Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike

I just hear on the news over lunch that author John Updike passed away after a battle with lung cancer. Updike is probably best known for the Rabbit series (which if you have never read you should), but I remember him best for a little known book that was assigned by a Church History Professor at Duke (Bob Gregg) called A Month of Sunday's. I am not sure if we were actually assigned the book, or if we were told to put it on our summer reading list (which 25 years later I have not finished all the books on . . .). I learned more about what I was getting into from Bob Gregg's Church history class than all of my other classes combined. THANKS!

Last year I read what may have been Updike's last novel, The Terrorist. This is a powerful story of how a young man can get caught up and enrolled in terrorist activity. A wonderful and thought provoking story.

Sex, religion, science and culture always seemed to be the currents in Updike's stories and none may be as provocative as Roger's Version about a young computer geeks attempt to prove God. As we remember the death of this great American author, I encourage you to take some time and go back and read some of his classic works.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Agnostic about the afterlife

The other day in my reading I came across an article by Marcus Borg in which he made the comment that he was "a committed Christian and a complete agnostic about the afterlife." I find that to be a fascinating concept, because I too would say the same thing.

If you look up the word agnostic in the dictionary you find that the etymology of the word is Greek agnostos which means unknown, or unknowable. If I am fully honest, I don’t know and in this lifetime thing that afterlife is by definition unknowable. Believing about an afterlife really has nothing to do with whether or not there is one or what it is ultimately like.

My theology, as it has developed over the years, does not follow the popular theology that has risen up recently that places such an emphasis on aferlife. I, like Borg, would suggest that is one of the negative characteristics of modern Christianity. By putting such an emphasis on afterlife, we somewhat mute our responsibility in this life.

When I was in college, I wrote my senior thesis on John Wesley and his affects on the English Working Class Movement. My argument was that John Wesley, unintentionally held the English workers from striving for improved working conditions because of the promised reward in the afterlife. Karl Marx argued basically the same thing.

Borg offers some other reasons why he is agnostic about the afterlife. I think he is right on and I will just quote the rest of the article (I wish I knew where I got it from).

When the afterlife is emphasized, it almost inevitable that Christianity becomes a religion of requirements and rewards. If there is a blessed afterlife, it seems unfair to most people that everyone gets one, regardless of how they have lived. So there must be something that differentiates those who get to go to heaven from those who don’t – and that something must be something we do, either believing or behaving or some combination of both. And this counters the central Christian claim that salvation is by grace, not by meeting requirements.

Another problem: the division between those who "measure up" and those who don’t leads to further distinctions: between the righteous and the unrighteous, the saved and the unsaved.

Another problem: an emphasis on the afterlife focuses our attention on the next world rather than on this world. Most of the Bible, on the other hand, focuses our attention on our lives in this world and the transformation of this world. At the heart of the Lord’s Prayer is the petition for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth: your kingdom come on earth, as it already is in heaven. There is nothing in the Lord’s Prayer asking that God take us to heaven when we die.

As yet another reason for my agnosticism about an afterlife: does it involve the survival of personal identity and reunion with those we have known in this life? Are family reunions part of the afterlife? For some people, this is much to be desired, for family has been the primary source of love and joy in this life. But for perhaps an equally large number of people, family has been the primary source of pain and unhappiness. So, are we going to be with those people forever?

What I do affirm about what happens after death is very simple: when we die, we do not die into nothingness, but we die into God. In the words of the apostle Paul, we live unto the Lord and we die unto the Lord. So whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.

For me, that is enough. My not knowing anything more does not bother me at all.

And I am very wary when the Christian gospel becomes a message about the afterlife. I am convinced that it invariably leads to distortion. This is not the Christian gospel.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Rest in Peace -- John Mybeck

Last week I had the difficult task of presiding over the funeral of Dr. John Mybeck. It was an amazing service! Keven Mybeck did a beautiful job in eulogizing his dad, and Mark Mybeck and John Carpenter shared an original song; The Liberty Trail.

On the way to the cemetery in Crown Point, I was talking with Kevin Kish about how hard it is to preside at the service of a dear friend — who else would you want to do it? And he was right — I knew John — I loved John and I cannot think of anyone else who should have been leading the celebration of his life.

John was a special friend. He has been a mentor, friend, brother, father, patron to me these last 10+ years. He always was interested in my life and my families life — genuinely interested! He helped arrange an internship for Jessica at the Theatre at the Center.

At the beginning of December, it was pretty clear that the cancer was going to steal John’s life — so I began trying to talk with him about how he wanted to be remembered. He wasn’t ready to talk about it yet. I could force a few things out of him, but he really wasn’t ready. By Christmas, he began to get ready, but it was too late and we really could not discuss it. It broke my heart that we could not ever really talk about those things, but that is all to often the case.

Have you thought about your funeral.
How you want to be remembered?
Where you want to be buried or if you prefer cremation.
What scriptures you want read, songs you want played?
Someone in particular you want to speak (or someone you don’t want to speak)?

I will post what I want for my funeral in a few days, along with a form that you could use to record your own thoughts.

DO THIS, Your family will thank you!

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Pillars of the Earth

I recently finished reading Ken Follett's book, The Pillars of the Earth. This is a book that has been on my read list for years, but with the second volume completed by Follett in 2007, I decided now is the time.

It is a huge book --- 983 pages. But despite its size, I could not put it down. It made great reading following Christmas while Nancy and the girls were in North Carolina. There were many nights when I did not want to go to bed!

If you have read other works by Follett (Eye of the Needle, The Man From St Petersburg, On Wings of Eagles) you might be surprised by Pillars. It is not a "thriller" like many of his other works. Instead it is historical fiction, set in 12th Century England. It really is the story of the relationship between the Church (Roman Catholic) and the state. Ken Follett says the story is about building a church --- but I think that is just the location for all that takes place between the clerics and the royal officials.

The story revolves around a ambitious young man who rises to the role of Prior of Kingsbridge. Prior Phillip seems to really care about the people in his parish (unlike many of the other clerics in the story) and desires to make their life better and fuller. One way to do that is to re-build the church in Kingsbridge. He meets a man (Tom Builder) and his family --- who ultimately becomes the master builder for Phillip. The story covers almost 50 years, so much takes place.

What is fascinating (at least to me) is how the story leads up to the death of Thomas Beckett, which sets the stage for Magna Carta in another 35 years.

Follett weaves a marvelous tale and well worth the time it takes to read it. I am looking forward to reading World Without End, the sequel to Pillars sometime this year.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Environmental Series

A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Thomas Friedman’s newest book, Hot, Flat and Crowded. I don’t know if any of you have read it, but I think it would make for some very interesting and lively discussion.

One of the things that comes to mind to me, is the need to preach a sermon series on the environmental crisis that we are facing. As I looked at the schedule for this year, Lent seemed to be an excellent time to look at the direction that the world is currently going in, and offer a vision for what the world could be like (sounds like resurrection to me).

I would like your help. If you could share with me any ideas that you have about some of the themes you think should be examined during a series on the environment. If you could get me your ideas right away, I will develop some outlines and post them here so that we can continue to work on them.

Thanks for working with me on this critical issue.