30 April 2010

Slice of Life: The Jackpot

Owen, Jonah and I cleaned the car today.

I'm embarrassed in how seldom I clean or wash my car. It's not a high priority for me. Perhaps the best way to describe how dirty the car needs to be, is to say this: once the trash pile reaches the bottom of the windows, it's time to pick up.

When I cleaned, I went all out. The boys pulled out everything, sorting the junk from the lunch boxes, water bottles and pencils. I got out the vacuum cleaner, determined to get everything really clean.

In a moment of inspiration, I decided to remove the back seat. "Take a look at this," I said to the boys, who were trying to sneak away from the job for the 4th time.

There is something awesome about the back seat of the car. It's the same as the inside of a couch or chair, I think. There is a treasure trove of great stuff that has fallen back there over the years. Pens, coins, toys, cards--the every day flotsam and jetsom of life make their way back there. They aren't the kinds of things that a person will miss, but when they are found, it's kind of like...

"Jackpot!" Owen said as I removed the back seat. I looked down on a grotesque scene of smashed Skittles candies, lint, and scraps of candy wrapper. I noticed some coins sparkling out of this mess. There could easily be a dollar or two scattered back here, I thought.

Owen moved quickly through the back of the car, picking things out of the seat. "This is awesome!" he said. "Look at all these Legos."

I looked over. He was carefully looking through the junk, picking up Lego pieces, leaving the rest to me. He found the head of his Anakin Skywalker mini figure. He found a piece to a Bionicle that had been missing for a year, he said. "And here is the piece to my MX4Ti," he added. I hate when they speak Lego, don't you?

Later Jonah and I counted the change that I had collected after Owen had rescued the Legos. It added up to $3.75. Not quite the jackpot that Owen had found, but welcome nonetheless.

23 April 2010

There's No Omega in Faith, No Alpha Either

I was in Sabbath School at my sister's church a few weeks ago, and I found myself on familiar ground for those of us who regularly attend Bible studies: second-guessing characters in the Bible and--in a small way--second-guessing God.

The topic was Hagar and Abraham: his tragic choice to follow his wife's directions and lie with her servant. Why did he do it? Would that he would have known the consequences. The strife of the present-day Middle East, between descendants of Isaac and descendants of Ishmael, came to light.

It was a challenging, thought-provoking discussion, and at the end, I was struck by a single, enlightening text: "I am the Alpha and the Omega...who was and is and is to come, the Almighty" (Revelation 1.8).

Right then and there I caught a God's-eye view of Hagar and Ishmael, and it gave me a God's-eye view of my own life, my legacy, and the essence of my faith.

Let me begin with a story.

The Danube River flows between two German cities that lie on the border of the states of Baden and Bavaria: Ulm and Neu Ulm. In 1876, the only way between these cities was by river ferry.

I do not know of the exact date, but family lore states that on one fateful day, a river ferry sank. Riding on that ferry was a young man named Karl Funk, and he survived the sinking, saving--in the process--a young woman named Anna-Katherine. I know their names, because they can be found on the birth certificate of my great grandmother, who was born in Ulm in 1881.

I love this story for three reasons: it has a trace of romance, it seems miraculous, and it resulted directly in me. You see, if that ferry had made it safely across the Danube that day, Karl and Anna-Katherine might have gone their separate ways without meeting. If one or the other had perished, then James Albert Dittes would most definitely not exist, nor would any of my kids...or their kids to come.

Karl saved Anna-Katherine that day, yes, but he also saved me.

I guess that makes it easy for me to take a God's-eye view of the events of that day. When God looked down on this sinking ferry, he saw these two young people among the passengers. But because God is outside of time and space, it is easy for me to understand that He also saw me and Owen. In fact, it is not hard for me to believe at all that God saw me and knew that I would worship one day in Savannah, Georgia, and figure all this out!

"I am the Alpha and the Omega...the Almighty."

This is mind-blowing stuff. But when I apply it to Abraham and Hagar, I understand how God could find faith so easy while Abraham couldn't. When God looked at Sarah, he didn't see an old woman; he saw Isaac--and through him, David and Solomon, Jeremiah and Amos, Jesus and Paul, and all those who would one day worship in Jesus' name.

And as Abraham lay with Hagar, God didn't think, "This ruins everything." Instead he could see through Ishmael to generation after generation of descendants--ALL of whom He loved. I struggle to ascertain the consequences of my decisions at a distance of weeks or months. God sees me act--for good or evil--and projects it to "the third and fourth generation" (for the record, I am four generations removed from the Danube Miracle). This is a truly amazing perspective. This is Alpha and Omega--a beginning unimaginably far before my beginning, an end eternally beyond my end.

