While flying to the Midwest recently, I read a charming and thought provoking little book, Neil Gaiman’s 2013 The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The author noted for Coraline here weaves a tale of a man who returns home to a country house to attend a funeral, and remembers the mysterious events that took place when he was a child. He recalls that he visited a neighbor girl named Lettie, whose family are really ancient and otherworldly beings in disguise. With Lettie he visits another dimension, and accidentally brings back a sinister being named Ursula. In the end, he finds he is under attack by powerful scavenger beasts that nearly kill him until Lettie intervenes.

While there are Christian themes, such as sacrifice and redemption, don’t mistake me as saying that this is a Christian story or allegory. It’s pure fantasy. However, a part of the story that leapt out for me is this lovely prose, which I would take to be a picture of Christianity’s heavenly joy:

I have dreamed of that song, of the strange words to that simple rhyme-song, and on several occasions I have understood what she was saying, in my dreams. In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real. In my dream, it was the tongue of what is, and anything spoken in it becomes real, because nothing said in that language can be a lie. It is the most basic building brick of everything. In my dreams I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly; once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed-and-breakfast by the seaside, and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, ‘Be whole.’ and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping.

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(Image credit: Wassily Kandinsky, Ohne Titel, 1923; public domain, obtained from Wikimedia Commons)

In the book White Oleander by Janet Fitch there is a fascinating scene in which the protagonist, young Astrid, is taken to an exhibit at the art gallery by her foster mother Claire, practically the first loving mother figure in this otherwise sad tale. The exhibition is a collection of the work of Kandinski.

We walked arm in arm through the show, pointing out to each other the details that recurred, the abstracted horsemen, the color changing as a form crossed over another form. Mainly, it was the sense of order, vision retained over time, that brought me to my knees.

I imagined Kandinsky’s mind, spread out all over the world, and then gathered together. Everyone having only a piece of the puzzle. Only in a show like this could you see the complete picture, stack the pieces up, hold them up to the light, see how it all fit together. It made me hopeful, like someday my life would make sense too, if I could just hold all the pieces together at the same time.

Christians feel the same way about God–he is the Kandinsky in this metaphor, and the universe is the art gallery.

Romans 8:18 is one of those oft quoted passages which many find to be a source of comfort in their times of trial. Saint Paul weighs present day sufferings against a future glory so vast that everything that tempts us to worry and fret simply pales into nothing:

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

I recently listened to an old podcast sermon by Tim Keller, and a particular quote really grabbed my interest, and reminded me of the power of perspective. The following isn’t an exact quote, but comes close:

“If you are a Christian, if you lose something in this world it’s like someone pickpocketed 25 cents off you, when you have billions somewhere safe in a trust fund.”

(This was a tossed off remark; the full sermon discussing the part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which is the source of the term “strait and narrow”, is available online at Gospel in Life).

On Sept 26, 2010, a man was discovered hanging in the basement of the D.C. home he shared with his new wife. The man was an ace attorney who had been part of the botched government prosecution against Alaska senator Ted Stevens, and he was now facing a long investigation of his own role in the fiasco. In a fascinating article entitled “Casualties of Justice” the New Yorker magazine detailed the tragedy of Nicholas Marks:

Marsh woke up and went downstairs to the basement. At around three in the afternoon, Bermudez went to check on him, but he wasn’t in front of the television. He had hanged himself near the washer and dryer. There was no note.
Bermudez still lives in the home she shared with Marsh, and his voice still greets callers on the answering machine. “I don’t think I understood the depths of how the allegations affected him,” she told me. “He took his duties and his ethical obligations very much to heart. Even thinking that his career would be over was just too much for him. The idea that someone thought he did something wrong was just too much to bear.”

I find myself quoting pastor and author Tim Keller perhaps a bit too often these days, but this tragic story reminds me of some wise words he has said about work:
One of the scary things to me about this whole approach is that the culture’s approach weirdly enough is supposed to be liberating but it’s actually quite crushing. … But today in our modern culture, your work becomes your identity. How much money becomes your identity. It’s not just what you do but who you are! And that will crush you. (sermon transcript available here).

By all accounts Marsh was a very smart young attorney who had a bright future. He allowed a singular focus on career to become the entire locus of his identity, and when something went wrong it derailed him. This temptation to make an idol of career, to pin godlike hopes on it, is a common temptation, particularly in our culture. This is a tragic mistake. We are of course to work, and furthermore to “work as for the Lord”, giving our best efforts, striving for excellence; work is a good thing, but we shouldn’t let it become an ultimate thing. Our identity doesn’t come from what we do: “Our identity in Christ is received, not achieved.” (Keller)

The article about Nicholas Marsh concludes:

… Although Marsh’s reputation had suffered a severe and largely deserved fall for his actions in the Stevens case, skilled lawyers have rallied from far worse professional disasters. There is every reason to believe that he would have gone on to a distinguished career, and perhaps even to the judgeship he sought. But something in Marsh could not let the official system for discipline play out, and instead he imposed an unfathomably harsh punishment on himself.

