Friday, February 23, 2018

Evening and Morning

Read through the first chapter of Genesis, and an interesting pattern sets itself up, one that we notice but do not somehow recognize. One that we think is perhaps cute and antiquated, but no longer relevant and certainly not practical. 

It is the pattern of time.

Which is interesting, really, because we are a people who are essentially slaves to time. We do everything by a set, specific schedule. We carry little schedules of time around with us, blocking out here and there when we have things to do that must be done at a particular time. We wear time on our wrists, emblazen it across our phones in giant print, lest we miss something or show up late to something or, perhaps, someone else so rudely show up late when we are waiting on them. We turn on our televisions at the appropriate time, set our DVRs for the prescribed time, even rely on our microwaves to tell us the time when they are not re-warming our food for us (and when they are, they count the time down for us). Everywhere we look, there is time.

And yet, when we read the very beginning of time, we think not much at all of it. 

Here is what we're missing: God's time is, as it has always been, far different from our own perspective of time. In the beginning, God created, and on each day of creation, we are told, "There was evening, and there was morning, the (first, second, third...) day." 

It raises an interesting question about when, exactly, each day begins. 

We know that in Judaism, the day begins at sunset. For others, the day begins at dawn. For most of us, it technically starts at midnight. And there are philosophical reasons for any of these. 

It makes complete sense for a people of faith that the day would begin at sunset, at just the time when men are winding down and taking their rest. This means that every day starts with the great wisdom of God and His creation doing what it does without our intervention. It is a reminder of Who is truly in control of all things and of how we are to honor creation with our lives, for it does not depend upon us but is a wonderful joy, a tremendous blessing. 

It makes complete sense for others, who may also be of faith, that the day would begin at dawn. This is the moment when light first makes its reappearance, when all things seem to start to open up once more. It is a moment of hope and opportunity, the chance to live again and to experience something amazing. Who would not want their day to begin when hope arises each morning and sheds light on all the wonderful things that await? 

It makes complete sense in a mechanistic society like ours that the day would begin when the clock determines that the day begins. Time exists outside of man's experience of it, philosophically, and so it does not matter whether men rest or hope or toil or sleep; time is what it is. We have made it this way, and then we have said that it simply is, of course, this way, and no one seems to argue with it. 

There are two ways that we might take the Genesis account of time. Historically, it has often been taken the way that Judaism has taken it - that that day begins at evening, just as men are settling in for the night, and continues on through the morning to the next evening. This means that men only work in the latest part of the day, after creation has done for itself all that it knows to do by the wisdom woven into it. 

Another way to look at it might be to say that the day begins just after the morning, and work is done first in the day. When we read these passages, we see God very busy creating. Then He stops, looks at His creation, deems it "good" (or "very good"), "and there was evening, and there was morning, the (first, second, third...) day." The emphasis here is not as much on when the day begins as when it ends:

The day ends when the sun rises and the light shines on what is, and it is still good. The day ends when darkness is over, light floods back over everything, and it is just as God intended it to be. 

This is the story of God, isn't it? This is what we're all looking forward to in our "forever and ever, amen." Right? We expect that the world as we know it, the fallen creation, this life ends when God's light floods over everything and reveals once more His perfect creation and we see that it is, indeed, good. Very good. 

How we relate to time says a lot about us. It's a deeply philosophical point, and even though we have convinced ourselves largely that time just is what it is, that's not the case. Time is, as it has always been, what we make of it. It has not always been a twelve-hour clock, nor even a twenty-four hour clock, and not every day has begun at midnight, as though time runs on its own schedule. 

No, for much of the history of the world, time began either at sunset, reflecting the wisdom of the world and man's respect thereof, as well as his obedience in rest and trust in God's design, or at dawn, when a new days holds out all of its promise in a single breath as light spreads once more over a new opportunity, a new hope. 

Or maybe it's never at all been about when time begins, but when it ends - when the sun rises and the glory of the Lord is seen in one piece and all is right with the world, just as He intended it. When the Son rises and the glory of the Lord is seen in one breath and all is right with the world....

