Stop Calling Me Names

I have been thinking about identity, lately. Identity, and names. And death. And probably some other random stuff too.
My mom’s death has freed me, in a way that feels kind-of terrible. The person I was to her died with her. If I was a secretive, manipulative person who reserved a separate mask for each person dear to me, this loss would be devastating. If I was totally honest, open, transparent, consistent, true to myself, this loss would mean nothing at all.
I am, probably like you, somewhere between those extremes.
If nothing else, the names we have are a symbol, even a sort-of short hand for how people view us. We might go by our full name to family. A shortened version to aquiantances. A nick name to old friends. Maybe we earned an honorific and in the work place people call us Dr. so and so.
The details are important to us. Have you ever corrected some one at a restaurant, when they were writing your name down? Or corrected there spelling? Presumably, the host will never see us again. Probably they don’t care whether or not there is a silent ‘P’ in the middle of our last name. And yet we make sure they get it all right.
When people call us the wrong name for a situation, it gets awkward and uncomfortable. Some of this is about power dynamics. Officer Jones won’t appreciate it if we call him Jimmy, perhaps. But sometimes it’s not that. Family calls me by full name; friends call me by the short version. Maybe I am just picky. But I find it irritating when somebody uses the other group’s name for me.
Names are the sumnation of whole little pockets of ourselves. For me, Jeff is a person just a little different than Jeffrey. Jeffrey is the accumulation of all the views of me of family. And it shifted, some, when my mom left this world. Because that accumulation of views lost her contributions.
All the names that we have, taken together, in some way, they constitute all the ways that everybody sees us.
It would be terrifying and sad to leave all these behind. But also… it would be liberating.
In some way, all the names, all the identities, that people have for me… they came built in with limits. A ceiling. A set of expectations:
“This is who Jeff is.” “This is who Jeffrey is.” “This is who dad is.” etc…
There is value and wisdom in the council of others. They see things in myself that I do not. But sometimes, those things are for them. Sometimes those things are what they want to see. They are what they need to see.
To accept the names that people give me is to accept the limitations they would place on me.

I get the chills when I think about this promise in the bible. It says that I will receive a stone with a name on it. A true name. A name that Jesus alone has for me.
This is the antidote to the all the names I have been given and even all the names I have earned. Because it is not rooted in what people expected of me. It is not rooted in people want for me. It is not rooted in there fears, or my fears.
The name on that stone encapsulates my truest potential. And so there is also some fear, along with the chills. When I am presented with that stone, will I be overwhelemed at the idea I am really so much? Or will I be paralyzed at how far I fell short of what I might have been?

My revelation on Revelations

My small group has been studying the book of Revelations.  The conversation and prayerful consideration have opened up my eyes to some things I never noticed before.

They are a great group of people.  It’s an enviroment that’s quite healthy.  There’s been no dogmatic interpretation, but also, there is a respect for what has gone on before, for understandings that people do have.

I had this realization tonight about Revelations.

I think we’re sheltered from how bizarre the entire book is.

One of the damaging things that result from these easy, pat answers that have cropped up, is we stop reading.  We stop listening with fresh ears.  We stop reading with fresh eyes.  We can tell ourself that we’re reading scripture, when really, we’re just using it as a jumping-off point to grind our theological axe, to emphasize our pet theories.

In some ways, the reaction of someone who hasn’t read this book a bunch are maybe closer to how we’re supposed to see things.   For example, we can read, “The Lamb is on the throne.”

And we’re so accustomed to thinking, “O.K., Jesus= lamb.”  Therefore, what that really means is “Jesus is on the throne.”

I’m not debating that this is what is meant.  I pretty much agree.  But I think we’ve short circuited the effect.  Perhaps it’s easier that actual, real, flesh-and-blood lambs are not part of our life experience.  Literal sacrificial lambs are not something that most of us have ever dealt with.

When we slow down a little bit, and stop before mentally translating the lamb as Jesus, I think we find the image striking, contradictory, absurd.  And I think this is how we’re supposed to see it.

Similarly, Revelations tells us of robes that have been washed white in the blood of the lamb.  We do this mental switcheroo.  We think about the meaning of the cross, and the nature of Jesus’ sacrificial atonement.  Again, I’m not claiming that this isn’t what is meant.

But I do think we should linger on the meaning of the words before we jump to what they symbolize.  Can you imagine standing with white cloth, over one of those old-time scrub-board washing tubs?  Or even pushing a robe into your washing machine?

Just how many cycles would you have to run the thing through, if you used lamb’s blood as the detergent?

Again, the image is contradictory and absurd.  In humility, I’d like to suggest that this is the whole point.

