Monday, April 30, 2007

Bar Codes, Computer Chips and Eternal Damnation

I remember seeing signs up in Sacramento that said, the world will end on October 9, 1993. I’m not sure how they came up with October 9th since it’s not a special day, not an important holy day, or witch’s holiday or Marilyn Manson’s birthday (PS I do not believe he is the antichrist- just a very broken and sad man). But, I remember thinking, what if they are right- what if the world ends in three weeks? Then October 10 came around and I thought the people who made those flyers must feel like the biggest idiots. I tried to predict the end of the world shortly after that, thinking it would give me the greatest bragging rights of all time- the ultimate victory as the know-it-all ten year old I was. I was wrong too, not surprising since I just kept guessing tomorrow until I learned more about the Rapture and Tribulation.

I was in fifth grade when my Sunday School teacher, Lori, thought we should discuss how the world would end. It was not a good class. I remember we prayed and did a craft. I wish I could remember what craft we did on Rapture lesson day since I think it would be pretty funny. But she began to tell us that someone would become a powerful world leader and would tell people to do things they shouldn’t. This would be the anti-Christ. True story- when I was in high school, my friend Ben swore Bill Clinton was the anti-Christ. He was also wrong. But Lori told us that the anti-Christ would ask us to get bar codes printed on our hands or computer chips implanted in the back of our hands. And we should not do that- it was the mark of the beast. If we received the mark of the beast, we would not go to Heaven, even if we had accepted Jesus. And then everyone would get sick and no one would be happy and then Jesus would come back and rescue all the Christians in the world. We would all vanish, as if we had been vaporized. Our clothes would still be there and our cars, much like the bumper sticker says, would be unoccupied and crash into things. We would be safe. But he would only rescue the real Christians. The other people would have to stay on the earth for the Tribulation, which would be way worse. The Tribulation would involve bombs and wars and darkness and smog (at least the way I imagined it). We all had to be sure we were real Christians and did not receive a micro-chip, or we would not be rescued. This is what I learned in fifth grade.

A few years later, I read an article about the GPS locator chips implanted in dogs. I thought to myself, well, the end of the world is coming now that they can actually easily implant chips into animals’ skin.

Then in high school, I came home one day to find a half-eaten quesadilla on the counter, a deck of cards left strewn on the floor and a letter half-opened on the dining room table. My first thought was that Jesus had come back and taken my family and left me behind. I would have to live through the Tribulation, without my family. I then prayed to accept Jesus into my heart for the fiftieth time in my life. A few minutes later I discovered my dog had been hit by a car and they had all dropped everything to take him to the vet. I did not share my Rapture fear with anyone. It seemed like I was admitting I wasn’t a real Christian.

For good reason, I used to hate the book of Revelation. So many people think it describes the future and exactly how the world will end. I don’t understand the fascination with the end of the world. When it comes to Armageddon, my policy is strictly “Ignorance is bliss.” I figure that when the world ends, if I am alive, I will not have the time or energy to run around saying “Told you so.” So I might as well act like it’s not going to end for awhile. People have always argued that the end is just around the corner. Then the day they predicted for Jesus’ return comes and they go to sleep that night, waiting to be raptured, only to wake up and realize they were wrong and have to face their neighbors who probably already thought they were crazy.

I’m beginning to appreciate Revelation now though because it tells us who Jesus is. And that no matter what we struggle with in the present moment, he defeats all of that. I don’t really like the idea of heaven as a golden city with pearly gates and fountains of joy. I also hope we do not really have to stand around singing praise songs forever. That does not sound fun to me. I do however like the part in Revelation when John describes how no one will be sick or cry or be depressed or anxious (my own translation). And I like how there will be people from all different tribes and nations there. And I like that we will be eternally happy and have purpose in our lives and be just like we were made to be. When you describe it like that, I am happy to join John in saying, Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Boring Faith

I think we’re afraid of boring faith. Boring faith doesn’t sell books or movies and certainly doesn’t hold an audience at a youth group testimonial event. It doesn’t create a buzz around us and it isn’t generally the topic of many sermons. No one ever wrote “The cross and my homework” or “Finding Jesus after many years of thought.”

