Monday, January 27, 2014

Eternal Life--A Picture

One of my readers admonished me to paint a picture of eternal life. It seems a reasonable request, now that I have had the last two weeks to offer a Biblical perspective on the subject.  Fortunately for me I have already painted such a picture in one of my short stories found in my recent collection, Seven Stories.  Thus, to honor my reader's request, I will post the story here in two parts. It is definitely the most philosophical/theological of my stories, so hopefully you will find it both thought-provoking and entertaining.

A Lesson in Time

“You know what kind of a state I was in.  I was tired.  The world was tired; I was tired of having to explain why the world was tired.  I know it sounds self-important for me to say that.  You probably thought so then; maybe you still do.”

I should, at this point, insert a footnote to this conversation that ensued after completion of my experiment, which I am recording herein in its entirety. As it stood at the time, despite the fact that I loved my friend, I felt he might have been losing his grip.  It wasn’t that he wasn’t a caring person, because he was and is—certainly one of the most caring people I have known.  Although he was a scientist, he had begun to court religion.  He saw this huge mountain standing between humanity and true peace; and he was growing more and more dubious of the ability of science to break down this mountain.  Certainly peace is a noble ambition, and I could hardly fault him for searching for it; but I could not help but think zeal such as his came perilously close to becoming pathological.  I thought my friend had managed to maintain equilibrium, but sometimes I feared for him—that he might crumble under the pressure of all the troubles of our race.

At the end of the experiment he returned in a state of serenity quite atypical of him.  I worried that the stress of the experiment had been too much, and I was witnessing the euphoria of madness.  I was wrong.

“I didn’t mean to sound that way. I know I’m no better than anyone else.  It seemed like everywhere I turned, though, people were saying two plus two equals five. I would insist that two plus two equals four.  And immediately the burden would be on me to prove it.  I would try my best to do so, and the response I would invariably hear would be, ‘You’re too narrow.’ Or ‘Yeah, but--’ Or ‘You’re too idealistic.’ Or ‘You have your values and I have mine.’ Or ‘Ah, but I’ve found the way to make it equal to five,’ and every other excuse one might expect to find from people desperate for something they could not put their finger on.  I was fed up with it.  Everyone wants a free ride to paradise.  I’m telling you; I felt like Elijah sitting beneath the tree whimpering to God, ‘Woe is me, there is no one left who would follow you. I’m the only one and I just want to die.’  Pathetic? Yes. Heartfelt? I think so.  True? No. Elijah was tired, too.”

“Fatigue definitely clouds one’s perspectives,” I said, not entirely sure of what he was talking about.

“Yes, but rest wasn’t cutting it for me anymore.  If anything it made matters worse.  I needed to get away.  So when you told me of your time machine--”

“Portal,” I interrupted.

“When you told me of your time portal, I was intrigued.  People just had to change eventually.  Somewhere up ahead the madness had to stop and people would come to their senses.  And if they didn’t, then I’d know for sure that I’m the delusional one, after all. I figured if your experiment worked it didn’t matter what I might find out. The way I saw it, in any event, I could stop all the ruminating and finally get a decent night’s sleep.”

“And my experiment worked!” I said.

“Yes, my friend, it worked beautifully.”

“So tell me.” I sat forward in my chair. “What happened?  What did you discover?”

“A total mystery, I might as well have been an alien from another planet. Virtually everything I first saw there was unrecognizable. Well, that’s not quite true. I did know what everything was, but they made no sense in context. It was like the time my brother showed me an advanced math text of his.  I read the first paragraph and I knew the meaning of absolutely every word, yet the paragraph made no sense—pure gibberish, leastwise to me.  The future world you had sent me was just like that.”

“Had things changed that much in a century?” I asked.

“You know how stories usually depict the future.  Either they import their own cultural setting into the new world and then touch it up a bit with a little imagined advanced technology, or they paint the future in a kind of a stark geometric austerity--you know--with the cold colorless lines of perfected efficiency—the author’s vision of idealistic order, which always seems to be soulless; it’s a curious thing.  But in the real future, the world where you had sent me, neither prognosis proved even remotely correct.

“Somewhere during the passing of that blip of time, human culture had diverged at a ninety degree angle from either the reaction or progression portrayed in our mythologies.  It almost seems pointless for me to try and describe it to you—such as when I asked my father to tell me about the war and he said he wouldn’t attempt it, because I couldn’t understand.  I’m afraid you won’t understand; I fear I may have too few reference points by which to guide you.  Then again, perhaps what I saw will explain itself. In any event, what it looked like is not all that important.  What I need you to grasp is what it meant.”

“Go on,” I said.

“I must have stuck out like a sore thumb, yet no one seemed to care I was there.  Fact was they seemed oblivious to each other.  Everyone walked around everyone else, but no one walked together.  Each person seemed locked in his or her own intent and space without ever intersecting another’s personal bubble. In one sense their movement seemed random; yet clearly there was purpose in it.  From time to time a person would stop and a tinted plane would appear, pass in front of the person and both would dissolve away.  Another person might, moments later, pass over the very same space and simply move on.  As near as I could tell, however, everyone eventually came to a spot from which they would then disappear as I described.  For this reason, I surmised there was nothing of what we would call vehicles.  Everyone of that seemingly detached populace only walked—some appearing, some vanishing in the manner I have already related.  I watched all those comings and goings while I was resting beneath a tree that stood in one square of a vast crystalline grid.”

