I think I’ve learned more about pastoring and friendship in the last week-and-a-half since announcing my resignation at this church than I had in the previous 8 years in ministry here. Much of my focus has been on my job description, the things I’m supposed to do and come up with—teaching, programming, new ideas, resourcing, administration, oversight, and so on. I spent a lot of time worrying about making things happen and whether or not I was meeting the not-always-fleshed-out expectations people had for my role. I’ve often wondered if I’m “making a difference” or “having an impact,” and not always knowing the answer, have kept striving for something unknown. It has led so some frustration and a lot of self-doubt and second-guessing.
You hear things when you are saying goodbye to people that you’re unlikely to hear until then. And it’s in the outpouring of love and care and emotion as we say goodbye that I’m seeing the pastoral calling with new eyes. What ultimately seems to matter and make a difference is that I am there and that I care. I get involved in ordinary life. What mattes is presence.
If I had learned this lesson sooner, it would have saved quite a bit of fretting. I would have cultivated relationships more than I have. I would have done things differently. On the other hand, it’s possible that I couldn’t have learned this lesson without some of the things I’ve struggled with over the years.
I’m sure I’ve known this stuff for a long time, and I’ve certainly heard it before, even repeatedly—not least from the writings of Eugene Peterson, that pastor of pastors—but I also know that most learning happens by experience. At any rate, I take this new perspective to my next call, where there will be new things to learn.
I’ve also begun pondering friendship. My personality has led me to believe that friendship is about time spent together and deep conversations, and that it’s cultivated by being together and talking regularly. I still believe that’s how friendships go really deep. And yet I’m also learning that I will be considered a friend even after intermittent, occasional conversations and connections. Perhaps I should shift my perspective there, too, and not let my insecurities get in my way. Maybe I need to start calling more people “friend” much sooner than I do.
On Sunday I announced to my church that I have been called to be senior pastor of Minnedosa Evangelical Covenant Church in Manitoba and that I would be resigning my position at Malmo Mission Covenant Church. It was an emotional moment. I don’t think I’ve ever cried publicly before, but I sure did then. It’s hard to say goodbye and it’s even harder to see my children say goodbye to their friends.
And yet when I reflect on it, moving itself is not a big deal to me. I have moved so many times in my life that it’s mostly just normal procedure. I hate the packing and the cleaning, but the actual geographical shift is not such a big deal.
I was born in the Netherlands in December 1977, where we lived in a townhouse, which in my memory was a wonderful little place.
In 1985, when I was seven-and-a-half years old I moved from that townhouse in the Netherlands to small-town Saskatchewan, Canada.
In Caronport, a town with a permanent population of 800 people, we moved four times. I lived in our last house there for about 9 years.
August 1997, I moved to Regina, Saskatchewan to attend university. For three summers I would move all my stuff back home.
January 2002 Dixie and I moved to Prince Albert. We lived in Prince Albert for about seven years and during that time we moved three times.
August 2009 we moved to Otterburne, Manitoba to attend seminary.
July 2012 we moved to a field near Malmo Mission Covenant Church in Alberta.
November 2015 we moved to a house in the city of Wetaskiwin, Alberta.
I sometimes envy those people who have permanent geographical roots. I know so many families, particularly farm families, that have several generations of history within a one mile radius. I know one gentleman in his seventies who has lived in the same house pretty much his whole life. I can’t imagine what that kind of permanence means. I’m sure there are both good and bad things about that, but, being (nearly) 43 years old now, I’ll never know what that’s like.
I consider Caronport my home town, but my parents moved away from there some fifteen years ago. So there’s not even that as an anchor.
But my kids…my youngest daughter has observed several times in our conversations about moving that here is the longest we’ve lived anywhere as a family, but this area (8 years) and this house (5 years). She had hoped she wouldn’t have to move again. Alas, it is not to be.