Read more at The New Yorker.

Alfred Nobel was startled in 1888 to see his own obituary in the papers. His brother’s death had been mistakenly attributed to him. A French paper boldly proclaimed “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead”). It is thought that a sense of shame about his role in inventing dynamite led Nobel to establish the famous prizes that bear his name.

Originally called “Nobel’s Blasting Powder”, the inventor had reached back into the Greek language for a word that would forever after be associated with the immense power of his explosive: “δύναμις” or “dynamis”. It is the root behind the words “dynamo” and “dynamic”.

This same word is used in the Bible to describe the amazing power from on high that became available to the disciples of Jesus after his departure. Jesus had told them, “But you will receive power [dynamis] when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

About ten days later, the disciples were in an upper room in Jerusalem during the feast of Pentecost, when suddenly that dynamism exploded upon them. As described in Acts 2:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
(Acts 2:2-12).

From that moment in a Jerusalem street, two thousand years ago, the church was suddenly born in a cataclysm–an explosion–of spiritual power that has propelled the “Good News” of Jesus through space and time, right down to us. The temporal powers that had tried to crush Jesus just weeks before this moment, were unsuccessful in stopping the new movement. They were no match for the “dynamis” of the Holy Spirit.

(Photo credit: “Boom goes the dynamite” by Aaron Merrell, at FLICKR, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons 2.0).

(Quotations are from the Holy Bible, New International Version).

Tired of the oversold flights, cancellations, and bad customer service that seem to be an unpleasant part of traveling by air? The airlines, their employees, and executives certainly have the most proximate responsibility over their day to day operations. But they are also dealing with a distant and menacing power that pressures everything they do. Like most of the corporate world, the airline industry is suffused with the infernal odor of greed, which emanates from Wall Street and permeates like a heavy and ever more stifling gas:

Relentless pressure on corporate America is creating an increasingly Dickensian experience for many consumers as companies focus on maximizing profit. And nowhere is the trend as stark as in the airline industry, whose service is delivered in an aluminum tube packed with up to four different classes, cheek by jowl, 35,000 feet in the air.
“There’s always been pressure from Wall Street,” said Robert L. Dilenschneider, a veteran public relations executive who advises companies and chief executives on strategic communications. “But I’ve been watching this for 30 years, and it’s never been as intense as it is today.”

Read it all at New York Times.

The Ascension of Jesus, celebrated today as a major feast day in many churches, remains a deep mystery that both amazes and confounds us to this day.

According to the last verses of book of Luke: And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.

I remember a movie portrayal of Jesus beaming down at his disciples as he rises into a clear blue sky. Though I otherwise liked the movie, I thought this bit of celluloid really looked kind of cheesy.

We are left to wonder, what really happened? Was this just a final flourish as Jesus left our plane of existence? Did Jesus really fly up like Superman? Did he perhaps disapparate in a puff of smoke like those “death eater” wizards in Harry Potter movies? Did he shimmer and fade out like a Star Trek character in a transporter beam? Did he go into orbit around earth and then zip on out into space?

The world’s first human in space, Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union, is reported to have announced in 1961 that when he went into space, he looked around, and didn’t see God up there. (More on this in a minute).

I happened to run across a blog post on Patheos, by Butler University’s Chair of New Testament Language and Literature, James McGrath, which showed some hilarious (if irreverent) pictures of Jesus in a space suit. I take his photos and his accompanying article–somewhat derisive in tone– to be a warning against too simplistic and literal a reading of this (or any) passage. The author states:

Ascension day is a perfect day to draw attention to the fact that literalism is not only problematic, but impossible. Even if someone insists on maintaining the literal truth of the claim in Acts that Jesus literally went up into heaven, they cannot maintain the worldview of the first century Christians which provided the context for the affirmation. They knew nothing of light-years, distant galaxies or interstellar space without oxygen. And it is not possible, through some act of either will or faith, to forget absolutely everything that has been learned since then and believe as they did. Even those who willingly choose to disbelieve modern science are making a choice that the first Christians did not have, and thus accept dogmatically what early Christians naively assumed because they knew no better.”

Now, I would presume that most Christians, including those early ones who witnessed this event, understood this occasion to be something different than space travel, or moving from one spot inside the universe to another. It was not translation through space but the exaltation of Christ that was the main point emphasized in the earliest Christian writings. As St. Paul gushed:

Therefore also God highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).

