Choose Life

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I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the Lord your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days…

—Moses (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)

The debate over homosexuality is a hot-button issue about many things: moral right and wrong, human rights, love, happiness, natural law, the definition of marriage…

As important as these issues are, I don’t believe they should be the focus, at least not for Christians.  The debate over homosexuality should be a discussion about one thing and only one thing: what brings us life.

And this focus should apply not just to homosexuality but to all behavior, sexual and otherwise.

Here’s a question: Why did Jesus die for us?  If you have ever been to Sunday school or watched a sporting event you know about John 3:16

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son [Jesus], that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

Life.

Jesus said later in the same book of the Bible that He came so that we might “have life and life more abundantly.”  Sadly, that is not often the message of Christians.  Too often we reduce Christianity to a list of moral rights and wrongs rather than an invitation into abundant life with God.    We wag our fingers at Christians and non-Christians alike when we see what we believe is unbiblical behavior; we judge and scoff at and scold people for not being “good.”

When we reduce Christianity to a list of rights and wrongs we say that Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection were God’s way of making bad people good.  Sadly, we turn God into some kind of supernatural Santa Clause who keeps a list of who has been naughty and nice and doles out eternal presents or lumps of coal.

Like many of you, I don’t want to worship that kind of god either.

But…what if Jesus’ death was not about making bad people good?  What if it was only about offering life to dead people?  If the latter is the case, then the Bible can be no longer viewed as Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth; rather, through its stories God tells us and shows us the way that people fully alive with Him normally live, and Jesus’ life is the exemplar.  Further, the Bible shows us of God’s eagerness to be with us and the lengths He will go to help us to participate in His life.

Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good, Jesus came to offer life to dead people.

I know a little something about living without God—living as a dead person with my dead-person behaviors.  I wanted to be the master of my own universe, to fulfill all of my own desires.

I know from my own experience that dead people act out because they don’t know any better, it is simply “natural” for them to act this way.  You Christians sometimes got mad at me, but I didn’t know any better.  Rarely was I invited into life; rather, it was pointed out to me that I was acting badly.

It doesn’t matter whether the dead-person behavior born out of greed, pride, gluttony, power-mongering, anger, or lust (homosexuality or premarital heterosexual sex)—and the list goes on and on—dead people will naturally do the things of dead people.  Sure, dead people can perform good and great acts, too, but even those acts come from the vestiges of God’s morality since we are all made in His image and will not in and of themselves bring life to the dead.

Sin is not the things we do that are wrong, where “wrong” is defined as acting against biblical rules.  No.  Sin is our state of being separated from God.  When God calls us to turn to Him and  then to obey Him, He does so only because wants to unite us to Himself, He wants to bring us into a relationship with Him where we will find the abundant life He has for us; therefore, following His way for us to live is simply the way people fully alive in relationship with Him try to live their lives.

God is inviting us into the fullness of abundant life; He is not an all-powerful Killjoy…

God is inviting us into the fullness of abundant life; He is not an all-powerful Killjoy trying to ruin our fun and quench our desires.  Obeying God does not prevent us from enjoying life.  Quite the contrary!  Obeying God frees us to live the abundant life He wants for us.  We are oppressed only when we allow ourselves to be held captive by our attempts to satiate our own unbridled passions and desires.

This is the heart of the Bible message: God only wants for us to be our best, to be fully alive, to become the person He created us to be, which only occurs when we are in relationship with Him.  This is real Love, His for us.

But, participating in God’s life takes effort, just like any relationship worth having.  I must put forth effort into changing my old, dead-person habits for the sake of our relationship, relying on the power of God’s Holy Spirit within me to increasingly transform me over my lifetime into a person fully and abundantly alive and participating in His life.

Yes, I still battle many of my old, dead-person habits.  And lately, it seems, God has been unfailing in pointing out to me just how much I still act like a dead person.  Curiously, His pointing this out gives me hope because it reminds me of His love for me and that I can only find abundant life with Him.  And it helps me to have compassion for the still dead people and for other dead-acting Christians and makes me want to offer them the same hope I am finding with Him.

God is calling each one of us out of dead-person life and into a life fully alive with Him.  God is love and can only act toward us out of love; however, His love for us precludes Him from accepting something less for us that He has intended.

So, the choices in our lives, Christian and non-Christian alike, are not about right and wrong and who has the moral high-ground.  All of our daily choices of behavior really boil down to a single choice that we repeat every moment of every day: it is the choice between behaving as a human being alive with God or behaving as one dead and apart from God.

Respond to God’s invitation.  Choose life.

I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the Lord your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days…

—Moses (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)

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Waiting

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Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord    (Psalm 27:14)

Waiting is hard for most of us.  It takes patience.  The ticking of the clock (do clocks still tick?) can seem interminable.  And, perhaps it is increasingly hard because we are not used to waiting much anymore.  With our mobile devices it is easy to distract ourselves from its tedium.

I’ve recently had the opportunity to reflect on waiting…

If current science is correct, the universe was created somewhere around 13.8 billion years ago.  Ex nihilo is what some say: “out of nothing.”  Correct, in the way it is meant, but the will and Word and action of God are hardly “nothing.”

God spoke into the nothingness.  It sounded like a BANG!

And God began to wait.

Corridor of Time

Created matter cools ands clumps together.  Stars form, live, and die.   One day a mass of hydrogen ignites and an average yellow star appears—we call it “the Sun.”  Matter begins to orbit around this star.  Finally, some 9.3 billion years after The Beginning, there was Earth, “without form and void and darkness was over the face of the deep.”  9.3 billion years. Tick, tick, tick…  Write down the number 29.  Follow it with 16 zeros.  That many seconds ticked by between creation of the universe and the formation of Earth.  Tick, tick, tick…the waiting seems interminable; God’s patience, unimaginable.

