Being Alive

At church yesterday my pastor asked the question “When was the last time you felt fully alive?”  That question got me thinking (as all pastoral questions should), when WAS the last time that I felt fully alive?  That question led in its turn to the question “What does it mean to feel fully alive?”  This new question led me further to wonder “What does it even mean to BE fully alive?”  I’m not at all certain that I know the answer to any of those questions but I believe that they are worth investigating, so I will begin with the last question and work my way towards the first.

I guess that to be fully alive might mean that I am breathing.  Metabolism and cellular respiration are taking place within my body.  I am different from the chair in which I am sitting or the large volcanic rock resting on the patio outside of the coffee house where I sit writing this essay, in that I am alive and they are not.  This revelation would lead me to conclude that the last time that I felt fully alive was the last nanosecond before this current nanosecond.  I do not believe that this conclusion addresses my pastor’s point however.  Under the simple construct “alive equals fully alive” my pastor’s question would have no meaning, and pastors, good ones anyway, don’t ask questions that have no meaning.

Looking a bit further out across the patio I see trees in very large pots.  Those trees are much more like me than the rock is and I believe you could say that it is fully alive.  Water and nutrients are coursing from the roots up the stem and branches to the beautiful red leaves, where photosynthesis is going on to provide the sugar needed by the plant to maintain life.  Yes, I believe that I can honestly say that this tree is fully alive.  What I am not able to say is that it feels fully alive.  I don’t know if the tree feels at all.  Then again, I don’t know that it does not.  I was always intrigued by the line from the 1951 movie “The Thing from Another World” in which an alien that had evolved from a plant origin rather than an animal one is threatening scientists at a research station at the North Pole.  A journalist is amazed by this discovery and a scientist tells him that some plants, such as the telegraph vine, do a certain sort of thinking right here on Earth.  The journalist is mind boggled and then told that he should not be.  “Intelligence in plants and vegetables is an old story Mr. Scott.  Older even than the animal arrogance that has overlooked it.”  Of course, that’s just a movie.  But in truth I don’t know what plants may or may not ‘feel’.  Perhaps they do feel things in some way.  This would be a most unsettling thought for my vegan friends.

So even in my not-knowing I am going to assume that plants never feel more alive or less so.  Animals however present a tougher nut to crack.  I have kept many cats as pets in my life and can testify to their many moods.  I have seen anger, contentment, fear, hunger, playfulness and perhaps even affection in my cats.  What makes the waters more muddy is the question whether the cats KNEW that they were angry, contented, afraid and so on.  I don’t believe that they did.  When a cat was curled up on my blanket-covered lap while I took a nap on a gray winter afternoon, did she ever think “I feel contented now, but I felt more contented last week when I was curled up here after a really big meal?”  I don’t think so.  Plants may feel things and animals certainly do, but I cannot convince myself that either one can reflect on their feelings.  Forgive my human arrogance, but only we can do that.

This brings me to the question of what it means for me to be fully alive, and in order to get to the heart of that I have to ask what if means to be fully me.  That question leads me inevitably into theology, and that should surprise nobody since this whole line of thought began with a question by a pastor in a church on a Sunday morning.  Me, therefore, is a sentient being of the species Homo sapiens (although a charge of containing a considerable amount of Neanderthal DNA has been leveled against me from time to time). I am not only unlike any other non-human lifeforms on this planet, I am unlike any human one too.  I have likes and dislikes, I not only know hunger and contentment and fear but remember other times that I felt them and can grade whether or not I was more hungry then or more afraid now.  I can create and I can willfully destroy; yes, I am unique in the universe.

To what can I ascribe this uniqueness (for better or for worse)?  To chance?  Not likely.  No tornado ever went through a Kansas junkyard and made a jet aircraft, and leaving an old Buick on blocks in the front yard of my house will earn me a few lumps on my head from the hand of my wife but will never evolve into a Lamborghini.  Things left alone go from order to disorder; all real scientists know this.  So I have to conclude that I am designed by an intelligence that is outside of the natural order.