Famed author C. S. Lewis wittily rebutted the comment attributed to Gagarin:

Looking for God — or Heaven — by exploring space is like reading or seeing all Shakespeare’s plays in the hope you will find Shakespeare as one of the characters or Stratford as one of the places. Shakespeare is in one sense present at every moment in every play. But he is never present in the same way as Falstaff or Lady Macbeth, nor is he diffused through the play like a gas.
If there were an idiot who thought plays exist on their own, without an author, our belief in Shakespeare would not be much affected by his saying, quite truly, that he had studied all the plays and never found Shakespeare in them.
(“The Seeing Eye”, in C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967).

Tim Keller, the famed pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, has further commented on this:

“C. S. Lewis wrote that if there is a God, we certainly don’t relate to him as people on the first floor of a building relate to people on the second floor. We relate to him the way Hamlet relates to Shakespeare. We (characters) might be able to know quite a lot about the playwright, but only to the degree that the author chooses to put information about himself in the play.
“In the Christian view, however, we believe that God did even more than simply give us information. … God, as it were, looked into the world he had made and saw our lostness and had pity on his people. And so he wrote himself into human history as its main character (John 3: 16). The second person in the Trinity, the Son of God, came into the world as a man, Jesus Christ.”
(Tim Keller, online at monergism.com).

Jesus isn’t any longer on the set (this world), nor is he in the rafters of the theater, nor is he next door quaffing a pint in the pub with the other actors. Nor is he anywhere floating around in outer space. He is outside the script, outside the story–outside the universe. He conquered death, took a bow, and exited. He is not a cosmonaut but the very author of the cosmos.

Epilogue:
Back to Yuri Gagarin. His friend Valentin Petrov has been interviewed as saying that Gagarin was in fact a devoted Christian at a time when it was dangerous to be such. The quote referenced above is from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev:

It was most certainly not Gagarin who said this, but Khrushchev! This was connected with a plenary session of the Central Committee addressing the question of anti-religious propaganda. Khrushchev then set the task for all Party and Komsomol [Young Communists] organizations to boost such propaganda. He said: “Why are you clinging to God? Here Gagarin flew into space and didn’t see God.” However, some time later these words began to be portrayed in a different light. They were cited in reference not to Khrushchev, but to Gagarin, who was beloved by the people. Such a phrase spoken by him would be of great significance. Khrushchev wasn’t especially trusted, they said, but Gagarin would certainly be. But nothing was ever said by Gagarin about this, nor could he have uttered such things.

(photo credit: Fabrice de Nola, 1996. Yuri Gagarin, oil on canvas, cm 40 x 40).

In honor of the Feast of the Ascension, and for your meditation and listening pleasure (courtesy of a Youtuber named Enrique Guerrero):

Latin text:
Ascendens Christus in altum, captivam duxit captivitatem: dedit dona hominibus.
Alleluia.
Ascendit Deus in jubilatione, et Dominus in voce tubae.
Dedit dona hominibus.
Alleluia.
Dominus in caelo paravit sedem suam.
Alleluia.

Translation:
Christ, ascending on high, led captivity captive: He gave gifts to men.
Alleluia.
God is gone up with a merry noise, and the Lord with the sound of the trumpet.
He gave gifts to men.
Alleluia.
The Lord hath prepared his seat in heaven.
Alleluia.

This beautiful work was published in 1572, while the young Victoria was studying for the priesthood in Rome.  The text is taken from the matins responsory for the Feast of the Ascension.

So marveled Egyptian TV host Amr Adeeb, in the aftermath of the Palm Sunday bombings of Christians by ISIS. The forgiveness expressed by a widow of one of the victims had taken his breath away:

Stunned, Adeeb stammered about Copts bearing atrocities over hundreds of years, but couldn’t escape the central scandal.
“How great is this forgiveness you have!” his voice cracked. “If it were my father, I could never say this. But this is their faith and religious conviction.”
Millions marveled with him across the airwaves of Egypt.

It has often been said of the ancient church that the blood of martyrs was the seed of the Church. The witness of the Coptic community, which has seen numerous attacks in the past few years, has made an impact, both on the Coptic church itself, and on the wider community.

Christianity Today quoted Christian psychiatrist and former member of parliament Ehab el-Kharrat as saying, “The Coptic community is definitely in defiance. The services of Holy Week have doubled in attendance, and the churches are flowing out into the streets.”

With regard to their muslim neighbors:
“The families of the martyrs are promoting a worldview that is 180 degrees contrary to that of the terrorists,” he said. “The great majority of Egyptians now carry deep respect for the Copts, who are viewed as patriotic people of faith.”

Introducing a new video:

We have stitched together two brief audio excerpts from prominent New York pastors Andrew Mead (Rector emeritus at Saint Thomas Church 5th Avenue) and Timothy Keller (Redeemer Presbyterian Church), that discuss the idea of Christian freedom versus bondage to sin. All the pertinent source materials are listed at the Youtube website.

From the 1928 Book of Common Prayer:
“Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us
the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known
to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns
with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and
for ever. Amen.”