Another 1 billion years of seconds pass; tick, tick, tick…a 3 with 16 zeros.  First life appears.  Still He waits…

Still another 3.3 billion years tick off; a 1 followed by 17 zeros.  Tick, tick, tick…the precursors to Adam and Eve walk Earth.  Still He waits…

Again, God speaks, and man and woman appear in the mist of antiquity.  Tick, tick, tick…a 4 followed by 17 zeros between BANG! and the appearance of mankind “created in His image and likeness.”  Still He waits…

God created us to share in His life and in His love, to “partake of His divine nature.”  Write a 4 followed by 17 zeros; that is how many seconds have ticked by since The Beginning.  The number is too big to comprehend.  Put it another way: only in the last 0.0007% of Time between The Beginning until today has mankind, as icon of God, existed.  Tick, tick, tick…  99.9993% of Time God has waited for us.  He is not in a hurry.

 ———————————

At 8:15 on the morning of April 16th, 1924, she entered the world.  Since The Beginning, each of her days was written in God’s book “when there were yet none of them.”  He had plans for her welfare and not for evil, to give her a future and a hope.  Then, for 13.8 billion years God awaited her conception.  He knew the exact time and place she would arrive into the world.  With each tick and tock He thought of her.

Ninety years ago she was conceived and it has been eighty-nine years since her birth.  She was intricately formed exactly as He had intended.  Eighty-nine years: write a 28 followed by 8 zeros.  Tick, tick, tick…each second of her life is precious to God.

The 89 years is drawing to a close.  God’s beautiful daughter lies unresponsive: one day, two days, three days, now four…345,600 seconds have ticked by since she last talked….it is we who now wait.  And we wonder, “Why do You continue to wait, God?”  We plead, “Take her now.”  God remains patient, unhurried.  He has waited 13.8 billion and 89 years to hold her.  When finally He draws her to Him, He will hold her for eternity, seconds without number.

BANG!, said God..it is now 13.8 billion and 89 years later and almost time for the Lover and His beloved to be united face-to-face.  For all of eternity.  God waits patiently for her; it is we who can’t wait.

 ———————————

Physical death came last night, just six weeks shy of ninety.  It has been 13.8 billion and 89 years since God first thought of His most beautiful daughter. Now she has come home to Him.

435,000,000,000,000,000 times the clock has ticked as He waited for her.  They are finally together; Lover and Beloved now united.  That is Love beyond measure.  She is more alive than ever.

 It is our turn to wait to see her.

Tick Tock

Wow!

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wow /wou/: expressing astonishment or admiration.

The Boardwalk At Trouville-Monet

The Boardwalk At Trouville-Monet

Recently I visited the local art museum to view an exhibit focused on French art from the late 1600s to the early 1900s.

This particular exhibit contained many works from the greats of that time period, such as, Degas, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, and van  Gogh.

At first, I was moving slowly through the exhibit pausing in front of each work with an audible and involuntarily, “Wow!”  The genius of each artist was evident even to me.

With each passing gallery my pace began to quicken; I was pausing less at each work.  Toward the end of the two-and-a-half hours I noticed my initial “Wow!” response had faded.  Sure, I would occasionally come across a work that stood out in some way and I would get another shot of Wow!, but, for the most part it had faded even though I was still standing before works of true art by rare geniuses.  Mostly, though, I was getting tired.  There was no longer enough Wow! to keep me engaged and energized.

We humans are fickle creatures, aren’t we?  We are forever seeking Wow! and then more Wow!  I think this points to the central problem with Wow!: we eventually become numb to the initial precipitating Wow! experience and begin looking for more of it—whether in the form of the next adrenaline thrill or the next great novel or a new way to read something in the Bible or the latest generation of smartphone or…wherever.  Like a drug to which we have built up a tolerance, we need a greater and greater Wow! fix to keep our interest.

I noticed something else at the museum.  After viewing the exhibit, our small party of four gathered in the middle of one of the larger galleries to discuss our thoughts of the exhibit and our plans for dinner together.  As we talked, I found myself beginning to stare at several of the nearby impressionist paintings.  Being able to so easily view them together from a distance of about 20 feet allowed me to see them in a way I had never seen them before and to immediately understand impressionism in a new and profound way.  My first response was, of course, Wow!  We continued to stand in the gallery and I began to enjoy the extended time to engage with these few paintings in this new way—I was no longer seeing the paintings; rather, I was experiencing the paintings.  And then a strange thing happened, my Wow! began to change to a quieter and prolonged “wow…”

My Wow! had given way to awe.

My Wow! had given way to awe.

awe /ô/: a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.

Wonder” is such a terrific synonym for “awe.”  Perhaps you recall a day when you noticed a particularly beautiful sunrise or sunset, one so remarkable that it stopped you in your tracks.  Likely you couldn’t help but stare at it, not thinking about it but experiencing it in wonder.  Standing there, staring at the beauty before you, doing nothing but being in the experience of the moment is, paradoxically, a deliberate act of contemplation.  The “awe” you felt can only come from such deliberate contemplation.

Have you ever been curious why the so-called Christian mystics focus on contemplation of God as the way to God?  It is easy to believe, from our modern standpoint, that contemplating God is an archaic practice for those with nothing else to do.  It is a waste of time, we tell ourselves, because we are not doing anything for God.  Not so.  I believe the act of contemplation is indeed the path to God exactly because of my experience at the museum: without contemplation I only think or hear about God and maybe it gives me a sense of Wow!  I look to God for a Wow!-inducing miracle and then, like those who saw Jesus perform miracles and wanted more, I, too, continuously seek more and more Wow! from God.  However, when I slow down to contemplate God I begin to experience Him more deeply, to experience Him with fear and wonder…to begin to engage Him with a sense of awe.

