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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Why it’s kind-of good when things are kind-of sucky

The Resurrection from Grünewald's Isenheim Alt...
Image via Wikipedia

In order to make a point, I have to whine a little bit.  I hope you’ll bare with me.

Things are tough.  It’s not the kind-of tough that one specific area of my life is brutal.  It’s the kind-of tough where virtually all aspects of my life are quite hard, and all these different challenges conspire together.

More specifically: I’ve taken on this new job that is emotionally taxing.  It’s leading to all this self-doubt.  We have also moved.  Every day after work I have been spending hours moving boxes, cleaning up the old apartment, etc.  I am physically exhausted.   Church life has been erratic for a bunch of reasons, I’m feeling desperate for spiritual recharging.   I’ve been fighting this really nasty respitory/allergy thing…

But tonight, I had this really great moment of just turning it over to Jesus.  This time of wordless prayer.  I got to thinking about the promise that the spiritually impovershed inheriting the kingdom of heaven, the meek inheriting the earth, the sorrow-filled being comforted.  About how we’re called to be spiritually child-like.

I had this glimpse.

When we’re self-satisfied and delude ourselves into thinking we can do it, the best we can do is hope that our destiny is like some super-charged, steroided-out version of the reality we create for ourselves.  When we think we’ve got it all down, we imagine heaven is just like the super-sized version of the life we’ve already got.

But when the world seems out of control, when we come to terms with the liberating and wonderful truth that we can’t do it… Then we see that our future hope is something so much bigger and greater than whatever we might do on our own.

And that… that’s a pretty cool thing.

The Mystery of the White Stone

Has there ever been a time in your life that you’ve just been so quietly breaking?  For whatever (probably stupid) reason you can’t express what’s going on inside.  But there is this hurt, someplace deep.  It doesn’t go away.  It burns.  Perhaps it’s a time of lonliness.

Sometimes if just one person noticed, it would be so much better.  Sometimes, if the right person came with just the right words, it would be a weight lifted.  A light shined in our darkest places.

Even if our actual circumstances aren’t changed, sometimes, if somebody just new what to say… if somebody just new who we really are… it would mean so much.

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.”

That’s written in the book of Revelations.  Chapter 2.  Verse 17.

For my money, Revelations is the most gloriously mystery-filled books in the bible.  Yet, more than any book in the bible, it has been subjected to these attempts to categorize it, analyze it.  Somewhere along the way somebody decided it would be a good idea to simply explain all the mystery away.  I suspect that we’ll get back to the entire book at some point.  But for now, I’m going to reprint those verses above in the hopes that it will encourage you (and me!) to read this verse again, and drink it in.

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.”

This portion of the book of Revelations is one which follows a pretty specific formula.  John is sharing a series of letters which are directed to churches around him.  In each letter, Jesus praises some things about the church and criticizes others.  Jesus proclaims some truths about himself in each of these letters, and then he makes some promises about what his kingdom will be like.

It took me a while to wrap my brain on why I feel so moved, so giddy almost, about the end of that verse.  What’s so special about that last sentence:  (Will you read it with me a third time?)

I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it

After some prayerful reflection, I’ve begun to be able to put into words some of the things that this verse means to me.

Jesus co-exxisted with God the father at the beginning of time.  Along with The Holy Spirit, they sculpted the dance of electrons around the nuclei of atoms.  They fashioned the laws of physics and the very nature of reality.

They built up stars in the same way we might roll a snake out of play-do.  They formed the angels and watched them dance around the throne.  They invented the concept of a living thing and they made this plan a reality.

They have painted the sunsets and choreagraphed the motions of planets and stars.  They sculpted the mountains.  They filled the oceans.  All of it.  From things unimaginably huge through things unimaginably tiny.

They entered into human history with this scandalous plan to bridge the gap between us and them.  Jesus took on the punishment for sin that was meant for us.  Empires have built up and then crumpled while they watched.  Countless billions of people have been born and died.

And yet Jesus might know me more intimately than anyone ever has?  Jesus, the author of creation might consider me worthy?

Imagine that: Perhaps it will be the first time we meet him after this life is through.  Perhaps it is the very first thing to happen to us.

I have this idea that he will smile as he walks across the room that we will find ourselves in.  The stone, milky-colored, is perhaps the size of our palm.  I suspect that it will be turned over.  We will know that it has some precious word just for us.  But the anticipation will build as he crosses the room, and presents it to us.

The word on that stone will be the word that we needed to hear in our darkest hour.  It will be our new name.  This name will be a thing between ourselves and Jesus.  Could there be anything more intimate than that?  A private thing between us and our maker, an affirmation… Jesus love for us is not only endless and infinite, but also unique.  Just as that name on that stone will not be the name of any other person in all of creation, Jesus love for you is also unique, in all of creation.  There is no other person anywhere that he loves the same way he loves you.