At the purple church, we celebrated the radical transformations that took place when people met Jesus. We cried with the young woman who told of her past abortion and reconciliation with her parents. We amen-ed the man who had quit smoking crack cold turkey because he heard the Gospel. Christians, like everyone else, are suckers for a blockbuster.

Being surrounded by people who celebrate dramatic changes, I thought my own story was boring. My family was a Christian family. We moved a little bit and my dad and mom went to counseling. My brothers and I spent afternoons playing together with neighborhood friends. The worst thing I struggled with (other than general apathy) was watching a PG movie when my parents told me I was not allowed to. I lied a few times and got caught a few times. But other than those minor infractions, I didn’t have the same compelling story. I prayed to “receive Jesus into my heart” when I was five and it’s not like I was a heroin addict or prostitute before that. When people asked me what difference my faith made in my life, I did not have a real answer.

I think a lot of Christian kids struggle with that. I know I personally wanted to rebel, to stray, to react against the perfect suburban life that I lived. And by making my struggles a little bigger or more dramatic, it was as if I had. My story became one of lies, to a great extent, of changing my story to pretend I had been such a terrible person that it was a miracle Jesus accepted me, but not terrible enough for people to judge me. That is the key to a good testimony: share a few struggles, embellish them to legitimate the grace you experienced, but remain within the acceptable boundaries. For girls, it is easy to mention an eating disorder- something many of my friends claimed to share. I think out of my twelve friends who claimed it, three could have been legitimately diagnosed. But no one would share that she was having sex with her boyfriend. For boys, I have heard testimonies of struggling with lust and peer pressure to drink. But again, no one would admit to bigger sins like looking at internet pornography or masturbating. But our stories all ended the same way, when we found Jesus, we quit doing such terrible things.

I think we also neglected to think about the amount of guilt and shame that our peers with great testimonies faced. By exaggerating my story, I was envying something that I should not have. I spoke with a friend of mine recently whose college girlfriend had gotten pregnant and had an abortion. It’s been a long time since that happened but he regularly deals with the guilt. The girl who cuts herself or with her finger down her throat in the cafeteria bathroom probably isn’t thinking, “When I find Jesus, this will make for some compelling sermon.” As Christian kids, we do not realize how lucky we are to have avoided much of the truly scarring events of these “great” testimonies. To experience a change like these people have requires many years of pain and loneliness. In my aggrandizement of my own story, I trivialized their suffering.

At the same time though, by changing my own story to one of sudden transformation, I lied to everyone around me. It is not the dramatic change that I want to hear about- the cold turkey quitting of heroin or the desire to leave a gang after twenty years because you found Jesus. I don’t even like the people who say that after they found Jesus, their entire lives got better. They usually don’t. My friends who were having sex with their boyfriends before they found Jesus, generally do the same thing, at least for awhile, after their conversions. The people who drank underage before their conversion generally still drink. I didn’t wake up one day and decide to quit being depressed and self-critical. It took months of work and I still see a counselor and take medicine. Our adoration of these sudden change stories is drawing an unrealistic portrait of faith.

If faith was only about getting us to be good people rather than the bad people we were, no one would care. And no one would want to join. I certainly wouldn’t. I don’t think Jesus died for my sins so I could quit using curse words and lusting after anyone. I do believe he changes us- but I didn’t suddenly quit resenting my perfect, talented brother. It took years. But none of us want to admit that we still hate ourselves or others, that we still judge other people around us, that we are not the perfect people deserving grace and mercy. We think that the only compelling thing about Jesus is his ability to turn someone’s life around 180 degrees. We don’t believe people will want to know a God who turns us a few degrees at a time, and even then doesn’t force us to be different.

It’s as if somehow we don’t think the mere fact that Jesus has invaded our lives is exciting enough.