A few weeks ago, a middle-aged man joined us for our Wednesday service. With urgency, he told us that things were aligning, and the beginning of the end would start this coming Saturday. We listened as he spoke, respecting his insight. I spoke with him after and let him know that in our tradition, we really do not worry much about the end times.
We know they are going to happen, we know that there is not much we can do about it, and if we are lucky enough to be part of them, well, that is just a bonus! It was not meant as a brush-off, but stating a fact that as a people, we are called to live for God and not ourselves.
Apocalyptic stories and teachings have been around since people started to worship together. Archeologists have found apocalyptic stories in most religions. For the Judeo/Christian world, we can find these stories in some of the earliest books of the Bible. In theological texts, we see them written about often. Interestingly, from a historical standpoint, they increase in times of real uncertainty.
But that is an aside to the truth about the apocalypse. It will come one day, and probably by sheer luck, somebody is going to be right, and, thankfully, we won’t have to debate that! We also know if one prediction does not come true, another will come. Regardless, the problem often with living for the apocalypse is the fact that we cannot live for Christ, because our priorities are skewed towards self-preservation.
Accepting that the apocalypse will come eventually is the same as accepting that our individual lives will come to an end, as well. As you can imagine, if you were living to die, the way you would live your life would be very different, and your focus would be, too. It is the problem that arrives with the problem of salvation itself. Most people concerned with the end times and their mortality are often preoccupied with the afterlife.
This begs the ultimate question: who or what you are living for? Granted, I have no doubt that the man who told us was doing so out of his passion for Christ and compassion for fellow believers, but there is a basic truth that occurs when we live our lives preparing for either salvation, the end of the world, or even the end of our lives¾we are no longer living for God.
You may be asking yourself, especially if you are coming out of a tradition that makes a big deal about securing your salvation or preparing for the end times, “What is he talking about?” The problem comes down to what we make “ultimate.” For example, if we make our salvation the goal of our lives, we cannot live for God because we are living for ourselves.
This is a question of motivation. If we are spurred into action because of our desires, our motivation is our self-preservation. Where in the Bible does it give us the idea that our self-preservation is of importance? Sure, you can proof-text a passage here or there, but in context, self-preservation is antithetical to the faithful life of the Christian.
This is about how we order our lives¾living the best we can, working to create a better world and caring for our neighbors. If it so happens that the end of the world comes, we will be prepared because our heart is on God; and if it does not, we will be working to create a world that more closely resembles heaven and honors the dignity and love of God.
What does it mean to forgive? I think this is one of the most important questions that our society is facing today. Writing this article on September 11, I cannot help but think of the situation that we have been in over the past 16 years. While the sentiments probably started many years, if not decades, before, for the past 16 years, we have been divided as a country, both in our response to the tragic events of that day, and as to how to respond to fundamental disagreements in our society. This is really sad, because as we get firmer in our thinking and assumptions that we are right, we become more intolerant of others.
Many of you, as you read that last line, are thinking that this is going to be a rag on conservatives, but the truth is that both sides of the debate tend to be equally inhospitable at times to the other. The importance of winning and being right is the most important thing; everything else is often seen as collateral damage. One need to look no further than the debates over immigration to see how both sides’ politicians are using the people as pawns for political and personal gain. But this is not an article about politics or issues; it’s an article about forgiveness.
Forgiveness messes with our society in profound ways. To live a life of forgiveness, an individual must live according to a different set of principles. There are many things that change when you make it a practice to live a forgiving life. For me, these three are key for really living that way.
First, in order to forgive, one must find ways to let go of their negative feelings towards others. I often say that forgiveness is not forgetting. For example, if a friend got really drunk and said or did hurtful things, I would forgive them, but I would not forget and put them back in the same situation.
Second, you have to have a mindset of reconciliation, recognizing that if you are going to change this world, you must start with acknowledging the power of forgiveness. Here, for example, is the where the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is both great as well as helping to spawn the radical right. On the one hand, it is bringing attention to the fact that there is a very different reality for people of color in the United States. Many in the white community are being exposed for the first time to the realities many people of color face every day. Unfortunately, the news often does not depict those who are modeling this action of reconciliation and forgiveness. Rather, we see the worst case, where the BLM movement is confrontational and vitriolic, putting the white community into a corner where they are closed to the reality the movement is trying to get them to understand.
