Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Spiritual Parkinsonism

Parkinson's disease is a degenerative nerve disorder.  Perhaps you join me in having friends or relatives afflicted with this illness.  Likely you know of some of the notable celebrates who suffer from Parkinsonism, such as Billy Graham, Muhammad Ali, and Michael J. Fox.

A common symptom of Parkinson's disease is what one might call a distortion of scale, where the person talks either too fast or too slow, or speaks too loudly or too softly, or exaggerates normal movements, and so on.  Sometimes the sufferer might write in a miniature but perfect font requiring a magnifying glass to read; other times he might scribe huge letters, again in perfect form.  Sometimes the person might be walking down an aisle at a normal pace, when suddenly his pace quickens and his steps shorten until he freezes in his tracks.

The outside observer of all these deviations from normal patterns might conclude the disease has affected the ability of the person's brain to coordinate with his muscles, or has caused progressive nerve damage to the muscles themselves.  Apparently this is not the case.  In his book, Awakenings, Dr. Sacks pinpoints the cause to the disease distorting the sufferer's perception of space and time.  For example, the above mentioned person who walks faster, faster, faster in ever shortening steps, and then freezes, does so because from his perspective he has run out of space to walk in.  He actually maintained the same normal pace and stride throughout the exercise; but from our vantage point, where space remained constant, he appeared to walk faster and then grow paralyzed, as if his muscles spasmed and then cramped up.  In his reality, though, he was doing what any of us would do trying to maintain a steady pace in an a constantly decreasing space.

The sufferer of Parkinsonism hasn't lost his understanding of what the sundry metrics of space and time mean, either quantitatively or qualitatively.  He fully comprehends as well as any of us what constitutes an inch or a minute.  He doesn't lose perspective of space and time because of wrong notions of the metrics.  Instead, the disease distorts the space he desperately tries to apply those metrics.

Another issue with Parkinsonism is initiation.  Frequently patients will remain mute or stationary unless they receive some stimulus from the outside.  If we speak to them, they will answer back.  If we play music, they will begin to sing, and so on.  It's not that the disease has affected them motorically or somehow confused their thinking, rather it inhibits initiation.  They may want to initiate, but can't.

Here's where the plot thickens in a fascinating way.  We can override the sufferer's spacial distortions by providing him with a template by which to follow.  For example, we draw equally spaced lines on the floor.  The person, if he attends, can follow the lines and walk across the floor in a regulated pace; but his movement will appear mechanical.  Now, here's the beautiful thing.  If one then takes the person's arm and walks with him, he will maintain regulation but also acquire the form, fluidity and grace of the human motion.  Similarly, one can speak to the otherwise mute person, and as I said, he will, if he chooses, answer back.  If he speaks too loudly or too softly, one can say so, and he can modulate accordingly.

Do you see where I'm going with this?

All of us, because we have rebelled against our God, have afflicted ourselves with a spiritual Parkinsonism.  We are no longer able to initiate towards God, and we operate from a distorted perception of real space and time.  But because of His great love for us, God first calls us, by His Son,  Jesus the Christ, to leave our darkness; and if we choose, we answer back.  And He lays out before us a metric (e.g., think ten commandments, here) by which to reorder us from our distorted world.  But this is not sufficient to heal us; our actions remain mechanical and cold.  So He reaches out His hand--the very hand of Jesus--gently takes us by the arm and, if we let Him, walks beside us.  A wondrous thing happens.  In time, we find ourselves not only moving in sync with His holiness, but flowing with the warm form and gracefulness of the Divine motion of His Love.

Monday, July 23, 2012

To Dream the Impossible Dream

I'm a dreamer.  No, not the type who wiles away his life by dreaming instead of working--although, I suppose I've done my fair share of that, too.  What I mean is I have an active mind when I'm sleeping.  In fact, I would go so far as to say I'm a good sleeper because I so enjoy the many adventures my brain conjures up.

Most often my dreams are plain silly, such as the time in high school I dreamt of being a member of the mission impossible team.  After we had accomplished our mission and just before I awoke, I remember climbing into a limo as credits started to roll in the foreground.

Sometimes the plots of my dreams are quite elaborate, and I would swear they last a lot longer than the few seconds to a minute the experts claim.  One such dream has me baffled to this day.  The dream involved several characters involved two love stories, one tragic and one, well, the kind dreams are made of.  As the dream unfolded it became clear to me that my friend's girlfriend was planning to shoot him for money to bail her father out of hock.  I arrived late at the scene of the climax to find my friend walking down a dock towards his girlfriend.  I started running after him to stop him.  Meanwhile, his girlfriend raised her pistol, and pulled the trigger.  The instant the shot rang out I awoke to the sound of my mother, in real time, dropping a melmac plate on the floor in the other room.  How my mind managed to conceive this long drama and choreograph the finish, which was both logical and fitting to the story, with a real and totally random event defies explanation.

