Saturday, February 18, 2017

Wormhole to Heaven

Heaven, like star systems millions of light years away, is unreachable without a special means of getting there.

Jesus is the holy wormhole that makes the voyage possible. Hallelujah!

A wormhole, as Star-Trekkers know, is a hypothetical and unobservable phenomenon related to Einstein’s theory of relativity. While no one has ever seen a wormhole, Star-Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and other science fiction doyens posit they exist.

Wormholes are conceived as celestial corridors that enable one (if one is so inclined) to travel incalculable distances in an instance, as if the fabric of space was folded together like a blanket to unite distant point A with unreachable point B. Star-Trek Deep Space Nine fans will recall that the space station is positioned near the Bajoran wormhole that provides passage to the distant Gamma Quadrant, making it possible for starships to travel to places normally beyond their reach.

Whatever the science may be, and I hereby stipulate that long-buried New York State Regents records will reveal I understood less than 30 percent of Mr. Palmer’s physics lectures in high school. But I find the whole idea wonderfully mysterious and miraculous.

But not quite as miraculous as the Transfiguration, which revealed Jesus as the bridge between earth and Heaven. 

Luke tells the story:
Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” - not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. (Luke 9:30-36)
The Transfiguration of Jesus knocked the disciples’ out of their ’ezors. Suddenly awake and perplexed by what he had seen, Peter was reduced to gibberish. He convinced himself, at least temporarily, that it would be a good thing to build three grottos around Jesus and the apparitions of Moses and Elijah. 

But soon the light faded and Peter returned to his senses, gaping tongue-tied and ‘ezorless as the voice of God ordered everyone to shut up and listen. 

What exactly had they seen? And what did it mean?

Today, simulating a transfiguration is a tedious special effect. Shine a spotlight, open the camera lens, and everything becomes dazzling white.

But how did Jesus do it without a gaffer and grip? What did it mean? And why was he in such a foul mood afterwards? Beaming one day, cursing the disciples the next?
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God. Luke 9:37-43a.
Why the mood swings? These are the FAQ’s of the Transfiguration. The answers depend on your faith tradition.

According to Luke, the event took place eight days after Jesus revealed himself to his disciples as the “Messiah of God” and charged them to say nothing about it. Together with Peter, James, and John, Jesus climbed a mountain to pray. 

No one is sure which mountain, although the Franciscans built the Church of the Transfiguration atop Mount Tabor in Israel, and their guess is as good as anyone’s.

If it was Mount Tabor, a wheezy climb of 1,886 feet was required to get to the summit and the disciples may well have been drenched in sweat and a little light-headed as Jesus began to pray. When the ambient light intensity was magnified around Jesus, Peter may have felt he was passing out.

If, indeed, the Transfiguration of Jesus marks a rare occurrence in which a portal to Heaven is opened and Jesus is transformed into a luminous bridge between earth and Heaven, its an incomparable event. The disciples know they are peering into Heaven because God is there, and when God speaks, the luminosity is so painfully penetrating that a cloud is required to shade the intensity.

The idea of Jesus being a bridge between heaven and earth works fine for mainline Protestants and evangelicals. Jesus is, after all, the gatekeeper who makes it possible for us to pass through to eternal life. 

The intriguing notion of a divine bridge between two distant and otherwise unapproachable dimensions also makes some of us faith-based Star-Trek fans wonder: have we encountered an unexpected connection between theology and astrophysics?

The special effects of the Transfiguration were far beyond that which could be duplicated on three-dimensional, high density IMAX screens. As the disciples watched dumbstruck, Jesus began to metamorphose before their eyes and the portal to heaven was opened.

As Jesus stood in the heavenly portico, Moses and Elijah came to his side. For the metaphorical minded, the appearance of the Law Giver and Premier Prophet neatly symbolizes the fact that God’s Son has been elevated over the Law and the Prophets.

But the casual manifestation of two dead guys denotes another theological reality. Contrary to traditional Jewish concepts of Sheol, where the souls of the dead retreat to a semi-conscious existence, Heaven is revealed to be the place where the dead not only continue to live but cavort intelligently and bask in God’s reflected glory.

The presence of Moses and Elijah may be problematical to Christian traditions that believe the souls of the dead sleep, as in a providentially induced coma, until they are raised on the last day, when Jesus comes again. If you believe that, you might have to conclude that because the souls of Moses and Elijah were comatose, their images must be hallucinations in the minds of the apostles.

But to other Christian traditions, it seems illogical that this one aspect of the Transfiguration would be hallucinogenic while all other aspects would be real. And there is something about the appearance of Moses and Elijah that seems very real indeed.

Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. (Luke 9:31)

According to Luke, the Law Giver and the Prophet talk to Jesus about a topic known to heaven but incomprehensible to his disciples: Jesus’ death and resurrection. It seems hardly likely that the disciples were hallucinating Moses and Elijah or their conversation about what was to come.

And if Moses and Elijah ambled out of Heaven to chat with Jesus, it is convincing forensic evidence that Heaven is occupied by the living souls of humans who have been liberated from their earthly bodies.

The implication is clear: Jesus is the Lord of the living, not the dead.

Of course, Jesus had been trying without success to get that message across to his obtuse disciples. The Transfiguration offered a glimpse into Heaven rarely seen on this side of the grave: and it was full of the living.

And just to be sure the disciples didn’t miss the message, God put in a cameo appearance behind a cloud:
“Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35)
For Peter, James, and John, the Transfiguration was a stunningly disorienting experience. Luke, a physician, understood that their human brains are poorly equipped to take it all in. That’s why a dazed Peter slipped over the edge of reality to suggest dwellings be constructed for the dazzling troika.

For Peter, James, and John, this is the rapturous “Mountaintop Experience” we humans often seek to compensate for the doldrums of life.

But mountaintop experiences are rare in life. And Peter, James, and John descended from the ecstatic warmth of the mountain to a cold shower of realty in the valley below.

And if Jesus mood turns bad the very next day, we may see this as one basis for the Christian platitude that one must not seek to spend a lifetime on the blissful mountaintop or at Star-Trek conventions; real life is often lived in the stark reality of pain and misery and failure.

Luke’s anecdote tells it like it is. Sometimes we, like the disciples, don’t have enough faith to do what God has called us to do. Sometimes, in fact, we are so faithless we can sense Jesus’ annoyed rebuke: “How much longer must I bear with you?”

That’s what daily life in the dreary valley can be like, and often is.

And that’s why a mountaintop experience, however rare, is so much to be desired. Such experiences renew our faith and keep us going.

That’s also why the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mount is one of the most important events in the gospels. 

The message of the Transfiguration sets a firm foundation for faith and strengthens our sometimes-beleaguered souls:

Jesus is our wormhole to an otherwise unattainable Heaven.

Heaven is the eternal home for the living souls of the faithful.

The passage from earth to heaven is occasionally turbulent and our human failures may leave us wretched and despondent while we wait for the gateway to open.

But the day of our own transfiguration will surely come, as Jesus promised.

And we will all be astounded by the greatness of the God of life.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Holy Leaks

Is secrecy the glue that holds church, society, and government together?

If so, we’re in big trouble. Three may keep a secret, Benjamin Franklin said, if two of them are dead.

That insight is hardly surprising from one of history’s garrulous gossips, but most of us prefer to think secrecy is both essential and holy.

Neither the government nor the institutional church believe they can function without it. President Trump was more outraged by leaks that unveiled General Michael T. Flynn’s illegal conversations with the Russians than he was by the General’s alleged treason. And the 2015 film The Spotlight dramatized Boston Globe journalists courageous efforts to penetrate the archdiocese’ impermeable wall of silence protecting predator priests. 

In both cases it would have been better if the truth had been revealed much earlier. But most people with something sinister to hide believe the less said about it the better. And both President Trump and Boston’s former archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, believed their secrets were safe.

It’s astonishing how many otherwise intelligent people think secrets can be immutable. When I was 18 I was given a “secret” security clearance by the Air Force, the result, I immodestly think, of FBI interviews with my teachers and admiring contemporaries. I could have had a “top secret” clearance but didn’t, so I suspect my history teacher, Mr. Dodge, hinted to the FBI that I was a liberal, or my chemistry teacher, Mr. Palmer, leaked documentary evidence I was mentally sluggish. Even, I took my security clearance seriously and never told what I knew: that my Air Force base in England had tactical nukes stashed in Quonset huts. I may have hinted at it to let a desired girl friend know how close I was to the Cold War front lines. And no doubt the Baader Meinhof Complex had its suspicions, but they never heard it from me.

Our justice system is also based on the idea that people can keep secrets. 

I cringe (secretly) when I’m on jury duty and the judge orders that the facts of the trial cannot be shared with anyone, including our spouses. Yeah, right. Even as I nod obediently I know I can’t wait to get home to my wife to spill all the details, not only about the obviously guilty defendant, but about the sweet imbecilities that flow from the lips of lawyers and my fellow jurors.

I also cringe when school boards or church boards meet in “executive session,” which is to say, in secret. I was never the best investigative reporter in the world, but I rarely had difficulty finding out what goes on behind closed doors. 

There are three types of people who emerge from executive sessions: people who reluctantly reveal the details; people who can’t wait to reveal the details; and people who never talk about the details because of personal integrity or because it makes them feel powerful to know something others don’t. The third type is never much of a hindrance for reporters because the other two categories are so densely populated.

