Monday, August 08, 2005

A Conversation Continuum - Or, "Hey Hal, We're Still Here, & So Are You, So - Has the Rapture Happened Yet & We Both Missed It?"

When I was a youth in the 1970's, there was a preoccupation in the theologies of most churches that the end was near. And no doubt about it, the cloak and dagger of the Cold War instilled a sense of impending doom. The military philosophy of the U.S.A and the U.S.S.R., MAD (mutually assured destruction) approached the prospect of total annihilation from the standpoint of "they won't do it to us, because we'd do it to them, too."

Brilliant, freakin' brilliant. It's truly a miraclewe even made it out of the 70's.

But for Christians, and mostly Protestant Christians, the thing that contributed most to visions of mushroom clouds was this cute little book by Hal Lindsey called "The Late Great Planet Earth." Hal (if I can be so informal as to call him "Hal"), was hardly the first to announce with some certainty that the end was coming, and soon. Since Jesus ascended folks have been working on that one. Across the landscape of Christendom, there has always been some belief that Jesus' return is imminent. And when it comes, literally, all hell's gonna break loose. Oh, and if you're not on the God-side of this equation, it's not going to be pretty. Most likely, you'll be in the outer darkness weeping and gnashing your teeth (props to brother Matthew).

For Lindsey, though, this would have been the first such book, mass-produced, during a time when we could actually conceive the end of human life on our planet. As a commercial prospect of demand (laced in some form of spirituality), and supply (folks have used the Bible to make whatever point suited them from time immemorial), this was a harmonic convergence if ever there was one. And for some, this all played into the strange, masochistic spirituality that God was in on this deal.

Taken together with such films as "The Exorcist," and "The Omen," Christian people, folks like the ones I went to church with, were convinced that the signs are too prominent to be ignored.

In the late 70's, a "movie" version of the book was made and shown at the picture show in the town we lived in at the time. Now, let me say, I loved that youth group deeply; I loved the people who were my counselors. They were good people and to this day, when I think of youth groups that mattered most to me, my UMYF group from Malesus UMC is deeply held and cherished.

My counselors were so convinced that the end was coming, that they wanted to take us to the movie. So, we went. But before we went, my Dad pulled me aside and said,

"Son, you're going to see some things in this movie that you're going to have questions about. And most of it, I think is wrong. But you go see it, and when you get back, let's have a conversation about it and you can makeup your own mind."
My dad is good that way, always pushing me to think and come to a conclusion, and not indoctrinate me. And sure enough, that movie blew my mind. Mostly, I was left thinking, "what world am I living in, and who are these people?" So, Dad and I talked alright. I don't know if he thought he was going to have to debrief or detox me. Truth is, although I had not yet formed classical theological language to frame (seminary's got be good for something, you know), it rubbed up against and grated on everything I had come to understand, at that time, about what being a person of faith invested in God's world meant. It was the antithesis of engagement in the word. Rather, it was more like:

"we're at a point of no return, and if you don't get right with Jesus, you're going to be incinerated in a nuclear mushroom cloud because that's just what Ezekiel and the Book of Revelation(s) says is going to happen."

Some of the youth in my group were so scared by this that they swore they'd never do those things that young men and women do (allegedly) as they explore their humanity with one another. Others swore of drinkin', cussin', and smokin.' Jesus was on his way, and the Commies were going to invade Israel, and because Israel is God's chosen people (even though they killed Jesus and are going straight to hell for it) we (the U.S. of A) would be obliged to get involved thus fulfilling the prophecies of Armageddon, and it was going to be brutal. And when all that happened, they were not going to be caught (even from the backseat of daddy's car) doing something that would make Jesus mad.

Me? The whole thing just ticked me off.

I thought, "What makes this time in history so important? Why are we so special to think that whatever the end looks like, it's coming "soon?" It made no sense to me then, and makes none now. This whole "better get right with the Lord, right now" or else - was just so offensive, and still is.

I didn't need to have the conversation with Dad after seeing the movie, because the many conversations, worship services, sermons, and life with my biological and spiritual families told me that this was not what the Christian faith was about.

But the willingness even to let me go at all, and then the offer to talk after experiencing something so counter my belief system, was truly gracious and I've never forgotten it.

Oh, and the "conversions" of my sister and brother youth so long ago? You know how it is. Fear is a short term motivator, and it is usually always nullified by testosterone and pheromones (allegedly).

In fact, this episode of my adolescence has come back fully into my consciousness in the past few days. My oldest son has a friend who is a member at Bellevue Baptist. And yesterday, he went to church with him. The stuff of my inner monologue was saying "hell, no!" to such a thought. Thank God, sometimes our better angels get to our mouths first. And in the truest since of deja vu', I repeated an offer made to me by my dad just a bit shy of 30 years ago.

It is time for my son to find his way, and ask his questions, and it's time for me to trust that our life together is the continuing conversation we're having to respond to that which is so counter our experience. And that, we can take it in, look at it honestly, and frame a faithful response even to that which is intended to scare us to death.

1 comment:

Chris Chastain said...

I must have emailed my comments instead of posting them here... But I am still thinking about this, perhaps way too much. I don't want to get into any systems of eschatology so maybe I will take your posts at face value and learn from them. Unless you start to think that John Stewart rivals Letterman behind the desk. Then things may get heated!