Saturday, November 1, 2008

Reflections on the End of the World

Recently, Ellie and I saw a movie that really got the circuits in my brain firing.

A futuristic drama called "City of Ember," this is the story of two children's struggle to reach the earth's surface from a city thousands of feet underground. As the story goes, years earlier, a natural disaster ravaged the earth. Fearing that the human race would be destroyed, the builders of the city made provision for 50 men, 50 women and 100 children to go below the surface, where all their needs would be provided for the next 200 years, until the earth, they hoped, would again be habitable.

Contained in a small metal box were the instructions for leaving the city and returning to earth. The box, programmed to open 200 years from the city's founding day, was given to the first mayor, with instructions to hand it down to each successive mayor who ruled the city.

Unfortunately, the box was lost during the seventh mayor's term, and now, at 200 years and counting, the generator which powers and lights the city is failing. The frightened citizens find various ways of coping with the threat of impending darkness, from denying that the generator is faltering, to staunchly trusting the builders of the city to come back and save them. Some, including the mayor, escape from reality by binging on the limited food supply.

The hero of our tale tries repeatedly to fix the generator, and when he realizes it is a lost cause, starts trying to find a way out of the cave. He and a girl about his age find the box and set out for the surface, using the torn and faded instructions they find in the box to guide them.

Although this movie was probably produced for Ellie's age group rather than mine, I found it visually compelling, attention-grabbing, and thought-provoking.

Watching the scenes in the dim city as the lights repeatedly flicker and go out, I could not help but think of the world in which I live. I always feel a twinge of anxiety when I see footage of the polar ice caps melting, or maps showing projections of the vast stretches of coastline which would be under water if the earth's temperature were to increase by even a few degrees.

I have friends who deny that this is really happening. They write global warming off as a figment of Al Gore's imagination. Others check off each calamity against Bible prophecy, proclaiming the end of the world and waiting expectantly for Jesus to come back to take the faithful to a new world. And still others work to unite mankind in pursuing technology and behavior change which would fix the problem.

A common truth which is not terribly encouraging, is that none of us really knows how this will end. Will the human race come together to solve the problems, feed the hungry, build sustainable energy sources and ways of living, and achieve a better quality of life for everyone? Or will we continue to fight with each other, kill each other, fail to cooperate, and keep making choices which will wear out our fragile earth? Will Jesus come back before the end and save those who follow him? And even if we do everything in our power, will it make a difference?

Something else that caught my attention was the image of all those people who had never seen the blue sky, sun, or the light of day. For them, these things we take for granted were only legends, and some had even ceased to believe that a world existed beyond the reach of the generator's flickering lights. Early in the story, we see the girl coloring a picture of a landscape with hills, a sun, clouds and a blue sky. She runs her hands over the picture almost reverently, and you can tell she is thinking: do these things really exist?

It reminds me of the place in C.S. Lewis's The Silver Chair, when the children and their companion Puddleglum find themselves in an underworld of huge caverns and dim cities, ruled by a wicked queen. The queen captures them and puts a spell on them to try to convince them that no other world than her own exists, and that the sun and sky are just stories.

Resisting the spell with great difficulty, Puddleglum says, "Suppose we have only dreamed or made up all those things - trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones...that's why I'm going to stand by the play world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any, we're setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for the Overland."

In the end, both sets of children - those from Narnia and those from the City of Ember - do find their way to the surface. "City of Ember" ends as the sun rises and the children see the rosy sky of dawn and the vast expanse of hills, valleys, and waving grass for the first time. In just a few minutes, their view of the universe changes completely and they realize they have been living in the dark, experiencing only a fraction of reality.

It is interesting to me, as I read the New Testament, that here and there we see glimpses of God's country, the heavenly kingdom, shining in the far distance with a mysterious glow. One of the last things Jesus told his disciples was that he was going to prepare a place for them. It is alluded to in Hebrews and Revelation, yet we still have no very clear picture of what it looks like.