“Grid?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s exactly what it was.  And the flat checkered plane appeared to extend out indefinitely—every so often spotted, however, with various plant specimens from our old world, such as the tree I sat under.  I saw no sun. I guessed I was inside a huge dome of some kind.  The vivid blue sky, or ceiling, somehow illumined the entire plane.  There were no buildings, or benches, or fountains, or statuary, or any manufactured thing that I could see--only, as I said, periodic intrusions of nature.  And the light shining on the plants, even though sparsely laid out—leastwise, it appeared so to me—turned the entire crystalline field into a veritable garden of color and forms, without hindering anybody’s movement or obscuring the squares everyone apparently needed to move around on.  The effect had so much depth that I’m still not sure if in reality it wasn’t a vast dense garden.

“I didn’t know what to do.  I had hoped to find some answers, optimistic—as I said—for a better world, and if not, at least resignation.  I was fairly certain I would feel out of place.  But I never expected it to be like some kind of an out-of-body experience.  In frustration I said to no one, ‘good grief.’  I said it out loud, just as I am saying it to you now—quiet, more of a sigh than anything else.  Yet, one of the persons stopped and looked at me. It was a beautiful woman—perfect in form and stature, like an artist might create on a canvas.  The ideal female.

“Her eyes were filled with compassion.  I heard, ‘Are you sad?’

“Mind you, I didn’t exactly hear this because the sound sort of formed within my head, rather than received audibly through my ears.  And her words didn’t form emotionless like some automated voice, either, but were filled with warmth and genuine concern.  I didn’t at all get the impression that she was only curious or just trying to be sociable.

I answered her verbally, ‘Not sad, just frustrated.’  Not totally honest.

“She said—that is, telepathed--if that is a verb--‘That’s sadness.’

“‘I suppose it is,’ I told her.  ‘I’m too tired to argue the point.’

“So she says, ‘Sadness has many forms.  Sadness is despair, it is loss and frustration, fear and want, hopelessness, loneliness, sickness--’

“‘I get it,’ I interrupted.  ‘You are quite right. I am sad.’

“To which she replied, ‘You are a stranger, here, then.’  Notice she wasn’t asking but telling me this.

“‘Well, of course, isn’t it obvious?” I retorted.

“She replied by saying, ‘Yes, your sadness tells me you are.’

“’Pointing out our attire, I said, ‘I mean, look at you and look at me.’

“But she said, ‘Yes, I am happy and you are sad.
“‘No, no,’ I said. “Our appearance—our dress—is different.’

“‘I only see your heart.’ She said this tenderly: ‘I only see your heart.’—just like that.  And then she added, ‘You are your heart.’

“So I asked her, ‘And your heart is happy?’

“Her reply was, ‘Yes, every heart here is happy.  Look!’  She turned and swept her hand before the teaming populace moving to and fro and in and out upon the vast grid.  All I could see was what I described before: a sea of moving dispassionate humanity.

“‘I don’t understand,’ I blurted.  ‘Can this be happiness?  You say they are happy.  But why should I believe you?  Look at our race—leastwise, I think you are human.’

“And she says, ‘You are right in saying so.’

“I would then make my point. I said, ‘Human beings, the humans of which I count myself, are social creatures.  They are persons.  They touch, they caress, they talk, they laugh, they cry and, yes, they push and pull and argue and fight—they confront and they turn away.  What has happened to us?  What has possessed us?  How can you call this bleak existence of yours, happiness?  I’ve come all this way, hoping to find that things would be different, that, I supposed, there would at last be happiness, only to find out that if this is happiness, then only a fool would want to be happy.’

“All she would say to that was, ‘You are sad.’

“So I told her, ‘At least it’s an honest emotion, not this anesthetized state.  Can’t you see how everyone here is disenfranchised?  There is no passion, no warmth that I can see.  How can you call this happiness?  Have you been drugged?’

“She answered by explaining, ‘You are sad because you don’t understand.  You speak as a mere man, we speak as authentic humans.  We know who we are and what we are and why we are.  Each of us knows the other the same way--happiness.’

“‘But no one talks to each other,’ I complained.

“Her response to that was, ‘It only appears so because we are one.’

“So I asked her, ‘In what way are you one?’

“She answered, ‘Many purposes make up a single purpose.  Many meanings are one meaning.  Does your foot talk with your eyes, or your hands with your nose?  Yet they all understand each other and each responds to the needs of the other, for each one has its own name.  And together the purpose of the body is done.  This is one meaning from all those separate meanings—one purpose in many.’

“But I said, ‘Where I come from, to be a mere cog in a machine is demeaning.’

“So she says, ‘You are sad because you want both society and solitude at the same time.’

“I didn’t know what to say to that, so I said, ‘No, I must have my own name or I can’t be happy.’