In church and denominational offices, there are many things that should be handled discretely – that is, kept secret – but there is little agreement what those things are. When I was a communicator for the Baptists, I thought it was essential to protect information about overseas missionaries that might compromise their safety. But my fellow church bureaucrats were also concerned to hide information that arguably should be public, such as the salaries, benefits and travel budgets of staff executives. Another secret area was the wide category of “personnel matters,” which was intended to keep evaluations and other awkward matters strictly between bosses and employees. But the personnel category may also hide when an employee is being treated unjustly by the employer, and more than one church organization cites “personnel matters” to hide the crimes of a sexual abuser in their employ.

And here’s the thing: the most carefully guarded secrets will always emerge, sometimes sooner than later. In the early days of my tenure as an American Baptist communicator, the photocopy machine was shared by the office of communication and General Secretary Robert Campbell. Whenever Bob announced a new staff appointment, he felt it necessary to embargo the news until appointees had a chance to inform their erstwhile employers they were leaving. He’d send his assistant to the lone photocopy machine to make copies of the announcement with strict instructions not to let anyone see it. But on more than one occasion, she would make the copies and leave the original in the copier. Quickly, the secret document would end up on my desk, giving me a chance to start gathering biographical information about the appointee for a news release, long before the announcement was official. I doubt Bob ever knew how I seemed to have an inside track to such things, and I never told him. I can keep a secret.

There are, of course, legitimate secrets, and no one wants to see leaks that will jeopardize the security of the United States or the lives of service men and women. The same goes for the church. But apart from the justifiable veil of the confessional, I suggest the church should operate as much as possible in the sunshine. For the most part, it might be said church secrets are ferociously guarded for the same reason academic politics are so vicious: because, as one institutional president put it, “the stakes are so low.” Surely persons in pews who contribute to missions have a right to know how much their church is paying its bureaucrats and whatever special benefits may accrue.

When it comes to secrecy, the church might look to the style modeled by Jesus, perhaps the most transparent figure in history. The incident of the curing of the leper early in Mark’s Gospel may have been a lesson to Jesus that secrecy is futile anyway.
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter. (Mark 1:40-45) 
There may have been many reasons Jesus didn’t want the leper running at the mouth, and sermons of yore have noted a few: It was early in his ministry and he wasn’t ready to attract premature scrutiny from scribes and Pharisees; he was busy going about his ministry and he didn’t want to be mobbed by admiring masses if word spread that he was some kind of miracle worker; he wanted the man to focus on the cleansing rituals at the temple. 

Whatever his reason for wanting the man to keep it under his keffiyeh, Jesus was not being off-handedly modest. He meant it. He warned the man “sternly,” according to Mark, which is to say: Go away and shut up about it.

But if a secret paper discovered on a photocopier is worthy of revelation, there is no way anyone is going to keep quiet about being cured of a dread disease. The fact that “he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word,” leaves little doubt what happened. The cured man leaped into crowds snagging every sleeve he could grab, perseverating the news. And he must have been convincing, because curious people swarmed to Jesus “from every quarter” and Jesus “could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country.” 

Because of the passionate public relations campaign of a cured leper, Jesus went overnight from being an articulate carpenter to a national celebrity. 

It was inevitable, of course, but perhaps it happened before Jesus was ready for it. He’s a little like a small business owner who has to scramble when the demand for his product exceeds early projections.

Certainly that’s the way it should have been and, besides, what were the alternatives? To take sick people into hidden corners to discretely cure them, or to clandestinely pantomime the reign of God? God sent Jesus into the world to be visible, to be apparent, and to let the truth ring out. The scenario of a secret messiah was never part of the plan. And once the word got out, Jesus never had another quiet moment unless he hid in the country.

That’s the kind of translucence Jesus models for the faithful. For the record, Jesus never ordered any of us to “say nothing to anyone.” Quite the contrary.

“No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket,” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:15-16), “but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

The trick, and it is a big one, is to live our lives in such a way that people may see our good works and give God the glory.

But all of us will fall short on that score. If we are human, many of our works may not be good enough to shine before others. That’s precisely the reason secrecy has crept into the church, the government, and into our lives.

But we know in our hearts that secrecy is no way to honor Jesus who came to redeem us, or to serve God who calls us to proclaim the good news. 

The church and its members will always have defects and sins they will not wish to expose to the world. But that is certainly no secret, and it is no reason to slam shut the door of secrecy. 

As flawed as we may be, Jesus is calling us to follow the example of the leper who perseverated the good news of what God did for him.

And leave our cherished secret security clearances at the door.