Saturday, October 18, 2008

Time and Eternity

(This is taken from a sermon I first gave in the early 1980s)

Time makes us uncomfortable. When we are conscious of it we are often frustrated with it. Time seems to go either too fast or too slow. It goes too fast when circumstances are good; it goes too slow when circumstances are unpleasant. We are perpetually surprised by time—“Can you believe it’s already Fall?!” Why is time such an awkward factor in our lives unless there is something in us which is not temporal? Socrates refused to delay his death for a few more hours; perhaps he knew that those few hours under the pressure of time would be worth little.

Did you ever notice that when we speak of “now” we seem to mean the timeless? There is no consciousness of duration. Awareness of duration—of a terminus—spoils “now.” Summer vacation is “now.” Students and teachers spend nine months longing for it, but once it’s here it seldom fulfills all the desires that were projected on it “back then.” For any pleasant time, there is the desire to enter totally into the experience—to possess it totally, but there is never enough time. The self-fulfilling climax is somehow always in the future, just eluding one’s grasp.

The future dream charms us because it gives an illusion of timelessness. That is part of the charm, also, of “the good ol’ days.” If you’ve ever stopped to consider, our most precious moments are timeless. As soon as the dimension of time comes to your mind, the magic of the moment disappears.

Maybe eternity can be illustrated in an analogy with a novel like David Copperfield, that covers many years. The book follows the boy David running away to his Aunt Betsy Trotwood, the youth David loving Dora, the mature David with Agnes. While one reads chapter after chapter— even as one’s own life passes day by day—David is what he is at a particular point in the book’s time. But then, when one shuts the book at the end, all the Davids—small boy, youth, mature man—are equally one. Who is the real David? All of them! The reader is then, in reference to the book’s time, in eternity, seeing it all in the Now, even as God in his eternal Now sees the whole of history that was, and is, and will be.

The Bible says that the longing for eternity is built into all of us. And if we all have an appetite for the Eternal Now, we are also caught in a world that frustrates our longing at every turn. So many of our society’s inventions are meant to “save time” —the assembly line, the jet, the computer. But what are we “saving time” for? People have never been more harried by time: our watches, buzzers, schedules, the start of the program, the end of the line at the amusement park....

And yet, why? Is not time our “natural environment?” We live in time as we live in the air we breathe. We love good fresh air, but we do not love “time.” We may love the existing moment because of what it offers, but time itself spoils our greatest moments. Nothing can quite come up to expectation because of it. It is strange that this seems to be true of humans alone. Animals, so far as we can tell, are unaware of time. They are untroubled. Time is their natural environment. Why do we sense it is not ours?

C.S. Lewis (whose reflections sparked many of my thoughts here) asked how it is that a person who is supposedly a product of a materialistic universe is not at home there. Do fish act uncomfortable when they are wet? If they did, would that not strongly suggest that they had not always been, or would not always be, purely aquatic creatures? If we complain of time and can have such joy in the seemingly timeless moment, does that not suggest we are not purely temporal creatures? Surely it suggests that we were created for eternity. Because not only are we harried by time, we seem unable, despite a thousand generations, to get used to it. We are always amazed at it—how fast it goes or how slowly it goes or how much of it is gone. Think about a simple life experience. When do we hear a musical air? Until the last note it is incomplete; as soon as that sounds, it is over.

Considering these things, there is compelling reason that Christian faith is consistent with our true desires and the nature of our world. God is indeed our Maker, and he has created us to live—truly live—forever. And in spite of the frustration and pain and death that has been our legacy and still surrounds us, God has chosen to be our Savior. The Son of God came into our world, lived here to do rightly what the first Adam failed to do, and then died as a sacrifice for our sins. But that is not the end of the story: He came back from the dead never to die again, and in doing that became the first of a whole line of people who can know that death does not have the last word. Through Jesus Christ our worst fear has been conquered and our greatest desire has been granted: the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

This sounds incredible. It is so far removed from what we experience in this world. Can we dare trust in such a thing as the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting? Hans Urs von Balthasar offers this conclusion to his book on the Apostles’ Creed:

With that, the creed reaches its endless end. All the individual statements dissolve into one other, because they were all—even as historical facts—but an expression of the life everlasting in the symbolic language of finitude. Everything transient is only a symbol. It resembles from a distance, since it points back to something that is permanent and in process as an event. The human being was created as an “image and likeness” and even in faith sees but “in a mirror dimly”; once having arrived at God, however, I will “understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (1 Cor 13:12); namely, by virtue of that love which has, from all eternity, conceived and known me. (Credo: Meditations on the Apostles’ Creed, Ignatius Press)

This is what I base my life upon—it is why I am a Christian. This is the hope I have for my own life, and those of my young grandchildren. This is the comfort for people who grieve death, whether it is already realized or the process of slow but inevitable deterioration. In the face of time and the death that comes with it in this present world, Christians believe what the Church has confessed for almost two thousand years, and the Church confesses what God has revealed through his Son: the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Saint Teresa of Avila

Today is the feast day for Saint Teresa of Avila, the sixteenth century woman who was so full of the Spirit of Jesus that she was an instrument that helped breathe Life into the Church of her day.