“‘Your meaning is your name,’ she says. ‘You want a name.  We have two names.’

“I argued that they still cannot be unique because many must have the same meaning.  I reminded her that she had so much as said so.

“She then explained to me that we have been built into a tower not unlike the one spoken of in the Shepherd of Hermas.  Each of us is a stone.  Some stones are for the walls, others for the foundation, some for the windows, some for the floors, some are decorative, and others are hidden.  But each has been perfectly hewn for its place, and each place is necessary. You can see that many stones may have the same function.  Regardless, each stone is unique.  The decorative stones might be mottled, or veined with quartz, others might be precious stones, and some might be granite.  Structural stones might serve the foundation, others the walls, and some the roof.  Each is as highly valued as the next for the perfection of the house. And all priceless because each has a name. She said that was the first meaning she spoke of.  And that we each have a unique name for this meaning.  And everyone knows that name.”

“Shepherd of Hermas?” I asked.

“Beats me.  I asked her, ‘You spoke of two names.  Does that mean there is another purpose?’

“She said, ‘Each of us has a meaning known only to us and God.  The name He has given each of us for this purpose is a secret name known only to the bearer and the Creator.  And this meaning was in the mind of Him when only He is.’

“Naturally, I asked her to tell me about this meaning and purpose.

“But she said, ‘I cannot, except to say that it is an eternal purpose ordained by God for Him in each creature, who knows God, for the pleasure of God.  When we know our names and He calls us by our name, only then are we happy.  Do you understand?’

 “By this point my head was swimming, so I asked her, ‘If we are one with Him and, if I follow you, each other, can we really possess a unique name?  For that matter, if I am united with you and all these people, can I or you or any one of them be distinct?’

 “Listen and tell me if what she said next doesn’t change your perspective forever. Her answer shot through me like a round from a high powered rifle. Listen to what she said. She said, ‘Unity doesn’t dissolve distinction.  Unity creates distinction.  Without unity, everything is the same.’”

He sat back and stared at me. “What did I tell you?”

True, I hadn’t thought of it before then.  The idea that we only discover our true self when we relinquish it for the purpose of a god and others was certainly an alien idea to me.  And we are only true individuals—that is, distinct—when we know and act according to our true self in the context of some collective purpose.  Her proposition was earth-shatteringly simple and, at the same time, very elusive.

For a long moment I fidgeted with my pen while he stared at me as if I were a computer and he could watch the binary code processing.  I finally looked him in his eyes when I believed I had grasped her proposition that when we each pursue our own purpose, we destroy unity with each other and we all become carbon copies of each other.  I suppose this was meant to account for the fact we are frantic, angry, directionless, grasping, possessive, isolated beings—people in a crowd, yet completely alone.
I thought about how monochromatic our world is in all its self-interest.  And for the first time, I actually felt something like grief for my race.  But what I told my friend was, “I don’t know.  To suggest that transcending self is the only way of finding self seems way too simple. It’s not the way it works.”

I struggled with my friend’s report.  What he had discovered was unexpected; another empire had not suddenly burst on the scene; a new political system hadn’t imposed itself on the world; it wasn’t communism; it wasn’t a one world government; it wasn’t a system of any kind.  It was a state of being. It was, for the lack of a better term, heaven.  But how could that be?  Heaven isn’t rational.  It couldn’t be an evolved state; a hundred years wasn’t long enough for that.  Science couldn’t accommodate the facts; yet I was confronted with the inerrancy of my own science.  It was my invention, carefully constructed and tested over many years of painstaking experimentation.  What it revealed was the future, as it will be.  This was fact; there could be no doubt about it.  I didn’t want to believe the results, but I had no choice but to believe them.

“Was there color in this world of hers? Was what you had seen there vibrant beyond anything you have ever seen before?  Tell me. I must know.”

“I cannot even begin to tell you,” he said.  “Are you okay, my friend?”

“If it’s true, then my life has been a sham.”

“Exactly my thought.  And I tried to tell her this.  I told her, ‘I’ve been wrong to think I could find happiness by distinguishing myself from others.  I see that now.  I suspect it is why I’m so tired. Why I just want to stop running.’

“She answered me with a voice full of mercy, ‘Yes, you are sad because you don’t know your names.’

“I asked her, ‘And these names are my purposes?’

“She told me, ‘Each name is the meaning for which you have your existence.  You are right in what you say.’

“‘Where can I find them?’ I asked.

“She replied, ‘You find them in God not in yourself.  There is the meaning for all of our existence—the first meaning I spoke of. Meaning unique to you or me or to each person who knows God—that secret purpose. And the meaning uniting them all.’

“Of course, I asked her if I could know this third meaning.”

“And did she tell you?” I asked impatiently.

“She said, ‘Come, take my hand and we shall see.’

"She extended her hand and we walked onto the grid.  Her touch was soft, gentle, and warm.  I thought of my dear wife and how much I missed her.  Suddenly we were surrounded by space.  No, it was more like we were suspended in space.  Not black space, but--for lack of a better way to describe it—a dimensionless region of light bursting and dissipating, forming and un-forming in a show of brilliant colors and shapes and vapors and—how can I explain it to you, my dear friend, how can I have you comprehend the beauty of it?  Except to say that it was far greater than you could hope or imagine.  Any attempt to create it in your mind will fall hopelessly short.  With that I am certain.

“In the next instant we stood together in a lush meadow that was super-real in every respect to the most beautiful place I ever experienced on earth—you know what I mean, earth prior to its future.  Everywhere I turned, my eyes were dazzled by the color and purity of the grass, trees, plants, animals, the crystalline water of a lake that lapped up onto a narrow beach near our feet, the mountains that loomed in the distance, and the sky—that vibrant sunless blue sky that lighted it all. All of it took my breath away, and so serene—such a gentle quietness, I have never felt such peace.

“The entire scene seemed to resonate—not just visually, but sonically, as well.  I wish you could hear such melodies, my friend.  The strange and wonderful yet ephemeral strains of that music awakened and nourished my soul like nothing ever has.

“I saw some people sitting amongst some Siberian tigers.  One cuddled a little cub in his arms while another was wrestling playfully with the mother.  I marveled at the gentleness of the powerful creatures and the obvious intimacy between them and their human caretakers.  I also saw other people picking fruit from trees that sagged under the weight of their produce, large and succulent and plentiful.

“A small and colorful bird flitted around my hostess before perching on her wrist, where it began feeding on some grain in the palm of her hand while she was gently stroking its tiny head.  Don’t ask me where the grain came from because I couldn’t say.  I will tell you that I observed no fear or timidity in the frail animal. The tender moment brought tears to my eyes.

“I turned and watched others herding some elk into the high country.  My hostess seemed to sense in my eyes the question forming in my mind and explained that those creatures thrive through their regular pilgrimages up to the high meadows to graze and back again to the valley.

“‘The grass is good either here or there, but their life is perfected through the ritual,’ she explained.

“I asked her if this is the meaning she spoke of.

“She smiled sweetly and answered, ‘Come, I have one more place for you to know.’

“The scene morphed into a bright light. And as my eyes adjusted to that intense light, a thunderous song filled my ears:
‘Holy, Holy, Holy
Is God, Lord Almighty,
Who is and was and is to come.

Glory, Glory, Glory
To the Lamb that was slain
The Word that is
From everlasting to everlasting!’

Majesty, honor, praise
To the Great Testimony
Who is a lamp to Mankind
Power to live without end.

Holy, Holy, Holy
To the Father, Lord of all.
By Whom all that was not
Lives and has its being.

Glory, Glory, Glory
To the Great I AM
Who is One in Three
And Three in One

God of gods
Lord of lords
King of kings
Hallowed be His Name
Both now and forever.’
“Those words sang from the mouths of masses of people all around me.  The number of which was beyond counting.  And their individual forms appeared to shimmer in the light and sound—distinguishable one moment and obscured the next. Some have talked about quantum-senses.  Do you think it possible?”

“Well,” I stammered.

“Believe me it is.  At least I have no other way of explaining what I had felt there.  I heard the light, smelled the colors and saw the sounds at the same time as sensing all of those things in the usual manner.  What should have been chaos and a cacophony of stimuli all converged into perfect harmony. What should have been a sensory overload was pure serenity.  My eyes shouldn’t have been able to stand the brightness of the light of that place, like many suns.  Instead, the light soothed my eyes.  There was no need to shut them or even squint.  Nor did I want to for fear of missing even a second of the splendor going on around me.  The din should have shattered my eardrums, but the sound fell gently on my ears like the choruses of those clear summer nights I remember so well growing up in Northern Canada.

“The scene or vision was full of contradictions like these.  But what I cannot explain at all was the deep sense of freedom that had washed over me like the warm surf of the south pacific.  I had felt liberated not only from the obvious burdens we all talk about, such as mortality or worry or fear; but freed in remote parts of my being that, up until then, I didn’t even know existed, let alone needed liberating.  It was like the doors of hidden vaults deep within my soul had been opened and this black tar oozed out.  What I can only describe as a chronic ache that has been throbbing throughout my life, which I must have from the beginning subconsciously repressed, briefly flared like a shrieking demon and then vanished.

“I looked down to see if I was standing on ground because I became overwhelmed by a sense of weightlessness.  Now, don’t misunderstand me.  I don’t think what I am trying to convey was in any way physical, but I can’t explain it in any other terms.  No, what I then came to realize was how heavy, dull, clumsy and trapped my life has always been.  I thought of the best day of my life--”

“You mean when you won the prize?” I asked.

“Yes, you remember the time.  My wife and I were in perfect health then and we had no more financial burdens.  Our life had reached that pinnacle of human achievement.  We had scaled the mountain of the American dream and had planted our flag squarely on its summit.  ‘It doesn’t get any better than this!’ I think we boasted at the time.  But it was such a lie.  Because what came after that? Did I know? I ask you; do you know what will come after this great invention of yours?  Let me tell you.  I don’t think I had blinked twice before I asked myself, what next?  That single query betrayed the absurdity of it all.  And I had never seen it until I stood there enveloped by all the Glory of this place beyond your portal.

