Friday, August 29, 2008

mystery of the kingdom...and trading up

Most of our life is spent trading up. It’s kind of like the stuffed animal prizes at the rip-off games in Kings Island or Six Flags—you can keep playing (or throw your money out the car window on I-71)) and trading up for bigger, more valuable prizes. In real life (that’s not real?), it goes like this: you may have made a lot of personal sacrifices to get the career you wanted in order to provide well for your family. But then you discover that the time it takes you away from your kids is not worth that particular job, so you take a lesser paying, less lucrative job in order to spend more time with little Bobby. You traded up in value; a thing or perceived goal for a person.

Jesus also talks about trading up. In Mark 10 Jesus says: “. . . I tell you the truth, all those who have left houses, brothers, sister, mother, father, children, or farms for me and for the Good News will get more than they left. Here in this world they will have a hundred times more homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields. And with those things, they will also suffer for their belief. But in the age that is coming they will have life forever.” (Mark 10:29, 30)

He’s talking about a serious trade-up. The kingdom of God is worth the perceived loss of things of great value as we understand them. We have even more shocking words from Jesus in Luke 14. After a large crowd had been traveling with Him for a while, it is interesting that the scripture records that He “turned and spoke...” meaning that this large group of people was literally following Him as He traveled around. He suddenly gave them a new criterion for understanding the value He Himself must be to them. In a sobering statement, Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

Was He telling people to start hating their parents, their families? Of course not. Jesus knew the Law, He said He came to fulfill it—the fifth commandment says to honor your mother and father—and Paul later points out that it is the first commandment with a promise—so that it may go well for you and you may live long.

Jesus was speaking in a comparative sense—weighing those things we value, our families, and He even says life itself, against a dynamic relationship with Him, experiencing the down-payment of the Kingdom of God now. Even our very own breath is not worth clinging to in comparison to what He offers. In contrast to your love for Him, everything else will be as loss. We are again trading up those things that we treasure as most valuable, for something that is far surpassing any riches we might know.

It’s noteworthy that if we consider a simple Biblical definition of the heart as being the center of our affections, we need to remind ourselves that Jesus said “Wherever your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” He didn’t say “Where your heart is, that’s where your treasure is...,” but rather, you will find your heart focused on whatever you value most. If we could see the value of this pearl called the Kingdom of God, and could see the treasure that it is, we would soon find our hearts there as well.

But how are we to know that? How are we to understand its value?

This is part of the mystery of the Kingdom of God because it is revelatory in nature. This is the hardest thing to explain. What caused all of the disciples to risk their lives, most of them dying horribly painful deaths for something that had so much value to them? What made them trade up?

And where do I need to trade up?

Monday, August 25, 2008

your will, God’s will, and the screwy mess we make of it all

I was out of town last week and things got a bit crazy, but I wanted to comment on the weekend we talked about complexity. I’ll ramble about this weekend’s subject of mystery in a few days.

When we decided to include complexity as an aspect of God that creates awe, the challenge for me was to not turn it into an apologetic for God. Part of me falls under the spell of Paley’s watchmaker analogy; that is, if you found a pocket watch in a field you would assume it didn’t just happen—it’s too complicated with interdependent parts. Pop ├╝ber-atheist Dawkins counters this in The Blind Watchmaker. I think it still has street cred philosophically, but hey, I’m just a drummer from Kentucky.

I love books about biological and cosmological systems and complexities, at least to the degree I can understand them. I find it fascinating bedtime reading. I even try to read plebian stuff on quantum theory by accessible writers like Ferris and Greene.

But that’s still about natural complexity. That’s the pocket watch. I didn’t want to start there. The question I started thinking about was the problem of free will…and assume God’s existence and that He has a purpose. Now it gets interesting. Just those four words in the same sentence make things very complicated: free will and God’s purposes. How can that work?

Even if you’re a hardcore predeterminist, it’s still incredibly complex. You could argue (oddly) that predeterminism doesn’t necessarily rule out your ability to choose freely. If you lean that way theologically it just makes God a Boris Spassky on cosmic steroids…fifty gazillion moves ahead and able to checkmate you whenever He wants while all the time you think you’re choosing your own destiny with that cool move of your bishop. Is free will not free will if you’re unaware of the Chess Master? Okay, maybe not in the purest sense.

Anyway, I’m way too Wesleyan for that. Or at least this week. Admit it: there are compelling scriptures on either side of the fence.

But I wonder if this little illustration might be more accurate where the truth actually falls. Think of our brain capacity as the size of a bottle cap (now we’re getting honest…). Imagine two toothpicks placed across it. One of the toothpicks represents classic Calvinism; the other Arminianism—predestination versus free will—in their most primitive forms. Where the points of the toothpicks meet is the actual Big “T” Truth. I wonder if that particular Truth is simply outside of our capability to grasp?

It could be a cop-out.

But how many of us can really understand current theories in quantum mechanics? And do we find it particularly difficult thinking the best and brightest brains among us might not actually understand, uh, everything? Really?

It doesn’t mean we stay stupid. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t explore the edges of our gray matter. I was stunned recently when I visited Ford's Greenfield Village in Michigan and saw the bike shop where the Wright brothers built their airplane. Henry Ford moved the whole house from Dayton, Ohio (a pox upon you, Dayton city fathers…). It displayed a wing from the plane with a simple plaque expressing something to the effect of: “Sixty-five years later man walked on the moon.” Can you imagine the extremely complicated technical advances in just a handful of decades? Human beings are pretty impressive on some points.

But can we know everything…philosophically and ontologically?

Please. Give me a break. That one started in the garden: “You will be like God.”

Friday, August 08, 2008

the wind in the willows and awe

Really late on posting this one.

We launched a new series called Awe. We want to look at the obvious things about God—authority, creativity, complexity, mystery, etcetera—and how they provoke a sense of reverential fear and worship. I also mentioned how children’s books are great reading for adults, especially the older classics that weren’t dumbed down, preachy, or coolly relevant for the consumer-conscious Frankenstein-kids we’ve created. Don’t get me started.

In his beautiful The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame gives one of the most striking spiritual expressions of awe. It is the feeling of “otherness”, of the intersection of fear and beauty. It is so overwhelmingly attractive and yet otherworldly that they can’t do anything…but worship. They are awestruck and, like Daniel in the Old Testament, all strength leaves their bodies and turns their “muscles to water.”

Grahame tells the story of Mole and Rat launching off in a boat in the middle of night to look for Otter’s lost child, Portly. Rat hears the faint pipe music of Pan, who is the god and good shepherd of the animals. For a while, Mole cannot hear the music…only the sound of the wind through the reeds. They find Portly sleeping blissfully in Pan’s care. Grahame writes:

“Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror -- indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy -- but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.

Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper. . .”

“. . . All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.

‘Rat!' he found breath to whisper, shaking. ‘Are you afraid?'

‘Afraid?' murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet -- and yet -- O, Mole, I am afraid!'

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

Sudden and magnificent, the sun's broad golden disc showed itself over the horizon facing them; and the first rays, shooting across the level water-meadows, took the animals full in the eyes and dazzled them. When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of birds that hailed the dawn.”

That’s a great picture of awe. In this world, ever so often, the wind of the Spirit carries the faint music from another Place and we briefly encounter the Numinous. It leaves us unsatisfied with this world; there must be more. It draws us and yet frightens us. It is the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. We sense The Holy.

I wonder how many of us sophisticated, theology-screwed-on-straight believers have really experienced the awe of God?