The Gift of Friendship – by Wesley Hill

This is an original post by Wesley Hill, author of Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian.

Wesley Hill (PhD, University of Durham) is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry. He is the author of Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters and the much-discussed Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. Hill is on the editorial board of and is a columnist for Christianity Today. He also contributes to Books & Culture and First Things.

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Several years ago, during a time in my life when I was feeling especially lonely, I read a blog post by the gay Catholic writer Eve Tushnet on the theme of friendship. It was a short post, and it made one simple point. Its main idea was contained in one sentence, even. “My actual experience of friendship,” Tushnet wrote, “very strongly suggests a need and desire for friendships to become, over time, understood as given.”

What did she mean?

Well, there is a popular conception about friendship that goes back hundreds of years. Friendship, we have often been told, is the least “given,” the least constrained and committed and biologically driven, of all human loves. By contrast with our siblings, we get to choose our friends. Unlike our parents, our friends are connected to us by sheer liking. And in a way that differs from our spouses, to whom we’ve made vows for life, whether we go on liking them or not, our friends are simply our preferred ones. We aren’t bound to them, promised to them, “stuck” with them. And that, it is usually said, is what makes friendship so unique—and so precious.

But Tushnet’s post cuts against that conception. In her experience, she wrote, if a friendship lasts long enough and goes deep enough, it starts to edge away from the “free and unconstrained” territory and starts to move into the realm of “bound for life.” Friendship, in other words, starts to look more familial, more permanent, more “wedded.” As the Russian Orthodox writer Pavel Florensky once put it, oftentimes friendship strives to merge into the concept of brotherhood or sisterhood. It wants to become more constant.

When I read Tushnet’s post, I immediately resonated with it. I think the reason it struck me so powerfully had a lot to do with the fact that I’m gay. Because I’m a Christian of a pretty traditional sort and I accept the classic Christian teaching that marriage is a covenant between male and female and is ordered toward the bearing and rearing of children, I’m also celibate.

Being gay and celibate can leave you wondering whether you’re left out in the cold when it comes to committed, stable, intimate relationships. Watching many of your friends pair up and get married, you wonder if you have to settle for something less than that—for relationships that always end with separation or distance. And sometimes friendship, which is all too fleeting in our mobile society, comes to seem like a consolation prize. As blogger Casey Pick has written, “No community is quite so sensitive to the reality that, for all its virtues, friendship isn’t family.”

But what if Christian friendships, or at least some of them, were able to become more committed, more bound by promises, and more recognized as integral, lasting parts of gay Christians’ lives? What if friendship were able to look more familial?

If I were to describe the hope and joy I’ve found in my own gay, celibate life, I would point to moments where that shift has happened in my friendships. I talk about some of those moments in my new book Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian.

For instance, there was the time when my friend Jono called me and asked me to be a godfather to his and his wife Megan’s daughter Callie. Jono and Megan wanted to seal, with the sacrament of baptism, my relationship to Callie and to themselves. In an email I wrote to him afterward, I said, “I take comfort from this—that, in Jesus’ economy, leaving the prospect of being a husband and father myself does not mean being without a family.”

Or there was the time when my married friends Aidan and Melanie and I, recognizing how much we’d come to mean to each other, asked our minister friend Amy to come and pray a blessing over our friendship, solemnizing it and reminding us of the sort of commitment we’d embraced. In our living room, Amy set up an icon of Aelred of Rievaulx, the unofficial patron saint of friendship. She preached a brief homily from Psalm 121 on the theme of pilgrimage. “You three are companions on a pilgrimage to the heavenly city,” she said. And then she consecrated bread and wine on our coffee table, pointing us to the ultimate Friend who gave his body and blood to make our love for each other possible.

In those moments, among others, I’ve remembered those words I read several years ago from Tushnet’s blog: there is “a need and desire for friendships to become, over time, understood as given.” Thankfully, in Christ, they can be.

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To learn more about Spiritual Friendship, click here.

 

“Show Me How to Live: A Child in the Kingdom of God” by Marlena Graves

This is an original post by Marlena Graves, author of A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness.

Graves MarlenaMarlena Graves (MDiv, Northeastern Seminary) is an op-ed writer for Christianity Today‘s popular Her.meneutics blog. She is a member of Ink: A Creative Collective, the Redbud Writers Guild, and the Renovaré Spiritual Formation Institute and has written for Christianity Today, Relevant, and the Conversations blog. She has also worked in college residential life and speaks frequently to students and congregations about spiritual formation.

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My Wilderness Life

Nail in my hand, from my Creator. / You gave me life, now show me how to live.

That line from the former rock band Audioslave’s song “Show Me How to Live” captures well the nature of the guttural-groan prayers that escaped my soul during my childhood and teenage years. I never really had a childhood; it was as if I were an adult in a child-sized body trying to find daily solutions to adult-sized problems. While my parents clearly loved my brothers and me, I grew up in daily chaos, which was fueled by poverty, what I now know to be the mental illness of a parent, and some bad decisions I made as a teenager. I grew up in the wilderness.

