In and beyond time

We live in a century when it seems like we might literally live in the final days of our planet’s existence, or at least the human race’s. We have invented technology that could possibly wipe out a large portion of the human population. We call them WMDs. Nuclear and biological weapons. At the same time, we may also be modifying the climate on the planet, to the point where the entire biosphere may heat up in global warming, leading to widespread death and destruction. And scientists tell us that, periodically asteroids have collided with the earth, destroying all life, the last time about four hundred million years ago. But this isn’t what “last days” means in the Bible.

Biblical time

We have become so ‘scientific’ in our view of time that it is very difficult for us to imagine that Biblical time transcends past, present, and future. God is timeless, yet God created time. God entered human history as Jesus and as the Holy Spirit — and gives us hints of a different kind of time.  The Gospel of John says that the Word “was in the beginning with God.” [John 1:2] “The Word became flesh and lived among us” as Jesus. [John 1: 10] And Jesus said, “If I do not go away, the Advocate (Holy Spirit) will not not come to you.” [John 16:7b] Besides the usual time dimensions implied in these references, there is God’s timelessness that exists beyond created past, present and future, which touches us and shapes us. We are already but not yet completely in God’s timelessness because we are transcendent beings. These are difficult ideas to grasp. So what does the “last days” mean in God’s timelessness?

Peter tells us that the Holy Spirit is being poured out on all people in the last days, not just Christians. As Paul said, God’s plan has been revealed to Christians – “And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times have reached their fulfillment – to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” [Ephesians 1:9-10]  God has performed a second great act of creation, after the first ‘Big Bang’ and entered space-time in Christ to transform everything and bring it back to himself through the action of men inflamed with the Holy Spirit. The question is, how exactly is God doing this? What is the Christian role in God’s time?

In Christian belief, mankind is deeply involved in what happens to reality and are the co-creators of the future with Jesus, according to God’s eternal purpose. Christian belief is a basis for action. It says that we are responsible for transforming the world.

Chesterton describes the Christian belief this way. “I had always believed that the world involved magic; now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician.”  Many scientists and Psychologists don’t believe that there is any magic in the world. Everything is explained by the actions of energy and matter evolving to more and more complexity, even the increase in human consciousness. There is no magic and no need for a magician. The last days are just like any other period of galactic history except that consciousness has evolved to the point that it knows there is something going on. Thousands of years ago, primitive man realized that he had consciousness, so gods were invented (so the scientists and Psychologists theorize). Now scientific man believes that natural forces like evolution can explain everything they observe, in their scientific view of time.

Contrast that with the Christian explanation. Two thousand years ago, God (the magician) changed the rules of the space-time continuum. After a long period of preparation, God entered His creation as a man like us. His name is Jesus. He is the eternal timeless Word and the man Jesus in time. God’s purpose is evident in his life, his teaching, and his death and resurrection. Now, in the last days, time itself is unwinding on a different scale. Scientists may theorize that the universe will take another fourteen billion years to stop expanding and contract back to the original state of nothingness. Christians believe that we are in the last days, when God is acting to bring all created things back to himself in a new glorious state through Jesus and his brothers and sisters — us. In terms of ordinary time, we have no idea when that will finally happen but we believe that it is ongoing right now. Our role, and our privilege, is to use our freedom to participate in God’s great adventure and plan, both in ordinary space-time and in God’s reality of timelessness.

Extraordinary everyday time

But there is an even more powerful way of saying what living in the last days means. Before Jesus, mankind was in a cocoon, of religious distance from God. Even Israel was afraid to approach God, or even say his name. Then God acted, and changed everything. Man’s cocoon was cracked by Jesus’ love, and a new man began to emerge into history. Jesus freed men to fly like butterflies, to escape the limits of myth and religious impotency into intimacy, even sonship with God. And we know that this reality is the deepest truth of God. “God has done great things, meeting our deepest hungers. All is God’s doing. We walk in the flow of divine creativity, even when we think it is all our doing. God’s promise is received and fulfilled in the slowness of our daily learning . . . faith, born of love and giving birth to love, is the God-intended crown of our long journey toward a fullness for here and hereafte.” [Michael Paul Gallagher, Faith Maps]

As Chesterton might put it today, there is ‘divine music’ in the world in the last days – and a musician more wonderful than we dare imagine is playing a love song that many in the world cannot hear, as yet. We Christians have not been left alone to teach the world to sing that love song. In the last days, the days of the church, we are learning to sing in harmony; we are ‘one’ as God is one. We have been given the glory that Jesus received, which brightens our singing, and attracts and lures the world into singing God’s love song. All this is what Jesus promised. The critical question is what will we do, right now, here in our local church, in the light of this astounding reality in the last days?