Contemplation requires time, and, sadly, time is something we have so little of, or so we believe.

The biblical writers often write with a sense of awe:

O Lord, our Sovereign how majestic is your name in all the earth!  You have set your glory above the heavens…When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8)

Ancient Israel’s King David took the time to contemplate creation around and above him and was clearly in awe of God as he wrote these words.  In those final minutes at the museum, as I began to contemplate the art around me, I found myself in awe of the work and the artists…and of God, their creator.  Contemplating something from God had drawn me into contemplation of God.

Without God’s help, we are simply incapable of seeing Him and contemplating Him.  In the 1300s, a monk from the East, St Gregory Palamas, wrote this about God’s initiative toward us:

[Because we are incapable of seeing God, He] illuminates the mind alone with an obscure light, so as to draw a man to Himself by that within Himself which is comprehensible, and so as to evoke his wonder at that which is incomprehensible, and through this wonder to increase his longing, and through this longing to purify [his desire for] him.  (The Triads)

The light is God, and the mind (nous) of which Palamas speaks is not the brain or the mind as we think of it now.  He speaks of an inner organ of vision with which we are all able to see into the spiritual realm, a sight that has been obscured by the sin of mankind.

God is all around us and is ever inviting us, wishing that none of us turn from Him.  However, because our spiritual vision is so poor, we can only begin contemplating Him with our our senses or intellect through things that we “see,” such as great art.  Thankfully, as we seek Him He is at work in us, His children, clarifying our inner sight so that we might increasingly behold Him in awe.

Next time you see someone staring at a flower, at a sunset, at a two-legged image of God, at a work of art, or even staring off into space apparently wasting time, perhaps it is me contemplating God and experiencing Him in awe.  Come and sit beside me for awhile.

Head’s Down

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Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every bush afire with God.
And every bush afire with God.
But only he who sees takes of his shoes
The rest sit around and pluck blackberries…

    —Elizabeth Barrett Browning, from “Aurora Leigh,” book 7

“Head’s down” is an old phrase used in aviation, specifically among pilots, to indicate that the pilot is busy with something inside the cockpit, such as reading a checklist or looking at navigational maps.  In an airplane with two pilots, one might say to the other, “I’m going head’s down to program the navigation computer for landing.”  It can be important for the other pilot to know because other than when flying in the clouds (a relatively short time in an average flight) it is critical for both pilots to be “head’s up” and looking out the window; after all, it is ultimately the pilots’ responsibility to see and avoid other airplanes as well as prevent an unscheduled encounter with the ground.

pierPilots are not the only ones who periodically operate head’s down.  Recently, a women was walking head’s down, intently browsing on her cellphone. Distracted by what she was doing, she walked off a pier and fell into the ocean.  Rescuers found her floating on her back holding her cell phone out of the water.  I’m sure you know that this is only one incident in a growing trend of people walking, driving, dining, or in any number of circumstances, being distracted by their phones.  Increasingly, it seems, we are a culture that moves through life with our collective heads down.

It is easy to point at technology as the cause; however, I think it has only made a common problem worse.  I think we have always been head’s down people.  But now I’ve switched the meaning of “head’s down” just a little.  Rather than being attentive to something right in front of us, I intend “head’s down” to mean our radical self-absorption.  Mankind, by nature, is generally a self-absorbed, head’s down creature.

Lately, out of the circumstances of my own life, I’ve been wondering about Moses.  Perhaps you know his story, found in four of the first five books of the Bible (Exodus – Deuteronomy).  Born a Hebrew slave, his mom placed the infant Moses in a basket  and set him afloat in the Nile river.  She did this to avoid his death at the hands of Egyptian soldiers ordered to kill all infant Hebrew boys as a form of population control.  The basket was found by the Egyptian pharaoh’s daughter who adopted him as her own.  He grew up in Pharaoh’s house.  As a man, the Bible tells us, he killed an Egyptian for beating a Hebrew slave and then fled to Midian to escape the death penalty.

If Jewish legend is to be believed, Moses grew up to be a man of great education and influence in Pharaoh’s court.  After killing the Egyptian at the age of 27, he fled to Ethiopia and served as their king for forty years, eventually unseated because he was not Ethiopian.  It was then at age 67 that he moved to Midian where he become a shepherd, married Zipporah, and had a family.

Here is where my imagination takes over.

As a shepherd, I imagine him in the desert feeling like a caged animal.  He once had it all: a powerful man in Pharaoh’s court and then the the king of Ethiopia.  He had the world at his feet.  Now, he is a shepherd.  I imagine him emotionally exhausted and unhappy, consumed with the what-if’s of the past and scheming to achieve his desired future: a return to prominence.  I can see him in my mind’s eye, alone with the sheep “in the back of the desert”, so head’s down, so self-absorbed with his own misery, that every day for years he walked past God in the burning bush without noticing.  And God let him walk by each day, inviting him with flames but never calling out to him to stop.

In the Bible, God often uses the desert as a teaching tool.  Again and again, people, including Jesus, find themselves in the desert facing the greatest battle of all, the battle with themselves.  For Moses, I imagine God using the desert to begin to transform him from someone who lives head’s down in the inner torment of his life as a shepherd and into someone who lives head’s up.  Only on the day he was first able to begin to look past his circumstances—the day he finally went head’s up—was the day he saw the bush literally afire with God, and he stopped.  And only when he stopped did God speak to him (“when the Lord saw that he stopped to look, God called to him…”).

Barrett Browning is right.  The Earth is crammed full of heaven.  Every bush is aflame with God.  Rather than take off our shoes, we are so busy with our Blackberrys (smart phone or other self-absorbed distraction) that we no longer notice God—not that we ever did—and we walk off the piers in our lives suddenly finding ourselves floating in the ocean, holding up our phones, waiting for someone to rescue us.

