Sep 16, 2011

Beyond Flatland

There is a wonderful story called Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions that has had a profound impact on my worldview and my faith. The premise is that there exists a world with only two spatial dimensions called Flatland. This world is made of two-dimensional objects and two-dimensional people (polygons). They only know what is in front, behind, above, and below. There is no concept of a third dimension. There is no to the right or to the left. When a person approaches another, it looks like a line directly ahead growing in length; when a person moves away from another, the line shrinks. Only the edge of a polygon person can be seen as he approaches. The people of this world know government, art, education, politics, etc. It is a civilization in two dimensions.

One day, the protagonist of the story, the Square, has a dream about visiting a one-dimensional world, Lineland. He imagines one-dimensional beings, points, moving forward and backward along the line of their universe. Later on in the story, the Square is visited by an other-worldly being, the Sphere, who opens his eyes to the idea of his three-dimensional world, Spaceland. To the Square, the Sphere is supernatural. As the Sphere enters the Square’s two-dimensional world, he looks to the Square like a line that appears out of nothing. The Square’s view of the universe is expanded as his mind attempts to wrap around the concept of a third dimension.

In imagining how the Square would perceive the Sphere in his two-dimensional space and how the Sphere could perform seeming miracles (appearing and disappearing, and causing two-dimensional objects to do the same), my own views of creation and the Creator have expanded. Theoretical physicists postulate the existence of many more dimensions than we are aware of... some are curled up, some have superstrings wound about them, and all are every bit as real and as present as what you see in front of you.  There is profound meaning in this idea that reality is much more than what we can measure or perceive.

A Creator of a universe is by definition other, outside of that universe. I believe that the Creator of our universe (and perhaps countless other universes), as a loving Father, is always reaching into our existence, like the Sphere into Flatland. He is always creating and expanding and influencing and interacting, because, as wild as it sounds, our Creator cares for us and deeply desires that we know him. What does it look like to our dimensionally-limited perception when a Being outside of space and time reaches into our multi-dimensional universe? It can be overwhelming or imperceptible or uninterpretable or confusing, just as it is for the Square interacting with the Sphere. I draw comfort, gratitude, and awe from the truth that, as a created being, I cannot fathom my Creator or the ways in which he moves. Isaiah articulates this compellingly:

          “My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
                    “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
          For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
                    so my ways are higher than your ways
                    and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”

And yet, my Creator must be so gentle, so tender, to engage with his creation in tolerable, much less loving, ways. Gulliver had to take special care not to crush the Lilliputians inadvertently. How much more care must the Creator take with the created? David sings:

          But you, O Lord, are a God of compassion and mercy,
                    slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.
          Look down and have mercy on me.
                    Give your strength to your servant;
                    save me, the son of your servant.

My prayer is that I will grow in knowledge of both God’s otherness and his gentleness… and that I will continue to be awed and humbled by the expansiveness of his creation.

Sep 3, 2011

Weary Worry

I am very future-oriented.  This is an aspect of my personality, and it is often a strength.  I see patterns in life and predict possible outcomes.  I am always thinking, always analyzing, always refining mental models and trying to draw meaningful conclusions.  This is who I am, and God made me this way, and it is good.

The other side of this double-edged personality sword (bonus points for anyone who sends me a drawing of a double-edged personality sword) is a propensity for worry.  Not only do I always think; I often fear.  Not only do I always analyze; I often criticize.  Not only do I always refine mental models and draw meaningful conclusions; I often catastrophize and focus on flaws, inconsistencies, inadequacies, and doom. 

The focus of my worrying, interestingly, has rarely been my work.  It has rarely been my science or my grades, despite the amount of time and energy I've spent on them.  Rather, the object of my anxiety has usually been relationships.  This points to my ultimate fear, which drives my worry: loss of relationship.  I am so scared of being forgotten or replaced or unwanted.  I am so scared of being alone.  I have experienced these losses in my life to the extent that I now have an anxiety-shaped feedback loop inside of me, demanding that I hunt for warning signs/patterns of potential loss and prevent prevent prevent. Whenever an uncertainty in relationship arises, the danger alarms sound, and my mind begins to attack the “problem” from every possible angle, ad nauseum (sometimes literally).  In uncertain times, I wear myself out, and I am often unable to experience the present for focusing on a future of loss.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.

The first paragraph says that prayer is a replacement for worry.  I am exhorted (1) to tell God exactly where I am and what I need (or what I think I need) and (2) to choose to thank him for what he has done.  The first requires a recognition of my own fears. The second requires an acknowledgment of God’s faithfulness (NOT a feeling of gratitude, which comes and goes)... and a choosing to thank, independent of anxiety-ridden feelings.  And these two actions, being honest with God and choosing to thank him, produce an incomprehensible, circumstance-independent peace.  This peace, according to Paul, has the power to guard my heart and mind.  And how I long for something outside of myself to keep watch, to relieve my own feeble and weary lookout! 

The second paragraph is an exhortation to focus not on what may go wrong, but on what is and will be right.  What does this look like in the context of relationship, the focus of my worries?  God has filled my life with people who love and know me, and the depth of this knowing continues to expand.  I see him moving in my loved ones' lives, and I see him moving in my own.  And even beyond the present circumstances, the future, where I usually reside, is ultimately filled with deep, satisfying, life-giving relationships with God and others forever.  There will be no more loss.

So my prayer for myself and anyone else struggling with worry is that we would authentically tell God how we’re feeling, what we’re thinking, and what we need…  that we would ask him for help… that we would take time to acknowledge to him and ourselves the wonderful things he has already done… and that, in whatever life area brings anxiety, we would choose to think about the beautiful, the true, and the good.  Father, help me to think about patterns of your loveliness and faithfulness in my life.  Help me to analyze the steadfastness of your provision.  Help me to refine my model of your unfailing love, which fills my past, present, and future, and to draw peaceful and confident conclusions.  Amen.

(Three-months-later edit: Check out John's poem.)