Archive for October, 2010

“Wait a minute Doc. Ah… are you telling me that you built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?”

Exactly a quarter century ago, on October 26, 1985, Marty McFly traveled back in time thirty years in Back to the Future. The film and the concept of time travel captured my imagination as a kid and continue to fascinate me today.

Doc Brown shows us how the DeLorean works

While the Back to the Future trilogy is entertaining, I enjoyed most anything with a time twist or space time continuum plot line including the late 80’s TV sitcom Out Of This World (starring a girl named Evie who could stop time by touching the tips of her index fingers), the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day and various X-Men comic storylines. Heck, I even remember liking the 1994 Jean Claude Van Damme movie Timecop. More recently, I appreciated both the “time turner” action in Harry Potter, the vastly underrated Meet the Robinsons and who doesn’t love Hiro Nakamura? But what is it about playing with time that is so enthralling?

Nearly a decade ago while attending Pepperdine University, I was introduced to Redemptive Cinema and the concept that anything worth watching is usually enjoyable due to some underlying theology supporting the plot and characters. So what might our interest in Back to the Future or the rest of the time related plots above teach us about the nature of God?

Donald Miller has written and spoken a great deal on the redemptive aspect of story and has also commented on the subject of God as He relates to time. The following is from a sermon Don gave at Imago Dei in Portland, Oregon in November 2004:

“God spoke light, and light appeared. God saw that light was good and separated the light from the dark. Okay, so here’s this nothingness. God creates something in the middle of the nothingness. And then the first thing he does with the something, is He puts light in it. Okay, let’s think about this… let’s just think about light. Light. What are the qualities of light? Light travels at the speed of light, we know that. Right? Okay, but that’s something else to think about though… light, because it travels at the speed of light, exists outside of time. So light is not affected by time. What I mean by that is that if a human being were to travel at the speed of light, time would no longer affect him. It’s just a physical law, it’s just a truth… Time because it has a relationship with speed, slows down the faster you go. If you go the speed of light, time will stop. So light is eternal… We know that light is not made up of matter and we know that no physicist on the planet understands light. They can’t explain it… all we know is the quality of light… here’s something you experience but don’t understand. And all the way throughout the text, like a genius, He calls Himself light.”

This excerpt nicely illustrates that in accepting God’s own description of Himself as Light, it follows we should have no issue with believing God exists outside of time as we know it; opening up a world of possibilities and explanations regarding Biblical texts.

For example, in Exodus 3:14-15, when asked to give His name, “God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God, furthermore, said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is My name forever, and this is My memorial-name to all generations.” There is a lot going on in this interaction, but for our purposes, the text appears to indicate an omnipresent God throughout time.

Author, Leslie Marmon Silko, was recently interviewed by Tom Ashbrook on the NPR show “On Point” (10/18/10) and stated, “Linear time itself is a fiction which I find tedious and simple minded.” When asked to comment further, she said, “Well, as best I can understand, what they’ve discovered at the subatomic level… past, present, and future are at that level, it becomes just present… past and future don’t really exist as we know it, what exists is right now… this present moment.”

Now, neither myself nor Ms. Silko are scientists, and this is not meant to be a scientific paper, but what she noted appears to fit with an omnipresent Creator who weaves Himself consistently through the fabric of the human narrative.

In fact, all four gospels are written in the present tense in the original Greek. According to the New American Standard Bible’s Principles of Translation notes, it was believed the “Greek authors frequently used the present tense for the sake of heightened vividness, thereby transporting their readers in imagination to the actual scene at the time of occurrence. However, the translators felt that it would be wise to change these historical presents to English past tenses.” What if, more than a stylistic language choice, the text itself is also attempting to point toward the ever present nature of God, as if Jesus didn’t just say things to his disciples, but that he perhaps literally continues to say them to us today (“and He says to him, Follow Me!” Matthew 9:9).

So God is present, which is comforting, but does he have a sense of past or future? Going back to the concept of God as light, we can know that God amazingly exists outside of time, while simultaneously He is present in all of it. This is where my mind is blown in an attempt to understand His greatness. A God who can see both the future and past while being fully present in this moment, means we have One who is capable of doing some incredible things on our behalf and we see often see this in answered prayers.