In our radical self-absorption we miss God at evercampfirey turn and we wonder why we are so often cold and wet.  Perhaps it is time for each of us to find a piece of desert, to enter our own cell and let God teach us to live life head’s up, with our eyes on Him alone.

Come, remove your shoes and sit for awhile by the warmth of a bush afire with God.

The Cell

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In Scetis, a brother went to see Abba Moses to ask for advice. The old man said, “Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”

Nearly 1700 years ago the small vanguard of what would grow to more than 100,000 people left civilization and moved into the deserts of Egypt and Syria.  They were the first monks (from the Greek, meaning “single” or “alone”); we know them today as the Desert Mothers and Fathers.

When Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion the Roman persecution of Christians ceased.  Being a Christian became easy, even fashionable, so much so that these Christian women and men left for the hard living of the desert.

These early monks lived in caves or small dwellings, known as cells. They lived radically isolated and simple lives practicing a disciplined (ascetic) life that we would consider quite extreme by today’s standards.  Yet, their lives were attractive to many—even then people would travel great distances for a word of wisdom from these monks.

This kind of simple life can be attractive to us, particularly in our frenetic world.  We long for the slower pace.  But I’m not talking about seeking after a simple life for the sake of escaping the pace of the world.  What drove these women and men into the deserts was not their desire to escape society and live simply; rather, it was their desire to directly confront the root cause of all battles…ourselves…and this was their chosen battlefield.

You see, must have been from a the cell that Pogo’s creator finally met the enemy and discovered he was us.  It was from his literal prison cell that Solzhenitsyn came to understand that the line separating good from evil does not run between countries or classes of people or political parties but through the heart of each of us.

But to enter one’s cell without the Christian God is to join the path of a downward spiral to the nothingness of Sarte’s existentialism, the place of ultimate hopelessness.  By contrast, the great hopefulness contained within the writings of these early monks remains with as much veracity today as it had 1700 years ago.

Here is something I have learned: you do not have to become a monk living in the desert or a monastery to experience life in a monastic cell.  Life in a cell can be had in the desert or in the midst of a bustling, modern city.  There is a cell awaiting each of us if we would only seek it.

The path to eternal life is difficult.  The gate of entry is narrow and the path is hard.  I am coming to believe that eventually, in this world or the next, each of us must learn what our cell has to teach us; more correctly, to allow God to shape us into the image of His Son, Jesus, who is leading us into life with the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit.  There is no other path.

Perhaps you know of such a person, a monk-in-the-world; they can be recognized as ones who strive to live with God at a different pace and with a different set of priorities.  You might even envy their life.  Be careful of what you wish.

What is a cell?

A cell is more a state of being than a geographical place.  When we decide to respond to Jesus’ invitation to seek our true selves in Him we move into our cell.  But what does this really mean?  It means that we begin to learn to stop hiding from God in fear.  We begin learning to step out from behind the things that we believe define us or we let distract us; things, such as job titles, street addresses, school names on our diplomas, emails, the number of zeros on our paychecks, prior accomplishments, the shape of our bodies, names on the labels on our clothes, task lists, immersion in the lives of favorite celebrities, constant music, TV shows, 401(k)s, cell phones, texting, number of Facebook friends…these things and more feed our false identity and distract us with their allure.

What awaits us in our cell?

In our cell there are several beings present.  We often think of the monk living a solitary life.  This is not so.  God (the persons of the Father, Son, and Spirit) and the Devil and his minions are in our cell with us.

In our cell we discover that the battle takes place within the very being of the ourselves with God encouraging, beckoning, and strengthening and Satan taunting, accusing, and attacking.

In our cell we discover that in each moment we face a choice, “With whom will I side in the battle?”

In our cell we learn that we can choose poorly and there are consequences.

In our cell we ask the most profound questions of life.  Questions such as, Who am I?  What does it mean to be human?  What lies beyond this life?  From where does my worth come?  How do I really measure a successful and productive life?  In what (or whom) do I actually trust?  Where do I find hope for today?  What will tomorrow bring?  How do I know whether this path is the right path?   Am I really loved by God?  How much longer?

In our cell the lies we have believed all of our lives are gradually exposed.

In our cell we revisit the precipitating events for our deepest wounds.

In our cell we confront head-on temptation from the eight deadly thoughts that torment us: gluttony, lust, covetousness, anger, dejection, acedia, vainglory, and pride.

In our cell we experience physical, emotional, and spiritual hardship.

In our cell we learn that no woman or man can survive their cell without the presence of God; we are simply unable to withstand the company of our sinful selves on our own.

What does our cell teach us?

In our cell we learn to distinguish between the voices of God and Satan.

In our cell we learn how to choose God, and when we choose poorly we find God who is always calling to us, helping us, and urging us to turn back toward Him.

In our cell one by one the questions we had begin to dissolve as we draw closer to God Himself.  We ask. He answers, “I AM.”  Mysteriously, that answer begins to satisfy us.

In our cell we gradually begin to learn that Truth is a Person and not a set of rules.

In our cell we come to understand what it really means that by His wounds we are healed.

In our cells we find new memories of our past traumas in which Jesus was indeed present though we knew it not at the time.

In our cells we learn disciplines that help us cooperate with God as He gradually digs out the roots of all temptations and our heart of stone is gradually replaced by God’s heart of flesh.

In our cell we learn that mysteriously through the work of the Holy Spirit our perseverance in the trials changes our character, and we find real hope.

In our cell we learn that we are God’s beloved son or daughter in whom He is well pleased and we begin to hear Him singing over us.

The real beauty of the cell

Each of the lessons from our cell is the Holy Spirit’s way of teaching us a new step of the Divine dance with the Trinity.  As we are able to grow in our confidence in our ability to move with God to the rhythms of His grace we begin cooperate with God and allow Him to work in us, gradually we are stripped of all that we have learned to hide behind and we will once again stand before God, clothed in His righteousness and unafraid.  True self being led gracefully across the dance floor by the Trinity.

