Friday, May 20, 2011

The Great Disappointment: 1844 and 2011

Here I sit at my computer, the day before May 21, 2011. May 21, for most people, will just be a normal Saturday. For a number of others, not all of whom are strangers to me, there is a much greater expectation for tomorrow. As the followers of Harold Camping have boldly and publicly been communicating, they expect judgment day to come on May 21

This prediction has received much ridicule from the secular media, and received gentle (and not-so-gentle) critiques from Christian leaders – some making a joke of it, others humbly explaining that there’s no biblical reason to believe this.

But it shouldn’t really be a surprise that Camping is teaching this, or that people are staking their plans, money and faith on his teachings. It’s happened plenty of times before. The most prominent example in U.S. Christianity was William Miller, who claimed to have discovered the date of Christ’s return in the 1820’s. Miller was a self-educated farmer from New York – he had not been influenced by academia or being a prominent part of an institutional church leadership structure. He was an average American, reading the Bible for himself, and coming to a conclusion that seemed very clear to him: Christ would return in 1843. In the 1830’s, he began to share this message with others, and by the early 1840’s gained a large audience for his message throughout the U.S. Roughly a million people attended camp meetings to hear him speak, and the movement caught the attention of the nation. His book, Evidence from Scripture of the Second Coming of Christ, About the Year 1843, was published in 1836. Thousands believed his “biblical” insight that Jesus would return “sometime between March 21st, 1843 and March 21st ,1844,” (based on the Jewish calendar) l . They forsook their previous religious beliefs (i.e., left their churches) to follow Miller’s teachings, and the popular call that grew to “Come out of Babylon!” (Babylon, in their scheme, being the Protestant church.) Working class people eagerly anticipated the end of their struggle to earn a living. Many sold their possessions. Millerites dressed in white robes and went up on hills to await Christ’s arrival at any moment.

The spring of 1844 brought the first disappointment. The predicted time frame had passed, and the “virgins awaiting the bridegroom” were still waiting. Then the leadership of the movement focused in on an “autumnal cleansing” and fixated on the date October 22, 1844. True believers, who would be saved, were those who had left their churches and put their firm belief in this date. All others would be excluded and judged by Christ. Anyone who tempered their statement of belief with an “if” was not considered a true believer.

The results on October 22? The “spring disappointment” was followed by the “great disappointment.” The world went on, as if it were an ordinary day. In 1845, William Miller, disillusioned, left the Adventist movement that had been the vehicle for his message. He died, blind, of old age on his farm in Low Hampton, New York.

Miller was perhaps the most prominent American, but not the only church leader to make such a prediction. In the year 65, Hilary of Poiters announced the end of the world. In 1179, John of Toledo predicted 1186 as the end, based on the alignment of planets. Jehovah’s Witnesses used a mathematical calculation to predict the beginning of the war of Armageddon in 1914. When this prediction did not work out, the Watchtower society subsequently predicted 1914, 1915, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975 and 1994. A fellow Christian writer, observing the Family Radio campaign, reminisced on his personal experience with the predictive pamphlet buy a NASA engineer titled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. The commonality of all these predictions? They were all wrong. EVERY time a Christian leader has set a date for the second coming of Christ, it was wrong. They have claimed biblical, prophetic and divine authority, yet the failure of their predictions has proven that they lack such authority.

But in many cases, the teachers have not recanted. They have made excuses, then regrouped and set a new date, marshaling their remaining followers, as the Millerite movement did in the spring of 1844. As for Harold Camping? He seems to know how to accomplish this. In 1994, he predicted the end of the world. It didn’t happen. Yet he still remains convinced of his own authority, unwilling to heed anyone’s interpretation of Scripture besides his.

If you are a follower of Harold Camping, believing his teaching to be biblical, please hold him accountable to his words by not following his teaching any longer when this prediction fails. The parallels with William Miller are astonishing. Many who object to Camping do not do so because they reject the authority of Scripture, as Camping claims, but because they recognize that his interpretive methods have failed over and over, and they are guided by human arrogance, not the Holy Spirit. Those of us who continue to attend Christian churches do so because we believe the biblical teaching that the church, despite it’s weaknesses and failings, is the bride of Christ, not the sin-ruled world system represented by Babylon in the apocalyptic Scriptures.