Perhaps it is because of my Seventh-day Adventist heritage, or maybe because I am futuristic, but I spend a lot of time wondering about God's country. Will it be as awesome and paradigm-changing as coming out of lifelong darkness and seeing the real world, full of light, for the first time? Will my eyes and other senses be opened in ways I cannot now imagine or comprehend?

Sometimes, doubts creep in and I hear a voice which says, "You have no proof that such a country even exists. What if it's all make-believe? What if humans like yourself just invented heaven to make dying a little easier for us?

But in the end, I side with Puddleglum. Even if the Overland, or Heaven, or God's country, don't exist, I will continue to live as if they do. I will continue to believe, even in the absence of absolute proof.

Because I choose light, beauty, and redemption over doubt, fear and hopelessness. I choose to believe the captivating story of a God who cares enough for me to take me from a world whose lights are going out. I don't know exactly how this will happen - but, like other Christians before me, I believe that it will.

I think Hebrews says it best:

"All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country - a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them."
-- Hebrews 11:13-16

I can't wait to come out of the darkness, out of these three dimensions, out of the limitations of this mind and body, into whatever new world Jesus went to prepare for us. Knowing God, it will be beyond amazing.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A New Philosophy of Christmas

Christmas will be different at our house this year.

We have tiptoed around it in years past. We have discussed the virtues of doing it differently. We have come right to the brink of change, then always retreated to the familiarity of tradition.

This year, the financial crunch has forced us to re-think our priorities.

In years past, my (George) family Christmas has involved wonderful family time, music, spiritual programs and discussions, and food. And also presents - lots of them. Each adult draws two names of other adults, and everyone buys for the seven children. The result is an enormous stack of gifts, usually too large to fit under the Christmas tree. All this, at a time when multiple holiday responsibilities have pushed us past our budgets and frankly, none of us have a lot of money to spare.

Admittedly, it's fun to open gifts. Especially for the kids. But as I look at their rooms and toy-boxes, already jammed full of stuff, I wonder, do they really need anything else?

Last weekend when my family got together for the triathlon, we talked about Christmas. And, as often happens when my family is together, we started to throw around some strange ideas. Maybe, we reasoned, this Christmas could focus on something other than buying more stuff.

By the end of the weekend, we had decided to go for it. The rule about presents, we decided, was that they had to be either second-hand, made, or non-material, such as a certificate for a particular act of service from the giver. At any rate, they could NOT cost much money.

Since then, my mind has exploded with other new ideas to make the Christmas weekend meaningful and memorable, without costing much of anything. JD and I will be hosting Christmas at our house this year, so to start out with, we won't have the cost of renting a cabin as we have for the past two years. Here are some other suggestions, some of which - if the rest of the family agrees - I would like to try.

1. Candlelight program. Our big family room has now been re-done with hardwood floors, new walls, windows and paint. We will be moving our piano into this room shortly. It is a big room, the perfect size for a candlelight program - Friday night, as Sabbath is beginning, would be a good time. I would like to have each family bring candles, then place them around the outsides of the room and light them as the program begins. I would place chairs in a big circle around the room, and give people parts to do several months before we get together, so they would be ready. Music would be alternated with readings or testimony. Pretty much everyone in our family is musical and it's always fun to hear them, especially if they've practiced and are prepared. We also would do some hymns or choral music all together, as a group.

2. Christmas Tree Decorating Ceremony for the kids.
We could put up a tree with lights but no ornaments. Then, we could set out two big folding tables in the middle of the family room and put all seven kids around the tables, and put craft supplies on the tables. Popcorn strings, pictures painted on old glass ornaments, ornaments made out of favorite small toys, or pinecones and other objects collected outside - this would keep the kids occupied, and make the tree much more interesting - something the kids could be proud of.

3. Christmas 5K or 5-mile run. My brothers, sister-in-law, JD, and I have been training for a trail run and possibly a 10K or half-marathon, and this would be a great time to run all together. We probably won't be able to find any organized races this time of year, but we could map out our own course and run all together one of the mornings that everyone is there.