Hot Coals—The Antithesis of a Reward

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A true story:

A long time ago, a very powerful king built a 90 foot tall statue of himself.  Upon its completion, he demanded that everyone in the land bow down and worship this statue thereby proclaiming the his godliness.  Three brave young men refused and were brought before the king.  He thundered at them and threatened them, but they would not worship him. He was not their God, they said.  So, the king ordered them to be burned in a furnace heated to seven times its normal operating temperature.  With hands and feet bound, they were thrown in; so hot was the fire that it killed the king’s men who dropped the young men over the side.

Last time I wrote I was thinking through a different view of the rewards promised to a Christian in the life beyond this life.

Lately, as a consequence of that view, I’ve been wondering about Hell as a place of eternal torment.  Specifically, I’ve been troubled by the common idea that the Christian God, who is love, would send people to eternal torment.

And I am wondering about the nature of this place called Hell, the place from which many Christians say God is absent.

Just to be clear, I think there is such a “place” as Hell, maybe more a state of existence, really.  Jesus refers to it by analogy to Gehenna, which in His time was “a deep, narrow glen to the south of Jerusalem…[it] became the common receptacle for all the refuse of the city. Here the dead bodies of animals and of criminals, and all kinds of filth, were cast and consumed by fire kept always burning” (Easton’s Bible Dictionary).

Neither am I questioning that there are consequences for one who steadfastly maintains that she or he has no use for God and His offer of forgiveness for our rejection of Him (Christians call this “sin”).  Our repentance and His forgiveness are both necessary because even God cannot respect our free will and unilaterally repair a broken relationship.

So, to my wondering.  First off, the common image of a wrathful God-the-Father and the loving God-the-Son would seem to somehow set God against Himself. Of course this cannot be; there is only one God.  While there are good theological answers to this seeming paradox, I find the theology arguing for a wrathful God increasingly troubling.  After all, the Apostle John says that God is love.

Second, there is no place God is not.  He is everywhere, that’s one thing that makes Him God.  Theologically, this is known as God’s omnipresence.  King David, ancient Israel’s greatest king, as he writes this of God:

Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol [Hades], behold, You are there.  If I take the wings of the dawn, if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Your hand will lead me, and Your right hand will lay hold of me.

So, if God is not bifurcated into love and wrath and if the omnipresent God is everywhere, then what sort of place must Hell be? Without going into an exhaustive review of theological arguments and word studies to make my case, let me say that Christians for centuries have thought differently about Hell than what so commonly comes to our minds today, which is the notion that a wrathful God sends people who reject Him to a place of eternal torture where He is absent.

As for Hell itself, I don’t think God set out to create a place of torment for unrepentant  humans.  As I said above, I think such a place exist, but the Bible says it was originally created for “Satan and his angels,” not for humans.  To be a human in Hell is to be in a place God did not intend for us.  After all, He wishes that none of us would live in Hell; however, He does respect our free will.

As for Hell being a place of eternal torment, I think it is, but maybe not for the reason so often assumed.  Consider this quote:

…if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.  —Apostle Paul, biblical book of Romans, c12, v20

I’ve been wondering whether the Paul offers a clue here as he quotes King David’s son, Solomon, reported by the Bible to be the wisest man who ever lived.  These words are not an exhortation to be nice to an “enemy” to spite them; rather, they acknowledge the very real human experience that being nice to an enemy will be miserable for them.  Certainly we have all had the experience of receiving something nice from an other at whom we are angry.  We simply don’t like to be the recipient of such kindness; perhaps this is one reason why humanitarian aid workers are sometimes killed when trying to help.  The killers hate the religion/organization/country represented by these aid workers to the point of killing them for their kindness, which they can’t bear to receive.

I think there is something helpful in this for our view of God and Hell.  There is an ancient view still held today in large segments of the Christian Church: God’s love is experienced as wrath and torment by those who have chosen to live their lives apart from Him.  In other words, the same “consuming fire” of God that warms and comforts those who love Him also torments those who do not.

Consider the story of the three young men with which I began.  Here is the rest of the story:

The king saw four men in the furnace, and they were dancing!  God had joined the three in the fire!  The three emerged from the fire completely unharmed, skin, hair, and clothes all unburned.  Only their ropes had burned away.

For the three young men who followed God, the fire was protection and safety.  For the king’s men it was death.  Similarly, when God freed the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery more than 3000 years ago, to aid their escape He came between them and the army of Pharaoh:

The Cloud [of God] enshrouded one camp in darkness and flooded the other with light. The two camps didn’t come near each other all night.

In both these cases followers of God experienced God as life and those rejecting God experienced Him as death.  Perhaps this is the difference between Heaven and Hell: Heaven is to eternally experience God’s love as warmth and beauty while Hell is to experience His love as eternal torment and pain—the same God who is love experienced radically different.

As I said above, the Bible is clear that Hell was not created for us in advance.  Rather, it is a place created by the existence of our own free will and will be populated by those who have freely rejected God’s love.  It must exist as an experience of God’s rejected love just as Heaven must exist as an experience of God’s accepted love.

We will all live eternally, we have no other options. God puts a choice before us for how we will experience Him through that eternity: as life or as death.  Choose life.  Choose Him, it is what God wants for each of us.

 

Rewards in Heaven

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…anyone who comes to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him. (Biblical book of Hebrews, c11, v6)

 Rewards in heaven.  The Bible is clear that there will be rewards in heaven.  Since the rewards are in heaven, then it seems clear that the reward is more than making it to heaven itself.  So, should we make of these rewards?