From about the ages of ten to fourteen, I’d hole myself up in my room and read the Bible after I did whatever chores had to be done. We didn’t have many toys and my friends were far away. And so I preferred reading the Bible and listening to Christian radio preachers to the other alternative: watching television.

Only as an adult do I understand how ingesting Scripture deeply formed me in the Jesus way. I believed that God was for me and with me in the wilderness. If he delivered the Israelites from their captivity and helped all sorts of others to overcome dire circumstances, he could do the same for me.

The ancients tell a story about Abba Moses. Once a fellow monk went to seek his advice, and Abba Moses replied, “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”* My little dank room in our green trailer served as my first monastic cell. From an early age, I have meditated on God’s word day and night, trusted him, and been haunted by his presence.

 

A Child in the Kingdom of God

From reading the Scriptures, I knew what God said, and I believed he was for me and with me. Yet I didn’t know how to integrate well what I learned. But around the age of twenty, I no longer felt like an adult in a child-sized body. It was then that I started becoming a child in the kingdom of God. What did this redeemed childhood look like?

 

Play

The Benedictines have a motto that guides their life: Ora et labora, or, “pray and work.” To that I’d add “play.” As a child and as a teenager I played very little. Life was so hard and things were so serious that I was seldom playful. But as God began to restore the years the locust had eaten (Joel 2:25), God began giving me a new childhood. My body grows older, but inside I grow young. For example, as a child, I didn’t play with dolls or stuffed animals (I had very few). But now I have two that are as alive to me as the rabbit in the story of the Velveteen Rabbit. I can play with my daughters and can understand why children delight in stuffed animals. My imagination has been enlarged along with my soul. I see more and more how God is at play in the universe.

 

Rest

I don’t need to allow worry to strangle me anymore while I feverishly try to figure things out on my own or for my family. I’ve learned better how to take Jesus’s yoke, or teaching, upon me and in doing so find rest for my soul (Matt. 11:28-30). I don’t strive or spin nearly as much because, on most days, I really believe that if I seek the kingdom first, all the things I need, my daily bread, will be given to me. Like a child, I cling to God (often by clinging to the body of believers), tug on his robe, and hurl myself into his embrace when I need to be comforted or have any need.

As a child and teenager, I slept very little because I worried about my parents and the problems we faced. Although I still have to practice the discipline of casting—and leaving—my cares upon the Lord, I sleep better. And daily I continue to learn how to rest in him.

 

Attention

I’ve learned how to see the world better from God’s perspective. That allows for peace to invade my soul, and it also helps me to learn to love others better—especially those who mistreat me. And paying attention has come to me in another way: I am deeply attuned to my surroundings and am more present in the present.

For example, my husband often comments about me seeing every creepy crawly on the sidewalk and every cat bounding about in the fields to God knows where. My mind is no longer a million miles away. More and more I am just here—present to the world and those before me.

Wilderness experiences, whether they are major crises or moments of quiet desperation, are not something I’d wish upon others. But in the wilderness, God showed me how to live. It is where I grew up in God, became a child of the kingdom, and it is where he has given me the gifts of play, rest, and attention.

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*The Library of Christian Classics Volume XII (1958) http://archive.org/stream/libraryofchristi008770mbp/libraryofchristi008770mbp_djvu.txt (accessed December 26, 2013)

 

“Caregiving and Climate Change” by Virginia Vroblesky

This is an original post by Virginia Vroblesky, co-author (with Nick Spencer and Robert White) of Christianity, Climate Change, and Sustainable Living.

Virginia Vroblesky is the former national coordinator of A Rocha USA. She is the author of numerous articles and The Gift of Creation: A Study Guide on the Environment.

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I have recently been reading American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation by Eric Rutkow. While I relished the new facts and its fresh view of our national history, underneath I found it a bit disheartening. There was our history of logging, rapaciously and systematically cutting forests from coast to coast for short-term economic gain; tales of heroic yet failed efforts to stop environmental threats such as Dutch Elm disease, and the conflict between economics and species conservation. Guiding principles changed from generation to generation based on the prevailing world view.

It had been a bad day. I am a caregiver for my mom, who has dementia. I try with all my might to stem the decline of her memory. While there are bright spots, I cannot restore what is gone or keep more from leaking away.

That day, I was also thinking about climate change, the huge issue that faces our generation. The underlying challenges are very similar to those that confront our relationship to our forests: economics, changing world-views, environmental problems. I had just read about the failure of a promising electric car company. I started to wonder if any of our efforts, against climate change, for forests, or for my mom, mattered. What difference does it make to try to stand in the gap? Was the world, and my life, only going to be swallowed up in sadness or futility?

But I was reminded of a wonderful verse in Psalm 27: “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living” (v. 13 NASB). Our responses to climate change and caregiving are similar: at times we wear out. The booklet Help for the Caregiver: Facing the Challenges with Understanding and Strength by Michael R. Emlet says that three signs of caregiver burnout are anger, fear, and the tendency to take on responsibilities that are not our own.

Paul David Tripp, in Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, fleshes this out. Each of us has a “circle of responsibility,” a God-given arena with tasks we are biblically called to do. Often this is clear. What do our lives touch? How are we called to respond to these opportunities or challenges? We also have a “circle of concern,” areas that we care about but have to entrust to God.