More than any book of the bible, Revelations is full of these reminders that to our puny little brains, God seems ridiculous.  Self-contradictory.  A catch-22 wrapped in a paradox.

Yet somehow, out of every book in the bible, we have attempted to graft these narrow and specific meanings onto every single verse.  We have published books and novels and movies and blog posts and sermons spelling out precisely what these things “must” mean.

The only thing that they “must” mean is that God is bigger than our propositions and beliefs and theories.  God declares that he will not be caged.  And yet in the very place where he declares this, we set about trying to cage him anyway.

God was and is and is to come

At lifegroup last week, Pastor Marty introduced the topic of us  reading a book of the bible together.  Some knucklehead (actually, the knucklehead was me) suggested Revelations.

As I was rereading the first chapter of Revelations, I was struck by something.  Not once, but twice there is this refrain.  God  “Was, and is, and is to come.”  There are other important things said here, that reinforce the idea that God is not just omnipresent in space, but also in time, but somehow, that’s just so striking.

God was, and is, and is to come.

God was present and active in the world.  He is present and active right now.  And he will be in the future, in some way, even more present and more active.

As he wrote “Revelations” John was improsoned for his faith.  I wonder what kind of strength he drew from these reminders: God was, an is, and is to come.   My challenges are nothing compared to Johns, but I’m drawing strength from them even as I write these words.

Heaven in a Body

“Surprised by Hope” by NT Wright is doing more than playing with my head.  It’s exploding my brains. 

He articulates some things that I’ve been trying to put words to.  I’ve bumbled around with ideas about how embodied and physical Christianity is.  I’ve babbled about how  our traditional disembodied ideas of heaven don’t seem biblical.

He pulls all this together.  I’ll share some quotes later.

Today, I was reading a passage where he repeated one of his main points.

The idea is that Jesus didn’t actually defeat death if the afterlife is this nonphysical place.  He accomodated, death, perhaps, but he didn’t defeat it, if we wander around, ghost-like, after death.

Rob Bell, Wright himself, and others emphasize the idea that Revelations describes the final end that we were promised in the Garden of Eden.  The whole of human history was just a back-pedal, a delay, in reaching our final destination. 

This seems so dead on to me: Adam and Eve would have participated in the city described in Revelations.  They would have gotten to it much sooner than the serpent.

And so it struck me, as I was reading the book today:

We have no problem imagining an embodied, physical existence for Adam and Eve.   Many people agree that through Jesus we’re heading to the final destiny intended for Adam and Eve.  But people struggle with the idea that we’ll be physical beings in this eternity…

This all leads to the question: If Adam and Eve hadn’t fallen, at what point would they have lost their physicality?  If Adam and Eve are physical… if the final desination is non-physical… if Adam and Eve were supposed to end up there.  They’d have had to suddenly (or gradually, I suppose) become ghost-like and nonphysical.

Revelations and materialism

I finished reading through Revelations yesterday. 

I share these observations with a bit of hesitation.  It was recently pointed out to me that Revelations contains the instruction to neither add nor take away from itself.  It also contains the promise that we benefit simply be reading the book.

Clearly, the conclusion is that we add to read more and interpret less.  In a way, our interpretations can become a sort-of adding to the text. 

So please take my suggestions with a grain of salt.  It’d be better to read scripture than read my blog.  But seriously?  You already new that.

The thing that struck me is that you don’t have to work very hard or look very deeply for distrubution of wealth and capitalist greed to become a central theme of Revelations.

So much has been made of the number of the beast.  Above all else, it seems to me a license to participate in the world’s economy.    Chapter 13 says: 

“He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, 17so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name. “

When things are ugliest, Babylon falls.  Babylon seems to be a superpower.  But it’s not about military might, really:

For all the nations have drunk
      the maddening wine of her adulteries.
   The kings of the earth committed adultery with her,
      and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.”

Later, in Revelations, we get a list of these excessive luxuries: 

“When the kings of the earth who committed adultery with her and shared her luxury see the smoke of her burning, they will weep and mourn over her. 10Terrified at her torment, they will stand far off and cry:
   ” ‘Woe! Woe, O great city,
      O Babylon, city of power!
   In one hour your doom has come!’

 11″The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes any more— 12cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; 13cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and bodies and souls of men. ”

Not a single thing provided by Babylon was necessary for life.  It was all over-the-top.  Decadence.  As I look at the last few words, I wonder if the bodies and souls of men means slavery in the strict and obvious sense or if this might be a reference to the ways we get addicted to being pampered, the ways we, in our comfort, can forget looking after the widow and the orphan.

It seems a pretty astounding understanding of globalization.  There are even references to the mourning of those who shipped Babylons goods, and to the businessmen who made it all happen. 

