Everyone likes to see an evil person get the punishment everyone believes he deserves. When John Wayne Gacy was executed in 1994, few tears were shed on his behalf, and many comments mourned the fact that Continue reading Nobody Wants to Repent
Another pithy statement that helped to shape my life was, “Breathing is not living.” When my mother first said it, one of my great-uncles was entering the terminal stages of an illness. I was too young to understand his disease, but I did understand that big questions were being discussed. Machines. Nursing homes. Death. On the way home from one of many visits to the hospital my mother sighed and said to my dad, “Breathing is not living. They need to understand that Uncle Bob will never be happy again if survival is all that is left.”
The same statement reverberated through our house when Mother’s father became ill. He had never been ill at any time in her memory. Unlike everyone in our house, Granddaddy Liddell was never sick. He didn’t have fevers. He didn’t throw up in the middle of the night. He didn’t have rashes of unknown origin. No palpitations. No ulcers, bruises, or headaches. He simply was not sick at any time, until he was. When he got sick for the first time at the age of 77, he did not know what to do. He had to be driven to the doctor almost at gunpoint, and then to the hospital, protesting every step. Mother and her brothers got him admitted and into a hospital gown and into a bed, but he simply did not know how to be sick. I will never know his symptoms. I was too young and too completely disconnected from all the “stuff” that old people did. All I do know is that he became sicker every day, and there were those conversations again. Again my mother said, “Breathing is not living.” Then my mother’s father died of causes unknown. They never could produce a real diagnosis. Mother said it was better that way. Granddaddy hated every minute in the hospital, and every time people turned their backs, he struggled out of bed. He fell more than once simply trying to put on his own clothes so he could go to his home. When the hospital called to say that he had died in the night, mother said, dry-eyed, “Breathing is not living. He wanted to live.”
When Mother finally convinced her doctor that, unlike her father, she was actually sick, she proceeded to go downhill for forty years, always on the verge of death, but always appearing to reject any attempt to put her somewhere that people could care for her. She had more medical books than her doctor possessed, and she always took one, liberally marked for study, to her medical appointments. She chose her medicines more often than her doctor did, and when people suggested that she might need a live-in assistant to keep up with her medicines, she said, “Breathing is not living.” She alleged to want to be free and have adventures, but perversely, most of her adventures involved new prescriptions and side effects. She was still breathing, but it didn’t look much like a life to me. It looked a lot like Lazarus coming out of the tomb, still tied up in the grave wrappings.
Then the day came that my father died. Mother was left alone with nothing but pill bottles and medical books. One day, she couldn’t deal with them anymore. She threw them all away, and suddenly, the woman who could not walk from the door of her apartment building to the parking garage, could hike a mile for a Hawaiian barbecued pork sandwich. The woman who was unable to tell anyone the place where her husband used to take her shopping could take a bus ride involving two transfers in order to reach a museum she wanted to visit. Her past, in which she breathed but did not live, disappeared like the morning mist and she lived two exciting, blessed years, suffering intense loneliness, suffering, but living far beyond the measure of breathing, before she stepped out of time into eternal life.
In the book, A Woman of Salt, Mary Engel digs deep into Lot’s motivations for suggesting to the angels that he be permitted to flee to Zoar instead of running away to the dark, terrifying mountains. Engel examines the possibility that in Lot’s mind, “not to die seems the same to him as living.” This thought is the opposite of my mother’s axiom–the one she did not live by. Engel suggests that Lot simply wanted to stave off death, and call that state “living.” Like my mother with her medicines and her books, Lot would “escape” death without entering into life. Zoar would not be home, but it would not be death, either. He thought it would do.
However, as Engel observes, Lot did not stop with the simple request. He tried to justify it, and every word of justification emphasized that mere continuation of existence in Zoar would not be life. In the end, even though Lot persuaded the angels to spare Zoar, he and his daughters fled to the mountains after all. Apparently, even for Lot, “breathing is not living.”
I don’t spend much time thinking about death, because I love living. I love adventure and routine and surprise and tradition. I am fortunate to be seldom sick, and to date, my body hasn’t abandoned me. I still come and go more or less at will. I still have the opportunity to try to understand whether my mother was right when she said that “Breathing is not living,” or if Lot was perhaps correct to think that “not to die [is] the same . . . as living.”
The rest of Lot’s story gives the lie to that notion, and the rest of the Bible continues to say the same thing. Lot was not really living, even though he was in Sodom where he thought he had the high life, much superior to Abram’s nomadic wanderings with his herds. When Lot chose the well-watered plain and left his uncle with the dry uplands, he really did not want the plains for his flocks and herds. He wanted Sodom. He could have told the truth to Abram. Abram was an agreeable man. He would never have told a grown man he should not live in Sodom. Yet Lot did not have the courage to tell the truth. He pretended to want the same life as Abram and shut Abram out of the well-watered plain unnecessarily. Lot died to truth right then and there. If you doubt that he was dead already, just read the story of Lot and his daughters in their “new life” after Sodom. Clearly, not to die is not the same as living. Judas learned that lesson, too, when he discovered that he was “alive,” but Christ was sentenced to the cross.
Before his crucifixion, Jesus said that he was “the way, the truth, and the life.” The fact is that people who don’t know the way or the truth cannot possibly know life, either. Just ask Lot. He was still breathing, but it is very clear that he was not living.
So, are you alive?
What if this world is not all there is?
Many years ago, a mournful song made the Top Ten list in my neighborhood. I remember little about it other than its doleful character and the repeated cry, “Is that all there is?” The person who sang it exuded despair, and I doubt anyone could hear it without feeling deep sadness. Over the years, as I have heard more and more people declare that God is my imaginary friend, I know that more and more people must be facing that dark moment when the question arises: “Is that all there is?”