 

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The second great act of creation

Most of us are aware that the universe began in a ‘Big Bang’ about 14 Billion years ago. But how many people realize that another equally great ‘big bang’ happened just 2000 years ago?

I once taught a weekend ‘Enrich Your Faith” workshop to a small group of Christians in the basement of a Baptist church in Virginia. I wasn’t a Baptist but a friend had vouched for me with his pastor who kindly lent us a meeting room for two days. I wanted to begin the workshop where Peter had started on Pentecost and help the group to understand what living in the last days means by exercising their imaginations. Having worked at NASA, I decided to use a metaphor about space.

A Story about God’s Second Great Act of Creation

“Have you ever seen a solar flare?” They looked puzzled so I continued. I drew a big circle on the whiteboard. “This is the Sun, an immense ball of fire. Every once in a while a giant explosion takes place inside the sun and a huge eruption of flame bursts out of the Sun and travels millions of miles into space, eventually falling back into the Sun, pulled by its enormous gravity.” I drew a big arc from the circle on the white board out and then back. “This is a solar flare.” I paused. They looked even more puzzled. What had they gotten themselves into?

“Let me explain this metaphor and how it relates to the last days in the Bible. In my story about the solar flare, God is the sun. Scientists tell us that the universe is about fourteen billion years old but they can’t explain what happened at what they call the Big Bang. The Christian explanation is that, in a gigantic act of creation, the universe and reality we live in erupted out of God like a solar flare. I call this God’s first great act of creation.” I could sense they sort of understood so I continued. “Two thousand years ago, the human race experienced God’s second great act of creation. Jesus entered the universe to bring it back to God, and transform everything.” I pointed at the place in the arc on the whiteboard where it stopped going out and turned back to rejoin the big circle. “We live in the last days where God has sent His Son and Spirit to the human race to reunite everything in the universe with Him.” I paused to see if there were any questions. The group was wrestling with the metaphor. I could see things shifting in their minds by the expressions on their faces. “The question I want to ask you is, what does it mean to be a Christian in the last days?” That’s where I left the metaphor and began the first lively discussion of the workshop.

The Last Days

We live in a time when it seems like we might literally live in the final days of our planet’s existence, or at least the human race’s. We have invented technologies that could possibly wipe out a large portion of the human population. We call them WMDs. Nuclear and biological weapons. At the same time, we may also be modifying the climate on the planet, to the point where the entire biosphere may heat up in global warming, leading to widespread death and destruction. And scientists tell us that, periodically asteroids have collided with the earth, destroying all life, the last time about four hundred million years ago. But this isn’t what “last days” means in the Bible.

Peter tells us what the last days means to Christians. The Holy Spirit is being poured out on all people, not just Christians. As Paul said, God’s plan has been revealed to Christians – “And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the time have reached their fulfillment – to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” [Ephesians 1:9-10] In the language of my metaphor of the solar flare, God has performed his second great act of creation and entered space-time in Christ to transform everything and bring it back to himself through the action of men inflamed with the Holy Spirit. The question is, how exactly is God doing this? What is the Christian role? To understand that, we need to understand more about what is going on in the last days.

The Christian Role

First, let me describe how science sees our times and the evolution of human consciousness. I will summarise a well known secular model, called The Graves Model or Spiral Dynamics.

Like Buddhism, Spiral Dynamics sees a certain inevitability in reality. Buddhism theorizes that reality is always the same in essence, with man ascending beyond himself into timeless nirvana. [1] Spiral Dynamics sees reality as evolving, and mankind’s social reality evolving as well, inevitably upward to greater consciousness and mindfulness of ‘the whole.’ Both these theories see reality as indifferent to humans and their fate. Everything will eventually turn out as it will regardless of what mankind does.

