Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Wally and the Atheist

"Mista Damkins? Yes. I sorry bozzer you, but somesing velly bad at Robert Frost High Skoo," Wally said into the phone.

Sarah sat next to Wally, her hand clamped firmly over her mouth and nose to keep herself quiet, but as he began speaking a smile started leaking out.

Tom took a swallow of milk. It was the wrong moment. When he heard Wally's fake accent he snorted and it came out his nose.

Robert and Gabe laughed, but Wally gave them an angry face and waved them away.

"I saw you on terivision, Mista Damkins," Wally continued. "I sink maybe you hairp.... Wha? Hairp! ... Yes! Hairp. Sank you I sorry Engrish not reery good."

It had started the day before, on a lazy Tuesday afternoon. Wally Lim, Sarah, Tom, Robert and Gabe were loafing at Gabe's house. Sarah was doing homework at the dining room table and the others were eating potato chips and watching the local news.

"Next up," Ms. Chirpy, the announcer, said: "Is the Lofton School District doing enough to promote athiesm? The president of the Free Lofton From God Association says, 'maybe not.'"

"Oh, that blowhard is always on!" Tom said. "It's not enough they changed the law; we gotta listen to him nag? Turn the channel!"

"No!" Wally held up his hand. "I want to hear him."

Tom shrugged and went back to his potato chips.

After the commercials, association president Roger Damkins put it a lot more strongly than "maybe not." The district, he said, was "shamefully neglecting its duties."

Wally watched the report to the end - shushing Robert when he tried to say something - then burst out laughing.

"Whoo Hoo! This is gonna be fun! Okay everybody, turn off the TV and listen."

On Wednesday morning, between algebra and P.E., Wally stopped in at Ms. Stoneman's office.

"Hiya Ms. Stoneman!" Wally waved as he walked in.

Ms. Stoneman looked up without smiling.

"Hello, Walter," she said stiffly. She had not forgotten the trouble she had gotten into the last time he had come in.

Wally leaned on her desk. "Hey, we'd like to start a club for people who believe in God," he said. "Is that cool?"

Ms. Stoneman stared at him for a moment.

"No, Walter. You of all people should know perfectly well that we do not allow religious clubs on campus."

"Well, I protest," Wally said.

She sighed.

"Well you just go right ahead and protest to your heart's content," said Ms. Stoneman, looking down at her paperwork.

"Okey Dokey," Wally said. "Here's a letter of protest." He put it on the desk and started out. He turned at the door, "See ya later, Ms. Stoneman." He waved a cheery hand and left.

Ms. Stoneman picked up the envelope and stared at it. She was beginning to have a bad feeling about this.

On the telephone that afternoon Damkins was getting excited. He pressed his ear to the phone to make sure he understood through Wally's accent: "So," Damkins heard Wally say, "we try start crub at skoo. Atheist crub. They not ret us. They say no. Happen just today! I even write retter of protest."

Damkins began to see possibilities. Persecuted atheist. Persecuted athiest foreign student. Clear evidence the school district was negligent in its duties and maybe hostile to athiesm. And - though not a major consideration, of course - it would be another chance to get on television.

"We have protest tomorrow morning," Wally continued. "Rots of students. Want you and terivision be spesher guest."

Damkins was eager and arranged to bring a television news crew and meet Wally on the sidewalk in front of the school fifteen minutes before the bell rang. The publicity would be good for the cause, Damkins thought. And besides - though not a major consideration, of course - he'd get to be on TV again.

The next morning Wally and Sarah, Tom, Robert and Gabe got to school early. Gabe carried two poles whose ends were wrapped in what looked like a wide strip of bedsheet. Wally carried a bullhorn. Sarah and Tom and Wally stopped students on their way into school and told them they might get to be on TV if they stuck around, so a crowd had gathered when Damkins appeared with the news van close behind.

Wally rushed up to Damkins. "Sank you velly much for coming, Mista Damkins!"

He led Damkins to the top of the first flight of steps, overlooking the crowd. Below, the news camera was set up and Sarah and Robert were in the front row already taking video with their phones. Gabe and Tom had quietly disappeared behind Wally and Damkins.

Wally began speaking to the crowd. He toned down the accent.

"We are gazzered here today to protest great injustice at Robert Frost High School!"

Damkins wondered momentarily why Wally hadn't said "Skoo," but let it pass.

"And to say many tanks to Mista Roger Damkins. He is athiest, president of Free Lofton From God Association, and rike many athiest, he openminded and not rike injustice and make special trip to Robert Frost High School to help us start a theist club on campus."