I’m not here to say “Babylon is really _____” or “The world is happening at _____.”  Really, what I’m trying to say is that materialism is identified as an evil in scripture.  Having a surplus when others do not have enough is seen as a wrong.  We will weep when Babylon falls, but Babylon must fall before God’s kingdom can come.

 

 

Jesus Transfigured and Lamp Stands

I’m reading the book of Revelations.  In some ways, this might be the toughest part of the bible.  It’s tough partially because so many divisive things have been said about it.  It’s tough because we don’t really have a category for the genre John was writing in, anymore; we’re used to reading poetry, narrative, and journals, but John was writing in the apocolyptic vein.  Given that this type of writing doesn’t really exist anymore, it’s difficult to know what to do with it.  Perhaps closely related to this, is the fact that this book is so steeped in symbols and meaning.  I don’t mean this flippantly, but it’s a bit like watching an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Star Trek.  If you don’t understand the meaning of everything that’s happened before it’s tough to get it.

So as I read through I want to progress slowly and carefully.  Today, as I read through chapter 1 I was struck by two things.  The first was the description of the transfigured Jesus:

“And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, 13and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,”[b]dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. 14His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. 15His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. 16In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.

 17When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. 18I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”

I wonder, if John was reminded of the events we’re told about it Mark chapter 9: “After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. 3His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. 4And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.”

The description in Mark is much less vivid.  But it seems like a pretty similiar event.  In both cases Jesus becomes dazzling.  It seems like words fail the writers as they grasp for a way to make Jesus appearance make sense to us.

In both cases, the transfigured Christ is accompanied with something that give Him legitimacy.  In the first case, it’s figures who actually appeared in the Old Testament.  In the second case, it’s the 7 lamp stands.  A single lamp stand is featured prominently in Exodus (Exodus is the same old Testament book which focuses on Moses) as one of the pieces of craftwork that God wants (and the Israelites delives) in the temple, where they communicate with God.

The idea that both times Jesus shows up with evidence from one specific part of history is interesting.  The directions for the lampstand was given to Moses and created in his time.  I suspect that this period more than any other evokes the idea that God is a deliverer of his formerly captive people.

There were a couple things I wondered about, though.  The first is: “Why the lamp stand?  There were other items in the temple.”  The second is “Why the apparent change?” Exodus clearly describes one lamp stand with stands for seven different lamps.  We see a minutirized version in menerahs today.  (Apparently the original was the height of a man.) Revelations seems to be stating that there were seven different, seperate stands.

I did some research into these questions.  It went how internet research usually does.  Lots of people claiming their views were the right ones.  Lots of dubious assumptions.  Too much information offered up.  Difficulty in telling whether people seemed over-all whacko or not.  Amidst it all, there was some interesting stuff.

First off, somebody remarked how dark much of the temple must have been.  To have seven oil lamps, amidst all the darkness, must have been a striking experience.  In fact, I wonder if this was the brightest light (other than the sun or the pillar of fire) that they experienced.

I think it’s so easy for us to take light for granted.  The only way I can get a little piece of an idea of what light must have been like for them is to think about my experiences camping.  Propane and battery powered lanterns, if they are not in just the right place they aren’t much good.  When I was growing up we had this tent-trailer with an awning.  When my dad would hang the lantern over our heads on a hook, it would cast this glow everywhere.

I wonder if they would ordinarily have any reasons to put seven lamps together.  It must have been the greatest combination of lamps anywhere in their lives.  And to hang them up to eye-level.  It must have been blinding.  The stand, made of solid gold, must have shone!

(I’ve always heard that you can’t make things out of solid Gold, because Gold is too soft.  Does anybody have any information on this?)

Jesus told us that we are the light of the world.  He specifically said that we shouldn’t hide this light but that we should put it somewhere everyone could see.  In appearing with the lamp stands, I suppose he was drawing a connection to his words and the history that came before him. 

But why the seven seperate lampstands?  I tried all of the English translations available at biblegateway.com.   Only one called the seven lampstands a menorah, which of course implies that they weren’t seperate at all.  This translation, though, was “the message”.  The message is amazing to get overall meaning, but it’s not supposed to be picky about word-for-word translations.  The other translations (and there are about ten different ones) all strongly implied that these lamp stands are seperate.

I have two seperate thoughts on this.  One is that the seven seperate lampstands implied a criticism.  The other is that the seven seperate lampstands spoke to the new reality under Christ.

At the end of Chapter 1, Jesus states that the lamp stands represent the 7 churches.  In appearing with seven seperate lampstands, is he saying that the 7 churches are not joined in Him, but are seperate?  Is this a criticism of the divisiveness which had occurred?