Caregivers often confuse these two circles, neglecting what we are called to do while worrying over what we have to leave to God. My mom’s life is in God’s hands, but right now I have the opportunity to do good to her. In a similar way, I may not be able to negotiate international treaties on climate change, but there are things I can do and leave the long-term results up to God.

One of the most helpful aspects of working on Christianity, Climate Change, and Sustainable Living was the opportunity to learn from Robert White and Nick Spencer. Using Isaiah 40–66, they developed a series of eight principles for sustainable living, based not on whims or changing philosophy but on biblical guidelines. They explored how these principles can guide us as we make decisions within our own “circle of responsibility” regarding climate change. Thinking about this drove me to reread Isaiah 40–66, which encouraged me that God does not give up but gives strength to those who don’t give up on him.

The book American Canopy, by the way, is not all bad news. It is filled with the difference individuals have made in every era, from Franklin Roosevelt, whose practice of planting trees on his own property directly led to his creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, to the many, sometimes small-scale, efforts to counter climate change through reforestation.

My hope is that those made in the image of God might use the strength God supplies to care for the world he has made and benefit the lives that their own lives touch. May it be so with caregiving as with climate change.

“Seven Things Revelation Is” by Joseph L. Mangina

This is an original post by Joseph L. Mangina, author of Revelation (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible).

This is a follow-up to last week’s piece on “Seven Things Revelation Is Not.”

Joseph L. Mangina (PhD, Yale University) is professor of systematic theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. He is the editor of Pro Ecclesia, serves on the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue commission for Canada, and is the author of two books on the thought of Karl Barth.

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Having explored some of the things Revelation is not, let’s take a look at what it is. In the spirit of Revelation, once I again have seven items:

Seven Things Revelation Is

1. A terrible book. Terrible, in the old-fashioned sense of terror-inducing. It makes for hard reading. In the course of writing my commentary, I inevitably arrived at chapter 9, where I encountered the following:

And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit. He opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft. Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone. And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them. (Rev. 9:1–6 ESV)

Immediately I understood why some Christians avoid this book of the Bible, and why others are perversely attracted to it. If nothing else, Revelation is an exercise in “reality therapy.” The world it describes is not the world as we would like it to be. It shows the world as it is—beset by sin and ugliness and destruction. As a middle-class Christian, I know that my great temptation is to want the world to be “nice”; Revelation does not afford me that luxury. It is a revelation (precisely) of things as they really are and as they will one day be. And it is a revelation that even the world of horrors is really God’s world. If there is any comfort in the passage I’ve just cited, it consists in the little word “given”—the locusts “were given power….”

Given by whom? We need hardly ask. The Apocalypse often uses the passive voice like that to denote divine action. It is God alone who is in charge of history, God alone who judges evil, just as it is God alone who makes things right. Even in the terrors of history we can be confident that God is at work, albeit by what Luther called his “left” or hidden hand.

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2. A beautiful book. The flip side of the terrors of the Apocalypse are its glories. It is a gorgeous book, filled with images that have fed the Christian imagination across the centuries: the heavenly worship around the rainbow-encircled throne of God (chaps. 4–5); the white-robed army of martyrs who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14); the woman clothed with the sun and with the moon at her feet, an image at once of Israel, the church, and the Virgin Mary (chap. 12); and not least, the new Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (21:2 ESV). Nor should we forget the music of the Apocalypse, the hymns and songs that invite the hearer to participate in the praise of God. All this is a double tribute: to the Creator God who is Beauty itself and to the beauties of the world he has made.

3. A prophetic book. Richard Bauckham wrote a study of Revelation titled The Climax of Prophecy (T&T Clark, 1993). This gets it just about right. Even if John did not refer to his book as a prophecy (which he does several times; cf. 1:3; 22:7, 10, 18–19), his visions clearly stand in the line of Israel’s prophets. Like the prophets of the old covenant, John is sent to speak the word of God to his people Israel at a particular juncture of their history—in this case, the messianic age that concludes Israel’s and the world’s history. Some episodes in the work are virtual replays of events in the earlier prophets, e.g., Daniel’s vision of four terrible beasts or Ezekiel’s eating the scroll and measuring the temple.

4. An apocalyptic book. This may seem perfectly redundant; after all, we get our word apocalypse from the Greek name of Revelation. But it is still worth underscoring. An apocalypse, we might say, is a particular form of prophecy in which the visionary element predominates. All prophets are assigned the task of speaking the Lord’s word. A specifically apocalyptic prophet receives the word in the form of visions: “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches” (Rev. 1:11 ESV, emphasis added). For this reason Revelation bears a special kinship to “late” Israelite prophecy (Ezekiel, Zechariah, Daniel), as well as to extracanonical Jewish works like 2 Esdras. Here I will make a suggestion: that the more purely eschatological a prophetic work is, the more purely visionary will be its form.

