Monday, November 23, 2009

Preparing For Warp Speed, Capt'n

This is for all those who, like myself, are frustrated with time. Like the famous rabbit of Alice's tale, I seem to be endlessly running, always late for some very important date. If I'm not late, I am waiting for someone who is, until we are both late. There is never enough time.

Quite on my own, I came up with a theory: Not only does it feel like time is going faster, but it actually is going faster. I later found some scientific backup for my hypothesis. Edwin Hubble, who later had a telescope named after him, discovered by observing galaxies moving away from us that the universe is expanding, and since space is the measuring stick of time, time itself is accelerating. Einstein's theory of relativity included the idea that the expansion of the universe should slow down at a constant rate, though he was unable to account for some factors in his theory. Then in 1998, researchers discovered that the expansion of the universe is actually speeding up, not slowing down.

What does that mean? The fact that the expansion of the universe is accelerating means that time itself is speeding up at a greater rate than previously thought. The problem is that our means of measuring time is also expanding. It's like trying to measure your height with a tape measure that is growing at the same rate as you - it always reads the same, though you have a strong suspicion that you are taller than you were before. Likewise, time is speeding up, and the only way we can tell is that it feels faster every year.

Whether you like my speculation or not, you likely share my frustration with time.

I have wondered what it was like for Jesus, who stepped out of eternity into the thing called Time that his Father created. He had a first breath, and a last. He experienced "waiting," and learned patience. His carpentry jobs had a deadline; he was perhaps often late for lunch. He could not be everywhere at once, nor did he have the time to do everything he wanted. His appointed time had no cars, cell phones or dishwashers; everything he did, from traveling to working, required a good deal of time. After 33 long years, Jesus could finally say, "Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you."

In the world that God made,
    There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,

    a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,

    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,

    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain,

    a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,

    a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,

    a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.
Yet God placed in our hearts something that tells us that time is not all there is. This morning as Kristie and I prayed with a student, Kristie said something in her prayer that got me thinking about time (again) this evening. She said that our frustration with time points to the fact that we were made for timelessness.

Solomon in Ecclesiastes 3 continues, "I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end." C.S. Lewis put it this way: "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."

So my frustration with time is understandable, yet not excusable. Jesus entered time, yet he seemed to have all the time in the world. Though the world swirled around him, demanding signs, seeking healing, requiring answers, he seemed to march to the beat of a different Drummer. When told that everyone was looking for him, he could say, "Let's go somewhere else." As important people waited on his verdict, he could draw in the sand with his finger. I am told that by faith I can walk in this world as Jesus walked.

And there will be an end to time. Jesus said repeatedly that certain things would take place, and then the end of the age will come. Maybe sooner than science supposes: "If dark energy density rises rather than falls, the universe will eventually undergo a 'hyper speedup' that would tear apart galaxies, solar systems, planets and atomic nuclei, in that order" (Scientific American, September 23, 2008). Or as Peter pictured it,
    The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.

    Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.
Hang on a minute! Rewind! " you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming..." What on earth? We can speed up time? We can make the end of time arrive sooner? How? Peter tells us in this same chapter.

We can live holy and godly lives. The Jewish nation has always understood that repentance - turning from sin and turning to God in their attitudes and actions - would precede the coming of the Messiah.

We can join God in bringing people to repentance. "But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." This is what he is waiting for, if it can be said that God waits.

We can anticipate and long for the Day of the Lord. One of the early prayers of the church was "Marana tha," which means, "Our Lord, come!" Jesus' model prayer for his disciples also started this way, "Your kingdom come!" There would be no reason to pray this way if it had no effect on the timing of his coming.

"So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation..." Oh, he knows patience. He knows waiting. He has experienced time, wrestled with it and won. Time is now all on his side. And one final day, we will stand with him and watch Father Time squeeze the sun like an orange.
    They will perish, but you remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
    Like clothing you will change them
    and they will be discarded.

    But you remain the same,
    and your years will never end.
May you speed his coming. Marana Tha!

Friday, November 06, 2009

My Life as a Hippie Chicken

A little while ago, I watched the Olympic torch go through our town. A young lady, poster child of the 2010 Winter Games, ran past with a huge smile and the pride of national representation. She was soon after followed by a big black truck that I later learned was the machine they would unleash in the event of a terrorist attack, a reminder that we live in a world of crazies.

Some people just don't like the Olympics. They say it's too much money spent to impress rich people, while homeless shelters go unbuilt and social programs are cut. Perhaps what really gets them is that it's a lot of hoopla for the select few who can ski fast or pay the money to watch other people ski fast. But maybe they just feel intimidated by all these young athletes who ride the edge of the impossible.

It's fascinating to watch. Even people who don't like the Olympics, who stand in the doorway of the TV room making snide comments, find themselves drawn in to watch and see which figure skater gets the most points or which rock will spin nearest to the center circle. Or hold their breath for those Super-G ski racers who finish 0.0001 seconds apart from one another. The best in the world.

