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Friday, January 30, 2015

The Boy Who'll Never Have to Come Back from Heaven

As you go, proclaim this message: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”   
-Matthew 10:7 (NIV)

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ…
-Philippians 3:20 (NIV)

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,”  for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away,  and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City,  the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God,  prepared as a bride  beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”
-Revelation 21:1-3 (NIV)


When Alex Malarkey was 6, in 2004, he was in a car accident that left him paralyzed and in a coma for two months. When he woke up, he had a remarkable story to tell. He had been to heaven, and had talked with Jesus and visited angels. He had also seen the devil, who at one point blamed him for the car accident. He even saw a “hole in outer heaven” that led to hell. The story, quite descriptive, led to a book deal with Tyndale House Publishers for his father, Kevin, who penned The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven in 2011. The book was a best-seller, apparently. 
     Only problem is, it now appears that it wasn’t true.
     Last week, the news hit that Alex has distanced himself from the book. Actually, his mother says he’s been trying for a long time to do so, but that no one wanted to listen to him say that the story that was making everyone (except, perhaps, Alex) a lot of money came from the imagination of a badly injured 6-year-old. His most recent statement, in part, reads:

 “I did not die. I did not go to Heaven. … I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible.”

     Alex’s father isn’t saying much. His mother supports him. Tyndale House, faced with the publicity, has taken the book out of print. Lots of the book’s readers, no doubt feeling embarrassed, are responding with anger. The story illustrates a lot of things, not the least of which is the fact that the Christian publishing industry is, sometimes, anything but Christian. 
     It also suggests that Christians, who presumably are this book’s target audience, can be as biblically illiterate as anyone else in our world. Fact is, a lot of us would rather read anything but the Bible, which is exactly how authors take us in and publishers make lots of money off us. As Alex himself suggests, we’d rather read other people’s stories about heaven than read about the real hope believers have. 
     Don’t get mad at Alex; he’s hardly the first 6-year-old to make up a good story. (Just one of the few who got a book deal out of it.) Instead, maybe we should just read our Bibles a little.
     Take note, for example, that the Bible doesn’t picture heaven as primarily the “place good people go when they die.” In Scripture, heaven (or, the heavens) most often refers to what we’d call the sky. “Heaven” is used sometimes as a way to talk about God, sort of like we use “Washington” to refer to the politicians there (if you’ll forgive the comparison). Heaven is God’s realm, as opposed to “the world” or “the earth,” which is the realm of human beings. 
     So when Jesus talks about “the kingdom of Heaven,” he’s not talking primarily about where you go when you die. It’s a way of referring to God’s kingdom, God’s rule. And his message about that kingdom was straightforward, if not simple: “the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
     Again, he wasn’t saying that people were about to die and go to heaven. He was saying that God was opening up his kingdom to everyone who would trust in him. He taught about and showed them through miracle — “signs” — what that kingdom was like, and when he gave himself it was to make the kingdom of heaven accessible to anyone who would put their faith in him. 
     That’s why Paul told believers that “our citizenship is in heaven.” Life isn’t about biding time while we  wait to die and go to heaven; we’re already citizens. That has implications for when we die, definitely, but even more for how we live. As citizens of heaven, we look forward to the coming of our Savior, Jesus, while living lives that are congruent with God’s kingdom, where our citizenship really is.
     And when Jesus comes, and the dead are raised, the book of Revelation seems to say that we aren’t the ones who’ll relocate. There’ll be “a new heaven and a new earth,” and the obstacles that keep God and people apart will be gone. John pictures God moving, to be present with his people, to live with us and be our God in a life of joy and peace that goes on forever. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes,” John promises. “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
     That’s the hope that we have, not stories and fables written by human beings, not empty myths or the imaginations of children. Our hope is that God loves us and wants to share his life with us. Our hope is that Jesus was faithful to his Father’s purposes, lived and died and rose from the grave. Our hope is that in him there is forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit and eternal life. Our hope is that he is coming, and bringing salvation with him.

     No one will ever have to “come back” from heaven then, to live paralyzed in a world of sin and violence and mourning and death. May we live in that hope, joyfully and faithfully.     

