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Saturday, September 18, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: Revelation 15-17

Staying with this week's reading schedule has been a HUGE challenge for me. I find it challenging because the God of wrath and judgment portrayed so graphically within the pages of the Book of Revelation is barely recognizable to me. The God of Revelation seems so much different than the God of compassion, mercy, and grace that I've spent a lifetime getting to know.

So what could account for the kind of portrayal of God and Jesus contained within the pages of Revelation?

The traditional view of John suggests that Revelation was written by John the Apostle when he was exiled on the island of Patmos during the reign of Domitian. That means the "vision" would have come to an individual/community that had (1) lived through tremendous persecution, and (2) was now tucked away and seething with anger and resentment against those responsible for their plight. Given that background, it is easy for me to understand how such a "vision" would have emerged: a vision of judgment, and a vision of restoration in particular.

The challenge for readers of Revelation is to keep the specific historical/social context in mind and not get too swept away with this one revelation. It's important to integrate the other aspects of God that we know so well with the images contained in Revelation.

This reminds me - once again - of a theme that I've mentioned frequently during the course of my blog. That theme has to do with how our individual locations can shape our perceptions of God. If we grew up with an absent father, for instance, we can make God into our perception of the ideal father we never knew. If we grew up with a parental figure that was angry and vengeful, then guess what? We might tend to mold God into a parental figure who is primarily angry and vengeful. And if we are hungry for acceptance and a strong sense of community, we might even shape God in ways that are consistent with the beliefs of the faith community that offers us acceptance and community.

In other words, as finite human beings many of us are going to grasp on to one-element or dimension that most works for us and hold tight to that one dimension. While that approach is completely understandable (and I'm just as prone as the next person to be "guilty" of this) the important thing to remember is that God is so much bigger than the one dimension we cling to. God is bigger than just judgment. God is bigger than just vengeance. God is even bigger than the expansive notion we like to think of as love. No matter what or how we think, God is bigger!

My challenge for us today is to take time to rest in the presence of a God who transcends all boxes we might stuff God into. And as you encounter difficult images of God contained in places like the Book of Revelation, take comfort in three important words: God is bigger …

Til next time!

Friday, September 17, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: Revelation 12-14

The very first job I had out of college taught me an invaluable lesson about life – a lesson that is buried within today's reading. Let me take a moment and set that lesson up for you.

My first job out of college was a teaching position where I taught English and social studies to youth who were incarcerated at the Spokane County Juvenile Detention Center. The kids in my classroom ranged in age from 11-18, and the average length of stay in the facility was just 2 weeks. The stay of each child varied greatly, however, since at the time Eastern Washington did not have a long-term lock up facility. That mean in some cases, individuals were with us as long as 9 months!

Of course I never knew exactly how long a student would be with me when the youth first arrived in my classroom. Everything depended on how the individual's court case went. That meant I could make no assumptions about how long the individual would be around. I had to be present to the individual each day – not knowing if it would be his or her last day with us.

In the process of maximizing my sense of presence with each child, I invested a great deal of myself in the classroom relationship. While it may have been naïve to expect that the two week's the individual spent in my classroom would completely turn around the life of each youth, on some level I thought that it could. Needless to say, I was disappointed when a child would get released, re-offend, and appear back in my classroom a few weeks later.

At first I would take this personally – as if it were somehow proof that I was an ineffective teacher. As time passed, however, I realized how unrealistic it was for me to expect that I could single-handedly turn an individual's life around in just two weeks. There were so many other factors involved in the individual's life that drowned out the messages I was sending. I learned that I alone couldn't save each student.

When that reality first occurred to me I went through a mini-crisis in my teaching. "If I can't save the students," I asked myself, "what's the point?"

Over the course of my six years teaching there I arrived at a two-fold answer to that question. First, I realized that not every student re-offended. There were some who got the message through their experience of being incarcerated – and maybe I played a small role in helping the child get it. That helped. Second, I realized that when you make a difference in someone's life, if doesn't always look like you would expect. I expected that making a difference in someone's life meant they would not re-offend. Later I learned that making a difference in someone's life looked different in each case. For some, it meant that for the first time in the individual's life they actually looked forward to coming to school and learning. For other, it meant that the individual forged a positive relationship with an adult male role model whom they could trust and look up to. And for still others, I'll never know what it looked like because they never told me what it looked like for them.

The lesson I learned was this: don't get frustrated and give up just because it seems as if your efforts aren't working. Hang in there – for you never know exactly what a difference you are making.

