KOH2RVA: Day 208

big fishI’m back! Back from Graves Mountain Lodge near Shenandoah National Park where I helped to lead a national retreat for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship called “Practicing Resurrection.”

The title is from a poem by Wendell Berry called, “Manifesto: the Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” The closing lines are these:

As soon as the general and the politicos
Can predict the motions of your mind,
Lose it. Leave it as a sign
To mark the false trail, the way
You didn’t go. Be like the fox
Who makes more tracks than necessary,
Some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

I started with the premise that the resurrection life is life at its fullest, and suggested that when we are living life at its fullest our senses are fully engaged. I asked the retreat participants to test that hypothesis during the time we were in the mountains, and to keep records of their sensory experience.

So, we had reports on what it is like to taste apple juice in the morning as if it were a fine wine—inhaling the aroma, swirling it around in the mouth, tasting it on the tongue. A report on what it’s like to hold the rainbow trout you just pulled from a mountain stream, looking at its beautiful colors and feeling the weight of its wet muscle in your hands. A report on what it’s like to struggle to the top of Old Rag Mountain the hard way—on the boulder-strewn Ridge Trail—and be rewarded with the 360-degree view from the top: Virginia spreading out in every direction like a quilt your great-great-great-great-grandmother made.

It was a wonderful retreat. We lived life at its fullest. Our senses were fully engaged. But can I tell you how glad I was to get home to Richmond on Thursday afternoon, and how eager I am to embrace again this city that I love, this place where I live?

I’m not sure how heaven will come to earth today, or how I might help, but I think I will recognize it when it happens. Heaven has come near to me in the last few days. I’ve seen it in the distance, heard its whispers, touched its edges, tasted its flavors and smelled its fragrances.

May it come near to you today, and may you have a part in bringing it near for others.

KOH2RVA: Day 122

Baby-Jesus-SleepingI keep thinking about the evangelist whose story I shared yesterday. He is a former Muslim, converted to Christianity, and eager to make a billion more converts. He is doing it by telling school children in India the “true story of Christmas,” which somehow ends with the message that if you don’t accept Jesus as your Lord and savior you will perish in the flames of hell for eternity.

That’s not the message I get from the true story of Christmas. In fact, that’s not the message I get from either of the Gospels that tell the Christmas story (Matthew and Luke). I challenge you to read either one all the way through, from beginning to end, and conclude that it’s about how to stay out of hell. Hell doesn’t figure into these Gospels very often. Jesus mentions it 7 times in Matthew, 2 times in Luke. But he makes reference to the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, a staggering120 times in the Gospels. And when his disciples ask him to teach them to pray he says, “Pray for this: that God’s kingdom would come, his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

That was his mission.

So, where did we get the idea that our mission is to keep people out of hell? The evangelist I talked with on Sunday might say that he gets it from John 3:16—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

“See?” he would say. “That’s the true story of Christmas. God loved the world so much he gave his only son, like a Christmas present, wrapped in swaddling cloths.” And I would agree; that is the true story of Christmas. “But if we don’t receive the gift of his son,” he would add, “we will perish everlastingly.”

And that’s where I get stuck

Love with an “if” in it is conditional love. I believe that God loves us unconditionally. I sometimes say to people, “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s nothing you can do to make him love you more. There’s nothing you can do to make him love you less. All you can do is choose to receive the gift of his love.”

What if those Indian schoolchildren heard that message? Wouldn’t that sound more like what the gospel is supposed to be—good news? And if they could really believe that God loved them unconditionally…

Wouldn’t heaven come to earth?

KOH2RVA: Day 54

Today is All Saints’ Day, and I’m thinking about that song: “Oh, When the Saints Go Marching in.” Do you remember the part that says, “Oh, Lord, I want to be in that number,” meaning the number of saints who go marching in? Well, how could you be sure that you would be in that number?

As a Christian pastor I can tell you that the very best way to be sure is to put your faith and trust in Jesus Christ. The Gospel of John assures us in various ways that Jesus is the way to life abundant, overflowing, and eternal. “For God so loved the world,” John says, “that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). At the Last Supper Jesus prays to the Father, “Now this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). And when Thomas asked the way to the Father’s house Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me” (John 14:6).

So, if you want to be in that number, put your faith and trust in Jesus. I know of no better “Way.” But this morning I’m thinking about that parable in Matthew’s Gospel where the Son of Man separates the sheep from the goats. It’s in Matthew 25, and it’s not so much about believing in Jesus as it is about showing compassion.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

While some of us at First Baptist Church are trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, by leading people to believe in Jesus, many of us are doing it by showing acts of compassion—by feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and welcoming the stranger. We believe that it’s not enough to help people find life in the next world; we have to help them find life in this one, too. We can’t leave off that first part (otherwise we become just a bunch of secular “do-gooders”), but we can’t leave off that second part, and Jesus tells us why:

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

Ouch.