That intelligence has broken into our world and told us a little bit about Itself and why S/he went to the trouble to create me, and has explained that what I am on this day as I write this rambling essay is a very imperfect image of what I was designed to be and, I am promised, some day will be.  I am alive today but not fully alive.  My being, now freed from the iron grip of death, must still drag vestiges of death around as I go about my daily affairs and I cannot help but feel the effects of those ultimately conquered but nevertheless troubling vestiges as I progress towards the day when those final vestiges well be fast off and a new life as what God – let’s go ahead and call that Intelligence what S/He really is – sees me as will begin.

Feeling fully alive, then, means to me feeling at least in part how I will feel when I finally am that being that I am intended to be.  When full joy, full love, full compassion, full mercy, finally are the norm for my life I will be more like the tree and the cat: aware of love but not as a variant from full love and aware of contentment but not as a variant from full contentment and so on.  Only hunger, pain, anger, disappointment and the like will be either memories or obliterated altogether.  A life of infinitely variable joy, not variable in the sense of quality but rather in the manner of sensing and expressing it, will be what I will feel when I am fully alive.

So when was the last time that I felt fully alive?  I haven’t yet.  There are a good many times when I have felt pointed toward feeling fully alive; when a child or grandchild was born, or when a kitten is rescued from likely death, or when I see the first shoots of a garden break through the soil with their promise of delicious and healthy food produced by the work of my hands and sweat of my brow.  But I have never felt fully alive and do not believe that I ever will until my earthly struggle is over and I stand perfected in the presence of Ultimate Perfection.

So should I despair that I can never, by my own efforts, hope to even approach being fully alive while in this life?  Not at all.  I get periodic glimpses of what that fully alive life will be like and that is enough to keep me energized and moving forward toward the life to come.  And when was the last time that I had one of those glimpses of being alive?  Today, and yesterday, and the day before that.  Any time that I stop for a moment to savor watching two friends chat over coffee at the table next to me while one of them scratches behind the ears of a gigantic Newfoundland dog, or when I help a friend prepare his garden for planting the spring crop, or read a story to a grandson sitting on my knee, I am looking down that path toward being fully alive, and sensing in a small way how it will be when it is my only reality.

I believe that we all have many opportunities to feel like we are on that pathway toward being Fully Alive every day.  The complexities of life may cloud the view and there’s no point in being a pollyanna about this; some people’s life circumstances make sensing that path to Fully Alive a lot more difficult to see than do other’s  It can still be done however, if we have the desire to do it.  I recommend that choice, as it makes all of our “nows” more bearable.

Reflections On Lent, Day 31

Last week, at a meeting with a group of friends who are studying Joshua Ryan Butler’s excellent book entitled “The Skeletons In God’s Closet,” we were speaking of hell and judgement and holy war.  These are three topics that cause a lot of heartburn for Christians and non-Christians alike.  I don’t believe that any one of these three topics are the star performers of the trio; they are all equally capable of stirring controversy any time that they are brought up in any sort of crowd which exhibits a bit of diversity.  I came home from this event pondering hell in particular though, and what Christians think about it and most particularly who gets in and who stays out.  My conclusion?  I don’t know.

I am no theologian, and I’ll state that from the very beginning.  I am aware of many verses of scripture which point to Jesus as the one way to salvation, and I accept this premise with a whole heart.  “No one comes to the Father except through me”, and “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved”, and many other similar verses seem to narrow the thing down.  I wonder, however, if those scriptures are narrowing it down too much?  I’m not sure that I even have a coherent stream of thoughts on the topic.  I’ll let you decide.

A verse which stands out in particular to me is this:  “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgement.”  That one gets hell and judgement in there together, sort of like a theological ‘twofer’, but I wonder about something.  What exactly does this verse mean by “to die”?  What?  Are you kidding me?  You don’t know what it means to die?  It’s when your heart stops, your brain quits and you assume room temperature.  This isn’t rocket science Glenn!