5. A book for the church. Revelation is addressed to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia—Anatolia, the western edge of today’s Turkey. Already the church fathers read this as symbolic: the seven churches represent the whole church, seven being the number of fullness. That fullness, however, encompasses time as well as space; our churches are part of the same community that John—but then also God, Christ, and the Spirit—addresses in this work. The Apocalypse was written for the whole community of God’s people, and it is to be read that way, not as a private coded message for a spiritual elite (see the first point in my previous post on “Seven Things Revelation Is Not”).

Revelation being a book for the church, it is something of a scandal that so little of it appears in our Christian lectionaries. The irony is especially acute with regard to the letters to the seven churches in chapters 2–3. If we never hear these texts in the context of worship, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to hear of our own apostasies, be chastened but then also comforted by the word of Christ, be encouraged in the face of evil, and hear the eschatological promises given to “the one who conquers.” Recovering an ecclesial hermeneutic for the Apocalypse is an ongoing task of scriptural interpretation in our time.

6. A liturgical book—and therefore a political book. This seems incongruous to us moderns, who are used to thinking of religion as essentially a private act. In our society there is no formal difference between deciding to go to church and deciding to go bowling. But for the ancients, matters of cult were tied to matters of political organization—and with good reason. “Whom or what shall we worship?” and “how shall the city, or state, or empire be organized?”—these are but forms of a single question. In the historical setting of the Apocalypse, the great question was the church’s relation to Roman politics and economic order, powerfully symbolized by the cult of the emperor. By lighting a pinch of incense before the emperor’s image, one confessed him (and implicitly the order of which he was at the center) to be divine. Many Christians—certainly not all—refused to do this. Much of the Apocalypse makes sense as the embodiment of this refusal. A key to the book’s politics is the blood of the martyrs.

The flip side of rejecting idolatry, however, is the positive expression of devotion to Israel’s Lord as the one true God. This is what makes the Apocalypse a powerfully liturgical work. It is shot through with images of worship. It is filled with hymns, songs, prayers, incense, movement. Chapters 4 and 5, in particular, present a kaleidoscope of liturgy. All this is, once again, a kind of politics though not of the utilitarian sort. Worship isn’t ordered to some extrinsic end but expresses the truth about God, ourselves, and the world. Worship is simply what is good for us, because God himself is all goodness. I think we can safely say that if today’s church had more ballsy forms of worship, the world might notice that we Christians actually have something quite interesting to say.

7. A book about Jesus. A common failing of novice journalists is “burying the lede,” i.e., waiting too long to tell your reader what the story is about. John does not have this problem. It is ironic that people search for the coded meaning of Revelation, when the book’s theme is announced in the opening line: “The revelation [apocalypse] of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must happen soon” (1:1 NIV).

In Greek as in English, that “of” is ambiguous. The Apocalypse is both the revealing of Jesus and Jesus’s own act of revealing. Of course it is also the revelation of God, received in the imaginative power of the Spirit; Revelation is a trinitarian as well as a christocentric work. But Christ is the key to the work, the key who opens the “door” to all the visions (cf. 4:1).

You can read my commentary to see how this works out in detail. Let me conclude, though, by briefly recapitulating the previous six points, to suggest how Christ is the key to these as well:

(1) While there is much in John’s visions to terrify us, we can trust that God is not ultimately against humanity: at the absolute center of John’s world is “the one who loves us,” the Lamb who suffers violence at our hands.

(2) The work of Christ in Revelation is not narrowly individualistic but rather aimed at the redemption precisely of God’s creation and of all that is good, true, and beautiful within it; see the heavenly city in chapters 21–22.

(3) As a prophet, John is given to speak the word of God. But Christ is that Word (cf. 19:11). Note the convergence here with the Fourth Gospel.

(4) As already mentioned, what is “apocalypsed” in Revelation is Christ himself—his divine identity, his death as triumph over the forces of evil, his coming again to redeem his own. Here, I’d like to enter a small but important correction to my Brazos commentary. For reasons that now elude me, I don’t emphasize nearly as much as I should have the way the worship scene in chapter 5 affirms the divinity of Christ: God and the Lamb are honored in a single act of devotion. Worshiping Jesus—what an extraordinary thing for a group of first-century Jews to be doing. Very good on this theme is Richard Bauckham’s The Theology of the Book of Revelation. I suppose I didn’t feel it necessary to restate what Bauckham had already said so well, but clearly, this was falling down on my job as a commentator!

(5) It is Jesus Christ who, through John’s visions, addresses the church—not just in the late first century but today. Both the promises and the warnings of the Apocalypse are directed to the Christian community. It is not a prediction about the future directed to the world at large.

(6) As Christ is at the center of Revelation’s worship, so he is at the center of its politics. The book may be read as posing the following question: what would it look like if a community worshiped not the powers of the present age but the power that God self-revealed in his Son Jesus? What sort of politics would honor blood spilled not in military conquest but in martyrdom? What would it mean for a people to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4)?

I hope these musings have whetted the reader’s appetite for the Apocalypse. As John devoured the scroll, which tasted sweet as honey though it made his stomach bitter (10:9), may you know the sweetness of the book he wrote. Take, eat, delight. I’d be gratified if my Brazos commentary aided your appreciation of John’s act of witness.

