Category: Bringing Young People Back to the Church

Women and the Church: Breaking the Stained-Glass Ceiling

With all the sexual harassment claims and domestic violence accusations in the news these days, a person would have to be living under a rock not to notice.  Fortunately, for now, none of this has yet washed up on the church’s shore, but with a major tenet of its doctrine being that wives are to be submissive to their husbands, there is, metaphorically, a ticking time bomb that is certain to go off at any time.  Count on it.

Thinking that women are supposed to be submissive to men is about to become an anchor around the church’s neck.

All too often and for the wrong reasons, the church seems to find itself on the wrong side of history related to social issues and cultural dichotomies.  That is because, good or bad, the world is able to adapt to an ever-changing social landscape better than the church has ever been able to do.  That is good when the world tilts away from God’s nature, but it is extremely bad when the church has to play catch-up in situations where the world presents a better reflection of God.

Racism and sexism are two high-profile examples.

For centuries, the church was eerily silent as women and minorities fought for equal footing, while many church leaders sat on their collective hands.  There were times when the church had the opportunity to wash the feet of entire generations by fighting discrimination, segregation and inequality, while some churches muddied the water by becoming its poster child.

It’s hard to spread the gospel when you look nothing like it.

Sexism is just the church’s latest and largest boondoggle, as the church continues to treat women as second-class citizens by not allowing their spiritual potential to blossom in whatever direction God’s gifts direct. That road has been washed out, simply because, long ago, men in the church beat women over the head with their Bibles.  Unfortunately, those of us who grew up in the church have allowed this to continue.  Shame on us.

Imagine how differently the world would be if the church had awoken from its theological stupor when the 19th Amendment was passed and immediately started treating women equally.  It may have still taken decades for women in the church to feel fully free and thrive in the spiritual power of God’s gifts.   Certainly by now, our mothers, daughters, and grand-daughters would have already learned to soar, lifted by their faith instead of being marginalized by old men guarding church doctrine.

Are we currently utilizing the gifts of the best available preachers, leaders, and teachers to share the gospel of Christ to a world in dire need of it?  We will never know because currently, it requires a “Y” chromosome to get into the club.

What has been termed “the glass ceiling”, a metaphor for the barriers minorities face to achieve equal footing, the same applies to women and the church, related to limiting their potential.  In all aspects of Christianity, nobody in the church should ever be treated like a second-class citizen.  Nobody.

What does Scripture actually say about women’s roles in the church?  Perhaps, not surprisingly, it is absolutely nothing like what is currently being taught in the church.  The same aberrant theology that decided Joan of Arc, as a teenager, should be executed as a witch by the church and many like her, has also kept women under thumb for six more centuries by using the same flawed approach.

Here are six Scriptural building blocks for actually determining women’s roles in the church today:

 

Herd Mentality- Matthew, Mark and Luke record the Sadducees’ effort to discredit Jesus’ teachings about resurrection with a “what if” query about who, at the resurrection, would be the husband of a woman who married each of seven brothers in succession upon the previous brother’s death, following the Law’s directive.  But wait a minute:  Why in the world is she forced to marry a man she did not choose, in the first place?  Why is she forced to have sex with a man she does not love?  One after another after another?

From Deuteronomy 25, which serves as the basis for the Sadducees question, does God actually force women to have sex with men they did not choose nor love, ultimately becoming genealogical prostitutes to grow the Hebrew herd and keep a lineage alive?  Of course, every other civilization was facing the same reality, where strength in numbers meant superiority.

Since men could not grow their numbers by themselves, they, by hook or crook, needed women to carry the load, hence the manipulation, or worse.   But sexual intercourse was supposed to be the most sacred and intimate interaction between a man and a woman, for which he would leave father and mother to become one flesh.

For women in almost all ancient cultures, childbearing had become a commodity.  Coercing women to have sex in situations where love was not the primary currency simply to increase numbers and propagate someone’s lineage cannot possibly reflect God’s nature- do you really believe the events and directives described in Deuteronomy 25 are borne of God?  Should women today follow the Law’s directives?

The reason I ask that is that Paul, in the first century, noted that Gentile women in the church should be submissive to their husbands because that is what the Law says they should do (I Cor. 14:34).  Let me say that again: the sole reason for women being theologically coerced into submission in Christianity, over the centuries and even today, is because Paul said Gentile women back then were to do it because the Law of Moses said they had to.  Not that the gospel of Jesus told them to, mind you, but that the Law of Moses said they should.   Yes, gentile women.

If you believe women should be submissive to their husbands in the church today, then, by definition, you also believe that every other tenet of the Law of Moses should still be followed.  That means that if a couple had a dozen children who were all girls and then the husband dies, that the wife has to marry her brother-in-law.

