What happens after we die?

at-his-resurrectionI’ve been doing “Sermon Talkback” in the adult Sunday school classes at Richmond’s First Baptist Church for the past few months.  In the older adult classes, in particular, people often want to know what comes next.  “What happens after we die?” they ask.  There are lots of answers to that question out there, depending on which books and magazines you read, which movies you watch, and which radio stations you listen to, but not all of those answers are strictly biblical.  The best biblical answer I’ve found comes from writer and theologian Frederick Buechner in his discussion of the word immortality.  Take a look:

“Immortal means death-proof.  To believe in the immortality of the soul is to believe that though John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave, his soul goes marching on simply because marching on is the nature of souls just the way producing butterflies is the nature of caterpillars.  Bodies die, but souls don’t.  True or false, this is not the biblical view.  The biblical view differs in several significant ways:

  1. “As someone has put it, the biblical understanding of human beings is not that they have bodies, but that they are bodies. When God made Adam he did it by slapping some mud together to make a body and then breathing some breath into it to make a living soul.  Thus the body and soul which make up human beings are as inextricably part of parcel of each other as the leaves and flames that make up a bonfire.  When you kick the bucket, you kick it one hundred percent.  All of you.  There is nothing left to go marching on with.
  2. “The idea that the body dies and the soul doesn’t is an idea which implies that the body is something rather disgusting and embarrassing, something you’d rather be done with. The Greeks spoke of it as the prison house of the soul.  The suggestion was that to escape it altogether was something less than a disaster.  The Bible, on the other hand, sees the body in particular and the material world in general as a good and glorious invention.  How could it be otherwise when it was invented by a good and glorious God?  The Old Testament rings loud with the praises of trees and birds and rain and mountains, of wine that gladdens the heart of man and oil that makes his face shine and bread that strengthens him.
  3. “Those who believe in the immortality of the soul believe that life after death is as natural a human function as waking after sleep. The Bible instead speaks of resurrection.  It is entirely unnatural.  We do not go on living beyond the grave because that’s how we are made.  Rather, we go to our graves as dead as a doornail and are given our lives back again by God (i.e. resurrected) just as we were given them by God in the first place, because that is the way God is made.
  4. “All the major Christian creeds affirm belief in resurrection of the body. In other words, they affirm the belief that what God in spite of everything prizes enough to bring back to life is not just some disembodied echo of human beings but a new and revised version of all the things which made them the particular human beings they were and which they need something like a body to express: their personality, the way they looked, the sound of their voices, their particular capacity for creating and loving, in some sense their faces.
  5. “The idea of the immortality of the soul is based on the experience of humanity’s indomitable spirit. The idea of the resurrection of the body is based on the experience of God’s unspeakable love” (Wishful Thinking, pp. 49-52).

Is this what life in the Kingdom looks like?

Pink Prayers2
My wife, Christy, teaches Kindergarten at St. Michael’s Episcopal School in the Bon Air neighborhood of Richmond.

A few weeks ago she had to break the news to her headmaster that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.  The good news is (because she goes for an annual mammogram) her doctor caught it early.  Christy was reassured that a little bit of surgery and some follow-up radiation would do the trick.  And so, on October 2, she had a “little bit” of surgery.  She has spent the last three weeks recovering and getting ready for radiation treatments, scheduled to begin today.

When she got to school this morning she found that everyone at St. Michael’s was wearing pink as a sign of support, and during chapel everyone was invited to join in a prayer for Ms. Somerville.  A few of the children put their hands on her shoulders, and then everybody tried to get in on the action, leaning forward, reaching out toward a beloved teacher.

Christy told me her hands were busy wiping away tears.

At church lately I’ve been asking people what life in the Kingdom looks like, and wondering if it is that place where we bear one another’s burdens, and wash one another’s feet, and forgive one another’s sins.  When I saw this picture my own question was answered. What does life in the Kingdom look like?

This.

It looks like this, like that place where children wear pink and say prayers for their teacher.

May that Kingdom come everywhere, and not only at St. Michael’s School.

KOH2RVA: Day 285

River Baptism

I got a call on Wednesday from a producer in New York who is working on a documentary film about faith—“the positive aspects of faith,” she said, suggesting by her tone of voice that there are some aspects of faith that are not so positive. She has in mind a very ambitious seven-part series, but the first part would be a two-hour documentary on “the birth of faith,” and that’s why she was talking to me.

She had found some pictures of First Baptist Richmond’s annual river baptism online and thought that it would be a wonderful way to talk about and think about the birth of faith. She was calling to find out more about it and, especially, to ask if I thought the church would be open to participating in the project.

She asked how the annual river baptism got started, and I surprised myself by saying, “Well, this town has a river running through it, a beautiful river” (in fact, Richmond was recently named the Number One River City in America by Outside magazine). “It seemed only natural to take advantage of that, and to do at least one baptism a year outdoors.”

She wanted to know about baptism itself. She had grown up Presbyterian, in Ohio. She knew about infant baptism followed by confirmation at a later age but she didn’t know about immersion. I told her I had grown up Presbyterian as well, but because my family moved around so much I had missed confirmation. And so, at the age of 14, I asked to be baptized, and a few weeks later my father—a Presbyterian minister—and a friend of his who was a Baptist minister dipped me down under the muddy waters of the Big Coal River in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I told her how the Apostle Paul seemed to think of baptism as a kind of death, burial, and resurrection; how the old “you” goes down into the water and “dies,” and a new you comes up (Romans 6:4-11). I told her that for some people it is the perfect symbol for leaving behind a life they’ve made a mess of and starting fresh.  I told her how the first breath they take when they come up out of the water is the first breath of their new life in Christ.

