Who Wants to Live Forever?

One of the things I love about the rock group Queen is that they had this crazy way of going back and forth, between the profound and the absurd.  Sometimes, they would sing about “Big Bottomed Girls” or “I Want to Ride my Bicycle.”  Other times, they would work up this profound crescendo around bravery– even bravado– in the face of certain death, like in “The Show Must Go On.”  My favorite, though, is when they found the sublime firmly rooted in the ridiculous: when they mixed them up, like some sort-of smoothie for the mind, made of equal parts silliness and profundity.  Consider, for example, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  The title evokes these high brow ideas and concepts.  Where a lesser song would have a guitar solo, this thing has some sort-of operatic break.  And yet, their is an awareness that is just a just a pop song, at the same time.

More to the point of the things I am thinking about today: “Who Wants to Live Forever?”  This was on the soundtrack to that masterpiece of science fiction cheesiness, “Highlander.”  Highlander is a lot like the band itself: an exquisite balance of pop culture and something so much deeper than pop culture.  It’s an interesting song to be located in a movie about characters who don’t age.  In some sense, they do live forever.  The movie is about their quest for a different kind-of eternity.  Somehow, they all know that they have to fight each other.  When their is only one of them left, that immortal will receive “The Prize.”

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I remember the first time I saw the movie.  I assumed “The Prize” would be some sort-of set of extra super powers.  I don’t know if this is connected to my own silly presuppositions or if the idea is planted in the movie.  I don’t know if this is points to the assumptions I carry around, or the assumptions the screen writers do.  But it doesn’t much matter.

I am thinking today, about living forever.

We Christians spend a lot of time thinking about that.  We wonder what our lives in the afterlife will be like.  We get so focused on the externals: mansions and feasts and all kinds of things that sound great.

I think that would all be great for a year, or a hundred years, or a thousand.  But if it is only about the outside of me that is getting transformed…  Then my heaven?  It would eventually become my own personal hell.  I don’t know about you, but me?  I am kind-of a mess.

No matter how much my circumstances get better, there is a time that I forget how far I come, and I begin to take greatness for granted.  No matter how much my relationships improve, there comes a time when I stop appreciating people.

In short, if you gave me the easy, obvious heaven, if you just extended my life indefinitely, I would be like those guys in Highlander.  I would be a mess.  Not aging, being nearly impossible to kill, having the resources of a fortune at my fingertips: none of it would mean anything.

Who wants to Live Forever?  That suddenly becomes a pretty interesting question.

The lyrics of the song imply that we ought to go after love.  And there is something to that.  (Sometimes we make an idol out of our relationships, especially our romantic ones.  That’s not what I am talking about.  Bare with me.)

When we are at our best, perhaps deeply in love…  Time stops meaning anything.  We also have these moments, I think, when we are doing the things we are great at.  For me, when I am my very best writing.  Or I lose myself in the middle of the nature.  Or I am teaching somebody, maybe something we have been working on for a while, and their eyes light up and they finally get it.

Joseph Campbell told his students to follow their bliss.  I think we know we are following our bliss when time just slips away.  It loses meaning.

When we talk about this kind of idea, we often point out the promise that the kingdom of heaven is already here.  Today, I read something that really struck me.  There is this lawyer, who approaches Jesus.  The lawyer says, “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life.”  Jesus’ answer is the parable of the good samirtain.  His answer?  Love on people, recklessly, unhesitatingly, uncompromsingly.

I think that the lawyer was asking about just extending out his days.  Jesus answer wasn’t a formula for how to get to this eternity.  It pointed the lawyer to the other type of eternity, the other way of conquering time.  I think he was inviting the lawyer to sample eternity right here and now.

If we want to hold onto the idea of a loving God, we almost have to believe in both kinds of eternity.  If he extended time out forever?  Well?  So what?  That’s a little bit like going to a crappy restaurant.  They bring out crapy food.  To make up for the first crappy meal they served, they offer you a lifetime of crappy meals.  More of something crappy does not make it un-crappy.

But on the other hand… if we just get these little tastes of losing ourselves.  If those little droplets of eternities, those two minute, or two hour experiences are the best that there is…  It’s all been a cruel joke, a tease.

The idea that I could spend an eternity in that wonderful state where I have lost all the worst parts of myself?  That is a pretty cool thing.