“I finally understood the meaning of true completeness—what I can only call, because language fails me, free freedom. By that I don't mean the Bohemian freedom of Rousseau and his ilk, but freedom in which all one's moral obligations are satisfied because one is inherently perfect without thinking about it.  For, as you know, if you have to think about it, you aren't perfect, and you're not freely free.  But there I was freely free, my friend; there I was...or at least I sensed what it must be like.

“Mind you, my hostess explained none of this to me.  She didn’t have to.  All that I am trying desperately to relate to you about the meaning of what I experienced there was totally self-evident.  I suddenly realized that an invisible tutor had been teaching me the whole time.”

“Who?” I asked.

“I don’t know….It must have been God.  Who else could it have been?  Whoever it was, neither my tutor nor my hostess had answered my question. I still didn’t know what this third meaning was.  I had this sickening feeling that the answer was all around me, but I was just too dense to see it.

“‘I still don’t understand,’ I told her, pleading. ‘Perhaps if you showed me more, I will see what this third meaning is.’

“‘She answered, ‘These sights are all you can understand now, but there are infinite more to experience and infinite time to experience them.  You and I and all of these,’--she again swept her hand before the multitude--‘are beings. Do you understand?’

“‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘We have all been created by Him whom we worship.’

“She said, ‘You are right in saying so.  But only God is absolute being.  It is for and by this third meaning that we live on and on into everlasting and everlasting--that we would move ever closer to absolute being, without, of course, ever reaching it.  This is eternal life.  And in it the three purposes are achieved.’

“‘I think I understand,’ I said.  ‘Please tell me.  What is this third meaning?’

“She refused to tell me.  Instead she says, ‘This is not yet your time.  You have been given a rare gift, but you must go back.’

“For the first time I understood what Samuel must have felt after being ushered back into the world by the witch of Endor.  I didn’t want to go back.  But I had no choice.”

“I thought it strange that you backed your way through the portal,” I said.  “Did she force you in some way?”

“No, it was more as if I was dragged.  Anyway, she didn’t push me.  How much time do you think transpires, you know, actual time---either there or here--how much time actually passes when someone steps through your portal?”

“You probably couldn’t measure it.  Essentially zero time.  I don’t think it is really a proper question, anyway.  Why do you ask?”

“They say a dream only lasts a few seconds.  Yet so much actually happens in a dream that it appears it has lasted the whole night.”

“Yes, that is the conventional thinking on the subject,” I said.

“Well, as I passed through the portal back to the present I was assailed by voices—voices of doubt.  They all seemed to be saying, in one way or another, ‘Don’t believe it!  It’s all been an illusion created by your mind.’

“I started to argue with the voices. ‘You’re wrong!’ I said. ‘I know my own mind. I know the difference between reality and fiction—sleep and consciousness.’

“But they rejoined, ‘You’re waking up now! It’s only been a dream—a silly sentimental dream—the imaginings of children.  Be a man!  Don’t be a fool.  Progress has only ever been made because men have asserted themselves over others.  Nothing is ever accomplished by considering first the needs of others.’

“‘No, no, no!’ I shouted. ‘So little has ever been accomplished because everyone strives for themselves.  I know this now.  I won’t listen to your lies any longer.  You lie, you lie!’

“Then with even greater venom the voices struck back, ‘You delude yourself, for there is no example of what you describe in the history of the world.  No such force operates in the universe.  You lie!  And it’s the worst of lies because you deceive yourself!’

“I shouted, if not screamed--perhaps more to drown out my own feelings of doubt than from a solid conviction--‘It does exist! It does exist! I know that it does.  It must or nothing makes any sense.  Christ’s alive! There is a third meaning. The third meaning has always been operating.  We’ve been blind to it. I’ve been blind to it, but it is there.  It is working!  I say it again, Christ’s alive!’  I don’t even know why I said ‘Christ’s alive’.  The words just came out.

“The voices hissed, ‘You don’t know what you are talking about.  There is no third meaning.  Nothing exists without a name. And it has no name or it would have been given you!  It’s all weakness.  The only strength in the universe is Self! The I’s have it. The I’s have it.  The I’s have it.’  The voices would not relent.  They kept on chanting louder and louder, ‘The I’s have it!’”

“But you seemed so calm when you came through the portal,” I interrupted.  “I didn’t notice any agitation in you, none whatsoever—no terror. How could that be?  I would have been an absolute wreck if I were you.”

“I heard her voice.”

“You mean the person you visited?”

“Yes, I heard her voice.  Over all that vicious taunting, her voice rose up.  It was sweet just as it had been before.  And it wasn’t threatened.  That’s what intrigued me about it.  You might predict she should cry out something in worried tones, as if she didn’t intervene quickly, I would succumb.  There were no frantic or desperate overtones to her voice.  Her words were those of a person who need not defend them.  It was that confidence, the likes of which I have never known, that convinced me of their truth.  She told me what it is.  She told me the name of the third meaning.  And when I heard it, all the shouting ceased.  That’s why I was and still am so calm.”

