Monday, May 03, 2004

school memories

When I was in first grade, they started me out in the advanced reading group, probably because my older brothers had tested as gifted. Two weeks or so into the year, without being told, I was bumped down into a slower group, and apparently the teacher actually told my mother that she would have to accept that I would never be as smart as my older brothers. She and one of the other teachers/vice principals or something actually tried to tell my mother that I was at least semi-retarded. (It actually turns out that I had the highest IQ of the four of us.)

In all honesty, I can say that the only thing I'm grateful to Mrs. Hlavsa for is that she did teach me how to read. The rest of first grade was a nightmare where I would do anything to get out of class. I peed my pants so regularly that it was almost a drill; I lied and pretended to be sick on at least one occasion so I could leave school.

I guess I have to say I'm disappointed my parents never pushed to get me out of that woman's class, but to their credit they did make it absolutely clear that my younger brother was not to be put in her class under any circumstances two years later, even though that would have been the district's normal policy. (I think it had something to do with where children lived.) The only nice thing I can say about Mrs. Hlavsa is that she did teach me to read. She made me a nervous wreck and insisted I write with my left hand -- I'm right-handed -- so that to this day I still have a bad stammer when I get nervous or excited, but at least she taught me to read.

My big break came in second grade, when I got a decent teacher, and then was IQ tested, and then in third grade when Mrs. Cromer let us go at our own pace, as I mentioned earlier.

Something good about schools, to lighten the tone: In fourth grade, our teachers made an arrangement that involved rotating us to different classrooms for math, science and English. My math teacher was Mr. Ernett, a man who was generally good with students and didn't tolerate attitude or misbehavior.

One day as recess ended, Mr. Ernett saw me punching the boy in line in front of me, and pulled us both out. Darren Shumaker, who I had been hitting, claimed to have no idea why I punched him. When I explained that Darren had been picking on me nonstop all year, Mr. Ernett proceeded to chew him out for what seemed to me to be ages. His entire lecture to me was, "Don't ever do that again," followed by a stern warning to Darren that if he ever picked me again, Mr. Ernett was going to make him wish he had never been born.

That guy remains my favorite teacher to this day.

the antichrist

Let me pose this question: Must there in fact be an Antichrist? Many Bible scholars believe the term refers simply to anyone who raises himself to the level of a god, and that the beast mentioned in Revelation is simply Nero himself, that John was prophesying the fall of Nero and the end of the Neronian persecution.

That depends at least in part on the date Revelation was written. If it was written prior to A.D. 70, that interpretation is a possibility. Written after A.D. 90, as it traditionally is held, it can't be referring to Nero unless it's a "reverse prophecy"; i.e., the Johannine author made up the prophecy after the fact.

The European Union is the current bogeyman because the book of Revelation appears to be describing Rome, and the Roman Empire hasn't been a player in over a thousand years. Ever since the Protestant Reformation under Luther and others, the Roman Catholic Church has been a popular contender for the role now being assigned by lay scholars to the European Union. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was "prophesied" to usher the Antichrist in to power, remember? That was one of the reasons Gorbachev was seen as the Antichrist, because he was offering real peace between the Soviet bloc and the West for the first time in decades.

The Antichrist is also interesting because he's changed over the years too. Luther and other reformers were called the Antichrist because they were breaking the Church; before them, I'm sure Mohammed was called the Antichrist since many early Muslims had been Catholics. The papacy has been the leading contender for Antichrist under many generations of fundamentalism, although I've heard some groups insist the Antichrist will be Jewish. These days, with East and West seemingly headed toward collision, I'm sure there are groups claiming the Antichrist will be an Arab. (I've also heard some say that the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9-11 was the fall of Babylon talked about in Revelation, since New York is the cultural capital of America's global empire.)