Olympians push the limits of human capacity. Athletes train for the better part of their young lives to shave seconds off their best time or find their way past the defense to the goal. It wouldn't be any fun at all if someone came along who had no limits. Superman is not welcome here. It's all about recognizing human limits and seeing how close we can come to them, or maybe stretch them a tiny bit more. It's worth watching if you get the chance.

I once thought I had no limits. I pushed myself so hard, taking on the impossible because with God nothing is impossible. What a surprise it was the day I found myself in the hospital, with the doctor saying that my body was sending me a message: I had exceeded the limits of its capacity and it wasn't going to take it any more. I remember the disappointment of knowing there were things I wanted to do - badly! - and couldn't. It was like being at the dock and the lake is like glass, sun's out, the boat's in the water and no one else wants to go, and I am just too tired to ski.

The verse in the Bible that is most consistently taken out of context is found in Paul's letter to the Philippians: "I can do everything through him who gives me strength." Wow, we lean on that promise, expecting God to make us able to do anything and everything. Trouble is, I have seen people with tremendous faith hit the wall like they didn't know it was there. It has made me realize that we don't understand what Paul was saying to the church in Philippi.

Let's put this verse back in context: "I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles."

The story: The church in Philippi was known for its generosity, even though they themselves were poor. Paul was in prison, where unless you had someone on the outside looking after you, starvation would kill you if hypothermia didn't do it first. Paul found himself limited by chains and damp walls, dependent on the help of people sent by churches like this one.

Somehow between world travel and jail time, Paul had learned a secret. Whatever his circumstances, he could respond the same way. Eating like a king? Cool. Finishing off what the rats didn't want? Cool. Shipwrecked? Cool. Going where the Gospel had never gone before? Cool. He was like the hippie chicken in the movie Surf's Up; whether winning a trophy or getting cooked by savage penguins, life just didn't faze or dazzle him. He had learned how to be content in it all.

The secret? What will you give me for it? Oh, you want it, don't you? The secret to happiness, the way to the lost valley of Shangri-La. Utopia. A perfect state of being. Or maybe you think I have slipped across the lines to the Buddhist monastery. Nope. Paul offers it: "I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want."

The trouble is that you have had this secret in your hands all along, but you went and took it out of context. The secret to the contented life is this: You can do all things through Christ who gives you strength. This oft-quoted verse has nothing to do with Jesus giving you the strength to somehow overcome your latest limitation. It is all about Jesus giving you strength to be content within your limitations. Live in them. Maybe even welcome them.

I know, that cuts across the grain of many things you believe in: Taking Responsibility. Finding A Solution. Fixing Things. Paying Your Own Way. It unsettles what has become perhaps Western society's number one value: Independence. To simply "accept things" sounds almost dangerous, and taken to extremes you would find yourself in India, waiting all day for the holy cow to decide to move out of your way.

But even Olympic athletes know that they have limits. Why don't followers of Jesus know that? Rather than understand our human limitations, we believers seem to pretend we have none, because we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. Ever warn someone too late that the glass patio door is shut? They can walk as if it is open, but sometimes it is not, and they will get hurt. Paul didn't live that way. He encountered many shut doors, and rather than try to walk through them with Western arrogance, he tried other doors with Eastern meekness.

Paul came to the place where he celebrated his limitations. "To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong."

Delight in your weaknesses? Be glad for your limitations? The Donald Trump's of this world will laugh in your face! But you will find understanding at the Olympics. One month after the Games, hundreds of people who have really come to grips with their limitations will go to the edge of them in the Paralympic events. Maybe those are the ones to watch.

In saying all this, I hope to warn some of you whom I love and who I see thoughtlessly running toward an invisible brick wall. And maybe warn myself. Jesus loves you, but he may not intercept you from the collision course you are running. Perhaps it would be wise to stop now, take stock of your limitations and learn the secret of being content.

Jesus gives you his strength when you come to accept your weaknesses. As you recognize your limitations, he will show you the breadth of his grace. I cannot do every thing, but in Christ I can do everything.

One day you will find yourself at the very edge of your capacity, as life seeps from your body and your remaining breaths can be counted on one hand. And then... you will find yourself in a space without boundaries, in a glorious new body that knows no limitations. And you shall be like Him, for you shall see Him as He is.

Until that day, know your limits. And sometimes, as you come to the end of yourself, you will watch as God's unlimited grace takes over - a hint of the glory to come. You will rest in the knowledge that you can do all things through him who gives you strength.
    My heart is not proud, O Lord,
    my eyes are not haughty;
    I do not concern myself with great matters
    or things too wonderful for me.

    But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
    like a weaned child with its mother,
    like a weaned child is my soul within me.

    O Israel, put your hope in the Lord
    both now and forevermore. - Psalm 131