Thoughts after a cancer ward visit

memorial_tombstone_at_przyszowice_cemetery_2
By myself (User:Piotrus) (Own work (taken by myself)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
A hospital chaplain spoke of the comfort provided to Christians by the belief we have eternal souls. As patients’ bodies gradually become weaker and more uncooperative, they rest in the fact that no disease can diminish their soul which would soon go to be with Jesus. While I respect that position, N.T. Wright has correctly noted that the New Testament hope in the face of death is not disembodied existence but the resurrection.(See his excellent book, Surpised by Hope).

Yesterday I visited a cancer ward. There were many who were wasting away, limbs shriveled, eyes sunken, their frail frames a shadow of what they once were. As I prayed with a friend, my prayer was that God would restore his health. Yet whether God chooses to heal, our faith is that this is not the final chapter. Creation is followed by re-creation. Mortality surrenders to immortality; death is swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:54). Eternal life follows resurrection at Christ’s return, God’s gracious gift to the righteous (John 3:16, Romans 6:23).

“He fell asleep in Jesus.” So wrote a friend of mine at the passing of a loved one. It’s a good summary of what happens when people die: They fall asleep. When Jesus returns, believers will have a sweet awakening to life eternal, while punishment and destruction is the rude awakening reserved for the wicked (John 5:28-29; Rev 20:11-15). Both Jesus and Paul used “sleep” as a snynonym for death (John 11:11-14, 1 Thess. 4:13-18). Yet Christians fall asleep in the steadfast hope that the same Jesus whom God raised to life will himself raise us to eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:51-55). One short sleep later and Jesus (at his return) will receive us (formerly mortal but now immortal) into his strong arms. The old Negro spirituals called this the “great gettin’ up mornin.’ ” What an amazing awakening that will be!

When it comes to how Christians conceptualize death, sleeping in Jesus is a minority position. Most instead believe in an immortal soul that leaves the body at the moment of death. While I see no conclusive biblical evidence for an “immortal soul” – an idea from Greek philosophy – there are a few New Testament passages traditionally interpreted as teaching a conscious existence apart from our bodies (Luke 16:19-31; 2 Cor 5:1-8, 12:1-5). This is called body-soul dualism, the belief that the enduring part of the human being is not the body but an indestructible soul.

Whichever position one takes, one thing is certain: We must be ready for our own demise. The writer to the Hebrews affirms that all human beings are “destined to die” and “after that face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27, NIV). There are no post mortem opportunities to make things right with God. Are you ready for that encounter?

Parable of the trapped weaver

weaverMy wife and I live in a 3rd floor flat. This morning as we walked down the stairwell, we heard the noise of desperately flapping wings. A little weaverbird was trapped behind a closed window pushing with its beak against the glass, trying with all its might to open the window and escape. But all her efforts were in vain. Not wanting to get too close to the bird (which probably would have sent the already terrified  creature into cardiac arrest), we opened a nearby window.

I’m not sure what the attraction was for the weaver to fly into that stairwell in the first place. Likely, she came in through the gate at the bottom of the stairs. I’m no good at puzzles, but even I could see the solution. Freedom was as close as that slotted gate through which the weaver apparently had entered. To get out, she just needed to turn around and fly back to where she got in.

All around us are people just like that weaver. They once flew free, but somewhere they took a wrong turn. Now they are trapped behind the glass window of addictions. They push against the thick panes of alcoholism, drugs, gambling, or pornography. The longer they’re trapped, the more desperate they become. Through the window, they see the freedom they once knew and they long to enjoy it once more. But to get out, we too must retrace our steps to where we got in. To go forward, first we must go back.

Scripture has a lot to say about repentance, this change of mind and heart that is a prerequisite for freedom. Repentance is letting God turn us around and head us in the opposite direction. In Acts 3, God used Peter as the divine instrument of healing for a man crippled since birth, a man who used to sit begging at the Temple gate (see Acts 3:1-10). Now as the restored man jumped for joy, a crowd gathered out of curiosity. What would Peter say?

  1. It wasn’t me or my companion, John, who did this. It was Jesus (v. 16).
  2. Turn to God (v. 19).

Peter advised:

Repent then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord (Acts 3:19, NIV).

I suspect there were a lot of people listening to Peter that day who were every bit as trapped spiritually as that crippled man had been physically. Just as Jesus freed the man physically, he was able to free the crowd spiritually. But there was something they needed to do first. They needed to repent, to be willing to let a loving and powerful God turn them away from their sinful habits and attitudes and lead them in a new and better direction.

