Optics, 2

(This is a repost from 2018 on Blogger.com.)

In things to be seen at once, much variety makes confusion, another vice of beauty. In things that are not seen at once, and have no respect one to another, great variety is commendable, provided this variety transgress not the rules of optics and geometry.

Christopher Wren
Read more at https://www.brainyquote.com/topics/optics-quotes

In the West of the 21st C, we have reached the conclusion that if there is a God, He/She/It is not to be feared.  Somehow, although the Divinity and Messiahship of Jesus are no longer taken seriously, his life and message of love has erased the whole idea of a God/Creator/Supreme being who also needs to be feared.  Somehow, the claims about Himself and His life made by the man Jesus who died willingly on a Roman cross for ‘sin’ have been transmuted into the mere miserable and almost futile martyrdom of a pure and good soul.  

What Jesus said about coming so that ‘sin might be forgiven’ and reconciliation made between God and man has been spun as ‘God, if He/She/It exists, forgives sin no matter what, regardless of whether I make any effort to relate to Him, control any of my selfish, self-serving urges, or do nothing about putting others’ needs before my own.’  Any negative spin on anyone’s choices implying accountability for what we do is intolerant and intolerable.

There is indeed some powerful ‘optical irony’ in this.  Here on earth, possibly the most frequently recited prayer in the world, and certainly in the West, tells us to pray, “Thy (God’s, our Heavenly Father’s) will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” 

However, for the most part most of us most of the time live and act and think as if we don’t give a rat’s a– for God’s will being done on earth, let alone in Heaven.  Deep down we really think that this God whom we implore will never care a whit whether we do or don’t attempt to ‘do His will’.  

After all, who really knows what that means?  Surely in my unique individuality, need and quest to find myself and release my complete uniqueness there is no universal criteria for understanding what ‘doing God’s will’ might actually consist of.  God, as all-loving (the one characteristic almost universally ascribed to the Deity), must be incapable of rejecting or condemning anything we do.  And His perfect love must eliminate any requirement on my part to reciprocate.  Therefore, ‘doing God’s will’ simply means ‘doing my will’ after all.

But what was the origin of this quasi-universal prayer?  What did the phrase “On earth as it is in heaven” designate and imply to Jesus and those who first heard him respond to their request, “Teach us to pray.”  (Matthew 6:9ff, and Luke 11:1ff)

The first thing is the context.  Jesus lived the prayer he taught; he modelled it in action, not just tossing out a philosophically nice and pious idea.  He told them to live as if they meant what they said, to live just the way he had shown them.  He never said or intimated that it didn’t matter what they did because of God’s all-tolerating and all-inclusive love (‘agape’ is the actual Greek word in the New Testament).

“On earth as it is in heaven.”  In Jesus’ heart and mind, in his ‘worldview’, if it may be permitted to use this anachronistic term here, earth and heaven are not separate realms, kind of like a ‘before and after’, life and the ‘after-life’.  God is present and active in both.  He has a will for both – but there is really no separation.  His will is definitely being done ‘in Heaven’, wherever and whatever that may look like.  Heaven, in its simplest terms, is just the place of being always in God’s presence, 24/7 (although the concept of time is not really relevant to it), 100%.  Not only being in God’s presence, but wanting to be in His presence, enjoying being in God’s presence – 24/7, 100%.

I suspect that most of us right now would be pretty uncomfortable in a powerful manifestation of God’s presence.  The evidence of history (unless you a priori rule out the possibility that there is a God who can and does act in history, and so disqualify a priori any sources that describe how He has acted in history, and therefore still can if He were to so chose) is that when God or even a messenger from God shows up, just about everyone is overwhelmed.  In the words of some who testify to such experiences, they tend to grovel or tremble or try to hide or fall on the knees or faces in awe and fear – yes fear!  As Isaiah said when he ‘saw the LORD’ – “Woe to me, for I am a man of unclean lips.”  Paraphrased, he was saying “I am dirty with sin through and through.”

Sin, that awkward, unspeakable subject which psychologists tell us is ‘not helpful’ because it ends up in a ‘guilt complex’.  Let’s be kinder and gentler and say ‘failures and weaknesses,’ which bypass the notion of moral responsibility.