I wonder what effect all the moving I’ve done in my life has had on my personality and my emotions. For example, I’ve never really missed people a whole lot, not even my parents, and maybe that has been an unconscious mechanism to cope with moving. When I first moved out I lived only 45 minutes away from my parents, but I only went home every couple of months and didn’t talk to them on the phone much more. As my mom ages, I occasionally do wish I could see her more often, to just be able to drop in whenever I want to. As it is, she’s a 10-hour drive away, and we’re moving farther away from her now. When I stay home and my wife and children go away I sometimes miss them, but, strangely, when I go away and leave them at home, I don’t feel that so much.
No, moving is not a great hardship for me. What’s hard about moving is seeing how hard it is for everyone else, not least my youngest daughter.
I think my new approach to many of the issues of our day is going to be to reserve judgment until I know more, and I encourage you, reader, to do the same.
We can’t take our cues from hot takes and scare words on social media. We don’t gain understanding that way. That is the way of reactivity. And we should be cautious about taking one person’s word for it on any subject, especially if they are already in our “camp” and even more especially if they aren’t qualified to comment.
Instead, read widely and deeply about the things the world is talking about—not necessarily to get on board, but to try to understand different perspectives, to think more critically about them (which is not the same as criticizing or rejecting them), and to develop some empathy for those with a different point of view than yours. If, for example, you don’t know what “cultural Marxism” or “critical race theory” is or you wonder about “social justice”, then don’t use those words as if you do know what they mean. And if the only place you’ve learned something about those things is on social media, then you still don’t know what those things are well enough to have an informed opinion or to comment on them.
I include myself in the category of not knowing enough. So, for example, I have bought an introductory book about critical race theory. I bought it not because I’m on board with the idea, but because I want to have a deeper understanding of it so that I can make an accurate assessment of it—one based on knowledge rather than fear and/or sound bites and/or misinformation. I need to approach this subject and any other with an open mind (I might learn something), humility (I might be wrong), and with a critical eye (are there gaps or problems in this argument?). I may accept it or reject it or something in between, but I can’t do that until I’ve sought to understand it below the surface of what we see bandied about online.
And above all, I need to remember that while technically these things are abstract ideas, it is human beings who hold these views and human beings who are affected by acceptance or rejection of these views. So love and gentleness need to be the key ingredient in my thinking about and engaging these ideas.
I’d like that to be my approach for any number of words and ideas that are being thrown around social media and the news these days. But I only have so much time and energy, so I will do what I can, and for the rest I will say, “I reserve judgment until I know more about it.” That might mean I’ll never know enough about something to have an informed opinion about it. And that’s okay, too. We don’t need to have an opinion about everything and we certainly don’t need to share an opinion on social media about everything.
Today on YouTube I stumbled across a conversation between Francis Chan, Hank Hanegraaff (radio’s “The Bible Answer Man”), and KP Yohannan (now Metropolitan Yohan). Chan is a fairly famous conservative evangelical pastor, Hanegraaff is a famous evangelical radio personality who converted to Easter Orthodoxy a number of years ago, and KP Yohannan is the founder of the mission organization Gospel for Asia and…well I’m not sure what to call him in terms of Christian affiliation. He’s a leader in a relatively new denomination, but I can’t figure out it if it’s evangelical, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, or something else. But I suppose it doesn’t really matter.
Their conversation got me thinking again about being ecumenical in outlook. By “ecumenical” I mean the belief that the Christian church includes Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox—that all those branches of the church are brothers and sisters in Christ, we can work together across denominational lines, and that genuine faith is identified by confessing the risen Christ as Lord and, beyond that, that we all have the Creeds in common.
Not everyone thinks that way. I grew up in a home where Catholics weren’t considered true Christians and Pentecostals and other charismatics were also suspect. I have friends who still think that way about Catholics and Pentecostals. There is a narrow niche of Christianity, often related to the fundamentalism of the early 20th century, that in its extremes thinks the true faith and true doctrine and true understanding of scripture is found only in one denomination, or possibly even just one church or one preacher. These churches seem to have a habit of focussing on what’s wrong “out there” and naming heretical beliefs—which is to say, belief that is different from their own (which is technically not what heresy is)—and serious distrust of and unwillingness to work with others outside their fold. Often this kind of thinking seems to go along with a lot of disunity and what appears to be a significant lack of grace.