“Seven Things Revelation Is Not” by Joseph L. Mangina

This is an original post by Joseph L. Mangina, author of Revelation (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible).

Joseph L. Mangina (PhD, Yale University) is professor of systematic theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. He is the editor of Pro Ecclesia, serves on the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue commission for Canada, and is the author of two books on the thought of Karl Barth.

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Revelatoin

The book of Revelation (also known as the Apocalypse) is a constant source of both fascination and fear among Christians. In North America, the book is likely to be identified with the dispensationalism of Timothy LaHaye’s Left Behind series. It is therefore often treated as being off-limits in mainline churches.

This is unfortunate. To the extent that we distance ourselves from Revelation, we hand it over to eccentric uses; even worse, we miss out on its real glories. In the next two posts I will make some comments aimed at helping us overcome our aversion to the Apocalypse.

Today I will discuss “Seven Things Revelation Is Not”; next time I will turn to “Seven Things Revelation Is.” The division is a bit artificial, so don’t be surprised to find some affirmations in the midst of the negations and vice versa. I hope to whet the reader’s appetite for exploring Revelation on his or her own, perhaps in company with my Brazos commentary (Joseph Mangina, Revelation, Brazos 2010).

Seven Things Revelation Is Not

1. A code, cipher, or secret message. The tendency to read Revelation as an esoteric book—the ultimate insiders’ text—has a very long history. The book is filled with mysterious images and symbols. It is natural to want to know what these symbols “stand for.” With this approach to Revelation, interpretation will be a matter of wresting a discrete, consistent, and controllable meaning from each image. There is just enough of this reading strategy in the book itself to encourage us in this view; see for example 17:9-10.

I cannot stress too strongly, however, that as an overall reading strategy this form of interpretation misfires and will cause us to miss almost everything that is important about the book. The Apocalypse is visionary literature. Its symbols are polyvalent, pointing in many different directions at once. To take the most famous example, it is tempting to believe that when John wrote 666—the infamous “number of the beast”—he intended the emperor Nero. Historically speaking that is extremely likely. But as any postmodern literary critic will tell you, texts are simply not that stable—much less so a text of which God or the Spirit is the author! Revelation is less interested in information than in transformation. Rather than looking for a meaning “behind” the text, we should let it draw us into its powerful vision of a world created, judged, and redeemed by God.

2. A book exclusively about the future. This point follows from the previous one. While Revelation does, indeed, offer a glimpse of God’s final consummation of all things, it would not have us speculating about the future. John wants us to “remember the End”—Travis Kroeker’s evocative term for apocalyptic vision in the works of Dostoevsky—precisely so that the church may live more faithfully and courageously in the present. This is true whether that “present” is in AD 113 or 2013.

3. Chiefly a response to persecution. We know that there has been at least one martyr in the churches John is addressing (Rev. 2:13), and he clearly expects that there will be more (2:10; 7:14). It is therefore easy to assume that the purpose of the book is to offer comfort and reassurance to communities subject to Roman persecution. This fits a common view of apocalyptic writing as a literature of the dispossessed.

My advice to the reader is to take all this with a large grain of salt. On the one hand, notice that John writes to seven churches marked by notable differences: if Smyrna is under pressure, Laodicea is all too pleased with itself (“you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered,’” Rev. 3:17 NRSV). Like churches today, John’s communities inhabit a wide range of social locations and strategies of resistance/negotiation/accommodation to their host culture.

But even more crucial is the question of agency. While the “kings of the earth” (a recurrent image in the Apocalypse) exercise real and terrible forms of power, there is never any question that God is the ultimate Power with whom humans have to reckon. This is what John wants his readers to grasp. It is God—the LORD of Israel—who determines history, not the Romans.

4. A simple temporal sequence. Already in the early history of the church, attentive readers of Revelation noticed an odd thing: the book repeats itself. The seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls are less a linear sequence of events than a dizzying spiral, a vision of the (singular) End narrated from a variety of perspectives. The technical name for this is “recapitulation.”

This is not to say there is no drama, no “story,” in the Apocalypse. But the drama must be taken on its own terms. It is must not be assimilated to earthly, empirical history. Again recall that John’s intention—or the Spirit’s intention through John—is less to inform than to transform.

5. A warrant for violence. It is well to be honest: many of the events described in Revelation are terrifying. Many readers struggle to reconcile the awful imagery of death, mayhem, and destruction with the God of love. I will have more to say about this in my next post.

Nevertheless, while terrible things happen in Revelation, the author never says, “Go out and do terrible things.” The question of agency again looms large. It is God’s love, God’s judgment, God’s vindication that stand at the center of attention. If there is a consistent command given to the church, it is simply to practice “patient endurance,” a kind of creative waiting and suffering in trust that God will set things right (cf. Rev. 1:9; 2:2; 13:10; 14:12). To read the book as a warrant for any human exacting of vengeance on enemies is simply false.

