Tuesday, November 16, 2010

All Things! New! (Isaiah 65:17-25)

If you're God, you get to call do-overs and mean it.

Isaiah's prophecy foretells a re-created universe in which the wrongs and failings of this existence are no more. In Revelation, John's vision of a new heaven and a new earth will draw on the language Isaiah uses here, and Christianity's view of what's sometimes called the "Peaceable Kingdom" that Jesus will inaugurate with his Second Coming also relies on these images.

Much of the passage is taken up with descriptions of life in this new existence. An exiled people would have been encouraged by the idea that they would build and live in their own homes rather than a foreign land. Folks who were too often prey to disease and death at young ages, and who watched a significant number of children die before they were five, would probably rejoice at the idea of long and healthy lives.

But when I was reading it the other day, something caught my eye that actually wasn't there. My tendency has always been to see the re-creation of the universe has happening the same way the original creation happened: From nothing, and more or less in a blink of an eye at a word from God. That's the way God made the universe in Genesis. The words that describe things before God began to work talk about chaos and nothingness, and from them God brought order and life.

God may do the very same thing when he re-creates the heavens and the earth -- make a brand-new cosmos from chaos and nothingness. But nothing about what God says here through Isaiah says that he will, which means that he might re-create it a different way also. When I started thinking about different ways to make a new heavens and a new earth, I wondered when God might start that re-creation process. And it hit me that he might already have.

We say creation "fell" when the first man and the first woman sinned in the garden. Sin and death entered the world, and became a part of it where they had not been before. What if God's plan of re-creation began even then? Remember God told them that from their seed would come redemption, and that one of their descendants would "bruise the head" of the serpent that had tempted and deceived them.

And then remember the strand of history that follows. Starting with Abraham, God chose a people with whom he would be in covenant. That people grew through Abraham's descendants, until by the time of Jacob they numbered twelve full tribes. Those tribes escaped a famine by living in Egypt, and then their descendants escaped slavery in Egypt and reclaimed their land, led by God working through Moses and Joshua.

When the people clamored for a king, God gave them one, and eventually David became a king through whom God made another covenant, proclaiming that one of his descendants would sit on the throne of Israel forever. Through exile and return, the culture of the Hebrews was shaped in a particular way, and that was the culture into which Christ was born, the culture which shaped him and the church he created.

It seems possible to me that, no matter what God does on that final day of judgment in making a new cosmos, that part of his recreation is tied up in the redemption of the cosmos that already exists. The final transformation is something that probably on God can conceive of or enact, but in the meantime he has been transforming this world that is, especially the hearts and minds of the people that live in it.

You and I are a part of God's creation -- when God redeems us and when God's grace heals our broken relationship with him, we are re-created and made new. Not all at once -- based on my own experience, anyway -- but what our sin made impossible our redemption makes reality. Our redemption makes a little piece of the heavens and the earth new.

The final act of re-creation is God's. Isaiah describes the wolf and the lamb eating together. Only God is going to make that happen; no matter how much we try to tame a wolf, if it's hungry and there happens to be a lamb nearby, only one of those two is going to eat. In the meantime we are enlisted to help it move forward. Our own re-creation happens not simply for our sakes, but so that we can spread it around. We have known the love and redemption of God, and now we share that with those around us.

We have been made new, and now God calls us to be a part of making other things new as well.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Believing is Seeing (Hebrews 11:1-3)

The idea of faith costs Christianity a lot of potential followers. Lots of people like what Jesus says about how to help the poor, love our enemies and treat each other with respect and dignity. But when it comes down to a decision to accept as real things that can't be proven as real, well, they part company.

Some Christians hold that following Jesus doesn't have to have this idea of faith in it. We can do just fine without supernatural concepts and ideas, or holding something true that can't be proved true. I respect those folks for sticking with their principles, but I believe we can't reduce Christianity to what we can perceive with our senses and prove with our reason. There's something more to it.