I gave that perspective up a long time ago. I believe I have many brothers and sisters across the denominational lines.
I can’t remember exactly what it was that led me down that road, but I can identify bits and pieces along the way. Learning the history of the church was a big one—many evangelicals have a very short and recent history of the church that doesn’t go back much further than 500 years, to their significant loss. The recognition that for certainly 1000 years, if not 1500 years, the church was fairly unified in its belief was helpful. Sure, there was division between east (Orthodox) and west (Roman Catholic) later on, but much was shared. The recognition that all three major branches of the church recognize and confess the ancient Creeds also helped. Developing an understanding of Catholic and Orthodox theology was another help, though I don’t know it well and even though I recognize there are some beliefs I don’t share with them—but these are Christians that confess Jesus as risen Lord!
The reality is that I can’t believe that God’s Spirit was absent from the church between the death of the last apostle and Martin Luther nailing his complaints to a church door some 1500 years later. If that was the case, we don’t have much hope for the last 500 years of the church either!
There is no pure church. I’m not sure there ever was one after the day of Pentecost. Paul’s letters in the New Testament make that clear! I may disagree profoundly on some things with my Catholic sisters and brothers, or for that matter my Pentecostal or Baptist sisters and brothers, but we together confess Christ and seek to follow him.
And so I continue to try to listen and learn from other Christian traditions and to have a bit of humility about correct doctrine. I’d like to think I’m fairly open minded, but sometimes it can be really difficult to allow others to disagree with something I’m passionate about. But it’s necessary. If this isn’t an oxymoron, I’m convinced that we need to have theological convictions and hold them loosely. Our grounding is in Christ, not a set of beliefs. Our hope is in Christ, not a theological perspective. Our salvation is in Christ, not a doctrinal statement.
Here’s a little sketch I drew of why I’m ecumenical. I don’t know if it will make sense to you, but it makes sense to me.
I’ve been pondering Jesus’ answer to the question of what the greatest commandment is (Matthew 22:35-40 and Mark 12:28-31). Here are a couple of thoughts relating to that:
Jesus says the greatest commandment is loving God “and the second is like it,” love your neighbour. The way things are phrased, it looks like the commands are ranked: to love God is number one and the command to love neighbour is number two. But I don’t think we can so easily separate or rank the two greatest commands, for a couple of reasons.
First, Jesus is asked which commandment (singular) of all the commandments is greatest. In his answer, Jesus actually gives two commands as the greatest command: love God and love your neighbour. In Matthew, Jesus says that all the law and prophets hang on both of these commandments; in Mark Jesus says, “There is no commandment greater than these.”
This suggests to me that the phrase “the second is (like it)” does not denote rank or hierarchy, or that it’s just about similarity. The two commands are intimately related, they belong together. Jesus seems to be relating them together as the greatest commandment, rather than ranking them individually, meaning something like “there are two (not one) greatest commands, and the second one is love your neighbour,” or the “greatest command is love God and with it love your neighbour.”
Second, Jesus elsewhere says, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.” In other words, when you love your neighbour, you love God.
Third, Paul seems to have understood the two commands in the way I suggest, because in Romans 13:9 and Galatians 5:14 he says that all the law and the prophets are summed up in one command: love your neighbour as yourself (without reference to loving God).
This all suggests to me that the command to love God and the command to love neighbour cannot be separated or ranked or placed in order of importance. If we love God, we will love our neighbour. In order to love God, we must love our neighbour. If we love our neighbour, we love God.
Something to consider as we ponder our priorities as followers of Jesus.
“I sometimes think I was born in the wrong decade.”
“The present is always going to seem unsatisfying because life itself is unsatisfying.”
(dialogue from the film Midnight in Paris)
Midnight in Paris may be Woody Allen’s last great movie, and it’s one of my favourite films of all time. I relate a lot to the main character, Gil Pender, played by Owen Wilson (who, as far as I’m concerned, is the perfect actor to play the Woody Allen part for younger characters). Gil is an aspiring novelist who thinks the best time and place is Paris in the 20s.
