Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Heaven Invading Human Space

I'm reading Dallas Willard's classic book The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. For some time Dallas Willard has interested me and I just have never gotten a chance to start digging into his books. After he died a few weeks ago I took it as a wake up call to pick one up. The Spirit of Disciplines is probably his most famous. In that one Willard makes his case for living out the spiritual disciplines as a means of embracing the gracious and loving presence of God.  In many ways Dallas Willard embodies what my whole purpose of this blog has been: gratefully receiving the unearned, eternal grace of God through Christ by living out that love through a life of gratitude, hope and joy. It's about time I read some of Willard's works.

Yesterday I got into a section of the third chapter of The Divine Conspiracy called "Heaven Invading Human Space." The images and language that Willard uses there is festering within my mind and soul. Willard emphasizes in his book that heaven is not some distant place where God lives and people go after they die. "The kingdom of the heavens," as he puts it, is not only breaking in, but is and has been upon us throughout all of human history. Jesus, God incarnate, points the way to this "kingdom of the heavens" and teaches how we can live as people of this kingdom right now.  I understand all of that, and do agree with him. As much as any place, John's Gospel reveals to us how we can live in this spiritual, heavenly kingdom right now. The problem is that, like so many of us, what I can understand in theory does not always play out in my life. Again, that's the call of this blog: Love Christ Live Faith. Start living the kingdom. Start living in grace.

Willard has given me an image that's going to stick for a long time:
     The inability to accept the fact that our familiar atmosphere is a "heaven" in which God dwells and from which he deals with us leads to some curious translations of biblical texts. In Acts 11:5-9, within a span of five verses, exactly the same phrase, tou ouranou, is translated in three different ways by the NASV, and by most others. It is translated "the sky" in verse 5, "the air" in verse 6, and "heaven" in verse 9.
     This, you may recall, is where Peter in a trance sees a sheet with all kinds of animals on it being let down through the atmosphere (tou ouranou). Among them are birds of the atmosphere. and he hears a voice from the atmosphere telling him to rise and eat. 
     Now our English sky means something quite different from air, and heaven means something quite different from either. The translation becomes entangled in these meanings. The sky is more a limit than a place, and as a place it is farther away than the air. Hence, we say, "The sky's the limit," not "the air's the limit." Heaven, of course, is strictly out of sight for us, beyond the moon for sure and quite likely "beyond" the physical cosmos.
     A consistent translation of tou ouranou drawing upon the biblical context could use "air" or "atmosphere" in each occurrence, as I have just done, and thus give the precise content of Peter's experience. God spoke to Peter from the surrounding "thin air," where birds fly and from which the sheet came. This conveys quite a different impression than the standard translations, which usually only speak of "heaven" in this passage. (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, Ch. 3)
Willard makes this point by lifting up a passage from Acts as an example. But even before Peter and the sheet full of food Willard gives many examples even in the Old Testament of heaven truly invading human space: from God appearing to Abraham to Jacob bridging the gap between heaven and earth. What happens when we truly no longer think of heaven as being some distant place in the sky, but present among us like air and atmosphere?

Jesus says "and remember, I am with you always until the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20).  The Spirit is given to the disciples like a gust of wind at Pentecost (Acts 2:2). Jesus compares being born of the spirit and living in the spirit to wind in John 3. "Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."

Jesus' primary message to the world is that the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven or "the kingdom of the heavens") has come near. "Repent, and believe the good news (Mark 1:15)." This repentance is more about changing your life than about confessing sin. It means breaking free from the confining structures of the worldly kingdom that limit us, tell us no, and enslave us to sin. Changing your life means loving Christ and living faith through embracing the consciousness of Christ. We are free to follow. We are free to live responsibly. We are free to live the Kingdom of God. And as Jesus says, this is "good news." Believe this "good news."

Back to the atmosphere, which is Willard's translation of literally "the heavens" in the Greek. What would it mean to feel a warm breeze and remember the presence of God and the inspiration of the Spirit? What would it mean to have the air conditioning blow upon you and remember you are a child of God, living the kingdom, partaking in the "Bread of Life" through faith.