 

Submission 101- When Sarai could not conceive, she instructed Abram to have sex with Hagar, her Egyptian slave. As a slave, Hagar was not given a choice- she was ordered to have sex with Abram as often as needed to conceive, even if she had planned to save herself for marriage.  Had she been given that option, the Ishmaelites would have never existed.

What about Zilpah and Bilhah, the handmaidens of Leah and Rachel, Jacob’s wives, who were instructed to marry Jacob and bear his children?  Or about Judah’s mistreatment of Tamar?  And what about the 400 women of Jabesh Gilead that the Benjamites kidnapped and forced to be their wives so they could keep the Benjamite lineage alive?  Submission and freedom are both critical aspects of Christianity, but they are mutually exclusive when unequally yoked.

 

As the Saying goes, When in Rome………      In I Timothy, Paul instructed Timothy to require Gentile women in Ephesus, the home of Artemis and the seat of women’s rights in the ancient world, to submit to their husbands. Why? Was it because women were incapable of thinking for themselves? Seeing women now running large corporations and being educated at the finest institutions on the planet, it is obvious that women have as much intellectual and spiritual firepower as any man.

Paul told Timothy that wives needed to be submissive to their husbands because, well, uh, Adam was formed first, even though Gentile women, especially those in Ephesus, could have cared less about Adam or Eve, or any character from Hebrew history for that matter.

Basically, Paul was trying to get Timothy to try to sell Gentile women on their need to keep quiet in a man’s world, which was the metric in almost all cultures on earth.  So Paul wasn’t re-inventing the wheel; he was just trying to keep it on the rails.  Imagine the repercussions if a woman, exercising her new-found freedom in Christ, walked into a synagogue and started sharing Christ.   How embarrassing that would have been for Paul and how disruptive that would have been back then.

What would have happened to Apollos had Aquila been struck by a dump truck, leaving only Priscilla to instruct him?  I guess Apollos would have continued to peddle defective goods.

 

Dying to the Law- Paul told the Galatians that he had died to the Law (Galatians 2:19), but that was just not the case.  Not only did Paul not die to the Law, he continued to embrace it to the day he died.

As Acts 21 notes, Paul and James were totally focused on keeping the Law of Moses devoutly and that Paul was “living in obedience to the law”, even 25 years after Jesus’ death.  The reality is that if you took all of Paul’s letters written to Gentile congregations and removed all references to the Law and the prophets, there wouldn’t be much left.  He continually tried to convince his Gentile audiences that they needed to follow a Law he had supposedly died to.

 

Salvation through childbearing- I Timothy 2:15  states: “But women will be saved through childbearing….”.  First of all, childbearing has absolutely nothing to do with salvation- Paul was just grabbing at straws trying to give Timothy something different to tell Gentile women that Paul hadn’t already tried on them (and failed) himself in his letter to the Ephesians.   Women weren’t saved because they were having sex with men they did not choose nor love, which produces children, but perhaps he was saying that there is a special place in heaven for women manipulated into doing that.  But it does reinforce Paul’s mistaken premise that Gentiles were to live by Jewish customs.

Interestingly, Paul told men that they were to love their wives, but he never told wives to love their husbands.  He told them they should respect their husbands.   How can you love someone you did not choose?  Respect is earned; love has to be grown.

Long before Ivan Pavlov formulated his theories about conditioned responses, the church used Pavlovian indoctrination to coerce its members without a “Y” chromosome into compliance.  But women in the millennial generation raised on the Internet are leaving the church in droves, perhaps realizing how obtuse this thinking is to the nature of God.

Here’s the reality: the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is not dependent on the Law in any way, shape, form or fashion; it just makes it easier to believe.  But, after Pentecost, the purpose of the miraculous gifts was to package the gospel so that it would travel well into the Gentile world.

Nathanael did not need the Law to believe.  Neither did any of the fishermen who saw the large catch of fish and left their nets.  Nor the Philippian jailor.

 

Inerrancy and the inspired word. For a people intent on “speaking where the Bible speaks and being silent where the Bible is silent”, we violate that when we say that the Bible is inerrant.  Nowhere in the Bible does it say that it is inerrant or infallible.  Not that it is or isn’t.   But the intended purpose of the Bible’s inspired writers was inspiration, joy, hope, encouragement, instruction and motivation, teaching tools that cannot be limited by facts or figures.

The best teachers on earth, then and now, make use of all available tools to make an emotional connection, which include hyperbole, exaggeration, personification, and metaphors.  Imagine a football coach trying to inspire his team during his half-time pep talk by talking about what is instead of what could be.  It doesn’t take inspiration to speak in literal terms.

By using parables in his teachings, Jesus utilized each of these devices to make his points.  Do you really believe the Pharisees actually strained at a gnat and swallowed a camel?  Why don’t we allow Moses, Paul and all other inspired writers the same latitude?

We have no problem thinking that Peter was wrong at times; why do we assume Paul’s words must be taken literally?  On a molecular level, what exactly do you think “inspired” means?

