Wednesday, March 25, 2015

looking for heaven

Yeast under a microscope.
Image from
Sometimes I think about dying. Over the past few months those thoughts have been more frequent as I happened upon the writings of Kara Tippetts facing her last days after several years of battling cancer. She wrote with such honesty, such kindness, such generosity at a time when it probably would have been easier just to withdraw into her community of family and friends. But she didn't, and the world is richer - I am richer - because of it.

In recent years, a number of books have been published (with some being made into films) in the genre known as "heaven tourism." These are stories written by those who claim to have died and seen glimpses of the afterlife. Just today, LifeWay Christian Resources removed all titles in this category from their stores due to questions of authenticity and the lack of theological support. This week I read the parable Jesus told about the unnamed rich man and Lazarus the beggar (Luke 16). After both die, the rich man finds himself in a place of torment while Lazarus is comforted in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his rich family about their impending fate. Abraham replies that if his brothers are not listening to Moses and the prophets, they won't listen to someone who comes back from the dead. Hard words, but true.

The popularity of heaven tourism saddens me a bit. We are curious about what awaits us after death, but I believe we would do better to pay close attention to the scriptures and teachings we already have instead of looking for spectacular accounts of the afterlife. Instead of dreaming about heaven, perhaps, like Kara Tippetts, we should spend our time living (and dying) with courage and kindness.

I recently taught a class on the topic of eschatology in which I asked the students what they thought should be included in heaven. Their take on a Utopian afterlife included the expected elements: joy, reunion with family and friends, and the absence of death, pain, and evil (especially fascists). Most of us wish for a time when things will be better than they are now, so it is natural to hope for what we lack. But is that really what heaven, what the kingdom of God is all about? Getting what we want? Not really.

Jesus spoke often about the kingdom of heaven and his words included many ideas which were hard for his listeners (and us) to hear. He said that the kingdom of heaven is come near and is among us. He said that we must receive it like a little child, like the poor in spirit, by aligning ourselves with the purposes of God. He said the kingdom of heaven is like a small seed, like yeast, growing from something insignificant into something great. It all makes little sense when you try to put it in the context of a faraway place where we end up after we die. But when we think of the kingdom of heaven as the place where God is with us no matter what the circumstance, it becomes clearer.

Kara Tippetts wrote:
My little body has grown tired of battle, and treatment is no longer helping. But what I see, what I know, what I have is Jesus. He has still given me breath, and with it I pray I would live well and fade well. By degrees doing both, living and dying, as I have moments left to live. I get to draw my people close, kiss them and tenderly speak love over their lives. I get to pray into eternity my hopes and fears for the moments of my loves. I get to laugh and cry and wonder over Heaven. I do not feel like I have courage for this journey, but I have Jesus - and He will provide. He has given me so much to be grateful for, and that gratitude, that wondering over His love, will cover us all. And it will carry us - carry us in ways we cannot comprehend. [1]

That, to me, is the kingdom of God coming near. Life and death intermingled with grace and the presence of Jesus. Pain and loss and weariness overshadowed by moments of bright love and hope and joy.

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann explains the nature of our future hope:
But the ultimate reason for our hope is not to be found at all in what we want, wish for and wait for; the ultimate reason is that we are wanted and wished for and waited for. What is it that awaits us? Does anything await us at all, or are we alone? Whenever we base our hope on trust in the divine mystery, we feel deep down in our hearts: there is someone who is waiting for you, who is hoping for you, who believes in you. We are waited for as the prodigal son in the parable is waited for by his father. We are accepted and received, as a mother takes her children into her arms and comforts them. God is our last hope because we are God's first love.

This is what we long for: not all those things we are missing here in this life, not a mansion in the sky and eternal bliss, but knowing that we are loved, that we belong, that we are waited for. And that is what Jesus offers us every moment of every day, whether we fathom it or not, whether we receive it or not. The mystery of heaven is not really about all the wonders we will see in the sweet bye and bye but about the wonder of divine love which is poured out in generous measure on us right here, right now. In good days and in bad days, in pain and in sorrow, in joy and sunshine and friendship, in loss and in gain, in failure and in victory. We are God's beloved. What more could we want?