On the other hand, I wonder if the original lampstand was meant to represent the common ancestry that the Israelites shared.  They all decended of Abraham, the central piece of the stand.   He had seven sons.  Under the old covenant, they inherited their relationship to God through there birth, their connection to the father of their faith.

In having seperate lampstands, Jesus could be saying “All are decendents of Adam.  Everyone is connected to me.  You, by yourself, can have your own lampstand, simply by believing in me.”  Jesus brought a renewed emphasis on spreading the truth about him.  I have this image that you can take these seperate lamp stands in every different direction in the world.  They are somehow more portable.

I suppose he could have been  making both statements at once, they contradict each other only a little bit.  Or perhaps I’m reading too much into the whole thing.  I’m looking foreward to your insights, observations, and disagreements.

Trees of Life

For a while, I’ve had this interest in the tree of life that appears in Genesis.  I never really connected it to the pair of trees of life that occur in Revelation.  Interpretations of Revelations are so hard to understand, and so divisive, and frankly, in my opinion, have given rise to so much silliness that I probably don’t pay it the attention it deserves.

But it’s a pretty interesting thing, the way it’s described in Revelations”a pure river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, coursing down the center of the main street.  On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month.  The leaves were medicine to heal the nations.” (22: 1-2)

I’m open to the possibility that these “trees” aren’t actual trees.  There’s certainly lots of fodder for symbolism here.  The number 12 seems to represent, through out the Bible, people who are supposed to be doing God’s work in the world.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Jewish people trace their ancestory through the 12 tribes to the original 12 ancestors.  In the New Testament, Jesus has 12 disciples.   Through out both testaments, but particularly from Jesus, crops, fruit and the like are also a symbol for mantaining a connection to God.

At the bare minimum, the trees could be understood to mean that Christ-followers are the crop which healed the world.

I think there’s a lot more going on than this.

I’ve been noticing a theme lately.  This theme is that the New Earth is what Eden was meant to become.  It’s easy for me to think, somehow, that the New Earth is a bit of a consolation prize.  Perhaps it’s easier for me to wrap my brain around a God who wants to punish us.  Maybe it seems like there are so many things that are just ruined forever and the best we can do is cope with the aftermath.  It’s possible that I am not fully adressing how very much God loves us, and how indomimatable his spirit is.

Whatever the reason, it’s not my natural tendency to think that what we will end up with is what was supposed to happen.  It’s not easy to recognize that the whole of human history was just this temporary diversion, this speed bump.   The more I read and pray and think the more I recognize that God won’t be thwarted.  The end that will happen will be the end that was meant to be.

The scriptures give a variety of instructions around offering the first fruits to God and around people not eating the fruit of young trees.  I wonder if God started Eden with only one tree of life expecting that it would be left alone.  I wonder if he thought that the right naturally processes were underway for the second one to pop up without his direct intervention, the same way that other fruit trees spread.  (Fruit falls, is eaten by a wild animal, seed is excreted with a bunch of natural fertilizer from the animal, wind covers the seed, seed grows.) 

I can’t say for sure that the reason stated above is the reason we’re told not to eat the fruit of young trees.  And of course, the instruction to do this hadn’t been handed down to Adam and Eve.  I suppose that the whole point of the fall is that sometimes God isn’t going to give us all the details.  If we want to live in harmony with God we need to be o.k. with this.  He certainly didn’t owe Adam and Eve and explanation for why they shouldn’t eat from the tree.  Genesis says that one reason for this is that they would live forever.  Ultimately, it is of course the principal of the thing.  But I wonder if there was more.  On a pragmatic, and perhaps trivial level, I’m wondering if the issue of original sin was about interfering with God’s forestry plans.

The statement around what the trees can do is pretty interesting stuff to.  In Genesis, the tree of life leads to eternal life.  In revalations, it leads to healing.  These two uses aren’t particularly contradictory.  In fact, on the New Earth, we’re already eternal. 

This leads to all sorts of questions, some gory, some quite practical, about what that eternal life will be like.   We’ll be capeable of getting sick or hurt.  Otherwise, the medicines from the tree would be quite irrelevant.  But we also live forever…  This leads me to wonder what if the fruit wasn’t around?  What if we used the whole crop and we had somebody who suffered some sort of horrible accident: an explosion, hideous burn, etc.   The New Earth is supposed to be a place where all our tears are wiped away.  But I think I’d shed a few tears if I was crushed or blown to pieces or burned all over my body and I had to heal up.

I suppose this is part of a wider question about how it all will work… Can we have excitement without tears?  With an eternity that stretches out before us, will we be motivated to do anything?