Friday, January 23, 2015

Debt-Free


When you were dead in your sins  and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you  alive  with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness,  which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.   
-Colossians 2:13-14 (NIV)


A father from Cornwall, in England, just received a bill he wasn’t expecting, for something his son didn’t even do.
     Derek Nash says that the £15.95 invoice, dated December 20 of last year, is serious, and that the person who sent it, Julie Lawrence, is threatening to take him to small-claims court if he doesn’t pay. I imagine he believes her, too, given what the invoice is for.
     Derek’s being charged a “Party No Show Fee” because his 5-year-old son, Alex, failed to show up for a skiing party celebrating the birthday of Ms. Lawrence’s daughter.
      Mr. Nash said that he and his wife accepted the party invitation on Alex’s behalf, and then remembered that Alex was supposed to spend time with his grandparents on that day. Ms. Lawrence says her contact information was on the party invitation, and that the Nashes should have let her know that Alex wouldn’t be there. Presumably, she wasn’t able to recover the money she paid the Ski Centre for Alex. The centre said that they have nothing to do with the invoice, and that on the occasions when parents pay for children that end up not attending a party, the parent is usually offered an extra activity as compensation for the lost money.
     Derek implies that he would have given Ms. Lawrence the money if she had just asked, but resents the invoice.
     Legal authorities don’t think Ms. Lawrence would have much luck in small-claims court. 
     As a parent who has planned parties for my child, I think Mr. Nash should probably pay the £15.95. But I’ve also been the debtor before, so I know what that’s like. I understand how no one likes the thought of being invoiced for our offenses. No one wants to be reminded of their offenses that way. Even if they’re relatively minor, even if it’s a debt we can easily pay, it’s embarrassing to see your debts in writing. 
     Even more so if it’s a debt that’s not so easy to pay off.
     One of the ways the Bible speaks of our problem with God is through the language of debt. It’s not the only way the Bible pictures our sin, and it can be pushed too far, but it’s a pretty good analogy. Debt is something we understand. Human beings, from the earliest forms of written language, have kept records of debt. We care who owes whom, and how much. And so it’s an easy comparison to think of the sins we’ve committed against God and one another as accumulated debt. And our debt before God is unpayable.
     Jesus addresses that in the parable of the servant forgiven a huge debt. In the story, a man owes a king an impossible sum of money, probably more money than was actually in circulation in the Roman empire in those days. You might as well call it eleventy zillion dollars. The king represents God, of course, and the parable reminds us that our problem is not that it’s really hard to make up for our sins. Our problem is that we can’t make up for them. There’s no way. 
     Again, the analogy of debt has its limitations, as all analogies do. But it’s particularly good for pointing out the impossibility of our situation. How do we make up for the offense our sins have given a holy God who only wants what’s best for us, and only does good to us? Do we do good deeds? How many, and for how long? Go to church? Read our Bibles? Make converts? Get baptized? Deny ourselves? How does any of that begin to make up for the fact that we have chosen in innumerable, unique ways to cut God out of our lives and go our own ways?
     In the parable, of course, the servant doesn’t have to pay that ridiculous debt. The king forgives it. Just forgives it. The man begs for mercy, and the king feels compassion for him and tears up the invoice. The servant had walked into that meeting trying to figure out how to assure the king he was good for the money. He walks out lightheaded with the compassion he’s received. 
     What his disciples later discovered is that it’s in the work of Jesus that forgiveness like that happens.
     Paul, who in another place called himself “the worst of sinners,” alludes to this when he talks about the “written code” or “charge of legal indebtedness” that “stood against us and condemned us.” He’s using the language of debt, as Jesus did, to talk about the problem of our sin. Our sins “condemned us.” Our debt was not only unpayable, but also fatal. 
     But God, in Christ, “made us alive.” He took that IOU, that legal charge of indebtedness, and “nailed it to the cross.” In Jesus’ sacrifice, our sins are forgiven. Our debt is erased. The invoice is destroyed, not because we’re basically good people or because the debt was really no big deal, but because God is a God of grace and compassion, and because Jesus was faithful. We are forgiven only because God chose in Jesus to forgive us.
     A couple of things to make sure we have straight. This doesn’t mean that we now have a chance to work off our debt, that in Jesus God was promising to make up the difference when our best efforts to save ourselves fall short. It means that for those who have put their trust in Jesus, there is no more debt. Our sins do not doom us before God, because God won’t have that. We are free from sin, blameless before God, and even though our lives don’t always look that way, it is always true.
     Neither does it mean that we now have a magic bullet, a get-out-of-jail free card. The kind of grace and compassion we’ve experienced is life-transforming. It won’t allow us to plunge headlong again into a life of sin. A chronic gambler whose gambling debts are forgiven would be foolish to go back to his old ways. Grace is transforming, and calls us to actually be the blameless people that God through Jesus says we are.
     Finally, this grace we’ve received is to be shared. In the parable, the forgiven servant runs afoul of the king again by demanding payment from his fellow servant of an almost inconsequential debt. Paul says it more prosaically: “forgive as the Lord forgave you.” If you are a believer in Jesus, if you understand how much grace and compassion God as shown you, then no one in your life should know a more compassionate, forgiving person than you.
     May our lives be a celebration of the compassion and forgiveness we’ve received from God. May our words and actions routinely invite others to celebrate his compassion and forgiveness as well.

