on seeing more clearly
Let me begin by saying none of this is new information. I’m sure people have been saying this for ages, but I’m just now starting to see it.
In a scene from of my all-time favorite television shows, The Office, after Jim has transferred to the Stamford branch, the cameras pan around the office as the entire staff plays their intense and highly animated weekly game of Call of Duty. This is clearly a thing for this group of people. Everyone is into it. There is a lot of action on the screen. People are shooting, running, fighting. It’s a whole thing. Jim’s character, however, helplessly runs into a corner over and over again, as he’s clearly unable to get himself turned around and into the game and not terribly interested in figuring it out. I get it, Jim. I’m not a gamer, either. People like you and I, we don’t know how to control the little guy. We don’t know which weapons to use. When in a social situation involving any type of screen based game, we just push the buttons until something happens. Even when everyone around is very engaged in the action behind us, we’re perpetually banging our tiny digital heads into the corner, waiting for someone to walk up behind and put us out of our tiny misery. Solidarity, brother.
Last night, on my drive back from a week of intense lecture and practice with Bryan Kest, I listened to Love Wins by Rob Bell and had a pretty profound experience. I’ve listened to a couple of his books in the last week, and the way he talks about God completely resonates with me. In What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Bell opened my mind to the hugeness and the strangeness and the mystery of the universe and of the God who designed it. My week with Bryan opened my mind to a powerful way of thinking of consciousness and awareness- not merely as objectives for the time spent on the yoga mat, but as a way of living every moment of every day. In Love Wins, Bell talks at length about how the way we’ve viewed God and Heaven and Hell for the past generation or two might not be the absolute truth, after all. Maybe this fairly recent conception of having a “personal relationship with Jesus” (a thing not mentioned once in Scripture), of living a life based on the decision between Heaven or Hell, two places we’re taught to believe are actual, tangible destinations separated by an eternity… maybe that’s not really the point. Maybe God isn’t an actual guy with a book, in the traditional sense. Maybe Heaven isn’t a place far away that we meet up with our dead Christian friends and family, like catching a later flight to meet up in Europe. Maybe Hell isn’t actually a tangible lake of fire somewhere beneath the crust of the earth where a God who tells us he loves us tortures billions of people who never heard of Him in exactly the way we heard of Him, and are therefore damned because they didn’t believe in Him in exactly the way we believed in Him. Maybe we’ve gotten so caught up in the details that we’re missing the story.
From my understanding, which is limited at best, the culture into which Jesus was born was not one terribly concerned with the facts. They were storytellers who passed down their traditions orally, through generations, as most people were illiterate and the printing press was still several centuries away from even being an idea. These were not people will shelves full of books containing the precise and accurate record of historical events. They were not concerned with the details of the events, but the message contained within the story. This is why Jesus taught in parables. He knew His audience. Even the Gospels, the stories of Jesus’ life, were oral tradition until several decades after his death and resurrection. No one in that time would have said, “Oh, I need to write all of this down before I forget the details.” They told their stories out loud, as they remembered them, to communicate a message.
We start from the other end of things and that’s a fairly recent phenomenon, when you consider the length of human history. It’s only really been since the Enlightenment that we’ve been interested in evidence to support specific claims. We didn’t even start demanding “just the facts” until Dragnet. Okay, maybe a little before that, but you get the idea. In the entire expanse of human history on planet earth, we have been increasingly obsessed with facts for roughly 300 years, give or take a generation, with a special emphasis on the last 50 or so. Why on earth, then, would we insist that our current literal understanding, which has been shaped by an age in which information is paramount, of the New Testament – which was recorded and compiled thousands of years ago by people who wrote from their flawed human memories and didn’t care about the details in the first place- is the only right way to understand the New Testament? Put simply- maybe the way we see Jesus isn’t the only way. Maybe the way we tend to understand Heaven is limited. Maybe our understanding of Hell leaves something to be desired.
Didn’t Jesus spend much of His time here trying to open the eyes of the people around Him to the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven right now? A kingdom where the first are last and the last are first? From the disciples to the tax collectors to the wealthy to the downtrodden to the prostitutes to the preachers of his day, He taught that we should love one another. He taught that we should forgive. He taught that God loves the whole world and every person in it. He talked about the Kingdom of Heaven in those terms, and then He told us to live that way right now. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told us that the Kingdom of Heaven is full of the meek, the broken, the gentle, the ones who weep and mourn, the merciful, the peacemakers. Then, He constantly told his disciples to be like those people right now. He taught that Kingdom of Heaven is like buried treasure, like a mustard seed, like things that are all around us right now. He taught people to love and forgive and share and trust right now, on earth as it is in Heaven.