4. Letters to prisoners and those less fortunate. Our Christmas will be held over New Year's weekend, so by then, we will have already given away gifts to the families we are sponsoring. I was thinking that a great service project over New Year's would be to get together for about an hour, and each of us write some letters or cards to people in our lives who are going through a rough time, incarcerated, missionaries overseas, or anyone just needing special encouragement. A lot of times we concentrate on giving away material things to those less fortunate at Christmas, but we forget that encouragement and messages of support are probably just as helpful and uplifting, and usually don't cost us anything.

These are some ideas to get started. So far, I have not discussed any of these plans with JD's family, only with my own, so the above plans may only apply to one of our Christmas celebrations.

However, I am excited about this, can't wait to plan it all out, and am looking forward to this Christmas with my family more than I have any Christmas in a long time. And the great thing is that we won't still be paying it off in February:)

I would welcome any of your own suggestions for ways to make this holiday season meaningful without going broke.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Summer Road Trip 2008: learning about whaling on the Atlantic coast

Our family just returned from a two-week vacation during which we visited Washington D.C., the port at Mystic, CT, the Jersey shore, Boston, Plymouth, New Bedford, New York City, and the Outer Banks. More on this soon - to see pictures, scroll down about seven posts.

Book Review

Ministry in the Image of God, by Stephen Seamands
***** 5 stars

This is a fantastic book and a must-read for anyone involved in Christian ministry. I enjoyed it because, in all my 39 years of being a Christian, I had never heard anything like it.

I had always been of the opinion that the doctrine of the trinity, while undeniably biblical, had to be about the most boring of the Christian doctrines. I regarded it as a fact, but a flat one, something that you sing about occasionally in the doxology.

But as I read this book, I could not believe how the trinity came to life in Seamands' writing. One of my favorite ideas from the book is how he describes various aspects of our lives and relationships as following the pattern of the trinity.

For example, when we are involved in listening to and empathizing with another person, we are exemplifying a quality of the trinity: that of flowing in and out of each other while remaining distinct entities, separate from one another. As we listen to the other person, part of us enters into their experience, and feels the pain or joy they are feeling.

When this happens, we are truly living in the image of the three-personed God.

Seamands' intended audience seems to be those working in ministry, though I am sure any Christian would gain insight from the book. I have incorporated many of his ideas into my ministry, as well as my understanding of the trinity - a doctrine which, thanks to this book, will never again seem boring to me!

Book Review

The Secret by Rhonda Byrne
4 stars

OK, I know, this one is way out there. But seriously, I liked it! Although I only agreed with about half of what she said, and I had problems with the Godless ideology upon which her principles rest, I think she's on to something.

Very simply put, I believe she's right about many of her practical suggestions for achieving success. When I listened to her book for the first time, I immediately identified a lot of her suggestions as things that have worked for me in the past.

For example, she advises to start out each day with confidence that good things will happen, that you will be successful in reaching your goals, that people will respond positively to you, and that you carry unlimited potential. Look at the good, not the bad, she urges. She encourages us to constantly give thanks and be grateful for the things we already have, and by doing this, we will attract more good things into our lives.

Her philosophy jives with my belief that optimism, an attitude of gratitude, and faith go a long ways towards helping us achieve our goals. However, the one thing missing in this equation is God. In Byrne's universe, humans seem to be the only gods. And herein lies the problem.

While I am definitely using many of Byrne's practical suggestions in my interactions and daily life, with good result, I completely reject the notion that I am successful in and of myself. Instead, God makes me successful and causes all of these laws of the universe to work. Byrne has identified some laws which are true, but failed to give the credit to God, for creating those laws in the first place.

I have given the book four stars because it is interesting and practical. If she were to write a book called The Secret for Christians, which included God in all of this, I would probably give her five!

Book Review

Son of a Witch, by Gregory McGuire
***** 5+ stars

WOW! I thought it couldn't get any better than McGuire's last (and also debut) novel, Wicked. And then I read this one, and realized that it just had!

This is a delightful book from start to finish. Picking up the story moments after the witch's death (which takes place at the end of the last book), Son of a Witch tells the tale of Liir, the only son of Elphaba (who is the witch featured in Wicked).

