In the Fullness of Time

Excerpt from God Has A Dream:

There is a lovely phrase which St. Paul uses in his letter to the new Christian converts in Galatia.  And that phrase is “in the fullness of time.”  Paul speaks about how when Jesus was born it was at just the right time, all the pieces had fallen into place, the antecedents were just right, and it all happened at exactly the right moment.  A little earlier would have been too soon and a little later would have been too late.  When it happened it could not have been at any other moment.

Last year, many of us had a good laugh at the hype created by a fringe religious group who claimed to have exclusive knowledge that the end of the world was coming on May 21, 2011.  As you may (or may not) recall, the day itself came and went without event.  This was by no means the first time someone tried to cash in on apocalyptic hype.  At the turn of the Millennium, there was “much ado about nothing” regarding the Y2K computer bug.  In the 19th century, a man named William Miller made three unsuccessful attempts to predict the end of the world before his followers lost faith in him.  Even before that, at the turn of the previous millennium, Pope Sylvester II trembled in prayer in his church, convinced that the world would come to an end that very night.  Later this year, so we’re told, the Mayan calendar is supposed to run out, leading some people to speculate that this ancient civilization knew something we don’t about the apocalypse.

Predicting the what, where, and when of the end of the world has never failed to be a sensationalistic, money-making pastime for would-be prophets and their paranoid followers.  We Christians have proved to be especially vulnerable to these scam artists, mainly because of the presence of the book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament.  Many claim that this document, when read and interpreted properly, provides a detailed road map for the end of the world.  It’s bizarre and cryptic imagery are said to contain secret messages about the Apocalypse that are meant to be decoded by those with the proper biblical study tools.  The downside of this approach is that every single prediction supposedly “decoded” from the book of Revelation has turned out to be wrong.  God’s plan, it seems, is not so readily available for human review and approval, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying to figure it out anyway.

Many of us might find it easy to laugh at them for their misguided pursuit.  However, I’d like to take a moment to sympathize with them.  My theory is that folks who tend to obsess over this kind of thing are looking for something.  I think they’re looking for a sense of meaning and purpose in life.  They want to believe that God has a plan for the world and that we’re not all just wandering aimlessly through history.  I can relate to that.

The next step that most of these folks take is to apply this concept of God’s plan to their personal lives.  They might say, “Not only does the universe have a destiny, but so do I.  I’m an important part of God’s plan.  Therefore, my life has meaning.”  Like I said before, I can respect that need.  I feel it too.  I think we all do.  But we have to watch out and make sure that we don’t carry this idea too far.

Our ancestors in the Calvinist tradition were famous for believing that God predestines the fate of every single human being.  They believed that some people were destined for eternal bliss in heaven while others were doomed to endless suffering in hell.  What makes the difference, they said, is “unconditional election” by God.  God chose who would be “saved” or “damned” from the beginning of time, and there is nothing that anyone can do or say to change their fate.  What’s more is that there was no way to know with any absolute certainty about which category you were in.  This theological belief, called “double predestination”, caused people a lot of anxiety.

I’ve also seen people take the idea of God’s plan to unhealthy extremes in rather mundane matters.  When I was in high school, I worked in a bookstore that had a section where we sold religiously themed posters.  One day, I was walking through the stacks when I came across a woman who was kneeling on the floor, weeping.  She had two posters laid out on the floor in front of her.  The problem, it turned out, was that she couldn’t figure out which poster God wanted her to buy.  Just like those folks who are obsessed with predicting the end of the world and the early Calvinist belief in double predestination, this person in the bookstore had taken the idea of God’s plan too far.

When I think about the idea of a divine plan for my life or history, I try not to get too hung up on the details of what, when, and where certain things are supposed to happen.  If we occupy our time with those kinds of questions, I think we’re more likely to end up in an unhealthy state of mind.  Rather, when I think about God’s plan, I prefer to ask questions of who, how, and why.

God is far less interested in what you’re doing and more interested in who you’re becoming, how you’re living, and why you do what you do.  These are questions of the heart.  Answering these questions goes a long way in helping us forge a sense of meaning and significance in our lives.  For example, let’s take a young person in school who is trying to decide on a career path.  I don’t think God tends to care very much whether someone decides to become a lawyer, a doctor, or a minister.  Those are questions of what, where, and when.  Of greater concern to God is whether that person wants to become a lawyer in order to just make money or to serve the greater cause of justice.  In God’s eyes, a waitress in a diner with a heart for hospitality is more holy, more in step with God’s plan, than a minister who just likes to hear the sound of his own voice.  Who we are is much more important than what we do.

That’s why I tend to avoid the phrase “God’s plan” when it comes to the events of history.  I much prefer to think of “God’s vision” or “God’s dream” as Desmond Tutu calls it.  God’s dream is a dynamic thing.  It’s always changing and in motion.  God is the ultimate creator of this dream, but has invited each one of us to become co-creators with God and each other.  Archbishop Tutu says it like this:

It has often been said, “What we are is God’s gift to us.  What we become is our gift to God.”  What we become is not about status, it is about love.  Do we love like God, as God so deeply desires?  Do we become like God, as God so deeply desires us to be?