I must have done a good job because when I got finished she said, “That makes me want to get baptized!”

So, there may be a film crew at our annual river baptism on July 21. And there may be a producer who throws down her clipboard, rips off her headset, and wades out into the water. As you might have read on this blog a few days ago, baptism is one of those places where heaven comes closest to earth, and maybe that’s why we’re having a river baptism: because we’re trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia,

And this is one of the best ways we know to do it.

KOH2RVA: Day 280

Roberts BaptismI’m back from a week at the beach, where I was privileged to participate in my nephew Robert’s baptism. Robert is 19 years old, but he’s lived through a lot in his young life, including an automobile accident that could have killed him. I still shudder when I see pictures of the car. But that was a different time in his life, a time when he was doing some things he needed to leave behind.

Last Thursday night he did exactly that.

Before Robert (and my brother Gray and I) waded out into the water for his baptism I told the family that both Jesus and Paul talk about baptism. Paul talks about it as if it were a kind of death, in which the old person is buried in the waters of baptism and the new person is raised from the dead (Romans 6). Jesus talks about it as a kind of birth, where the one who is baptized is “born again” into a whole new life (John 3). But both Jesus and Paul talk about baptism as a symbol of transformation in which an old life is left behind and a new life begins.

Roberts Baptism afterThat’s been happening for Robert for months now. His life really is changing. His parents talk about it as a miracle. To participate in his baptism, and to witness that miracle first-hand, was an experience of heaven on earth. It didn’t hurt that we were on Kiawah Island, at sunset, on a lovely evening in June, but to wade out into the surf, and to dip Robert down into the ocean of God’s love, and to see the look on his face when he came up again, well…it was as if the sky opened up, and the Spirit came down, and a voice said, “This is my beloved son.”

And he is.

This morning I’m back in Richmond and looking forward to a great day at church and a great week of working to help bring heaven to earth right here, in this place where I live, this place that I love.

I hope you’ll join me.

KOH2RVA: Day 252

pentecosti-kosmos

It’s the Day of Pentecost, everyone! Get out the leaf blowers and flame throwers, because this is the day we celebrate the birthday of the church, that time when the Spirit came with a sound like the rush of a mighty wind, and tongues of fire hovered over the heads of the believers (Acts 2:1-3).

But that was just the beginning.

Peter, filled with the Spirit, preached a fiery sermon, and at the end of the day 3,000 people had been added to the church. In the chapters that follow we hear how the apostles healed the sick, raised the dead, confronted the authorities, smashed through the barriers of prejudice, and carried the gospel to the ends of the earth.

So, I’m thinking…today is the Day of Pentecost. If what happened to the early church happens to us the Kingdom of Heaven will come to Richmond, Virginia. There will be no stopping it.

Which makes me wonder what’s stopping it now.

Is it us? Are we unwilling to let the Spirit take charge? Is that why we don’t wait for it and pray for it as those early disciples did? Today may be a good day to realize that if we try to bring in God’s Kingdom under our own power we will surely fail. But if we couple our efforts with the power of God, anything is possible. Just looked what happened in the early church. Eventually their critics began to say, “These people are turning the world upside down!”

Maybe soon they will say the same about us.

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: 136

R0916_FLR_MIKE4First of all, let me apologize to the staff of Richmond’s First Baptist Church:

When I said that you were doing a “service project” yesterday I didn’t mean to imply that you weren’t on a mission, or that you weren’t trying to change the world, I was just thinking about how some people do service projects because they make them feel good, or because they think they ought to, and not because they have some bigger goal in mind.

You do.

You’re trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and yesterday you came close. As Steve Blanchard put it—heaven was “hovering” just above the ground.

Thank you for your good work.

But back to that other question: Is there a difference between doing a service project and being on a mission? Yes, there is. We did a little painting at the Anna Julia Cooper School yesterday. We put up a gigantic photo collage, and moved some furniture, and cleaned out the gutters. We did a service project. But Mike Maruca, the founder of the school, is on a mission. He says, “Helping to ensure that our students are on a path toward a full and decent life is our fundamental reason for being here.”

I heard a story about Mike that made that clear. A member of the staff said that Mike greets the students as they enter the building in the morning and calls each one by name. If one or more of them is missing he says, “I’ll be right back,” and then gets in his car and drives to those students’ homes where he knocks on the door and asks if they are all right.

He not only knows their names; he knows where they live.

That tells me something about his commitment to this mission. He’s helping to ensure that his students are on a path toward a full and decent life. Everything he does has that bigger goal in mind.

A service project can contribute to a mission. If we hadn’t done what we did yesterday Mike, or someone else, would have had to do it. But here’s another difference, and it’s a big one: when you finish a service project you can go home and get some rest, but a mission never really ends. Mike Maruca will never be finished “helping to ensure that his students are on a path toward a full and decent life.”

And we may never finish bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. But there are days when you can tell it came a little closer, just as I’m sure there are days when Mike knows he’s making progress. I heard that all of his graduating students from last year got into good local high schools.

Just think how he will feel when he hears that they all got into good colleges.