It takes humility to admit that we’re trapped, that the only way forward is to go back. Too proud to ask for help, like the weaver, we keep pushing desperately against the window pane, thinking we’re strong enough on our own to escape some other way. Freedom only begins when we admit we that we’re powerless to solve our problem alone.

Peter’s advice to the crowd that day is the advice we need now. God longs to free us from our sin, from the dead end of our addictions. With Jesus by our side, let’s retrace our steps and head in the opposite direction. Freedom is glorious, and it’s closer than we think.

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Image credit: Flickr.com

Overeating in Christian perspective

forkIt’s the beginning of the new year and lots of people are making promises to lose weight. As Christians, how can we overcome the sin of gluttony (overeating)?

Disclaimer: This essay does not look at the medical side of obesity, only gluttony as a spiritual issue. It is always appropriate to consult with medical professionals and to learn to choose healthy foods.

Bear with me as we take what may seem like an unrelated detour. I promise to bring the plane in for a smooth landing.

Addressing the question of why we eat too much requires us as followers of Christ to ask another preliminary question:

Who am I?

As human beings, we are not accidents, a random conglomeration of atoms and cells. Rather, we are purposefully and lovingly molded by God, the One who creates and sustains all that is.

The Psalmist affirmed:

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. (Psalm 139:14, NIV).

Who am I? I am the exquisite creation of God, so I have great value.

A second answer to the “Who am I?” question emerges from the story we find in Scripture. Not only did God fashion us as part of a wonderful creation. Importantly, we are created for relationship with God and others. This is beautifully symbolized in the first two chapters of Genesis. God placed Adam and Eve together in the garden and they had fellowship with each other and with God.

Third – and this one ties most directly with our topic of overeating – God created me as an embodied being. God fashioned Adam out of the dust of the earth (Gen. 2:7). The “dust” symbolizes substance or matter. At the end of each creation day, God stepped back and beheld various parts of creation, pronouncing them “good” (Gen. 1:3, 9, 24, to cite a few). Only when God at last had created Adam did he call creation “very good” (1:31).

Our bodies are excellent!

This has implications for how we view ourselves. For all of his merits, more than any other theologian, Augustine of Hippo (b. 354 AD) did much to make Christians feel guilty about sex. While Paul had advised that self-control must characterize all our behavior, including our sexuality (Galatians 5:23, 1 Cor. 6:18-20), Augustine posited that it was the sex act itself – even between spouses – that was sinful, the way that original sin was transmitted. Augustine’s influence has led in the West to a preoccupation with sins of a sexual nature, making them first order sins even as we ignore what a neutral observer might conclude we judge to be lesser sins (if sins at all), including eating too much.

To say we are embodied is not to imply that we are immortal souls living inside mortal bodies. That’s dualism, a Greek philosophical weed that (unfortunately) has blown into Christianity’s garden and taken root. The soil in which Christianity grew up is Hebrew soil, Old Testament teaching. Genesis 2:7 explains that human beings are matter (“dust”) into which God has breathed the breath of life. This is called holism; we are unities. I don’t have a body; I am a body animated by God.

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Garbage can mad

clean-your-garbage-canNazarene preacher and publisher Bob Benson was the epitome of gentleness. In his winsome, softspoken way, he told the story of a time when he got angry, or “mad,” as he called it. What pushed him over the edge is unclear, but on that day, Benson stormed out of the house to bring in from the curb the empty family garbage can. With deadpan humor, he confessed:

I don’t even know how the garbage can lid got up on the roof!

After that, his children ranked his occasional moodiness. They’d whisper to each other: “Is he mad?” “Yes, he’s mad.” “But is he garbage can mad?”

The Advent season notwithstanding, a time of “peace on earth, good will toward men,” many are garbage can mad. Terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California – like the flame of a Bunsen burner in a high school chemistry lab – are heating things up, stoking collective anger. Can explosive reactions be far behind?

The Apostle Paul knew how destructive unchecked anger could be. He was determined to throw water on the fire, not gasoline. What is unclear in English but apparent in the original Greek of Ephesians 4:26-27 is that Paul addresses not an individual but a group, the church:

“Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil”(NRSV).

Anger is a perfectly human emotion. No state of grace exempts us from it. The only question is: How will we together channel it, negatively or positively? Will we as the followers of Jesus Christ allow evil events to heat us up so much that we explode in sinful actions? Here’s the disastrous formula:

Anger ——– >>> sin (v. 26)  = the devil wins (v. 27)

rudyOn September 11, 2001, jetliners became missiles. The Twin Towers in New York City plumetted to the ground. Nearly 3,000 individuals lost their lives, including Americans, Japanese, Brits and Dominicans. In his book Leadership (Little, Brown, 2002), NYC Mayor Rudolph (“Rudy”) Giuliani recounts the events of that day, but especially how he and his team in the aftermath swung into action. They did their best to channel their anger not destructively but productively, coordinating the rescue efforts of thousands of police officers and firefighters, setting up venues where families devastated by the loss of loved ones received a wide range of services from government agencies and private charities. Their mission was not to stoke the hot coals of anger but to help people cope and recover.

As Mayor, people looked to him to set the tone. Giuliani realized that many would be tempted to take out their anger on those who shared the same religious background as the handful of hijackers.  Part of his leadership responsibility  was to temper the flame of angry response. Guiliani writes (p. 360, italics added):

At the same time, I was trying to dampen the concept of group blame. Prejudice is largely about that. It’s about taking the perceived wrongdoing of one or a few people, which can be either real or imagined, then applying it to an entire group. I asked people on both sides not to do that. America is built on equal treatment.

That was 2001. Fast forward to 2015. We cannot control what politicians say, the fearmongering that passes for political discourse. Yet God calls us as followers of Christ to a higher path, to be different. Ours is to march to the beat of a better drummer. Shall we let our anger result in sin? Will we join in the misguided scapegoating, spreading via social media fears, half-truths and reactionary propaganda? Jesus taught us the Golden Rule:

Do to others as you would have them do to you (Luke 6:31, NRSV).

This is not an option for the one who bears the name of Jesus; it’s a directive. What will obedience to this command look like for us? What it doesn’t look should be obvious. It’s not about registering individuals who belong to minority religious groups or rounding up those who we perceive to be an internal threat, as the U.S. government wrongly did with 127,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry during the second World War. On the other hand, the Jesus kind of love – the kind that loves one’s neighbor as oneself (Mark 12:30-31) – may mean welcoming a religious minority family to the neighborhood, introducing yourself with a smile and a plate of homebaked cookies. It could be as simple as offering to help newcomers rake their leaves or tell them where the most affordable grocery store is located, the best family doctor or dentist. Would we want someone to do that for us?

There’s a lot of garbage can anger festering these days. Like for Bob Benson, so for the People of God, anger can quickly overcome us, leading us to impulsive actions that we’ll later regret. Those of other faith traditions are watching to see if Jesus really makes a positive difference. What will they see? In our anger, let us not sin. Let’s not give the devil a victory. Instead, this Advent season and always, let’s model a love that overcomes evil.

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Image credits

garbage can: Greatwhiteclean.com

cover of Giuliani book: Flapsblog.com

 

God’s four-step path to healing

DSCN4860Three words on a package of bananas – “Do not refrigerate” – instantly transported me back in time.

I was 16 and it was my first day on the job at the supermarket. My manager gave me simple instructions:

Take the skids off the truck, then stack the boxes of produce in the cooler.

The truck arrived, I did my work, then clocked out and went home.

The next day, my boss was furious. “Why did you put boxes of bananas in the cooler?” For the next several days, blackened bananas sold at deep discount on the sales floor. I’d messed up…majorly.

Most of us can recall times when we’ve missed the mark not just by a little but by a lot. However good our intentions, the end result was disastrous. We let someone down and may have even caused them deep pain. A shattered marriage, a bankruptcy, a broken trust – the consequences of our failure are plain to see and cut deep.

Thankfully, there’s a four-step path to healing.

First, let us resist the temptation to call sin by any other name. Instead, we have to admit we were wrong and be willing to change. Proverbs 28:13 reminds us: “People who conceal their sins will not prosper, but if they confess and turn from them, they will receive mercy” (NLT).

Secondly, let us accept God’s forgiveness. “As far as the east is from the west,” writes the Psalmist, “so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12, NIV).

Third, let us ask forgiveness from the person we wronged. James 5:16 promises healing, yet there is a prerequisite. We are to confess our sins to each other and pray for each other. Three of the most powerful words in any language are these: “I forgive you.” Reconciliation between people allows God’s healing to take root deep in our heart.

Finally, let us forgive ourselves. In Tramp for the Lord, Corrie Ten Boom talks about what God did with her sins once she confessed them: “When I confessed them to the Father, Jesus Christ washed them in his blood. They are now cast into the deepest sea and a sign put up that says, ‘NO FISHING ALLOWED.’ ” Like Paul, ours is to forget what is behind us and stretch toward what God has in-store for us (Phil. 3:13-14). God long ago forgave us. Are we willing to cut ourselves a break?

All of us have our own “bananas in the cooler” moment. There are times when there’s no way around it. We blundered, big time. Yet God doesn’t want us to stay mired in our guilt and shame. The Lord offers a path to healing. Are we ready to walk it, together?