 

Human dynamics in the first century were not the human dynamics of the twenty-first century.  In dealing with first century Gentile churches, Paul was focused on maintaining a fragile coalition, not spewing doctrine, so women’s roles in the first-century church had to resemble women’s roles in first-century society already in place.

In the world, “you’ve come a long way, baby!”.  It’s time for the church to play catch up.

 

 

 

 

Fixing the Church’s Marketing Problem: Will the Real God Please Stand Up?

Just how big is God, anyway?

 At this weekend’s NBA all-star game, some of the best players on earth will assemble to put their talents on display.  The game of basketball has certainly come a long way from the day James Naismith first nailed a peach basket to a wall in Springfield, Massachusetts 125 years ago.  Imagine the difference in the way it was played back then with the way it is played today.  

 What caused this rapid development of skill and talent?  Passionate people building upon what was learned by others.

 Twelve years after the peach basket was put up, two bicycle builders from Dayton, Ohio taught the world to fly.  The discipline of aviation started primitively, by flying only a few feet.  Mankind took what was learned from that first flight and, over the next 113 years, has landed on the moon, built a space station and daily transports tens of thousands of people from one end of the world to the other. 

What caused this rapid development of aviation?  Passionate people building upon what was learned by others.

 Ironically, the church has not done that with the teachings of the man from Galilee, even though it has had nearly two thousand years to figure it out.  I think it is safe to say that if the church had been in charge of basketball’s development, its players would still be trying to get a ball into a peach basket.

The church seems to struggle getting past “because we’ve always done it that way”.  Basically, that is why we have a marketing problem for reaching this generation of young people.

As Christians, we have the greatest product on earth, which can transform lives and give hope to every person on earth.  Properly implemented, it could end child hunger around the world.  Actively engaged, it could end domestic violence and child abuse. 

But instead of building upon the things learned in the past, the church keeps recalibrating itself backwards, limiting its integration into each subsequent generation.  So for the church to flourish in the 21st century with its young people leading it instead of leaving it, the church must change its marketing campaign.

This is how the church currently markets itself to its young people:

1.        Numerous rituals

2.       Tells them of future events that aren’t likely to happen in their lives for the next 75-80 years

3.       It can’t fully explain most of the things it teaches in this Internet age

4.       It’s about things you have to do, instead of things you get to do

 The church is trying to market itself to the world with a 2,000-3,000 year-old portrait of God, which was drawn against the backdrop of superstition, mythology, and ignorance.  It should instead be showcasing God’s available power for the current world they live.  Right marketing campaign; wrong time.

 It may have been the best portrayal of God those inspired writers could muster in their effort to inspire and motivate their audiences toward a likeness of Him, but, viewed through the prism of modern day discoveries and scrutiny, much of what we read in the Bible can’t hold water in this Internet age.   

 Nor was it intended to.  It’s the difference between trying to appeal to tens of thousands of people back then and trying to appeal to billions of people today.

 Here are some illustrations that highlight biblical inconsistencies:

 1.       When the Israelites left Egypt, God thought they might turn back if He led them directly into Canaan, and had to fight against a strong Philistine army.  God didn’t know if they would or wouldn’t?  God was not omniscient?

2.       In the story of Abraham being instructed to sacrifice his son Isaac, God ultimately stopped Abraham because then God knew of Abraham’s faith.  He did not know?  God was not omniscient?

3.       Several times when the Israelites messed up in the wilderness, God would become angry when he saw their behavior.  So God didn’t know beforehand?  God was not omniscient?

4.       Throughout Scripture God is given human attributes, as if He is a man in the sky.  The problem is that does not allow God to be at other places at the same time.  When God was over Jerusalem, was He also over Tokyo? Australia?  Personification is a great teaching tool for novice minds (like Saturday morning cartoons) which is why God metaphorically sitting on a throne like a person might was used so to help the Israelites get their arms around God.

5.        Solomon wrote that nothing happens to a person after they die.  No heaven?  No hell?

6.       Solomon also said that man cannot comprehend what goes on under the sun, which was true three thousand years ago, even for the wisest man on earth.  But now any fifth grader can unravel many of the biological complexities of mankind as part of their educational process.

7.       In the ten commandments, Moses noted that there should be no other gods before God while Matthew wrote that God is God Most High.  So there actually are other gods?  In Greek mythology, the higher the altitude, the more powerful the god. It’s not “God Most High”; it’s just “God”.  Matthew was just parroting his religious training.

 The inspired writings were supposed to create a rocket launch, with each subsequent generation building upon what its charter members created.   Instead, the church chained those teachings to the first century, not allowing them to be built upon, threatening doom and gloom for anyone who thought outside the box.

Statistics show that thousands of people leave the church every day.  To turn that around, the church needs to re-market, re-brand, and re-package God so that His full available power for their lives can be seen.  

