“Don’t Mess with My Tinkertoys!”

TinkertoysDo you remember Tinkertoys, that set of wooden sticks and spools you could build things with, wonderful things as tall as you were when you were a kid? I talked about Tinkertoys at church last Sunday, when I facilitated a question-and-answer session following Art Wright’s three-week lecture on “Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife.”

I talked about how all people build a “framework of understanding” to make sense of their experience. If you step outside and a bird flies past you say, “That’s right; birds fly,” and you hang that experience on your framework of understanding (this is where I always picture a Tinkertoy framework, with experiences hanging from it like Christmas tree ornaments). But if you step outside and a cat flies past you’ve got a problem; there is nowhere on your framework of understanding to hang that experience. You have to decide: “Did that really happen? Did a cat really fly past? Or did someone throw a cat across my field of vision? Or am I hallucinating?”

Birds? No problem. Cats? Big problem.

I said, “You’ve spent your whole life building and re-building your framework of understanding and it’s precious to you. You don’t want anybody to mess with it. But somewhere in there is your understanding of heaven, hell, and the afterlife, and I get the feeling that for some of you Art Wright’s lecture was troubling, that some part of it messed with your Tinkertoys.”

I saw heads nodding around the room.

That led into an interesting exchange about what we use to build our frameworks of understanding in the first place, and we acknowledged that much of what we have heard about heaven, hell, and the afterlife comes from books, movies, songs, and popular theology. Not all of it is authoritative. For believers, the Bible is authoritative; it’s that one source we can gather around and study together with general agreement that what’s in there is true.

My guess is that much of what Art Wright was teaching in his three-week lecture was biblical. He is a New Testament professor, after all, which means that he’s spent a good bit of time studying the actual text of the New Testament. I’ve done that myself, and I’m often surprised by what’s not in there as well as by what is. Sometimes it “messes with my Tinkertoys,” and forces me to rebuild some part of my framework of understanding.

I don’t like that.

My framework of understanding is precious to me. But it’s more important to me that it be right than that it be easy, and Scripture is the best way to ensure that. It is, in almost every way, the “blueprint” by which my framework must be built.

And I mean all of scripture: not just the parts I like.

Sharon Parks has a name for that framework of understanding: she calls it “faith.” I think that’s a good name for it, and even though there are ways to build frameworks of understanding that don’t include God, those are not ways I’m interested in. I want to build a distinctively Christian faith, one with Jesus right at the center of it. As far as heaven, hell, and the afterlife are concerned, I’m content to follow him. If I can trust Scripture on this (and I think I can), the Way that he is is the Way that leads to life abundant, overflowing, and everlasting.

Why would I follow anyone else?

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 121

indian_schoolchildrenI met a man yesterday who is passionate about his mission. In his lifetime he hopes to bring one billion people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Did you hear that?

One billion.

This is his approach: he goes to schools in India, talks with the principals, and tells them that if they will let him share “the true story of Christmas” he will give every child in the school a free pen.

I asked him to tell me the true story of Christmas and he said, “Well, it’s about Mary giving birth to the baby Jesus, of course, but that’s only the beginning.” And then he told me about Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, his preaching of the Kingdom, his healing of the sick, his death on a cross, and his resurrection. But it sounded as if the story he tells eventually comes down to this: that if you don’t accept Jesus as your Lord and savior you will perish in the flames of hell for eternity. And then he invites the children to say the sinner’s prayer with him and be saved, and many of them do. He says he has been able to share “the true story of Christmas” with 600,000 children so far.

Only 9,400,000 to go.

Later I thought about this man and his mission and how it is a different mission than bringing heaven to earth. His mission is keeping people out of hell. And that did to me what it always does: it made me ask, “Is that what it’s all about? Is the ‘true story of Christmas’ a story about keeping people out of hell?”

I would appreciate your thoughts on that as we enter this new year, and the final two thirds of our year-long, every-member mission trip. I would love for us to go forward with this man’s energy and ambition.

But I don’t want us to go in the wrong direction.