A beautiful death (?)

I was listening to a list of things that are beautiful, things that fill us with hope and with life.  “Holding the hand of your daughter.”  “Sitting by your grandfather’s bedside while he takes his last breath.” “A beautiful song.”  “This feeling at work that what you do matters.”

My ears heard all of them, but my brain just stopped processing at about the second one.  I was not surprised, really.  I know that this is what we are supposed to believe.  But I was struck by the force of it.  My grandfather died about ten years ago.  He died quite suddenly, walking into his bedroom to turn the clock foreward, for daylight savings.  (Is daylight savings the one when we move the clocks foreward?  What do we call the other one?)  I have always found that kind-of wonderful and poetic.  I have this idea that he went to be with that lost hour, in somewhere of eternal possibilities, so near to us, but not quite close enough to touch.

And so the literal meaning of those words, “Sitting by your grandfather’s bedside while he takes his last breath.”  it’s not that what the words meant is what I struggled with.  My mom has been dead for a little over a year now.  And so whenever I hear that word, “death.”  It’s her I am thinking about.

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There are lots of things that were a lot less beautiful about her death.  It was a battle she fought, a battle she lost, just a few feet at a time.  It was World War I-style trench warfare, the death of my mother.  Also, there is something… natural?  expected?  about losing grand parents.  Yes, I know that the same could be said for parents.  But somehow, it just isn’t the same.  I did not know how deep the connection to my mom went until she was gone.

These things are related to something more fundamental, something which made her death not beautiful: me.  I was not ready for it to be beautiful.  I resisted it and I fought with it.  Some of these thoughts and feelings on the inside played out in terms of decisions and words that happened on the outside.  I am not proud of all the things I did and said as my mother died.

Declaring a thing beautiful makes it so.  Tell a person they are beautiful and it will change them.  God made the world, and then he said, “It is good.”  I realized something about this:  I think that when God declared the world good, it actually changed the world.  It made the world more good, perhaps in some way we could never define or explain.  This change was not only brought about because God is God.  I truly believe that even when we declare a thing beautiful, it changes that thing.

Someday, much too soon, other people who I love very much are going to die.  And I am declaring, right here and now, that it is beautiful.  This declaration will make it a little bit more beautiful than it would have been.  I don’t think this declaration will make it easier.  But it will make it better.

I hope that you can learn from my mistakes.  I hope that you will make this declaration now, too.

As I write this, I am holding on to this hope.  In a way it so abstract I can barely describe it, but right now it feels really important.

I am going to try and express this hope as a question:

Would it have mattered if God came back to the world, and declared it good, after the fact?  Can declaring a thing beautiful, after the fact, can this travel through time itself, going back, and changing a thing?

What if I decide right now, that my mom’s death was beautiful?  Does that change anything?

An open letter to Josh Duggar

Dear Josh:

I am not proud of myself, right now.  My first reaction to your ongoing situation has been a sort-of glee.   A thing I have noticed in your apologies is that you follow the example set in scripture, of recognizing that first the apology ought to go to God, and only after that should the apology go to those we have wronged.  I have followed your example in this, and made my apologies to God about all this first, before formulating this open letter to you.

When I found out about your destructive decisions, I put a lot of energy into focusing on the differences between us.  Though we both follow Jesus, that plays out in our lives very differently.  I spent some time thinking about verses in the gospels and Revelation, which boil down to the idea that all the things we do in secret, they will some day be made so very public.  I spent some time thinking about how some folks smarter than me talk about Jesus having come to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

I got awfully focused on the ways that you seemed so self-satisfied.  I got so focus on that splinter in your eye, I missed the beam in my own.  Somehow, I was able to miss a really brutal fact: if Jesus is here to afflict the comfortable, in my judgement and joy of your situation, I had suddenly become the comfortable.  Jesus was here to afflict me.  What is worse, by the condition of my heart, I had become a sort-of affliction to him.

And this?  This will not do.  And so I send my apologies: to our creator first, and to those who suffer by my cruelty and by your cruelty second, but not least of all, I send my apologies to you.

Yours in Christ,

Jeff

Mostly Dead?

The Princess Bride is one of the pinnacles of human achievement.  If you are not on board with this basic fact, I am not sure we have too much to say to each other.  (However, I am only going to talk about the movie for about 1 more  short paragraph, so I hope you will make it through.)

