I remember two things about Ms. Sally: she wore a hat to church every Sunday and the grownups were always whispering serious things about her.
Hardly any women wore hats, so even a six-year-old boy noticed that. And the whispering always contained big words that my young mind didn’t yet understand.
“Oh my, the chemotherapy is really taking its toll on her,” they’d say.
Or, “Poor Ms. Sally, I hear it’s metastasized.”
I also remember holding my mom’s hand one rainy Saturday afternoon as we stood by Ms. Sally’s casket. And people were still whispering about her.
“She’s in a better place now,” they said.
“Thank God she isn’t suffering anymore.”
Already then, in a child’s mind, questions were swirling about that I couldn’t quite frame into words. But they all boiled down to something like this: Why did Ms. Sally fight the cancer so long and hard if she could simply surrender and go to heaven?
Or, to put it more crassly: @@Why book more nights in a roach-infested motel when the keys to a mansion are in your pocket?@@
I Am Not of This World…and I Am
The followers of Jesus have always lived paradoxical lives.
We say, on the one hand, that we are not of this world. But on the other hand, Christians are almost singlehandedly responsible for preserving western civilization in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.
We are self-described pilgrims and strangers in this world, but Christians have advanced everything from agriculture to literacy in this same world. Our own Founder said that we will always have the poor with us, but the church throughout the centuries has bent over backwards to care for the impoverished, the homeless, the hungry and the orphaned.
We believe, with one of our apostles, that it is far better to depart this world and be with Christ, yet we have established hospitals, along with universities to train doctors and nurses, all with the ultimate goal being the preservation of life here on earth for as long as possible.
So, what gives? @@If heaven’s so great, why are Christians delaying their departure?@@ If we’re not of this world, why do we invest so much in it?
Our detractors often accuse us of hypocrisy, saying that we doubt the very message we preach, that we’re unsure of whether we’ll go to heaven or hell, so we delay the inevitable as long as possible.
Yes, admittedly, we wrestle with doubt. All of us fear death to some extent because no Christian believes perfectly. But there are much deeper, more profound reasons for our commitment to this world.
The Love-Charged Heart of God
To begin with, we believe that our bodies, the air we breath, the soil under our feet, are all icons of the love-charged heart of God. As opposed to many other religions, ancient and modern, we confess God to be Creator.
We don’t hold this world to be the product of chance or evolution. It’s not the result of random events, an accident, or even a divine afterthought. God made it on purpose. He pronounced it very good. And it still is. Everything that exists he made for us because he loves us.
So for Christians this world is not a roach-infested motel. It’s the gift of a Lover. Yes, it has been battered and bruised by millennia of evil, but it remains a gift especially designed by God the Creator to unveil the magnitude of his love. And it is a gift wherein we show love to one another.
Secondly, we know death’s true identity, as well as his aliases. Death is not a friend whom we welcome in the end, but is and shall always be our sworn enemy. We do not buy into the so-called “circle of life,” where death is naturally woven into the fabric of the universe. Death is an unnatural, alien force. And it arrives not only at the end of our earthly lives, but masquerades in poverty, mental and physical illness, violence, and the untold evils that rake their claws across the surface of the earth.
We follow our Lord’s example. He wept at the grave of his friend, Lazarus, even though he would shortly raise him from the dead. He mourned because “death, the punishment of sin, is even more horrible in His eyes than in ours,” as C. S. Lewis observed.
Even though we know it is our inevitable end of physical life, we do not accept death. It remains our mortal enemy, so we battle against it with doctors, hospitals, soup kitchens, and other means.
Heaven Is Not Our Eternal Home
But the deepest, most profound reason the followers of Jesus are committed to this world is this: @@Heaven is not our eternal home, the earth is.@@ Yes, when we die, we believe that we go to be with Jesus in a paradise called heaven. But that’s only a vacation destination, as it were. A very nice place where our souls rest and worship. And wait. We await the omega of all things, when Jesus will say, “Time’s up,” and returns to refashion our world.
This earth, which we love because it is God’s creation, will be recreated, as will we. Just as our bodies will be resurrected and glorified, so this world will die in fire and be resurrected in glory. It will be a holy world finally free of death and all evil. And it will be our home unto ages of ages.
Heaven is a great place, but it’s not our home. All vacations, even the best, must end. When our time in that celestial vacation concludes, we will return home in perfect bodies to live forever in a perfect world charged with the love of the God. So of course we’re in no hurry to leave this world, even as we’re in no hurry to leave our bodies: they are both faint images of our eternal destiny.
“Because we love something else more than this world we love even this world better than those who know no other,” C. S. Lewis writes. So here we continue to live, to love, to labor as long our Lord allows.
When Ms. Sally gets sick, or when we do, we fight rather than giving up. We love this world, we love life, we love our neighbors, because they are all gifts of God. And we fight with the secret knowledge that victory is already in our pocket because we are in Christ.
No matter what happens, our bodies will one day explode from the tomb into a newly minted world where doctors will joyfully be out of work forever.
My new book, Night Driving: Notes from a Prodigal Soul, will be available October, 2017. You can read more about it and pre-order your copy at Amazon. Thank you!