6. An outlier in the canon of Scripture. We are prone to draw a distinction between the teaching of Jesus, say, or Pauline soteriology (theological comfort food for Protestants), and the “weird apocalyptic stuff” in writings like Daniel and Revelation. But there is far more slippage than we like to think. Mark’s Jesus is a clearly apocalyptic figure, while Paul writes of cosmic transformation and speaks of Christ as the “man from heaven” (Rom. 8; 1 Cor. 15). Nor are these convergences accidental: Mark, Paul, and John the Seer are all rooted in the apocalyptic soil of Israel’s faith. It is for this reason that the great Anglican theologian Austin Farrer called Revelation “a rebirth of images,” referring to the way in which John takes up themes and symbols from the Old Testament. What he sees is new but at the same time very old.

7. A book with a clear, easily summarized message. This goes back to what I said earlier about reading Revelation as a coded text. If the book is a cipher, we can figure it out, determine its “meaning” once for all, and be done with it. In this approach the text itself ironically becomes dispensable. Fortunately Revelation doesn’t work like that. It is an act of testimony, an act of witness by one who claims to speak the very Word of God—in short, a prophet.

The proper understanding of Revelation, then, begins with listening to this Word. This is a theme I will take up in my next post, on the “Seven Things Revelation Is.”

Catching a Glimpse of Joy – by Dean Nelson

This is an original post by Dean Nelson, author of God Hides in Plain Sight: How to See the Sacred in a Chaotic World.

Dean Nelson directs the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. His book, God Hides in Plain Sight: How to See the Sacred in a Chaotic World, was published by Brazos Press in 2009.

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God Hides in Plain SightMy wife and I had been putting off this task for some time. It was gross. That’s what we kept telling ourselves as we would reach a new Saturday, contemplate the job before us, and then have something conveniently come up to keep us from the work. We didn’t feel like battling the cobwebs, and we really didn’t feel like shoveling out the loads of mice (could they be rat?) droppings.

A few times we actually opened the door to the shed in our backyard, took one look—and maybe a whiff—of what had taken up residence there, and quickly closed the door, trying to wish it all away. Maybe a selective tornado could barrel through and take just the shed?

But I suspect that the grossness of it wasn’t the real reason we avoided cleaning out the shed. More likely it was because it had some of our kids’ bigger toys in it. Our kids are adults now and have moved into their own independent lives. We checked with them and, yes, we could get rid of those things, they said. But we kept putting it off.

So last Saturday we held our noses and our hearts and ventured into that storage space of memories and vermin. The droppings were probably a gift in that they distracted us from being too sentimental about the items we were hosing off so we could give them away. And it wasn’t as hard as we thought it would be.

Except for one thing.

When I was in grad school in Ohio, and our son was two, he broke his femur in a freak accident. The doctor put him in a cast that went from mid-stomach down the broken leg all the way to the ankle, and halfway down the other leg. An opening in the crotch area allowed him to go to the bathroom. That meant about half of his body was covered in plaster. It gets hot in the summer in southern Ohio. It gets even hotter when your skin has no chance to breathe and cool itself. And plaster is kind of heavy.

My wife was pregnant with our daughter, so it was very uncomfortable for her to lift our son if he needed to move. Getting him out of the house, going for walks, changing the scenery, all proved impossible. Cabin fever—plaster fever? —was driving everyone crazy.

Then my parents sent a wagon. It was one of those cool red wooden wagons that looked like it was made years ago, but it was modern and easy to pull. We lined the inside of the wagon with pillows, gently placed our son in the wagon, and took him all over the neighborhood. Even at the 45-degree angle he had to endure, he was overjoyed. Neighbors came out and talked to him. Dogs came over and licked him. When our daughter was born, we could pull the two of them, and he acted like the responsible protector of his baby sister. It was a life and sanity saver.

As they grew older, the wagon’s role evolved. It carried toys from one room to another. It held books and other supplies. It was even a weapons repository when the neighborhood kids made movies. (The weapons were fake, I should make clear.)

For the last several years, though, it has been sitting in the shed collecting dust and rodent waste. When we pulled it out on Saturday and scrubbed it down, all those memories washed over us.

Most of the toys will be picked up by a local charity and sold in their thrift shop. But we felt like the wagon deserved a different outcome. There are lots of families with kids in our neighborhood, and they go on walks and pass by our house. This has always been a neighborhood wagon, and we wanted it to stay that way if possible.

So we cleaned it, dried it, and put it in our driveway with a sign that said “Free! Enjoy!” Then we went in the house.

An hour or two later we heard noise outside. Yelling, maybe? Loud voices at least. We went out and saw two teenagers pulling the wagon down the street, with their little sister inside. She was squealing, and the older girls were chattering about their good fortune.

Neither my wife nor I remembered how gross it was to clean that wagon. We watched as the kids disappeared down the street, full of joy.

Memories of a child in pain, sadness about our kids growing up and moving away, disgust at the rodents we had harbored: all disappeared in an instant. The world was painful, sad, and gross. Then the veil parted, and we caught a glimpse of joy.

On the Necessity of Early Childhood Education for All Children – by Nicole Baker Fulgham

This is an original post by Nicole Baker Fulgham, author of Educating All God’s Children: What Christians Can—and Should—Do to Improve Public Education for Low-Income Kids.

