Saturday, September 18, 2004

Q-and-A: What Happens Between Death and Heaven for Believers in Christ?

[This is the first installment of a new series of articles dealing with questions people ask of me. Some of these articles are also appearing as part of my columns for the Community Press newspapers in the Cincinnati area and in our congregation's monthly newsletter. I hope that you find them helpful.]

I was recently asked, “I know that because I believe in Jesus, when I die, I’ll go to live with Him forever in heaven. But I wonder, will I have to go through something in between the moment I die and the time when I see Jesus?”

This was a good question and one which I suppose, lots of people wonder about. My answer, of course, doesn’t come from first-hand experience. But the Bible, God’s authoritative truth source, does have some things to teach us about this question.

First of all, followers of Jesus who die will live with Him forever. That will happen not because of any intrinsic goodness they possess. It’ll have everything to do with Jesus’ goodness.

The Bible says that Jesus is God and He came to this world to live as a human being. The New Testament book of Philippians says that even though Jesus was God, He didn’t see His equality with God the Father “as something to be exploited.” Instead, He became a slave for us all, dying on a cross so that He could take the punishment for sin which every one of us deserves. Then, Jesus rose from the dead, a sign that He can give new life to anyone.

Jesus’ most famous words contain a powerful promise: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

These words may require a little explanation. “Son” is one of Jesus’ titles; it says that He is the very embodiment of God. When people saw Jesus walking in their towns and villages two-thousand years ago, they were looking at God.

To believe, as the Bible sees it, is more than intellectual assent. It means to trust completely.

The follower of Jesus who trusts their past, present, and future to Jesus then, is forgiven for their sins and has life forever.

So, what will happen to followers of Jesus after they die?

One of the New Testament writers, Paul, speaks of believers in Jesus who had already died. He says that they are “asleep,” as though there were some transition phase between death and heaven.

But, I think that an incident that happened as Jesus was on the cross clears things up considerably. Next to Jesus, being executed at the same time, were two criminals. One of them joined the crowd in deriding Jesus. The other though, confessed that while Jesus was innocent of any wrongdoing, the government had every right to punish him. Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into Your kingdom.” Jesus said to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Now, we know that after Jesus died, He went down into hell. The New Testament, in First Peter 3:19, tells us that. This was something Jesus had to do in order to experience fully the condemnation that comes from sin. Yet, Jesus told this criminal that on that very day, he would be with Jesus.

I believe that no matter what “transition time,” if any, between the time of a Jesus-Follower’s death and the moment they enter heaven, they won’t experience the passing of one microsecond. This time-bound world may see them as being asleep. But in heaven, they’ll be alive and kicking.

The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis helps us to understand the Greek New Testament word that we translate as “eternity.” To Jesus and the Biblical authors, eternity doesn’t mean endless time. Eternity is really the absence of time. Lewis says that in heaven, life is lived in “the eternal now.”

So, I believe the Bible teaches that at the moment believers in Jesus die, they are with Him in a never-ending present-tense place of life, peace, and well-being. It will be fantastic!

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Pray for the Victims of Recent Hurricanes

Please keep praying for the people in Cuba, the Grand Cayman Islands, Jamaica, and Florida who have been hit by the recent hurricanes. Please ask God to help them to rebuild their lives and to receive every encouragement as they do so. Through Jesus Christ, we know that God is a God of compassion who weeps with those who weep and laughs with those who laugh. I pray that the victims of this hurricane season will sense God's presence, love, and help for them. Please join me also in praying that God will give wisdom, needed resources, energy, and inspiration to relief agency workers in effected areas.

A Chilling Incident During the Period When 'The System Was Blinking Red'

The American people---and in fact, people all over the world---owe a great debt of gratitude to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9/11 Commission) and its staff. The report they produced presents in copious, almost novel-like detail, how the US fell prey to the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Chapter 8, "The System Was Blinking Red," derives its title from the testimony presented by former CIA director George Tenet to the commission. He was describing the "crescendo" (the word used by former National Counterterrorism Coordinator for the National Security Council William Clarke) of intelligence flooding the US Government in the summer of 2001, indicating that a major set or major single terrorist assault by al Qaeda was imminent.

Yet, to use a trite phrase, nobody was "connecting the dots." Few believed that an attack would take place domestically. Those who suggested that a breach of airport security could happen were dismissed as chicken littles.

In a book filled with chilling vignettes---underscoring everything from the implacable hatred that al Qaeda has for the US to missed opportunities to thwart the September 11 hijackings---nothing I've read in this report yet is more chilling than a conversation that happened just weeks before September 11. It involved a Minneapolis FBI supervisor privy to the investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui, an al Qeda operative who had dumped a ton of cash to learn how to fly 747s, and an individual at FBI headquarters. Says the report:

There was substantial disagreement between Minneapolis agents and FBI headquarters as to what Moussaoui was planning to do. In one conversation between a Minneapolis supervisor and a headquarters agent, the latter complained that Minneapolis' FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] request was couched in a manner intended to get people "spun up." The supervisor replied that was precisely his intent. He said he was "trying to keep someone from taking a plane and crashing into the World Trade Center." The headquarters agent replied that this was not going to happen and that they did not know if Moussaoui was a terrorist.