Yeah, I know.  I’ve seen dead people and I’ve seen people die.  I get that.  But what if there’s more to it than meets the eye?  Maybe there is a physical death and a spiritual death and they are not the same thing.  In the Garden of Eden God allowed Adam and Eve to eat anything that they wanted to except the fruit of a certain tree.  If they did not obey, God told them, “- – – in the day that you eat from it you will surely die”.  Well, you know how that went.  Adam and Eve just couldn’t leave it alone.  They ate the fruit – – – and then Adam lived another 900 years or so!  Eve probably lived even longer; that’s how those things usually seem to work.

But God wasn’t lying.  God doesn’t lie.  Adam did eventually physically die, but a long time after the fact and not at all “- – – in that day”.  So I wonder if God was referring to a spiritual death rather than a physical one.  Another example further muddies the water.  Jesus died on the cross for a number of reasons, among which was to conquer death.  “Oh death where is your victory?  Oh death, where is your sting?”  Once again I fully  believe God, through the Bible, isn’t wrong: isn’t lying.  Jesus really died on that Roman cross and defeated death.  The fly in the ointment however is that Jesus really DID die on that cross!  Soon afterward two thieves, one on either side of Jesus, died too.  And since then millions and perhaps even billions of people have followed them into the grave.  And then there’s Lazarus.  Was Lazarus judged right after he died, or was he judged after the second time that he died?

So what gives here?  Has death been defeated or has it not?  Was God lying when He said “- – – for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die”?  Well, yes to the first question and no to the second, I think, and here’s why.  It seems just possible to me that the full reality of death is something that I can not clearly see from where I stand in the finitude of space and time.  Death, to me, occurs when the heart stops beating, the lungs stop drawing breath, and the neurons of the brain cease to fire the messages which keep physical life going.  I have seen death on the battlefield, in the emergency room, and at funerals for family and friends and I know what it looks like from where I stand.  But is that what death looks like from where God stands on the other side of space and time?  Perhaps God sees life and death in a vastly different context than I do, and this is a possibility which gives me some hope.

What if spiritual death is something that can occur when a person remains physically alive?  I am not judging – that is way above my pay grade – but I think that it’s very possible that people such as Adolph Hitler (everybody’s favorite example of a really bad person), Pol Pot, Richard Ramirez (the Night Stalker murderer), and King Leopold II were spiritually dead and on a hell-bound train long before they drew their last breath.  Many others may also have shaken their fists in defiance at God and sworn “I will NOT serve you” and earned an eternity with little need for warm clothing.

But what of others who are not such obvious cases; who have not pointedly bowed their knee to evil but nevertheless have not sworn fealty to God either?  What about the Buddhist or Atheist, or the tribesman on the banks of a stream in the Amazon basin, who has done good to the extent that he or she knows good but has never felt compelled to acknowledge a God who they hardly know or do not in fact know at all?

I just wonder if it is possible that at some point after the physical death but before a spiritual death we will all be able to see the choice available to us in a much clearer light and at that point will chose whom we will worship, God or ourselves.  Those who chose to worship themselves will be given their wish and be sent to worship themselves and nurse their grudges and rage against what they perceive to be the injustice perpetrated against them by an unfair Judge in an eternal outer darkness, while the rest of us lay down our sinful baggage and accept forgiveness and healing in repentance in the eternal Kingdom of Light in the presence of God.

Like I said, I’m no theologian.  I could be very off base here, and ask for God’s mercy and forgiveness if I am.  This view just seems to fit God’s mix of love and justice better to me than one of a stern God who longs to bring the hammer down on everyone who doesn’t toe a very thin line.  I’ll have to present this idea to some people who are a whole lot smarter than me about these things, but i thought that I would share them with you first.

