Why I’m not obsessed with end-times theology

When it is all over, then what?

The study of that question is called eschatology, which is the study of the end of time and also — ironically — the study of something no one has ever experienced. How does one study something about which one can prove almost nothing?

For all its abstraction, eschatology is important to those who follow Jesus because it turns out that what we think about the future and especially about the end determines how we live now. In other words, a study of the end times is really a two-part study: what we believe about “the end” shapes our understanding of God and his long-term plan, which in turn shapes how we live out our faithclock1 today.

What, then, is a reasonable approach for a Wesleyan to this question of the end?

While some traditions within the Christian camp place a great deal of emphasis on what happens when we die, Wesleyans place more emphasis on how we ought to be living now. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about the end of time. It just means we don’t see that discussion as central to our understanding of salvation; nor do we believe it is the most productive way to spend our time while we wait.

As a good Methodist, my most honest answer to the question of when the end will come or what it will look like is, “I don’t know.” Don’t confuse that answer with a lack of concern. I care. I absolutely care. One of my most active prayers is, “Come, Lord Jesus!” I anticipate his second coming with great spiritual hunger. I love that he taught us to pray for the coming Kingdom. It means he is serious about it. I just don’t see an infatuation with pinning all the details down as useful to the daily working out of my faith.

That said, there are a few things relative to the second coming of Christ in which I place great faith:

I believe God is redeeming the earth. As someone has said, “The world is not the problem; the world is the prize.” The world is the crowning creation of a good and perfect God. The story in Genesis reminds us that what he made was good. It doesn’t seem to me as if He intends to blast it to smithereens. It seems more likely that he is slowly restoring this world back to its created order, in which case we will not go to meet Jesus. Jesus will come to meet us.

Jesus will return to earth. Rather than some kind of mystical absorption of people into Heaven, there will be a bold return of Christ to this world for the work of final, full redemption. That picture fits with passages that talk about Jesus coming on the clouds and with those that talk about a new heaven and a new earth. Scholars like Ben Witherington and John Stott would agree with this biblical interpretation.

When he comes, the dead who are in Christ will join him. In the end no one who trusts in Jesus will ever have to be separated from him or from his pure love. John Stott writes: “The Christian hope … is more than the expectation that the King is coming; it is also the belief that when he comes, the Christian dead will come with him and the Christian living will join them. For it is the separation which death causes (or seems to cause) which is so painful  …”* No more death, no more pain, no more separation.

No one knows the day or the time. Jesus said as much. Why we persist in calculating  something we’ve been told we can’t know is beyond me. Why we bait one another with comments like, “I believe we’re in the last days. Look at the signs,” when clearly we’ve been told that signs are just the beginning is also beyond me. What part of “no one knows the day or time” can’t we seem to absorb? Prognosticating seems a poor use of time when there are things Jesus has specifically asked us to focus on, like visiting those who are sick and in prison, caring for the least and the lost, and being a good neighbor to those he puts in our path. When we stand before Christ, this will be the basis of his judgment: we will be known by our fruit. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

God is good, and God is in control. And on both counts, we are not. Our world is distorted by sin and so is our eschatological vision. I suspect we persist in guessing anyway because we are so desperately in search of something we can control in a world that feels very much out of control.

And yet, we are called to trust. We know how this story ends. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it pleases your Father to give you the Kingdom” (Luke 12:32). That ends up being the only thing we really need to know. It is God’s divine pleasure to usher us into his Kingdom on the day when Jesus’ own prayer is finally, fully answered and realized on earth.

Until then, how should we live? Not anxiously, but hopefully. Not predictively, but prayerfully.

Come, Lord Jesus! Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

 

* From The Message of Thessalonians: The Gospel & the End of Time by John R.W. Stott (Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, England, 1994) 97.

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Life doesn’t justify living (but eternity does).

Life doesn’t justify living, but eternity does.

Steve Harper writes, “The life we live now we live by faith in Jesus Christ, and this alone paves the way for the unspeakable joys of heaven.”*

Stephen was the first to be martyred among those who knew the apostles. Polycarp was the last. He was 86 years old when they came for him. When they came for him, he met them at the door and fed them a meal then he asked for time to pray. As they were carrying him to the arena to kill him, he heard a voice that said, “Be strong, Polycarp and play the man.”

When they urged him to recant the gospel, Polycarp said, “Eighty-six years have I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” They threatened him with wild animals and then with fire, and still he refused to back down from the gospel.

A first-hand account of his death records the following:

“Then the fire was lit, and the flame blazed furiously. We who were privileged to witness it saw a great miracle, and this is why we have been preserved, to tell the story. The fire shaped itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, and formed a circle around the body of the martyr. Inside it, he looked not like flesh that is burnt, but like bread that is baked, or gold and silver glowing in a furnace. And we smelt a sweet scent, like frankincense or some such precious spices.”

Life doesn’t justify living, but eternity does.