For much of my life, I was a fundamentalist Christian. "God said it--that settles it" was a good way to describe my worldview. When the proverb stated, "He shall direct thy paths," I literally expected God to tell me every place to go and every thing to do when I got there.

In 2003, after the disastrous end of not just a job but an entire career path, I sought for solace in the Book of Job. The God I found there was not the hand-holding dispensationalist I had grown up with. Instead He was Alpha. He was Omega.

At the end of the Book of Job, a storm rises. Out of the storm, God speaks to Job. He doesn't offer comfort. Instead his words sound like rebuke. "Where were you?" he asks angrily. "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation...? Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!" (Job 38.4-5).

Job cannot speak. God cannot say it more clearly: "I am the Alpha; I am the Beginning. Everything you do--for good or for evil--comes somewhere along the continuum after me. You may be Beta, you may be Theta. You cannot see far enough ahead or behind to really understand."

Job's reply is a statement of faith in the Alpha God: "Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know" (42.3). It takes faith to believe in a Creator God, to place in His hand the origins of my life, my consciousness, my planet, my universe.

It is through Christ that we understand the Omega. I believe this is why John puts these key words of faith in his mouth in Revelation 1.

You see, in my limited view, Omega is the end of my life. My senses, my thoughts, my experiences comprehend only the Alpha of birth and the Omega of death. But when I give these to God, in exchange for his God's-eye view, the distances widen. Maybe the Alpha isn't my birth date, but the day Karl rescued Anna-Katherine out of the Danube River. Or maybe it stretches long before them to some other miracle in which God saw me.

Therefore the Omega also stretches on. On this earth it extends to my descendants, whom I will never see or know, but whom I can love, just as I love Karl and Anna-Katherine. It extends into eternity, this Omega, to judgement and to resurrection and then still further on. My act of faith is not in speculating upon these things but in relying fully in the Omega to have themprepared for me.

As a Christian, I believe that the only person to experience the human-life Omega and return was Jesus Christ himself. Yet if Jesus really did go through this, why didn't He talk about it between Easter and Ascension? He could have said, "This is what it's like" or "You won't believe what I've seen." Instead there is no Omega. There is only the direction to "go into all the world."

The disciples weren't the Omega; Christ was. They weren't even the Psi--the 2nd-to-last letter--even though many of them might have believed it at the time. Christ didn't have to reveal Omega. He was Omega, and I can be utterly faithful that he is my Omega without needing to know the measurements of heaven, the boundaries of death, or the depths of consciousness.

Coming from a fundamentalist background, I have seen plenty of controversies among believers. What strikes me is how many of those controversies have their origins in the Alpha and Omega sectors: Creationism vs. Evolution, Original Sin, Heaven & Hell, the Afterlife, Judgment, etc. When it comes down to Beta through Psi theology, Christians have very little to debate within the Body of Christ. True Christian faith, I believe, leaves to God the Alpha and Omega, and leads the Christian to find his/her place on the continuum of God's faithfulness to humanity.

Growing from this background, I can also understand the text, "he shall direct thy paths," in meaningful new ways. I have grown to believe that God does not direct my every step. I have given up trying to seek his guidance for specific, day-to-day experiences.

Faith in Alpha and Omega is direction enough. I choose to behave in every role--as father, husband, teacher, and friend--as someone who was destined to do this, someone who was created for the very purpose of doing this very thing excellently. I also find that my belief in the Omega helps me to make decisions with the long view in mind.

Let me close with one other fun illustration. I really believe that Alpha and Omega can be understood in the context of love, as well as faith.

Even after sixteen years of marriage, Jenny and I are not completely in agreement on the Alpha of our love for each other. Jenny has very definite memories of her first interactions with me. Those are not the same as mine. We agree that she had feelings earlier than I did, but the exact beginning of our love affair is up for debate. In fact, when we do talk about it, we often end up arguing or teasing each other. Even our versions of my proposal in Eden Park, Cincinnati, Ohio, in September 1993 are different!

The fact is that we have never debated this Alpha to the nth degree because we are very much in love. There are things that our love must do for each other today. For Ellie, our love has no reasonable existence before she came along in 1997--the same goes for Owen and Jonah. What was the point?

Would you like to know how much we speculate on the Omega of our relationship? I'm sure you know. We assume it will end in one spouse's death at some time in the future, and we take precautions with a will and life insurance. It is not a priority in our relationship, however, we are loving in the present.

I think our shared faith in God helps us to focus our relationship and expel unknowns--rather, to leave those unknowns in the knowing hand of the Almighty.

I think that true faith is contained in these two words: Alpha, Omega. When we can turn over to God our origins and our legacies, we can find true peace.

05 April 2010

What Forrest Sees that Some Don't See

A few weeks ago, I had some time to write about the history found at Tennessee's state capitol, namely the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a man who fought against the United States and preferred to see Republicans hung.