In speaking of those who died in the practice of their faith, the author of today's passage wrote these beautiful words of affirmation: "None of what they've done is wasted…"

I know there are days when you feel like I felt during my teaching days in the detention center –you wonder what difference your life is making. If you are having such a day, take a step back and remember those wonderful words of promise and affirmation. None of what you have done will be wasted! Live into those words and draw strength from those words.

Til next time …

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: Revelation 10-11

Today's reading touched on one of my HUGE frustrations when it comes to the way that some traditional/orthodox Christians approach sin – particularly as it relates to issues of responsibility/accountability.

If you pay attention to the way the Religious Right talked over the course of the last three decades, they became obsessed with what they considered to be sin. What they really focused on was what most people would consider sins committed by INDIVIDUALS. 90% of these "sins" they focused on were related to sex and sexuality. About all they talked about publically for thirty years were things like same-sex behavior and abortion.

I suppose I might have paid more attention to their conversations about "sin " if they had been consistent in their approach and talked about other individual "sins" – things like greed, gluttony, gossip, arrogance – that were non-sexual in nature. In most instances, however, they completely ignored those other topics so they could turn their laser-like focus to their favorite issue: sex, sex, sex. Their one-dimensional approach wasn't a solid theological (or even biblical!) approach, but it sure did get them a lot of money and power. From a human perspective, I can see why they failed to change their tune: it worked.

In today's reading, however, the words from Revelation challenge us to move from an approach that emphasizes INDIVIDUAL sin (and the effects of sin only on the individual level) into the realm of COOPERATE sin. "The angry nations now get a taste of your anger," the author(s) wrote. "The time has come to judge the dead, to reward your servants, all prophets and saints, reward small and great who fear your Name, and destroy the destroyers of earth."

What particularly caught my eye there was the notion that the "destroyers of the earth" would be held responsible/accountable.

When I hear the language about the "destroyers of the earth" I think, for instance, about those individuals AND groups whose ecological practices/policies "destroy the planet". This would include those political candidates and parties who refuse to acknowledge global climate change and the effects our patterns of consumption have on the environment. When I hear about the "destroyers of the earth" I also think about those who promote tax policies that shift the burdens away from the corporations (many of whom exploit workers by moving jobs from one location to another based simply upon the consideration of where they can get the cheapest labor or biggest tax breaks) and onto the backs of the working class. When I hear about the "destroyers of the earth", I also think about those such as political candidates and web/televangelists who acquire their power by exploiting the general public's fear of marginalized groups (i.e. immigrants and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people). Each of these individuals/groups represents – at least for me - those who are the "destroyers of the earth". I wish the Religious Right would spend some time addressing these sins – but let's just say I won't hold my breath as some of the individuals/groups are a part of the base that props the religious extremists up.

So as you read Revelation these days, how do you experience the visions of responsibility/accountability? Do you view those words primarily on the individual level, or do you view those words on a more balanced plane – where both individuals AND groups are held accountable/responsible for their effects of the actions and beliefs?

Til next time …

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: Revelation 8-9

One of my family members is currently living through a nightmare. This family member has a twenty-one year old who is living with an addiction to drugs and alcohol.

The twenty-one year old has gone through a stunning transformation – from a personable student-athlete in middle-school to an angry, belligerent young man who can't hold down a job. As the addictions have taken over the individual's life over the past six years, the twenty-one year old has lived through hell. He has been beaten within an inch of his life on the streets, he has served time in jail for assault, he has endured the loss of respect from family members from whom he has repeatedly stolen, and he has spent many a night on the streets.

As I look at the situation from the outside, it's hard for me to understand why the individual refuses to change. I find myself wondering, "Why would someone continue in his/her behavior when that behavior is obviously destroying his/her life?"

I ask this question because I have been fortunate to have never wrestled with a chemical addiction myself. I don't understand why someone would ignore the obvious need for change and continue down a path toward destruction.

That same dynamic is evident in today's passage from Revelation, for in that passage we are told about a series of nightmares unleashed on humanity. Given the horrors of those nightmares, you would think that folks would wake up, get a clue, and change.

Sadly, they don't. "The remaining men and women who weren't killed by these weapons went on their merry way," the author indicates, "didn't change their way of life."

Those haunting words are a reminder of how difficult it can be for us human beings to make changes – especially some of the most dramatic changes that are holding us back or keeping us connected to situations that are destructive and life-denying.

Today, I would invite you to take an inventory of your own life and see if there is a part (or perhaps even parts) of your life in dire need of change. If you find such an area, remember today's reading from Revelation and remind yourself, "It doesn't have to be this way." That simple realization might propel you on to new – and more life-giving places.

