success rate. What is AA’s success rate among “true” alcoholics? No one knows, because there’s no effective way to measure them. It’s an anonymous program, after all. Clearly it’s higher than 5-8%, but no one knows how many of the people being sent to AA are actually alcoholics.
It is also noteworthy that not all step-based recovery centers take the steps seriously. During my bout with mental illness, I attended one that had patients read the first three steps while undergoing therapies, CBT, and various other activities. We didn’t actually work the steps. Meetings were optional. Perhaps it was coincidental that many of my fellow patients were there for the second or third time.
Here’s one of the more frightening things I read in the article: the statistic that some 22% of those treated for alcohol dependency could return to moderate drinking. I’m not against drinking–for the nonalcoholic. But for the alcoholic, the risk is so great, why would I take a 4 out of 5 chance that I can’t drink moderately? I’ve been told by certain ministers that if I’ve accepted Christ into my life, I can drink socially. Maybe so. But if they’re wrong, I would lose my career, my family, and probably my life. Why would I even try? That’s irrational.
Herein lies another irrationality in the thinking behind the article: that drinking is normal, and that normal is good. That idea alone drives many who struggle with alcohol back to the bottle. We desperately want to be “normal.” The truth is, from the time I first got drunk at age 16, I never wanted to just “have a drink with dinner.” I wanted to get as drunk as I could as often as I could. Yes, I’d lie to you, both about how much I wanted and how much I’d had. But honestly, I wanted to be shitfaced drunk as much of the time as I could. Periods of sobriety were miserable. (They usually lasted about ten hours while I went to work.) Why would I think that even after 32 years sober, it would be any different? More to the point, why would I take the chance? That would be irrational.
This thinking also blurs the lines between those who struggle drinking responsibly for whatever reason, and those who are alcoholic. That line can indeed be blurred, as some of the former work their way along the spectrum into the letter category. But by failing to distinguish between those who truly have an addiction and those whose drinking habits we just don’t approve of, we do both a disservice.
Glazier highlights one fact that is undeniably true: abstinence alone will not work in the treatment of alcoholism. An untreated alcoholic will crave that which gives him or her relief until he or she eventually gives in and drinks again.
Let’s put this another way: unlike the problem drinker, alcohol is not the problem for an alcoholic, it’s the self-prescribed treatment of the problem. The problem is far deeper, and is as yet unidentified by science.
Something has to change if an alcoholic is to get sober. This article, while trumpeting the scientific method, highlights that science has so far failed in the treatment of alcoholism. In the absence of real answers (or even real understanding) from the psychiatric community, and with the increasing respect for the role of God in healing, why take aim at AA? It’s not the only answer, but it has gotten million of alcoholics like me sober.
In Part One, I noted the varying uses of verb tense in Revelation. As I pointed out, verses 20:7-10 contain 12 verbs; 6 are in the past, 2 are present tense, and 4 are future tense. Similarly, the description of the fall of Babylon contains both past and future tenses. This makes it impossible to assign the events in Revelation literally to the past, present or future– at least, not without suggesting that John didn’t say what he meant.
Revelation thus portrays events that occur outside our concept of time. In that sense, they both have happened and will happen. Put another way, they are continually happening. Thus, Revelation is not a prophetic view of the future, distant or otherwise. It is a description of God and Christ working in the world throughout our concept of history.
This puts the events described in a very different context. As I mentioned before, books could be written (and have been written) about the contents of Revelation. This, on the other hand. will be a very short summary.
Let’s take the example of the seven seals. First, I find it striking that, as the Lamb breaks each seal, the four living creatures (the symbols of God’s creation) “call out, as with a voice of thunder, ‘Come!'” (6:1). I’ve noted the writer’s love of irony. In Genesis 1, God calls Creation into being; here, Creation calls God’s work into being.
As the first four seals are broken, four riders are released. The first is the lover of power, the second is war, the third is famine and poverty, and the fourth is death. How often in history have we seen this cycle? Does it predict the future? Of course it does, for whenever a power-hungry leader arises, war and suffering and death follow.
With the fifth seal, the martyrs call out for justice, and with the sixth the existing structures are thrown into turmoil. Then there’s an interlude in which the 144,000 chosen and the multitude of believers from every nation are identified. This is a choosing up of sides between believers and evil.
With the breaking of the seventh seal, the seven trumpets bring forth plagues and tortures. Yet, as 9:20-21 makes clear, the point of these disasters is to cause people to repent, turn to God, and change their ways. They do not repent, and the story continues.
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying,
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” (11:15)
The Kingdom has been established! But the woes are not over. The dragon and the two beasts emerge. The first beast makes war on the believers, but an angel warns:
Let anyone who has an ear listen:
If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go; if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed.
Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (13:9-10)
Clearly, just as Jesus conquers with the Word, the believers are to eschew violence.
Even now, there is an opportunity for those who follow evil to repent (14:6). Yet seven plagues follow, ending with the fall of Babylon. Here, too, there’s a strong sense of irony: Babylon, the Great Whore, is destroyed not by God, but by those who serve her (17:16-18). Similarly, there is an entire chapter (18) dedicated to lamenting the fall of Babylon, the world’s great economic power– and yet the fall itself is never described. An angel declares before the plagues, “Fallen is Babylon the Great!” (14:8), and again after the plagues as the beneficiaries of Babylon lament (18:2), but the fall itself is never recounted.
Then follows the battle at Harmageddon, in which Christ the Warrior defeats the beast and slays the kings of the earth with the sword of his tongue (19:17-21). Satan is thrown down for a thousand years, then rises and is defeated. The dead are judged.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (21:1-2)
Yet here again, though there is a great deal of rejoicing for the wedding and a detailed description of the New Jerusalem, the wedding is never described. It is apparently already accomplished. Through the city runs the river of life, which comes from God and the Lamb. The vision closes with these words:
[H]is servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (22:4-6)
In the epilogue, John relates that the time is “coming soon,” yet “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy” (22:11). His benediction closes:
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. (22:17)
Revelation is surely a vision of hope, yet not hope for the distant future. (It has, after all, been almost 2,000 years since it was written to give hope to the churches of Asia.) The gift of the water of life is available now. Babylon is fallen now. Satan is defeated now.
Revelation is a powerful exhortation that evil doesn’t have the last word, Jesus does. Every day.