Third, you have to learn to put others and their feelings first. This is really difficult, because it forces you to accept that your reality is not the ultimate reality. I often say this is the moment when a child becomes an adult. On one hand, for me, this is really easy, because my childhood and youth was so markedly different than “normal.” Intellectually, I know that my reality is different, but it is still hard emotionally, as I will get into situations and misread or react based not on what is actually happening, but rather what I perceive to be the reality based on past experience. Thus, it gets hard to forgive, because I already have the assumption that I am right.
As people of faith, we are called to live in forgiveness. Personally, I think that forgiveness is one of the easiest things for Christians to do and also one of the most difficult. It's easy because within the culture of Christianity, we’re called to make forgiveness the core within everything that we do. “Let it go” and “letting God” is central to the Christian life.
Think about it this way: in order to really be faithful, we have to let go of the things that ground us in this world, so that we can focus on the things of God's world. If we let our head or anger and our frustration towards other people be the bedrock of our life, then we're not able to follow God, because we’re always focused on our vendettas and getting back what is rightfully ours.
While the Christian culture should make it easy for us to forgive, the reality is that our greater culture doesn't make it so easy. Because we live fully within this world, we get drawn into the jealousy and the false teaching that we are more important than our neighbor, and that being right is far more important than letting it go. Think how many wars---and not just the big ones that we hear about on the news, but the small ones in our neighborhoods, our offices, and even in our family---are caused by our inability to let go. So, like many things of faith, this is something that we have to work on.
I knew death was part of life when I was 9 and ended up in the hospital severely underweight and weak, having suffered malnutrition due to a digestive issue. Fear of death was part of my being, but the idea of life and its impact on others was not.
A year or so before that time, my grandparents moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to begin a business venture. It never came to pass, and my grandfather, an ordained Presbyterian pastor, went back to work as a visitation pastor. My grandfather is an old school, traditional reformed pastor. Since he grew up in the Swiss Reformed church, you really could not expect anything less from him.
Every summer, my mother and I would spend time with my grandparents. By the time I was around 12, I started to go alone. Through junior high and high school, I dedicated a good portion of every summer to my grandparents. While much of our visits were focused on eating out, watching M*A*S*H, and playing cribbage, the struggle with the deeper faith questions always seemed to come up. As I listened and learned, I began to grow in my emerging adult identity; my grandfather was there to give a spiritual direction to my life.
The most surprising discussion started when my grandfather proclaimed, “I do not want a eulogy at my funeral.” It was one of those discussions you feel in your stomach, profound and moving in every way. As a teenager, this was not a discussion I was expecting to have, or really wanted. You never want to think of people you love dying. Sensing this, he asked me if I had ever read the Heidelberg Catechism. I had not. At that point, I doubt I knew much of anything about the confessions.
His demeanor soon changed as a new spark came into his eye. The sense of the room changed as he started to speak about the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism.
Q. 1. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?
A. That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
He talked about how the Heidelberg Catechism was written by two young theologians from Heidelberg. He taught me how it reconciled the traditions of the Reformed movement of southern Europe with the Lutheran (or evangelical) movements of northern Europe to help form the Evangelical and Reformed tradition. He related how it became the primary catechism for much of the reformed movement. Like many in the Swiss Reformed Church, he had to memorize it when he was confirmed.
But this was only setting the stage. For my grandfather, this statement gave doctrine to a church and tradition. It was a witness to the way we are to understand our lives and purpose in this world. While some can make a big deal about this statement and salvation, for my grandfather it was simply about how we as Christians order our lives.
As a teenager, I began to resonate with that message. It showed what was important and what was not. It reinforced the idea that the things that matter in life are not what we want, but what God wants for us; things that are kinder and more full of pleasure than what we want for ourselves. However, getting to that point can be difficult. For most teenagers, including me, that was a reality – a part of life. Through this teaching, my grandfather instilled an understanding that when we put God first, then and only then are we making our way down the right path and celebrating the gifts that God has given to us.
Now that I am much older, I do find it fascinating to look at that question brought up in the Heidelberg catechism, because even today, it is not a conservative statement; it is a radical one. In American society, the belief that is stated requires believers to completely let go and give themselves over to God. In my heart, I now read the statement as one of hope. As a typical, awkward teenager, a young seminary student, or a settled pastor, there is always a part of me trying to figure out who I was, am now, and am going to be. I, like my grandfather, find a certain comfort knowing that my identity was not something that depended on me alone or what others thought. My identity was, is, and ever will be bonded to my belonging to God.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen