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).

Making Time for Heart, Mind, Soul, and Strength

From my January 1 sermon:

May I tell you about something that has been helpful to me?  Once every three months or so I try to go on a 24-hour spiritual retreat.  I just get away by myself somewhere.  In the spring and fall I often go to a state park and camp.  In the summer and winter I tend to look for something a little more climate-controlled.  I used to go to a Benedictine monastery when I was in North Carolina and loved it there, chanting with the monks in worship five or six times a day and eating with them in their refectory.  I loved the little room they gave me—my “cell”—with just a single bed, a comfortable chair, and a desk in it.  One of the first things I did then and one of the first things I tend to do on every retreat is to make out a new weekly schedule.  I just draw a grid on a piece of paper, dividing it up into the days of the week and the hours of the day.  But over on the right hand margin I write the words heart, mind, soul, and strength, and then I try to make a place for each of those things in my weekly schedule. 

In the heart category I think about the things I love, and try to make sure I have some time for those in my week: spending time with my family, going to the art museum, walking in the woods, watching a good movie.  I often use Thursday, my day off, to do those very things.  In the mind category I try to remember that if I’m not taking in something new from time to time I won’t be able to give anything out.  In years past I’ve scheduled Tuesday afternoons for reading and regularly worked through a big stack of books at a local coffee house.  In the soul category, again, if I don’t take anything in I won’t be able to give anything out.  Recently I decided to give up an hour I wasn’t using in the evening and instead use it for prayer in the morning.  It’s been hard to go to bed earlier, and hard to get up earlier, but I’m beginning to get the hang of it and I can tell that it’s making a difference.  And then in the strength category I just try to make sure that I schedule time for regular exercise, and if I can do that it also seems to affect what I eat and how much and helps me feel better overall. 

It’s been a good system for me, and it helps me focus on every aspect of my being, but if I’m going to tell you that then I also need to tell you this: that I have to make out a new schedule every time I go on a 24-hour retreat because inevitably, in three months time, my old schedule has been compromised.  For example: I may decide that I’m going to exercise at 6:30 three mornings a week—Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  For a while everything goes like clockwork, but then someone asks me if I can come to a breakfast meeting at 7:30 at Perly’s on Friday and I think, “Well, not unless I run to Perly’s, have breakfast, and then run home.  But maybe just this once wouldn’t hurt.  It is Perly’s, after all, and I love their pancakes.”  And so I make an exception, and then another one, and then another one.  By the time I get to my next 24-hour retreat I have to start all over again, drawing new lines on a clean sheet of paper and taking back some of the precious time I’ve given away, making sure that I have what I need to nourish my heart, mind, soul, and strength.  Doing it once every three months, and not only once a year (when I’m making New Year’s resolutions), helps me stick with it.

Give it a try!

Total Fitness

10a-running-coachIt was sometime during my run on Thursday that I wondered if it was worth it.

I’ve signed up for the Monument Avenue 10K, along with about 30,000 other crazies.  We’re planning to run 6.2 miles on Saturday, March 28, and First Baptist Church is fielding a team called “Team First.”  I’ve encouraged the staff to run or walk in this race as a way of setting an example before the whole church, and if I’m asking the staff to set an example for the church I feel obliged to set an example for the staff.

So, there I was on Thursday, my day off, bundled up against the sub-freezing temperatures and trudging west on Monument Avenue.  My lungs were cold, my eyes were watering, and I had a stitch in my right side that produced an awkward, limping gait.  I was hoping to run four miles, but with three miles to go I wanted very much to stop, turn around, and walk back home.


This is new for me.  I was a distance runner in college and used to knock out five miles before breakfast and then practice with the team in the afternoon.  If you had asked me to run four miles in the cold back then I would have done it in swim trunks and flip-flops.  I don’t want to think that I’m getting older—none of us do—but apparently I am.  All the more reason to give some thought to staying fit.

I used to talk to college students about “Total Fitness.”  I would tell them that human beings have four essential aspects—body, mind, soul, and spirit—and that it’s important to keep all of them in shape.

Body:  That one seems obvious enough, doesn’t it?  Even if you don’t run ten miles a day you can eat right and exercise.  There are plenty of books and articles that give good, sensible advice on those subjects.  On my refrigerator at home I used to have a note that said “Eat less; move more.”  It really can be that simple.

Mind:  For those college students it wasn’t a problem: their minds were getting a regular workout.  For those of us who are no longer in school it can be too easy to let our minds get soft, to watch something lighthearted on television instead of sitting down with a good book, joining a discussion group, or taking a class. 

Soul:  Have you exercised your soul lately?  Have you spent time in prayer, done some devotional reading, journaled, or immersed yourself in Scripture?  Have you been to worship, sung the great hymns of the faith, opened your soul to a sermon, listened to a glorious anthem?  All of these are ways of keeping your soul fit but of course these are not the only ways. 

Spirit:  I like to distinguish this one from the soul, although the two are closely related.  I like to think that you exercise your spirit by doing the things you love, by spending time with friends, by going to an art museum, by canoeing down a quiet river, by turning the music up loud and dancing.  Ask yourself, “What do I love to do?” and then do that.  It will probably take some effort.  The best things in life usually do.

I would be glad for you to add to this list or tell me some of the things you like to do to keep your body, mind, soul, and spirit in shape.  Just click on the word “comments” below to share your suggestions.

And just so you’ll know, I did finish that four mile run on Thursday, and when I practice with “Team First” at 1:30 this Sunday afternoon…

…it’s going to show.