Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Left Behind

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus answered them, “Beware that no one leads you astray . . .”
Matthew 24:3-4

On Saturday, a little after 6:00 p.m., Tim Swartz sent me a text message asking, “R U still here?” Elaine and I were at Wesleyan University, celebrating my 40th college reunion. For better or worse, Wesleyan is one of the most secular places on the earth, so it was not surprising that the room was still full. The spirit of John Wesley lives on in the Wesleyan passion to “do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can,” but it is clothed in a secular faith.

My daughter, Carolyn, was visiting with my sister, Cheryl, in New York. They called my mother, believing that “if Grammie hasn’t been raptured, then no one has been raptured.”

Keith Sanzen and Mark Truman each said that the problem was one of spelling. We should be looking for a “raptor,” rather than a “rapture.” Keith was looking for dinosaurs and Mark was looking for hawks.

On Monday morning when I Googled “May 21,” I found several “Christian” web sites still proclaiming May 21 at 6:00 p.m. as the time of judgment. One site warned readers that if you talk to your pastor about this, it is “almost certain” that he will tell you that no one can know when the end of the world might come. This, they said, was due to a willful misinterpretation of Jesus’ declaration that “no one can know” when the end will come.

Like many of you, I have had a lot of fun with the rapture predictions over the last few days. And in many ways it was exactly that, harmless fun. But I have two serious responses to the good times.

First, I am concerned that there is way too much crazy in the world. It may seem harmless for folks to believe that Elvis is still alive and doubt that a man walked on the moon, but we seem to treat reality as an optional state of mind. We doubt things that are provable and observable, and have a strange attraction for ideas and theories with no basis in reality.

Second, the rapture idea is, for many people, just one more piece of evidence that Christians believe crazy things. The craziness diminishes all of us.

There have been many predictions of the rapture since William Miller predicted that the world would end in the 1840’s. The Millerites were disappointed to find themselves still here as the decade went on, but they continued to refine their calculations, convinced that the end was near. The idea of “the rapture” really took off with the “Left Behind” series written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. They turned a small sectarian vision into an almost mainstream industry and made a fortune in the process.

One may wonder about the sincerity of folks who “lay up treasures on earth” that are almost beyond imagining by selling the idea that we are not long for this world and what really matters is our place in heaven, but they run a very successful business. The problem is that what they are selling is one more version of crazy, dressed up to look like Christian theology.

The great Methodist evangelist E. Stanley Jones was good friends with Mahatma Gandhi. Both men were often asked about the paradox of a friendship that transcended their deeply held religious convictions. Gandhi once explained, “I like your Christ, I just don’t like your Christians.” It is so often our Christian sisters and brothers who make Christianity look bad.

The theological liberalism which prevailed through the middle of the twentieth century left us with a faith which tended to be vague and bland. The rationalism of that era lacked passion, and it lacked the vibrancy that we want in a more biblically centered journey of faith. But looking back, we can now see how important it was to have a faith firmly grounded in reason.

For Methodists, reason and faith have always belonged together. This weekend reminded me again of the importance of that legacy.

1 comment:

  1. Years after the famous swindler, Charles Ponzi was caught and jailed, he could still find hundreds of people willing to trust him with their life savings. No sane people were still calling him an investment advisor, and no reasonable people are calling these victims Christians. Unless the word "misguided" is also used as an understatement.