Post-Apocalyptic Eco-Joy

A vision from Isaiah 34

Many times I read parts of the Old Testament without being gripped by the passage.  I take an already fragmentary book like Isaiah and look at its verses in isolation, which makes it even harder to figure out what’s going on.  Today was different.

The first half of the chapter contains a warning of God’s coming judgment.  “The Lord is angry with all nations; his wrath is upon all their armies….  He will give them over to slaughter” (v2).  There are many familiar apocalyptic images: “All the stars of the heavens will be dissolved and the sky rolled up like a scroll” (v4).  Then there’s even more blood and gore, even for a Braveheart guy.  “For the Lord has a day of vengeance, a year of retribution to uphold Zion’s cause” (v8).  Then something strange happens.

God gives the desolate land back to the animals.  “The desert owl and screech owl will possess [the land of Edom]; the great owl and the raven will nest there” (v11).  The passage goes on to describe thorns, nettles, and brambles overrunning the old battlements.  Jackals, hyenas, wild goats, and night animals will “find for themselves places of rest” (v14).

Some would look at these animals and, because they were ceremonially unclean (i.e., unfit for sacrifice), see them as symbolic of God’s judgment.  Maybe.  But what if God is simply returning that particular patch of land (Edom), back to its original inhabitants?  The language Isaiah uses is not unlike that used for the people of Israel, for he says of the above animals:

“None of these will be missing, not one will lack her mate.  For it is [God’s] mouth that has given the order, and his Spirit will gather them together.  He allots their portions; his hand distributes them by measure.  They will possess it forever and dwell there from generation to generation” (vv16-17).

Those are some happy animals.  God be praised!

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Be a Blessing!

God’s original promise to Abraham was to make him the father of all nations, “so that through you all nations might be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3).

Orthodox Jews want to fulfill that promise, but the believe that they must bring all Jews back to God first.

Why wait?

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Luke 6:27-28

I hear a lot about Christians going around and cursing people: not “cussing them out” cursing, but “calling down fire and brimstone” cursing.  I don’t think that Jesus leaves us any room for that.

Why pray for riches for yourself, which do not satisfy, when you can pray: “God, make me a blessing to others!”?  Your co-workers.  Your spouse.  Your children.  Your parents.  Random dude on the street.  Use your imagination.

The world is changed by such simple, small prayers as these.  You might not make any headlines, but you will make someone’s day, if not someone’s eternity.  What could be more satisfying than that?

All Roads Lead to Heaven?

“We’re right and we’re the only ones!” shout the Pope, the Baptist preacher, and the cult leader in unison across the trenches.

Then, at Starbucks, in the classroom, in the locker room I hear, “All religions are equal.” Equally right, which means equally wrong, so live it up.

What if there is a third option? What if all of us are wrong, but some of us are less wrong than others?

What if only one person has ever had it 100% right: Jesus. The only human who has ever had a true understanding of reality, of God, or of anything else. Hold on, He was God. The rest of us are finite and screwed-up. But Jesus offered to bring to God any who would follow Him.

Christ saves, not any church, Roman Catholic or otherwise. For some of us, like my best philosopher friends, following Christ means becoming Roman Catholic. For others of us, it means becoming irreverent renegades. Or Baptists.

Different Christian groups, with their different emphases, offer different aspects of the truth about Christ and His teaching: love, grace, the awesomeness of God, the importance of His Word, loving the poor and the oppressed, community, tradition and history, and the reality of how messed-up we are all in this life, etc. If we only turn to our traditions, and not also to their Source, we’ll leave out important aspects of the Truth.

I see in other religions aspects of the truth about God also: the peacefulness of Buddhism; the discipline of Islam; the wild diversity of Hinduism; the restful rituals of Judaism. But I see also important differences. In every case, God is either less of a Person (Buddhism and Hinduism), or less personal (Judaism without Christ; Islam). But do other religions lead to heaven? That is the difficult question facing all Christians today.

I offer a strange possibility which should offend people on both sides of the debate. I think that we’re asking the wrong question. Does any religion lead to heaven? No.

No religion leads to heaven. God leads to heaven. He does so through Christ, but many times the -ianity (or the -ians) gets in the way. Religion — our beliefs, our practices — these are all means to an end: Him. There are many false ways, some in and some outside of Christianity, but only one Shepherd. Many who have correct beliefs, but who did not trust Christ, will be in hell (James 2:19). Is it possible that many who have incorrect beliefs, but who trust Christ, will end up in heaven? I think so, for who among us can claim a 100% understanding of God? I am saved by Who I know, not by what I know. But is it possible to trust Christ without knowing that it’s Christ? I don’t know. But I need to love, listen, speak, and pray as if every moment counts toward that end.

Mmm Mmm God!

Taste the Glory

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  He said, “Let there be food!”  And there was much food.  And he said, “Let men eat!”  And men ate.  And it was delicious.  It still is.

Few things in life are more amazing than food.  Yet some of us take it for granted, ignoring it, resenting the inconvenience, and avoiding it, even.  Others of us make it an addiction and an obsession.  Still, none of this abrogates the fact that food is good and is one of God’s chief means of expressing His love for us.

When God led His people out of Egypt, He made sure that they first ate  a symbolic but hearty meal, both so that they could prepare for their journey and so that they could repeat it every year to remember their deliverance.  When Jesus was preparing to die, He performed a new version of that same meal, that His disciples might remember their deliverance and their dependence on Him.  When He rose from the dead and the disciples were freaking out and thought He was a ghost, He ate some of their fish.  Later, He appeared to them on the lake shore and, when they were freaking out with excitement, He made them breakfast.  Then He lovingly chastised Peter: “Feed my sheep.”

In Judaism and in Christianity, food is the prime metaphor for our understaning our relationships with God and with each other.  But it is more than that.  It is worship for the senses, the smell and taste of redemption.

God didn’t have to make us to eat.  We could have photosynthesized like plants.  And food didn’t have to taste good.  But it does.  God be praised!

Let us neither forget those who are without food, nor be slow in delivering it to them, for food is our primary means of expressing love to those in need.  God, help us!

Learning to Love the Opposition

What We Can Gain By Agreeing to Disagree

Most blog conversations, like most real-life conversations, represent like-minded individuals giving each other feedback.  I love it when a friend of mine posts a comment along the lines of “What you said was awesome!”  I can’t get enough of that.  In fact, the blogosphere might have even more affirmation than real life.  Maybe that’s why we love to be plugged in so much.

But what I really can’t get enough of: respectful disagreement expressed with clarity.  No matter what your religio-political-philosophical worldview, I hope you can agree: we can learn a lot from each other, especially when we disagree.

I want your atheism to help me be a better Christian, showing me the ways in which my faith and practice are lacking.  I want to see Buddhist Katy helping Mary Kay to be more Jewish.  I want Michael Moore to help W. to be a better Republican.  Why?  Because if we’re ultimately concerned with pursuing what is true and good, we help each other in that pursuit, even if our conceptions of truth and good differ as much as our ideas for how to live in light of them.

This is probably easier to show than to tell.  In the coming days I will be co-posting the first in a series of “Dialogs with an Atheist,” courtesy of Skeptigator.  I guess he and I got bored with limiting ourselves to in-depth discussion with those who are like-minded.

Every disagreement is a challenge.  Every challenge is an opportunity.  The bottom line: I don’t want to agree with you; I want to understand you.  If I can do that, I will have truly learned something and, I hope, gained a friend.

Psalm 3

(An African-American Vernacular English translation from the original Hebrew)

From when David ran off from his son, Absolom.  

Damn LORD! 

Check it: all peeps be rollin’ up on me!    Mugs be all up in my grill. They be sayin’, “God ain’t got yo’ back.”  Sheeeih…. 

Nah, man!  O LORD, You got my back: You too much, and all that, an’ Ya’ hold my head high. 

I holla’d to the LORD, an’ He holla’d back at me from His holy mount.  Sheeeih….

I laid down and slept;

then I got up, ‘cause God got my back.

Got no fear of all y’all fools around me,

tryin’ to keep me in check.

 

Get up, O LORD! 

Save my sassafrass, O my God!

For you smack my enemies up side da’ head.

You bust them in the tooth.

Salvation!  Whose’s dat?  The LORD!

Blessing!  Whose’s dat?  His people!

Sheeeih….

Sudden Death

“All death is sudden.” – anonymous

Life is precious. We forget so easily. Many movies, most video games, and all advertisements help us to forget. They tell us that our value is in how we look, in how many points (excitement, pleasure, accomplishment) we score, and in what we own. And most of us believe them most of the time. We act and speak as if scoring points was all that mattered. Whatever it is that you enjoy, do as much of that as possible, because today is the only day that matters.

But tomorrow is already here. Death is knocking at the door. He may have been knocking for a while, but you hadn’t been listening. I know I haven’t. Maybe he’s not here for you yet; you’ve got friends and family in the house, along with some random acquaintances you might not miss. Surely he’ll take one of them. Won’t he?

Hedonism’s response to death: ignore it. 

Is that really an option? Then you have no chance to prepare for what’s next, because you have refused to venture to guess that might be. The “great religions” are great because they have at least made an attempt. 

 (***What follows is a brief survey of my understanding of these religions’ views.  If I have misrepresented your view or need to be more specific, please let me know!)

Maybe there is nothing after death. That is atheists’ response. I respect their insistence on only claiming knowledge of that for which we have evidence. But my soul is incredulous before that great emptiness. There is too much purpose in life for there to be no purpose in death.

Maybe there is more life after death: many lives, the next better or worse, depending on how you behaved in this life. And if you are good enough for enough lives, you will enter Nirvana. Or maybe you will escape into Nothingness. That is the Hindu response, with its Buddhist variation. But my soul is too weary of day after day. Life after life would be too much to bear, unless I were utterly transformed.  Plus, I know my own heart too well. I would never think, feel, love, act rightly enough to “graduate” to the next step… and I’m not sure whether anyone else would either.

Death is the will of God. I must accept it and obey Him. If it is God’s will, I will enter Paradise, so I had be get on His good side. I love the simplicity of Islam’s response. But I ache against the thought of God wanting death.

The Jewish answer is in the form of a story: death is the enemy of God’s work and it has infected His creation because of us (Genesis 3).  We have hope of being reunited with each other and with Him after death (Psalm 23), but such hope is vague and fleeting, so theories abound in Judaism as to just what happens next.  The Tanakh (a.k.a. Old Testament) does not tell us how the story ends.

The New Testament finishes the Jewish story: God used death to return any of us who are willing to life by letting His Son die in our place (John 3).  And not just any death: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27).  God will destroy death itself when all of His dead have been made alive again. “Look!  I will tell you a mystery.  We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed….  For when this dying body puts on the undying, the sayings will be fulfilled: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’ (Isaiah 25:8); ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ (Hosea 13:14).  The sting of death is in the weight of our crimes, and the power of our crimes is in God’s law.  But thanks be to God!  He gives to us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:51-57; FIV).

That death is neither the end nor my friend may be the only answer that I can live with… whether I deserve to or not.

The Radiant Abyss

Hope of Heaven After the Holocaust?

In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis follows a bus-load of “tourists” from hell as they visit heaven.  En route, they cross “the radiant abyss” between the netherworld and the shining world above.

In her poem “Choir of the Rescued,” Holocaust-survivor Nelly Sachs invites us to understand the aftermath of hell-on-earth: 

We the rescued, / from whose hollow limbs Death has already cut his flutes, / to whose longings Death has already set his sickle – / our bodies still bemoan the aftermath / with their maimed music.

We the rescued / ever yet the nooses hang turned for our throats / before us in the blue air – / ever yet the hour glass fills with our dripping blood.

We the rescued / ever yet the worms of fear eat at us. / Our star is buried in the dust.

 

We the rescued / beg you: / show us slowly your sun. / Lead us one step at a time from star to star. / Let us quietly learn to live again. / Otherwise the song of a bird, / the filling of a bucket at a well / could unleash our ill-sealed ache / and wash us away….

(translation mine (c) 2007)

We live in the abyss between heaven and hell, after the Holocaust but before the Day of Justice.  Some days I remember, gripped by the tension in my shoulders and the pressure in my skull.  I see the darkness all around me and despair.  I hear the dogs barking and I can feel myself ready to wash away.

  

But the Radiance shines through the darkness, wakes my soul, reminds me to sing.  The sun shines on my face, the flowers greet me in my path, and the trees bow to shelter me.  Maybe they have been there all along and I’ve been too busy to notice.  I loosen my stride, flex my feet, and prepare to meet my Lord in the air.

Published in: on June 26, 2007 at 2:32 am  Leave a Comment