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Archive for June, 2017

The Timeless One

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. Psalm 90:1-4

I had a revealing dream several years after my father’s death. He died suddenly, early on a  December morning, when I was 14. In the years that followed, a series of dreams haunted me where I knew he was present, but just out of sight. I would run to where he was, but by the time I got there, he would be gone. The revealing dream was this: My sister and I were looking out the front window of our home when I saw dad park the car and get out with a bag of groceries – and then I woke up (in more ways than one). The dream told me that one day, the years without my father will seem no more significant than the time apart from a trip to the grocery store. The reason this is true is that our experience of the passage of time is but a moment in the context of eternity.

Psalm 90 equates a thousand years to yesterday. Likewise, 2 Peter 3:8 tells us: “…with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” God time is not the same as human time. Here is a way we can perhaps visualize how this is possible. If we were two-dimensional beings – experiencing life only through height and width – we could only experience the third dimension (depth) in time. In other words, in any given moment we could see above and below, side to side, but not front or back. We would only be able to experience moving forward or backward in the passage of time. To us now, as three-dimensional beings, it is clear what lies immediately ahead for our two-dimensional friends because we can perceive all three dimensions at once. As the theory goes, we experience the next dimension beyond our physical reality in time. The question is this: What is the nature of the fourth dimension that we can only experience in time? When freed of our three-dimensionality, what expanded reality will be revealed to us, in the same way that depth appears to a two-dimensional being? I believe this is at the heart of our quandary, that our earth-bound perception is limited to three-dimensionality, and the mysterious reality beyond our experience unfolds for us in time.

The creation story in Genesis records that God created the earth and everything in it in six days. Some Christians believe creation occurred in 6 twenty-four hour periods, probably less than 10,000 years ago. Many scientists believe the creation occurred with a Big Bang about 13.8 billion years ago. For me, the question of which time frame is correct is irrelevant and unanswerable because time for the creator – the Timeless One – is inconceivable to us.

Albert Einstein proved, mathematically, that time is relative and not absolute. In other words, time is not a precise measurement that exists independent of our observation of it. In fact, in his later years, Einstein concluded that past, present, and future exist simultaneously in the fourth dimension, which he labeled as time-space. The point is this: Time, as we experience it, is only accurate in a limited way and for a limited cross-section of reality. When we are freed from the limitations of the earth-bound portion of our lives, the spans of decades, centuries, and eons will seem no longer than a trip to the grocery store.

All of this is to say that there is both biblical and scientific evidence that time is not as we believe, nor is the world we experience the entirety of everything created. Our lives are one part of an eternal creation that stretches from before our birth to beyond our physical death, when we will rejoin the Timeless One in an existence beyond earth-time.

Note: this is the sixteenth in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

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The Trump Conundrum

 Political commentary is not my forte. I have no need or desire to write in favor or against President Donald Trump, any more than I did for his predecessors. Rather, for those of us who believe the world we see outside ourselves is a reflection of the world within, Donald Trump provides an interesting and humbling self-reflection. The American political system is awash in seemingly unresolvable conflict, and the current face of that system is Donald J. Trump. My interest is not so much in Mr. Trump’s strengths or fallacies, however, but in what his strengths or fallacies, as perceived by me (and you), reveal about me (and you). Richard Rohr, in his Daily Meditation for June 12, 2017, wrote, “All the conflicts and contradictions of life must find resolution in us before we can resolve anything outside ourselves.” I (reluctantly) agree.

Beyond a reasonable doubt, I know the qualities that bother me most in others are qualities in me that I try desperately to hide and deny. A characteristic of Trump I find bothersome is his narcissism – his seeming self-centeredness and need for self-promotion. Of course, some of his popularity stems from exactly that quality, so I try not to cast it too negatively. Any admission on my part that his narcissism is troubling is more a confession of my own repressed narcissism than criticism of his behavior, anyway.