On All Saints’ Day, if I want to be sure that I’m going to be in that number, I’m going to put my faith and trust in Jesus and then get out there and do the kinds of things he did: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and welcome the stranger. Because as surely as I do it for the least of these brothers and sisters of his,

I do it for him.

Birth is Like Death is Like Birth

What happens when you pray for someone to be healed of cancer and they die anyway?

That’s what we were asking at Anna Reinstein’s funeral on Tuesday.  Anna was only 51 years old, a beautiful young mother with children still at home.  She had a rock-solid faith, she had hundreds of people praying for her, and they were praying to a good and loving God.  At least that’s what we thought.  On Tuesday afternoon I stood before a sanctuary full of mourners and said:

“But here we are at her funeral, and even though nobody wants to say it out loud we’re thinking that Anna lost her fight, that we must have failed her in some way, and that God himself has let her down.  It’s not wrong to want to be healed of cancer.  It’s not wrong to do everything you can toward that end.  What’s wrong, I think, is to believe that if your cancer goes into remission you’ve won and that if it doesn’t you’ve lost.  What’s wrong is to come to a moment like this one feeling a little embarrassed for all that faith and optimism you once had, for all those slogans you posted around the house.  What’s wrong is to believe not only that your prayers failed, but that God failed, or that for whatever reason he could not or would not heal Anna. 

“When that happens you sometimes start to re-define your understanding of God.  You begin to think maybe God is not all-powerful, maybe he is not all-loving.  Why didn’t he heal a woman like this?  But what if, instead of re-defining your understanding of God you re-defined your understanding of death?  What if death is not the enemy we sometimes think it is, and what if succumbing to it is not the same as “losing”? 

“I think about my daughter Ellie, who used to fight against sleep when she was a little girl.  She never wanted to go to bed; she was always afraid she might miss something.  And so I would have to hold her sideways in my arms and rock her back and forth to put her to sleep.  She would fight against it, so that I had to keep a firm grip on her, but finally I would feel her little body relax and eventually she would fall asleep, and I would put her to bed.  She always seemed to be a little surprised when she woke up the next morning, rested and refreshed, a little surprised to find that the sun had come up after all, and that her dad was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee while her mom made pancakes.

“If we could see death from God’s perspective we might see that it’s like falling asleep at night, we might not fight against it so hard, we might believe that we would—in fact—wake up the next morning.  But for me the most helpful analogy has been the one I heard from John Claypool who said that, “from the womb’s perspective, birth is like death.”  I hadn’t really thought of that before, but when a child is born that womb that was so full of life only moments before is suddenly dark and empty, and if a womb could grieve, it would grieve the loss of that child.  But the child isn’t grieving: the child has been born into a world full of light and sound and love.  And even though it’s a little frightening at first I don’t know of any child who—after getting used to the world—wants to go back to the womb. 

“The world is a good place to be and we know it.  With all its problems and imperfections it is still the best place we have ever been.  It’s the place where our friends and family are, the place where we have experienced all the life we have ever known.  We hold on with both hands, terrified of losing our grip.

“But suppose this world is only the womb in which we are made ready for our everlasting life?  And suppose the world into which Anna Reinstein has been born is as different from this world as this world is from the womb?  It’s been traumatic, but that’s just how birth is.  It’s hard, sweaty labor, and if you ask any woman who has given birth she will tell you that it hurts.  It is a bloody, messy business, and at the end of it someone almost always cries.  But it’s not the end.  It’s the beginning of a whole new life.  Suppose that death is just like that: hard, sweaty labor, full of pain.  Suppose that it’s a bloody, messy business, and that at the end of it someone almost always cries.  But suppose that it’s not the end after all, but only the beginning of a whole new life.   

“When the apostle Paul talks about what it is like to enter into life with God he uses the analogy of death and resurrection.  He says that “we have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).  But Jesus has a different perspective than Paul.  He has an eternal perspective.  He can see things from the other side.  And when Jesus talks about what it’s like to enter into life with God he uses the analogy of birth.  He tells Nicodemus that “no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3: 3, 5).

“Suppose that’s what’s happened for Anna: suppose she’s been born into the Kingdom of God.  And suppose that we have gathered today not to mourn her death, but to celebrate that birth.  It’s been hard, painful, messy, and at the end of it here we are, crying.  But it’s not the end, not for Anna.  Not at all.  She has been delivered.  She is surrounded by the bright light of heaven.  And she is feeling more love than she has ever felt, even when her mother first held her in her arms.

“It’s the beginning of a whole new life.”