The demons thought names could be used like a sword.  They sought to wield this sword and found it could not pierce Jesus.  The fact that they knew Jesus name means nothing.

Yet Jesus knows that our true name will mean everything.  I think in some sense, those stones are already waiting.  There is a stone already in heaven and it has a name on it that we don’t know, but when we hear it, we will know it is just exactly right.

It all hangs on Easter

Sometimes, being a Christian can feel like learning an obscure card game.

Have you ever been learning one of these games and it seems like people are toying with you, because the rules are just this long list of unrelated points?

Christianity can appear that way: a long list of unrelated points.

We have this list of things:

Individual souls go to heaven.

Jesus was reseructed bodily.

Adam and Eve brought sin and death into the world.

The rules that applied to Jews don’t apply to us anymore.

There is/will be a new kingdom.

If these beliefs, taken together, formed a garden we might enter into that garden and think it was made up of 5 different plants.  Some of us would try to tend all the plants.  Some of us would emphasize others.  Some of might view one or two of the plants as a weed and try to get rid of them in the hopes that the others would flourish.

I’d submit that if we dug a little into the ground we’d find that these five plants which look different actually share a common root.  They aren’t a list of five unrelated rules.  They flow naturally out of one great story.

In some way, the miracle of Easter, the truth of Jesus’ bodily resseruction is the central piece of this story.  Scripture attests to this.  And also, logic.  One could wrongly neglect any of the above premises with out it impacting the others: except for the fact that Jesus returned from the dead.  Without this truth, the others just fade away.

Here’s my attempt at digging below the surface and finding the common root:

A long time ago, sin entered the world.  The result of this sin was death.  All sorts of death.  Humanity attempted to overcome sin on its own.  God was kind enough to share a long list of rules in helping us determine what counts as a sin.

The problem was nobody was able to follow these rules.  If somebody had lived sinlessly he would have escaped the consequences of sin (which is death) but nobody did.

Systems and rulers popped up that operated in a fallen, sin-filled, dead world.  Even God’s chosen people eventually gave up on the rules and wanted a king like everybody else.  The promises of every empire and government that has ever been have ultimately been ones which are built around managing sin and death.  Without sin and death, these sorts of empires would be irrelevant.

Along comes Jesus.  We can choose for him to have lived and died for us.  If we do, we get the benefits as if we had lived the sinless life.  We transcend all those forms of death that entered into the world.

And here’s how all those different ideas listed above come together:

In living sinlessly and transcending death, Jesus changed the structure of the cosmos.  He gave us a path to escaping the death that had entered into the world.   Following the old rules becomes irrelevant.  I would submit that the law, as handed down to Moses and company would never have been necessary if Adam hadn’t sinned.  (If it had been necessary in the first place than I think God would have given it to Adam and not waited centuries.)

Because of this new order, all the old empires are instantly irrelevant.  They are like the soldiers you hear about in World War II, the ones who were isolated on islands for decades and hadn’t heard that Japan lost the war.

Prepare us for your kingdom

The amazing “Jesus for President” has this amazing thing, it’s called “Litany of Resistance”  It’s this complex, provacative call-and-response thing.  (What do you call that, when the pastor says a line, and the congregation basically says the same thing, over and over again?)  I modified it a bit.  It’s below.

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One: Lamb of God, you take on the sins of the world.

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Lamb of God, you take on the sins of the world.

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Free us from the bondage of sin and death.

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Women, men and children:

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: the maimed and the crippled:

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: the abondoned and the homeless:

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: The improsoned and the tortured:

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: The widowed and the orphaned:

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: The bleeding and the dying:

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: The weary and the desperate:

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: The lost and foresaken:

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: In the realization that we are all of these:

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: In the work you do us for the least of these:

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Though we live on a scorched and blackened earth

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Though we hoard our what we have while others have nothing

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Though we have our Caesers and Herods

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Though violence is rooted in our hearts

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Though we turn others into our enemies

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Though we are victims to the arrogance of power.

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Though we sometimes believe the myth of redemptive violence

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Though we succumb to the tyranny of greed

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Though we are surrounded by the ugliness of racism

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Though we fall victim to the cancer of hatred

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Though we are seduced by wealth

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Though we are addicted to control

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Though we make an idol of our nation

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Though we are paralyzed by cynicism

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Though we suffer the violence of apathy

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Though we live in the ghettos of poverty

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Though we live in the ghettos of wealth

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: You guide our feet in the way of peace.

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One:You hear our prayers.

