I grow weary of the endless talk about the end times. Especially the type spouted by those churchgoers who burn their heads over Nineveh so seriously like Jonah, saying things like: "You don't have to look too far to see we're at the end times. Everywhere you look it's terrible. This world deserves what it's going to get!" It smacks of wishing God would destroy the world rather than save it. It smacks of false solemnity; like that of an Aztec priest discussing his grim sacrificial duty, who, safe from the fires himself, almost seems to enjoy the thought of a virgin (which almost by definition is a person who doesn't know any better) being flung into a volcano. And because I have been the unwilling participant in so many of these end times discussions, either formal or informal, I have discovered it is apparently the special purview of everyone from 13 to 103 who has, one, an opinion and, two, circumstances. Which means, even though it is a favorite topic of discussion among many Christians, it is not an especially Christian topic, it’s only an especially human topic. But for my part, I do not grow weary merely because it is the darkest way to talk about a thing as beautifully lit as Christ and His Church, but because it is the dullest. And it is exactly because of this penchant by puritans for tirelessly polishing a dark thing up into a dull thing, that I believe this sour-hearted, half-speak so commonly heard at church to also be the most wrong thing.
The human idea of the judgment and wrath of god and its terrible effects is not especially special, but the Christian idea is. The Christian idea is this: The warning of End Times, of ultimate Judgment and wrath, is not to produce flight. It is to produce fruit. It is not to start a person fleeing for their lives, but to stop them--for there is nowhere to go--to stop them fleeing from their lives, and to stand firm, plant roots and grow for their lives. It is not to make them run, but make them repent. Not to make them focus on the End, but on the Beginning. Not to increase worry to withered heads already hanging down in their hands, but to encourage those withered heads to rise up and wait at the door all night and look for the Lord in the darkness.
The frightening warnings of Revelation should not induce fighting and fierceness, anger and resentment, complaining and bitterness within the soul—all of these of course are already there. If that is all they do, then that pessimistic soul is not nearly frightened enough. The warnings should, in fact, induce the opposite. Which is: they should induce change. For that is what a revelation is. It is a new vision. One gained not merely by changing one desolate landscape for the next, but by changing one’s point of view: at once seeing the entirety of the universe in the portrait of a sinner. A vision that no longer casts its narrow, roving eyes upon the world from now till the end of time, but instead a vision that does the reverse. One that goes all the way to the end and turns around--in essence, goes to hell and back-- and placing its back to it looks toward the world today; comes back to that which is new and right now; sees not end times, but time's beginning. It looks with the fires of Hell and Brimstone behind it, with the smell of ash in its nose, shining with a new spirit, one of hope for the hopeless and charity for the undeserving and faith in the faithless.
Bartimaeus was a man who new exactly what his problem was. And because he knew it, he also knew what life, problem solved, would look like. And a man who knows this—knows exactly his problem and can see the other side, this other life—is a unique man, maybe the most, in all the world. He will stand out and shout to the crowd, “I know something now!”
Because a man who finally knows his problem finally knows its answer, or might, or something of it, and draws closer to it. He to It and It to him. The answer is, strangely, and, in part, finally seeing both things, maybe loving both things, certainly accepting both things: problem and answer. It is a faith, a realization, a sight before sight, a sight while yet blind. And somehow through this one and only possible vision in blindness: truly seeing the utter darkness; through this one and only possible health of sickness: finally accepting the fatal illness; through this one and only possible heartbeat of the heartless: at last reaching out and feeling the beating heart of another; the troubled soul begins to know the troubler of souls is near. Answer calls to answer: like calls to like: Seer of his own sightlessness calls out to the Giver of sight who, in turn, calls out to the seer of his own sightlessness. The two meet. They will meet. They must.
It is the beginning of Faith. It is local and particular—as beginnings only are and only can be. Faith does not begin abstracted out to a distant philosophy or mythical something far off in the future, then walk slowly backwards to end at a very concrete, very practical and very alive now. Rather now is first. Now is the dawn of Faith, not its dusk. Blind Bartimaeus’ faith instantly shines a broad and universal daylight; instantly reaches philosophical and mythic proportions. Not the other way around. The question is immediate—right now—just like it’s answer:
“What do you want me to do for you, Bartimaeus?”
“Teacher, I am blind. I want to see.”
“Your faith has healed you.”
Immediately he received sight and followed Jesus along the road.
A man will never find the answer to his problems until he realizes he has an even bigger problem with the answer. Only then will he discover the problematic answer to his problem is the problem of Jesus, the bearer of Elijah's nickname: the Troubler of Israel.
There is no answer for everything. But there is a question. And that in itself is an answer.