I liked Liir from the start. He is young, very insecure, and alone in the world, but also brave and honest. And these qualities, which he demonstrates throughout the book, end up making him (in my opinion) a true hero.

I don't want to go into more detail and give away the plot for those of you who may read the book, which I highly recommend. Not only is the plot thoroughly enjoyable, but the quality of the writing is superb - for anyone who loves language it is like candy for the mind. But it's not all mind-candy, there is more nourishing fare as well: the themes run deep and could provide the fodder for many a long conversation.

Son of a Witch is my favorite so far this year, and quite probably for several more to come.

Book Review

The Five Love Languages, by Gary Chapman
**** 4 stars

For some reason, I had never read this classic relationship guide till recently. I found it to be helpful and read some of it with JD. The information Chapman presents is organized, easy to read, includes plenty of good examples, and really makes a lot of sense.

The five love languages that Chapman identifies are words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. He describes numerous examples of couples whose relationships were transformed by the discovery of, and learning to speak, each others' primary love language.

While I think this book should definitely be in the arsenal of anyone in the business of helping others with their relationships, or of making their own better, I question whether the discovery and practice of the love languages can really provide the be-all, end-all solution to marital problems that it seems Chapman is suggesting. Let's face it, sometimes discovering a spouse's love language just isn't enough. For couples who face deeper, more complex issues on a personal or relationship level, other paths to healing may be required.

However, as far as it goes, this is an excellent book. I have used it both personally and professionally with good results. I do recommend it to anyone interested in improving their relationship.

Book Review

No country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy
*** 3 stars

This book was simply too violent for me. Since it's about a serial killer, I guess the killing is kind of indispensable to the plot. Call me a sissy, but I just don't enjoy reading about one grisly murder after another.

If there had been a point to it - like, for example, the violence in the movie "Schindler's List," which reminded us that hope and bravery can survive even the most horrific evil - then I would have plodded through all the killings in the hope of some redemption at the end.

However, the redemption never comes. One is left with more questions than answers, wondering if anything can stop evil. And, according to the rules of the universe McCarthy creates in this book, the answer is "no."

The book moves quickly, is gripping, and for the most part well-written, so I gave it three stars. However, I would not read it again, and have not been able to bring myself to watch the movie.

Book Review

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
***** 5 stars

This is a futuristic novel which portrays the journey of a father and son along the road to the sea. The road they travel is dark and dangerous in the aftermath of an unnamed disaster which has killed almost all plant and animal life and left everything covered with a thick coat of ash.

Beautifully written, this is a book that celebrates the love between a father and son. It is a book about sin, darkness, survival, and hope. The prose is actually more like poetry throughout much of the book.

A real page-turner full of suspense, this book is multi-layered, thought-provoking, and heartbreaking. In the world of modern fiction, it doesn’t get much better than this.

In Memory of Don

Author's note: I wrote the following remembrance about one of my patients, who passed away on June 13th, 2008, at the age of 48. I had the horrible responsibility of diagnosing him with lung cancer last summer, only about a week after his first visit at the clinic.

I see lots of patients with cancer, but for some reason, Don was extra special. Soon after I started seeing him, Don had an experience with God that changed his life. Throughout the following months I witnessed firsthand the difference that God can make in a life.

Before his death, Don was featured in our Hope Clinic video. He wanted his story to inspire and encourage others who might be facing similar circumstances, and gave me permission to share this story to that end. Following is my remembrance of him.

-Jenny Dittes, June 13, 2008

Love -that’s what it came down to.

Love that reached down and took hold of a man who was lost, pulled him out of the darkness, and clutched him close to the heart of God – so close the Devil could not get him back, no matter how he fretted and begged.

I was swept into the love because the minute I saw this man, God whispered in my ear, “This one is mine. It’s time for him to come to me, after a lifetime of running away; it’s time, and I want you to claim him for me, and tell him about my great love for him.” So I prayed for him, and as I spoke, and he wept, I could sense the Spirit filling and claiming him.