Maybe, you guys, maybe Heaven is all around us right now. Maybe that’s what Jesus was getting at when He told the thief on the cross that they would be together in paradise. Maybe that wasn’t some alternate universe that vaguely resembles a wealthy suburb with gold paved streets, but a reality far closer than that. Maybe God can do better than that. Maybe paradise is the most perfect expression of what God has already created and is all around us right now. Maybe it a holy and sacred dimension that we cannot see or touch because we are stuck in these human container bodies, but we can feel it sometimes. Maybe that feeling you get when you look into a newborn babies eyes, or when someone forgives you of an enormous debt, or when you are broken and you feel an inexplicable sense of peace, or you make love and you know for just a few moments that you and your lover are somewhere else, maybe that is the membrane between Heaven and earth becoming just permeable enough for us to taste the other side. Maybe that moment right before a person dies, and they look off into something we can’t see, maybe that is a glimpse of this Heaven that Jesus talked about right now. Maybe the energy of Heaven spills into our human, earthly dimension sometimes and we get to see just how good it’s going to be- how good it already is. Maybe, when we die and our human container breaks, our spirit is just as present as it always was, only now it’s free. Now, it’s in the Heaven dimension and can see perfectly what was always meant to be. Maybe, when Jesus died and split the curtain of the Temple, He was splitting open what was meant to be God’s container so that Heaven and earth could touch. Maybe Heaven isn’t out there, up there, or somewhere far away from us, at all. Maybe it’s all around us every day, right now, waiting for us to feel it.
That would make sense, right? Have you ever felt the presence of someone you lost in a room with you? Maybe they were. Maybe they were in the Heaven dimension right there next to you, reaching across the membrane so you could feel them. Maybe they’re seeing things perfectly now, right next to you, with God who is all around you. Maybe it’s all happening right now.
I had a profound meditation experience the other night, and I wasn’t going to share this with anyone until all of these pieces started coming together, and I think it’s an important part of my understanding. First of all, if you think meditation is some highly esoteric, far off, new age practice let me clarify that for you. Meditation is the practice of quieting the mind, harnessing thoughts, and focusing all of your energy on a single thing. This happened to be a meditation on compassion. We spent some amount of time, I think about 20 minutes, practicing feeling compassion. Bryan guided us from a macro experience to a micro one, from feeling compassion for people around the world to those in our lives every day. At one point I began to sense, in a profound way, a deep compassion for a young girl. I don’t know her, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen her, but I began to see a young teenaged girl and she was crying. I saw that she struggles in a very deep way with self-hate, self-harm, and cutting. I also saw that she just somehow lost her mom. I’m not sure what happened, but it was a sudden, jolting, recent loss and I felt intimately connected to this girl in my meditation. I felt my heart expand and overflow with compassion for her and I began to weep. It was really overwhelming. The longer she and I sat connected in that meditation, the more I began to feel this incredible grief. It was as if her grief, which was clearly too much for her to bear alone, was filling the spaces inside of me because I had the room and she no longer did. Compassion poured out of me and grief poured in and I wept and wept with her. The words, “You are not alone. You are going to be okay,” came to me and I repeated them in my mind, like a mantra. Physically, the girl I was connected to was alone. I have no idea who she is or where on planet earth she is or if she is even experiencing this now or if it was sometime in the past and I was connected to the broken young girl inside of someone who is now grown, but on another level, in a dimension as real as my fingers and your toes and the Statue of Liberty, we were connected and she was not alone. Neither of us was alone. I think that was Heaven. I believe that she and I crossed the membrane and felt a little bit of the perfect love, compassion, and peace of God in that moment as we sat connected to each other.
Maybe it really doesn’t matter at all how many 24 hour days it took to create the world, or if an actual giant flood destroyed all of humanity, or if there were 5 literal loaves and 2 actual fishes or some other number, or if Jonah literally spent some time inside a fish, or if there is evidence to support the stories told in Scripture. Maybe Jesus doesn’t give a damn if we know exactly how many people were present at His birth, or if He really walked on the water that day, or if the wine was real wine or grape juice. (I’m going with wine, because Jesus wouldn’t have been invited to all those dinners if he was a dud.) Maybe those are all simply that- stories. Stories that invite us into a world where Heaven is real, God is loving, Jesus is with us, and the details aren’t really the point.
That’s why stillness matters. That’s probably why Jesus went into a garden to pray and meditate before He died. He needed to connect to Heaven in a way that the physical, tangible world restricts. If you were to ask me why I meditate, today I would say it is to quiet my mind so I can connect to Heaven and listen to God. Maybe it’s to connect to someone else who’s reaching into Heaven at the same time. I won’t know until I get there. But I absolutely believe I can get there because I’m starting to believe that Heaven is happening all around us, right now, just like Jesus tried to tell us.
So, Jim. Handsome, tall, witty, Call of Duty failure Jim may not have ever found the right buttons to turn his little guy around and join the game. In the past week and a half, though, I feel very much like someone showed me how to stop pounding my tiny animated head into the wall, turn around, and join the action. And, you guys, the action is pretty damn beautiful.