Please, please, be willing to humbly repent and seek Christ in the aftermath. Do not be deluded by Camping’s silver-tongued explanations of what happened. Hold him to his own words. And be willing to seek truth on May 22 and after. He is not the first to deceive. You are not the first to be deceived. There is freedom in repentance, but bondage in prideful determination to follow falsehood. Choose repentance from false teaching.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sometimes Growth Requires a Little Less Work

I tried to avoid it. I desperately did not want to go there. I dreaded this frustrating stage of life. But it seems it was unavoidable. I have seen multiple friends of mine graduate from academic programs and enter the next phase of life, and the phase looked pretty similar for each of them. It was not the hoped-for and often expected transition of launching from a degree straight into a satisfying career or exciting ministry field. No, there is no simple mechanical process where you plug your degree into one part of a machine and watch the path to fulfillment and success come rolling out of the other side. On the contrary, it seems pretty standard to have a post-graduation lull.

I observed this lull phase in people’s lives while still working on my master’s degree. It usually involves either looking for a job (with little success) or working a job that does not really tap into your ability and potential (or degree qualifications). It often involves spending time with the family you grew up with or investing in a new marriage. This is a phase that lacks the excitement of the dreams discussed in your college dorm late at night, calls into question the ideas about the future that inspired you through the challenging and wearying bevy of academic assignments, and challenges the expectations built by watching the careers and ministries of the role models that inspired you. It’s a time of waiting, knowing that you have prepared to use your abilities in an influential, effective and satisfying way, but not knowing when the opportunity to do so will open up. It’s a sharp Bible-college grad working for the in-laws’ family business. It’s a gifted and driven business finance honors student waiting tables at Olive Garden. It’s a trained urban missionary caring for a dying grandmother in rural Ohio. It’s a a gifted seminary grad who’s Ph.D. material, painting houses.

I was going to outsmart this season of life. A year ahead of graduation, I started making plans. I was going to launch straight into my dream of serving the poor in Africa, and I wanted to leave the month after I graduated. No time in the doldrums for me! Then the Lord brought a welcome interruption to my plans, and I decided that I was more excited to marry her than to go rushing off to Africa on my own. And following the advice of experienced missionaries, we agreed that making a cross cultural move before our one year anniversary would compound the challenge of both adjustments, so we should stay put for the first year.

I didn’t think this would require me to experience the post-graduation lull, however. Immediately after we got back from our honeymoon, I launched into teaching a class at a bible college nearby, while still working in an academic program for at-risk youth. There was lots of activity, lots of productivity, and things were proceeding according to my normal, busy expectation. Then the bible class ended, and it was my final class for the academic year. Two weeks later I was informed that I couldn’t keep my education job any longer, because I had to be enrolled as a student to qualify for employment. Shortly afterward, we decided it was time to change churches, and we were in an in-between phase of local church involvement as we sought the best fit for us. What was I to do with my time? My version of the lull had settled onto me.

My lull has been far from inactive – it’s included working part-time in two different tutoring programs, training for a half-marathon, taking a Perspectives course, and cooking lots of dinners for my wife (seasoned with garlic, onions, cilantro, and lots of love). But by comparison with other phases of my life, it’s been a lull, and it has taught me deeply important lessons. It’s been difficult to pay bills pay bills each month and notice the big difference in my wife’s income compared to mine. I’ve often consoled myself in the past that I was making investments in ministry, which had far greater value than the dollar amounts on a paycheck. But some of my previous ministry opportunities have been absent for a time (i.e., because of the church transition), and my direction in ministry is shifting, though I’m still watching to see exactly how it shapes up.

I was forced to look inside and ask myself: when I don’t have a list of accomplishments at the end of the week, or a great ministry story to tell, or a respectable dollar amount on a pay stub, or ample recognition for my activity and service, where do I place my confidence? Where do I ground my identity? If I only feel I can relate to God well when I am doing and accomplishing a lot to serve him, then I have not rightly understood grace. I serve because of grace. I discover who he is and how he works through service, yes, but my identity is not in what I do, or in what I accomplish. I have been challenged to preach the gospel to myself again and again, remembering that my value, my identity, the inspiration and strength for all that I may accomplish, is in Jesus Christ. When I am tempted to self-pity because I think my circumstances should be different, I must remember that being part of Christ’s body, having been purchased with his blood, is enough. His joy is enough. His grace is enough. His peace is enough. When I am thoroughly broken of my need to accomplish things for my own sake, my own pride, my own sense of self-worth, then I can serve with sincere gospel motives. When I am able to trust the one who sovereignly and wisely guides my circumstances without protesting, complaining, and arguing as if I know better, then I am ready to accept his plan for my life. Someday I will be called to praise him in the storm. For now, I will sing to him in the lull.

Father, let your Holy Spirit dwell in me that I may reflect the image of your Son with joy, peace and trust as you work out what’s next.

“We think in terms of apostolic journeys. God dares to put his greatest ambassadors in chains.”
- Watchman Nee