It should be obvious that both these theories are radically different than Christianity’s. In Christian belief, mankind is deeply involved in what happens to reality and are the co-creators of the future with Jesus, according to God’s eternal purpose. Christian belief is a basis for action. It says that we are responsible for transforming the world, while Buddhism and Spiral Dynamics are much less emphatic, theorizing that it doesn’t actually make any difference in the long run. “Some people seem to believe in an automatic and impersonal progress in the nature of things. But it is clear that no political activity can be encouraged by saying that progress is natural and inevitable; that is not a reason for being active, but rather a reason for being lazy.” [2]

Chesterton describes the Christian belief this way. “I had always believed that the world involved magic; now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician.” [3] Scientists and Psychologists like Graves don’t believe that there is any magic in the world. Everything is explained by the actions of energy and matter evolving to more and more complexity, even the increase in human consciousness in Spiral Dynamics. There is no magic and no need for a magician. The last days are just like any other period of galactic history except that consciousness has evolved to the point that it knows there is something going on. Thousands of years ago, primitive man realized that he had consciousness, so gods were invented (so the scientists and Psychologists theorize). Now scientific man believes that natural forces like evolution can explain everything they observe.

Contrast that with the Christian explanation. Two thousand years ago, God (the magician) changed the rules of the space-time continuum. After a long period of preparation, God entered His creation as a man like us. His name is Jesus. Exactly what his purpose was in doing this is evident in his life, his teaching, and his death and resurrection. Now, in the last days, time itself is unwinding on a different scale. Scientists may theorize that the universe will take another fourteen billion years to stop expanding and contract back to the original state of nothingness. Christians believe that we are in the last days, when God is acting to bring all created things back to himself in a new glorious state. In terms of ordinary time, we have no idea when that will finally happen but we believe that it is ongoing right now. Our role, and our privilege, is to use our freedom to participate in God’s great adventure and plan.

But there is an even more powerful way of saying what living in the last days means. Before Jesus, mankind was in a cocoon, of religious separation from God. Even Israel was afraid to approach God, or even say his name. Then God acted, and changed everything. Man’s cocoon was cracked by Jesus’ love, and a new man began to emerge into history. Jesus freed men to float like butterflies, to escape the limits of myth and religious impotency into intimacy, even sonship with God. And we know that this reality is the deepest truth of God. “God has done great things, meeting our deepest hungers. All is God’s doing. We walk in the flow of divine creativity, even when we think it is all our doing. God’s promise is received and fulfilled in the slowness of our daily learning . . . faith, born of love and giving birth to love, is the God-intended crown of our long journey toward a fullness for here and hereafter.”  [4] That is a magnificent hymn composed by one Christian, celebrating what it means to live in the last days. What is our response?



[1] The Buddha, a great and wise man, sat under a Lotus tree and developed his theory. Unlike what Christians believe, Buddhists don’t claim that the Buddha’s vision was revealed by the source of all truth, God. Of course The Buddha may have been influenced by God but he doesn’t attribute his wisdom to any higher being.

[2] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 100

[3] Chesterton, Ibid., p. 55

[4] Michael Paul Gallagher, Faith Maps, Paulist Press, New York, 2010, p. 77

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The day you face death’s certainty

A friend of mine learned today that the doctors had done all they can. His cancer is terminal. In empathy my wife and I reached out, to try to help and we prayed too. My prayer was straight forward: “God, please be very close to him and let him know you are and always will be with him.”

We all know we will die some day but that date is over the horizon. On this side of the horizon, life stretches out in front of us. Death and what lies beyond can’t be seen.

Then one day, like my friend on a Tuesday in October, we abruptly see that death is on this side of our horizon, close to us. The road we are on ends at a chasm. There is no bridge across the chasm, nor any road visible on the other side. There are no travel guides and no one, neither friends or doctors or even religious gurus can tell us how to make this trip. It’s clear that we are an amateur at doing death and also clear that we must learn to do death.

Are we alone? No our friends and family are nearby. But they cannot go with us so, in a way, when we step into the chasm we are alone — unless we believe God is with us.

Our mental model about God comes into focus as we approach the chasm of death. If we imagine that God is distant, it may be hard for us to imagine that such a God is close to us now. If we imagine that God is only some universal energy or the creative force behind the Big Bang, it’s hard to imagine such a God as caring about ‘little us.’ And if a Christian tells us that God loves us and is close to us as we step into the chasm of death, we may like to believe that but we have no evidence in our own life that that such a hope is well founded.

That is why I pray for God to be close to someone like my friend. God knows how to care for him, whatever his mental model about God is. I learned this lesson a long time ago when my father, who was not a overtly religious man,  was diagnosed with a terminal condition. God comforted me and my family saying, in effect, “Don’t worry, I have your father in my hands and won’t lose him.” That same God is already reaching out now to my friend to help him as he learns to “do death” and cross the chasm toward eternal life. Of that, I am completely confident.