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Home

To be honest with you, I never knew much about Billy Graham. In the contemporary Christian era in which I came to Christ, it was all light shows and lasers, not really truth and grace. But as I watch the world mourn this man - a world that came to faith through him and a world that still does not buy his faith - and talk about a great man of faith who this week only changed his address, I've gotta tell you:

I hope that's what I'm doing here.

Earlier this week, I finished up writing a "Philosophy of Christian Leadership" theory paper. Short version? I don't have one. God never told us to lead; He told us to follow. And that, I think, is what every one of us has to be responsible for - the following that we do, not the following that we gain. 

But men like Billy Graham, pastors all over this globe, and yes, even me on occasion, we catch something out of the corner of our eye, turn around for just a second, and wouldn't you know it? Someone is following our following. And all of a sudden, we're leaders. 

That's what made Graham so remarkable. He never forgot his first love. He knew that no matter how many people were going his way, the road that he was on led to Christ alone, and he made sure to get out of the way enough that others could see His glory. He knew that he could only ever lead anyone as far as the grave, and that's not where he wanted to take them. 

As I said in my paper, we're not headed toward a bigger church or greater financial wealth or a remarkable reputation in our communities; we're headed toward Christ. That's what this whole Christian thing is all about, for all of us. 

Billy Graham had eyes for Home. He knew what that glorious day held for him, and I can't imagine much time at all passing without him thinking about what that day meant. Particularly as he got older. Particularly as he got frailer. Particularly as that day, for him, drew near. 

And I think it's through Billy's eyes that I finally understand what Paul was saying. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote that whether he lived or died, that was fine with him, but it was better for the church if he lived. That way, he said, he could bring to them the hope and make sure they were secure in it. 

That's the hope that danced in Billy's eyes. All you had to do was look at the man ad see that Heaven glittered in his soul. You looked at him and you saw this confident assurance about all that was to come, and it didn't diminish his love for the church but can't you just hear Billy echoing Paul's chorus here? Whether I live or die, that's cool, but it's better that I live.

That the world may see not where, but how, hope dwells. 

I hope that's what I'm doing here. 

I hope that's what I'm doing here, but some days, I just don't know. I don't know because there's not a lot of room any more in this world for something like hope. There's not a lot of room any more in this world for...Heaven. I take a lot of flak for my idealism, a lot of criticism from those who say that's just not the way this world works. And I know it - it's not. But it's the way that Heaven works. And I think that as time goes on, it's harder and harder to see that as something good and beautiful and heavenly, and it's far more common to see it as naivete or blindness. 

But I guarantee you that Billy was neither naive nor blind. He saw perfectly clearly, and if you looked carefully, so, too, could you...through his eyes. 

I think a lot about Home. I think a lot about Heaven. Truth is, there's nothing in this world that I want, and there's certainly nothing here that I need. Whether I live or I die, that's fine by me. But if it's better for the church that I live, let it be because it is through my eyes that they see not where, but how, hope dwells. Let it be because through my eyes, this world catches a glimpse of Heaven. Let it be because the Promise that dances in my spirit invites others onto the floor. 

Lord, I hope that's what I'm doing here.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Presence of God

While modern Christianity has done a great job of crafting its narratives about both Heaven and Eden, about the future that is to come and the past we so gravely wounded, both of these narratives create a significant problem for the theology of our faith: they create a distance between ourselves and God, one that is not easily overcome. 

This is a problem because we love and serve a God whose entire story is that He is present with His people. He walked with them in the Garden as soon as He created them. He met Abraham on the mountain, bearing with Him a ram. He walked with Israel through the wilderness, parting the Red Sea and meeting with them in cloud and fire. He stood in the furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He even came in the womb of a virgin, born in a manger, walking the same dusty, dirty streets of Jerusalem that the Jews who were in great anticipation of Him walked. And then, when it all seemed said and done, when the Romans had finally put His body in the grave and, to turn a phrase, put the final nail in this coffin, He walked out to walk among His people again. 