Chilling! Almost as chilling as the response of 9-11 commissioner Jamie Gorelick during her joint appearance with three other commissioners on this past Friday's edition of Hardball with Chris Matthews. Matthews asked, reasonably enough, whether in their months of residence in the US, the September 11 hijackers had developed any friendships with Americans or any sympathy for people here. He wondered how people could be so inured to the humanity of those around them that, like mindless automatons, they boarded jetliners and killed thousands of people of every ethnic and religious background on the earth.

Gorelick responded that al Qaeda and its sympathizers have totally "objectified" Americans, regarding all Americans---even those who are Muslims, apparently---as being "sub-human." I'll have more to say about the implications of this statement in a later post.

My Current Traveling Music

What with meetings and other commitments, I spend quite a bit of time driving in my van. One of the things I do to pass that time is listen to music on CDs. My playlist changes, but lately, I’ve been especially enjoying the batch with me now.

Just for the nuts of it, they include...

All That You Can’t Leave Behind by U2. By now, Bono and crew have become members of rock’n’roll’s royal family and deservedly so. This collection adds even more luster to their crowns. Lyrics infected with Christian sensibility and a commitment to peace and honesty...Compelling melodies soaring into one’s consciousness on the strength of Bono’s passionate voice and The Edge’s extraordinary lead guitar...Great musicianship...This LP, in my estimation, is destined to be regarded as a classic. It proves that popular music can deliver profound and profoundly life-altering messages.
The Beautiful Letdown by Switchfoot. Switchfoot, nearly a generation younger than the members of U2, may be their natural heirs for hard-edged, melodic, profound rocking. This is an extraordinary LP that will let you rock and make you think and, like U2, feel...really feel. This is one of the great bands in the world today and this is their most mature work.

Dosage by Collective Soul. This LP is sort of a guilty pleasure. If Switchfoot are the heirs of U2, Collective Soul follow in the footsteps of Electic Light Orchestra, Alan Parsons Project, and Kansas. The lyrics, as was often the case with those bands, are faux-profound. The musicianship, drawing on those influences already mentioned, as well as Paul McCartney and every Motown act you ever heard, is excellent. This brain candy will stick in your brain. A fun LP.

My son has given me two CDs to which I’ve been listening a lot, also. One is by Coldplay, the other from The Strokes. Frankly, I haven’t listened closely to the lyrics on either LP. So, I don’t know if I’m endorsing songs that advocate DDT, regicide, or seriated monogamy. But the songs are fun to listen to, produced by tight little rock ensembles.

Monday, September 13, 2004

A Bit About Alexander Hamilton

"We honor Jefferson, but live in Hamilton's country." So says columnist George Will, referring to Thomas Jefferson, the oft-quoted American founder whose vision for America was spurned in favor of that espoused by another founder, one we rarely consider, Alexander Hamilton.

Happily, there seems to be a strong impulse toward understanding Hamilton these days. That's all for the good. Understanding Hamilton may help us understand America and thus act as an antidote for our ahistorical political life. In spite of a sometimes-checkered personal life, Hamilton deserves our attention and study.

An article in the latest US News and World Report (in which the Will quote appears) and an exhibit in New York, put together by Hamilton biographer Richard Brookhiser, along with a new biography by Ronald Chernow, are all part of a Hamilton revival.

Hamilton, with Washington, is the founding father of what I would call moderate or progressive conservatism, the wise political philosophy which, over time, has prevailed in America. Its practitioners, in my estimation, have included Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower. Each were conservatives who believed that the federal government could act as a facilitator of national life and an engine for good.

If you get the chance to delve into a Hamilton biography and only have time for one, I heartily recommend Brookhiser's. I haven't yet had the opportunity to read Chernow's more extensive book.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Folded Arms or Open Hearts?

Luke 15:1-10
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, September 12, 2004)

I recently heard two true stories. Both involve altar boys at Roman Catholic congregations, in two different parts of the world, almost precisely at the same point in time.

The first altar boy was assisting the local priest in the distribution of Holy Communion one Sunday morning when he accidentally knocked over the wine and the bread, sending everything tumbling to the floor. The priest was furious, screaming at the boy, telling him that he never wanted to see him in that church again! The mortified altar boy ran away and never did darken the door of a church again.

The second altar boy was also assisting his parish priest with Holy Communion and like the first boy, spilled the bread and the wine onto the floor. The reaction of his priest was very different though. He smiled at the boy, understanding that he had had simply made a mistake. With a wink, he said, “I have the feeling, young man, that one day you will be a great priest.”

The first boy, Josip Broz, who came to be known to the world as Marshall Tito, grew up to be the fierce dictator of Communist Yugoslavia, a man who murdered thousands in order to impose his will on his country.

The second boy, who grew up at about the same time as Tito, but here in America, was Fulton J. Sheen. Some of you may not know that name. But he was one of the most popular and effective preachers of the twentieth century, a Roman Catholic priest whose network TV show won several Emmy Awards. (I loved his Emmy acceptance speech when Sheen said that he had the best writers possible: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.)