I suspect most Christians believe God will hear our prayers for the present moment and that on occasion He answers immediately, and that they also believe God hears and grants petitions in regard to the future. But for a God who exists outside of time, and is somehow still fully present in the past, is it improbable that we might be able to pray into the past and that He would still grant our requests? I don’t imagine God may alter the past significantly enough based on our prayer to change the course of human history, as timing is His business, but might it be possible to pray for deceased loved ones that God may give them an extra sense of peace during a moment of particular crisis during their life now expired life on earth? This doesn’t seem any less plausible to me than the idea of having visions of the future (and if you doubt that glimpses of the future can be given, please feel free to explain the phenomenon of déjà vu).

In the grand scope of the Biblical narrative, it appears God through Jesus and the Spirit is moving forward with the restoration and reconciliation of Shalom, or the way things were created to be interdependently “good”. Only now when humans again arrive in the Garden of Paradise, we will find ourselves matured and more beautiful for having grown through adversity and for being purchased back by Christ’s blood. So in one sense, we are all being restored and are headed back to where things began, but in another, Heaven will be an entirely new creation and a place we’ve never been. Seemingly time is moving backward and forward simultaneously.

Perhaps to address the longing some of us have to gain access to a time machine to right past wrongs or alter history, Timothy Keller notes that when Jesus returns it will be with such power that the “very material world and universe will be purged of all decay and brokenness. All will be healed and all might-have-beens will be.”

Keller then goes on to quote C.S. Lewis who wrote, “They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.”

A God who exists simultaneously outside of time and is present with us in each moment? A God who can answer prayers for the future and the past? A God who is working forward into the future to create a new reality and yet restore an original design? A God who will work backwards to turn agony into glory? Great Scott! That’s some heavy stuff, eh Marty?

While listening to Morning Edition on NPR on Monday morning, I heard the following during a segment on technology:

Mr. Smith: Seniors, for instance, are the fastest growing group in terms of their use of social networking sites. And we also found, in this study, that six in 10 seniors own a cell phone.

Steve Inskeep: Okay, the study says that the typical American under the age of 45 owns four gadgets – things like smart phones, mp3 players, and e-book readers like the iPad or the Kindle. Smith says these new media gadgets are continuing to change the way Americans live.

Mr. Smith: You’ve got a few minutes free, you can text your friends, you can call someone, you can play a game on your cell phone, you can listen to music on your iPod. So, you know, the times where you were just, you know, sitting at a table, you know, kind of doing nothing or just contemplating the world, I think are becoming fewer and further between as more of these technologies permeate our daily lives.

Renee Montagne: No more contemplating.

Ms. Montagne continued to speak after stating “No more contemplating,” but I found the statement so shocking, I didn’t really hear the rest of the segment. In part, the shock was caused by the recent time spent dwelling on contemplation as a necessary component of spirituality while Jaime at I were at Mission Alive’s Theology Lab in Dallas last week.

As a Christian living in a western culture, there is quite a lot to learn from Jesus’ commitment to a contemplative life. Scripture appears to indicate that Jesus’ time spent alone in prayer was not only a large component of His life, but that it was necessary to His success and enabled His incredible service and attentiveness to God’s will. I think many of us admire Jesus’ commitment to contemplation in the Gospels, but rarely give thought to the work and discipline such a life requires. We especially seem to give little regard to the connection that Jesus’ prayer life appears to have with fasting and meditative breathing. But in the land of the obese and gadget-obsessed, we have no discipline or time for such a lifestyle. And then we wonder why we are so unhappy.

It doesn’t figure to get better any time soon. I saw a 12 year old almost crash his bike the other day while trying to ride and talk on a cell phone. No joke. Soon there will arise a generation in our country who will never have known a world without the internet, Google, instant answers and social networking. As NPR noted, now even our seniors are getting in on the loss of contemplative time. While I do not believe technology to be intrinsically good or bad, it appears that in the face of increasing technology we may be facing a continuing loss of our humanity.

