TIME

We have been studying the afterlife in one of the Bible Study groups, which has been a fascinating study. It has provided us with lots of great starting points for extended discussions and significant questions and even some confusion. The discussion also re-opened a train of thought that I come back to now and then. We touched on the idea in our study and it was great to know that other people have similar ideas and struggles with the topic as I have been having over the years.

When we look at the whole concept of the afterlife, we open a door to a bigger discussion of time—not time in the sense of the clock and calendar and not even time in the Biblical sense of the coming together of a bunch of factors but time itself. I have not seen too many theological discussions that deal with the theory of time. I own and have waded through Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time but I am still trying to wrap my head around the whole issue of time.

And while that may sound like I am some sort of science or science fiction nerd (which I am), thinking about time does have some significant theological implications. The difficulty with the process is that our human existence is bounded and determined by time. We measure it, we spend it, we waste it, we schedule our days and our lives by time. If it is 6:00am, it is time to get up. At 12:00, we can have lunch. At age 5, we go to school. At age 18 or so, we have to make serious decisions about our future. At age 65, we can retire.

So we live within time and therefore have difficulty seeing outside that temporal box. Yet there is very good theological evidence that God exists outside of time—time is likely one of the things God created. The temporal realm that we live in may only be a limited form of existence which God created for his reasons but which may eventually end and be replaced by something different. Eternity, for example, may not be measured by the clock, which will likely be a good thing—even the best of experiences begins to drag when we spend a certain amount of time at it.

If God exists outside of time, then a lot of theology is more understandable. For example, it is easier for me to see how God can know everything past, present and future. If he exists outside of time, all time is visible to him. God doesn’t have to wait for time to pass to see how things will work out. He sees all time from his vantage point and so can see the beginning, the middle and the ending of everything simultaneously. Thinking about stuff like that can get me started on a theological headache fairly easily.

I don’t actually expect to ever get a full understanding of things like time. I enjoy the process of thinking about it and playing with the implications and trying to fit pieces together. But my thinking about the theory of time also has another valuable aspect. It helps me to remember that in the end, I am not God—I am not even a god. There are limits to what I or any other human can know, do and understand. At some point, I always come back to the reality that there is something beyond me. And for me, that something is God.

The creator and sustainer of all, the all knowing, the ever present, the be all and end of everything knows and does stuff that I can never understand because he is God and I am not and never will be God. I can and should do and learn and figure out everything I can. I can and should struggle with the stuff I may never understand, like the theory of time. But in the end, I keep coming back to the reality that there is something beyond me and my abilities, a God who not only understands the theory of time but who actually created time.

And what makes this even more important is that the God of all creation and beyond loves me and all humanity and shows that love and grace in concrete and clear ways. I may never understand the theory of time, I may never understand why God would love me, but I believe it and believe him when he says he loves me.

May the peace of God be with you.

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THE JOURNEY OR THE DESTINATION?

I grew up in a small community in a poor family. We didn’t have a car until I was 11 or so. That meant that in my early life, I really didn’t go too far. Although a couple of my siblings had medical issues that required them to travel all the way to the city, any health issues I had were taken care of by the local doctor, whose office we walked to. Travelling was something that other people did and I heard about or watched on TV.

Eventually, that changed and I began to travel. We got a car and I got to go to the city. I won a summer trip to the Caribbean in high school. I got my own car and travelled to university. I worked overseas. I have travelled a lot and hope to travel a lot more. But I realized a while ago that in the end, I don’t much like travelling—I like being other places but the process of getting there tends to be a pain. I would really like the Stat Trek transporter to be invented. Rather than drive or fly or whatever, I just want to be there, to do whatever it is that I want to be there to do.

That impatience with travel doesn’t seem to carry over into the rest of my life. I find that I am most comfortable and focused when I am working on something—I like to know where I am going but generally am not overly concerned with actually getting there. As a pastor, for example, I spend a lot of time and effort helping churches do self-evaluations and determine directions and make plans to move towards those directions.

In fact, most of my time as a pastor is spent with congregations moving from some place to another place. There are differences in the ultimate destination and significant differences in the journey to that destination and that is what makes things interesting, at least for me. We study, we discuss, we plan, we experiment, we implement, we revise, we pray, we take a few steps, we fall back, we make progress—we are on a journey.

My personal life follows the same pattern. There is always somewhere to go personally. Maybe I need to learn some new ability. Maybe I need to deal with some less than great part of my personality. Maybe I need to understand and change the way I react to certain people. If I am not perfect, there is always something that needs to be worked on—and when I get a bit lazy or complacent in that area, God has a tendency to make pointed and persistent suggestions.

If I had to, I could define the destination for our church journeys. When I need to, I can define the destination for my personal journeys. But most of the time, the journey is more important than the destination in both those areas. And I think the reason for that is that any destination for the church or me personally is always temporary. Doing the hard work of reaching the destination is important—but once I or we reach the destination, there is always another destination in the distance that is beckoning or which God is suggesting that we head for.

So, I make the journey to deal with my current bout of depression and arrive at the depression-free destination. That is great. I can stretch and relax and enjoy the destination—at least until I look ahead and see that maybe if I take this route, I just might be able to avoid then next bout of depression all together. And the journey begins again.

I am going to spend my whole life on the journey. But that is actually okay. I know where the whole thing is going and the final destination is pretty great. But before I reach that destination where I will be in the full and complete presence of God, there are a lot of journeys to a lot of temporary destinations—and I generally enjoy the journey.

I might not care much for the long hours sitting in cars, airports and airplanes required to visit my grandchildren but until the transporter is invented, I will cope because the destination is worth it. But on the journey to my final destination, both the journey and the destination are worth it.

May the peace of God be with you.

HEAVEN, HELL AND ALL THAT STUFF

One of the Bible study groups I work with decided last year that we should spend some time looking at the Biblical ideas of heaven and hell. Since this was the first time in my long ministry that a group had requested that topic, it gave me a chance to do some original research. While the research took more time than digging stuff out of my old files, it is kind of fun to spend some time looking at something different.

At first, I thought this would be a relatively easy research project—after all, heaven and hell are basic topics in the Bible and the Christian life. Anyone who has spend any amount of time in the conservative church knows all about what heaven and hell will be like. Of course, we have tended over the years to get fuller descriptions of hell than heaven—the conservative church has traditionally been more comfortable scaring people with stories of hell than we have enticing them with pictures of heaven.

But as the research progressed, I began to realize that this wasn’t as easy a project as I first thought. Heaven and hell are important topics in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. But as I read through the various references, it soon became clear that the New Testament, while assuming that there is a heaven for the faithful and a hell for the unfaithful, doesn’t actually tell us a lot about them. And, as I dug further and further, much of what it does tell us about them is likely more an attempt to use what we know to understand what we don’t know.

And far from being troubling or a problem, I found that reality quite pleasing. After years and years of listening to descriptions of heaven and hell, I can take a new look at the whole thing. I don’t need to expect streets paved with gold running past huge mansions in heaven. I don’t have to squirm and twist internally at the thought of eternal flames torturing people forever and ever. The relatively few descriptive images we have in the New Testament about what comes next are God’s attempt to compress the infinite so that we finite beings can have something of a glimpse of what it is really going to be like.

The few images are built on the idea that to be fully and completely in the presence of God will be great but beyond our imagining—and being fully and completely without God will be terrible beyond our imagining. I am pretty sure that we can’t even imagine the greatness and terribleness.

The essential message is that there is much more—and the much more is so far from what we know and understand and can comprehend that we can only have vague and very imperfect glimpses of it. This realization does a couple of things for me.

First, it serves to remind me that God is God—he (or she) is infinite and eternal and beyond anything I can imagine—and given that my imagination is partly fueled by science and science fiction, I can really imagine a lot of far out stuff. I need to be reminded at times that God is beyond my ability to comprehend. God is—and most of that being is outside my ability to get a hold of.

But that reality isn’t scary or confusing or depressing because of the second thing it does for me. I may not be able to comprehend heaven, I may be seriously limited in my ability to understand the reality of God but one of the things that God has made very clear is that in his (or her) infiniteness and eternalness, God wants me to be with him, to be in relationship with him (or her).

I don’t know why God would want that. In fact, I doubt that I will ever be able to figure that out this side of eternity—I am limited here and now by my finiteness. But I can and do believe it. It is a core and foundational part of my life now. I believe that God loves me. There are a lot of details that I don’t and probably can’t understand but this, I can understand and trust—God loves me with an eternal and undying love and because of that, there is more to me and life than the here and now.

May the peace of God be with you.