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Consider this: there are over three-quarters of a million words in the Bible, written by forty or so inspired men over a thirteen-hundred-year span, but here’s the reality:  you could take the worst photograph the Hubble telescope has ever taken of the farthest reaches of the universe, and it does a far better job of describing the essence and dimension of God to this generation than all of the words of the Bible, combined.

 Imagine how differently the Bible might have been written had Luke, the doctor, seen a heart transplant surgery, or sat in a neuroscience class to understand how the mind works, or had a better working knowledge of the causes of diseases or temptation. 

 Imagine how differently Paul’s tone might have been in his letters had he spent a week up in the space station or had even known that Jesus would not return for at least the next two thousand years.

In effect, the God described in the Bible thousands of years ago, in the eyes of many in this generation, does not exist.

The reality is that He is bigger.  Way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way bigger.

Bigger than anything Moses could have possibly understood; more powerful than David ever dreamed about.  And the way Paul tried to explain God, when compared to God’s actual Presence, is like comparing a firecracker to an atomic bomb.

 For this God we serve is not a person up in the sky, but rather is a tower of strength that occupies every inch for trillions of light years in all directions, like a blanket.  God is a reservoir of spirit large enough to fill everyone on earth with His power, with plenty to spare, to help alter the course of history.  And, if you want to know where to send your prayers, just look in the mirror, because God lives in you.  Rituals won’t help young people understand that.  

 The best way to look at Christianity, and its available spiritual firepower, is to think of it like training for a triathlon.  Always thinking of ways of becoming stronger and staying away from things that are counter-productive to the goal.  Then it wouldn’t be necessary to parse words in the Bible to allow people to eat what they want, drink what they want, and look and act as closely like the world as possible, but still sneak into heaven.

 While there may be five or six growth metrics toward becoming a triathlete, there are 20-25 growth metrics for growing spiritually.  For example, having the same patience, mood, and focus with only two hours of sleep as you would with eight hours of sleep is a derivative of spiritual growth.  

Why do you think Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry? Spiritual boot camp, to spiritually prepare for anything thrown at him for the next three years.  For us, that is the role of the church.

 You will reach this generation of kids once you allow them to test drive God’s available horsepower based on the octane of their own faith, and on their own terms.  From there, the sky’s the limit.

Moving Women from the Back of the Church Bus

You’ve certainly come a long way, baby!

 

Finally unchained from the bonds of servitude their lack of a Y chromosome imposed on them throughout history, women now have unlimited possibilities in front of them. It’s not that they somehow discovered their Y chromosome, which magically leveled the playing field; in fact, it seems to be quite the opposite. Companies are beginning to realize that the attributes of nurturing and listening, which appears more naturally in women than in men, are far more effective business tools in this ever-changing business environment than the good-ole-boy network could ever accomplish. That is why women are becoming a greater presence in the corporate landscape. Although the glass ceiling which separates them from their male counterparts in the workplace still exists, it continues to shrink as more and more successful women weaken its framework.

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With more frequency, they are becoming presidents and CEOs of companies, architects, inventors, Secretaries of State, and members of Congress. They are pilots and astronauts, bankers and engineers, even while raising their families and caring for their parents. It’s not that they couldn’t have performed these duties long ago, had they the education and training as the foundation for such work; it’s just that they were never allowed the freedom to see how high they could soar while chained to the ancient cultures men created. That is why Solomon’s description of the virtuous woman would probably include far more multi-tasking had he written it today.

 

For thousands of years, testosterone-laden armies set out to enlarge their borders by conquering weaker neighbors, with gold and silver, women and children taken as the spoils of war. As the physically weaker sex, women were at the mercy of the consciences of those in control regarding their safety and well-being, as their ability to bear children became their greatest asset toward survival in a semi-civilized world. The story of Ruth, a Moabite, and Boaz follows these realities and emotions as Ruth seeks to have Boaz marry her and become her kinsman-redeemer, which, for a foreign woman in a strange land, was like hitting the lottery. That is how Ruth became King David’s great-grandmother, and the rest is history.

 

In Bible times, few women were educated and since they were physically weaker than men, their help and support was needed in a man’s world. That is not debatable. What is debatable is how women should be treated in the church today, in a world where those metrics no longer apply. The reality is that at no time in history have women been as educated as they are now, perhaps even more so than men are.

 

For the most part, in the church today, women are treated as second class citizens, metaphorically relegated to the back of the church bus, not because they read their Bibles and determined that is where they needed to sit. Rather, centuries ago, at a time when they could not read it for themselves, women were told that was the place they needed to be, to follow the apostles’ instructions. Who told them this was the case? You guessed it: men, who interpreted Scriptures to say that their wives needed to be submissive to them.

 

The reason that is still the case today is not because a complete study of the Bible would yield the same interpretation. In fact, it would not. The reason is because, even in this Internet age where knowledge flows from all available angles, the church does not allow its ancient teachings and interpretations to be challenged. If it did, young people and millennials would not be heading for the exits. If there is one organization on earth that is on the cutting edge for fostering the unity of the spiritual gifts of men and women, it should be the church. That is not the case.