The more interesting questions to me stem from the observation that we, as a collective, voted a person with the distinct characteristics of Donald Trump (or name a predecessor, if you prefer) to be our president. Assuming we can agree he is narcissistic, we can begin to consider what about us put him in such a high office (including those who did not vote for him). For starters, I would argue that we are a narcissistic nation. Further, the vast majority of us are narcissistic individuals. There is something within me that always focuses on me. How will this event affect me? How can this person enrich my life? How can I turn this situation to my benefit? It is self-preservation, and it is necessary to a point; but have we carried it too far?

Where does our narcissism originate? One interesting allegory is found in Genesis 3:4-5, where the serpent tries to convince Eve to eat the forbidden fruit: But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” This story is at the heart of what some Christians consider the original sin. Adam and Eve had everything they could possibly need in the Garden of Eden. Only one thing was forbidden – eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. To do so would make them like God. Does our narcissism stem from a craving to be like God? Do we desire power over our circumstances? Do we want to be the judge over who and what is good and evil? Do we need to be set apart from and over others? I think our political realities suggest that may be the case. Every day in Washington, DC, we find our elected representatives promoting their political parties and ideological leanings over working together to address the pressing problems in our country and our world. Political ideologies have become the idols of our age, and too often we find ourselves worshiping at the feet of divisive dogma while children starve, addicts overdose, our environment decays, and civil wars rage. Has our need to be right – as we define it and to the exclusion of what others believe – overridden our desire to live in peaceable relationship with others?

At least in part, Donald Trump represents a large group of people who feel left behind, unappreciated, disenfranchised, and forgotten. My observation is that every four or eight years, the delighted and disappointed groups trade places. We swing back and forth like a pendulum, preserving our dualistic obsession with believing if one thing is good, the other thing must be bad. There is no effort to make the pendulum move in an ever-widening circle, where all ideals and peoples are included, honored, and respected.

My friend, Bryan Welch, commented that “the explicit anti-narcissistic message implicit to Christianity is missed, altogether, by (so many of us) who self-identify as Christians.” If we are to move our country and our world forward, no one can be left behind – no nationality, no culture, no religion, no age group, and no orientation. We are all in this together, and the Trump conundrum is this: When we look in the mirror and see Donald Trump, what aspect of ourselves is being reflected? More importantly, seeing ourselves exposed, what are we going to do about it?

Note: Next week I will return to the series, The Faces of God. 

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The Good Shepherd

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me. Psalm 23:1-4

Some may believe the image of God as a shepherd is trite or out of date. I disagree. In fact, I believe God taking on the face and role of a shepherd is one of the most meaningful and insightful analogies about God’s relationship to us. The first line of the 23rd Psalm says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” As we better understand God and God’s workings with and through us, we realize that most of us seldom lack anything we actually need, certainly not for extended periods. We often desire more than we have, but that is another issue entirely. Obviously, there are parts of the world, including in the United States, where there are people who lack necessities like sufficient food and shelter. I believe God, the good shepherd, attempts to take care of those needs by encouraging the rest of us to share our abundance to help meet those needs. A shepherd does not feed the sheep; a shepherd assures there is food available for the sheep to eat.

My mother raised sheep as a teenager, and I remember her telling me how dumb they were. Her experience was that if they were not watched constantly, they would invent trouble to fall into. It was as if the sheep simply trusted that a shepherd was watching over them at all times, protecting them from life’s perils, regardless of what they did. (Perhaps sheep are not dumb, just faithful.) The third verse of the 23rd Psalm comes to mind, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me…” According to mom, her sheep would mindlessly wander into any dark valley available.

I tend to think of shepherds as necessary in open fields, where there is no fencing to keep the sheep contained within a certain area. Of course, it is still possible for sheep to find themselves in trouble in a confined area, but it limits the possibilities. The point is that the days of the shepherd being physically present with the sheep 24 hours a day, at least on modern farms, are probably over.