And here we are, 2,000 years later, talking about the "one day" - the one day in the extremely distant past when God was present with us until we ruined it or the one day in the extremely distant future when we will come to be with God again. And we say that this is the best theology we have. This is it. This is God.

It's entirely not. 

This is not our best theology. This is not it. This is not God. Our best theology is a theology that reminds us that God is still present with His people. Our best theology is a theology that tells us that God is still immanent. Our best theology is a theology that doesn't settle for the distance between today and "in the beginning" or today and "forever and ever amen" because our best theology knows that today is our beginning and is our forever because the God who made a story out of walking with His people walks with us still. Even now. Even here.

I'll confess it - it's by no means an easy theology. There are a lot of questions that come up if God is both who He says He is and present with us in a world that is so much less than He intended. There is a lot of incredulousness, even among Christians, that God could be near and life could still be such a mess. It's much easier to say that our God is the God of yesterday or tomorrow because it frees us from having to grapple with today. 

The truth is that we are no better than Israel when they wandered in the wilderness, every day asking, "What? Did our Lord bring us out here to die?" Every time something goes wrong, every time something goes bad, every time something is incomplete, we grumble. We think about what the other peoples are going to say when they see that our God, the God that even they can see in cloud and fire, has not made everything perfect for us. 

But let's not confuse perfect with present.

And yet, that's exactly what we're doing. We don't want our God to be messy. We don't want our God to be difficult. We don't want our God to be unimaginable. Which means we don't want our God to be present. Because present is, and always has been, all of these things. It's much easier, much cleaner, much safer to have Him in the beginning or the forever and ever and not here in this wilderness where, we're pretty sure, we die. 

The problem is, that's just not God's story. God's story has always been the wilderness story. God'd story has always been the messy story. God's story has always been difficult and unimaginable and a stretch of the best of our imaginations because God's story has always been a story of presence. Right here. With us. When we're not getting it right. When we're getting it super-wrong. When we're left wondering and forever wandering and when we can't help but think about what all these other peoples might say if they, too, see the cloud and the fire and we're still such a mess. 

Maybe, though...maybe they'd say there's still something to it. Maybe they'd say there's something special going on here anyway. 

Maybe they'd say, whoa...look...their God is with them. 

If only we would remember that ourselves.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Echoes of Eden

The truth is that everything that Christians identify as foretastes of Heaven, everything that they put off until God's tomorrow, everything that they claim as hope for eternity, is just as much an echo of Eden. That is, it is just as much the way that God designed things in the beginning, just as much His original plan for all of Creation, just as much part of His "very good." 

We don't talk very much about this because it's not the kind of beautiful hope that Heaven gives us. When we talk about Eden, we have to talk about how badly we've screwed things up, just how far we've fallen, and essentially what terrible creatures we are. We have to admit our own propensity to want to be like God, and this does not paint the same kind of wonderful, sparkly image as, say, streets of gold. 

So Heaven it is, not Eden, even though God's plan, His design, has not changed from one to the other. Even though Heaven is not fundamentally different than the Garden. Even though we know (because God's story tells us) that our "happily ever after" is our "once upon a time." 

But before we get too carried away and start talking about Eden, let's be clear about this, too: these echoes of Eden, this God who created all things, this original "very good" design is also only half of the story. And since it is only half of the story, it can never fulfill the longings of our heart, either.

And this half of the story, just like the other half, creates a distance in our relationship with our loving Father. This time, though, it is not He who has stepped away into the future; it is we who are stepping away from our past. 

Which means that once again, our immanent God, the God who walked with us in the very beginning, the God who is building a place for us in His house for eternity, the God who came to dwell among us as a man, is no longer immanent. He's not here. He's back there. Back in the Garden where we left Him when we decided that we could be just like Him if we'd only develop a taste for figs. (It didn't take much. And yes, figs. Oh, how theologically pleasing it is for the fruit to be a fig.)