I Love The Way You Talk To Me

I had coffee this morning with some friends before I went to work and one of those good people used a word or two in Spanish and French.  I speak a little Spanish and have been to France and the half of Belgium that is French speaking, and so I asked him if he spoke those languages.  “No”, he replied, “I only know a word or two, but  I do enjoy languages and find them easy to pick up.”  I told my friend that I also enjoy languages, but I can’t say that I find them all that easy to “pick up”.  As it turns out however I was not entirely truthful with my friend.  It is not just that I enjoy languages; it’s more like I am fascinated by languages.  In fact, I think languages form one of the most interesting parts of what it means to be a human being.

Many people have heard of the Hebrew story of the beginning of multiple languages.  Long ago people on earth were getting together to do something their own way instead of the right way, very much like we do things today, and so God confused their speech to put a little stick into their spokes and slow them down for a while.  The plan worked for a bit, but we soon found a way around that stumbling block and we’ve been merrily screwing things up ever since.  I don’t think of those languages as being entirely a curse however.

The Linguistic Society of America claims that there are over seven thousand languages in the world, and I suppose that if anybody should know such a thing it would be a Linguistic Society of Just About Anywhere.  This means to me that there are at least seven thousand groups of people ranging in size from the Mandarin Chinese with their teeming multitudes to the various dialects of the Sami, who together are fewer in number than my small church in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.  These various people who speak Mandarin and Sami and all languages in between each have a view of the world, or perhaps it’s more like filters which shade their views of the world, that are uniquely common to each of those groups.  That is to say that the Ibo of West Africa will see themselves, their relationship with each other and peoples around them, and the physical world in which they live with their creation story and purpose for existence that is as different from their Hausa neighbors as it is from the Yanomami of the northern Amazon.

I also believe that language is a two-way lens.  The Yanomami see themselves and their place in the universe through their own particular perceptions and they express and reinforce those perceptions to each other through their language.  Yanomami culture and survival are bound up together and expressed through their language, and they thereby define who they are and what they will peculiarly do to maximize the quality and survivability of their people group through the medium of their language, which will grow and change to meet the challenges of change which assail them as they become more in contact with a greater but sometimes subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) hostile world.

The other side of this language lens is available, although with considerable difficulty, to the outsider who wishes to gain insights into the heart and soul of what it means to be Yanomami.  All that the outsider must do to gain this privileged glimpse into the soul of the Yanomami is learn their language.  There, that was easy!  Simply use a computer program for a ridiculously hight price and within six weeks you will be talking like a Yanomami and, if you purchase the companion program for a minimal extra cost, you will also be trained to walk like an Egyptian.  In fact, I am offering this program at this very minute.  Simply call 1-800 BULLS___T and operators are ready to tell you where to send your hard earned and utterly wasted dollars, euros, pesos, rupees, rubles, and yen.  Sorry, but at this time I am not accepting the Drachma.

In fact, truly learning a language will take a great deal more work and personal investment than the average “Speak [Whatever] quickly” offer will actually provide.  There is so much more to learning a language than simply taking an English phrase (my first language, so Ill use it for an example), such as “I think it would be cool if that stinking Obama (or Bush, or Whomever) administration would melt down, get it over with, and put us out of our misery”, and removing the english words and replacing them with roughly equivalent words from some other language.  Let’s consider the case of the Tsogo language of some African Pygmies.  A literal translation of the phrase mentioned above might go something like this:  “It would be ________(Pygmies live in the equatorial forests of Africa.  They have no concept of cold, or cool) if the government of this leader who smells really bad (maybe he has an ulcer that isn’t healing and the flesh is rotting?) would dissolve into a liquified state like fat that is cooked, which in some way would kill us.”

No, it simply will not do to learn a list of words.  To learn a language one must also learn nuance; must learn to feel a word, to smell a phrase, to taste a metaphor and be moved by a simile, and thereby predict how your hearer will be moved by all of that as well.  When you get to that point you can say that you have learned a language, and I would be so bold as to say that there are not more than a relative handful on our planet who can truly say that they speak a language that they did not grow up immersed in.