Some believe the rewards will be tangible, material things.  For example, read the following verse:

In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. (Jesus, The Gospel of John, c14, v2)

Some Christians, using this verse, imagine the rewards in heaven will be a house, sometimes we use the word “mansion” found in some biblical translations.  To demonstrate our humility, we say something like, “I don’t care if I live in an outhouse as long as I am in heaven.”  We say it as a joke; however, in my conversations with Christians it seems clear that many are expecting some sort of tangible gift from God as a reward.

I think that this is dangerous thinking for at least three reasons.  First of all, we can turn God into Santa Clause.  ”God knows,” according to this thinking, “who has been naughty or nice.”  He will check his list twice and give me a present corresponding to my degree of goodness.  Therefore, if I am particularly saintly (usually as defined by the individual) I will find a big mansion waiting for me when I get to heaven.

Second, we turn following Jesus into a competition.  Talk of mansions or other tangible rewards invites a response of our competitive nature.  While we would never say it outright, we easily imagine ourselves living in a mansion larger or smaller than an other.

Third, recall a Christmas morning as a child.  You have been anticipating a particular present for perhaps months.  Finally, the morning arrives and you rip open the package to find the very gift for which you have longed.  For the next hours, days, or perhaps weeks, it is the center of your life.  Yet, eventually you set aside the gift for increasingly longer periods until one day you discover it in the attic, now only a fond reminder of a happy past.

I suspect that a material reward in heaven would be the same.  How far along the long corridor of eternal time will I travel before my mansion becomes passé?  I know myself to well.  It will not take long.

If our rewards are not material in nature, then what are they?  What should we expect when we get to heaven?  Jesus tells us.  He says that eternal life is knowing the true God (Father) and Jesus Himself.  The “knowing” spoken of by Jesus is the deepest, most intimate knowing possible between two beings…a mysterious union.  It is not “knowing about”; rather, it is the knowing that comes from living life with an other.  This level of intimacy does not come from a casual life together; rather, it is the result of a life of intention together through all the good times and the messy times, wanting the best for the other.

If this idea of spending an eternity to get to know God seems foreign to you, you are not alone.  In our consumerist Western culture we measure success in terms of material things, including money; perhaps you remember the old bumper sticker, “He who dies with the most toys wins.”  Also, in our world of social media, our idea of knowing people has become more about “friending” an other than expending the time and energy and commitment it takes to really know the other.

Let me propose something to you with a question.  What if our rewards in heaven is based on relationship and not materialism?  What if my reward is to finally come face-to-face with the God I love?

Certainly even in this there are “levels” of reward.  Imaging running into an acquaintance after some years.  It will likely be a nice reunion.  Contrast that with two lovers reunited after a similar period of separation.  The latter brings a sense of happiness and feeling of fulfillment, a greater “reward” than the former.

I believe it will be similar with God.  Once I am able to see His face will it be as an acquaintance or as a lover?  Don’t hear me speaking disparagingly of only being acquainted with God.  This may be as far as we have progressed in our journey with Him.  However, it would be sad if I had the chance for a deeper relationship with God and didn’t want more.

I believe that this is what God wants for us and with us.  Our Trinitarian viewpoint provides us with an image of a God of three persons—Father, Son, Spirit—who are eternally outward focused and other centered.  God is love, after all.  We were created to be in loving union with Him.  Our union with Him is a reward for Him, too, as He joins with us, His beloved daughters and sons.

If I’m right and if eternal life is to be in a loving relationship with God, to know Him in the most intimate sense, then why wait?  Why not start now so that when you get to heaven you will run into the arms of the one you most love.  What better reward could there be?

The Glory of God and Abraham Maslow

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God then told Elijah, “Get out of here, and fast. Head east and hide out at the Kerith Ravine on the other side of the Jordan River. You can drink fresh water from the brook; I’ve ordered the ravens to feed you.”  Elijah obeyed God’s orders. He went and camped in the Kerith canyon on the other side of the Jordan. And sure enough, ravens brought him his meals, both breakfast and supper, and he drank from the brook.

Biblical book, 1Kings, ch 17, verses 2-6

In 1943, American psychologist Abraham Maslow published a work asserting that humans are motivated by an ascending set of needs.  It is sometimes represented by a triangle with our most basic needs, our physiological needs, at the bottom and moving up towards our highest need, self-actualization.

maslow-need-hierarchy

While I doubt that the complexity of human behavior and motivation can be boiled down to a few simple categories, my own recent experience of needing has gotten me thinking about trusting God with respect to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Then, in my mind I contrasted my degree of trust in God at Level 5 with my imagined trust at Level 1, physiological needs.  Trusting in God for my next bite of food or drink of water seemed in my imagination to require a deeper, more radical kind of trust than that at Level 5.  Certainly achieving some level of self-actualization is not as life-or-death as one’s need for food and water.  Could God really be trusted at this level?

I first began wondering whether the strength of my trust in God was somehow related to the stage of need in my life as represented by Maslow.  For example, if I felt the four lower needs were met and I was striving for Level 5, self-actualization, I might find it easy–casual might be a better word–to trust God.  As I cried out to him to become who He created me to be, I could console myself in the fact that He is indeed at work in me, but that becoming my true self is at least a lifelong journey.  I found could relax a bit because the lower needs were met.

For the glory of God is a living man; and the life of man consists of beholding God.

Then a very old saint, Irenaeus, came to mind.  “For the glory of God is a living man; and the life of man consists of beholding God,” he said nearly nineteen centuries ago (Against Heresies, 4.20.7).  Then in my mind the pyramid representing Maslow flipped on its head and disintegrated.  I exist because God wanted to share with me His loving life within the Trinitarian community–the magnificent relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Regaining unity with the Christian God is the recognized goal of one’s life with God and, in that, God is glorified as we become who we are created to be: His children who behold Him and join in loving relationship with Him.

