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.