As for the substance of the plan itself, the shape it takes is up to us, and God works with and around what we bring to the table.  Again, in the words of Archbishop Tutu:

There is a wonderful Portuguese saying that God writes straight with crooked lines.  God works through history to realize God’s dream.  God makes a proposal to each of us and hopes our response will move His dream forward.  But if we don’t, God does not abandon the goal, He does not abandon the dream.  God adjusts God’s methods to accommodate the detour, but we are going to come back onto the main road and eventually arrive at the destination.

I love that phrase: “God writes straight with crooked lines.”  To me, it describes so well my experience of life in this world where things don’t always go according to plan.  Accidents happen.  Things don’t always go your way.  Life goes on.  It doesn’t mean that God isn’t present or working in this world and in our lives.  It means that, if we’re going to look for God, we have to look deeper than the level of surface appearances and random events.

When someone gets sick, or an accident happens, or a terrible tragedy overtakes us, people are prone to ask, “Why is God doing this?” or “Why did God allow this to happen?”  I have to be honest with you, I don’t think God had anything to do with it.  The God of love that I believe in is not in the business of causing cancer and car accidents.  I think these things just happen.  The God I believe in is the one who meets us in the middle of these disasters and leads us to respond in a certain way.

One of my favorite examples that I use to illustrate this point is the terrorist attacks of September 11.  Some people said that God allowed those airplanes to crash because God was judging the United States for one reason or another.  I don’t think that’s true.  I don’t see God in that at all.  I see God in those volunteers who climbed the smoldering piles of rubble with buckets in their hands to get the trapped survivors out.  I see God in the police and fire fighters who risked or gave their lives to save others.  That’s where God is.  That’s God’s plan, God’s dream, in action.

I don’t know if there will one day be an apocalyptic end to the world.  I don’t know if there will be a once & for all victory of goodness over evil “in the fullness of time”.  I don’t know if we, or our children, or our grandchildren will ever live in a perfect world.

I don’t know much, but this is what I believe:

When I look out at the stars in the heavens, I see a harmony that human selfishness cannot touch.  We might destroy ourselves and each other someday.  We might even take our whole planet into extinction with us.  But the beauty of nebulae, quasars, and galaxies will still be there.  The impulse toward order and equilibrium will never be gone from our universe.  That same impulse exists in each one of us.  We call it life, we call it justice, and we call it compassion.  I call it God.  As long as there is a universe to exist, God will never stop working within it to shape darkness, death, and chaos into light, life, and love.  As long as we are alive in this world, God will never stop inviting us to join God in this continuing mission.  I close this sermon and end this series by going back to the words of Desmond Tutu himself:

All over this magnificent world God calls us to extend His kingdom of shalom—peace and wholeness—of justice, of goodness, of compassion, of caring, of sharing, of laughter, of joy, and of reconciliation.  God is transfiguring the world right this very moment through us because God believes in us and because God loves us.  What can separate us from the love of God?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  And as we share God’s love with our brothers and sisters, God’s other children, there is no tyrant who can resist us, no oppression that cannot be ended, no hunger that cannot be fed, no wound that cannot be healed, no hatred that cannot be turned to love, no dream that cannot be fulfilled.

It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

"What, Me Worry?"

This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is John 14:1-14.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

These are good words to hear from Jesus on the morning after the end of the world.  According to Harold Camping, president of Family Radio, the Final Judgment of humanity was scheduled to begin last night (May 21, 2011) at 6pm.  Mr. Camping came up with this conclusion using a combination of literal and symbolic interpretations of certain biblical texts and then combining those interpretations with some fancy mathematics.  Judging from the fact that so many of us are still here today, I think we can safely say that Mr. Camping’s calculations were (at least) slightly off.

This is not the first time someone has made such precise predictions about the Apocalypse.  In fact, Mr. Camping himself previously insisted that the end of days would arrive promptly on September 6, 1994.  Before him, there was the very famous case of the Millerites.  This sect of believers followed the teachings of one William Miller, who predicted that Christ would return and the world would end before March 21, 1844.  After this day came and went without incident, the deadline was extended to April 18 and then October 22.  After his third failed prediction, Miller’s followers gave up on him.  However, several of them went on to found the Seventh Day Adventist and Jehovah’s Witness churches in subsequent years.

So yes, apocalyptic enthusiasts are nothing new to Christian history.  In fact, Jesus even warned us to watch out for folks like this.  When the disciples asked Jesus about the end of the world, he told them in Matthew 24,

…if anyone says to you, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘There he is!’ —do not believe it. 24For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25Take note, I have told you beforehand. 26So, if they say to you, ‘Look! He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look! He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

Instead, Jesus comforts his followers with these words from today’s gospel reading:

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

When it comes to this “end of the world” business, Jesus is essentially saying, “Don’t worry about it” and “Trust me.”  Nevertheless, there always seems to be someone out there who claims to have the inside scoop on when and how the world is going to end.  They claim to know “the way” to secure one’s eternal destiny in light of the coming devastation.  Well, Jesus had a thing or two to say about that as well.  He reminded his followers they already knew “the way” to God.