 

Imagine that a fourteen year old girl in your congregation has done what you hoped she would: read the Bible through, from cover to cover. And from this analysis, she determined that men and women are equal in all things in the church, including teaching, preaching and leadership. How would your church handle that? Would they have her parents try to do a better job of indoctrinating her, hoping this time it sticks?

 

While doing research for “Heaven’s Gold”, I interviewed dozens of young ladies who had permanently left the church. In seeking reasons for leaving, to a person, they all said the primary reason they left was because of the way the church treated them. Let’s face it, having one half of an organization be submissive to the other half, is not a good sales plan. Ultimately, it was not Jesus’ message driving them away; rather, it was the way that message was being taught, filtered through centuries of testosterone.

 

The most important aspect of any consideration of Scripture is context. Context, context, context. Consideration of any letter in the compilation of inspired writings we call the Bible, should always begin with the following: why did he write it? From where did he write it? Where was he writing it to? Who was he writing it to? What were the cultural realities? Was he trying to fix something? Was he successful?

 

Concerning the roles of men and women today, these questions come to mind from ancient cultures: were the wives educated? Could they read and write? How old were they? Did they choose their husbands or were they chosen for them? Were they property of their fathers and then their husbands? What rights did they have?
These seem to be the relevant points that arise from that contextual consideration about the roles of men and women in the church, then and now:

 

  1. Nowhere in Scripture does Paul tell women to love their husbands. Although he continually tells men to love their wives, he tells wives to respect their husbands. Respect their husbands? Why is that? Was it because they were much older? Was it because wives didn’t choose their husbands, but were chosen for them? Were they property?
  2. Peter tells wives to submit to their husbands “in the same way” slaves are to submit to their masters. Are churches saying that women today should submit to their husbands that way? Is it barely possible that the situation in the locales the apostles were speaking to are extremely different than they are now?
  3. By definition, the young wives did not love their husbands. Paul tells older women to teach young women to love their husbands. Why would they need to be taught to love someone they already loved? And one thing that is typically missed in that passage in Titus is the two words included in that admonition: “and children”. Paul instructs older women to teach younger women “to” love their husbands and children, not “how to” love them. How young would a girl have to be that she has to be told to love her children? 12? 14? 16?
  4. In I Timothy, Paul tells Timothy to do something he couldn’t do himself: get the women in Ephesus to submit to their husbands. What were the odds that Timothy would be able to do something Paul couldn’t do?
  5. Adam and Eve. Paul told Timothy to tell those gentile women that because Eve (not Adam) sinned that they had to submit to their husbands, and would be saved by being barefoot and pregnant. But in his letter to the church in Rome, he told them it was Adam (not Eve) whose sin started the ball rolling in the wrong direction. Expediency? Paul found out how difficult it was to get gentiles in Asia Minor, home of the temple of Artemis, to go along with Jewish customs.

Paul and Peter were dealing with cultural realities that are nothing like today. Today, women are not property and they can choose their husband for themselves. They are smart, they are educated, they are spiritually-gifted, and they can support themselves. When Paul was in prison, he wrote letters to three churches: Ephesus, Colosse, and Philippi. The one letter he did not mention wives being submissive to their husbands was the church in Philippi, where he stayed with Lydia, who ran her own business and was able to fend for herself.  Running the church as a male-dominated, top-down organization instead of a servant-led body, has turned Jesus’ teachings into a religion instead of the way of life it was intended.

 

That doesn’t mean that women should be given leadership roles, either. Spiritual leadership is not a right based on chromosomal organization. It is a calling. People will follow those who passionate lead in the direction that best serves others, whether male or female. Whoever happens to be the best leader in patience, joy, love, kindness, etc. should be followed. Church leaders should be the ones who best exhibit these qualities, regardless of gender.

 

This is not intended to tell people or churches what they should or should not believe about the roles of men and women or any other issue in the church. It is, however, intended to foster an open dialog between all members of the church, considering the entire Bible, and not just hand-picked passages.

A Millennial’s Guide to Heaven

After spending decades barely mentioning the details of heaven in anything but euphemisms, the Internet’s effect on young people leaving is forcing the church to address seemingly difficult topics. I have read blogs written by various preachers about heaven recently, and I have also watched video and sermon series of others as they each shared their view on the afterlife. Perhaps not ironically, each of these presentations parrot one another, the overlapping thesis being the words of Isaiah, Jesus, Paul, Peter and John taken literally. That is incredibly odd, since each author, in trying to lift their audience’s weight of tribulation, presented different spins on the same metric. No two were the same, because the circumstances of each audience were geographically and theologically different.