Damkins wasn't quite sure, but he seemed to hear "a theist club" this time instead of "atheist club."

But Wally pressed on, and Gabe and Tom unfurled a banner behind them that read, "We Want a Theist Club!"

"Thank you, Mr. Damkins," Wally said, looking right at him and dropping the accent entirely. "Thank you for supporting our right to have a theist club even though you yourself do not believe in God." Wally put a hand on Damkin's shoulder. "You are a true man of principle! Would you like so say a few words, sir?" He handed Damkins the bullhorn.

Tom and and Gabe and Wally and several in the crowd clapped and cheered for Damkins, and Sarah and Robert and the news crew kept filming.

It was now clear to Damkins what was happening, but he was stuck.

"I, uh, well, I uh wasn't prepared to give a speech." (That would be the first time, Tom thought.) "But I guess I just want to say that, um, we appreciate the efforts of all good people to... uh, resolve, um, differences, and to improve the, uh, quality of our schools and, uh, help our community grow. Uh ... thank you."

He handed the bullhorn back to Wally and slipped away as quickly as he could.

"Hiya Ms. Stoneman!" Wally walked into her office without knocking.

"I don't think it's a good idea for me to carry this bullhorn around all day," Wally said. "Do you? Somebody might disrupt class with it. Can I leave it here until after school? Thanks a lot!"

He waved goodbye and ran out without waiting for a reply.

Ms. Stoneman sighed. She had heard all about what had happened. Three times she'd heard. Three times by three very amused teachers, and as a fan of Roger Damkins it annoyed her. A lot. But ... on the other hand, at least she had come through unscathed.

The principal, Mr. Andrews, watched the television news report and the video Sarah and Robert had posted on the Internet. He chuckled. He watched the clips again, then laughed out loud and shook his head.

If somebody had to go up against Walter Lim, he thought, he was glad it was Roger Damkins.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Missions in the Very Last Days

I was recently asked to give a talk to the board of a little mission agency on the topic, "Missions in the Last Days." Preparing for this was discouraging; it was one of the most painful Bible studies I've done, but the study was well received and I was encouraged to disseminate it more broadly, so I turned it from speaking notes into an article, and this is it.

To get started, three clarifications:

1. I am not saying that the last days are nearly upon us, though they may be.

2. I'd like to be clear by what I mean when I say "last days."

Hebrews 1:2 says that "in these last days he [God] has spoken to us by his Son... ." So the author of Hebrews says that the days when he wrote were already "last days."

Also, in Acts 2:16-17 Peter was preaching in Jerusalem and said that what people were experiencing was a fulfillment of the prophet Joel's words: "In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people." So Peter said that it was already the "last days" in the earliest days of the church.

In one sense, then, we can understand the term "last days" to mean any time since Jesus walked on earth, but when I say the "last days" in this article, what I mean is more what you might call the "very last days," meaning what we think of when we read Matthew 24 or the Book of Revelation.

3. I'm not discussing whether the church will be taken from the earth before the last days, or somewhere in the middle, or whenever. If the church is taken from the earth before things become terrible, then I believe other people will become believers and the church will continue, so there will be a church even in the midst of the worst of it.

So, Point One:

If the Bible passages about the last days tell us anything, they absolutely tell us that these will be times of very great trouble for everybody, and that the church will endure both the trials that everyone else will face, and severe governmental persecution, including the martyrdom of many believers.

A sampling from Matthew 24 and Revelation 6-9:

Wars; earthquakes; famine; wild animals; environmental disaster as shown by a darkened sun, a bloody moon, a third of the earth being burned, a third of the seas turned to blood, a third of the fish dying, a third of the water turned bitter; and - Rev. 9:15 - a third of mankind killed.

In addition, the church will face persecution. "Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me" (Matthew 24:9). And, "I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus" (Revelation 17:6).

The picture is of huge, worldwide suffering and destruction, which suggests that the ministry of the church in this time will largely be providing food, medical services and relief. But because of the active opposition of government to Christ, I suspect overt Christian organizations will be shut down and their ministries will need to be carried out underground. And because of governmental opposition and the damage to the world infrastructure I think most ministry will be local.

Therefore, even if the general destruction of transportation did not prevent it, I doubt the government would knowingly allow Christians to do anything - especially anything that might draw others to Christ. So, for example, I don't think we could openly charter airplanes to provide relief for an earthquake in Haiti. Long-distance aid would generally not occur and when it did occur it would be because of governmental inefficiency caused - at least in part - by the general ruin and confusion.