My dreams have also yielded solutions to real-life conundrums.  When we moved into our first home the narrow and steep stairway leading upstairs was being renovated, so we were, with some difficulty, able to move a queen-size box-springs to the second floor.  Later, when it came time to move, we couldn't fit the box-springs through the finished stairwell.  There was no other way out; the second-story windows were too small.  It caused me some distress because I hadn't planned on adding a new queen-sized bed to all the other expenses of the move.  So I slept on it.  And in my dream I imagined I could simply turn the box-springs over, gently cut away the side fabric, saw through the wood on each side, fold the box-springs in half, carry it down stairs, unfold it, and brace it together with metal plates bolted into each side.  When I awoke, I ripped the bed clothes off the mattress, flipped over the box-springs, and did exactly as I had dreamed--done and done.

Of course, as with most people I've dreamed really impossible dreams, such as flying, or jumping off buildings without getting injured, or the one I had a few days ago that prompted this posting.  I was in a hospital, but not as a patient.  The administrator asked me to fill in for the regular physician who would be absent the next day.  The point is I knew I was no medical doctor; years ago my three and a half year old daughter dispelled any possible confusion on that account when she told a stranger, "Yea, my daddy's a doctor, but not the kind that does anybody any good."  I was sweating in my sleep; why did I agree to such a thing.  A group of stern men dropped in my office later that day to ask me if I knew what I was doing because the last substitute had been a total hack.  For some reason I assured them they needn't worry.  I quickly realized--at least in the time span of a dream--I was in over my head.  At first I thought I might fake myself through, but quickly saw my folly.  My wife, who has had real medical experience, gave me her stethoscope and told me how to run through all the vital signs.  I listened to my own heart so I could figure out what a normal heart sounded like.  To make a long story short I managed to make it through the fateful day as a physician, and everybody went away happy before I woke up.  How did I succeed in the impossible--even by dream's standards? I delegated.

I got to thinking about this, as I am want to do, and realized that God calls each of us to the impossible task of entering His kingdom.  Impossible, because all of us are so far removed from the relationship that such a venture requires.  Indeed, we are so corrupted we no longer know how corrupted we are.  Don't despair at this reality.  Jesus tells us that what is impossible for us is possible for God.  God loves us so much that He has made the way back for us.  He gives us the means to see our plight, choose His way, and then succeed to achieve the purpose he has created us for in His eternal kingdom.  And as in my impossible dream, this achievement will involve delegation.

God never intended a single person to have a relationship with Him.  God told the first man, "It's not good for you to be alone."  For one thing, God's love wants to expand out into ever enlarging relationships.  For another, I'm not even sure we could learn to love as God loves and so calls us to in his kingdom, if our love was confined between us and Him.  I think this is what God meant by what He said to Adam.  Love would not be completed unless Adam could spread that love to his own kind.  In a very real sense, it takes three to tango.

One way this love plays out in God's kingdom is delegation.  Not only does our success in realizing our created purpose require grace from God, it also requires the grace God is giving to others.  It is as a united community that we achieve our created and eternal purpose.  But not in an ant hill commune, where we would operate according to the Borg; nor is it like the communities we find ourselves in this fallen world, where competition is the engine.  No, Saint Paul makes it quite clear that in the kingdom everyone works in the kingdom as individuals honored and respected and needed for both his/her individual success and the completion of the kingdom.  God's kingdom is a unity of individuals knitted together and empowered by the engine of Love.

In closing, I wonder if we Christians think about delegation, such as I am pondering here, as an aspect of God's love?  If not, I'm afraid we might just wake up some day from an impossible dream.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Are You There, God?

A young widow grieves the loss of her husband—too soon—a life preempted—the vigor of youth spilled by dispassionate disease.  Now she must cling to a memory, clutch a pillow still warm from her husband’s presence, and cover her ears to the deafening silence.  She cries out in her despair: “Why didn’t you spare him, God?”