“Wait a minute,” one of them said, “what ‘way’ are you talking about, Jesus?  I don’t remember you saying anything about a ‘way’!”

“Sure you do,” Jesus said, “It’s me.  I am the way.”

Now, if you’re still feeling confused as you read this, don’t worry.  It’s supposed to be confusing.  This is another classic example of Jesus talking right over the heads of his disciples.  He uses these cryptic images in order to shake people out of their normal way of thinking.  Jesus wants to expand their (and our) minds to operate on a spiritual level, far above that of ordinary reasoning.

With this famous phrase, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”, we are venturing into territory that makes Christianity unique among the religions of the world.  In many world religions, there is usually founder or other figurehead who acts a messenger for the Divine.  That person is given a message that will guide the world toward salvation or enlightenment.  Moses received the Torah, Muhammad received the Qur’an, and the Buddha received the Eightfold Path.  In each of these cases, it’s the message, not the messenger, that’s most important.  The unique thing about Christianity is that the messenger is the message.  God is not revealed through a book or a teaching, but through a person, namely, Jesus of Nazareth.  To know Jesus is to know God.  If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.

This makes people uncomfortable.  A personal God is too unpredictable and too intimate for most people.  The only way to be in a relationship with a personal God is to come to know, love, and trust that person.  Most people (including Christians) feel much more at ease with a God who can be contained within a body of teaching (like the Bible) or an institution (like the Church).  Protestants do it just as much as Catholics.  So-called “liberal” Christians do it just as much as so-called “conservatives”.

Let me give an example:

Many people in our society are quite familiar with the traditional evangelical presentation of the Christian message: Jesus Christ was born, so they say, in order to die on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of humankind so that people can go to heaven when they die.  The way to God is through the cross of Christ.

On the other hand, many people are also quite familiar with the progressive and “liberal” presentation of Christianity: Jesus Christ was an inspirational activist and philosopher whose teachings offer humankind a system of ethics that will lead us toward a more spiritually enlightened society.  The way to God is through the teachings of Jesus.

I think both of these perspectives fall short of Jesus’ intention.  Both the cross and the teachings of Christ are of paramount importance in the larger scheme of things, but they are only parts of the whole.  It’s the person of Jesus Christ who is the final revelation of God to humankind.  Jesus is the way.  If we want to get to know God, we must get to know Jesus.

How do we do that?  I don’t have an answer to that question.  Sure, I could hand you a list of activities (like reading the Bible or going to church) that are supposed to help you get to know Jesus, but that would be just another way of putting God into a manageable box that can be unlocked with the right formula.  The fact is that there are as many ways of getting to know Jesus as there are ways of getting to know any other person.

Think about the last time you were really in love or had a crush on someone.  What did you do?  You spent a lot of time thinking about that person.  You hung on his or her every word.  You gazed longingly over your shoulder whenever that person walked by.  You studied every feature on his or her face.  You spent as much time as possible with that person.  Your friends probably got sick and tired of hearing you talk about it.

In the same way, getting to know Jesus is more like falling in love than signing a contract.  The only difference between us and his earliest followers is that we don’t get the luxury of his physical presence with us.  We have to get to know Jesus in other ways.  I can’t tell you how it’s going to happen for you, because it’s different for everybody.  However, I can offer you some ideas about how it might happen.

For some people, getting to know Jesus happens dramatically and suddenly, like falling head-over-heels in love.  For others, it happens gradually over a long period of time, like sharing a cup of coffee with an old friend.  For some people, it happens through conventional channels, like going to church or reading the Bible.  For others, it happens in very surprising and unconventional ways.

My favorite story of an unconventional encounter with Jesus comes from the autobiographical work Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott.  (I should warn you that this vignette will be edited for content, as Anne is known for being a somewhat foul-mouthed saint.)  This scene opens with Anne living on a houseboat at the end of a dock, deep in the throes of her addiction to alcohol and drugs.  One week prior, she’d had an abortion and was still bleeding profusely.  During this time, she would occasionally visit a Presbyterian church near her house, but would always sneak out before the sermon.  Anne continues:

Several hours later, the blood stopped flowing, and I got in bed, shaky and sad and too wild to have another drink or take a sleeping pill.  I had a cigarette and turned out the light.  After a while, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my [late] father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone.  The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there—of course, there wasn’t.  But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus.  I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.

And I was appalled.  I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends, I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen.  I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”

I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing him with.

Finally I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone.

This experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and booze and loss of blood.  But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in.  But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever.  So I tried to keep one step ahead of it, slamming my houseboat door when I entered or left.

And one week later, when I went back to church, I was so hungover that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape.  It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling—and it washed over me.

I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said, “F**k it: I quit.”  I took a long deep breath and said out loud, “All right.  You can come in.”

So this was the beautiful moment of my conversion.