Which leaves me to wrestle with this idea of faith being the "conviction of things not seen," or "evidence of things not seen," as you may have heard it if you grew up with the King James version. What makes a life of faith different than a life without faith? What are these unseen things that faith prompts us to accept when we have no real-world evidence for doing so?

First, it seems like there are two main reasons we don't see things. One is that we can't. Too small, too dark, too bright, too far away, etc., are the kinds of things that prevent us from physically seeing something, and there might be some connections there, but I want to focus on the other reason this time. Lots of times, we don't see things because we overlook them -- we don't pay attention.

There's a well-known perception test video in which people are asked to count the number of times a basketball is passed back and forth among a group of people. During the video, a person in a gorilla suit walks through the middle of  the game, stops, beats his or her chest, and walks on across to the other side. The people who developed the test say that almost half of the people who watch the video don't see the gorilla until they are asked about it and shown the scene again. They overlooked it because they were looking to see how many times the basketball was passed.

Physically, of course, they saw the gorilla-suited person just like they saw the people and the basketball. Light reflected from the image in the visible spectrum; that light reached the rod and cone cells of their retinas and sent chemical and electrical signals along their optic nerves to their brains and their brains processed the images. But they didn't perceive the person in the gorilla suit. The simple change from paying attention to the basketball to paying attention to the whole scene almost acted like an entirely new sense, adding a layer to the viewers' perceptions that hadn't been there before.

I believe that the Holy Spirit works in the lives of believers in the same way that paying attention worked in the eyes of the test audience. The Spirit adds another layer of perception to our senses that enables us to "see" things, so to speak, that our everyday senses don't pick up.

For example, if you come to a busy intersection in a city, there may be people standing there holding signs about needing some kind of help. You might notice them and not pay any attention to them at all. Or you might pay attention and see them as humans being in need of help -- chances are the help that will do them the most good isn't the help their signs ask for, but truly seeing them involves recognizing that they are in fact people in need. Many people do this, and many people, believers and otherwise, try to help those folks.

But a Christian sees more than just a piece of the scenery and sees even more than a person needing help. A Christian sees a child of God. A Christian sees someone whose birth brought God joy and whose spirit Christ thought worth his death on the cross to save. And if you don't think it takes the eyes of faith to see a glorious child of God in some of the burnouts who stand at off-ramp corners, you haven't met many of them.

The eyes of faith see bread and juice (or wine) as bread and juice, and as symbols given to us by a risen King, not a memorialized lost leader. For some traditions, the elements of communion are actually the body and blood of Christ, even though they may still look like the earthly elements they appear to be. Either way, we Christians perceive something in those symbols that people who look at them without faith do not see. Doesn't make us any better, smarter or more perceptive, but it does mean we perceive them differently.

So why have these eyes of faith? Why trouble ourselves about perceiving the world differently than other people might? Why create the headache of having to defend something to someone who doesn't even accept our premise to start with and rejects the idea that there's anything beyond what we can sense or prove? The folks who cruise past the guy at the off-ramp intersection like he's not even there probably sleep easier at night than the ones who wonder if that guy even has a place of his own to sleep.

Well, for one I need the eyes of faith to look in the mirror and see a redeemed child of God instead of a hopeless sinner. I run out of evidence that I'm a follower of God long before I run out of things in my life that need to be brought in line with God. Only the testimony of God's Holy Spirit that Jesus really did live, die and rise again in order to set my relationship with God right is gonna sway me in the face of all the physical evidence to the contrary.

For another, the eyes of faith can show us a hint or a glimpse of the world the way God intends for it to be, just as they may show us a glimpse of us the way God intends us to be. Perceiving the world in the way the Holy Spirit reveals it to us offers us a context for life unavailable without it.

It also opens up the true wonder of the world around us. Reflected light, atmospheric conditions, rods and cone cells and optic nerves and whatnot can describe for me the exact process by which I see a sunset, but none of those things can help me know why I might look at one and go, "Wow." Life without faith is walking. Walking will get you where you need to go, and good, beneficial lives can be led by people without faith,.

But life with faith is dancing. And the two are not the same.