“So tell me, man, what is it?  What is the third meaning?” I implored.

He wouldn’t say.  He only smiled dreamily as if in shock.  The full impact of his vision must have washed over him without warning like a tsunami after an earthquake.  He begged my pardon and left me to ponder all he had related.

[To be continued next week.......]

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Eternal Life is a Place

Eternal life is a place.  It is a place where heaven and earth join without losing their identities.  To look upon this place and call it beautiful would be an understatement, because it is Beauty.  This place does not absorb self; but there self becomes true Self.  And there these true Selves, because they are true, freely and perfectly express themselves in never-ending and ever-unfolding opportunities as they bask in the light of perfect wisdom that is love.  This place therefore is Peace, the Sabbath rest--Shalom. This place is eternal life, because it is the kingdom of God Himself Who dwells there forever; for God is I AM.

The Lord revealed glimpses of this place to the apostle John.  Here is what John experienced.

"And I saw a new heaven and a new earth.  For the first heaven and the first earth were gone and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride who has been adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice coming from the throne declaring, 'Behold! The place where God dwells is with people. And God will dwell with people and people will be a people belonging to God; and God Himself will be with people, and will be their God; and God will wipe away every tear from the eyes of people, and death will be no more, nor will there be suffering, nor weeping, nor toil; it will be no more because the first things were gone.'

"And the One who sits upon the throne declared, 'Behold! I make all things new!' and then He said, 'Write it down, because these words are trustworthy and true.' And He said to me, 'It is done. I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.  I will give to those who thirst from the stream of the water of life as a free gift.  The one who overcomes will inherit these things and I will be his or her God, and he or she shall be my son or my daughter.'" (Rev. 21:1-7)

One thing I have come to understand from reading the works of N.T. Wright--although, I cannot tell you exactly where at this moment--is heaven has been poorly portrayed to the world as a future disembodied state of people sitting in clouds strumming harps.  No, the place Jesus promised us who resolutely stand in Him by faith is His kingdom where God dwells with us.  It is the fulfillment of God's original creation purpose (Gen. 1:27-31; Ps. 8).  It is one reason why the resurrection of Jesus matters; He was not raised to a purely spiritual state, but to a new physicality encompassing both the spiritual and the physical in the way God intended for it to be.  And it would be this way because God created the universe to be His kingdom where He dwells with His image-bearers--humankind.  It is therefore why John was shown a new heaven and a new earth; not just a heaven only, but both the heaven and earth have been restored.  And God is the one who has accomplished it through His son, Jesus the Christ.

The young rich ruler who approached Jesus with the question, "Good Teacher, what will I do so that I will inherit eternal life?" (Mark 10:17b) certainly understood eternal life to be the place that is God's kingdom.  Every good Jewish person did, for they all knew what is written in Psalm 92:12-15:

"The godly grow like a palm tree; they grow high like a cedar in Lebanon.  Planted in the Lord's house, they grow in the courts of our God.  They bear fruit even when they are old; they are filled with vitality and have many leaves. So they proclaim that upright is the Lord, my rocky summit, and there is no injustice in Him." [NET]

For God's kingdom, read "God's house, courts of our God" and for eternal life, read "cedar of Lebanon, vitality, many leaves."

It is also why when Jesus a little later explained to His disciples how difficult it is for the rich to find the eternal life the rich ruler was looking for, Jesus spoke in terms of God's kingdom:

"Children, how difficult it is to enter into the Kingdom of God." (Mark 10: 24b)

Indeed, it is impossible for us.  But God in His faithfulness has done it for us through His son, Jesus the Christ.  This is why He told John in John's vision (above), "'Behold! I make all things new!' and then He said, 'Write it down, because these words are trustworthy and true.' And He said to me, 'It is done.'"

If through these few arguments we still fail to see that eternal life is a place, the Lord Himself makes the connection in the vision He gave John of God's kingdom. The source of life resides in God's kingdom: I will give to those who thirst from the stream of the water of life as a free gift. This is figurative of the fact we live in Christ because He lives--that is, through Christ we stand in the necessary intimate relationship with God Who is the source of life.  I say necessary because outside of God there can be no life. And this eternal life comes to us as we stand in Christ through the Holy Spirit Who indwells us like an eternal spring of living water:

"Whoever drinks from the water I will give to him or her, will absolutely not thirst into the age, but the water that I will give to him or her will become in him or her a well of water springing up into eternal life." (John 4:14)


"Jesus had stood up on the last and greatest day of the feast and cried out saying, "If anyone is thirsty, let that one come to Me and drink.  The one who is believing in(to) Me, just as the scripture said, rivers of living water will flow out from within him/her.  Jesus said this concerning the Spirit that those who believe in(to) Him were about to receive.  For the Spirit was not yet (given), because Jesus was not yet glorified." (John 7:37-39). 