     And if someone decides not to come to the party? Well, try not to hold it against him. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Unchanging

As for me, I call to God,
    and the Lord saves me.
17 Evening, morning and noon
    I cry out in distress,
    and he hears my voice.
18 He rescues me unharmed
    from the battle waged against me,
    even though many oppose me.
19 God, who is enthroned from of old,
    who does not change—
he will hear them and humble them,
    because they have no fear of God.
-Genesis 8:22 (NIV)


I have a project going on. I’ve been digitizing some old analog videotapes — probably 50 or so of them, covering the time from my son’s birth until he was 6 or 7 years old. The tapes were fine, except for one small problem — it’s harder and harder to find something to play them on. (I had to borrow a friend’s camera to convert them to digital files, in fact.) When I’m done, by the end of this week or early next week, a shoe box full of analog images stored in magnetic tape and plastic will be converted into 1’s and 0’s stored on a hard drive.  
    It occurs to me that changes in technology are one of the ways we measure the passage of time. Even if you’re not an early adopter, nothing stands still, technologically speaking. VHS gives way to DVD gives way to digital streaming. Phones go from party lines to single lines for an address to multiple lines to cellular. Maybe you remember how old you were when you first watched TV, or got cable for the first time, or first used a computer, or got your first cell phone. All of those things, now, are pretty much commodities — everyone has them, or could if they wanted to. But there was a time when they were all the bleeding edge, times when seeing them or adopting them for the first time made an impression. And think of the technologies left behind; when did you last use a pay phone, or listen to a radio with tubes in it, or turn a hand crank to mix the ingredients for a cake, or pop one of those little plastic adapters into the middle of a 45 record?
    Driving across town this week, I started thinking about billboards. I played a little game with myself: if in 1985 I could have transported myself 30 years into the future, how many of the billboards I was looking at would I understand? I would have seen one advertising a phone company’s data plan. One for a TV streaming service. One for something called Google Play, for crying out loud. I think in about a half an hour I noted something like 8 billboards that 17-year-old me wouldn’t have understood in the least.
    Things change. Time passes. Human beings aren’t born into a world that’s static and unchanging. That’s always been true, even in previous eras when technology didn't change as quickly as it does today. Sometimes we find change disorienting, upsetting. It can even be catastrophic. And then we find some changes exhilarating, liberating, life-giving. Different people can look at the same changes, even, and see them very differently. It’s all in the perspective, I guess: where you find your security, how adequate you feel the status quo is, how much you’re invested in either the way things are or the way you hope they might be.
    That must be why God reveals himself as unchanging. Over and over, the Bible speaks of him as constant, faithful, and dependable. “I, the LORD, do not change,” he said to faithless Israel through the prophet Malachi, “so you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.” His promises to them didn’t change because of their sin, and so he invited them to return to him, promising that he would return to them as well. James promised believers that God’s unchanging nature meant that they could trust him to give “every good and perfect gift.” He is well-intentioned toward human beings, and as part of who he is that will never change.
         God intends to be, as T.S. Elliott once said, our “still point in the turning world.” His word to his people through Jeremiah was that they should “ask for the ancient paths,” and promised that if they would walk in them they would find “rest for [their] souls.” Though we, like them, often consider the old ways outdated, if they’re God’s ways they never really are. Oh, sometimes what we think are the ancient paths are really our own relatively new trails, and no more reliable than anyone else’s. But the true ancient paths, laid out by God, are worth spending our lives exploring. We will find rest on them, because they lead us in the way God has always intended that we go.
    Jesus promised that, though the world we live in would pass away, his words never would. He meant that we can trust his promises, find courage and hope in the things he said about God and about himself, that will even keep us secure when the world we live in falls apart around us. “The world and its desires pass away,” wrote John to his churches, “but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” In Jesus, God has shown himself to us as the one in whom we can put our hope, even beyond our own deaths.
    Because of course we know that a lot more will change in our lives than the technology we use. We’ll lose people we love. Our financial status will change. Jobs will come and go. Children will grow up and leave the house. The place we’ll call home will change, and even our friends and family will drift in and out of our lives.  And one day, of course, we’ll have to face our own mortality, and learn that even the fact of our own existence isn’t enough to sustain us.
    So what do we do in a world filled with change, all the time? We trust the One Who doesn’t change. James says that we’re “a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” I don’t know about you, but I’d like to think I’m a little more permanent than that. And that’s just the problem; I tend to overestimate my own permanence. But our hope isn't in a world that doesn’t change, or a life in this world that stretches on and on. Our hope is in the power and promises of the God who doesn’t change. So he tells us to trust in his promises, walk in his paths, look for his gifts, and put our faith in his Son. That’s how you navigate a world in which yesterday’s miracles are obsolete today. That’s how you travel through a world full of shifting landscapes and unfamiliar signposts.