What accounts for the markedly different lives lived by these two men?

One thing may be the markedly different ways in which their parish priests, at formative times in those young boys’ lives approached them.

One boy was met with the folded arms of religion and disapproval, with a cold and implacable indictment for being imperfect.

The other boy was met with the open heart of relationship with the God we know through Jesus Christ and he felt God’s love and approval in spite of his imperfections.

Our Bible lesson finds Jesus speaking. People you wouldn’t expect to show up to hear a preacher were getting front row seats just to hear what He had to say. And Jesus welcomed every one of them with an open heart.

You see, God wants everyone to hear the good news that He is head-over-heels in love with us and wants to have an eternal relationship with us. Jesus came into the world precisely for the purpose of finding all His lost children and bringing them back to the very heart of God forever. And so, when Jesus saw notorious sinners showing up to hear Him speak, He was happy about that.

But nearby was a contingent from the local Self-Righteous Church of the Folded Arms. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!” they said. They were horrified because in those days, few events were regarded as being more intimate than the sharing of a meal with friends or loved ones.

Typically, Jesus decides that it’s time to tell a few stories. He often did that, disarming and sneaking past the defenses and prejudices of His audiences, making certain truths more palatable to them than He would if He just hammered them over the head with a statement.

In the fifteenth chapter of Luke, where our Bible lesson for today appears, Jesus tells three stories, including the parable of the Prodigal Son. But our lesson only includes the first two stories He tells.

In the first, a shepherd charged with caring for 100 sheep sees that one of them has gone missing. So, he leaves the other 99 sheep behind while he goes out to find the one that’s lost. In fact, Jesus says, the shepherd may have done a very stupid thing: he left the 99 in the wilderness, unprotected and subject to attack or thievery. But that may also suggest just how much the shepherd valued the one sheep. Jesus says that when the shepherd found the lost sheep, he carried it over his shoulders and exulted...rejoiced...and then he threw a party!

And then, Jesus tells a story about a woman who has ten silver coins. Now, in those days, a woman received ten silver coins on her wedding day. It had the same value in her eyes as a wedding or engagement ring has for people today. The woman in Jesus’ story loses her coin. She turns the house upside down to find it. And when at last, she does find it, she also throws a party and asks all of her friends to celebrate along with her.

In both stories, what was lost was found. And after each story, Jesus says, that just as the shepherd and the woman rejoiced with their friends at a party, there is a party in heaven every time a sinner is found by God’s love and grace, every time people who had been living life on their own let themselves be wrapped up into God’s arms---every time they repent, or turn away from sin and death, and turn to Christ for forgiveness and new life.

You see, Jesus, the God-Man Who went to the cross for us, shows us beyond all doubting that God greets us not with folded arms, but with open hearts. God wants to party down with us forever!

This is hard for some good religious people to accept. Some folks want to pull out calculators and tote up their good deeds and let everybody know what great people they are. They want to put God behind a moat and a wall with barbed wire and a gate with a combination lock for which only good people like them have the combination.

A few weeks ago, my brother Marty and his wife Trina were in a fast food restaurant. My brother, as you know, is a comedian and a producer of clean comedy shows. He and Trina had just finished a show and at this restaurant struck up a conversation with a woman who didn’t appear to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, a kind of Forrest Gump-ette. From her attire, they could pretty much figure out her profession. But Marty and Trina enjoyed talking with her.

Finally, my sister-in-law asked my brother if he would mind her giving this woman a ticket to one of his company’s upcoming clean comedy shows. Marty said, of course he didn’t mind. Trina handed a ticket to the woman and said, “We would love for you to be our guest!” The woman was overwhelmed and clutched the ticket to herself.

But then, she noticed that the show was to be in a restaurant inside a church building. She said that she wasn’t really sure that she had the right kinds of clothes for a church. Marty said, “Don’t you worry about that. If you want to come to the show, I’m sure that you’ll be welcomed.” At that, this woman started walking up to other people in the fast food place, showing them the ticket, pointing to Trina and Marty, and saying, “They said that if I went to this church, I could go.”

Marty and Trina felt very good! The woman said good-bye and left. It was then that two women from the church where the performance was to take place came up to Marty and Trina and upbraided them. “How could you possibly give a free ticket to a show in our church to that woman? Don’t you know what kind of person she is?”

I know what kind of person she was: a lost sinner who needed to be found by Jesus’ love. She was the kind of person Jesus Christ died and rose for. She was the kind of person to whom Jesus wants to give an open heart. She was someone just like me...and maybe like you, too.

I want to tell all of you something this morning, something that may seem trite and that you’ve heard it a million times before. But it’s the simple truth: God---the wonderful God we know through Jesus Christ---loves you. He wants to be with you forever. He wants you to let Him catch you in a great bear hug of acceptance and compassion and comfort and encouragement and love that never ends. His heart is open to you. No matter how lost or distant from God or goodness you may feel.

In God’s eyes, we’re like that sheep the shepherd recklessly sought or like that coin that woman so valued. All Jesus asks is that we let ourselves be found and let the celebrating begin. Pray with me...

Lord Jesus: We are lost without You. You have our permission to come and find us and help us to live with You forever. Amen