I didn't have time to point out the greatest irony of Forrest's statue. It is the fact that it looks unwaveringly upon this bronze relief, commemorating Tennessee's ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution. The primary figures in this relief are of African origin, freed slaves, now legislators and citizens under the newly ratified rights. There is no Nathan Bedford Forrest shown here.

Let's review for a moment these key amendments, which established rights for former slaves and finally brought the Constitution into line with the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and reiterated in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

The 13th Amendment abolishes slavery throughout the United States.

The 14th Amendment establishes the rights of all men, regardless of race or prior state of servitude to vote or be counted in a census, correcting a clause originally written in the Constitution that identified slaves as being 3/5ths of a person for the purpose of citizenship and census. It also bars folks like Forrest, who had served under America's enemies, from holding federal office.

The 15th Amendment states that "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

These amendments marked a fundamental change in American governance--a change bought with the blood and sacrifice of tens of thousands of Union soldiers. Yet they are at the key of misunderstandings that plague Southern states like Tennessee to this day. A large number of Americans remain willfully ignorant of their meaning--or at least fail to apply that knowledge in political discourse today.

Nathan Bedford Forrest would understand. He would know that the legislatures that ratified these amendments in Tennessee and throughout the South were made up of Republican imposters--transplanted Northern "carpetbaggers," freed slaves, and craven Southern "scalawag" sympathizers to the Union cause. He would recognize that Southern states were forced to ratify these amendments as a condition for returning to the Union and removing occupying federal soldiers.

But as Forrest's Klu Klux Klan riders stormed through the South, restoring the dominance of the conservative Democrats, these three key amendments became ever more entrenched as law. Many key provisions--voting rights for African Americans, for example--would be delayed in the South for another 90 years, but they would come. Inexorably, they would come.

One of the key provisions of the 14th Amendment states:
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Can you hear the ghost of Thomas Jefferson in those lines? When the United States had been just an idea, written on paper as a declaration to the King of England, Jefferson had written that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator to certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

When the time had come to ratify the Constitution twelve years later, these sentiments were left on the cutting room floor. The states were not unified. There was much opposition. Compromises needed to be made.

Certain citizens needed to remain "alienable," namely enslaved persons whose unrequited toil and hardships drove the economy of southern states. To live in the "Land of the Free," especially in the proximity of enslaved people, one needed "alienable rights," too. In fact, to make sure that the federal government didn't overstretch its bounds, the founders inserted the 10th Amendment into the Bill of Rights, stating that "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

I have heard a lot about the 10th Amendment in recent weeks, especially in the wake of the historic Health Care Reform passed by Congress just three weeks ago. As Nathan Bedford Forrest's political heirs came to terms with their outrage over this expansion of federal power, many advocated the 10th Amendment as their bulwark against this legislation. Indeed it is the basis of a possible suit by a group of state attorneys general to block the implementation of the bill.

Yes, it's totally bogus.

Read the 14th Amendment again--the one that fixed the Constitution and banished forever the "peculiar institutions" preserved by the 10th Amendment. It gives the federal government huge leverage over the states to enforce laws--particularly those relating to the "privileges or immunities of citizens." Where did the federal government get this power? On the battlefields of Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia, that's where.

Jenny and I have been watching the PBS Documentary, "Eyes on the Prize," this week. It's a gripping look at the civil rights movement that established the 14th Amendment as the law of the land. It's mind boggling--to us--to see the opposition that such simple acts as seeing a 1st-grader walk to school or enrolling in the University of Mississippi could have been met with riots and outrage.

Yet when I see President Eisenhower sending the 101st Airborne to Central High School in Little Rock, or when President Kennedy sends US Marshals to Oxford, Mississippi, I am seeing the 14th Amendment in action. Those who opposed integration in the 1950s and 60s--just as those who oppose health care or national standards for education today--belong to a pre-14th mindset. They have not come to terms with a federal government that has claimed these rights for 140 years.

Now this is not to say that there is no place for conservatism in American politics. President Eisenhower was a conservative who acted more out of a concern for the breakdown in law and order in Little Rock than any liberal utopianism. There needs to be accountability in government and good management--and true conservatives are well equipped to bring this.

But it is to say that when inequalities exist, We the People can and will step in to stop them. America's health care system is broken, it is a problem too big for individual states to solve. On the horizon, climate change is too big a problem to attach piecemeal, state by state. A poor education system isn't just Tennessee's problem or Indiana's problem, it is a national problem, and the 14th Amendment gives We the People the right to step in and make it right.

That's what I see, anyway. And that's what Nathan Bedford Forrest sees in Tennessee's capitol, whether he likes it...or not.