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There comes a point where the protagonist is thought to be defeated.  But it is explained  that all is not lost… He is only “Mostly dead.”  Our hero is revived (sort-of) and goes on to win the day.

The humor of this scene, of course, pivots on the fact that death is a binary condition; in other words, we either are dead, or are not dead.  There is no ‘mostly dead.’  Or at least it appears that way.  I am beginning to suspect that this scene, like much great humor, actually has a bit of wisdom running around beneath the surface.

I think that Jesus is a good illustration of the point.  It is not at all that Jesus was only “mostly dead.”  In fact, I think that Jesus was very, very dead.

There is of course, the physical aspect of it.  Sometimes (ok, most times) I suspect we Christians are a morbid and unhealthy group, and we spend too much time in grizzly love with the details of his execution.  On the whole, I don’t spend much time and energy pondering this aspect of things.  But I believe that they are true.  And they are relevant to the point at hand.  So consider, with me, the physical:

The number of lashes he was assigned to was nearly equal to the number given for a death sentence in the first place.  So he begins the whole process, “mostly dead.”

He is beaten repeatedly, forced to carry a cross large enough to nail him to.  His sentence is carried out.  Crucifixion is a diabolical, brilliant, despicable punishment.  But when he does not die fast enough, an impatient soldier finishes the job with his spear.

But the physical portion is just one aspect of the whole thing.

Jesus was dead politically.  Crucifixion was the worst that the Roman’s had.  It was reserved for the bottom of the barrel.  Subjecting him to this kind-of death was a way for him to be set apart by the authorities, marked as the worst among them.

Jesus was dead religiously.  The Hebrew authorities, who claimed authority over all aspects of his people’s lives, are the ones who turned him over because they did not have the ability to punish Jesus in the ways that they wanted to.

Jesus was dead socially.  He had invested in Judas, and in Peter.  There betrayal was only the most obvious.  Because the rest of them all scattered when things fell apart.

Jesus was dead idealogically.  He had made grand claims around who he was, and how things were changing.  And yet, it seemed like his drama was going to end just like all the others.

Jesus was as dead as dead could be.

The guy in the Princess Bride who brings back Wesley is named ‘Miracle Max.’  And bringing somebody back from physical death (even if it is only mostly dead) is a pretty cool miracle.

Yet…  Jesus’ return is a whole different thing.  It is not only a physical return.  His ressurection is also political, and religious, and social, and idealogical.  This is a pretty cool thing for lots of reasons.  But this morning, the thing I am thinking about is how this is something I get, too.  No matter how dead I am, no matter what ways I am dead, there is something more.

New Vestaments

This fire consumes everything.

This ground itself cries out.

Do not look on the face of this new God,

Climb this mountain top to bring back His riches.
Believe, and we will toss this mountain into the sea.

Our mana comes at a cost.

It will be a dead thing tomorrow.

We will see the smoke by day and the fire by night.

Let us trade Aaron’s turban and sash

for a clear plastic faceplate and self-contained breathing apparatus

Behold this ephod, made of tyvek.

Don, these new vestements,

You, our high priest.

to our confusion and ambition, our insight and our fear, our consumption and our conservation.

Dressed thus, only,

shall you enter into our latter day holy of holies.

For it was a nonchallance like Uzzah’s known at Three Mile Island.

And a despair like David’s felt after Cheronobyl.

This new God.

Will not speak sotftly to the prophet at the precipice.

Or send his declarations on tablets.

Perhaps even the troops dressed for battle will be shocked by his ruthlessness, though.

And maybe, something, deep within

will remember.

Grasping

I spend a lot of time worrying about things that don’t matter.

I could probably fill an entire library with a catalog of these things: trivial things, like pop culture.  Irrelevant things like worries for the future that won’t come to pass.  Unimportant things, that arise out of my own brokeness and insecurity.

I am thinking this morning about that last category.  I am thinking about the unimportant things that I worry about because I am broken.   Let’s call them the UTTIWABIB.  The world we live in preys on our uttiwabibs.  Our particular society makes some of them worse.  Consider, for example,  the quest for power and prestige.