If the Isaiah type vision is a little too ‘heavenly’ to handle and therefore more like a myth or legend (as such occurrences as miracles are usually classified), in the next section we will come solidly down to earth with a very earthy fellow called Peter.

Optics, 4

I love Peter; I can relate to him in so many ways.  Continually putting his foot in his mouth, but sometimes just nailing it so well.  Full of bravado but then wimping out in the clutch – except when he was incredibly brave and heroic, as he was at times, including as he ended his days in Rome.  So much like us in so many ways. 

When he first gets to know Jesus, he takes Him out fishing (at Jesus’ request, mind you).  Natural enough for a fisherman to do with a new friend. 

Jesus tells Peter to put his net back in the lake (the Sea of Galilee) after he had fished all night and caught nothing.  The right time for fishing is past; it’s mid-day and the fish are not biting, don’t you see?  “But since you insist, Jesus, well OK,” Peter says, mentally qualifying (‘If it will get you off my back.’) 

As a practiced Avoider (which I can also relate to as a fellow one), Peter doesn’t like confrontation if he can avoid it.  The net is rapidly filled to bursting with nice big fish.  The catch is so huge that Peter has to call his partners James and John to come and fill their boat too.  He is amazed and overjoyed.  Then it dawns on Peter; this guy Jesus in his boat is not just a cool new rabbi who has come to Capernaum recently and seems to have a knack for healing people, somehow.  Just what is an up-and-coming rabbi doing in Capernaum anyway?  Shouldn’t he be down in Jerusalem to recruit religious types and make waves?  Peter turns to look at Him now, standing there in his boat, all wet and smelling of fish from helping haul in the fish He had told him he would catch after all. 

Forgive me if I read details into this story that aren’t there in any of the Gospels, but think about it.  Jesus is a carpenter, a tradesman like Peter, a man accustomed to hard physical work.  Later scholarly and airy Gnostic speculation about Jesus’ mysterious ‘gap years’ between ages twelve and thirty aside, He is not an abstract philosopher or ivory-tower teacher with soft hands and flabby muscles who just spouts out stuff and expects others to say, “Wow, you are so smart, Jesus!”  The first disciples didn’t need to speculate about or describe those years because Jesus’ previous life was not a mystery at all.  The real mystery was how they had not seen Him for who He really was before.  He seemed so, well, normal – except in His degree of wisdom, service, spiritual devotion, caring and integrity.

He is a man acquainted with life in all its nitty-gritty messiness.  He grew up in a large family in a small community, with all that that means in relationships and local gossip and petty rivalries.  He apprenticed with Joseph, his earthly father and learned a solid trade, as all rabbis of that age did.  He built things.  He observed the world and people.  He understood and absorbed the Scripture warp and woof.

He knew about grief and loss.  His grandparents had died.  His father had died recently (at least that is the consensus of commentators).  There would have been others He cared for who had passed as well.  He felt the wrongness of death deep in His bones, and the brokenness of man and the Cosmos in the core of His being.

His family didn’t understand Him.  His brothers made fun of Him and mocked Him (see John 6).  Can you imagine growing up with a perfect older brother as your role model and having to live up to that?  You would resent it to.  Mom and Dad always reminding you, “Why can’t you just be more like your older brother?”  It would have been hard for His sisters too, because what young man would want to marry into that family, having to measure up to that standard?

Even His mother will later try to come and talk Him into going home and acting more reasonably, no doubt for the sake of family peace.  Jesus had made them pariahs in Nazareth and the region.

But at the moment of our story Peter, there in that boat, senses something amazing and incredible about this man whose reputation is rapidly growing.  Trades people get around, and perhaps they had met or seen one another when Jesus might have come to work on some project or other in Capernaum and perhaps on Sabbath in the synagogue.  Have you ever wondered why Jesus made His early base at Capernaum?  He already knew people there.  According to tradition, the family of Zebedee was related to His mother.

However, this day is like they had never met before, even if they had.  Peter the Avoider has been unmasked and feels spiritually exposed and doesn’t want to face this guy who sees right through him.