Friday, March 13, 2015

the mystery of Trinity

Rublev's icon representing Trinity
This is not a post about a character in The Matrix. Just so we are clear. This is about one of my favourite topics, the theological concept of a triune God, three in one and one in three. At the same time. It can be a difficult concept to comprehend because we are not used to thinking of distinctiveness and unity as occupying the same space. In our world, if we happen to see evidence of several distinct personalities manifested in one person, we suggest that they get some therapy. So when we encounter the idea of three persons acting as one, it mystifies us. And so it should. As Augustine says, "If we can fully grasp it, it is not God." What we can do, however, is get glimpses of Trinity, see Trinity from several perspectives, if you will, and in this way, get some idea of what it means to be in a community of unity.

Just over a hundred years ago, Edwin Abbott Abbott penned a satirical novel called Flatland. The story takes place in a two-dimensional world where one of the inhabitants, a square, encounters a sphere who lives in a world with three dimensions. Because Flatland has no concept of up or down, it is difficult to convince the inhabitants that there is more out there than their present experience. Think about it: if a human being were to step into a two-dimensional world, what would appear? Two foot-shaped, flat geometric shapes, not connected to each other in any way. As the human being passed through (moved down) the two-dimensional world, different sections of the body would be visible at different times, but the overall effect would be extremely puzzling because the shapes would be shifting continuously as would the number of foreign objects to be observed when the legs, torso, arms, and finally just the head passed through the two-dimensional world. If the body were in motion (picture a dancer) when it passed through Flatland, the experience would be quite different than the one I just described. It would be totally understandable if the two-dimensional creatures made no connection between the first, static body passing through their world and the second body in motion. And remember, in two dimensions one cannot see from above, so one would have to "walk around" an object just to get a sense of what shape it is. From a single, static perspective, everything would look like a line.

Perhaps this analogy is helpful when we think about how we encounter God, a being with more dimensions than we can fathom. We can only see partially, from our limited perspective, within our current dimensions. But if we have eyes to see (physical and imaginative and spiritual eyes), we can catch some wondrous glimpses about who this God is: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. I would like to mention two glimpses of Trinity which I find challenging but which, at the same time, inspire deep longing in me.

1. There is no hierarchy. It is hard for us to imagine authority without a governing structure, and a governing structure necessarily puts some people at the top (the decision-makers) and others at the bottom (the workers). This seems basic to human nature. Just watch a group of children play and observe how, in many cases, one child soon emerges as the dominant one, the decision-maker. It is hard for us to fathom total freedom within unity of purpose, but this is what we find in Trinity. There is community and connection without confusion or division or subjugation. Trinity is an understanding of God as a mutually loving, interacting, and sustaining society (Alister E. McGrath). While I cannot totally understand it, I love it. Since we are made in the image of Trinity, generous equality is what we should bring to society. I want to be a person who does not automatically default to a hierarchical model of leadership, be it at work, at play, in my friendships, in my family, and especially in my local expression of church. We are meant to give all of ourselves to each other in trusting love. That is not likely to happen perfectly outside the final consummation of the kingdom of God, but we can nurture pockets of it in our sphere of influence.