So mostly, I think relief will be local-church-to-neighbor based. And I think this means that to prepare for the last days, we should try to make sure that the church exists in every geographic area of the world so that believers are physically near to those to whom they will need to minister. And I think it would be wise to train churches in disaster relief and encourage them to maintain stockpiles of food and basic medicine to share. Even if the last days are far off, having food and medicine banks would be wise just in case of normal emergencies.

I can think of one possible exception to ministry being local. It may be possible to reach beyond local areas using various media. Today those would include the Internet, radio and television, though perhaps there will be new technologies when the last days arrive. But those media would probably be badly damaged in the general destruction and any Christian use of those media would be curtailed by government, so the church would probably only be able to use such media in a surreptitious way and only if a badly-damaged government is incapable of preventing it.

I think the model for the last-days church will be the church in those times of history when it has had to operate illicitly, such as in Communist Russia, China and Eastern Europe and during periods of persecution during the Roman Empire. I think that now, before the curtain of darkness falls upon the world, that it would be wise to study how the church survived and grew during earlier persecutions.

Point Two:

Because the last days will be chaotic and confused, with the familiar patterns of life upset, government in turmoil, the economy in a shambles, and suffering at every hand, it seems reasonable to believe that people's normal beliefs and attitudes will be upset as well, and that they will be searching for somewhere to turn.

Because of this I think some people will want to hear the gospel, but others - being incited - will become extremely angry, hating Christians in part for the very thing we are studying right now - the "last days" passages in the New Testament.

I think people will point to these passages and say, "Look at those Christians. They're rejoicing in this! They WANT this suffering. They look at the fairy tales in their so-called holy book and say all this pain is caused by their sadistic god and is a sign that their precious Jesus is coming back. I refuse to worship a god of such cruelty! And if they like suffering so much, let's make them suffer!"

Even though we wouldn't be rejoicing in it and even though God is not cruel, I think last-days believers would find that portrayal of Christianity to be very discouraging, and I'm sure non-Christians would be tempted to vent their fury on any Christians within reach.

So, on the one hand, there would be the pressure of persecution from the outside, but most painful, I think, is that there will be betrayal and suspicion inside the church.

Matthew 27:10 says, "At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other."

How sad! Some will turn from following Christ. There will be betrayers and hatred in the church. It will be hard to trust one another and difficult to work together.

There can actually be a strange sweetness in going through shared hard times shoulder-to-shoulder with trustworthy friends, and I'm certain that some believers in the last days will experience this, but sadly, this would appear to be the exception.

And also, Matthew 24:12 says that, "Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold."

When well-meaning Christians are murdered in trying to help their neighbors, I can see why their love would grow cold, but as love grows cold our witness will tend to fade.

Also, while feelings of lostness may lead many to Christ, that same sense of lostness will also make many others open to false prophets.

Matthew 24:24 says, "For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect - if that were possible." And Revelation 13:13 speaks of the second beast, saying, "And he performed great and miraculous signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to earth in full view of men."

So people's searching, which should lead many of them to Christ, will be opposed by very persuasive alternative religious figures, some performing miraculous signs, and many people will turn to them rather than to Christ.

Fortunately, not all the miraculous signs will be on the side of the false prophets. The church will have powerful heavenly assistance, and there will be a contest of miraculous signs, something like that between Moses and the magicians of Egypt before Pharaoh.

Revelation 14:6 says, "Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth - to every nation, tribe, language and people." And there will be the two witness (Revelation 11:3-12) in Jerusalem, who despite all efforts against them will testify about Jesus and perform miraculous signs, even being resurrected after they are killed.

So, with God's help, but in the midst of chaos and hatred and false prophets and internal mistrust and betrayal, I think the witness of believers who by God's grace are able to keep loving will be very potent as they demonstrate kindness and are able to point seeking neighbors to the Bible and show that the current troubles were predicted and that there is an ultimate hope.


So, what can we do to prepare for the last days? Here are a few suggestions:

- Direct our hearts to know God as intimately as we can, knowing our Bibles and having our convictions based on it and not on a particular preacher or teacher or trend or tradition.

- Keep sending missionaries to every corner of the world so that when the last days come there will be churches physically near to those we need to help.

- Prepare to do local disaster relief right now by setting up food and medicine banks and training church members in first aid and disaster recovery.

- Be as close-knit and healthy a community as we can be right now. Perhaps that can help counteract the suspicion and betrayal that will arise in the last days.

- Study how the church survived before in times of persecution. We may very well need to know.