Here’s a clip of some dialogue between his fiancée (Inez) and two friends (Paul and Carol), after his fiancée starts to tell them about the novel Gil is writing. The lead character works in a nostalgia shop.
Here’s a thirty second clip:
Here’s the dialogue (from the Midnight in Paris script, slightly ad-libbed in the clip):
CAROL: What’s a nostalgia shop?
PAUL: Not one of those stores that sells Shirley Temple dolls and old radios? I never know who buys that stuff – who’d want it.
FIANCÉE (pointedly): People who live in the past. Who think their lives would have been happier if they lived in an earlier time.
PAUL: And just what era would you have preferred to live in. . . ?
FIANCÉE (teasing Gil): Paris in the twenties—in the rain, when the rain wasn’t acid rain.
PAUL: I see. And no global warming, no TV or suicide bombing, nuclear weapons, drug cartels.
CAROL: The usual menu of clichéd horror stories.
PAUL: Nostalgia is denial. Denial of the painful present.
FIANCÉE: He’s a romantic. Gil would be just fine living in a perpetual state of denial.
PAUL: The name for this fallacy is called, “Golden Age Thinking.” The erroneous notion that a different time period was better than the one one’s living in. It’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those who find coping with the present too difficult.
I’m not sure if I’m entirely a Golden Age Thinker, but I’ve certainly used Gil’s exact words in my own life: “I sometimes think I was born in the wrong decade.” I long for an elusive simpler time. Earlier in the film Gil’s fiancée tells him that he’s “in love with a fantasy.” And the film is about Gil figuring this out.
It’s a really fun film: it’s set in modern-day Paris, but, through mysterious circumstances, every night at midnight in a certain spot in the city, Gil gets picked up by a chauffeured vintage car, which takes him to hobnob with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Salvador Dali, and a host of other famous artists (most of whose names I don’t recognize) in 1920s Paris. [SPOILER ALERT!] There he falls in love with a beautiful young Parisienne of the time, whom he later discovers wishes she lived during La Belle Epoque—Paris in the 1890s—because her decade—Gil’s favourite—is boring.
Eventually Gil realizes that “The present is always going to seem unsatisfying because life itself is unsatisfying,” which is a lesson I’m still learning. I think I can’t quite accept the fact that the present—beautiful, difficult, depressing, hopeful as it is—is all I have, as odd as that may sound.
Which is why Gordon T. Smith stung with some of his words in his book Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity. In a chapter about vocational holiness (“Called to Do Good Work”), he writes,
We are called to be present to our circumstances, our world—to be agents of peace and justice in the world as it actually is rather than as we wish it were. This means we turn not only from pretense (wishing we were someone else or acting as though we are someone else) but also from wishful thinking and illusion regarding our circumstances.
…This means that we do not live emotionally in a previous time. We have no patience with “the good old days.” They are long gone. We discern in light of what is actually the case today. This also means we do not engage in wishful thinking. In other words, we do not dwell on what we wish were true but on what is actually true.
…We live in the world as it presents itself—no nostalgia, no pining for an earlier golden age. We are not waiting around for good fortune to suddenly and finally hit us. We stop investing emotional energy in the “what-if’s,” and we get on with it.
All of us are called to such a time as this. None of us are ahead of our times, and no one is born too late and able to complain that the opportunity passed us by. Rather, we are each invited to respond to the call of God for this day.
(Gordon T. Smith, Called to Be Saints, 104-105)
Eugene Peterson, addressing pastors in Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, has much the same thing to say as Smith, but he says it much more succinctly: my work is “these people, at this time, under these conditions” (p. 131).
I have some maturing to do I guess. As we all do. But it’s not maturing I particularly want to do, even though it would make the difficulties of today that much more bearable. I think Gil’s realization that “the present is always going to seem unsatisfying because life itself is unsatisfying” is in many respects a very Christian perspective. We recognize that we live in a broken world, and all is not well, even as we hope that eventually it will be.
I’m reminded of something I quoted in a post almost twelve years ago:
Our creation story does not call us to roam through life in the pursuit of happiness. In fact, that is the very thing from which we are saved. Our story portrays the great journey of God into his limited and needy creation.
