Saturday, July 31, 2010

For a Little While

Through faith [you] are shielded by God’s power… In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. (1 Peter 1.5-6)

Time Dilation

My comprehension of the theory of relativity wouldn’t fill a thimble. There is, however, one component I find especially intriguing. Commonly known as “time dilation,” the theory posits that time passes more slowly for moving objects than stationary ones. Because variants in earthbound speed are relatively minimal, the difference is imperceptible. Yet it checks out mathematically and can be applied to bodies traveling through the universe, where travel speeds vary widely. Time dilation’s most powerful implication for us, I think, comes by improving awareness of the differences between our time and God’s time. As we all know, they are not the same.

We remain in flux. God remains at rest. He covers all time and space. We move through them. Time for Him is eternal, meaning the past, present, and future is simultaneous and impossible to gauge in a linear fashion. Our time is finite, creating perceptions it’s a measurable thing we can fractionalize in years, months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. Ticking our way through life encourages us to evaluate our progress by how far we move in how much time. We hail those who advance swiftly as prodigies and lament those who mature slowly as “challenged.” Yet for the quickest to the slowest of us, time crawls in comparison to God’s time. Psalm 90.4 astutely reflects the time dilation theory: “For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.” From where God sits, time flies. From where we are, it creeps. And time disparities between Him and us are most exasperating when we’re trudging through trials, waiting impatiently for His intervention.

Real Time

First-century Christians were obsessed with time. They discussed it constantly, and were we to overhear their conversations, we’d think them slightly mad. As witnesses to Christ’s ascension (or converts taught by its witnesses), they based their lives on His soon return. It’s odd to imagine they didn’t know they were founding a faith that would endure for centuries. But they didn’t. They believed Christianity would last no longer a generation or two. Expedience informed everything they did. Then, as believers died away, they no doubt wrestled with disillusionment. Why was it taking so long for Christ’s promised return?

As the Church’s first leader, Peter is endowed with a profound grasp of time. In his second epistle, he directly quotes Psalm 90.4, reminding his readers to hew their expectations to God’s timing, not their perceptions. “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness,” he writes. (2 Peter 3.9) He stresses perceived delays indicate God gives us proper time to be reconciled to Him: “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” Peter tells us time dilation has a purpose. The longer it seems God waits, the longer we have to learn how to follow His ways. Delays become reasons to rejoice—once we realize the time discrepancy is on our end. Because we’re moving, it feels as though God falls behind on His promises when, in fact, He answers and works in real time.


Accepting time discrepancies between God and us won’t necessarily offset our frustrations, though. As sentient creatures, perceptions are reality. How do we deal with that? Peter tells us to shift our attention from the clock to what happens during the wait. “Through faith [you] are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time,” he writes. (1 Peter 1.5) While passing through life’s troubles, we sharpen our sense of God’s protection. He grants us traveling mercies to ensure we’ll survive our trials and tests. It’s not about the light at the end of the tunnel, but Who’s with us in the tunnel. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me,” Psalm 23.4 exclaims. We know this verse by heart. But do we truly take it to heart? We should.

Being confident we’re shielded by God’s power lifts anxiety about how quickly He’ll fix our situation. Since He’s already going through it with us, we have nothing to fear. As a great pastor I knew taught, God’s presence in us makes us invincible. Paul explains this in 2 Corinthians 4.7-9: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” Faith in our invincibility adjusts our sense of time. We may feel weary, confused, attacked, and down for the count, but however long our trials last, we will never be overpowered, distressed, forsaken, or defeated. “In this you greatly rejoice,” Peter writes, “though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise.” (v6-7) For a little while, Peter says. How long is that? By our clocks, “a little while” could last a lifetime. But when we trust God’s protection, we learn to live in His real time. How long “a little while” takes is secondary at best. Having Him with us—in us—all the while is what counts.

Moving through life’s trials causes us to perceive time as slower than it is. God’s time is accurate and real. Rather than grow impatient with Him, we rejoice that He protects and keeps us all the while.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Entertaining Strangers

Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13.2)

Trust and Obey

The injunction against Arizona’s heinously overreaching immigration law brings a sigh of relief to American believers of every stripe. If not, it should, because it draws us back to Biblical principles that demand hospitality for strangers—i.e., foreigners or people “not like us.” While other sociopolitical issues like marital equality, women’s rights, and GLBT military and ecclesiastical service have become religious flashpoints, immigration may very well be the crucible God uses to melt, refine, and unite American people of faith.