Tod Vogt of Mission Alive shared this excerpt of a T.S. Eliot work with us during the Theology Lab that I believe illustrates the point:

“The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All of our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us closer to death,
But nearness to death, no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.”

Eliot wrote this in 1934. Imagine what he might have written after witnessing the 21st century.

As Tod pointed out, contemplation is not everything. For without action “(contemplation) can degenerate into mere escapism,” but without contemplation action is reduced to a “frenetic attempt to impose one’s will on others or the world.” I believe there is a strong case to be made that our cultural pendulum is approaching its extreme in favor of action and that this mode of operating is unsustainable.

As entropy in our relationships and social structures progresses through continuing technological innovation, I pray God will use His church to show us back toward a contemplative life and ultimately toward Himself. For as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove of the New Monastic movement writes, “Contemplation is not about a “quiet time” when we can feel safe with God. In contemplation we learn to trust God precisely because we need him.”

Wilson-Hartgrove in his chapter of Schools for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism goes on to say, “Contemplation is the flame through which our own souls find liberation.” In the face of our greatest trials and doubts, Jonathan notes that it is the through a life of contemplation that “we can trust God. We can believe that the darkest darkness may indeed be a light so bright that it is blinding our weak eyes. We can believe that beyond death there is resurrection.” Amen.

No more contemplating? No thank you. Let’s turn off our gadgets for a while and practice being silent so God can speak into our lives. Let’s give Him an opportunity to rescue us from ourselves.

There has been a fair amount of infighting among church-goers Catholic and Protestant over the years, resulting from differing views on scripture and authority. But it never ceases to amaze that doctrinal differences dissipate when Christ’s teachings are applied in the form of a sacrificial life. Case in point, I have met many Christians with critical feelings toward the Catholic church, but I’ve never heard any of them say a bad word about Mother Teresa. Her life of complete sacrificial service has transcended dogma because in her life we were all able to witness the person of Jesus.

Last month, I was fortunate to be able to stop by an exhibit at the Knights of Columbus museum in New Haven honoring the life of Mother Teresa. I accidentally worked through the exhibition in reverse and ended my journey discovering the origin of Mother Teresa, born Gonxha Agnes Bojadijevic in 1910 in Albania.

Writing of her missionary beginnings, she wrote, “I was only 12 years old then. It was then that I first knew I had a vocation to the poor.” In 1928, at the age of 18, Gonxha committed to becoming a nun and wrote in her application letter to the convent, “I don’t have any special conditions, I only want to be in the missions, and for everything else I surrender myself completely to the good, God’s disposal.” The story I read of Mother Teresa’s departure from her hometown of Skopje at the age of 18 reported that the entire town gathered to see her off at the train station. There was no information provided as to whether this occurred due to a common custom of the Albanian people or if in just 18 years, Gonxha had somehow managed to touch the entire village. I like to imagine both being true.

Gonxha was renamed after St. Therese of Lisieux and would go on to touch many more as her love became world renowned. In September of 1946, at the age of 36, Mother Teresa felt God calling her to deeper commitment to serve the poor, specifically to leave her convent with the Loreto order and to live among and serve the poor. This resulted in her founding the Missionaries of Charity, which existed to care for, in her own words, “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.” Mother Teresa described the poor as “not only hungry for bread, but immensely hungry for love.”

I was honored to have a chance to read some of Mother Teresa’s writings displayed in the museum and found myself in awe of her genuine voice and selflessness that was reflected in her attitude toward suffering and displayed in her commitment to living a life of poverty. Once such excerpt that caught my attention read, “I wish to live in this world which is so far from God, which has turned so much from the light of Jesus, to help (the poor) – to take upon me something of their suffering… for only by being one with them, we can redeem them, that is bringing God into their lives and bringing them to God.”

This reminded me of Jesus’ comments to Peter in Matthew 16:18 when He said, “Upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” The way the term “gates” is used here seems to indicate that these “gates of Hades” are keeping something or someone trapped inside and that Jesus expects that the church will be attacking (with love) these gates, not the other way around, in a rescue mission to bring good news/gospel to the afflicted/poor, bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom to prisoners/oppressed (Isaiah 61:1/Luke 4:18). I would argue this seems to be Mother Teresa’s understanding, that the Light will not only not be overcome by the Dark, but that it is expected that the Light will meet the Dark in its own house and that this is the essence of the Jesus Way. Perhaps this is illustrated best by her own writings, such as her statement that “I have come to love the darkness – for I believe now that it is a part, a very, very, small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth.”