But cheer up.  All is not lost.  Fortunately there are few people who expect you to become that fluent in their language.  I remember one trip that I made to the Mexican city of La Paz on the eastern side of the peninsula of Baja California.  In that city, which draws a large number of American tourists for the sport fishing that is available in the Sea of Cortez, there was a restaurant called ” Senior Frog’s”.  Beside the front door was a sign which read “We do not speak English.  We will not laugh at your Spanish”.  Beside the obvious contradiction that the sign was written in English, I have no doubt that the owners and staff of that restaurant spoke pretty good English if they wanted to.  But the point was that the tourist was in the Mexicans’ country and they should not expect the Mexicans to speak another language.  Go ahead.  Learn to count to ten, and learn to say ‘taco and ‘enchilada’ and ‘cerveza’ and ‘donde esta el bano and a few other phrases and you’ll do just fine.  In fact, they’ll probably speak English to you if you’ll at least try to speak Spanish.

That was my experience when my wife and I visited France.  My wife speaks a serviceable amount of French but I speak very little, and so much of the time she did the talking and the French people were very polite and helpful, and obviously pleased that we were at least trying.  Actually, I played a little trick on the French people.  When my wife was not around and I needed to communicate with somebody I would begin with ‘Je ne parle pas francais.  Parlez-vous espagnol?”, or “I do not speak French.  Do you speak Spanish?”  Most French people do know some English but very few speak Spanish.  Then I would come back with “Parlez-vous anglais?”, or “Do you speak English?”  In this manner I established that I am bilingual but not in French, thereby deflating the stereotype of the monolingual American expecting the whole world to learn English for my convenience.

This trick worked very well, and as a bonus one day when we were in the beautiful city of Beaune I used it in a wine shop.  The owner, it turned out, DID speak Spanish.  She was excited because she rarely got to use that language and I was excited because I could carry on a normal conversation with a French person.  I also hoped that she would be so pleased with our conversation that she would give me a nice discount on some burgundy wine but, alas, that turned out to be a vain hope.  As it was, this was one of the highlights of our trip.

As an interesting side note, a few years later I once again found myself using Spanish in a northern European city.  This time it was Amsterdam, and that city is lousy with beggars.  I would usually brush them off in Spanish, saying “Siento mucho, pero no hablo Ingles”.  It usually worked but one time the person with his hand held out slipped effortlessly into perfect Spanish and continued with his appeal to separate me from my hard earned dollars.  I found this immensely funny actually, having my bluff called so smoothly, and so In plain English I said “If you can beg in multiple languages brother, you can get a job.”  The beggar suggested that I do something with myself that is physically not possible and I walked away enjoying a good laugh at the whole thing.

I know a word or phrase or two in seven different languages, and I can say that I relish every opportunity that I have to use any one of them.  And that’s well and good; I only have to complete my learning of those languages and add to them over six thousand, nine hundred and ninety three others to get to where I want to be.  No sweat!  Actually, that would take an eternity to accomplish.  Fortunately, I believe that eternity is exactly what is before me.  After I leave behind this earthly veil of tears I rather suspect that my afterlife will be populated by men and women of all languages still speaking those languages.

People who think of afterlives and things like that frequently believe that there will be some sort of heavenly language, a great Esperanto in the sky, that will linguistically unite us once again into one big happy family, but I certainly hope not. I want to know the Yanomami in their own language.  I want to know a Native American from Gipuy by learning to speak Tewa.  I want to — well, you get the picture.  Such a thing would take an eternity to accomplish, but then we would have an eternity to accomplish it.  I would consider that to be beyond-time well spent.

A Parable of Who’s In and Who’s Out (and the answer to that might be a surprise)

About thirty of my favorite people and I were discussing Matthew 25:31-46 this morning.  You remember Matthew 25:31-46 don’t you?  It’s the parable that Jesus told concerning judgement and the assignment of our eternal future in heaven and hell.  I greatly enjoyed out conversation and just didn’t get enough of it the first time around, so here goes with round number two.