 

Assigning teachable moments in Scripture as literal, related to future events has more holes in it than Swiss cheese, which is why the attempt is never made to explain their conclusions, biologically or metaphysically. Thinking that there will physically be a new heaven and a new earth, and that the coordinates for heaven will be moved from the sky to terra firma when Jesus returns is, well, bizarre, especially since young people have effortlessly traveled from one to the other most of their lives.

 

During these presentations, it is often said that the holes they can’t explain were things we weren’t meant to know. That always occurs when metaphoric things are defined as literal. Taking Jesus’ parables as literal creates the same cross current.  In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, how could the rich man talk to Abraham across such a large chasm without a phone or bullhorn? Of course, that wasn’t the intended lesson, but when people try to assign anything to any parable outside the points Jesus was making, the same theological mess is created because they are figurative in nature, and not literal events.   Teaching that incinerated and cremated people will be given new bodies, without explaining the biometrics of how that will occur, leaves reasonable questions unanswered.

 

In this new world order, the earth is supposed to be a perfect place, but hell is never explained.   And why would the new earth need such an enormous wall if God is in control? The way the new earth is described appears to come out of a science fiction novel, with far-fetched and unexplained renovation plans, suited to a very small geographic component of its existence.

 

It’s hard to believe that men who supposedly know the Bible would present something so bizarre to people looking for answers. If this was done in hopes of appealing to college students and millennials, it probably has the opposite effect. While the church has been debating pre-millennialism and post-millennialism for decades, perhaps it should focus on why millennials are walking out the door, looking for answers in other places.

 

Let’s give young people in the 21st century a view of heaven they can get their arms around, for heaven’s sake.

 

I don’t know when the word “heaven” was first coined in human speech, but it likely just referred to the sky and whatever might be above the earth, based on its etymology or construction. By definition, that includes clouds, stars, planets, the sun, and anything else floating around “up there”. Thousands of years ago, that also included each culture’s gods and mythological creatures, overseeing human activity and behavior and even competing for human devotion.

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Because the sky created an incredibly large canvas, and people in those cultures were so superstitious, nothing was off-limit to their imagination. Since the details of stories set in unknown environs can’t be disputed, the sky served as a storehouse for fears and dreams for centuries, of people daring to wish upon one of its stars. Although God is spirit and, therefore, does not reside in the sky, it none-the-less provided the perfect training ground for teaching His gravity-laden disciples how to soar above their own human limitations. When the Wright brothers won the battle against gravity, they inadvertently unleashed a star-gate of discoveries from explorations of the heavens that people in the first century could not have possibly imagined.

 

The audiences of the inspired writers had never soared across the sky at 40,000 feet, witnessing God’s creation set against that canvas. They had never traveled at the speed of sound, nor had they seen vivid pictures of distant galaxies from space telescopes. Imagine how differently the Bible would have been written had they landed on the moon prior to its compilation. Had the Bible been written today, Jesus’ teaching illustration about heaven would have likely included something other than him ascending into the sky, dodging Boeings and Cessnas.

 

Back then, radar could not predict life-threatening weather to avoid. In fact, their lives had to be experienced in the moment because it was impossible to see into the future. They could not rush sick children to a hospital because of illnesses they could not explain, and they had no way to protect their crops from famine. For them, space was not the final frontier; the future was. The reality is that trying to live in the moment while being worried about the future can be overwhelming in an uncertain world, when death can occur with little or no warning.  And if their world started crashing in around them, they could not simply get on-line and book a flight to carry them across the country or around the world at the drop of a hat.   Any way you cut it, we are not them, and they were not us.

 

So why did the inspired writers of Scripture mention heaven in the first place? To give them hope. The sole reason for telling these stories was to encourage and motivate their audience to look beyond their current circumstances, by showing them a glimpse of something beyond themselves. The anticipated result was that they would be able to bear up under a heavier load, inspired to run the race to its completion. This would help them focus on the future, instead of being afraid of it, since fear is paralyzing. With this in mind, their purpose was not to foretell the future; it was to alter it.

 

When John sat in exile at Patmos, his stated goal was to inspire and encourage the troops back home, who were like a ship without a rudder. Times were tough in the Roman world for Christians at the end of the first century, and things were about to get a lot rougher. When Jesus was hanging on the cross, he noted that if that much adversity could happen while he was alive (a green tree), imagine how bad things would be when he was gone (a dry tree).   In John’s day, they were facing a forest fire.

 

What words could John write to channel the emotional energy of the churches of Asia Minor into a sustaining hope, without offending his captors, who would be censoring his mail?  To accomplish both, John produced a vivid, action-packed movie that would entertain his hosts but have a galvanizing effect on his followers.  Just as screenwriters today draw from things of which they are familiar, John’s description of hell in his Revelation letter was eerily similar to their trash dump called Gehenna just south of Jerusalem in the Valley of Hinnom.  Having no bulldozers to cover this pit of death and destruction, it continuously burned, like a lake of fire, metaphorically speaking. In addition to the city’s garbage, the dead bodies of the city’s lepers and unclaimed bodies were also burned, creating an awful sight and smell. Jesus used this visual in his teachings to describe worm-ridden bodies in the second death.  Had John’s letter been written to us today, he probably would have painted a vivid picture of a nuclear holocaust to create an equivalent emotional quotient.