However we got here, here we are, with a Christianity that confesses plainly that this life is not what it was meant to be. This world is not what God created for it. We are not who He intended us to be. This whole big thing in a mess. 

Our response to this confession boils down to one of these two things, though more often one than the other. We often say that this disaster is here because God dwells in Heaven, waiting for eternity. The more confessional among us might say that this disaster is here because we left God in the Garden at the very beginning when we fell. And the problem is always either that there is too much distance between our stories and God...or that there is too much distance between God and our stories. And no matter how we frame it, it always seems to boil down to the fact that we are "here" and not "there," whichever "where" we settle on. Mansions or dirt. Whatever.

Then, we boldly proclaim this to the world as the story of Christianity. It is either a dramatic failure of original design or an eternal hope for a promised tomorrow. It is the story of a people and a God with a great chasm between them that seems to only deepen with time, but will be closed in the blink of an eye.

It sounds beautiful to us. But the world's not buying it. And they shouldn't. It's only half the story. 

The real story lies somewhere in the middle, in the here and now, and it's one that modern Christianity has not made a lot of room for but we absolutely must. 

Are you starting to see where this is going? No, not to a manger, although that's part of it....

(Stay tuned.)

Monday, February 19, 2018

Foretastes of Heaven

Sometimes, on this earth, we experience moments of absolute wonderful joy, total bliss, perfect peace, or complete and utter happiness. And Christians have this fabulous way of taking these moments and declaring, "This is how it's going to be one day. This. All the time." That is Heaven.

And sometimes, we have moments of complete devastation, terrible trial, deep grief, or complete and utter hopelessness. And Christians have this fabulous way of taking these moments and declaring, "One day, it won't be like this any more." That is Heaven.

It seems that no matter what happens to us in this world, Christians have this way of taking it and turning it toward Heaven, reminding us that there is this coming day when everything will be as God intends it to be, life will be wonderful, we will be whole, joy will be full, and pain will be not even a memory any longer.

It seems that no matter what happens to us in this world, Christians continue to look forward with hope.

It's one of the things I love about Christians, but the truth is that it's only half of the story. And being only half of the story means that this is not always the most helpful way of approaching things.

One of the reasons it's not always helpful is because it places this tremendous distance between our lives and God. Our lives are troubled, trialed, or at the very least, incomplete, lived only in spurts and glimpses and the every-so-often foretaste of Heaven that comes through the brightest days and our greatest yearnings that come through the darkest.

All the while, God does not even sit on His throne. He has one, but He's quite busy off of it, directing the paving of streets of gold, setting pearly gates squarely on their hinges, building rooms onto His mansion, and all of the other things it takes to get Heaven ready for an influx of human inhabitants. Because, you know, priorities...or something.

It creates this space that we poetically refer to as the "not yet," in which we live almost with blinders, trying not to let our eyes become distracted by the realities of life as we know it but keeping squarely focused on what we know about the life that is to come, by promise and by hope.

We end up living so much in tomorrow that when the world cries out for God, wondering why He is nowhere to be found, we almost shrug our shoulders and say, it's cool. He's got this. He's preparing a party at His place for later. Invitation's in the mail.

And all of a sudden, this God, this immanent God who has always dwelt among His people, who loved us so much that He became incarnate in the form of a man to truly live among us, is no longer immanent, no longer near. And we, His people, are the ones who have made Him such. We've put Him in Heaven and told Him to stay there, holding out hope for a tomorrow that has no voice of promise today, when we need it most.

Which means that, push come to shove, we're not even as sure about this Heaven as we claim. How could we be? It's been so long since we have heard Him tell us about it in His own voice.... The God of tomorrow, of eternity, is no longer the God of today; He is, if anything, the God of yesterday, the one who spoke so long ago to tell us these things.

Except...He's not even the God of yesterday. For that would turn us in an entirely different direction.

(Stay tuned.)