The gist of this scripture is that when the day of judgement comes Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats; the blessed from the accursed ones.  At this place before the King it is suggested that there will be surprises.  “How did I get in Lord?” some will ask, and “Why am I outside?” will be the question of others.  Jesus answers this question by famously saying, in paraphrase, that “when you fed me (or didn’t) when I was hungry, clothed me (or didn’t) when I was naked, visited me (or didn’t) when I was sick or in prison, you were doing righteousness.”  “When did we do those things?  We’ve never even seen You before.”  “When you did it (or didn’t do it) for the smallest and most insignificant people in society, you did it to Me.”

OK, I really love that.  Jesus has said that your actions matter, and that even if you don’t know anything about Him yet love your neighbor regardless of who s/he is, you are loving Him and pass the test.  Of course, that sets up a problem; what if a person is kind and generous with people who have less than him or her and gets down in the dirt too help, or works to save children from traffickers, or other such noble and awesome things loved by God, yet has not prayed the “sinners’ prayer”.  Was all of that love wasted, and the person doing God’s business and not just talking about it not saved?  I know, other verses say “he that believeth in Me shall not perish but have everlasting life”, and “no one comes to the Father except by way of the Son”, but right there in Matthew 25 Jesus says only that those who DID righteousness would be welcomed into the kingdom, and not just those who paid it lip service.

So, does that extend God’s grace and salvation to a Buddhist monk who fights human trafficking?  A Navajo medicine man who shares his meager pot of lamb stew with a sick neighbor, or an atheist who struggles to bring education and/or legal representation to the poor and underserved residents of the ghetto or barrio?  I cannot tell by Matthew 25: 31-46 alone, but I cannot argue that they will not receive grace and pardon by that scripture either.

And what about the person professing Jesus Christ who’s purse strings remain tightly tied, who’s smile is only for those who can help him, and who’s time is used to serve his interests only?  Does this person’s profession of faith get him anywhere with the Righteous Judge on that great/terrible day?  I, of course, do not think so, but I am no theologian.  I would love to read what more educated people than I believe concerning this.

And then there’s hell.  Chapter 25 of Matthew indicates a place we call hell in three different ways in the three different parables; a place outside the party in parable number one, a place of outer darkness in parable number two, and a place of fire where Satan and his demons are punished in number three.  Well, which is it?  As Joshua Ryan Butler pointed out in his excellent book “The Skeletons in God’s Closet”, Genesis records that in the beginning God made heaven and earth.  No mention of hell there.  Genesis goes on to speak of water and land and fish and bugs and birds and stars and people, but not one little peep about hell.  So where did this hell come from, what is it like, and who’s going there?

Butler writes that hell is a place in the Bible called Gehenna, or the Hinnom Valley; a place outside of the gates of the city where people would go to, among other things, sacrifice their children to Molech or Chemosh or whatever bloody ‘god’ that they chose to worship instead of God.  So hell could be a place outside of the kingdom city where people can go, if they wish, to worship anything other than God,  It’s their choice.  God wants them in His city, but if they insist on doing what they want instead of what God wants, well, he just can’t allow that behavior into His city.  If they insist on staying outside; their will be done.  Butler is much more exhaustive in his discussion of hell and judgement, and I highly recommend that anyone interested in this topic should read his book.

So my takeaway from the discussion was that God is not some distant, pissed-off white guy who is just waiting for me or anyone else to screw up so that he can zap me to the torture chamber for eternity.  Instead, God sets out to meet me every day, only He is wearing a mask and I may not recognize Him right away.  Only by treating each person whom I meet as if s/he was God can I make the cut from a works perspective, and only if I do so because I love and want to serve people can I make it from the grace perspective.  And it may, just may, be open to whomever does the will of God, no matter who they are or what they believe.