In the months to come, as his body gradually filled with cancer, his mind and heart were re-made. He struggled with many things during those months, as he sought to restore relationships with family and friends that, through his own actions, had grown sour through the years. But one thing he never struggled with or doubted was God’s love for him. Like a child, he accepted it without question.

One day, when he was discouraged, I asked him if he was worried about his salvation, or frightened about what would happen after his death. Without hesitation, he said No, he wasn’t worried about that. What worried him most was becoming helpless – not able to walk or care for himself. He dreaded that terribly, and told me he’d rather that it all be over right away than to gradually lose his abilities.

And in the end, I think God honored that wish. Just days before his death, he was still able to walk – slowly, with a limp – and to talk, in halting sentences. And then, within hours, his brain function deteriorated and he went into a coma. Within twelve hours, it was over. I have actually never seen a cancer patient who went that quickly and mercifully at the very end.

One of the last things he said to me, just several days before he died, was: “I love everyone!” It came out haltingly, as though he was fighting to get the words out; but he said it several times, and the look in his eyes, and the tone of his voice, told me that this was a new thing for him. I think he himself was surprised by the love that filled him and overflowed to everyone around.

When I think of Don, I think first of his big smile – a smile that completely lit up his face. And the tears that come to my eyes are not only tears of grief that he is no longer here, but also tears of joy, for the miraculous way in which God redeemed him, claimed him, and changed his heart.

In the end, it all came down to love: God’s love which flowed steadily and freely, like clear water, washing away all the obstacles, dirt, and sin in its path; a love which said, “I don’t care what you've done in the past; now, you are my child, my grace is sufficient for you, and nothing can separate us again.”

A few days ago, Don let go of our hands and took the hand of Jesus, where that love became stronger and brighter than we can imagine.

Though we, his friends, are lonely without him, I know he would would not want us to be sad. Instead, I think he would want us to be swept up into the same love that swept him away.

Don is resting now in that love and peace that passes our understanding.

Praise be to God!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

On Communal Salvation

Anyone who knows me knows that in my life, the past several years have been traveling years. Like Abraham who was called to a land God would show him, in the fall of 2005, JD and I embarked on a spiritual pilgrimage from a familiar place to a place unknown, and certainly a place we never would have gone, had God not clearly told us to.

As the physical place we worship has changed, so have many of the ideas which undergird our worship. One of the most striking idealogic differences between the place we were and the place we are now is the idea of communal salvation.

Now, I know for some of my friends, this term may conjure up all kinds of negative images having to do with communism, socialism, and long-haired people in sandals working in gardens. Before you go too far with that, let me explain.

Several year ago, soon after we had started attending our new church, I was talking with my friend Mike, when he casually mentioned that salvation is not individual, but communal. He said it as though it was an unquestioned truth, not as though it was an idea he'd been kicking around. I was too surprised at the time to ask what he meant, but I thought to myself, These people are really humanistic! To think that not only my well-being, but also my salvation, could depend on other people? The idea struck me as not only unbiblical, but also frightening.

Now, Mike wasn't just anyone, he was the pastor of the church we'd started attending. So I set out to see if other people in the church also believed this preposterous idea. Several weeks later at the womens' Bible study, my friend Angie made the following statement: "There have been times that I was too unsure of the future even to pray, and then I have called a friend and they have prayed for me, and I was strengthened. We are all responsible for each other."

That statement blew my mind, and I thought about it all the way home. I had always believed that salvation was between me and God, and that others' influences, for good or evil, did not matter. To think that my salvation depends, in part, on others, and that theirs depends on me, was frightening because it involved so much responsibility on my part as well as theirs. It carried with it the very real risk that someone else would let me down, thereby endangering my salvation.

As we settled into our new church, I saw again and again that for these people, the communal salvation idea was real. When a member was facing a struggle of some kind, they rallied around that person - praying for them, empathizing with them, calling them. A lot of the discussions in my Sunday School class actually ended, if they did not begin, with an appeal to care more for others in the body, to bear each others' burdens as well as their joys. There was a sense that this was an integral part of being a Christian, and they took it seriously.