For the maturing Christian, the needs of physiology, safety, socializing, and esteem increasingly take a back seat to actualization.  However, it is not Maslow’s self-actualization in the sense of a self-help project I undertake for myself.  It is quite the contrary.  The journey toward actualization–to being reunited with God–”is not a question of merits but of co-operation, of a synergy of two wills, divine and human” (Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church).  I join in with what God is doing in me.

Here is where the life of a Christian becomes so contrary to what we grasp by our senses and what we know in our minds: that we must take care of, or someone must provide for first our basic needs and then our subsequent needs for us finally to be happy and fulfilled.  No.

The Christian life is my turning “towards God of [my] own free will and with all [my] longing” (Lossky).  Early on I learn to pray for my basic needs–”Give me this day my daily bread”–but as I mature with God my needs change from things to a singular longing for Him.  My faith becomes that of gazing at Him and my trust in Him becomes ruthless.  “Little by little the soul reintegrates itself, regains its unity, and particular petitions begin to disappear making them superfluous, as God answers prayer by making manifest His all-embracing providence.  There is an end to petition when the soul entrusts itself wholly to the will of God.” (Lossky).

God knows and provides for all of our needs in His way and His timing as He draws us toward Him; we gaze upon His face as we seek to follow His leading–it is the Divine Dance.  This is the state of a person truly alive, and persons on this journey bring glory God.  It is a state in which even the “great saints” of human history moved in and out of; after all, our deification, being united in relationship with God, is a very, very long journey.

So, get on the dance floor with God; its okay if you step on His toes as you learn the steps and rhythm of the dance and to follow His lead.

Perspectives

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Who am I?

Am I then really that which other men tell of?  Or am I only what I myself know of myself?

Who am I? This or the Other?  Am I one person today and tomorrow another?  Am Iboth at once?

“Who Am I?”, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Comedy-Tragedy

These questions so eloquently captured by Bonhoeffer have haunted me.

Have you ever had this thought: “If another person knew me, really knew me, they couldn’t possibly like me”?  You know the “real me” person I mean, the “inner you” that you go to great lengths to hide–yeah, that’s the one right there living in the shadow of the person you project–if they really knew that person they wouldn’t like you…or so you tell yourself because you know yourself better than anyone.

Have you ever had a really good friend tell you that they see good something in you that you know couldn’t possibly be true because, after all, you see the backstage areas of your life?  You nod at their comment in appreciation, perhaps even feeling a little flustered while protesting against their observation, while down deep wishing that what they said were indeed true.  What they say can’t be true, you tell yourself, because they don’t know the “real you,” and you, of course, know yourself better than anyone.on you project–if they really knew that person they wouldn’t like you…or so you tell yourself because you know yourself better than anyone.

Have you ever had some well-meaning fellow Christian tell you that God loves you for who you are?  You nod your head knowingly because it is a fact straight from your Bible; however, somewhere down deep you know it is a lie…after all, the “real you” is unlovable and, after all, you know yourself better than anyone.

What if you are wrong?  What if you aren’t the best judge of who you are.

What if you are wrong?  What if you aren’t the best judge of who you are.

What if there are other persons who know you at least as well as you know yourself and perhaps better than you know yourself?  I am coming to believe that there are three valid perspectives of me…

God’s Perspective

The first perspective is that of God.  If I am a follower of Jesus, then God has adopted me as His child.  To use the language of the Apostle Paul, God sees me-in-Jesus (Christ).  That’s a funny theological concept.  How can I be in another person?  Well, it is a bit of a mystery in the same way that two married people in a healthy marriage slowly and mysteriously become as one, their very persons separate but intertwined.

The practical outworking of this is that when God looks at me He sees me in the same way as He sees His Son, Jesus.  After all, I am His son, too (or daughter, ladies).  Imagine God looking at you that way.  And here’s the best part: He already knows about that shadowy person inside that I try to hide even from Him, and He still sees me as His most beloved child.

Sure, there’s a bit more to this perspective.  God wants me to really become like Jesus, so in addition to offering His unconditional love He helps me through His Holy Spirit to live my life in a way that I am being actually transformed into the likeness of Jesus.

Don’t get too bogged down in this extra stuff just now; the point is that God sees me as His child in the very same way He sees His real Son, Jesus.  God looks at me and sees me-in-Jesus.  That is His perspective.

Other’s Perspective

What about these other people who see something in me I don’t see.  Well, it is not just any other people that will see this truthfully.  It is too easy to fool the masses; with a few deft moves I can pull the wool over their eyes.  Or, they might see only a snapshot of me and rush to a good or poor judgment of me.

No, I’m talking about those very few people who really know me.  Those people I let into the innermost circle of my life; those to whom I tell of my hopes and dreams and expose my weakness and failures.  I hope you have a few people like that in your life.  These are the people who will see Jesus in you.  You cannot really know yourself without them.

As I draw closer to Jesus I become more like Him.  I am indeed a cracked pot, as they say, which is a good thing.  It is through those cracks that the light of Jesus shines through.  Jesus-in-me begins to shine through those very cracks in ways of which I am not aware unless someone else points them out to me.  This is what those closest to me begin to see.  And, it’s not really them seeing me differently; rather, it is Jesus-in-them seeing Jesus-in-me.

My closest friends look at me and see Jesus-in-me.  This is their perspective.

My Perspective

Then there’s my perspective.  Unfortunately, it is the one in which I put the most stock.  It is me looking at the backside of the tapestry of my life and seeing all the loose and knotted threads.  I see the mess behind the mask.  I hear the voices unkind toward you and me in my head.  I experience the doubts and fears of life.  I recognize the false bravado.

In other words, I see the sin in me.  I’m seeing the shadow person I think I hide because he is unlovable and if you or God knew him you would reject me and I’d rather die than be rejected for who I believe am.