A man struggles with dementia, terrorized by the knowledge he knows he’s forgetting.  You can see the panic in his eyes as he desperately tries to hold on to his mind—the very image of his self melancholically reaching his hand out of the inky water to be saved from the oblivion pulling him under.  He catches his self, but his grip tires, and the hand, wet with icy water, too easily slips through his grasp.  Painfully aware  that on the next attempt he may watch his self recede into the black abyss beyond his reach—forgotten—he prays what might be the last thought he shall forget: “Why didn’t you rescue me, God?”

A prominent scientist sits in the bleachers at an ice arena.  With brief case open and papers laid across his lap, he busily fingers his iPad™, the light of its screen highlighting the lines of ambition in his face.  He looks up when his son takes the ice, smiles, and plunges back to finishing the presentation he would soon give before a crowd of his ardent admirers.  When he finally resurfaces, he finds the teams had left the ice and the spectators gone except for a few stragglers musing over the game.  He searches the scoreboard for the outcome, but it is blank.  Years later, his son pours gall in to the empty space within his heart, only to discover it can’t be filled but grows larger to accommodate more bitterness.  The betrayed young man gazes to heaven: “Don’t you see, God? Don’t you care?  Are you even there?”

All of us can relate to the despair felt by the above souls; perhaps you are with them at this very moment.  And if we are honest we have all asked the same question they asked, “Are you there, God?” It’s a valid question; it’s an ancient question.  When Jesus arrived too late to save his friend Lazarus, both Martha and Mary would in turn effectively ask this question of Jesus.  If they had known what we know from reading the account--that Jesus had purposely tarried--I suspect the tone of their voices would had been outright anger instead of the frustration and bewilderment that comes through the story.  Would we blame them?  I’m certain Jesus wouldn’t have blamed them.  No, He honored their transparency, and would have all of us approach Him with the same unguarded candidness.  Instead of rebuking Martha and Mary, Jesus answered their question, and in so doing answers everyone’s question.

First, the reason He tarried, and the reason He so often remains silent during our times of suffering, is to demonstrate that God is working out His purpose to restore the universe to the kingdom He originally intended.  This kingdom is His glory because it is both the expression and product of His love.  He has us wait and do without so we might shift our attention from ourselves and our plight to Him and His certain victory, which even now is already won, and in the future will be complete.  God is restoring His kingdom and this restoration must begin with us.  As with all restorations there must be some destruction before there can be construction.  He must breakdown everything hindering us from focusing on Jesus.  If we confess Jesus as King then we dwell in His kingdom and we are therefore bearing fruit for His kingdom, which is bringing justice by administering mercy.  Through this process we will see ourselves being restored to God, and we suffer, because frankly the world—the world the apostle John tells us is fading away along with its desire-- juxtaposed with God’s kingdom is opposed to Him, and the very nature God works to free us also opposes Him.  Putting it simply, we are our own worst enemies.

Second, by raising Lazarus from the dead (see John 11:1-43 for the full account of Jesus and Lazarus), God shows us the extent of the victory only He can accomplish.  When we enter His kingdom by believing Him—confessing Him as King, trusting in the provisions, forgiveness, and power of His love, and loving Him by obeying Him—we live.  Even though we presently still feel the flames of death in all its various guises all around us because the present world persists for a time, we are alive.  And in His kingdom we shall always live, even though we die, because God tells us His name is, I AM, and He has validated His faithfulness to His promise by raising Jesus to life and making Him King over all.

Third, God tells us He understands our fears, our pain, our anguish, our despair, and our loss, depths of death itself.  We know he does because when Jesus encountered the grief-stricken mourners and Martha and Mary, Jesus wept.  He cried for all humanity because our suffering shouldn’t be.  God took on flesh so we might be certain of His empathy.  But much more than that, God took on flesh to do something about our suffering.
Therefore, God’s answer to our question can be concisely summed up, Yes, I'm here,so trust Me and live.  Jesus tells us, “In the world you shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”  The moment God entered our history through His son, Jesus the Christ, His kingdom, which is the restoration of all creation in Him, entered with Him, as if germinating from a tiny mustard seed.  And if we remain in His kingdom by trusting Him, we will be secure and a part of His glory despite what the very real suffering in the world would have us believe.

I suspect God’s simple answer is not satisfying; some of you might see this as the typical Sunday school answer; you might protest that God simply rescuing us each and every time on demand would be far more profitable to His cause than holding us to faith.   But there would be no relationship in God always removing our pain.  It’s discipline that drives us to Him and love. And love must be a two-way street.  It’s too easy for us to fall back into believing ourselves self-sufficient.  The grim truth is we have hard-wired ourselves in self-interest; it will take some painful rewiring to make us fit in His kingdom.  Besides, our faith is not blind but based on the historical witness and power of Jesus.