Nicole Baker Fulgham (PhD, UCLA) is president and founder of The Expectations Project, a national organization that mobilizes people of faith to support public education reform and close the academic achievement gap. She is the former vice president of faith community relations at Teach For America, has appeared on CNN and ABC News, and was named to the list of “50 Women to Watch: Those Most Shaping the Church and Culture” by Christianity Today. She lives in the Washington, DC area.

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Educating All Gods Children

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
Genesis 1:27 (ESV)

My mother studied early childhood education in college. As a stay-at-home mother, she was more than happy to use all of her training on my older brother and me. Mom systematically taught us the alphabet; then she helped us learn the sounds that each letter made; and eventually (with the help of a couple wonderful shows on public television in the 1970s), we began to string letter sounds together, which allowed us to read words. My big brother, Jay, and I were both fluent readers before we set one foot in a kindergarten classroom. Our parents literally turned our home into a preschool made for two, allowing our God-given potential to be released.

I am quite certain that my informal (and formal) early childhood education provided a phenomenal foundation for my future education. But what happens when a child doesn’t have access to a high-quality preschool education? Not every parent has studied education in college, nor can every family afford to have a stay-at-home parent who can recreate the ideal preschool learning experience.

Research has proven that brain development is at its most critical stage from birth until the time a child is five years old. Therefore, early childhood education significantly influences a child’s academic and life success. For example, research studies have revealed that Chicago children who attended an early childhood education program were twenty-nine percent more likely to graduate from high school than their peers who did not attend. Similarly, Michigan fourth graders who had attended early childhood education programs passed the state’s literacy and math assessment tests at higher rates than their peers who did not attend.

Given the importance of preschool, it seems that we should ensure that the youngest among us receive the best start possible in life. Unfortunately, children in low-income communities are much less likely to obtain a high-quality preschool education than children in wealthier communities. These families, on the average, have less disposable income to afford tuition-based preschools, and they have far fewer options. Most urban and rural communities do not offer public preschool for all children. As a result, children in wealthier communities are significantly better prepared for kindergarten—making it much harder for children from less wealthy families to compete.

Nicole Baker FulghamI believe deeply that all children have been created in God’s image and likeness. As a result, I trust that we each have incredibly rich potential—both intellectually and academically. But I also believe that, as Christians, we have a responsibility to steward that potential and ensure that all children, regardless of their family’s background or economic circumstances, have the opportunity to find their unique purpose.

One of the ways we can do that is to ensure that all children have a high-quality education—beginning at preschool and, hopefully, ending at college. Our nation’s public education system has the potential to help all children receive the excellent start that my brother and I received. But we are a long way from fulfilling that promise for the fifteen million children growing up in poverty in the United States.

I look forward to seeing the creative and dynamic methods in which Christians will stand alongside all families and help every child fulfill their academic and God-given potential.

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Don’t miss your chance to enter a giveaway for a copy of Educating All God’s Children! Enter here.

Learning in the Crossfire – by Donald Opitz

This is an original post by Donald Opitz, co-author (with Derek Melleby) of The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness: A Guide for Students.

Donald Opitz (PhD, Boston University) is associate professor of sociology and higher education at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. He is the author of numerous articles and has worked as a pastor as well as a campus minister. 

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The venerable C. S. Lewis delivered a remarkable sermon in the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin in October 1939. “Learning in War-Time” was written in the shadow of the Big One, and in his sermon, Lewis addressed students who felt cowardly or insignificant because they were not sacrificing their lives to defeat the enemy.

On behalf of his students and colleagues, Lewis asked, “How can we continue to take an interest [in the academy] when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance?” When at every moment, lives—eternal destinies—are in the balance, how can we study literature or art or mathematics or even theology, for that matter?

Lewis realizes that this isn’t just a question for wartime. It is an “all the times” question for every Christian student. People perish every day, and there are so many important causes that cry out for loving attention. Does our academic work stand up under the shadow of national and eschatological urgencies? Is it frivolous or selfish to invest in our own learning?

Lewis reminds his audience that human culture has always existed under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. Yet there is no life apart from culture, and culture was our human assignment from the start. Culture is not swept away by the sirens of war, or even the trumpet blast of judgment.

For those of us called to teaching and learning, academic culture is the focus of our love and the fruit of our labor. East of Eden work is often toilsome, sometimes agonizing. But Lewis reminds us, as did the apostle Paul long ago, that “whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Lewis turns to a theology of glory as the heart of this spirituality for everyday life and as the root of academic faithfulness.

The first sentence of this sermon is often quoted: “A university is a society for the pursuit of learning.” And here is the primary task for those of us gathered in this society: to see God more clearly and to see what God sees more clearly.

This road will not be an easy one. Lewis sees three challenges along this road that cut across his campus and your own: distractions, frustrations, and fears. Perhaps you feel that your learning is futile; that it does not matter; that you’re not good enough, smart enough, influential enough. Please remember that such fear and frustration isn’t of God, and that your calling isn’t to be acclaimed or even successful; it is simply to honor God in life-wide, deep-thought, loving-response faithfulness.