Suddenly Peter has one of his wonderful moments of crystal clarity.  (We all have a few of those in our lives.)  This man Jesus standing there so close to him is a truly holy man, a truly godly man.  He has never really seen Him before.  He is not like those showy wannabe holy people who dress up in fancy-fringed prayer duds and pray aloud and loudly in public to put on a show and try to tell people how to live and point out all the sins they commit.  (Check out Jesus’ excoriating criticism of this type in Matthew 23.)  This guy, Jesus, is none of that; He simply is holy and godly and doesn’t have to say anything about it.

The other side of Peter’s moment of crystal clarity in the boat is a realization that for all that Jesus is, he, Simon bar-Jonah, is not.  He is not holy; he is not godly.  But he is in the presence of someone who inspires awe in him, someone unique, unlike anyone he has ever met or likely ever will meet again.  He senses, unable to express it, that somehow God is present in the boat with him.

Trembling with fear, undone, Peter goes to his knees.  His eyes are full of tears, and all he can say in a shaky voice is, “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.”  Like me, like us, Peter would rather avoid having to face his true self.  He can’t run away, so he asks this terrifyingly real guy in front of him to go away and leave him alone.  Change is too hard!

“I am a sinful man” will only years later change to “Your will be done on earth as in heaven.”  What Simon-Peter knows intuitively at this irrevocable turning point in his life is that he cannot stand under the piercing gaze of this strange man named Yeshua (Jesus is the Anglicized Greek [Iesous] version – remember?), let alone stand in God’s presence.  (He doesn’t know yet that it’s the same thing.)  This man can see right into his soul, read his heart.  No hiding.  Simon knows that Jesus sees all his unclean, lustful thoughts, unkind words, angry responses, resentments and jealousies.  If this Jesus would just go away, maybe over time he could just slip back into his usually pretty comfortable life.

Instead, Jesus puts his strong, calloused, carpenter’s hand, a strong

hard-working man’s hand like Peter’s, on Peter’s shoulder.  He gives him a manly shoulder squeeze, and smiles with warm affection for this big, bluff, genuine fellow whose heart He sees right into.  “Don’t be afraid, Simon,” He says.  (Simon is Peter’s actual given name; Jesus has not yet called him ‘Peter’.)  “Follow me, and I will make you a fisher of men.”  I see Jesus smiling broadly at Simon, using gentle humour to allay his fear.

So here is our generations’ paramount Optical Illusion: that all that other stuff we are constantly bombarded with and that we talked about earlier is what really matters and what life is really about. 

Optical Reality: as the Apostle Paul, who also knew a thing or two about what we have been calling optics, put it (in my very liberal paraphrase and expansion), “But I now consider all those old things that used to matter s–t compared to the awesomeness of knowing Jesus our Lord [and doing His/God’s will here on earth while I’m still alive to do it].”  (Philippians 3:8)  The actual Greek word Paul used has been politely translated for the sake of our delicate optical and auditory piety, but we now understand that it was actually a street-language term for excrement.  Sorry if this offends your sensibilities, but evidently Paul did not care a (s)crap about the optics of the thing!  Or about the ‘spin’ his hearers and readers would put on it!  You realize that the Apostles’ letters (“epistles” is our fancy Biblical name for them) were read aloud to the whole church in those days.  How shocking would it be if you heard that ‘s-word’ read aloud in your church some Sunday?

That, Biblically speaking, is the final word on our post-modern obsession with the popular pursuit of all the stuff encompassed by what we have been calling 21st C cultural ‘optics’.

May peace be unto you as you shed the optical illusions of our time.  May the joy of being set free by the clear vision of Truth fill your souls.

Published by VJM

Vincent is a retired High School teacher and an ordained Christian minister in Ontario, Canada. He is an enthusiastic student of History, life, and human nature. He has loved writing since he was a kid. He has been happily married for over 45 years and has 4 grown children and nine grandchildren. He and his wife ran a nationally successful Canadian Educational Supply business for home educators and private schools for fifteen years. Vincent has published Study Guides for Canadian Social Studies, a biography of a Canadian Father of Confederation, and short semi-fictional accounts of episodes in Canadian History. He is currently working on a number of writing projects in both non-fiction and fiction. Vincent is a gifted teacher and communicator.

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