Modern-day America creates a hierarchy, a power pyramid.    No matter how we dress it up, no matter how we justify it or rationalize it, there will always be more losers than winners in the power game.  This is the whole point, really, of the pyramid.   It does not matter how catchy Adam Ant’s attempt at a comeback was; no matter how prettily he sings “There is always/room at the top”  it simply isn’t true.

And even if it was true?  Even if there was room for all of us?

I don’t think it’s necessary for me to say much about the ways we can sell our soul.  Like so many things, we can all see that pretty easily when we consider others.  I suspect it is a little less obvious, the ways we do all this ourselves.

Every time we consider the appearance over a reality, every time we worry about what people will think, every time we think about spin doctoring things…  whether it is in our relationships or our work place, our friendships or family connections… every single time we do this, we are selling out.

Let me say that in a way that is more difficult, but much more important:

Every time I do that, I sell out.

I was reading in the book of Mark, this morning.  There is this pair of events.  The way they follow back-to-back is not an accident, I suspect.

The first thing that happens is that two of Jesus’ followers approach him.  They tell him that they want to sit at his right hand.

“You don’t know what you are asking.” Jesus says.  Put differently: You think this is about power and prestige.  You are grabbing after power.  Shortly thereafter, the other followers become “indignant.”  A funny word, indignant.  It seems like the other followers aren’t any better than the first couple.  It seems like perhaps they are upset because others gaining power and prestige would be at their own expense.

Because Jesus comes at them all, and explains that this is not how he operates.  His own followers are playing politics, they are grasping after power.  This is the way of the world they all left behind; Jesus seems to be asking what the point is, of following him, if things just go back to the way they have always been.

And then the second thing happens.  They are out and about.  And a blind man asks that Jesus would have mercy on him.  The followers try to shut the man down, but he calls out, and Jesus hears him, and Jesus heals him.

It’s not really clear how much time has elapsed between these two events.  But they happen back-to-back.  And it is an interesting contrast:

His followers, the guys who are supposed to know what is going on, they say: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”  And the blind man, he says ““Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

There are a handful of interesting implications in this contrast.

Jesus followers are supposed to know who he is.  And yet they adress him as teacher.  The blind man calls to him by name, and recognizes Jesus’ lineage.

The followers are looking for more than they need, more than others have.  They are looking for an extra rebate, a bonus.  The blind man just wants to see.

When Jesus’ followers are given what they ask for, it is almost a dark parody; it carries this sinister underside that they have never intended.  Basically, they are told that that sitting at Jesus’ right hand means suffering and death; this is what they have asked for, this is what they will get.

The blind man is healed.  He follows Jesus.

Perhaps the bottom line is just this: we ought to ask for the things we need.  But we ought to be careful of acting entitled to more than what we need.  Healing?  That’s a good thing.  But power and prestige?  That comes with a pretty hefty price tag.

 

 

 

The Wrong Question

I have had these golden moments.

They are connected to others, sometimes.  Or something in me.  Or something about the world.  Often times, it is a combination.  A perfect moment with people who I love in a beautiful place.  Or a moment when I was doing what I know I must have been made to do, a moment when I forget my worries and my own petty limitations…

I know that you have had these moments, too.

For better or worse, we have had the opposite of these moments.  Conspiracies of our factors beyond our control our baggage, betrayal and hurt that runs so deep.

There is an obvious question about these extremes: Is it worth it?  Are those moments of good worth putting up with the bad?  Perhaps this implies a related question: Which happen more often?  It feels like this one is a no-brainer.  Certainly, the bad times some times feel a lot more prevalent, sometimes.

But these are the wrong questions, I think.  There is a more important question.

What is the universe?

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Is one of these extremes the fundamental nature of the world?  Is one an abberation?  Is the world just a mish-mash, of the good and bad all mixed up together?

Faith, for me, is trust that the good is the most basic part of the universe: no matter how deeply things have been broken and perverted, there is something beneath that is better.  Beneath the surface of our personalities, beneath the pettiness and anger and hate.  And beneath the surface of the world.  The created world is like a lottery ticket, there is this thin, grey covering, and it is hiding riches beneath.

The source of love, the author of mercy invented power itself.  The world sprang up out of his kindness.  He made us and placed his reflection within us.  This is not a denial of evil, not a minimization of your hurt or my hurt.  It is a proclamation that these things are not the last word.  There is so much more.