Much was made after Mother Teresa’s death of her own claims that she did not often feel the presence of God in her later years, but I found this excerpt of a letter she wrote to Jesus fascinating:
“- My pain of my separation from You brings others to You and in their love and company – You find joy and pleasure. Why Jesus, I am willing with all my heart to suffer – not only now – but for all eternity – if this was possible. Your happiness is all that I want – for the rest – please do not take the trouble – even if you see me faint with pain – all this is my will – I want to satiate Your thirst with every single drop of my blood that you can find in me – Don’t allow me to do You wrong in anyway. Take from me the power of hurting You. Heart and soul I will work for the sisters – because they are Yours. Each and every one are Yours. I beg of You only one thing – please do not take the trouble to return soon. I am ready to wait for You for all eternity.”

The letter was signed “Your Little One.”

How many Christians have you met whose prayer is for Jesus to NOT return soon because they are so committed to doing the work of the Lord? Or who would offer to suffer for “all eternity” if it was possible as an offering to God? Christianity was truly an all or nothing proposition for Mother Teresa.

In a letter dated April 1, 1988, she wrote “You are welcome to share and give until it hurts – and this really (is) love in action.” Speaking further to this concept, in a 1992 speech given in New York City, she expounded, “Jesus said very clearly, ‘Be ye holy as my Father in heaven is holy.’ And holiness is not the luxury of a few, it is a simple duty for you and for me.” In case you were wondering where to begin in a pursuit of holiness, Mother Teresa said, “We give our hands to serve, and our hearts to love. And that is the beginning of holiness.” And while she mentioned her hands, that wasn’t all she offered in her service.

In November 2009, I had the opportunity to participate in a New Monasticism “School for Conversion” facilitated by the Simple Way and Camden House communities in Philadelphia, PA and Camden, NJ. During the weekend, I had the opportunity to listen to and talk with Shane Claiborne. The entire weekend was mind-blowing, and one small part of that experience was hearing Shane speak about the time he spent volunteering with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. Shane reported that each morning began in prayer and that it was during one of these prayer services he noticed Mother Teresa’s rather severely deformed feet.

Afraid to ask, Shane didn’t get the full story until one of the sisters asked him if he had noticed Mother Teresa’s feet. The sister explained that donations of shoes periodically arrived in Calcutta for the Missionaries of Charity and that when a shipment of donations would arrive, Mother Teresa would sort through the shoes in search of the pair in the worst condition. Mother Teresa would then claim that pair as her own out of her desire to make sure that no one else would have to suffer by wearing them, and that consistently practicing this had disfigured her feet. Just Mother Teresa again providing a tangible example of what it means for the church to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

What if we were to take Jesus seriously? What if we were to follow Mother Teresa’s example of following in the footsteps of Jesus? I imagine much of the petty arguments and doctrinal differences, whether between individuals, or between Catholics and Protestants, would seem insignificant if we actually committed ourselves to living out the gospel. I want to witness Christ, to have a vocation to the poor, but I hesitate to pray for Him to fully live in me the way He did in Mother Teresa. Lord I believe, help my unbelief.

Field Work

Posted: October 7, 2010 in Faith, Work
Tags: ,

Social work is a tough field, but it sure does produce some great stories. A few years ago, I was charged with the task of locating a gentleman to inform him that a paternity test had confirmed he was the father of two children. Unfortunately, I also had to inform him that neglect petitions had been filed against both him and the mother of the children in Court for not adequately caring for the kids. After celebrating the confirmation of his fatherhood, the man took issue with the neglect petitions.

“Glenect?!?” he protested. “How can I glenect my kids if I don’t even see ‘em? That’s not my ponsibility.”