In reality, this shadowy figure is not separate from me but is part of me.  As I draw closer to the light of Jesus I begin to see him more clearly for the wretched person that he is (I am).  He is (I am) not something to hide…he is who I really am: the person God has redeemed by the death of Jesus.  I’m seeing me-as-redeemed.  Having this view of me allows me to see God’s great mercy and grace toward me.  Sadly for us and for God’s kingdom we too often find our identity from this perspective alone.  We too easily dismiss ourselves as unworthy to do God’s work here.

The Apostle Paul is a good case study.  We know he is God’s son (perspective 1).  We know from his writings (two-thirds of the New Testament) that he was a great man of God (perspective 2).  Yet, he calls himself the chief of all sinners (perspective 3).

Each perspective offers me something.

God’s perspective gives me the deepest truth of who I am.  From His perspective I findmy ultimate identity, security, and significance.

The perspective of my friends gives me hope that God is at work transforming my life, that His promises are not empty promises.  I really am changing; my friends see it when I don’t.  Through the eyes of close friends I see who I am being transformed into.

My perspective reminds me of God’s grace and mercy as I see what I have been redeemed from.  I see the inner ugliness and it reminds me what God did for me through Jesus on the cross.  Out of this perspective I can begin to offer  God’s love to others.

Mandella Quote

Each perspective is important.  Bonhoeffer finishes his poem with a reminder of the bedrock answer to the question, “Who am I?”:

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.  Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!

Contemplative Prayer

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I remember the story of the old peasant, in the time of the Curé d’Ars, who spent long moments at the back of the church gazing at the image of Jesus.  One day someone asked him: “What are you doing during all this time?”. . . “I don’t do anything. I look at Him and He looks at me.”

The practice of contemplative prayer takes a lot of heat from some corners of Christianity.  It is seen by some as unbiblical or to Catholic or to passive or to quiet or to mystic or a waste of time.  Is this true?

There has been much written on both sides of the debate; rather than rehash these arguments I’d like to look at it from two different perspectives.

First is to imagine what God was doing before creation.  To even ask this question forces one to wrestle with the preceding questions of the nature of time itself and God’s relationship to it.  For example: When did time begin?  Is time itself dynamic or static?  Does God exist within time now or outside of time?  Has God changed His relationship with time?  If so, has God changed?

I believe the arguments are better that prior to creating, God existed timelessly and without beginning.  To exist timelessly means that God existed “changelessly alone, and no event disturbs this tranquility.  There is no before, no after, no temporal passage, no future phase of His life.  There is just God.” (Time and Eternity, Wm Lane Craig).  If so, then, one cannot even ask the question, “What did God do prior to creation?”.  God did not do anything, He could only be, only exist as God.

However, God has eternally existed as the three-in-one God: Father, Son [Jesus], Holy Spirit.  Somehow in this unchanging timelessness God has the ability to love.  Jesus, while on earth in human physical form, said this: …”for You [Father God] loved me [Jesus] before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). Further, this changeless timelessness allowed Jesus to exist in a state of glory with His Father (John 17:5).  So, whatever we mean by a state of timelessness before creation–an existence of perfect tranquility–it must allow for love and glory between persons.

What if this timeless state was a state of perfect contemplation?  Father experiencing the Son, the Son experiencing the Father, each in perfectly loving union with the Other through the Spirit.  Perhaps this is perfect contemplation.

A second perspective is to consider what it means to be happy.  Plato (Symposium) recognized that our desire for happiness is intrinsic to us; we desire to be happy by nature.  In practice, we notice that we don’t seem to ask each other, “Why do you want to be happy?”  None of us would know the answer…it just seems obvious that we would due to something beyond us.

Yet, in our pursuit to fulfill our desire for happiness we run headlong into the paradox of hedonism: we desire happiness by nature; however, we cannot make ourselves happy.  This itself is a source of great unhappiness; our deepest desire is for something that we cannot give ourselves.  We seem to expend great time, energy, and resources seeking happiness.  We collect stuff, have adventures, change jobs, pack our heads with knowledge, and perhaps even collect people in our pursuit of our own happiness.  This may succeed for some time; however, we seem to know in the depths of our soul that the happiness gained even from the best of these things is somehow lacking.  We find ourselves desiring something more, something deeper than pleasure gained from them.

Back to God.  As a perfect being, God is perfectly happy.  He depends on nothing for His happiness, He finds perfect happiness in Himself alone not needing us or any of His creation.  And, as we saw above, prior to creation God was in perfect contemplation within Himself, Father, Son, Spirit.  Perfect happiness in perfect contemplation.

One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord…

Psalm 27:4

What, then, if our happiness comes from contemplation?  As the image-bearers of God, this shouldn’t surprise us.  If God Himself was perfectly happy in timeless contemplation before creating the universe, why wouldn’t we also find happiness in contemplation?  Who among us has not contemplated a particularly beautiful sunset, a work of art, a piece of music, etc., and found some kind of deep happiness in that moment?

If we find happiness in contemplating these earthly things, how much more so will we find in contemplating God?  “The common element in all the special forms of contemplation,” says philosopher Joseph Pieper, “is the loving, yearning, affirming bent toward happiness which is the same as God Himself…love alone makes it possible for contemplation to satiate the human heart with the experience of supreme happiness” (Happiness & Contemplation).

“In…contemplation,” Pieper goes on to say, “man takes a step out of time.”  Evelyn Underhill puts it this way: “This is the ‘passive union’ of contemplation: a temporary condition in which the subject receives a double conviction of ineffable happiness and ultimate reality” (Mysticism).

Perhaps in the fleeting moments of true contemplative prayer we step out of time and into the timelessness of our eternal God where we find both true happiness and ultimate reality.