After much and much thought, after imaginings of biggest bangs and destructions and creations, and even still being quite unable to describe my progress through this issue, because it’s an indescribable process, I have come to the absolute conviction (two words that I am careful as a miser with) that existence had to begin by Will and Design almost completely intact, de novo. With great apology to skeptics and scoffers and even a few spiritual scallawags, and after circumnavigating the universe like Magellan, seven days for creating the whole thing seems close enough to me. I just don’t see any other way for it to occur by the existence I see in front of me right now. Everything I see has a birth and a death. And the birth implies the death just as much as the death implies the birth. The evolutionary theorist seems to try to deny this fact by his theory. Any plausible theorist, any sophisticated thinker, cannot deny the destination or the end or the death of things; claiming, as the evolutionist does, their pointless or endless or deathless progress into oblivion; while at the same time admit they had a beginning, and a birth.
It just seems absolutely clear that things have an ending, in the sense of a destiny. Their existence reaches towards becoming what it is they are always supposed to become. In something as simple as a blade of grass or a tree or as complex as the most complicated creature—the human—every existing thing is reaching towards what it is at all times. There is no evidence to me, in the existence around me, that there is a slippery slime and smearing of creation into an ever blurring and stretching of what things are into a vast blob of gray-greenness, of short things becoming endlessly taller and taller until they fall over, or expanding everywhere, until they simply fill in the endless shapelessness of the universe. The universe has a shape and a form or we could not speak of it or describe it, for our very language would be as ever-changing, as formless and void, as the shape-shifting mouths that spoke it. Our tongues should fall off or elongate to drag on the floor before we could finish a sentence. It simply takes opening one’s very own round, doubled, and crystal clear eyes—eyes that aren’t slowly becoming rounder or squarer, or coalescing into one or dividing into three, or progressing towards some impossible state beyond clarity; seeing through pupils—pupils that aren’t forever dilating to swallow the eye whole at twilight or forever constricting to blot out the sun at dawn—this very obvious thing around you: Things are. And always are. And although it is an obvious fact things change and grow, it is just as obvious a fact every growing thing reaches out, not forever into blind oblivion, but for something: to be what they are, to be a final thing, not a thing with no end, which is to say, a thing with no future. But a thing with a definite future and a particular end, which is to say a thing of hope and eternity.
The illustration often used when teaching such a small idea as receiving Eternal Life, or Mercy, or the multitudinous and cosmic gifts of God, is that a gift is received only when the one gifted actually takes it. In fact, it is so often used to describe how to receive the salvation of Jesus, that the illustration becomes at best a faded truism, having lost its real meaning, and at worst becomes a foolish and dangerous theology which completely misrepresents the most important idea of a gift. For whether a gift is received has almost nothing to do with taking or getting—anything. The point of a gift has to be that one already had it long before he took it, and that taking it or holding it is the least part of receiving it. So the old, faded and formulaic illustration on how a gift is received should be crumpled up and tossed out.
A gift can absolutely be fully given and fully held without it being fully received. This is exactly the sense in which every parent tells their child he is not living up to his potential. The gifts are there and they are his—but untapped; sitting wrapped within his skin, or maybe even unwrapped and held in his hands and even seen by the child, yet still unreceived. What the gift is, remaining opaque to the child himself.
Whether or not one receives a gift has nothing to do with the fact that it is his. Whether he receives it or not, only depends on whether he enjoys it or not. To enjoy a gift one must give the gift oneself, or, to make my meaning clear, give oneself to the gift. Giving, not getting, is the way one receives. When he starts to give the gift—give unto the gift, in a sense, give what the gift asks of him—is the moment he receives the gift. This is a more proper—no, not more proper—this is the only way that existence, life eternal, the miraculous gifts of God—work.
Mercy has already been given. It is man’s. Forgiveness was his from the beginning—from his Heavenly Father. The only way one may receive the divine gift of Mercy is by using the gift, giving himself over to it, becoming it and giving it away. To say it another way, the way God himself said it as He walked the streets of first century Jerusalem: "The only way one may enter the Kingdom of Heaven is, paradoxically, by living in it."
It is this exact meaning of receiving a gift--that a gift enjoyed is a gift used--that every poet, painter, pianist, and person knows intuitively. The purpose of the Birthday tradition of placing gifts in boxes and wrapping them with colorful paper is that gifts are a surprise. The point is precisely not to know what the gift is, but rather to open the box and say, “What is this? What do you do with it? Mercy? What is mercy? Life? What is life?” And the answer is something like, “That is for you to figure out. 'Ask and you shall receive.' Enjoy.” To really receive is to have joy—to enjoy. And on the day of our birth, our dining tables are piled with these gifts.