2.. There is no isolation. God is not a private deity. We find it easy to group ourselves into "us" and "them." Many times we don't even know we are doing it, but we draw a clear line between ourselves and those who are "the other." But in Trinity, there is perfect, generous love offered to all without prejudice. There is hospitality. Cornelius Plantinga says that Trinity is "a zestful, wondrous community of divine light, love, joy, mutuality, and verve." In Trinity, otherness is celebrated because it brings added dimension to the whole. In the parable of the wedding feast that Jesus tells, we find a host who sends out invitations to the community to come and join in a grand celebration. Unfortunately, many refuse the invitation because of their preoccupation with their private lives. Yesterday in class I asked students what they wanted heaven to include. One student mentioned that she would like there to be some alone-time. I suspect she is a bit of an introvert like me and values her contemplative, private times. There is definitely a time and place for withdrawing from others to be with God or to think and work. Jesus did it all the time. But one would never say that Jesus was isolated, lonely, or a recluse. His purpose was to bring hope to everyone he met, to show them that God was with them, and that the kingdom of heaven was near. His was not a private spirituality; he told his disciples to spread the good news and heal people! Being in communion with God means being in communion with each other.

3. There is no spoon.  I couldn't resist a wee bit of Matrix humour.

One word that is used to describe the interconnection between the members of Trinity is the idea of perichoresis. Most define this theological term as interpenetration or mutual intersection, but one theologian uses the idea of "circle dance" to describe the idea of peri (around) and choresis (step, approach, make room for, contain). I like the dynamic, moving nature of "circle dance" which hints at the idea of shared leadership and joyous good fun with a group of friends. May you enjoy a circle dance with God today and offer it to those around you as well.

If you are interested, here is an animated movie based on the book, Flatland. It was meant as a political critique of hierarchy.

Monday, March 02, 2015

waiting for the sun to come up

After a whirlwind of travel, teaching, deadlines, and meetings in the past few months, Dean and I managed to get away for a bit of a warm vacation last week. It was a welcome break from the work and the cold weather. We were both attacked by some ugly, demented plague flu just before our scheduled departure, but we were determined to get on that plane to Cancun even if we had to crawl on our hands and knees. And we did. We arrived pretty much depleted so the first days in Mexico were spent drinking, eating, napping, and marveling at the sensation of being warm.

I usually like to catch the sunrise when I am in a beautiful location with big, unobstructed views, so one morning I woke up early (no alarm necessary), threw on some clothes, and made my way down to the beach. The sun was scheduled to rise at 7:12 am, and when I arrived at the water's edge just before 7 am, there were already a few other people gathered there for the event. Some sat quietly on beach chairs while others were strolling along the sand. I stood and waited. There was a bit of cloud cover at the horizon so I was anticipating quite a show. From past experience I know that clouds make for the most glorious sunrises and sunsets because of all the reflections they give off. Total cloud cover will hide the sun's appearance, but a bit of cloud...well, that's the best case scenario for stunning sunrises.

7:15 am
By 7:15 am the sun was above the horizon and the world was much brighter, but the sky was still dull grey. There was nothing special happening in the sky so most of the people who had come to witness the dawning of a new day left. But I waited. The cloud cover near the horizon was hiding my view of the sun, but I knew that eventually it would peek out, and when it did, it would be worth the wait.

I wondered if I should have spoken to the people who left and told them just to wait a bit longer, that I knew from experience that the best was yet to come. But I didn't. Technically, it was 7:15 am, the sun had risen, and they had seen it.

Thirty minutes later, the sun finally broke through the clouds. And it was "Wow!" I spent a good fifteen minutes snapping pictures, giving thanks to God, running back and forth on the beach, and talking to the birds as we shared that special time of day. I know that others witnessed the same spectacular show, but it felt like a private moment of overabundant beauty and splendour, almost too much to take in.
7:45 am

If I can offer any lessons from my experiences with sunrises, let me tell you that the clouds which at first hide the sun eventually display the most amazing, multi-dimensional reflections of beautiful light and colour that you will ever see. Don't curse the clouds in your life. Also, be patient. Don't expect everything to happen all at once. If you don't see the brilliant sunrise today, then try again tomorrow or next week. The sun is always there, even if we can't see its distinct, glowing orb. Keep looking and it will reveal itself. Photographers know that they cannot make a great shot happen; they can only wait and hope to capture a special moment when it arrives. Let us not miss great beauty in our lives because we are impatient or looking at a clock. Beauty appears when it is ready. Let's hope we are ready, too.