Biblical hope is found when Christians hear the gospel and take their place in the great processions of the body of Christ. The proclamation of that hope is that in communing with Christ we discover all the grace we need to live joyful but limited lives. For in communing with God we encounter the mystery of his presence with us.
(M. Craig Barnes, Yearning: Living Between How It Is & How It Ought To Be, p. 21)
Wishful thinking, the grass is greener, “Golden Age Thinking”. . . none of these things actually make things better. In fact, they probably make them worse.
Here is the moment of realization for Gil, which his Parisienne love (Adriana) does not understand, but is a lesson worth remembering. They’ve jumped from the 1920s to the 1890s, and Adriana wants to stay in the 1890s, Le Belle Epoque:
Because if you stay here and this becomes your present, sooner or later you’ll imagine another time was really the golden time. . . The present is always going to seem unsatisfying because life itself is unsatisfying.
. . .if I’m ever going to write anything worthwhile I’ve got to get rid of my illusions and that I’d be happier in the past is one of them.
(dialogue from the Midnight in Paris script, slightly ad-libbed in the clip)
Or, if I’m ever going to be a better pastor, or if I’m ever going to live a worthwhile life I’ve got to get rid of the illusion that I’d be happier in the past.
(For my one remaining reader: I wrote a post in July on the WordPress iPhone app. It was written when we were staying in a cabin north of Estes Park, Colorado. The cabin is 8200ft+ [~2500m] above sea level. The post was a riveting reflection on making a proper cup of tea in relation to boiling point at various altitudes. Alas, there was a problem with the app and the post is lost forever.)
There is quite a bit being written these days (if you’re looking in the right places) about how conversation is becoming a lost art in our society, particularly for younger generations. Conversation’s demise usually linked to increased use of smart technology and social media. I think there’s good reason to believe that we are losing our ability to speak with others. But today I wondered if we are—I should probably say, if I am—losing our ability to see as well.
I don’t mean this simply in the sense of not noticing our surroundings because we’re always on a device, though that’s part of it. I mean it in the sense of wondering if we’re training ourselves to glance, to glimpse, and then move on, without ever fully appreciating what we see.
In order to visit my family in British Columbia, we have to drive through the Rocky Mountains. I’m often frustrated when in our hurry to arrive at our destination we don’t (or aren’t able to) take the time to stop in the mountains to breathe deeply and really take in the amazing beauty of the mountains. We try to do this when we have time (though we could make time even if we feel that we don’t) with a walk along a river or a hike into the mountains, but even then we’re always moving and our final destination is always in mind. I can’t remember the last time I simply stood and observed and took in the beauty around me for more than a few seconds. I’m not sure I’ve ever done that.
What does traveling through the mountains have to do with this? Only this: I’m talking about taking time to see and take in. I was on Instagram at lunch today, where I follow a couple of accounts that post pictures of small-town and rural England. They post beautiful pictures of rolling countryside and quaint villages. I love these images, especially the ones of the countryside. But here’s what I do: I scroll, I glance at the photo, I double-tap to like, and I move on. I rarely really look or perhaps gaze at the image. I realize it’s only a picture, but there’s something significant about just scrolling past with only a brief sense of “that’s nice” and a feeling of appreciation, but rarely, if ever, actively appreciating the image with a longer look.
I see it in myself and others in the endless photo-taking and selfies when we’re at some beautiful spot—the Rockies, the Grand Canyon, the Great Plains, wherever it may be. We seem to spend more time looking at the world through our cameras than at the world itself. Years ago I gave up filming and photographing my children’s choirs and bands at school, because I didn’t want to keep watching these personal events through my camera (I leave the film work to Dixie now, who doesn’t mind.) I love photography and would like to pursue it more, but often it turns the world into something to be consumed by my camera and a rapid succession of stills, without actually making an attempt to simply appreciate the living, breathing, moving wonders of the world. I imagine photography should start with the appreciative gaze and only after that should I frame up the picture.
What am I losing in training my mind to glance and move on? What will this do to my understanding of the world around me, or even my sense of what’s real in an increasingly digitized world? What will this do to my sense of what it means to truly appreciate or even love something or someone?