It is not ironic that the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the “In God We Trust” inscription on US currency one week prior to Judge Susan Bolton temporarily stripping Arizona’s legislation of its racist content. If America insists on wearing its faith on its sleeve, it must open its arms to strangers. If it stands on trust in God, it must kneel in obedience to His will. God’s Word—be it the Hebrew Tanakh, Christian Bible, or Muslim Qur’an—can’t be plainer in its expectations that we who believe will welcome strangers. James 2.17 tightens our constraint to heed God’s command: “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” A hymn writer put it like this: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way.” Those who trust in God obey Him. It’s that simple.

We Forget

God commanded Israel and Jesus taught us to embrace strangers for a very obvious reason: we are aliens in a hostile, barren land. “I am a stranger on earth,” David writes in Psalm 119.19. We forget that. In Israel’s case, God’s people were literally illegal aliens. Abraham and generations after him were no less than squatters, camping on land they didn’t own, grazing herds in pastures they didn’t purchase. Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt into a desert very much like the one in Arizona. A trail of corpses cluttered Sinai just like those in Pima County. They crossed Jordan the same as Hispanic people cross the Rio Grande. They had no papers or passports. They entered Canaan with only the goods they could carry and the promise of a better life. Those who fought Israel’s immigration met destruction. Those who assisted them—Rahab, the prostitute, for example—were protected and blessed. We forget that.

We forget Joseph was imprisoned in Egypt because he was a stranger. The infant Moses was discovered in the Nile because Pharaoh decided to “thin the herd” of foreign slaves. Ruth was an alien in Israel after her husband died. Ezra was a Jew born in exile who faced opposition at home because he was a stranger. Esther was a Hebrew orphan who rose to the Persian throne and rescued expatriated Jews when public opinion rose against them. Xenophobic Babylonians conspired to abuse, imprison, and kill Daniel and his friends. Jesus entered the world in a strange place and foreigners defied Herod to spare His life. The Apostles faced hostility wherever they went. They were repeatedly jailed—and most of them martyred—in foreign lands.

We forget these people were to some extent guilty of the same charges (allegedly) God-fearing Americans level at immigrants. As long as their numbers were “manageable,” they boosted the economy; when they flourished, they were reviled as a scourge. They disrupted the peace and posed a public threat. They altered cultures and defied customs. They spoke odd languages and embraced peculiar beliefs. And we forget these are the people we’re told to identify and emulate as people of God. In the Bible, it is strangers who change the world and bring blessings to nations where they live. This raises thorny questions for a people boasting of its trust in God. How can we believe in Him yet ignore what He tells us to do? How will we be blessed by turning away from His principle?

Angels Among Us

I don’t frequent neoconservative religious sites. But after the Arizona ruling, I cruised a few to gauge their response. While I’m sure there are deviations from what I saw, radically right blogs fell silent, while closer-to-center ones went out of their way to balance their views. They consistently cited Matthew 25’s parable of the sheep and goats, in which those who invite strangers into their homes are rewarded and those who don’t are cast out. The call for compassion and fairness for immigrants cannot be denied—which is why I believe it may serve as the crucible of American faith. That this firestorm erupted in a God-trusting nation proves how far we’ve strayed.

Believers who’ve shaped their opinions of this matter in obedience to God must realize His standard rests above compassion—caring about the fates and rights of strangers in theory, from afar. The invitation Christ speaks of in Matthew exceeds an open door or Welcome mat at the border. It implies a passionate commitment to the welfare and growth of those seeking refuge with us. Once they cross our portal, we’re required to honor the other standards Jesus lays out in His parable: if they’re hungry, we feed them; if they’re thirsty, we give them drink; if they’re naked, we clothe them; if they’re sick and in prison, we care for them. This isn’t manmade socialism. It’s Gospel.

If we honored the Word we claim to know, we’d understand God ordains this edict for our benefit. Hebrews 13.2 insists we entertain strangers—invite them in, care for them, and learn from them. “By so doing,” it says, “some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” God places angels among us—not all of them homegrown. Future leaders and pastors, teachers and physicians, role models and geniuses leave their homes and risk their lives to abide in this land. We can’t scan them for seeds of greatness, yet it’s ludicrous to believe many don’t carry them. Raising walls to keep them out raises barriers for us. Deporting them deprives us. Anti-immigrant legislation won’t make us a better, stronger, more obedient nation. Clipping angels’ wings in the name of self-protection reveals how poorly we trust God and how little we know of Him.