The disciples of John the Baptist approached Jesus and asked Him:

John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’”At that very time Jesus cured many people of diseases, sicknesses, and evil spirits, and granted sight to many who were blind. So he answered them, “Go tell John what you have seen and heard: The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news proclaimed to them. Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” [NET]

It would appear even John the Baptist, who was imprisoned at this time, asked our question.  And Jesus quickly responded, "Yes, I am here!" Jesus proclaimed the advent of the kingdom of God: all that had become disordered is being made right. And we are a part of this restoration, both in effect and as His agents. Regardless of what might come our way in this life, we can confidently trust Him and live.

If you are still dubious, then consider this.  I pointed out earlier the question we all ask is an ancient one.  But it didn’t originate with our first ancestors; it began with God, Himself.  When we first turned our back to God, eschewing His love and holiness in deference to the arrogance of our alleged self-sufficiency, when we brought death down upon ourselves by brazenly telling God, “Not your will but mine be done,” when we believed we could be god, it wasn’t us in our low estate who first complained, “Are You there, God?”  No, God--although rejected—first reached out and asked us, “Where are you?”   


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Vista Experience

The dictionary defines vista as a distant view seen through a passage.  I've come to realize my life has been punctuated by what I call vista experiences.  Perhaps it was inevitable having grown up in Colorado where vistas abound.  I recall, for example, sitting on a ridge looking out over South Park--a thousand square mile high-altitude plain northwest of Colorado Springs--how quickly I lost myself in its vastness.  Later, even though I hadn't physically moved an inch, I recovered myself far removed from where I had started. I had had a vista experience.

There is no guarantee natural vistas will engender vista experiences, though.  About eleven years ago my son and I climbed a 14150 ft peak in southwest Colorado.  Standing atop the world certainly took my breath away and I definitely felt the elation of accomplishment, but despite all that and the awesome spectacle of the panorama spread out about me in all directions, I didn't have a vista experience.

There are those who believe drugs will induce a vista experience.  Nonsense.  Timothy Leary's mantra of "turn on, tune in, drop out" has proven fatal to our society in terms of, among other things, escalated crime, broken homes, and yes, even slavery.  Artificial encounters such as one gets from drugs and alcohol always exact a price--always take something away from a person.  But true vista experiences always give the person something--at least when he's open to it--and usually what is imparted will include a liberation.

Now, some of you at this point might be thinking, "He's going to bring the discussion around to religious experiences."  Actually, not.  I have had very few of what might be called religious experiences in my fifty-two year walk with Christ, and none of them were vista experiences.  I should note, however, that God has always been beside me during my vista experiences.  Indeed, it is a look, a gesture, or word from Him that provides meaning to the experience.  You see, all genuine vista experiences have content; they must, because vista experiences effect a displacement--a movement either towards or away from something--such as I earlier described had happened in my South Park encounter.  And motion requires the input of content, be it wisdom, insight, vision, or what have you.  In fact, vista experiences involve a sudden focusing of some set of events, impressions, thoughts, and ideas intrinsic to the person that prior to that moment defied coalescence, like Darth Vader vainly trying to lock in on Luke Skywalker's x-wing.

Perhaps, instead, you are thinking, "Oh, wow, man, the dude's getting existential."  In a sense, I guess I am.  But vista experiences are not leaps into the darkness; they are not hopeless attempts at grasping for meaning that isn't really there.  Vista experiences are real precisely because they reveal real things about you.  During a vista experience something suddenly resonates deep within you.  Often times music, stories, and especially movies can become vista experiences; that's why you tend to gravitate back to them over and over again.  Others might hear or see the same thing yet go away indifferent or merely entertained; but it always seems to resonate powerfully with you. And you might not even know why.  The point is the resonance is real; meaning that has long eluded you has suddenly been brought to light; quite unexpectedly, you see a distant view of truth through a passage cut by a song, a prose, a poem, a motion-picture, a display of nature, or something else you would have never thought capable.  And it behooves you to understand the revelation because it is a key piece to the puzzle of who you truly are.