KOH2RVA: Day 98

Sandy HookFirst Baptist Church has spent nearly 100 days working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, in a year-long, every-member mission trip. I don’t know that every member has been involved, but it certainly does seem that way. Many of them stop me in the hallway to tell me about the work they’ve been doing. They’re excited about it. You can hear it in their voices. You can see it on their faces. And that’s good, because on a day like today I’m thinking about how it takes all of us working together with Jesus to make this world more like heaven while it only takes one of us to make it more like hell.

It happened yesterday.

While we may never know what drove him to do it we know that 20-year-old Adam Lanza opened fire on Friday morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, killing 26 people—many of them children—before turning the gun on himself. It’s hard to imagine a more horrifying, or hellish, scenario.

How long will it take to undo the damage Adam Lanza did? Forever. While it will take days to restore some semblance of order at Sandy Hook Elementary, weeks to memorialize the 26 people who died in yesterday’s shootings, months to get things back to “normal” in Newtown, some things will never be the same. Parents who lost children will never get them back again, not in this life. And that’s when I become grateful to tears that it’s not all up to us.

While we can “labor alongside Jesus in the joyful work of bringing heaven to earth,” Jesus can do some things we can’t. He can bring earth to heaven. He can take the tragedy of yesterday’s shootings and lay it before his heavenly Father. And the Father—who loves little children—can take them in his arms, breathe new life into their broken bodies, and welcome them into his eternal presence.

“God will wipe every tear from their eyes,” writes the author of Revelation. “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Rev. 21:4).

Until then we keep working with Jesus to bring heaven to earth. We renew our determination. We strengthen our resolve. We know as we didn’t know two days ago…

…it’s going to take all of us.

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Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

Another World

I was in Phoenix, Arizona, last week for a meeting.  I’d never been to Phoenix before.  I spent some of my time trying to absorb the way that part of the world looks, with its rugged mountains and hills, palm trees and saguaro cacti, and steady, warming sunshine, even in January. 

On Thursday evening our group went to dinner at a restaurant on top of a hill where we could look out over the city.  The sun was already down, but as we sat on the terrace and talked the sky showed off every shade of orange in its repertoire, and the jagged hills around us were silhouetted deep black against it.  To be talking and laughing with friends in such a setting, gathered around the warmth of a fire pit with our faces lit up by the leaping flames, was a gift from God and I knew it (even though I got a really good deal on airfare and shared a room to keep expenses down).  I tried to impress every detail on my mind in such a way that I would never forget it.

On Friday afternoon I got on a plane to come home, and as we were taxiing toward the runway I opened the shade to have one last look at Phoenix.  The sun was shining, the day was warm, and the palm trees seemed to be waving goodbye as the plane lifted into the sky.  Three hours later my plane came down through heavy cloud cover into Minneapolis, and when I looked out the window I could hardly believe the difference in what I was seeing.  The sky was the color of lead.  The lakes and rivers were frozen hard as iron.  Snow lay in deep drifts on the ground and swirled around the plane as we pulled up to the gate.  The temperature was three below zero.

It wasn’t like I had landed in another state; it was like I had landed on another planet—some distant planet on the outer edge of the solar system—far, far away from the warming sun that had been so present in Phoenix, and it was tempting to think of it as some frozen version of hell with regular shuttle service to heaven (Phoenix).  But I’ve been to Minneapolis in the summer, and it’s lovely.  Flying into that same airport six months ago I marveled at the number of lakes and rivers I could see from 10,000 feet, and how lush and green everything looked.  I wanted to come back when I had time to go hiking or canoeing in Minnesota.  And I have a feeling that if I got off a plane in Phoenix in the middle of summer I would think I had landed in hell there, with high temperatures approaching 120 degrees (“But it’s a dry heat,” they say, to which I reply, “I don’t care how dry it is—120 degrees is too hot!”).

If there were a point to this post (and I’m not at all sure that there is) I think it would be this: that as much as I love to travel I was glad when my plane finally touched down in Richmond, Virginia, where we have four distinct seasons and tend to avoid the extremes of either 120 above or 20 below; a beautiful place, really, resting comfortably on the earth’s surface, somewhere safely between heaven and hell.

A place called home.