 

To describe the final battle called Armageddon, John used an ancient abandoned battlefield in Israel to create its backdrop. Tel Megiddo was a hill overlooking the Jezreel valley, where many important battles had been fought. However, by the time John wrote his letter, it had been abandoned for nearly 700 years, the last major battle fought there resulting in the demise of King Josiah. What an incredible place to locate his story of a battle to the death for humanity! It is interesting to note that “Armageddon” is the Greek word for Tel Megiddo, Patmos being a Greek island. I guess had John been carried off to a place like, say, Japan, we would be calling the end-of-times battle by Tel Megiddo’s Japanese name.

 

Because his friends in Asia Minor were under extreme hardship from the Roman Empire, the temptation for some to abandon their faith was overwhelming. That seems to be why John included Jesus’ notation that those events would happen “soon”; that they were imminent. That they wouldn’t have to hold on for very long.  But, obviously, for them, they weren’t actually imminent. In fact, they never happened.  But that didn’t keep those stories from being extremely inspiring to those who needed to hear it the most.

 

The reality is that none of the things John wrote ever had to happen to accomplish his goal of encouraging them to stay the course. That doesn’t mean these things will or won’t happen, but it should serve as a reminder that our primary focus should be on growing God’s spirit within us, which can manufacture more hope than any prophecy ever could. If God lives within us, heaven becomes our  dessert. And when each of us takes our last breath, Jesus came.

 

Here are ten clues about understanding heaven in the 21st century:

 

  1. The Bible was not written to us. It was inspired by God, not written by Him. Big difference. We were not the intended audience.
  2. Heaven is not a goal or destination; it is an integral part of the journey. When God lives in us, we are in heaven.
  3. Heaven is a spiritual place. Heaven is not a physical place in that it has no coordinates. God is spirit; God and heaven are inseparable.
  4. Stories about heaven and hell were not written to foretell the future, just alter it. Coaches know that some players respond best with praise while others are motivated by fear of punishment.
  5. Being one heartbeat away from death for us, equates to “soon” for them.
  6. Jesus is currently here on earth. Jesus is in us and among us (two or more gathered in his name…). So he never has to return, right? What form is Jesus today?
  7. God, being the world’s greatest teacher, can utilize any teaching metric to encourage. Including metaphors, embellishment, hyperbole and exaggeration. Teaching without boundaries, like our favorite coaches and teachers did.
  8. Paul thought Jesus would return in his lifetime. So has every generation since.
  9. The inspired writers shared stories of heaven to create an emotional reaction toward God’s nature. Like anything else, the heart must buy in before the mind will go along.
  10. None of the prophetic words of Scripture have to occur to achieve their desired effect.  But those words have inspired every generation from then to now.

 

Whatever you teach young people about heaven, be sure there are no holes in your description.  Otherwise, their faith can fall through.  Give them something they can believe so that hope can sustain their faith.

Metaphorically Speaking

There were many iconic scenes in the movie, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, which have become part of the landscape of American culture. One of these scenes involved the main character, Indiana Jones, confronting a big villian wielding a very large sword, aiming to kill our hero. After trying to impress Dr. Jones with his swordmanship, Indiana nonchalantly pulled out a pistol and shot him, which prompted laughter from the audience. After all, swords in the 20th century were already outdated weapons. Imagine how much more outdated these types of weapons have become for kids in the 21st century, raised on video games.

Every English teacher knows that a metaphor has a shelf life directly related to its intended audience.  This was especially true in Bible times since there were no pictures, movies, videos, slide shows, computers or projectors to aid in getting the speaker’s point across.  Since there was no way to photograph loved ones, the ability to mentally capture those details would have been sharpened. Just as people today who have lost one of their five senses have greater sensitivity for the remaining ones, people in Bible times not able to take snapshots of their children, would more acutely be able to create mental pictures of details surrounding them.

From cover to cover, the Bible is saturated with metaphors and word pictures as its writers tried to help their audience mentally frame their stories and teachings. The problem is that, just like the sword illustration in the movie, every single metaphor and illustration in the Bible is now outdated. That doesn’t mean that the word pictures used in Scripture have no relevance; it’s just that time and circumstance have greatly diminished them so that they now have only a fraction of the emotional impact that they did when the original words were spoken. For example, when Paul painted the vivid word picture about a soldier’s weaponry for his Ephesian audience by noting that the word of God was the “sword of the Spirit”, that would have framed a powerful image for his readers in the first century. However, swords are now an irrelevant weapon, which waters down any reference to it in Scripture.