Before I turned to the Office of Readings I had been mulling a question that had come to me: Why, as a recent "convert," do my blog entries not have more explicit reflections on the Catholic Church? This had been simmering in my mind as I turned to the selection from St. Teresa and found these words that perfectly matched my own thoughts, the essence of which is that the focus of our hearts is to be Jesus himself:

Blessed is the one who truly loves him and always keeps him near. Let us consider the glorious Saint Paul: it seems that no other name fell from his lips than that of Jesus, because the name of Jesus was fixed and embedded in his heart. Once I had come to understand this truth, I carefully considered the lives of some of the saints, the great contemplatives, and found that they took no other path: Francis, Anthony of Padua, Bernard, Catherine of Siena.

While I have found greater depths in my relationship with Jesus through the Catholic Church, I want the passion of my heart to be Jesus, and it seems I have good company along with Teresa and the venerable host she cites.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Integration (#4) — Taking Time

Time is a strange phenomenon. From the “natural” end, Einstein’s theories of relativity become part of a discussion that quickly goes beyond my abilities. Yet the bit I do grasp has drawn me into reflection on the “spiritual” implications (remembering that the “natural” and the “spiritual” are two facets of a whole, and the division is more of a testimony to our limitations than a description of reality.) I’ll go further with that in the next post, developing some of the implications in light of the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

For a starter, we should keep in mind that God is not bound by time but exists outside of time, and our understanding of time is part of the whole created order that is beyond us. Yet even as those things are true, we do live in a consciousness of past, present and future.

This particular topic was refreshed in my mind recently when I read the currently popular novel by William P. Young, The Shack (Windblown Media, 2007). The main character, Mack, is having a conversation with Jesus, who asks whether humans were designed to live in the present or the past or the future. Mack correctly guesses the present, but then Jesus presses a second question and wants to know where Mack spends his own mind-imagination time: in the present, or in the past, or in the future. Mack truthfully confesses that he spends very little time in the present, but rather in the past or trying to figure out the future. And Mack is no different than most people.

Many people live in the past because they see it as being (through some white-washed hindsight) so good. I have known people who are always harkening back to some “glory” days of college, or when the kids were young, or even to high school. Other people live in the past because it was so bad. Abuse and tragedy can so damage a person that the pain takes over as an identity. For people of either motivation, glorified or horrified, the present is always overshadowed by the past.

Some people live in the future in an unhealthy way. They think their lives will be “fixed” and happiness will come “when I can get this” or “when I can move there (or at least away from ‘here’)" or "when I can do that.” This makes an idol of some idealistic circumstance (which usually never comes, and if it does, cannot deliver the projected promise). This also breeds chronic dissatisfaction with the present.

There is one way that a future look is good and biblical. I call it the eschatological perspective, which focuses on what God has promised His people so that we can live in the present in the hope of a reality that goes beyond temporal limitations. This means, however, truly believing that the Lord is with us now — Immanuel — God with us.

God has redeemed our past and secured our future so that we can be close to Him in the present — now. This point — made in the novel by Jesus as the conversation with Mack continues — is based on the implications of the word "today" throughout the letter to the Hebrews (e.g., 3:7,13,15; 4:7; 13:8). God dwells with us in the present — the eternal present — when we begin to comprehend the integration of time with eternity.

One contemporary musician whose compositions edify me has written the following lines (as if spoken by the Lord):

My joy is in the journey, not in the journey’s end.
If you seek tomorrow, well then you have missed the lesson.
Be present to the present and your eyes will open wide;
At that moment you will see me by your side, by your side.
(from: “I Am Beside You” on the album, Be Still, David Kauffman, Good for the Soul Music, San Antonio, TX, 2002)

There is an integration of past and future into the present so that we live in a consciousness of walking with Jesus in the now. God made us for an intimate relationship with Himself, and intimacy is always lived in the moment — the eternal present, which is one way to understand salvation.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Integration (#3) — Full Salvation

My hope is that this particular topic will become a book that can be published. I started to say its origins are in the conflict I went through as I wrestled to integrate my Evangelical soteriology (theology of salvation) with the new and foreign — at least to me — understanding of salvation expressed through Catholicism. Actually the origins are earlier than that, and go back to similar angst as I sought to rectify my Arminian background with Calvinistic emphases I faced throughout my educational journey.