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: We will not conform to the patterns of this world

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: We will be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: You bathe us in your grace

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: And there will be the waging of war

All: Prepare us for your kingdom

One: And there will be the slaughter of innocents

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: And there will be those who seek to destroy community

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: And there will be those who speak maliciously

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: And there will be the idea that happiness must be purchased

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.
One: And there will be powers and principalities which opress

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: And there will be the theology of empire

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: And there will be the hoarding of riches

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: And there will be the dissemination of fear

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Yours is the kingdom and glory

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Your peace is not like Rome’s

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Yours is the gospel of enemy-love

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Your kingdom belongs to the poor and broken

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Your kingdom is of the least of these, where Christ dwells.

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Your kingdom is of the refugee of Nazareth

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Your kingdom is of the homeless rabbi who had no place to lay his head.

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Your kingdom is of the cross, not the sword.

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Your kingdom places the banner of love above any flag.

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Your kingdom belongs to the rider of the donkey, not the war horse

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Your kingdom belongs to the revolution which sets both the opressed and the opressor free

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Your kingdom leads to a new way of life

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: The new way of life is through the lamb of God.

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: The lamb of God took on the sins of the world.

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

One: Lamb of God, you take on the sins of the world.

All: Prepare us for your kingdom.

The theology of Black Snake Moan

On a whim, I rented “Black Snake Moan” Partially because of the way they marketed it (particularly the cover of the DVD) I couldn’t figure it out. I was afraid I was getting something really sleezy.
The movie was quite the opposite. In some sense, though, I think it was intentional… Setting up a situation that activates all sorts of assumptions, preconceptions, even prejudices. Seriously, what do most of us think when we see a strong man with a chained up, half-naked young woman?
Do our preconceptions change if we locate race: The man is black and the woman is white?

I wish I could say that I didn’t fall into it. But again, I think it was partially intentional on the part of the brilliant film makers, playing on our assumptions and preconceptions.

It’s this amazing commentary on race, gender, mental health and illness, power dynamics, and Christianity.
There were numerous scenes I found brilliant, touching, insightful. This was one. The back story to this scene is that the main character, Lazurus, finds Rae left for dead, half-naked right outside his yard. She is mentally ill, sexually acts out, suffered horrendous abuse and is wildy and desperately in love with Ronnie. (Niether Ronnie or Lazurus appear in the scene below.) Lazurus decides that can lead Rae into wholeness and chains her in his living room so that she can’t leave and go back to her old ways. R.L. is Lazurus’ pastor and oldest friend. This scene is the meeting between Rae and R.L.

***

Rae
You a preacher?

R.L.
That’s right.

RAE
Can I ask you a question?
(R.L. nods)
People always say, you gotta get good with Jesus, if you want not to go to hell. That you say sorry for all you done and… and Jesus would let you go on to heaven.

R.L.
You could put it that way.

RAE
But that’s so ****’n stupid.
(she catches herself)
I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to curse.

R.L.
What’s on your mind?

RAE
You can’t hurt people… and then just say, I’m sorry, and then everything just gets washed away. Why would heaven want people like that. People who… do what they want and then… switch.

R.L.
I’m gonna tell you somethin’, and it’s just gonna be between you and me.
(Rae anxiously nods)
I think folks carry on about heaven too much. Like it’s some all-you-can-eat buffet up in the clouds.
And folks just gonna do as they’re told so they can eat what they want behind some pearly gates. I can go to Shoney’s for that.
(Rae grins. R.L. leans closer.)

R.L.
There’s sin in my heart. There’s evil in this world. But when I got no one… I talk to God. I ask for strength. I ask for forgiveness. Not for peace at the end of my days when there’s no more life to live and no more good to do, but today. Right now.
(Rae has never had anyone talk to her like this. She is listening. She is understanding.)

R.L.
What’s your heaven? What gives you peace?
(Rae looks at her bare feet. She tries to respond but the pain in her chokes back the words. Tears come to her.)

RAE
(struggling to speak)
Ronnie.

****

There are some sexually explicit scenes in the movie. There are themes that are disturbing, and others that are simply mature. If these things are stumbling blocks for you I’d obviously reccomend you stay away.
But even if you don’t watch the movie, I hope you’ll join me in admiring the truthfullness in the scene quoted above. The characters of Rae and R.L. name such real stumbling blocks that few people really name explicitly:
Non-Christians find the idea of God’s forgiveness ridiculous. We’d be wise to simply own the ridiculousness of it all, and affirm it as truth anyway.
Christians, on the other hand, all too often, simply pass the time in this world while waiting for the all-you-can-eat-buffet in the sky. We’d be wise to carry on about heaven less, I think, and do what we can to bring God’s kingdom about us in the here and now.