I’ve never been a fan of the kind of Christianity that focuses on where you go when you die. Salvation is so much more than a ticket to heaven. But to live a life so anchored in truth and power and prayer, so anchored in the truth that there is more to this life than just living it and staying alive at all costs, so anchored in grace that nothing rocks the boat …

Well, that is worth living for.

 

*From The Way to Heaven: The Gospel According to John Wesley, by Steve Harper. 

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The birthplace of meaning

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small …” – Micah 5:2

For such a small place, Bethlehem holds a mountain of meaning. The Hebrew word has two parts. The first part is the usual word for house, but it has connotations of family. It can also mean temple. “Bethel” in the Bible means “House of God.”

The second part of Bethlehem is the Hebrew word for bread, but this bread is not just the side item on your plate. It is what Jesus was talking about when he taught us to pray, “Give us today our daily bread.” This bread is the difference between life and death.

There is another connotation to that second part of the word Bethlehem. Sometimes, it can mean “to do battle or fight.” It is not the usual meaning attached to the name, but there is this strong connection.

When we put all that together, something like a little miracle emerges in what God has woven into the name of the place where Jesus was born. Jesus, the Bread of Life, was born in a place called “House of Bread.” The one who did battle with death itself and won, who was raised to victory after three days in a grave, was born in a place called “House of Battle.”

God chose a seemingly insignificant place, Bethlehem, and there he created the Bread of Life and the One who would defeat death. And on the night he gave himself up for us, Jesus lifted up the very symbols of a bakery and a battleground — bread and blood.

Christmas and Easter really do belong in the same breath.

And when we place our trust in Him — this God-man who is spiritual food for us and who promises to do battle in the spiritual realm for us – we are born spiritually into his family and become members of the House of God. Our birthplace then becomes Bethlehem just as surely as his was.

Bethlehem. It is a place of possibility, a place of new birth, a place where we are fed, where we are protected, where we are home.

 

 

(This post was first published in December, 2012, on fivestones.com)

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Work-life balance is a lie (and that’s okay).

Work-life balance is the new black. Everyone wants it, everyone believes it is attainable, and just about everyone uses it to make others feel guilty for not having it.

But no one has it. Why? Because it is a lie. Balance is a lie, no less in the world of ministry than in any other vocation. And lies tend to be guilt-producing. As I’ve said so often we all have 24 hours, and we all tend to spend every minute of them. This is life. Life is work, and work is life. We likely do ourselves a disservice when we divide things up.

This is not to say that we can’t get over-extended or that our priorities won’t get out of whack. I’m just saying that a lot of the rhetoric out there creates the illusion that somehow we can divide our lives into equal pie pieces and make it all fit.

If that can happen, I sure haven’t figured it out yet.

What I have discovered, however, is that there is a holy rhythm I can strike that brings rest into my life. I’ve discovered that I am uniquely calibrated; I have a pace that works for me (you have one, too) and when I go faster than my pace, I feel it. I’ve also discovered that I can pick up my pace for a season if I know I can slow down when that season has passed. Learning my holy rhythm has been a way for me to negotiate seasons of travel and busy-ness without losing my sanity.

These days, I’m not seeking balance so much as seeking rhythm.

In my pursuit of a holy rhythm, I’ve discovered a truth: Discipline is rest. Far from being constrictive, discipline actually provides the kind of physical and mental rest I crave. When I submit to a daily schedule of exercise, devotion, work and downtime, it creates mental space in which I can rest. Discipline creates less guilt than the alternative; as I enter into it, I find a pace that naturally selects what can be accomplished in the course of my day.

Discipline creates rhythm, and rhythm is restful.

Discipline creates space! No wonder John Wesley advocated for the means of grace. These spiritual disciplines help create holy rhythm, which creates space, which creates rest, which leads to joy.

Every season has its own rhythm, of course. When I had a daughter at home, my life was very different. In this season, however,  I’m working toward making the following disciplines into a regular weekly rhythm as a way of creating more space in my life. I offer them here as food for thought as you consider how to live well in the coming year:

Five days of devotional time. I spend about an hour each weekday in prayer, listening, reading and journaling. One of these hours is spent with an accountability partner. Saturdays are my Sabbath. Sundays are for community worship.

Four days of exercise. I make mine happen early in the day.

Three days of blogging. I am committed to sharing what God is teaching me. Writing is my thing, but it may not be yours. What brings you joy? Whatever it is … music, dancing, woodworking, whatever … give yourself the intentional gift of making time for it each week so it doesn’t end up being the thing you “used to do.”

Two evenings at home. Church meetings can soak up a lot of weekday evenings and in this season of our lives (no kids at home), we can be more flexible. Making sure we get at least a couple of nights during the week to be home together without agenda creates space for my husband and me to stay connected.

One Sabbath. I take one day a week to slow down, sleep late and just hang out. I don’t usually do anything I don’t want to do on this day, and I don’t let myself feel guilty if I do things (like a home improvement project) that others might consider work. This is my day, a gift from the Lord.