We usually make the Antichrist whoever our demon of the moment is, whether it makes sense or no. It's a shame, really, since that also means that we blind ourselves to what the Bible really says about the ultimate fate of those who aggrandize themselves and defy the will of the Almighty, and miss how we can apply those Scriptures to our present lives and situations.

presidential requirements

There's been some mindless banter recently about amending the Constitution to allow naturalized citizens to run for the U.S. presidency. I doubt anything will come of that, so let me add this suggestion to the fire, since nothing will come of it either:

In addition to the current requirements -- born in the United States or to American parents overseas, at least 35 years old at the time the term would begin, current citizen who has lived at least 14 years in the country -- let's add one more requirement. Anyone who would be president of the United States also must have lived in another country for at least two years. Maybe we also should require fluency in English and a second language.

Think of what that would do for the country. We'd be led by someone who actually understands how other nations view the United States, who could see the ramifications of U.S. policy on those other places, and who probably would have a lengthy personal history with citizens of that other country.

And if the president can speak a second language fluently, so much the better for understanding the rest of the world.

Let it be so ordered upon my ascendance to the rank of world ruler.

Or maybe we should amend the U.S. Constitution to require that the president drink beer.

Saturday, May 01, 2004

going deeper

This is going to be rather lengthy, so I hope you'll bear with my mental and verbal meanderings a bit.

Where should I begin? I suppose I should start by saying what a number of you already know about me. I've been disaffected with American Christianity for years for a number of reasons, but mainly because of its unbiblical preoccupation with the self. I've commented to several people that the big lie of evangelicalism is "God loves you, and has a wonderful plan for your life," because it has entirely the wrong focus. It's not about what God wants to do for us and how he wants to shower us with blessings, make us happy and fill our lives with cute frolicking puppies.

It's about how God wants us to be like him, the better to proclaim his glory before the nations.
A lot of noodleheads talk about all the neat stuff Jesus has done for them and how he wants to do neat things for us. While there is some truth to that — there always is — the big truths that Jesus reveals in the gospel aren't about making us happy. When he was grilled on which part of the Torah was most important, his response was this: "Hear O Israel, the Lord, the Lord our God is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your strength." From there he went on to say that the second greatest commandment is like the first: "Love your neighbor as yourself," which I've always understood as meaning you can't keep the first commandment unless you're keeping the second.

That also happens to be the message of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. That parable should be troubling to most evangelical thinking, because the distinction made between the sheep and the goats is what they did to do, and what they failed to do — not what they believed. The goats were believers, like the sheep, but they had failed to feed the hungry, visit those in prison, clothe the naked and so on. The message Jesus has for them is, "Whatever you did not do to the least of these, you did not do to me." Elsewhere in the book of James, that writer says point-blank that faith without works is a dead and useless faith.

What I'm getting to is that I don't believe Jesus wants people who worship him on Sundays and relate to him only in a vague and generally approving way. He calls us to a radical change in lifestyle that flies in the face of everything the world holds dear, that goes against every self-preservation instinct we have and involves a commitment to putting the needs of others before ourselves. He never promises us money. He tells the rich young ruler, "One thing you lack: Go sell everything you have, and give it to the poor. Then you can be my disciple." He never promises us happiness. He tells his disciples that they'll be persecuted, ridiculed and thrown into jail for his sake and the gospel's. What he does promise is pain and suffering, and he demands that we take him up on it. "Unless you take up your cross daily and follow me, you cannot be my disciple." Essentially, what he says is, "Follow me, and die, and I'll give you a life and a joy you never dreamed was possible."

I'm reminded once again of Ole Anthony, the founder of the Trinity Foundation in Dallas, Texas. A speaker once asked him to share what God had done for him lately, and Anthony pretty much ruined the service by saying, "God has screwed up my life today, the same way he has screwed it up every day that I've followed him, because he isn't interested in me as much as he is in seeing his son reflected in me."

Bingo. That's what it's about. Either I can screw up my life by going my own way and letting sin ruin everything around me, or I can give my life over to the Lord and let him screw it up for his glory. Of the two of us, I know who has a better idea what he's doing.