    And when your journey is over, when all the changes are through, then your trust in him will be rewarded in life with him, stretching on into eternity, unbroken, joyful, and peaceful forever.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Replacing The American Dream With the Kingdom of God

    Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
-Matthew 5:3-6 (NIV)


Every student who applies for entrance to Chicago’s best public high schools has to take an entrance exam, among other requirements. Parents and students are aware of the scores needed to get in to each school from year to year. But they also have to be aware of something else — where they live.
    That’s because, depending upon where in Chicago he or she lives, a student might not need to do as well on the entrance requirements as another student. The Chicago Public School system recognizes that just living in certain neighborhoods in the city gives a student an advantage over his or her peers, and so they’ve divided the city into “tiers” that take into account factors like the education levels of a student’s parents, how likely those parents are to speak English as a first language, and whether they’re likely to have the financial resources to contribute to their kids’ primary schools or provide them extracurricular educational opportunities. Recognizing that lack of access to opportunities might negatively affect the scores of good students, the school system has tried to tweak the admissions process to give those students access to some of the city’s better schools.
    There is, of course, resistance to this system. (Especially if you perceive your child might have lost out on a seat as his or her first choice of school because of it!) It kind of seems un-American. It flies in the face of the notion that the “American Dream” is available to anyone who works hard enough, that a person in a free society like ours can pull himself up and better himself. It seems unfair. People who are more privileged don’t like to think of themselves as such, and people who are less privileged often don’t care for the implication that they can’t make it without help.
    The fact is that the bootstrap mentality of the American Dream was probably always a half-truth, at best. Many factors make us the people we are and give us the opportunities we have. Some of those factors have to do with hard work, of course. But some also have to do with accidents of birth and history and circumstances that we have little to do with.
    Jesus, you might have noticed, was not interested at all in equality. He was very interested in “righteousness,” which sometimes the church has conveniently made a synonym for moral and ethical purity, or something along those lines. In that line of thinking, “righteousness” primarily has to do with being good.
    Most of the time, though, Jesus seemed to use the word in a way that’s better translated for us as “justice.” Mary’s song in Luke 1, for example, interprets God’s work through the child growing inside her as “scattering” the proud, bringing down rulers while lifting those in humble circumstances, and filling the hungry while sending the rich away empty. In Luke 4, Jesus reads Isaiah as a mandate for his work: that the Spirit has anointed him for the proclamation of good news, God’s “year of…favor”, to the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. He famously warned his followers that in the end times, those who care for the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, and prisoner would be the ones welcomed into their inheritance in God’s kingdom.
    Contrary to what seems like common sense, Jesus called “blessed” those who had few resources of their own, those who grieved loss, those who had no standing to assert themselves and gain possessions for themselves, and those who were starving for justice. He called them blessed because he knew God as a God of special care for those who were out of resources, options, and advocates. He promised that, if they could find it in themselves to trust in him, they would be comforted and filled as they received their inheritance in the Kingdom that he had come to announce.
    Consistently, Jesus demanded that his followers imitate him in his concern for those who are on the margins, those who can’t make it on their own. He expects that in our actions, words, priorities, and values, we will communicate God’s special grace for those who can’t make it on their own. In God’s kingdom, those who have resources and opportunities don’t hoard them for their own well-being, but share them with those who have less, not out of a sense of superiority or paternalism, but because God wishes to share his blessings with them through us.
    There are plenty of such folks in our neighborhoods, schools, churches, and homes. There are plenty of such folks in the world. They shop with us, work with us, learn with us, and worship with us. They rub elbows with us every day, and often we don’t notice them — sometimes because they don’t want us to. But their hopes are dying, their faith is crumbling, their dreams withering on the vine. They don’t have a lot of expectation that their situations will approve. They get little help or notice from the powerful and influential.
    They are the people to whom Jesus came with a message of hope and promise. If the messages we bring to folks like them don’t carry with them hope and promise, then it is not the gospel of Jesus that we bring. The gospel isn’t to be spiritualized down to metaphors. It’s a message for real, hurting people in need of righteousness, yes, but also justice — a message for the hungry, the weary, the broken, the sick, the dying, the homeless, the lonely, the forsaken — a message that both righteousness and justice are found in Jesus Christ.
    Our words and actions should be loaded with the good news of the coming Kingdom of God, in which those who hunger and thirst will be filled. Our words and actions should be signs of that coming Kingdom, conveying the love, care, and grace of God poured out in Jesus Christ.
    May we be found faithful.

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