Christians are often criticized for their focus on heaven. One frequent complaint is that Christians use heaven as an excuse not to care about this world. While the preponderance of evidence reveals that Christians exhibit leadership in caring for the weak, the hungry, the sick, the homeless and other people in profound need, there are still many people who claim that Christians only care for people in order to corral them into joining the church. Another complaint is that religious people make the ludicrous demand that people sacrifice present joy for some uncertain future.
Why do Christians care so much about heaven?
The answer lies in a fundamental truth for every follower of Christ. Jesus himself said, “If the world hates you, it is because it hated me first.” Jesus made it very clear that being a Christian is not a picnic, nor is it intended to be a picnic. It may have been the case in the fifties that a Christian in the US could expect little interference with his intention to obey Jesus in daily life, but a Christian in 2014 must expect and live through a great deal of resistance to his desire to be like Jesus. Even in the US, the pressure has increased beyond anything imaginable in 1952, and beyond US borders, it is very dangerous to be a Christian.
Heaven is a valuable and necessary part of Christian understanding. Why? If this life is all there is, a person is wise to make the best deal he can for comfort and peace. If there is no heaven, if this world is all there is, then why would a person refuse to recant his faith in Christ? Without heaven, Christ’s resurrection is nothing more than a dramatic resuscitation.
Think about it. The significance of Christ’s empty tomb is that there is something more to life than this world. Is that all there is? Christ’s resurrection says, “NO! There is much more.”
Christians around the world declare emphatically, “This world is not all there is,” when they stand firm like Meriam Ibrahim and declare, “I am Christian, and Christian I will remain,” even though the outcome may be death. In Nigeria, a Boko Haram militant brutally hacked a six-year-old boy with a machete before beheading him. The boy professed Christian faith and refused to recant. His parents were forced to watch the gruesome execution, and they, too, refused to recant. Would anyone be able to sustain faith in Christ through such horror if this world is all there is?
In Iran, Pastor Behnam Irani was arrested and held for eight years, mostly in solitary confinement. If he were willing to recant his faith and become a Muslim, he could be released. Because he refuses to do that, he has recently been charged with a new crime, “spreading corruption on earth,” a capital crime. If heaven does not exist, then he is insane for holding on to his faith in Christ. Why should he suffer solitary confinement, torture and ultimately death if there is no heaven? Why would he do it?
Secular thinkers are not persuaded. They actually are beginning to promulgate the notion that religious faith is a mental illness. To date, this proposal has not gained much traction outside of hardcore atheist conversations, but in the former USSR, the idea had a following.
The book of Revelation reminds us that heaven is not only real, but it is profoundly more than we can imagine. It is a present reality and a future hope. Today, it is where God is seated in the heavenly throne room where he reigns in ineffable light surrounded by a rainbow. At the end of time, Christ will marry his bride the church and come to live in the new earth, which is a humanly incomprehensible new and perfect world where there are no more tears.
Christ himself is our evidence, the hope to which we cling because of his resurrection. The resurrected Christ transcended time and space, and then he ascended to heaven from which he will come again to judge the living and the dead. The new world he sets up after that judgment will be beyond anything we can imagine. And that world will truly be all there is.
By Karolina Wilhelmina Sandell-Berg 1855
hymn text in the public domain
text from http://www.hymnary.org
1 Children of the heavenly Father
safely in his bosom gather;
nestling bird nor star in heaven
such a refuge e’er was given.
2 God his own shall tend and nourish;
in his holy courts they flourish.
From all evil powers he spares them;
in his mighty arms he bears them.
3 Neither life nor death shall ever
from the Lord his children sever;
for to them his grace revealing,
he turns sorrow into healing.
4 God has given, he has taken,
but his children ne’er forsaken;
his the loving purpose solely
to preserve them pure and holy.
- The author of this hymn saw her own father drown when she was only 26. What does this hymn reveal about her reaction to that tragedy?
- The book of Psalms includes many hymns that, like this one, express a faith that God does not abandon his children, no matter how much they suffer. What is the difference between trusting God to make everything okay and trusting that whatever God does is for our blessing?
- The author’s father drowned, and she was helpless to save him. How can she possibly say of God, “from all evil powers he spares them?”
- What Bible person made a statement similar to “God has given, he has taken.” What was that person’s attitude toward God? (See Job 1)
- Every person who has received Christ in his heart live in two unique dimension—time and eternity—because of the indwelling Holy Spirit. How does this hymn writer speak of this truth?
Hallelujah! Jesus Lives!
By Carl Garve 1825
Translated from German to English by Jane L. Borthwick 1862
Text courtesy of http://www.cyberhymnal.org/ (license: public domain)
Hallelujah! Jesus lives!
He is now the Living One;
From the gloomy halls of death
Christ, the conqueror, has gone,
Bright forerunner to the skies
Of His people, yet to rise.
Jesus lives! And thus, my soul,
Life eternal waits for you;
Joined to Him, your living head,
Where He is, you shall be, too;
With the Lord, at His right hand,
As a victor you shall stand.
Jesus lives! Let all rejoice.
Praise Him, ransomed of the earth.
Praise Him in a nobler song,
Cherubim of heavenly birth.
Praise the victor King, whose sway
Sin and death and hell obey.
- The words of this hymn are triumphant. How does the hymnwriter describe the evidence that the enemy is vanquished? What enemy is conquered? Why do you believe this news is true?
- What gift is given as a consequence of the victory? Can you remember when and where Jesus promised this gift? (for one example see John 14:1)
- There are numerous references in the Bible to Jesus seated at the right hand of God in the heavenly throne room. Find a couple and imagine yourself in this scene.
- What is the evidence that sin, death and hell obey the risen Christ? What is your answer when people ask, “If God is in control, then why do people still die of cancer?”