I’m not sure I’ll ever think I’ve taken it in enough, whether it’s nature or a photograph, so maybe I’ll always be frustrated. But it can’t hurt to pursue the gaze, the meditation, and appreciating creation a bit more.
Our high school Bible study has been reading through Romans this year. They like choosing difficult books—last year we went through Revelation —and Romans is no exception. Some weeks we struggle to find anything to talk about (we discuss one chapter each time we meet), other weeks we struggle to understand, other weeks I confuse them with my attempts to help them along (I try to avoid teaching and instead guide and facilitate discussion), still other weeks I annoy them when I get really excited about something and pull out the white board (I do like to teach sometimes!). Then there are weeks when they find some answers on their own or have moments of clarity. Those days are wonderful. And on occasion I am able to help them understand or have a moment of clarity, which is particularly gratifying.
Today we discussed Romans chapter 9, which talks about Paul’s grief over the unbelief of Israel and then goes into God having mercy on whom he will have mercy, and hardening some people’s hearts, and the analogy of the potter and his clay. It’s a difficult chapter, one I imagine Calvinists like to go to (wrongly, in my opinion) for their predestination theology.
It troubled some of the youth, as it troubles me, that God might harden some hearts against him. We tried to figure this out, how this could work, why God would do this. I talked a bit about how we live in a very individualistic, personal rights-oriented culture, which is offended by any notion of someone compelling someone else to do something against their will, but that in an ancient group/family-oriented culture what Paul says may not be received negatively in that way.
One youth suggested that maybe if a person rejects God, God responds by hardening that person’s heart. I suggested that God might “give them over” to their hard-hearted desires (as Romans 1 talks about)—if that’s what they want, that’s what they’ll get. Commentaries seem to agree (we don’t always go to commentaries, but sometimes it helps).
We looked at the story of Moses and Pharaoh, which this chapter in Romans may reference. Early in Exodus God tells Moses that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he won’t let the people of Israel go. When the confrontation actually happens, there’s a lack of clarity about whom hardens whose heart. Initially God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, then Pharaoh’s heart is simply hardened, and later it says Pharaoh hardens his own heart. So which is it? Perhaps it’s both.
I suddenly thought of a real-world analogy. I asked the group, what is our first response when we are confronted with a negative truth about ourselves? If Dixie criticizes something about me, what is my initial reaction, even if what she says is true? I may get angry or offended, I may deny the charges, I may get bitter, I may argue, I may try to turn her comment back on her and point out her faults. In a sense, Dixie’s words have the power to prompt a “hardening of my heart,” even if ultimately it is the preexistent state of my heart that is ultimately responsible. Nods of recognition from the youth. In a very bad situation, I say, one where a relationship is already strained or perhaps where no real relationship exists, such a critical comment—such a confrontation with the truth—may actually strain the relationship or potential of relationship beyond possibility, at least for a time.
Similarly, when we are confronted with the truth and power of God when our hearts are already in rebellion against him, that very truth has the power to harden our hearts, even though it is ultimately the prior condition of our hearts is responsible for the hardening.
I’ve been reading J.B. Philips’ short book Your God is Too Small with a couple of colleagues. It’s a quick read and an interesting approach to helping us see who God is and all the ways we get God wrong. The first half of the book, which is as far as I’ve read, is about all the destructive, unreal pictures of God that people often have (the second half is about constructive views). The following paragraph stood out to me. It’s from a section on a god who we see as an entirely negative force in our lives, whose “whole Nature seems to deny, to cramp, and to inhibit” our own nature:
“They are bound by their negative god by their upbringing, by the traditions of a Church or party, by the manipulation of isolated texts of Scripture or by a morbid conscience. At last they actually feel that it is wrong to be themselves, wrong to be free, wrong to enjoy beauty, wrong to expand and develop. Unless they have their god’s permission they can do nothing. Disaster will infallibly bring them to heal, sooner or later, should they venture beyond the confines of ‘his plan for them.'” (p. 51, Epworth Press edition, 1975, emphasis mine)
“Unless they have their god’s permission they can do nothing.” Two things strike me about this:
1. I see this crop up among the youth at our church who want to be faithful to God in every decision, but who are stuck because they need God’s permission (or direction) to choose this job or that job, this college or that college. I’ve told the youth on a couple of occasions that they are free to make their own decisions about these things, as long as they are pursuing love of God and love of neighbour in their choices. That’s not to say they shouldn’t listen for God (that’s part of loving God!) nor that God doesn’t have a specific call for them. But the tendency is to think that God has one, single, narrow path laid out for our lives, and we had better find and stay on that path if we want things to go well for us. Instead, I think there is a wide field of potential and opportunity that lies within the scope of loving God and loving neighbour and we are free to wander and discover and live within it.
