Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Universe's Song - A Christian Perspective

Are you feeling really important right now? Like everyone's counting on you, expecting you to be the one who makes life better, who'll keep things going? That's a lot of pressure, isn't it?

Maybe you're feeling irrelevant. Like no one cares about you, like if you vanished tomorrow, no one would even notice.

You're wrong. In either case you're wrong.

Here, watch this:

Now, maybe you were feeling pretty balanced before, and that video had the effect on you that it had on me - it made you feel very, very small and unimportant.

When people ask me what I "get out of being a Christian," I think sometimes what they're really asking is, "Why do you matter?" And it's kind of hard to deal with that question because, well, I don't. I mean, not really. Here, another video:
What? Nothing we do matters. Is that even remotely true? Can a Christian believe such a thing and still believe in God?

Yeah. Sort of. Stick with me here.

If you're a Christian, you believe that one day, there will be a "big victory." Some people boil Revelation, Micah, Daniel and bits of Isaiah in a stewpot until they get the notion that they know exactly how the world will end - with a one-world government lead by The Antichrist* versus Israel in a great climactic battle, at which point God will rule the world for a thousand years. Some people think that we build that kingdom here on Earth, that the battle of Armageddon is metaphorical. Still others read the book of Revelation as pure apocalyptic literature that's meant to be read and not necessarily understood and pay more attention to the letters to the churches than anything else.

Whatever. In the end, God wins.

In the end GOD wins. In His time, and His will and by His power. Sure, we have a bit of a role to play. In fact, you can't talk about God's eventual victory without talking about what we're supposed to do:

"But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.
“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’
“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

That's it. Visit those in prison (whether the prison of their mind or body, or, y'know, actual prison), offer food to the hungry and water to the thirsty, be open to strangers and clothe the naked. Be maximally decent to other people.

There's a phrase I heard once at Houghton College. I remember hearing it, but it was in passing by a couple of divinity students and I honestly never  figured out what it meant: immanentizing the eschaton. I frankly had no clue what it meant. A few years ago, I looked it up. It refers to bringing Earth into it's final form, ready for God to come down and destroy it and/or save it.** To immanentize is to make something immanent, to make it real. The eschaton is the end of all things.

This is kind of ridiculous on its face. Here we are, a mere couple billion humans *** scraping across the barest crust of our planet, believe that, in service to an infinite God of infinite power, we can set things up just right so that we can read his inscrutable and impossible wisdom to bring about his fiery and destructive return. Seriously? When the border between summoning Cthulhu and worshiping God becomes that blurry, it's a good idea to step back and reconsider your ecclesiology a bit.

So, immanentizing the eschaton is out.

We still need to be about the business of immanentizing, though, of making things real.

" I fought for so long for redemption, for reward and finally just to beat the other guy, but I never got it," Angel says in the video above.

I did that I lot. I still do. I do the things that I do and I act like they're victories or something that justifies my other excesses, or that should curry favour with God or with man. Sometimes just because I think that they make me better than other people. And I'm wrong, each and every time.

I don't want that. I want to help because I don't think people should suffer as they do.

Immanentizing righteousness.

* There is no Antichrist. Well, rather, there are lots of little antichrists. I John has more to say about that. (Oh, and yes, if you cross the streams and combine 2 Thessalonians with 1 John, you kind of get the idea there might be one Antichrist whose sort of like the boss at the end of the video game. This has lead people to identify various figures in Revelation as The Antichrist - the beast from the earth is popular right now, but it used to be the beast from the earth and, for a little bit, even the Whore of Babylon got in on the action. To be clear, from the description of their behaviour, I think both apostles, John and Paul, would be totally cool with calling them antichrists.)

** The end of the world, it turns out is rather complicated. Myself, I favour fire as well.

*** Every day, every single day, your body produces about 200 billion new red blood cells. It's taken us 7000 years to get even close to breaking the 10 billion human limit. Don't go taking on airs.