Even contained within a fenced field, and even with regular access to food and water, sheep can find themselves in danger. Coyotes and other predatory animals love nothing better than fresh lamb chops, and fences alone will not keep predators from easy access to the sheep. This is perhaps where the image of God as our shepherd becomes more meaningful. A shepherd does not create the dangers for the sheep, any more than God creates dangers for us. Danger is inherent in the world around us. A shepherd seeks to protect the sheep from the dangers that are naturally present. When danger cannot be avoided, however, a good shepherd stands with the sheep so they do not have to face the danger alone. While God may not physically intervene between us and threats, God does remain with us throughout the danger. As I hinted earlier, God also relies on us to help care for God’s sheep. In John 21, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus’ answer? “Tend my sheep.” Understanding God as our shepherd does not imply that God is or needs to be physically present with us. It does mean, however, that God inspires others to help in our time of need, just as God encourages us to help others in our times of abundance. We are, after all, the hands and feet of a very good shepherd.

Note: this is the fifteenth in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

 

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An Inclusive God

So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Jonah 1:15,17

The story of Jonah shows a face of God that will manifest fully in the New Testament in the person of Jesus – a face of inclusion. The prophet Jonah was told by the Lord to go to Nineveh and warn the people to change their wicked ways. Jonah did not want to go because Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, a country that had long dominated Jonah’s homeland, leaving Jonah’s people bitter. Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh carrying the Lord’s message of salvation because Jonah did not like the people of Nineveh. He would have preferred that the Lord destroy them for their past trespasses, instead of providing another chance through the warning of a reluctant prophet.

As the story goes, Jonah received his instructions to head east to Nineveh; instead, he boarded a ship headed west to Tarshish, fleeing from the Lord. Jonah fell asleep below deck as the Lord caused a great storm to hit the ship, threatening to break it apart. The crew, frantic to save their lives and their ship, confronted their run-away passenger. Jonah confessed that God was causing the storm because of his disobedience. He told the crew that throwing him overboard would calm the seas. Eventually, the crew threw Jonah over the side and the seas grew calm. A large fish swallowed Jonah, and he spent three days in its belly before being spit up onto dry land. The Lord, again, tells Jonah to go to Nineveh. This time he goes and tells the people to turn from their wicked ways. Much to Jonah’s likely chagrin, the people repented and God saved them from destruction.

Trying to hide from God is never a successful strategy, at least not in the Bible. Beginning in Genesis with Adam and Eve trying to hide from God in the Garden of Eden, many different characters try to hide from God in various ways, but they never succeed. I catch myself trying to hide from God sometimes, although I am old enough to know better. Anytime I say or do something that I know is inconsistent with the way Jesus lived – something selfish or harmful to others – a part of me hopes God does not notice. I can be a narcissistic person, and I believe God provides me with opportunities daily to help me become more other-focused. It is those opportunities from which I often try to hide or ignore.

Jonah preferred that the people of Nineveh should die in their sin. He felt that was what they deserved. God, however, is an inclusive and persistent God of grace. This God is portrayed by Jesus as the good shepherd who leaves his flock of 99 to save one wayward sheep who has wandered astray (Matthew 18:12-14). This is the same God that in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), throws a huge party in celebration of the return of his long, lost son. God rejoices when any lost child (regardless of age) is brought back into the fold. We humans are quick to judge, and we are quick to label others as good or evil, Christian or non-Christian, right or wrong. God, however, sees beyond our dualistic categorizing to the heart of a being created in God’s likeness. All are precious, loved, and worthy of redemption, regardless of what the Jonah’s among us believe.

When we try to hide from God’s calling, we often find ourselves in a dark and lonely place. We are given time to reconsider our actions – thankfully, not in the belly of a fish – and we are always given another chance for more inclusive behavior. God’s patience is infinite, but God’s persistence is relentless.

An inclusive God is calling. What and who are we excluding?

Note: this is the thirteenth in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God

 

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