Growing ever upward

About a quarter-century before 9/11, I had this terrorist for a pen pal. I was a gawky 11 or 12 and met him through a Humane Society group. John, who was, in his forties about my dad’s age and lived in Scotland, always tucked in with his letters photocopied news clippings of attacks on facilities where animals were undergoing experimentation or other cruelties by the shadowy Animal Liberation Front – years before ALF became more sophisticated in their tactics. I had never heard the word terrorism. I didn’t understood that was what those attacks were, only that I loved animals and, with a childlike understanding of justice, wanted it for them after seeing an ad captioned “There will be no Christmas for Red.” In the same way that seeing “The Killing Fields” seven years later awakened me to a savage inhumanity I’d had no idea could happen in our world (I was kind of an idiot), it was a watershed moment in my life. The ordeal of the skeletal Setter is to this day seared into my mind.


“But the whole point of the Gospels is that the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven is precisely not the imposition of an alien and dehumanizing tyranny, but rather the confrontation of alien and dehumanizing tyrannies with the news of a God—the God recognized in Jesus—who is radically different from them all, and whose inbreaking justice aims at rescuing and restoring genuine humanness.” ~ N.T. Wright

I thought of John this week after terrorists armed with knives went on a rampage just a few miles from where my daughter is studying abroad in China. Well-meaning and generous enough to spend time writing to an uninteresting kid who also loved animals, and had a sense of justice I now know is imprinted on us as being God’s fallen image-bearers. But I thought, too, of the 29 victims in Kunming: husbands, wives, even children impaled or slashed to death in front of their terrified loved one’s eyes. As good and just as your cause may be, as much as you may have suffered, in stabbing a 6-year-old you lose all moral claim.

But still, I prayed for the attackers and their own families, too. I know now terrorists are real people with real passions who somewhere in their desperation crossed a line and lost their sense of humanity. It is a heartbreakingly awful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.

And I’m trying to forgive them for giving me a whole new way to play Worst Case Scenario inside my head. Between the few short minutes they said her heart was stopping in my womb and they had to cut her out or she’d die to the moment they put this tiny girl in my arms, I became the worst kind of helicopter mom. God has helped me so much with that as she went 3,000 miles, then 7,300, away to study. But of all the things I imagined could happen to her there, knife-wielding terrorists wasn’t even a remote scenario in the sketchy neighborhood that is my mind. Sometimes I think the knowledge of evil is among the worst curses of the Fall.

Things are so often not what they seem. Kindly friends can be terrorists, and terrorist murderers can have suffered so great an injustice they lose their sight of any other way.

C.S. Lewis touches on this so often, things not being what they seem. In “The Great Divorce,” in “Till We Have Faces,” in his shadowlands and Other. In ‘Divorce,” we come to understand that we’re not fully human until we become what we were created for – when we’ve grown into a Person. Even Creation itself longs to grow into this, and rejoices when it does: “to have been once more ridden,” the very earth and the woods and the waters singing, as it is used in the way it was made for. How much we see this in the Psalms!

In that place – the Valley of the Shadow of Light – we find that that life here is but a shadow of things to come, an inkling. One gets glimpses, even in our country, of that which is ageless, the narrator explains, telling an artist:

“When you painted on Earth – at least in your earlier days – it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it allowed others to see the glimpses too. But here you are having the thing itself. It is from here that the messages came.” the narrator’s friendly guide tells him.

“We’re at present ghosts by comparison, “man-shaped stains on the brightness of that air.”

Growing ever upward! What a great hope we have in this! In losing that which is not us and becoming what we truly are, fully human. I pray that I will in time grow into the mother in the story fought against joy not because she loved too much, but defectively, too little. “Human will becomes truly creative and truly our own when it is wholly God’s.” (“The Problem of Pain”). This is all through the Gospels: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

“Son,’ he said,’ ye cannot in your present state understand eternity…That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.”


In the beginning was the Word

“Left to myself, doing what comes naturally, I would fail. But the point of love is that it doesn’t. That is why love is a virtue. It is a language to be learned, a musical instrument to be practiced, a mountain to be climbed via some steep and tricky cliff paths but with the most amazing view from the top. It is one of those things that will last; one of the traits of character which provides a genuine anticipation of that complete humanness we are promised at the end. And it is one of the things, therefore, which can be anticipated in the present on the basis of the future goal, the telos, which is already given in Jesus Christ. It is part of the future which can be drawn down into the present.” ~ N.T. Wright,  After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters

In a 2010 interview with Trevin Wax, N.T. Wright explains this a little more:

“When you learn a language, your brain literally changes: new connections are made, new possibilities emerge, new habits of mind, tongue, and even sometimes body language emerge and are formed. The result is not, though, that you can speak it for the fun of it, but that you can communicate with people in that language, and perhaps even be able to go and live in the country where that language is spoken, and feel at home there.

This illustration helps to explain one part at least of the well known problem about how “what we do here and now” is umbilically connected to “who we will be in God’s new world”.

The point is that in the new heavens and new earth there is an entire way of life awaiting us, and we have the chance to learn, here and now, the character-skills we shall need for that new way of life – particularly the great three which Paul says will “abide” into God’s future, namely faith, hope and especially love. (All this depends of course on the Spirit, and on the transformative renewal of the mind which Paul speaks about in Romans 12:1-2.) …

In particular, the biblical vision of being human is that of being God’s Image-bearers: which means being like an angled mirror, reflecting God’s wise, stewardly love into his creation. The Christian vision is of Jesus as the true image and of Jesus’ followers, shaped by his Spirit, being transformed “into the same image” (2 Cor. 3.18). Thus being truly Christian and being truly human ought to come to the same thing.”


Beauty of the new earth

“The world is full of beauty, but the beauty is incomplete. Our puzzlement about what beauty is, what it means, and what (if anything) it is there for is the inevitable result of looking at one part of a larger whole. Beauty, in other words, is another echo of a voice—a voice which (from the evidence before us) might be saying one of several different things, but which, were we to hear it in all its fullness, would make sense of what we presently see and hear and know and love and call ‘beautiful.’ Beauty, like justice, slips through our fingers.” ~ N.T. Wright, Simply Christian

A new exodus

“Isaiah’s vision of cosmic renewal and joy, of heaven and earth coming together because of the work of the Servant, because of the establishment of the covenant, fits exactly with Paul’s understanding of his own apostolic labour, in which suffering and joy are woven so closely together, in which in particular he himself has ‘become’ the covenant faithfulness of God, and in which the present time has become ‘the time of favour’, ‘the day of salvation’.” ~ N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God