At the end of the day, we must not place our hope in human culture or expect too much from the academy. There is no academic panacea. The cure is not in us, and it is not on campus. No discipline discovers the Holy Grail. No discipline holds the key to wisdom. For only Christ is the source of all wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3).

The best our disciplines can do is to make ready the way for the One who comes and to make ready the way for all who are to come, so that in each aspect of the created and cultural world that is ours to tend, something glorious is growing and glowing there. Learning is leaning toward glory, and we do it best together.

We wrote The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness because we share the love that C. S. Lewis had for learning and for students. We hope that the book will help students to love learning and the Lord of learning a little more during their college years.

Values of A Public Faith – Part 6

This is the sixth and final entry in a series of posts from Miroslav Volf, author of A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good, titled “Values of a Public Faith: A Contribution to a Conversation.”

Click here for the firstsecondthird, fourth, and fifth installments.

18. Public Role of Religion

Value: Every citizen, religious or not, Christian, Jew, or Muslim, has the right to bring his or her own perspectives on human flourishing and on the common good to bear on public life and to do so on equal terms with everyone else.

Rationale: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7). “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12).

Debate: The debate should not be whether religious voices should be excluded. It should be about what kind of political arrangements will ensure the equal access of all to participation in the political process on equal terms and what might be the limits to legitimate pluralism.

Questions to Ask: Does the candidate support the participation of every person in public life, encouraging them to do so on the basis of their own specific motivations and reasons? Does the candidate seek to protect the voices of ordinary people from being drowned out by powerful interest groups (like lobbies and Super PACs)?

19. Truthfulness

Value: Those seeking public office should forswear spin and contempt, being truthful with the public and civil to one another. You can “advertise” but not fabricate; you can criticize but not disrespect.

Rationale: We should all “[speak] the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) and seek to “honor everyone” (1 Pet. 2:17).

Debate: While the line between advertising and spinning is not always clear, the main debate should be about effective means to diminish the spin and contempt that have become part of our democratic system of elections.

Questions to Ask: Do the facts about the candidate’s own performance as well as those of their opponent match with the candidates’ words? Is the candidate attempting to correct rather than benefit from the spin that others, without his direct endorsement, do on his behalf?

20. Character

Value: Competence (technical expertise, including emotional intelligence), though essential, matters less than character because knowledge, though crucial, matters less than love.

Rationale: “If I . . . understand all mysteries and all knowledge . . . but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2).

Debate: The debate should be about what dimensions of character matter most and what blend of virtues and competencies is most needed at this time.

Questions to Ask: Whom does the candidate strive to be like? Whom does he most resemble in character? Will the fear of losing power corrupt him?

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For more information on A Public Faithclick here.

Values of A Public Faith – Part 5

This is the fifth in a series of posts from Miroslav Volf, author of A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good, titled “Values of a Public Faith: A Contribution to a Conversation.”

Click here for the firstsecondthird and fourth installments.

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15. War

Value: War is almost never justifiable, and every successful justification has to show how a particular war is an instance of loving one’s neighbors and loving one’s enemies.

Rationale: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighborand hate your enemy.’But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”(Matt. 5:43–46).

Debate: There is a legitimate debate about whether acts of war can ever be a form of love of neighbor and of enemy and, if they can, about what causes justify war (rule of a tyrant?) and what constitutes just conduct of war (drones?).

Questions to Ask: Has the candidate supported or advocated ending unjust wars in the past? Has the candidate condemned significant forms of unjust conduct of war?

16. Torture

Value: We should never torture. It dehumanizes both the detainee and the interrogator by violating the dignity of the one and degrading the integrity of the other, [1] and it erodes the moral character of the nation approving it. (For a definition of torture, see http://www.hrweb.org/legal/cat.html.)

Rationale: “Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44). “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).

Debate: There is no debate on this one—at least not a debate that, from my reading of Christian moral obligations, is legitimate. Even if torture were effective (which, according to most knowledgeable sources, it is not), it would be morally unacceptable.

Question to Ask: Has the candidate unequivocally condemned the use of torture?

17. Honoring Everyone

Value: We should honor every human being and respect all faiths (without necessarily affirming them as true). As citizens, we have the right to mock another religion, but as followers of Christ, we have a moral obligation not to.

Rationale: “Honor everyone” (1 Pet. 2:17).

Debate: The debate about one’s relation to other religions should not be whether we have the right to mock what others hold to be holy; we do have that right. At the same time, the debate should not be about whether we have a moral obligation not to make use of that right; we ought not mock what other people hold to be holy. Instead, the debate should be about what the authentic teachings and practices of individual religions are, to what extent the claims of their teachings are true (or false), and in what ways each religion fosters (or hinders) human flourishing.

Question to Ask: Will the candidate promote respect for all religions, including Islam, while at the same time affirming the need for honest debate about how true and salutary they are?



[1] See Jennifer S. Bryson, “My Guantanamo Experience: Support Interrogation, Reject Torture,” http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2011/09/3934/.

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Check back on Thursday for the sixth and final entry in this series.
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For more information on A Public Faithclick here.