We also learn from John's vision there are no tears or suffering of any kind in eternal life.  God has promised it, and He is faithful.  It is useful to think about why this should be the case.  The suffering in this world stems from our desire to promote ourselves over others.  We do this because we have believed the lie we told ourselves that we can discover our true selves by exerting ourselves over others.  But we will never find our true self until we completely let it go in Christ. Jesus said,

"The one who finds his/her life (soul) will lose it, and the one who loses his/her life (soul) on account of Me will find it." (Matt. 10:39)

But we don't do this, and for this reason there is great weeping, terror, suffering, and toil in our world.

I was tempted to translate "toil" in John's vision (above) as something of the order "arduous and frustrating labor."  The reason is because we will do work in God's kingdom, and it will be the work that naturally flows out of our true selves and therefore rewarding and invigorating, not a burden.  This is contrary to the work we do in the present world; work in this world is toil, because it is froth with strife, disappointments, injustice, competition, defeat, and pain.  Well of course it is, because it flows from a caricature of our true self, and we are using it often as a means of discovering who our true self is.  But imagine what work would become if all of that went away, and each of us operated as he or she was created to be in the kingdom, unfettered by ignorance, jealousy, empire building, and so on. So it shall be in God's kingdom, where love binds us together in perfect justice (right order).

When I see what man has accomplished in the pursuit of science, I am amazed and tell people we shouldn't run away from scientific endeavors and discovery by vilifying or fearing science.  If God created us to be His vice regents over creation--and He did--then we will necessarily be about the work of understanding creation.  Indeed, we who have been created to fill this role in God's kingdom will be working to this end in God's kingdom forever because creation is infinitely complex.  But we won't be as the scientists of this world who, despite all their protestations of being purely objective, are really out to make a name for themselves over their peers at all costs.  This is why we are reading about so much falsification of data these days, and the incessant infighting in academia.  No, in God's kingdom the work of discovery will flow from love rather than selfish-ambition and conceit.  Our self won't disappear--indeed, it will prevail in perfect concert with all other selves--but Self will no longer concern us.

In God's kingdom we will know our true selves and live accordingly through the power of God's love working in us.  There will no longer be tears in God's kingdom, but much to do.

Finally, the Lord tells John all those who overcome will inherit their place in God's kingdom.  To overcome is to love as God loves by obeying Him in holiness.  This is of course impossible on our own, because again we look to ourselves for the answers that can only come from God.  This is why Christ came, so that in Him we can love in holiness through His love and holiness; we act perfectly rightly because we do so through Christ's perfect righteousness that comes to us through the indwelling of His spirit when we fully repent of ourselves and the world's methods and wholly entrust ourselves to Christ in His love by faith.  The apostle John explains it this way,

"Because everything that has been born from God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that is overcoming the world, our faith. Who is the one overcoming the world if not the one who is believing [unrelentingly putting his/her whole trust in Christ alone and living accordingly] that Jesus is the son of God?" I John 5:4,5

The answer is no one. 

God in His unfathomable love for us has restored His kingdom by taking on flesh and entering into human history to mend the broken relationship between Himself and His image-bearers--humankind; The relationship was broken because His image bearers thought they could find and hold life in themselves and turned their backs to the only source of life and died.  Jesus entered this death by dying ignominiously on the cross, was buried, but on the third day was raised through the power of God's love to eternal life, and exalted to the right hand of God to reign forever as king over God's kingdom. And this kingdom is forever.  Now those of us who turn to Christ by faith will live through His life, and therefore live forever together with God in His kingdom.

And what a beautiful place this eternal life is.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Eternal Life

Some people I know don't much like the idea of eternal life.  They don't because they see eternal life as a never-ending continuation of the present life with all its fear, pain, misery, strife, struggle, sin and all the rest of the difficulties that in their sum total simply don't make all the "good" things worthwhile. Others who might find their way around such a perspective see eternal life as an ultimately dull affair. Somehow they got the idea from someone at some point in their lives that eternal life is a future state otherwise called heaven where people will sit around on clouds strumming harps.  And I have to admit these visions of eternal life are--well--bleak.  Certainly they are not much to aspire to.  Fortunately, they are also quite wrong.

Joseph Ratzinger explained in volume 2 of his Jesus of Nazareth series that eternal life comes through recognition and faith.  As we shall see, these are closely tied together.   What Dr. Ratzinger meant by recognition was in the Old Testament sense:

"'Eternal life' is gained through 'recognition', presupposing here the Old Testament concept of recognition: recognition that creates communion; it is union of being with the one recognized." (J. Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to the Resurrection. Ignatius Press, San Francisco: 2011, p. 83.)

The dude's brilliant!  The reason we have such a bleak view of eternal life is because we have united ourselves with a being we have come to recognize as the source of life.  And it is with this being we have been communing.  The being which I speak is in the broad sense creation, but is in all truth ourselves.  Life to us is hard, miserable, and barely sustainable because we seek it through our own resources, which is to seek it in creation.  But creation is an unforgiving place.  To try to tame it requires we strive to advance ourselves over others, which as I said, ultimately translates to us communing with ourselves to find life.  And this is a sordid business--with all its slight of hand, deal making, and power grabbing--which only makes the already merciless jungle of creation a place to escape; the being we have come to recognize in the way Dr. Ratzinger means at best brings to us only a poor caricature of life, a life, in fact, that causes us to long for death.