Aside from some creative pronunciation, I had a difficult time maintaining my composure after hearing his defense against the neglect case consisted of his own report that he didn’t spend any time with his kids or attempt to care for them. Obviously, the guy didn’t get it. Taking care of his kids was his “ponsibility” whether he recognized it or not, and for the next eight months it became my “ponsibility” to assist him with understanding his role as a father.

I definitely had sympathy for him though; because while neglecting one’s parental duties is no small matter, one has to wonder how much of this father’s failures were a direct result of his own lack of experience with anything remotely resembling a good dad. But, perhaps the largest contributing factor to my sympathy was the simple fact that all too often I am the guy who just doesn’t get it.

Just last week, I was scheduled to be present at the New Haven District Court for a hearing and so I arrived at the normally scheduled time and place, only to find a Court Officer blocking the entrance to the Courtroom. The Officer reported the room was filled to capacity and indicated I would have to wait in line before entering, which I found strange but didn’t question. Only after waiting for approximately a half hour, did I remember someone had mentioned that the Courtroom I was waiting to enter was also the largest capacity Courtroom in the building. I then pieced that information together with the fact that network news trucks were parked outside the Courthouse from ABC, NBC and CBS.

If you have been paying attention to the national news, you may well be aware of the media coverage that a high-profile home invasion trial involving a triple homicide in is receiving here in Connecticut. Turns out I had accidentally been waiting for (and very nearly gained) entrance into the Courtroom that was being closely monitored by thousands throughout the country. Not only did I feel like an idiot, but I “glenected” my “ponsibility” by missing the Court hearing I was supposed to be attending.

For the longest time (and still on occasion now), I tried to pretend I was perfect, though I was the only one who fell for the act. The clueless version of myself would likely have been angry at the father for “glenecting” his kids without wanting to assist him in becoming a better dad. The arrogant version of myself would likely have blamed the Court for not putting a sign up or informing me that the hearing I was supposed to attend had been moved. But getting angry, judgmental or accusatory doesn’t help anyone.

Though I grew up going to church, I was quite often a self-righteous kid, especially in non-public spheres. If you had given me a Myers-Briggs personality test, rather than being an ENTP or INFP, I would likely have been labeled a JERK. I used to think I had all the answers. Now, the fact that I thought it was even possible for anyone to have all the answers is laughable. Part of my attitude and behavioral change was simply growing up which (usually) helps maturity, and a large part is due to the patience of my incredible wife, but the majority of the credit has to be given to really getting to know Jesus.

Despite a great spiritual foundation being laid for me by my parents and church family, simply having an academic knowledge of the Bible didn’t translate into my life looking like the life of Jesus. In fact, both the story of my “glenectful” client and my experience at Court illustrate it is possible to be in close proximity to something of great significance and somehow still not realize or experience it.

I think many of us who grew up going to church may have been in close proximity to Jesus, but maybe we didn’t truly experience Him through the religious system that was handed down to us. Jesus fundamentally changed the people he touched. Those who have really met Him cannot help but be moved. Jesus changes your relationships. He didn’t fraternize with people who could have granted Him a greater social status, but instead preferred and was the poor. Jesus changes your budget. He never had any money on Him, didn’t purchase a life insurance policy and had no equity in real estate, yet He still fed the poor and gave all He had. Jesus changes your politics. He didn’t claim allegiance with the zealots nor with the empire. He wouldn’t register as a Republican nor as a Democrat. Jesus doesn’t make things easier, He makes things beautiful.

Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus doesn’t love me anymore now than He did when I was an arrogant kid. He doesn’t love me any less on days that I act like a jerk. His love is not based on my performance. But because of his love we can stop judging others by their performances and shortcomings. Because of His love we can forgo pursuits of power, success, recognition and comfort and truly love each other with forgiving and empathetic spirits.

Often referred to as a “worker” in the “field” of social work, I recently took great encouragement after reading Luke 10:2 where Jesus tells His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” I am feeling a strong call to continue to revision my vocation as a “worker” in his “field” regardless of my job description. No matter your employment, I believe God has the same call and hope for us all. Let’s not “glenect” our “ponsibility” to show each other the same measure of forgiveness and grace as Jesus showed us, so that we can be attend the Harvest party and invite some others along as well.