The short version — and my simple point here — is that Beelzebub has hoodwinked Christians of varied traditions into embracing a limited understanding of salvation and then seeing any other expression as being “wrong.” It's as if we have settled for how little one can know or experience of salvation and still hope to be “saved.” No one knows where that line is but God alone, but surely it is not the right attitude. One who has a heart for God does not desire a "least common denominator salvation,” but rather to enter into as much of the fullness of what God has for His people as possible.

As I began to think more intentionally in this expanded way, I began to see different streams of Christian expression, with their varied emphases about salvation, as being facets of a whole that need to be integrated rather than polarizing sets of mutually exclusive teachings for which only one is right and the others mostly wrong.

The details will come into focus, I hope, in my intended book (but don’t look for it this year!). In the meantime, begin to think of Sovereign Choice / Personal Conversion / Sacramental Consecration — understand/feel/do — as elements of the whole that need to be integrated rather than competitive emphases at war with each other.

God is BIG. God’s salvation is big. The few strands of truth we each grasp need to be integrated into the Whole — a full salvation.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Integration (#2) — Small & Big

Many people live in their own small worlds. One word used to describe this is provincial. It is an attitude that thinks, “the whole world lives like I do — or at least it should.” In essence it is a self-centeredness that ultimately is rooted in the Fall (the first disobedience that opened the world to evil and the broken mess we all experience).

Self creates a very small world. Since “self” needs to feel secure, to be in control and to live in relative circumstantial comfort, it is typical of (fallen) human nature not to extend itself beyond its own comfort zone. Again, this is another way to understand the nature and extent of sin.

It is a gross understatement to say that God is BIG. Christian Faith believes that God is “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen.” The scope of that is beyond human comprehension, and because God is Creator He is, of course, far bigger and more complex than His creation. BIG!

The more we are cut off from God, the “smaller” we are. The further we go in the process of a salvation in which we are being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator (Col 3:10), the “bigger” we will become in wisdom and spirit — a magnanimity of soul.

A “small” person takes the one talent given by the Master and buries it in the quest for self-protection; the “big” person extends it, taking the risk but trusting that the One who gives will also share in the care and expansion. It’s the words of Jesus: Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life (Jn 12:25). Jesus was not giving a “profound concept” just so people would say “what a deep thinker...” Jesus always speaks into the world we live in and calls us to apply it.

It is true that we start small. We have to begin where we are (and none of us are very big). But in the process (and I cannot get away from that word, for our life in God is a process), we are called to be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God (Eph 3:19). And as if such an idea — actually it’s Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians — is too much, the Spirit moves Paul to repeat the phrase a few verses later as he tells how such a thing can happen (through the Church!): until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (4:13).

We are called to something big, and that means seeking to integrate what we know in our own small contexts into the ever-enlarging bigness of what it means to be a Christian: For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ (Col 2:9,10). A growing personal faith is a faith that is always seeking to integrate the bigness of God and His ways into the smallness of our own little existence.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Integration (#1)

One of the ways to understand Christian life is in contrast to “religion” (which is popularly perceived as one compartmental aspect of a multi-faceted existence), out of which results the popular but erroneous idea of the “secular” and the “sacred.” The latter reinforces the prevalent idea of “personal faith” and thickens the wall that separates the implications of practiced Truth from the social order — which is an abstract way of saying that “faith” is more than a personal and inner (and often perceived irrational) commitment, but rather a recognition of an extended reality that embraces a total worldview. Christian Faith is a paradigm shift that turns the world up-side-down (which is the only way to understand the radical teachings such as those in the Sermon on the Mount).

This is one way to understand Paul’s words to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ (Eph 1:10). The Hebrews writer admits Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him (2:8). Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians helps bridge these two ideas: But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power (15:23–24).

Theologians call this tension “the already and the not yet.” Christians live in that tension now. We live in a world that does not know — cannot comprehend — the integration of all life that Jesus has already accomplished by His death and resurrection, and yet we are called both to believe it and to be involved in the ongoing process (until Jesus returns) of extending that “new reality” into this unperceiving world. That is what Christian Faith is: believing the new paradigm that Jesus has already accomplished. That is what Christian Faith does: practicing the new ways of living which were set it motion by Jesus.

The implication is that those who do not practice do not believe, but it’s not that simple because believing is itself a process, and the “more” one believes the “more” one can practice. Legalism comes into play when the “practice” gets ahead of the “believing,” and yet believing sometimes comes as a result of first practicing — so we have to leave it to God.... especially in not being too quick to judge others.

This idea of integration is one way to think about the whole process and all its facets. It is huge — as big as life. Theology itself is an attempt to bring integration to Christian Faith. I have a few atypical (I think) thoughts about some of the ramifications. I’ll be posting them over the next several days.

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