Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (I Peter 1:10-12) transports me to my Oakley house living room on any given Sunday in the late 1960s and early 70s, where we always had a houseful of family there to visit Granny. I was the little snaggle-toothed boy making sure everyone had an ashtray. Small talk inevitably turned to scripture talk, which inevitably turned to apocalyptic talk and an ongoing search for the meaning of the riddles in books like Daniel and I Thessalonians and Revelation. It was a fascinating conversation to overhear, as my folks and extended family debated everything from Ralph Sexton’s predictions that morning on his televised Send the Light program to the place of the Vietnam War and Watergate in the scheme of biblical prophecy. That there would be a rapture one day was a given for these folks. That no one could claim to know the date did not deter them from a careful search and inquiry of scripture and the signs of the times to see how history was proceeding to its end. Their preoccupation with rapture and end times did not deter them from doing good work in the here and now. In fact, I think these hopes somehow fueled their works of compassion.
Those Sunday afternoon sessions must have had something to do with my desire to be a religion major in college and go on to do graduate work in biblical studies. Those self-taught scholars in the smoke-filled living room instilled in me the love of learning, and I went on to soak up everything I could from some incredibly brilliant minds at Mars Hill and Southern Seminary. Most of the soaking was good and useful. Some I have had to unlearn. Primarily, I have had to unlearn the de-mythologizing approach to faith. This approach led me to poo poo the piety of folks who were waiting on the rapture (because for one, the word rapture is not in the Bible, and second, an emphasis on end times presumably keeps us from concentrating on our ethical duties today). In my unlearning of this approach, I have gained an understanding of the difference between the poetry of Jesus and the politics of Jesus, and I have discovered how much I need both. The mythical language of rapture (or being “caught up in the clouds” to use the biblical phrase) is poetic, and conveys a truth as deep if not deeper than the ethical and political truths of scripture. When visions of rapture now burst on my sight, they are connecting me to deep longings of the soul. They are the same longings, I believe, that prompt me to have flying dreams some nights. They are dreams of transcendence, of freedom, of a blessed assurance that does not deter my commitment to the political and ethical mandates of the gospel commonwealth. They fuel the work. Mythological language and poetic imagery are the “flying machines” for a culture, vehicles carrying the communal imagination that enables us to create and sustain better worlds than we currently inhabit. The overly rational approach to my higher education experience was the fire and rain that left my sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground. I’ve learned to enjoy the work of putting those pieces back together.
I do not want to poo poo the piety of my rational professors any more than the piety of the irrational end game crowd. Fortunately, as I said, most of what I soaked up from them was good and useful, including a knowledge of Jungian depth psychology, which gave me the tools to re-mythologize my faith life and my approach to fantastic scriptural imagery. And because of that, I do not join in the poking fun at Harold Camping. I’m glad there are quirky folks out there who spend their lives examining things into which the angels long to look. I think they have something to offer those of us who spend our lives trying to live out the ethics and politics of Jesus. A reclamation of the poetry of our faith could be the antidote for the chronic fatigue that plagues progressive communities. For, as Mary Chapin Carpenter so eloquently sang, In this world there’s a whole lotta trouble baby, in this world there’s a whole lotta pain, In this world there’s a whole lotta trouble and a whole lotta ground to gain, Why take when you could be giving, why watch as the world goes by? It’s a hard enough life to be living, why walk when you can fly?
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith?