Suddenly a String, Bopping Along on the Conveyor Belt of Eternity

I am still thinking about Eternity, and how it does not start when we die.  We have these little slices of Heaven, here and now.

When I fell in love, I entered into this experience that transcended time.  When I am just synchronized with my wife, so connected with her, usually when it is quiet, often when we are physically touching, I feel like it.

Sunset at Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California
Sunset at Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California

Sometimes, when everything just falls into place and I am in nature…  For me, it is most often in deserts.  I spent some time in Joshua Tree, in California.  And had this evening at the Grand Canyon.  The sun was setting on the sheer enormity of it all.  A bag piper was playing “Amazing Grace” in the distance.  (I was not a Christian at the time, but –regardless of your faith comitments–  if you can listen to “Amazing Grace” on the bag pipes and not get the chills, I suspect you have no soul.)  Everything just slipped into the place it was supposed to be.  I just got bigger than time and space.

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During the best kind of prayers, when I have gotten past the whole God-is-Santa Clause-in-Disguise stage of asking for things, and the God-is-a-super-powered-therapist stage of complaining about my feelings, when I have entered into wordless quality time with my divine father, I get there sometimes, too.

As best as I can understand Stephen Hawking, time is a dimension much like length, width, and height.  It is different, though, because we are stuck traveling along this axis, regardless of what we do.  I picture this a bit like being stuck on a grocery conveyor belt.  We can change the speed the belt is moving (mostly by approaching the speed of light, but that’s a whole other story)  but we can not change the direction.  We move from the past and into the future.

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One sense of the word “eternal” is the idea that this conveyor belt goes on forever.  When the lyrics of Amazing Grace talk about how we will be here in ten thousand years, this is the kind-of eternity they are addressing.  Ten thousand years?  That is one long grocery store line!

My experiences of God’s Kingdom as described above, they were not some sort of premonition of ten thousand more years.  They were not a sense of that kind of eternity.  Instead, they were this opening up, this widening.  Almost as if time is not one extra dimension, but two.  And usually, we exist as this one-dimensional little point in this dimension, like a dot on a piece of paper.  This other-kind of eternity, it is like we get pulled out into a different plane, we get spun from a point into a string, cruising along that conveyor belt.

(I fear that I am about to stumble into all sorts of weirdness about String Theory or the wonderfully mind-blowing mathematical novel Flatland…  so I think I had best reel myself back into my usual theological babblings.)

Martin Buber said that prayer does not exist in time, but time exists in prayer.  I have this idea that maybe that this is what he was talking about: these moments of God’s presence are experiences bigger than the single-dimensional, every day experience that we have.

I shared with you… Now it’s your turn to share.  What are some experiences you have had of timeless and eternity?  What are those like for you?  Is this the kingdom, which Jesus promised “is already at hand?”

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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.

Transcendence and People Magazine

I hope you’ll bare with me for a few more thoughts about Michael Jackson.  The things I’m thinking about today, they are only about M.J. on the surface, though.  Beneath the veneer, I think there’s something deeper going on.

I was trying to wrap my brain on just why people are so impacted by this whole affair.  One way we can note this is to simply turn on the news.    A wise friend observed that there is something of our own identities in all this.  People are so effected because there is something of their lives, thier history, and their memories wrapped up in all this.  With the death of Jackson, a little piece of them dies too.

It’s clearly not the music.  If it was everybody would have had the C.D.’s and downloads before he passed away.  But he’s a top seller all over the place again.  It’s as if people are trying to hold on to pieces of him through buying a piece of the music.  But (hope I’m not beating a dead horse here) really, they only want a piece of him because it’s a little piece of themselves.

It occurs to me that the whole thing is like some Greek or Roman legend.  Michael Jackson and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and Madonna– they are this milenia’s Thor and Odin and Anansi and Ali Babba.   They live in Hollywood rather than on Mount Olympus, but it’s really all the same: This psuedo-human cast of larger than life characters, engaged in the sex and violence and living in this promised land… only the very rarest of the mere mortals can ascend to their heights, though occasionally they lower themselves to walk among us for a while.  Some of these figures stay forever unchanging, (Consider the people famous people whose fountain of youth is plastic surgery)  some present themselves in a dizzying swirl of new incarnations (We even use that word for both celebreties and mthic figures: incarnations) Even the fact that we call these people “stars” is kind of a fascinating thing.  The stars that hang in the night sky, and the consellations formed by them played important roles in these ancient myths.

The thing I know about all this is that we are built to look for God or Gods.  If we don’t find the true God that is and will always be, we will find him somewhere else.  Thousand of years ago we would have gathered around the story-teller.  We would have placed his stories about Asgard in the God-shaped whole in our hearts, hoping they’d fit.  Today, we throw five bucks to the cashier and consume our People magazines.

I don’t think these will ever satisfy.

And under our own power, we are imparmanent.  Chasing after old songs to hold on to our sense of who we are, it’s a fools errand.   Connecting our own sense of mortality to the death of pop stars is a fragile way to live.  Virtually everything is fragile and impermanent.  Looking to escape death through any created thing is futile.  There’s only one thing that’s uncreated, there’s only one thing that is permanent.  The only way to escape death is through him.

Some last thoughts on our final destination

A while ago, I posted some reflections here.  This was my attempt to square our common understanding with the nature of heaven with what I saw in the biblical account.  There were some amazing, and some frustrating responses to this post.  If you care for the gory details, I shared them in this post.

My good friend and pastor, Marty, just shared some information that I find fascinating.  It’s an interview with a well-known theologion who’s asking some of the same questions I was.  For a much more coherent and sophisticated execution of what I was trying to explore, check this interview out.

As a result of the insights, conversations, and over-all iron-sharpening-iron that I’ve had the privilige to share in, these are a few things I’d like to add or emphasize…

#1) God is ridiculously over the top in love with us and plans only the best for us.  What the afterlife is, whenever it occurs, we will be with Him and it will be amazing.  Working out some of the details are at best irrelevant and at worst divisive and distracting.

#2) The strongest biblical case that can be made for the traditional view is based on the fact that Jesus says that we will be with him; he also says that he will be with the father; and the bible clearly states that God is in heaven.  In my mind, this makes it a medium-sized jump to assume that all this will occur in heaven.

#3) It’s awesome to be supported by friends who know your heart.

#4) We all should be careful in assuming motivations in those we don’t know.  It’s hurtful and divisive.

#5) Sometimes, in debates, it’s not really about the issues at all.  People draw comfort from tradition and this is not a bad thing.  When I’m questioning tradition I should weigh this discomfort with the importance of seeking truth.

Return of “Will We Got to Heaven?”

So, there’s been all this talk about a blog I posted a while ago.  (See http://pastormarty.wordpress.com/2008/01/10/76/ for all the gorey details.)

The original posting is small enough to quote here:

December 4, 2007

Will we go to Heaven?

So I’ve been going through the gazillions of scriptural references on “Heaven.”  And I’m beginning to come a realization that I find quite surprising:

Heaven, so far as I can see, is never described as a place we’ll go when we die.

I’m not denying that we’ll live forever.  I’m not denying that the bible speaks of Heaven.  It seems to be the home of amazing and wonderful things. 

I’m not denying that we’re supposed to bring about a kingdom of heaven.  This kingdom seems like a place where there will be people… But the kingdom of heaven seems like the Earth after it’s been transformed through Christ’s work (both outside and inside people)

Can anybody point me toward some scripture that supports the traditional view, that heaven is this destination intended for humans after they die? ”

I wanted to specify a few things, as sort-of an epilogue:

#1) I want to reiterate that I am 100% convinced that our souls are eternal.

#2) This quest of mine is really motivated out of a desire to hold scripture as important.  I’m not trying to be a heretic.

#3) If there’s stuff I’ve missed, I’d really, really like to know.

Because the thing is, there’s only been 7 actual comments in response to the posting.  There’s been tons of people viewing it, but nobody responding.

I’m seriously looking for counsel, not for a debate.  Some folks have been disturbed by this posting.  Others have decided that it’s disturbing, or wrong, or whatever…

This is all frustrating for me.  None of these people have come to me and tried to guide me toward the truth.  This leaves me seeing 2 possibilities.

A) Folks aren’t interested in guiding me toward the truth.

B) There actually isn’t a scriptural precedent for the idea that our souls go to heaven.

A few folks responded to the original post and I’d like to thank them for their counsel.  I took it all seriously and appreciate the insight.

Will we go to Heaven?

So I’ve been going through the gazillions of scriptural references on “Heaven.”  And I’m beginning to come a realization that I find quite surprising:

Heaven, so far as I can see, is never described as a place we’ll go when we die.

I’m not denying that we’ll live forever.  I’m not denying that the bible speaks of Heaven.  It seems to be the home of amazing and wonderful things. 

I’m not denying that we’re supposed to bring about a kingdom of heaven.  This kingdom seems like a place where there will be people… But the kingdom of heaven seems like the Earth after it’s been transformed through Christ’s work (both outside and inside people)

Can anybody point me toward some scripture that supports the traditional view, that heaven is this destination intended for humans after they die?