Is this the Sinai or Arizona?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Christ Figures

Even now my witness is in heaven; my advocate is on high. My intercessor is my friend, as my eyes pour out tears to God. (Job 16.20)

The Middleman

A number of years ago while re-watching The Sorrow and the Pity, Marcel Ophuls’ masterful documentary about Nazi-occupied France, I bumped into a character that’s become an obsession for me. Through details too convoluted to summarize here, Denis Rake—a 40-year-old openly gay cabaret performer—volunteered as a British agent in France, where he served as a go-between for the Resistance and the Allied forces. He was perfectly suited for the job, being fluent in French and an expert radio operator. But Rake’s intrepid nature was his greatest asset. Even though homosexuality was illegal in England until 1967, at a very early age he summoned the courage to live honestly by honing skills to elude arrest. The brief interview in Ophuls’ four-hour film reveals a soft-spoken man as docile as the purring cat he holds. Yet a follow-up interview with his commander remembers him as a tenacious lion. As an American, I was stunned the Secret Intelligence Service trusted Denis Rake in large part because he was gay—precisely the sort of “irregular” the agency sought out to navigate dicey situations with a cool head.

Delving into Rake’s past, I learned of two other qualities that recommended him. He was no stranger to playing the middleman. At 13, after Belgium fell in the First War, he got arrested for hand-delivering encrypted letters for anti-German agents in Brussels. Even at that age, he outfoxed his captors and joined his parents to relocate in London for the war’s duration. The second attribute, though, is more compelling. While he asserts in the film that he volunteered with the SIS to prove his masculinity—and certainly that was part of it—Rake’s compassion for his friends living under German oppression drove him to risk his life for them. He was fearless, going so far as to enter a potentially fatal affair with a Nazi officer to remain in Paris after his SIS-provided papers were confiscated. His commitment to a free France enabled him to play a critical role preparing Resistance fighters to lay the groundwork for the Normandy invasion. In the end, despite England’s dim view of gay people, it welcomed Denis Rake home as a decorated war hero.

Called to Intercede

While I blanch at labeling Rake a “Christ figure,” he comes very close to fitting the bill. He was an outsider and an outlaw who would not be thwarted by social norms and prejudices. He avidly identified with beleaguered people and willingly endangered himself for them. He knew oppression and spoke the language of the oppressed. He risked his life to free them and, in the end, opened the minds of many who accepted injustice and hatred without blinking. Everything about his life verified his purpose as a go-between. And when we look back on our lives and consider our talents, could it be we’re also Denis Rakes? Are we chosen for our “irregularities?” Are we called to intercede for those without means or courage to break free? Are we Christ figures? I’m convinced we are.

In Job we find a vivid picture of why our intercessory roles are so vital. Job’s conformist friends not only prove useless—they compound his misery by insisting his woes are self-inflicted. (Today we call this “blaming the victim.”) Chapter 16 starts with Job railing at them in frustration: “Will your long-winded speeches never end? What ails you that you keep on arguing? I also could speak like you, if you were in my place; I could make fine speeches against you and shake my head at you.” (v3-4) Unable to find one friend who understands his pain and rallies to his defense, Job looks above. “Even now my witness is in heaven; my advocate is on high. My intercessor is my friend as my eyes pour out tears to God.” (v19-20) In a fit of prophetic pique, Job envisions the Risen Christ described in 1 Timothy 2.5: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” This compares nicely with verse 21, where Job says, “On behalf of a man he pleads with God as a man pleads for his friend.” While we’re bedazzled by Job’s prescient grasp of Jesus’s ultimate role in redemption’s plan, we can’t overlook his need to conjure a Christ figure because he can’t find one among his friends. Not one relates to his dilemma. Not one offers to intercede to the God he claims to know in Job’s stead.

An Intercessory Chain of Command

Jesus erases all doubt He ordains us as Christ figures in John 14.12-13: “Anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.” He activates an intercessory chain of command. We assume Christ’s identity as an outsider and outlaw to identify with those bound by oppressive forces. We volunteer as their go-betweens, becoming the critical link between them and Christ, Who mediates their case with God the Father. In this sense, we are Denis Rakes—fluent conversationalists and radio operators who keep the lines open between the presently defeated and their triumphant Ally. We are their friends.

Those around us beset by pernicious forces must know we’re true and faithful friends. Their problems most likely will exceed our ability to correct. Still, we lift their hopes and anchor their spirits by bringing all we have to bear on their case. Our compassion testifies we understand oppression first-hand. Our language is real, spoken as natives who know, not smug observers who rationalize and accuse. We intercede for them to Christ just as He does to the Father, as seasoned outsiders with established credentials. We say, “I’m praying for you” with conviction, and they believe in our prayers. That’s how the intercessory chain of command works. People in trouble place faith in us. We have faith in Christ. Anything we ask of Him will be done to the Father’s glory. God wins the war. God liberates the oppressed. We serve as His agents. We are go-betweens, radio operators, and interventionists. Though we may be docile in nature, to the hopeless, voiceless, and powerless, we are lions of love—Christ figures.

As Christ figures, we are lions of love to people in trouble. We defy norms and prejudices on their behalf, following an intercessory chain of command that brings their cases to God.