What I'm relating is the wonder of vista experiences, and the reason all of us will eventually encounter them.  I'm convinced vista experiences are those unexpected moments the Holy Spirit calls us.........................................."Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Follow Me

Recently, I finished reading the powerhouse biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by E. Metaxas.  This should be required reading for everyone, especially those who have forgotten or ignored the recent dark history of our planet.  The spiritual and physical lessons to be learned from Bonhoeffer's association with an once civilized society that turned barbaric are invaluable to us who live coincidental to a surprisingly similar world.  It would seem that most of humanity has forgotten or worse denied the horrors of only a mere seventy or so years ago.  But isn't that just like us?  We tend to remember only the pleasant moments in our pasts, and always to everyone's detriment; because lessons forsaken will need to be learned again.  The tragedy of this, of course, is the tuition always goes up.

The purpose of this post is not to extol the virtues of Metaxas' magnum opus, but to briefly comment on a frustration Bonhoeffer had expressed to his dear friend, Bethge:

"The more we have known of good things, the more insipid the thin lemonade of later literature becomes, sometimes almost to the point of making us sick.  Do you know a work of literature written in the last, say, fifteen years that you think has any lasting quality? I don't.  It is partly idle chatter, partly propaganda, partly self-pitying sentimentality, but there is no insight, no ideas, no charity, no substance and almost always the language is bad and constrained." [E. Metaxas, Bonhoeffer Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2010, p. 461.]

Hum.  I had to laugh because every generation, it seems, sees the contributions of the incoming generation as lackluster and in want of the quality, depth, and prestige of the past.  We tend to see the past as a kind of golden era, where if we could just go back, like returning to the idyllic River City, Iowa, life would be happier, more meaningful, less trite, less superficial, more sincere, and therefore much more secure.  I'm guilty of this with my own children, as I have for years decried what I see as a fatal decline of the arts--movies, literature, and especially music--in the hands of their incompetent practitioners (although, perhaps I'm not a good example because in my case I'm right, just ask my daughter).

Woody Allen deftly explores this phenomenon of the inviolable golden era in his recent film, Midnight in Paris.  Allen channels himself transparently through his main character who longs to be a part of the glory--and, yes, decadent--days of literature and art that burned brightly in the second decade, twentieth century Paris.  The hapless protagonist gets his wish and soon learns that there is no end to this romantic reactionism.  In the end, he realizes that we are meant to build on the achievements of our forebears and not be paralyzed by them.

We Christians--particularly American Christians--tend to assess the current sad state of affairs through rose-colored lenses of a past golden era.  We think if only our society returned to the clear principles established by our fore-fathers of morality, patriotism--the solid line connecting God and country--and clear black and white expectations demanded of everyone, we wouldn't experience the confusion, depravity, and chaos so evident today.

First of all, there has never been such an Eden in this or any country, either in recent or distant past--except the original Eden.  Sure, there may have been pockets of our society that experienced approximations of this perceived nirvana--rural homogeneous communities--but they did so by rigorously sweeping under the carpet everything that made them uncomfortable.  As with all denials of reality--both good and bad--all that did was create a dysfunction that has now come to roost.

And secondly, we will never effect positive change on the current world by trying to impose on it mores that have died along with the cultural contexts that made them relevant.  Our culture has changed from the past; it demands a fresh approach precisely because its context is out of touch with previous ones.  The present has its own unique context.

The only way we can help the present world is to continue to address the problem common to all the eons of diverse cultural contexts that came before, because the problem is fundamental to the human condition. And we must do this using the current context with all of its assumptions, perspectives, arts, sciences, and technologies.

The problem of all ages is humanity disenfranchised itself from God.  Today, because of the current cultural milieu, this problem may manifest itself it seemingly unheard of ways (I suspect if we really looked into even this we would discover we are mistaken), but the problem is the same as it has always been.  The solution is Jesus the Christ.

We will not lead people to Jesus by imposing past mores on them, but by introducing them to Him.  They should meet Him in our eyes and lives; they should see Him evidenced by our love practiced in holiness both between each other and everyone else.  Unfortunately, one attitude that hides Him is the all too prevalent notion that Jesus is all those things that seemingly comforted us in our past golden days; we have wrongly replaced an unqualified love for Him with a love for artifacts of Him.

Jesus calls us to follow Him.  The world contexts may change, but Jesus never does, nor does the kingdom He calls all of us into.  We will never lead others there or ourselves remain unless we follow Jesus. He will faithfully show us how to apply and demonstrate the eternal kingdom principles of love and holiness in the changing contexts of each new generation, so all who have and will listen will be gathered into His kingdom on that day when God is all and in all.

Do you accept this?  Don't answer until you hear what Jesus says about it:

As they were walking along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus said to him, “Foxes have dens and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Jesus said to another, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say goodbye to my family.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” [Luke 9:57-62][NET]