Bullies, Griefers and Ignorance

In 1992 I went to Canada's Wonderland a lot. I went on the rides, sure, but I spent a lot of time at the arcade. 1992 was a fantastic year for arcade video games for three reasons, in my opinion: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, X-Men and Captain America And The Avengers. All three were sidescrolling action games where you fight through a bunch of little bad guys before battling a boss. Rinse, repeat a half dozen to a dozen times and, whammo, you've beaten the game.*
Doing well at these games requires reflexes, timing and an ability to figure out how the bad guys are going to attack and getting out of the way. I loved that part of these games, and could spend ten minutes on a single quarter before making a miscue and having to feed the beast again.
This was also the summer of Street Fighter II. On its face, it would seem to have all the qualities I like - reflexes, timing and strategy - but in practice, no so much. The game had six buttons in a time when most games had two, and your opponent was randomized, making it harder to get really good at it. Also some of the fighters were simply at a serious disadvantage against certain opponents. Still, I played enough to be familiar with the characters.
One day in the summer of 1992, I was rocking out at X-Men. A trio of high school seniors joined in with me and we fought our way through a few levels before two of them got bored and moved on. Adam, the one guy who stayed was obviously not all that familiar with video games and was fascinated by the way I played, beating seemingly impossible boss guys by moving and dodging at just the right moment.
We beat the game, and he asked if I'd stick around and show him how to beat the early levels. The rules of high school meant that I was obliged to anyway, but I was more than happy to stay - my nerdy self was proving helpful to a high school senior, which was somewhat unprecedented.
The X-Men machine was right next to one of the four Street Fighter games, the one with a little flicker on the right side of the screen. Now free from button-mashing, I noticed something. An older kid, maybe in his early twenties, was hanging out across from the game, waiting for someone to come up and play single player. If it was a kid my age or older, he'd leave them alone, but if it was a younger kid, he'd drop in his quarter, kick the kid around in the game a little bit and send them off frustrated. Then he'd throw the next round and settle back and wait for a new victim.
See, Street Fighter was set up to be played one of two ways. Either you'd play solo, fighting against a roster of bad guys until you get to the boss fight, or you'd fighter against another player. It was kind an unspoken rule that if someone was playing single player, you left them be until they'd lost to the same opponent a few times, at which point you could step in. You always asked, too. This guy didn't. He was stepping in on the games of kids a decade younger than he was for the sole purpose of making them waste a quarter. A griefer, in other words.
Griefers are people who take advantage of weaknesses in a game's program to frustrate other players. They don't necessarily care about winning, exactly, they just get pleasure out of aggravating people. Griefers are, in a word, annoying.
I dislike being around annoying people.
"Hey, Adam," I said, trying to keep my voice down, but loud enough to be heard in the arcade, "How many quarters do you have left?"
"Ten bucks or so. Why?"
"There's a guy who's picking on kids on that Street Fighter game."
"That sucks. You want quarters to beat him?"
"No, I want you to play Street Fighter."
At the time, I thought that Adam gave up at the moment because he realized the brilliance of my plan, but in fact he had just come to the Savage Land level on X-Men. Anyone who's played the game and had to fight off those blasted pteranodons can understand why he actually quit.
"I only know, like, one guy in that game."
I shrugged, and then lied. "I only know one guy, too. We play each other, there's three rounds, each a minute long if we play it right."
Adam smiled nervously.
"Dude, he's going to get mad."
"So what."
Adam smiled again, this one a conspiratorial grin, and walked over to the game.
We started playing around 11. For the first little bit, we would stand there dancing around the screen until 10 seconds left in the match, then go all out until the end of the round. The third round we'd fight beginning to end. After about half an hour of this, we were actually getting pretty good. The griefer was still there, though, when one of the employees came up and commented that we were taking up a lot of time on one of their most popular games.
I forget which of us said it, but either Adam or I pointed out that there was no line and that this game had a glitchy screen anyway. The employee nodded and prepared to move on, making the final cryptic comment, "I could beat you guys with Ryu's right arm anyway."
Gauntlet thrown. Gauntlet picked up.
We continued to pick our fighters as normal, but now also announced what moves we were going to use in our fight. Blanka, feet only. Honda, hands only. Guile, sonic booms only. We continued like this for a while until I realized there were two kids lined up behind us, and that the griefer was gone.
"Adam," I said, nodding to the kids as I hit his character with an uppercut that made a tiny Asian woman clap faster than nature would permit.
"K," he said.
The match ended, and we stepped away.
This was adolescence - I never got Adam's last name, and, so far as I know, we never crossed paths again. It didn't matter. We collaborated to take care of a bully in a way that works only under a few circumstances - we beat him by ignoring him.
On social media, as in life, there are people who feed on your frustration and anger. This is a terrible thing. For them, though, not for you. See, you can be a full, well-rounded person who is strengthened by friendship, by a relationship with God, by any number of things that aren't awful. These people who feed on frustration and anger? That's an awful way to live, but getting frustrated and angry about it is the opposite of helpful.
I'm not saying that all bullies can be beaten by being ignored - I've worn glasses since I was eight, started playing tabletop roleplaying games when I was nine, and have been a clumsy, pudgy guy who typically doesn't know well enough to shut up all all along, so I've attract the attention of a few bullies in my day.
No one has the authority to push you down, literally or metaphorically. No one has the right to make you feel like a failure just for being you, or the privilege of making you feel lesser. It's just not something given to humans that they ought to do to each other. And ignoring people who try, by yourself, probably won't work.
A few years before the story I relate above, I was a "minor niner," a freshman in high school, and getting picked on by a few older kids. I generally carried two or three novels with me at a time. One for light reading (Hitchhiker's was good for this), one for medium reading (something by Poul Anderson, at around that time) and one for heavy reading (I remember this time it was Timothy Findley's "The Wars," which I filched from my sister's room not knowing it was a book she was assigned for English class). They were thumbing through them and laughing, reading bits and pieces in silly books and threatening to rip out the pages.
Despite my status as a freshman, I'd caught the attention of some of the upperclassmen because, as mentioned previously, I talked a lot. Despite being a chunky kid, I held my own in the locker room when it came to banter and some of the guys, especially two of the wrestlers took a shine to the little guy who "talked above his weight class." It was when the fate of my books seemed most dire that one of the wrestlers came by. He took the books back casually, commenting pleasantly on each one and commending the bullies' choice of literature, and handed them back to me.
He clapped one of the bullies on the shoulder and said, "You guys have a great day. I really hope I see you around." The subtext in that last sentence was palpable - it was pretty clear that if he saw them picking on me again, bad things were going to happen.
I think it comes down to herd politics - if the zebras outnumber the hyenas, and have enough strength to hold a line against them, they can starve out the hyenas. So, do your part.
Know someone who's being bullied at school? Don't get angry and frustrated, that just feeds the beast. Walk with them. Encourage your friends to do the same, until that kid's rolling three deep between classes.
A victim of bullying? Put together your herd. Not a gang, not a fight club, just a group of people you can walk with. Try to get an older kid to walk with you.
A victim of bullying online? Here it gets tricky. We have this natural urge to talk back online, to defend our righteous position. That's usually a good thing, but here it's not. Ignore them, unfriend them, delete them, just put them away. Don't announce it, just do it, and once you only have your friends standing with you, it will get better.
None of these solutions are perfect, but talking with some friends online about bullying lead me to write this as these are things I've found worked for me. I had a bit of an edge, socially, that other people might not. Good luck out there.

* If anyone ever comes out with a game that consists entirely of 90s arcade game boss fights, they will have my undying gratitude.