2. In spite of what I tell our youth, I also find myself wrestling with this negative vision of God, without whose permission I often feel I can do nothing. In a strange and dangerous way, I subconsciously think that because I was called to pastoral ministry, I somehow have to be in line with God (within his field of specific permission) for every step I take along the way. But why should it be any different for me as a pastor than for a plumber, teacher, doctor, mechanic, or student? It shouldn’t. And yet there I often live.
God has already given us blanket permission to love him and others, and within that permission there is room for creativity, growth, change, risk, and so on. But some days it’s hard to believe this.
Recently, as a way to review what we’d read in previous Bible studies, I was listening to an audio version of the book of Revelation, as read by actor David Suchet (I know him a little from the Poirot tv series). It’s really a wonderful reading of scripture, particularly of Revelation. In fact, the way Suchet read Revelation was itself a revelation.
He reads it with a note of wonder in his voice, as if he was actually describing what he saw in the vision, as if it was John’s first time sharing the vision. This made a significant difference in how I read and hear Revelation. I’ve tended to read and hear it as if John writing down deliberately coded imagery and narrative, like he’s kind of winking at us and saying, “I know a lot of things but I can’t tell them to you directly, so here it is in code that I hope you can figure out.” It’s our job as modern readers to decode it and try to figure out what exactly John is on about.
With Suchet’s reading, I began to realize that just maybe John is actually just describing what he saw in his vision and that he himself may not know what it all means either. After all, Jesus invites John to “write what you have seen” (1:19). John sees something, but he doesn’t necessarily know what it all means. There are places where John explains something apparently on his own (such as identifying the dragon as Satan in 12:9). On the other hand, when Jesus tells John to write what he sees, he has to explain to John what he had already seen (the seven stars and seven golden lamp stands, etc., 1:20), suggesting that John doesn’t quite understand what he sees.
This is speculative on my part, of course, but I don’t recall seeing anything in the text that suggests that John understood everything he saw. A first century reader/hearer/seer (such as John) might be able to untangle the Old Testament imagery sprinkled throughout better than most average modern readers can, but maybe even for them it was largely a mystery too.
On the other hand, there are some parts that are clearer than others and there are some overarching themes that are also clear. This would emphasize that the point is really to get these more obvious big picture things. Things such as: Jesus is victorious king and worthy of worship, be faithful, endure what you may have to endure, all shall be well, and not get hung up on some of the other weird imagery which may just be intended to evoke something more like general understanding (e.g. evil is at work in the world, Christians will likely face persecution of some kind, etc.) rather than being imagery we are meant to decode. This is how I’ve been reading it already, but mostly so that the youth do get the big picture and don’t get too hung up on sorting out all the weird stuff—but I always with a sense that we are nevertheless missing something.
I tend to agree (with Toni 🙂 ) that much of Revelation is referring to events in Rome in the first and second century, but this doesn’t really change anything for us in terms of reading it the above way, because even if it was written to and about that time period, the book is nevertheless for us, and the big picture stuff we see at work through the centuries.
I started writing this post weeks ago, and it only now occurs to me that this approach presents a sort of irony when it comes to reading and interpreting Revelation. To say that John is simply reporting a vision he saw is to read Revelation in a straightforward, literal way (which is not what I necessarily advocate doing). Yet it is those who tend to read Revelation in a woodenly literal way who seem to be hung up on explaining all the imagery and seeing modern-day significance in every object, creature, and beast.