Before I give the idea that I had never seen this kind of Christian community before, let me say that our little Adventist church in Globe, AZ, was truly a body in which each member helped to support the others. Our new church at Bethpage reminded me a lot of Globe, but at Bethpage the church was bigger, so there were more people practicing this idea; also, at Bethpage, you got the sense that this was part of the church's DNA - a belief held so strongly and practiced so doggedly, that it was axiomatic.

JD and I flourished at the church in Bethpage. Time passed, and for awhile, I forgot about the struggle I had had with communal salvation. I just settled in and got involved in the church's work. And I found that my spiritual life was better than I could remember it ever being. The Holy Spirit became a real part of my everyday life; I was challenged and supported week by week in my pursuit of God; and my work for God bore fruit in a way it never had before.

Then, several months ago, the church hit hard times. Rifts occurred at the very heart of the group which put everyone under a dark cloud, and at times threatened the financial and spiritual viability of the organization.

And a strange thing happened. Suddenly, I felt strangely disconnected from God. It was often hard to pray. I had no doubt in God's sovereignty or my own salvation, but the spiritual well-being I had before was suffering. I felt lonely and sad. My regular times of study and prayer became times of tears, deep grief, and impassioned intercessory prayers for the other members of my church, as well as the church's future. I was hurting deeply, and it affected everything. I was surprised, in particular, how much it affected my spiritual strength. During this time, I often felt spiritually fatigued - for example, I would shrink away from praying with patients because I didn't feel that my connection with God was strong enough.

As the weeks and months went by, I started to think again about the idea of community. Could it be that my walk with God had become so closely connected to the other members of my church, that when the church suffered, so did my relationship?

Fortunately, the situation at the church was resolved by some creative and insightful changes instituted by the church's leadership. Since the beginning of 2008, the church at Bethpage has quickly regained its vitality and spirit. With the spiritual renewal has come a financial turnaround, and again, the church is on solid ground.

And so is my closeness with God. Once again, the times I worship at the church are times that I am filled with God's Spirit and Presence, strengthened to go out and face the problems that exist as I do God's work.

I still can't explain this phenomenon in theological terms. I would probably fail miserably if I were to get into a debate with some of you Bible scholars out there who were determined to prove me wrong. But I do know that, in some very integral way, my spiritual health is tied up with my church. Now, I have experienced communal salvation - the fact that each person in my particular body of believers is responsible for my spiritual health, and I am responsible for theirs - and I know that, whether I like it or not, it is a fact.

For those of you still not sure, consider that one of the most enduring New Testament images used to describe the church is a body. As a healer, I know how interconnected the human body is. Each part relies on all the other parts for its vitality and well-being. And so it is with the body of Christ.

Please understand that I am NOT saying that any human being can keep us from salvation. However, I AM saying that the things we do can have an effect on others' salvation (for both good and evil), and also on their spiritual health - that is, the quality of their spiritual life.

This has implications, too, for those leaving a church body. Often, people get fed up with the problems in the church and leave - only to find that they are more lost than before, struggling to find God again with no support from those who once constituted their spiritual support group.

Consider also pastors who are moved to other churches on a somewhat regular basis. When they leave, they are immediately responsible for the spiritual shepherding of a new flock - but they are also detached from a group of people with whom they have formed an interconnected body, sometimes for many years. Remembering how I felt when my church was not functioning enough to provide me with the spiritual support I was used to, I can only feel empathy for pastors who are responsible for providing spiritual leadership while trying to deal with the grief and disconnectedness of losing their spiritual home.

I will close with a familiar passage from John 17. Jesus is praying for us:

"I am praying not only for these disciples, but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one - as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so the world will know that you sent me.

"I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me."

I believe that these words, spoken hours before Jesus died, reveal his greatest wish for us - that we will live in community, in unity, caring for each other and thus proving that He is the Son of God who saves us.

Communal salvation doesn't sound so strange, after all.