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Question

So, I’ve begun reading Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person who ever lived.   (I’ll say this for him:  The man is good at picking out un-nuanced subtitles.)

Would you, the blog-reading audience, be interested/willing to read my thoughts on what Sir Rob Bell doth say in this book, which has caused so much controversy in the evangelical sphere?

Because at the moment, I’m just writing emphatic margin notes.

Adventures in Post-Modern Ministry: That Word Does Not Mean What You Think it Means

On Saturday, I went to a lecture on Jacques Lacan and the use of metaphor and narrative in counselling situations.  Because I thought it would be fun!

And, also, given the number of times I preface conversations with, “But then again, I’m postmodern, so….”, I thought brushing up on actual postmodernists would be wise.

The day started out auspiciously–there was coffee!  Good coffee, readily available!  The day could commence!  (Sometimes, these things are dicey.)  In the process of acquiring said coffee (Sacrament #8), a woman came up to me, and without preamble, announced, “Your nametag is upside down.  That could be interpreted.”  She walked away, and I decided this lecture had just become the best lecture ever.  (For the record, it got caught on my hair.  I wasn’t trying to make a statement.)
In a nutshell, Jacques Lacan was a French psychologist who reexamined the teachings and writings of Freud in light of new philosophical theories of semiotics and deconstructionism.  ::crickets:::
And the fact that this previous sentence probably made little to no sense to many, many people would have made Lacan extremely excited, and proved his point.  Which was that language itself is isolating, and to be truly understood by another person was impossible.  This is also known in my small head as The Inigo Montoya Theory of Language (Or: The  “I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think That It Means” Problem.)
Basically, it goes like this:  I say something to you, using English, our common language.   You understand me well enough, being that English is our shared language, but you understand me imperfectly, because you cannot possibly understand all of the connotations, all the memories and associations and connections that are triggered for me by the words I chose, since they came from my entire lived experience, my family’s history, and everything I know of the world that is unique to me.  And, if I attempt to explain it to you, we are facing the problem of imperfect language again.  It’s a vicious cycle!  We’re all soooooo aloooone!  Sad mimes in berets!
So, then, Lacan and other French post-modernists would argue, we are continually talking past each other to some degree or another.  (Lacan, being a psychologist, would also argue that this also makes us sad, and can ultimately motivate us to have better lives, but that’s another story.)  To try to mitigate this talking-past-problem, we humans have developed the capacity for conscious metaphorical language, since our basic language isn’t conveying literal truth so well anyway.  (In fact, you could argue, and I would, that all language is metaphor; some just more conscious than other.)  Like me saying I was brushing up on post-modernism–I wasn’t literally brushing up on Lacan.  He’s dead, and that’s both disgusting and hard to do.  But it conveys something more concrete (see, another one!) to you than me saying I was re-learning Lacan.
And here’s where I think this applies to ministry.  As we’ve become more self-consciously post-modern (or, rather, many of us have, especially those among us who are youngish), I’ve noticed our metaphors becoming more self-conscious as well, and more elaborate, almost like we’re trying to construct an entire other language with more circumscribed meanings, to lessen the innate misunderstanding.  We actually want to communicate better, have that implicit understanding, and we have a growing awareness that people are different from us, and this understanding is actually not guaranteed.  So we try to manufacture ways around that.
My brother and I went for months on end, in high school and college, where we would mainly speak to each other in quotations from ‘The West Wing.’  Aside from the fact that we clearly have extremely good taste, I think it was an attempt to find a shared language, somewhere, given that at the time, we had almost nothing else in common, no common experiences to solidify our common language.  But the world of the West Wing was static enough that if we quoted that to each other, we knew what it meant.  But outside that static world?  Nope, we were ships passing in the night.
For preaching, this is huge.  For anyone in the church at all, this is huge.   If language is freighted with extra baggage, and we can’t assume any common meanings any more, then preachers have to be extra-special, super-duper careful.  And I mean it.  Anything said is liable to misinterpretation and confusion, and not just by the one guy in the fourth row who didn’t like you in the first place.
Tape the Prayer of Humble Access to your foreheads, people, and memorize it.
 In fact, maybe we need a new one for the 21st century:
“WE DO NOT PRESUME… that those words that meant one thing when we were kids still mean that same thing.
WE DO NOT PRESUME…. that the Bible verse that has been comforting to me is comforting to everyone.
WE DO NOT PRESUME…. that because I repeat a phrase over and over again, everyone knows what it means.
WE DO NOT PRESUME…that we can continue to use the same words and phrases with abandon and everyone will understand what we mean.”
The work of preaching is now as much about constructing a common language as it is about sharing the gospel.  We have to redefine ‘salvation’, ‘grace’, ‘love’ , even ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’, because we cannot assume a common, static understanding.
We have to reconstruct one for ourselves.

On the day after

As promised, here’s the sermon I actually gave today. I preached at an Episcopal/Lutheran church on the edge of the Grand Canyon, in Williams.

May 22, 2011
5 Easter, Year A
John 14: 1-14

In 1844, a preacher in the Millerite movement named Samuel S. Snow read his Bible, and deciphered the Book of Daniel to such an extent that he declared that God would cleanse the earth with a plague of fire on October 22 of that year, destroying it utterly. Thousands of people rallied around his teachings, gave away their belongings and their property in preparation.