One may open a box and hold up the gift within and gaze into the Unknown that is his. Yet even after opening and having, there is no receiving unless there is enjoying. These are the same ideas: enjoying and receiving--and not enjoying and not receiving. The one who enjoys the gift, which is to say, the one who listens to what the gift says of its own spontaneous voice; listens to the song it sings and responds to the voice; receives it. Like a child. For the child, as opposed to the adult, knows exactly the meaning of a gift: how to receive; what to do, for example, with the gift of a tree. She needs no instruction from anyone else, rather the tree unwraps itself before her eyes and she runs to what is hers, what was always hers, embracing it, listening all the while as it says something like: “I am to climb. I am a tree, and a tree is for climbing.” And before there is time to think or reason or explain, she is already swinging from its branches, laughing with the laughter of its leaves.
In the same way, the gift of Mercy says something like: “I am Mercy. Come and listen to me, I desire to be used. I desire Mercy.“
The only responsibility of man is to accept God‘s sovereignty. That is the solution of a problem debated for eternity. It is, in a word, obedience--which is itself, in a word, love.
Man has responsibility. This is not an option. It’s a condition of life. The ability of response is, almost by definition, life, and therefore man. If light is shown upon a rock in utter darkness and the rock responds by staying put, then it is indeed a rock and not alive, or, at least, only as alive as an unresponsive rock can be. But if light is shown upon a rock and the rock responds by scurrying away, then we say “Whoah, that is no rock! That thing is alive!”
Because he is alive, man has the ability of response. Because he is responsible, he is alive. But alive for what? Responsible to what? As with our rock, to a light in the darkness.
In the kingdom of heaven there is a king, and everyone in that kingdom is singing in one accord. But it is not one voice, it is one million voices in one, and it is not a machine of music, it is definitely alive. All the pictures and images in the Bible that even begin to touch on something like the heavenly realm are filled with Ezekiel’s rainbows and beasts with four heads and six wings with one thousand eyes and colors and forms and row after endless row of bowing or shouting holy people, a circus of angels circling around a central throne in a ring of fire. It is literally almost anything but a uniform thing; almost anything but a bland, grid-like uniformity praising the sovereignty of a despotic or deterministic slave master. And what glorifies the heavenly king is that all those voices and all those forms are saying something like “I have chosen to abdicate my throne of choice!” or “I have finally fulfilled my one responsibility” or “I have chosen This King over all the others.” Therefore man’s responsibility to choose God’s sovereignty glorifies God greater than Sovereignty alone. In a sense it is a double glorification, even a seventy times seven multiplication of the glory of the king.
Christ himself is the unification of the idea of man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty. That is who Christ is. As man is to all other creatures, so Christ is to all other men. He is the singular and outstanding culmination of something that pierced existence. He is the point of Abraham‘s knife at the down stroke.
Where the story of Abraham left off, is where God Himself cried, “It is finished!” At that place, on that mountain of God’s Providence, Christ was obedient unto death; even death on a cross. He sacrificed choice by choice.
One of the most perfect acts of obedience in the Bible might be the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. As it pits the righteous sovereignty of God against what might considerably be the most heinous act of a man. It is the rending of the strongest bond, a father’s love for his son, by the stronger bond-breaker, the Great Father’s love for his children. The most powerful of bindings on earth, meets the more powerful of looseners in heaven. The picture of Abraham poised over Isaac is the picture of man poised over everything that matters. It places him absolutely in the moment where his hand starts to fall. And just as the point of a knife is to penetrate, the point of Abraham’s knife is this: Divinity only and ever penetrates man at mortality. Everything meets here. There is man and God and a mountain and an angel and a choice and now and nothing else but everything. The divine touches the mortal at the falling point of that knife. And at this exact place where heroes of faith are made, there is no more ought, there is no more should, there is no more thinking, there is no more morality, there is no more right and no more wrong. Abraham cannot and is not allowed to see what is beyond his next choice or action—these have become one in his moment of faith. He just obeys…now. So the question is: How obedient could you be?
The stoic man is essentially a pessimist. I say essentially because the stoic's lofty ideal to merely withstand all the madness of this world without himself going mad might be viewed, albeit from a necessarily low vantage point, as a sort of optimism. “It can be done,” says the stoic, proudly eating sour grapes, grim-faced, from his fortress of solitude. "If there be any goodness in the world, it is only a small goodness, a nymph from fairyland not worth pursuing." Otherwise, the stoic's idea of goodness only goes as far as his pessimism allows; to the negation of awfulness. His reality is the eye-drying reality of blood, sweat and tears. The stoic never discovers the secret to his nemesis, the meek man—the guardian of true optimism. He never answers the riddle of the smile blazing across a humble heart.