Til next time …

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: Revelation 4-7

If I were to walk into a room, find a sheet of paper, pick it up, and start reading; it would be difficult for me to make sense of what I'm reading unless I have a context for those words. Let's say, for instance, that the piece of paper I pick up reads as follows: "(1) eggs, (2) butter, (3) milk, and (4) brown sugar."

If I read that those words without knowing the context, I could arrive at several difference conclusions about the meaning of those words. I could say, for instance, that the words are part of a shopping list and represent a list of unrelated items that need to be purchased from a grocery store. That would be one logical conclusion. I could also say that those four words are part of a recipe that identifies items that come together to make something tasty. That would also work. I might even suggest that perhaps the words represent a list of what someone is allergic to. That could also be yet another possibility. Without knowing the context of the words, it would be dangerous for me to decide what the exact purpose of the list was.

There's a similar dynamic involved in today's reading from Revelation – for at face value we don't know exactly what the context of those words is. We don't know, for instance, whether those words are a form of poetry spelling out one person's dramatic version of the world. We don't know for sure whether those words were meant to be a subversive political message that was communicated through coded language. Nor do we know for sure if those words were intended to predict a literal unfolding of the future. Lots of folks have different takes on the matter.

There are those, for instance, who read today's passage quite literally – and conclude that when Revelation 7 says, "I heard the count of those who were sealed: 144,000! They were sealed out of every Tribe of Israel" that it means there will only be 144,000 individuals who will be sealed/saved.

I think it would be a mistake to read that passage literally. It's hard for me to imagine God limiting God's unlimited love to such a concrete – and limited - number. There's got to be another context for those words.

All of this has me wondering about the ways you and I might be prone to take things out of context as well. Perhaps we overhear a portion of a conversation that a loved one is participating on the phone, or we glance at an open email on a friend's computer, or we arrive at a table in the middle of our friends' conversation and make assumptions about what the words they are saying mean without knowing exactly what it is they are talking about. That can be very dangerous.

Whatever the specific circumstance is for you, I would advise you to slow down and take some time before you jump to conclusions – conclusions that may misinterpret the meaning behind the words you first encounter.

Til next time …

Monday, September 13, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: Revelation 1-3:22

The codependence I have lived with over the years gets expressed in a variety of ways. Codependence can sometimes be expressed for me as an inability to say "No" to others' requests. The consequence of this manifestation is that it causes me to take on way too many commitments. Codependence can also express itself in my life by making me appear wishy washy to others. In my effort to please everyone, it can seem impossible to take a stand – since any stand will risk offending someone.

Each of these manifestations of codependence is certainly challenging, but neither is the most challenging expression of codependence for me. The most challenging expression for me is my inability to hold others responsible for their own decisions.

You see in my efforts to be liked by others, my very first tendency is always to blame myself for something that has gone wrong. If I give someone directions to a place and they get lost, I tend to automatically blame myself for giving bad directions. I never think, "Maybe the individual didn't listen closely to the directions as I passed them along." If a church event doesn't meet expectations, I tend to conclude, "Maybe I should have worked harder to get the word out." I rarely think, "Maybe the individual didn't know about the event because they didn't read the bulletin, look at the website, read the newsletter, or listen to the verbal announcement in church."

In my process of recovery, I have begun to work on re-wiring my thinking. I'm trying to get over my tendency to think everything is my fault and begin to hold individuals responsible for their role in things as well. This is difficult work for me to do!

So what gets me motivated to do the work?

Two realizations. First, I realized that - statistically speaking - it is impossible for everything in the world to be my fault. That helped. Second, I realized that if I truly love others as much as I say I do, then I need to do the loving thing and hold them responsible for their actions (or – in some cases – inactions). It does individuals and organizations no good in terms of their growth if I'm always there relieving them of their responsibility in things. In fact, it does the opposite: it stunts them in their development.

As I read today's opening chapters from Revelations, I was reminded of this point right away. That's not easy for me to admit, because Revelation isn't my favorite book in the Bible. The triumphalist images used throughout – and the foreboding sense of "you've been bad so now you're going to get it" – don't speak to the God of love and compassion that I know. Nevertheless, I vowed to myself that I would hang in there and read Revelation.

Toward the end of the passage, I stumbled upon wonderful words that put the book (and my recovery work around holding others accountable) into perspective. "The people I love," John begins, "I call to account – prod and correct and guide so that they'll live at the best." Those words are a wonderful way of putting the goal of Revelation into perspective. The goal isn't to portray a God of fear or retribution; the goal is to get our attention and prod us so that we can live our best lives. That goal I can feel good about.

So how do you do with this notion of accountability? Are you okay with the notion that others (including the God of our thinking) should relieve individuals from their sense of responsibility; or do you prefer that individuals accept responsibility for themselves?

Til next time …