But, as you know, the world did not end. The day came to be called ‘The Great Disappointment.” Undeterred, Snow’s followers went on to found the Seventh-Day Adventists.

In 1806, a chicken, in Leeds, England, was discovered to be laying eggs that bore the inscription ‘Christ is returning.’ This caused no end of religious fervor in the city, and the entire country. People began to visit the hen in large numbers, and venerate the eggs as holy. To prepare for the return of Christ by selling all they had, etc.

Then, as an author of the time wrote, “A plain tale was soon put down, and quenched their religion entirely. Some gentlemen, hearing of the matter, went one fine morning, and caught the poor hen in the act of laying one of her miraculous eggs. They soon ascertained beyond doubt that the egg had been inscribed with some corrosive ink, and cruelly forced up again into the bird’s body. At this explanation, those who had prayed, now laughed, and the world wagged as merrily as of yore.”

And the world did not end.

As you might have heard, a radio preacher named Harold Camping predicted that the Rapture was supposed to occur last evening at 6pm, based on his personal reading of the Bible. All of the ‘faithful, bible-believing Christians’ would be whisked up to heaven while everyone else would stay to experience five months of desolation, torment and tribulation. After which, on October 21, God would finally destroy the entire world he had once created, everyone left behind included.

But, if you’ll notice, the world did not end. Or at least, no one got raptured. Much to the dismay I suppose of the people who started the Eternal Rest pet watching service, who for the low price of 150$ each, would match your left-behind pet with an unRaptured atheist, starting at 6:01pm yesterday. So someone will feed it.

How do we know? How do we know who to believe and what to believe? How do we know when we are confronted with a multitude of voices saying, “Listen to me! Do what I say! I know the truth! And the world really will end!” And they sound so sure, many of them. They sound so rational, some of them, and so clear, others of them. And then again, it’s not like there’s a lot in the world that’s clear and logical and rational in the first place, so isn’t it nice sometimes just to have a clear voice to follow, to give instructions?

So how do we know which voice to listen to? How do we know which voice leads us down the road to God?

We’re in the section of the lectionary right now where Jesus is giving his disciples final instructions before he’s arrested and crucified. It’s a section of the Fourth Gospel called the Farewell Discourse, and it’s basically their marching orders from here on out. How to be the church in the world, now that the Jesus training wheels are coming off.
And so today, it is in this context that we get this conversation with Philip and Thomas. Lord, show us the Father. Lord, show us the way.

In other words, this little ragtag band of misfits badly wants some assurance that they are doing the right thing, that they are on the right track in Gods eyes. And what does Jesus say in response?

If you have seen me, you have seen the Father. I am the way, the truth and the life.
In other words, you want to know God? Want to know what God wants, who God is? Look at Jesus.

Jesus is the clearest picture of God we have as Christians. Jesus is the window through which we see God most clearly. Jesus is our litmus test. Want to know if you’re on the right track or not? If what someone is telling you is from God or not? Ask yourself if it squares with the sort of thing Jesus cared about or not. Jesus is the standard. Through Jesus, we see God.

And while we can never learn everything there is to know about God, we get enough to begin to trace the faint outlines of who God is, and what God cares about.
In Jesus, what do we see?

We see a person who taught those around him.
Who taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves, as the greatest commandment. To give away all we have in care for the poor and the suffering. Who told us that as we have done to the least of these, so you have done to me, and that is how we will be judged.

We also see a person who lived out what he taught. Who spent his time among the lowest in his society. Who healed the sick, and the suffering, without question or precondition, and stood up for the persecuted, even at great cost to himself. He ate with tax collectors and lepers, sent women to preach his resurrection, and sent a mission to the Gentiles.

This is the Jesus that we see in the gospels; this is the God that Jesus shows us. A God of boundless, infinite love, mercy and compassion.

This God, the God of Jesus, is a particular type of God, yes? This is character of God who called his creation ‘good’. And this sort of God, this god of Jesus, is irreconcilable with the god who was preached on the airwaves this week, who was supposed to have the rapture yesterday. The God of Jesus is irreconcilable with a god who would send utter destruction and death on most of the human race as punishment for wrong belief. The God of Jesus would never wipe out most of humanity in earthquakes, fires and plagues just because they failed to properly figure out hidden number puzzle clues, and who gives true believers a free ticket out of harms way, then lets them watch, and cheer, while the rest of creation burns.

The Rapture god is not the God shown to us in Jesus. That is not the Way or the Truth Jesus shows us.

The god of the Rapture, the way of the apocalyptic vision, might offer easy assurance and simple to grasp formulas that explain, that we are in the chosen few. It might offer the excitement of being in on secret, hidden knowledge. It might offer the privilege of feeling more righteous than everyone around us. And all of those are very attractive when the world is chaotic, when times are tough and uncertain.

But they are no substitute for the living, breathing, presence of God in Christ. And today, my friends, the created world keeps turning, and the living Christ is yet still with us. And that’s truly rapture enough.
Amen.