Young people are leaving the church in staggering numbers for various reasons but one of those reasons could be because they are fed from a diluted biblical broth. These kids are being bombarded with visual stimuli from every direction from television, movies, video games and computer graphics. Using ancient illustrations included in the Bible to teach timeless lessons is like having a family night but showing silent movies from the 1920s. The teachings of the Bible are timeless; its illustrations are not.

We have to reinvent the way we teach the Bible by refocusing how it was taught to us. Even though they did not have pictures, movies, videos, encyclopedias or computers to aid their mental connection in the first century, we certainly do and should use them to accomplish that goal.

When All Else Fails…

Upon turning sixteen and getting our driver’s license, the last thing we were going to do was read the Owner’s manual of whatever car we were allowed to drive.  After all, what’s there to know- you just put the key in the ignition and turn on the engine and off you go. The gas pedal made the car go and the brake pedal made it stop. Of course, when the car had a flat tire or steam was coming from the engine compartment, it was then that we grabbed the Owner’s manual to see if it could help us pull a rabbit out of our hat or do some other magic trick to fix the problem.

Fortunately, there was a wealth of information in that little book among the clutter in the glove box. The Owner’s Manual is written by the manufacturer to inform whoever would be driving the car pertinent ways to maximize the life of the car and help to avoid problems down the road. Since it doesn’t know whether the driver of the car will have a lead foot or be someone who only drives it on Sundays, it is universal in nature.  It provides suggestions and tips to get the most out of the car as well as warnings and potential hazards that must be avoided. It also explains each of the warning lights so the driver can understand what exactly he/she should and should not do. At the back of the book there is a maintenance schedule, exercises if you will, quantifying how to ensure a long and happy life driving the manufacturer’s vehicle. Basically, it just gives general clues to help avoid danger and disaster. Just as the Owner’s manual of a car is written by engineers inspired by the manufacturer to demonstrate the best way to operate it, so the Bible is an operating manual written by “engineers”, inspired by the manufacturer of the world to demonstrate the best way for us to drive down the highway of life.

Millions of years ago, at a time of God’s choosing, everything was set in motion. Billions of stars that will never be seen as well as the ones already seen, were formed along with planets, moons, suns and the earth. Creating and utilizing molecules of hundreds of conceivable elements, a plan unfolded that eventually would create animals and people as well as a means of reproducing. It’s an incredible plan that has been able to sustain itself for millions of years thus far and, glorifying the manufacturer, for millions of years to come. He inspired men to write an operating manual universal in nature to help everyone navigate the highway of life. In the end, the Bible is just an operating manual to show those choosing to follow it how to get the most out of the life they have been handed, as well as how to avoid the pot holes.

Freedom to Choose

Near the end of the movie, “The Blind Side”, Sandra Bullock’s character received enough of a dose of reality to help her separate her own dreams and wishes from those of her adopted son, Michael, to allow him to make his own decisions.  At some point, this happens to all parents.  During our children’s early years, we make decisions for them intended to create a sphere of discovery and protection so they can grow in a direction that is familiar to us.  That is, if we played baseball, soccer or learned to play the piano when we were growing up, then having our children do the same is well within our comfort zone, emanating from our own parent tapes.  That doesn’t mean the kids we signed up to play tee ball or other guilt-assuaging activities actually wanted to do it, but if it was good enough for us, then it should be good enough for them.  Included in that list of mandatory activities would have to be going to church; I don’t remember it being an option.

Little by little, as children age, we hand over the decision-making reigns to them.  For the most part, they get to choose their clothes as well as their friends and other things like whether they will continue taking piano lesson or not. And once they turn sixteen, they get an enormous measure of freedom when we give them the keys to the car, if their behavior has merited such responsibility.

Despite the snowball of independence we created for them from the time they could tie their shoes until they put the car in gear, never once did we think to ask them whether they wanted to continue to go to church or not.  That is probably because each generation has been afraid of the answer.  It is only after kids go off to college, when we are not there to help them navigate the shark-infested waters the Internet throws at them, do they finally have a choice.    At that point, many of them become faith-napped, leaving little evidence that they ever believed, at least from those I interviewed.

Currently, preachers and teachers focus their presentations on keeping their older members happy, to the exclusion of what might nourish young people in their congregation.  Assured that teenagers can’t leave until they go off to college, the church continues to take advantage of not having to sell the Bible to its younger audience.

But let’s imagine that every child at the age of twelve is given the freedom to never come to church again if they so choose, and that their parents are not allowed to  influence that decision.  Imagine how the church’s teachings would have to change to keep young people interested and affected.  They would finally have to address questions young people have about doctrines that cannot stand up to scrutiny in this Internet age.

Churches should be doing that anyway, at least before teenagers go off to college where they would only get a one-sided argument.  It might make some older members a little uncomfortable, but it is far better than wondering what happened to the faith of their children.

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