The problem isn't Dr. Ratzinger got it wrong; no, the problem is who or what we recognize as the source of life; and it ain't ourselves; such a notion is a big fat lie we long ago duped ourselves in believing to be truth.  No, in his very next breath, Dr. Ratzinger tells us the answer,

"But of course the key to life is not any kind of recognition, but to 'know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.'" (Ibid. p. 83)

Dr. Ratzinger quotes Jesus as recorded in John 17:3 here.  The being we must recognize, the being therefore with whom we must commune if we want true life is not creation but our creator.  And we so recognize our Creator as we surrender ourselves fully by faith in His one, only, unique Son, Jesus the Christ.

Why Jesus?  Because God has taken on flesh and entered into human history as a supreme act of re-creation by bringing order out of the chaos that has resulted from us turning away from God and looking to ourselves for life and therefore dying a complete death.  God again speaks life into this lifeless rebellion that we now are: "Let there be light!"  But this time He as His very Word came to dwell among us and take away death by dying to its fullest fury on the cross, buried and on the third day raised to life everlasting.  So that in His Son, Jesus Christ, who is this Word, we can finally recognize God, and stand in Him by faith, and live.  Not live a shadow of the reality of life, but true life in all its infinite grandeur, beauty, and love.

We recognize God--our Creator--in Christ because He came from God and has been exalted to sit now at the right hand of God.  And we commune with Christ by faith, which is to surrender ourselves in trust completely to Christ.  And He is worthy of our trust because He is the personification of God's wisdom to truly live and because He lives.

In his Gospel account, John writes:

"Everything was created by Him, and apart from Him not one thing was created. What has been created was life in Him, and the life was the light of humanity; and the light is shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome/understand it." (John 1: 3-5)

I encourage you dear reader to repent of yourself and creation as your source of life and return to your Creator by trusting only in Christ and His power to live.  The life you think you have found in yourself, is really death--it will never deliver what you long for.  The life you will find in Christ is an infinite beauty and peace God created for you to have with Him forever, today!  For indeed, God is the God of the living, not the dead.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

You Can Do It!

A good friend of mine and I try to meet every week over coffee.  Lately we have been studying Paul's First Letter to the Church in Corinth (actually, it was probably his third letter; the first two have been lost).  It is perhaps notable to see the many similarities between Corinth and the current changing landscape of America.  Corinth was a despotic town of vice and corruption.  I can only imagine how some of the groups decrying the decaying morals of present America would have responded to the state of Corinth in Paul's day.  It wouldn't have been pretty; but let's face it, Corinth was not a pretty place--at least, in ethical and moral terms.

Paul tells the Corinthian church something we all need to understand:

"Or don't you understand that those who are unrighteous will not inherit God's kingdom?  Don't be deceived!  Neither sexually immoral persons, nor idol worshipers, nor adulterers, nor effeminate (men), nor pederasts, nor thieves, nor greedy persons, not drunkards, not treacherous persons, not swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God." (I Cor. 6:9,10).

Sound familiar?  And all of that and more was being openly practiced in Corinth.  Indeed, some had been those kind before they came to believe in Christ; for Paul adds, "And some of you were these things;" (I Cor. 6:11a).  Sadly, some of these young Christians continued to cling to their old manners. We know this because one reason Paul was writing to his fledgling church was to admonish them for the incest being practiced with impunity, for brothers (by brothers I mean as such in the Lord) cheating brothers, for brothers suing brothers, for dissensions because of personality cults and, no doubt, accompanying differences in doctrines, for prostitution and all the rest of the garbage happening within the church.

Now, in the flavor of the king's response during the attempted wedding in Monty Python's, Holy Grail, I will quickly interject, "What is all this depressing discussion of sin and corruption?  Bruce's blog is supposed to be a happy occasion."  I will cut to the chase.

Even though Paul is absolutely correct in warning us that all those who practice these nasty behaviors will not enter into God's kingdom of peace and eternal life--it won't happen--Paul doesn't however do what we might expect him to do at this point, which is to start to lay out a bunch of dos and don'ts--you know, a long list of rules. He doesn't do that because it wouldn't work.  Let's be honest, just because someone tells you not to do something--even if they give you ample reason--never stopped you from doing it.  So where does this leave us?  The good news of the Gospel of Christ, of course!

Notice what Paul does appeal to:

"But you were washed, you were made holy (sanctified), you were acquitted [i.e., forgiven] in the name of the Lord, Jesus Christ, and by the spirit of our God!" (I Cor. 6:11b)

Why does he do this?  Because by reminding them whom they are in Christ they will keep their eyes on Christ and begin to live through the power of Christ's righteousness instead of their own.  You see, if Paul laid out a hunk of rules, this would most likely result in his listeners turning to themselves for the wherewithal to follow the rules, dooming them to failure; because none of us can or will obey the rules; it's just not in us to do so; but it is in Christ.  So it is by his righteousness and not our own that we will succeed in doing right (being just). And if we fail we will repent and be forgiven.  This is the good news of the Gospel.  In Christ, YOU CAN DO IT!