As common as wind blowing through your hair are the moments of God's presence and guidance. God moments remind us of our connectedness and the helping hand of the Good Shepherd; they are moments of living in the freedom of the Kingdom of God.  And my friends, this is the truth you want to live in. It is a Kingdom of the Possible and a Kingdom of Hope. It is the reality of giving your burdens to Christ and taking upon yourself his yoke, which is so easy and light. The Kingdom of God, which is among us, is where we have life and have it abundantly.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Don't Leave Me

Today is Ascension Day. It's been forty days since Easter. A lot has happened, but it also doesn't seem so long ago. The ups and downs the disciples of Jesus went through over a two month span are enormous. The hope and optimism of Palm Sunday: Jesus will overthrow Rome. The bewilderment of the Last Supper: Surely not I Lord. The horror of the crucifixion: It is finished. The confusion of the resurrection: It seems an idle tale. The new hope and optimism of Jesus' resurrection life: My Lord and My God! Once we get to the Mount of the Ascension were right back to where the disciples started.

And then he leaves.

The disciples are left behind. Yes, they are left with a promise and a call... The promise: I will give you an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to help, encourage, and empower you to serve. The call: look around you and reach out into the world that needs to hear about Jesus.

But you left us Jesus.

Those two months, between Palm Sunday and Pentecost, was a period of transition unlike any other in history. For those who lived it and experienced it, how painful it must have been. It concludes with Pentecost. Jesus fulfills his promise when the Spirit is given to the disciples. The Spirit gives them the ability to answer their God given call and the encouragement to persevere through enormous odds against them.

The same Holy Spirit serves as our Advocate as well. God helps us and inspires us through the Spirit. We stumble upon God-moment after God-moment and recognize them as such through the Spirit. The Holy Spirit helps us through our transitions. When we say goodbye to coworkers and friends, neighbors and family members the Spirit moves us forward with hope. We not only can get through this, we can come through transition stronger.

The Great Commission of Matthew's Gospel puts it well for us. Yes Jesus departs but he promises to be with us, to the end of the age. Jesus is with you and doesn't leave you stuck on the mount of your transitions. God has empowered with hope and gifts that move you forward.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Martin & Jackie; Django & Quentin

The film director Quentin Tarantino is known for making good movies and known for making violent movies. Yes violent movies can be good. Tarantino knows how to pull that off. In telling his stories Tarantino likes to pay homage to past eras through the costumes, language and look of his movies.  Some of his more recent movies are even set in the past. But instead of being non-fiction, his historical movies give you the sense of how Tarantino would have liked to have seen history play out. For example, in Inglorious Bastards, Tarantino creates an armed and extremely dangerous elite fighting corp of Jews who are parachuted into Germany during World War II. Instead of watching the horrors of Jews suffering at the hands of the Nazis in his movie, we instead watch these soldiers giving the Nazis a taste of their own medicine. If only that could have happened in the 1940's. 

In his recent Academy Award nominated movie Django Unchained Tarantino goes further back into the past: two years before the Civil War. The slave Django is given the opportunity to work with a bounty hunter.  He gains his freedom and makes it his mission to track down and rescue his wife, who he hasn't seen in years and is being severely abused as a slave. In the movie Tarantino has Django march through the south (and southern salve owners) like Rambo on steroids. He fulfills, all by himself, the abolitionist John Brown's dream of a salve uprising in the south. If only that could have happened in the 1850's. 

I wonder how Tarantino would film a movie about Jesus. It would probably play out like many of the Jesus movies in the beginning, but the tide would turn in the Garden of Gethsemane  Not only would a Tarantino Jesus not tell Peter to put away his sword, he would probably have taken it from him to begin the revolution. Look out Pilate. It won't be Jesus hanging on the cross this time.  

Jesus models a truth that is different from Tarantino's truth. Tarantino reveals justice through violent pay back; the wicked getting their just desserts. Jesus models the Kingdom of God.  Jesus models the Sermon on the Mount: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."  Ultra-violence in the 1860's didn't come with a slave uprising, but did come with the Civil War... a war that did lead to the end of slavery but also a hundred years of Jim Crow. 

For as satisfying it might be to see Nazis and heartless slave owners getting their just desserts, real power and real change comes through love. Real change came when Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights protesters in the 1950's marched peacefully, even in the face of violence. Non-violent protest transformed into the riots of the late 1960's and the set back can still be felt in cities like Chicago today. 

What if Tarantino had made the current movie about the baseball player Jackie Robinson? It would have looked a whole lot different. Like King, Robinson responded to racist threats of violence with compassion, tolerance and love. He changed the world. 

If we are to model the life of Christ, taught to us in the Sermon on the Mount... If our conscience is to be the conscience of Christ, then we are called to boldly act with love and compassion. Yes, stand against injustice. Yes, stand with those who are oppressed. But do it prayerfully and with humility. Stand and let the light of Christ shine in your actions.