Growing up I spent a lot of time thinking about the Rapture. The idea of the Rapture comes from a couple of misinterpreted Newer Testament Scriptures. The basic idea is that one day in the future (hopefully the near future) God the Father will give Jesus the nod and let him know it's time to head back to earth! Jesus will swoop down (stopping in the clouds somewhere) and blow his trumpet. Only Christians will be able to hear the trumpet and when they do, they will fly up to meet Jesus instantly. Everything will be left behind, including their clothing.
Now, I was a modest child. Extremely modest. The idea of being zoomed up in the air, completely naked, in front of everyone was NOT an appealing idea.
I wondered how everyone else could be so excited about this. Wouldn't it be embarrassing? I guess they just assumed that they would be so excited to see Jesus that the public nudity wouldn't matter, but it was a distressing thought to me.
I was also afraid that I would be left behind. That I wasn't a good enough Christian and that when Jesus came back he would take everyone I loved and leave me to fend for myself. Every time I walked into my empty house and couldn't find my parents I worried that the Rapture had occurred. It was not a pleasant way to live.
One year, for April Fool's day, my entire family decided to make my grandfather think he had been left behind. My grandfather was a notorious practical joker. One time he and I were out driving and he saw a turkey by the side of the road. He caught the turkey, brought it home, and put it in the shower. When my grandmother went to use the bathroom she heard rustling, opened up the shower curtain, and found a turkey staring back at her. We could hear the scream all the way upstairs. The turkey was unharmed and became a family pet. We named her "Dinner" which was my grandfather's idea. He was a fan of elaborate and time consuming practical jokes and the rest of the family decided it was payback.
He had a schedule: Upon arriving home from church on Sunday night he would change his clothing and then go outside and feed the dogs. The plan was as follows: When he went outside to feed the dogs, everyone would drop a set of clothing and hide on the back porch. Someone would leave the refrigerator door open, someone else would leave the water running. My mom, step-father, and I lived next door and we set our house up as well. We also called his friends and family and told them not to answer the phone between the hours of seven and nine.
As we got closer to the time when he would be getting home from church I balked. I can't remember what it was that set me off, maybe I thought that the plan was too mean, or maybe I felt left out. Whatever the case I was sent home to bed and told not to ruin the fun for the rest of them.
The plan, although elaborate, didn't work. He caught one of the family members sliding out the back door and the joke was ruined. Everyone had a good laugh over the attempt, though, and it has remained family lore for years.
The Rapture wasn't the only thing I was afraid of. I was afraid of Hell and afraid that I wasn't really saved. I remember the first time I got saved: I was four or five years old and my grandmother was either dying or had died recently. My mom was telling me about heaven and hell and I was terrified that I was going to die and go to hell and that I would never see my grandmother again. So my mom led me in a prayer asking Jesus to come into my heart. Once you say that prayer it's supposed to be a done deal. You're supposed to be saved forever and ever, but the fear didn't leave me.
I often wondered if I was really saved. (It didn't help that people often taught that if you weren't sure if you were saved you probably weren’t.)
I would lay in bed at night and worry about going to hell. Or I would lay in bed at night and worry about eternity. What if eternity sucked? We were really supposed to just worship God forever and ever and ever and ever? That was a lot of evers. I wasn't sure if I could handle that. But if I didn't want to worship God forever and ever maybe I wasn't a very good Christian. It was a vicious cycle.
I very much wanted to be a good person but I never felt like I measured up. After a night out with my parents I would often ask my mom, "Was I goods tonight?" worrying that she would say that I hadn't been (even as I knew that I had been). If I was that worried about what my mother would think, you can imagine my fear of God. I very much thought that God was waiting to zap me the minute I stepped out of line.
Here's the thing; I was a very good kid. I was studious, I was terrified of getting into trouble and so rarely stepped out of line. On the occasions that I got sent to my room, instead of playing with my toys or reading I would lay on my bed and do nothing. It was supposed to be a punishment, after all!
When I left the Evangelical church, one of the first things to go was my belief in the Rapture (I read a history book that told me that the Rapture was a rather recent theological invention and that was that) and it was followed closely by my belief in Hell. But then I was left with a conundrum: Why did Jesus have to die? And more than that, if I didn’t believe that God would send unbelievers to Hell then why would anyone bother to be a Christian?
It has been these questions that I have spent the last decade trying to articulate, and it is these questions that I think the liberal church so often fails to answer. If Jesus is just some nice dude who got on the wrong side of the Roman authorities then he’s interesting but not all that remarkable (as a lot of people got on the wrong side of Rome and were killed). And if Christianity is reduced to simply being a nice person and doing good stuff and maybe voting properly, then it’s no wonder that our churches are hemoraghing members. I can be nice and do good stuff in a place that is a lot less annoying. What do we have to offer if we can’t scare people out of Hell or threaten them with being left behind? I believe it is our answer to this question that will determine whether or not the church lives or dies. Once fear is out of the picture, and once church is no longer a cultural expectation, and once it seems like church doesn’t have much to offer me that I can’t get somewhere else, then why would I go?
This isn’t a stylistic problem (although style is part of it) this is a theological problem. Following in the way of Jesus is hard, counter cultural work. It demands that we look and live differently than the people around us. It requires not only our work for social justice but also the work of personal transformation; rooting out patriarchy and racism, consumerism and greed, selfishness and anger. And that hard work is almost impossible to do alone, that’s why we join in community. That’s why we hold one another accountable. That’s why we participate in the liturgy; because liturgy shapes our lives and our actions to be more Christ-like.
And when we grasp the amazing message of Jesus; that God cares about the marginalized, that the kingdom of God is a place where everyone has everything they need and no one goes wanting, when we understand what it means to die to ourselves and see the beauty of being reborn as followers of Jesus, then we can’t help but tell people about the good news that we have found.
But people with privilege and power often don’t see this as good news and so we water it down. We make it tame. We turn it into serving at a shelter and voting for the democrat. We talk about community and tradition. We talk about being a church and helping people in need. We don’t talk about overturning the whole damn system. We maybe talk about our complicity but never about how we might stop being complicit. We talk about the government funding social programs but not about what we could fund with the wealth of our churches. We talk about Jesus as a nice guy, but not about the demand that we count the cost before following him. We talk about community but not about dying to ourselves.
Hell and the Rapture are easy (get your beliefs in line and you are good to go. You know who is in and who is out.). Getting rid of Hell and Sin are easy (be a nice person. Vote for the right people. Do good stuff. You know who is in and who is out.). But the middle way; the way that demands personal transformation and societal transformation, that’s the hard stuff. That’s the demanding stuff. That’s the stuff that costs you something.
It’s no wonder we don’t preach that in our churches.