Of course you know all this. I've talked about it with several of you ad nauseum, even as I've tried to figure out what it is I'm supposed to be doing. You've watched, prayed and cried with me as I wrestled to save my foster son from the tremendous neglect he experienced his first two years, and you saw how it absolutely ripped me open when he went back to his parents and walked out of our lives.

Some of you know about the volunteer work I did at the Northampton County Jail when I was living in Easton, Pa., and I'm sure all of you know that I lived for two years in the Port-au-Prince area in Haiti, and how I first really started to deal with issues of poverty and human suffering and the church's willingness to pretend it's not there.

Where is all this leading? Well, after a long sleep, I think the caterpillar is finally getting ready to leave the cocoon, its chrysalis complete. (Sounds flowery, doesn't it? I'll have to remember it if I ever make a speech on this subject.)

It's been about two years since our old church fell to pieces. In that time Natasha and I have been to more churches that we have toes, put together, and while we've finally found a church that we're settling for, I don't think we've found a church we want to settle into.

No, I am not interested in starting a church. Nice guess, though.

What I am interested in starting is a community of believers, here in Nova Bastille. Think: Trinity Foundation. Think: Jesus People USA. Think: a group of people who are living in the same general geographic area, sharing all things in common (or pretty damn close to it, anyway) and doing what they can not only to help one another but to help the people around them.

Nova Bastille is a spiritually dark place. The high school dropout rate is about 50 percent. There are gangs that operate pretty freely, even in the schools; a police force where some of the cops were convicted two years ago of running a brothel; race problems among the city's black, Hispanic and white populations; and all the other various problems that plague inner cities. On top of that, our city administration is tearing down the affordable housing and replacing it with luxury apartments. It's abusing its eminent domain authority to shut down viable, homegrown businesses that people have owned and operated for years, just so it can redevelop the area and make it all pretty. I don't know about you, but I consider the gentrification of an area to be a spiritual issue — it’s the oppression of the poor to line the pockets of some guy who's already rich.

This is a city that needs hope. This is a city that needs Jesus Christ.

There are some ministries in Nova Bastille already that do good stuff. Elijah's Promise, for example, is a soup kitchen that feeds the hungry twice a day. That's good, and I intend to go down there Saturday to volunteer.

There's more to it than that, though. The sort of deliverance this city needs is going to come from a committed group of believers who are willing to put everything into the kingdom of Christ and live by faith. I can see a few things such a community could do: providing a newspaper to give the common people a voice and instill a sense of pride in what is good about Nova Bastille, providing English lessons or other tutoring to students and adults alike, repairing cars for just the cost of parts so that people don't lose their jobs because they can't afford to fix their cars, running a community garden to help build a sense of community, cleaning up litter and washing up graffiti, helping to build housing through the projects of Habitat for Humanity, and providing homes to foster children. (You knew that one was going to be in there, didn't you?) And of course, this is all done in the context of the gospel. There could be Bible studies, group worship, various forms of outreach and evangelism, and so on.

I've already spoken to a few friends of mine from my old church, and they were excited to hear what I'm thinking. I'll be honest: I have no idea if what I'm considering is coming from God. I know myself pretty well, and I know that I'm prone to running off on flights of fancy where I get an idea in my head, and then dropping it two weeks later when things don't work out quickly and easily. It might be that this is just such another mindless fancy, although I hope not. What I'm envisioning is something biblical, and I don't doubt it's the sort of thing that God would delight in — if it's his time.

I'd appreciate your prayer for Natasha and for me as we discuss this and reach out to other people to see if they're interested. I don't know how exactly this would take shape, whether it would involve people moving into Nova Bastille or us moving within Nova Bastille, or something else. It might also turn out to be some idle fantasy of mine that will blow over in a few weeks. I will say this, though: I'm tired of being where I am. I've been settling for mediocrity spiritually, and I'm watching as the world finds its place in me as more and more junk accumulates in my life, from a DVD player with a huge collection to a stack of comic books that could kill a mule to just about everything else in this room.

Jesus Christ has got to be the most radical, liberal man I've ever met. It’s time I started acting more like him.