And once a year, I take a few days with friends to simply “be.” I have a group that gets together once a year to “take our tents outside the camp.”  In Exodus 33, we learn that Moses had a habit of picking up his tent and taking it outside the camp to meet with God. Out there, away from people and problems, the story tells us  he would talk with God as a man with a friend. There is nothing more restorative than time away from the office, from distractions, to listen for the voice of God and re-center on his priorities for your life. I appreciate the time we take together to rest in the Lord, think deeply and talk honestly about what we see happening in each other’s lives.

I’m not doing any of this perfectly but I’m finding rest in having these disciplines as a goal, whether I’m traveling or at home. This goal creates a rhythm inside my schedule that more naturally selects what else I have time for.

Holy rhythms create space that create rest which leads to joy.

 

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How to live in Heaven now

Let’s say you have a great trip coming up. You’ve planned something you’ll really enjoy and you’re excited. The closer it gets the more pumped you get. If this trip is a vacation from a bad job, you’re even hungrier to see it hurry up and get here. This is your mindset every day when you go in to work: This daily grind is something I have to endure until I get to the thing that is going to be the best thing ever. This is now, but that is great.

Somehow, we’ve allowed the salvation message to morph into that kind of message. This life is something we have to endure so we can get to the thing that is going to be the best thing ever. Almost like Heaven is a vacation from a bad job, or another way to check out of real life.

Don’t get me wrong. Standing in the presence of the most loving Being in the universe has got to trump standing in line at Kroger. Eternal life is a treasure, but practically speaking we tend to treat it more as an escape. The bigger truth is that eternal life is God’s kind of life. It is this life the way it is supposed to be lived … now.

When we talk about eternal life, we’re talking about sharing in the life of God.* God makes life happen and God’s kind of life is designed to be eternal. It has a beginning (in God) but no end. This is what characterizes the life He gives.

If I choose to share in the life of Christ, then I’m sharing in that life now. I’m living my eternal life now. Eternal life begins now. I don’t know of any other truth that has power to bring more peace than this, nor any other truth we seem so remarkably incapable of embracing.

So here’s a question: If I fear death, how does that manifest in my choices about lesser things? Because if I believe this — if I really believe that my biggest questions are answered — that ought to make a difference in all the other choices in my life. In the same way, if I still fear death then that also will affect my choices about lesser things.

To say I am not afraid of death means I am also not afraid of anything less than that. This way of thinking is the path to peace, which means that peace is a choice I make every day. It is a choice to live as if my biggest questions are already answered.

Does my thought life prove my belief in eternity?

 

*I got this idea from Billy Graham’s newest book, Where I Am: Heaven, Eternity, And Life Beyond.

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Make a spectacle of yourself.

Sometimes God uses spectacles. An overly bright star. A cast of angels. A talking donkey. A burning bush.

Sometimes, he makes us the spectacle. In this season, radical kindness would definitely get some attention. It’s a spectacle God can use.

What if we were to make spectacles of ourselves for Jesus this month? And what if you picked a few random acts of kindness and used them to bring attention to your love for Jesus? What if you made the love of Jesus your message and what if you made those random acts your voice?

I want to share 20 easy ideas. Choose two or three to accomplish by Christmas.

1. Pay for the person behind you in line at the drive-through of your choice.

2. Leave a present on top of the mailbox for your mail carrier (label well!).

3. Bake and deliver goodies to someone who would appreciate the pick-me-up.

4. Donate food to a food pantry (how about Mosaic’s Pantry?).

5. Keep a stash of candy canes with notes tied on in your purse, and hand them out to anyone you see who might need a little treat — cashiers, deli workers, taxi drivers…

6. Leave quarters and a note at a laundromat.

7. Leave a note and the correct amount of change on a vending machine.

8. Ask the librarians if you can pay someone else’s past due fee.

9. Buy a gift card for groceries, then turn around and hand it to the next person in line.

10. Leave an extra big tip at a restaurant.

11. Leave an encouraging message in sidewalk chalk on a neighbor’s driveway.

12. Figure out something tiny, nice, and unexpected to do for your co-workers.

13. Bake something for your significant other to share with his/her co-workers.

14. Leave a positive comment on every blog you frequent this month. Trust me, it will make their day, especially the smaller ones.

15. Buy boxes of crayons at a dollar store and give them to kids.

16. Clean out your closet and donate gently-used items to appropriate organizations.

17. Collect all of the travel-size toiletries you have lying around and deliver them to a homeless shelter or battered women’s shelter (or Bags and Hugs).

18. Bring Christmas flowers (like a poinsettia) to a nursing home and ask the front desk staff which resident would most appreciate them.

19. Volunteer to babysit for a particularly sleep-deprived friend or relative.

20. Do a chore for someone else in your household.

In what ways are you planning this season to make light shine in the darkness?

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