Peel back the outward layers of churchiness, stick a microphone to heart of Christians, and ask, ''Why do you really want to go to heaven?'' The answer, “to be with Jesus” will, I suspect, be low on the list, if it makes the cut at all.
There was a certain rich man who was decked out in the finest clothing. Every day was a feast. His closest friends gathered round about him, delighting in his company, and he in theirs. This rich man led the best of lives, had the best things in this world. He was a blessed man.
And this rich man’s name was Lazarus.
Seeing, we do not see. Our eyes are busy deceiving us 24/7, like two liars sunk into our faces, calling black white and white black.
To see God's work in our world, our eyes must retire and our ears labor overtime.
We mistake appearance for reality. We see someone driving a fancy car, owning a big home, having healthy children and an attractive spouse. Instantly, almost without a second's thought, we assume they are successful. Life is good for them. They are living the dream.
Maybe they are. Or maybe they're not. Because if Christ is not living within them, if the word of God is not part of their lives, they are to be pitied, not admired. I don't care how much money they have, they're impoverished. I don't care how healthy their children are, they're dead. Without Jesus, our whole life is a non-life. Without Jesus, every second of earthly life is simply a prelude to everlasting darkness and despair.
Seeing, we do not see, if we let our eyes tell us what is true and what is false, what is good and what is bad.
Look at our friend, Lazarus. Our eyes and ear tell us polar opposite stories:
Our eyes see Lazarus as a poor beggar, but our ears hear him as a man rich with the Father's grace.
Our eyes see Lazarus in rags, but our ears hear him decked out in the righteousness of Christ.
Our eyes see him starving, but our ears hear him feasting sumptuously every day on the bread that came down from heaven.
Our eyes see him a man without friends, but our ears hear him as the friend of God, the companion of angels.
As it with people, so it is with religious institutions, too.
On Sundays, I drive by a certain church all the time. It boasts a sprawling campus. Its pastor is known internationally. Its multimillion dollar budget dwarfs most businesses. Outwardly, this is a sexy, awesome church.
On weekdays, on my delivery route, I drive by what is possibly the ugliest church in San Antonio. A store-front congregation squatting between a laundromat and a greasy taco joint. In the evening, prostitutes strut their stuff on the nearby street corner and drug dealers hang our around back. Inside, the pulpit is an old music stand and metal folding chairs serve for pews.
Now which of these two churches is "successful"? In which one is God pleased to be at work? There's only one way to tell. On Sunday morning, leave your eyes at home and drive your ears to church. Whichever one is preaching the word of God in its truth and purity, whichever one is proclaiming the law and the Gospel, that is the church where God is pleased to dwell.
In daily life, in our spiritual life, God's work in our world is hidden under its opposite. To "see" it, look through your ears.
Here's the hard truth: Chances are, you're not going to like it when God is most active in your life. It'll be when you think he's thrown you away, forgotten you, or declared war against you. It won't look like a honeymoon but a divorce. It won't look like a mountaintop experience but like dragging yourself out of a grave.
Your eyes will tell you a thousand lies. Only your ears will tell you the truth. They will tell that, in the midst of all this pain and loss, Jesus alone is your life and your hope. When it seems you can't do a damn thing right, Jesus has done all things for you.
It was a call that would haunt him to his dying day. He listened, speechless; hung up the phone, speechless; and walked away, words still failing him. He didn't know where he was going. He just went. And when he finally stopped, he stood on the edge of a familiar pier, watching the western sun slowly immerse itself into a watery horizon. Why, why, why? Was this part of God's plan? How could it be? Aswirl in unanswerable questions, he sat there, at that place where, so many times before, he'd sat with the one with whom he would never sit again in this life. He put a beer to his lips and drank, regretting loss and remembering life, on this lonely pier. So goes the story in a song, ''Drink a Beer,'' recently released by country superstar, Luke Bryan. It's a far cry from his typical girl-chasing, bar hopping, tailgate-partying kind of hit. But this one is more personal, almost autobiographical, sung by an artist who hides a mountain of past grief behind his country boy smile. For when he was nineteen, days before his move to Nashville to pursue his musical dreams, Luke suffered the loss of his only brother, whose life was cut short in a car accident. And years later, right after he finally made it big, and performed in the Grand Ole Opry, his only sister died suddenly at her home. Luke Bryan may sing plenty of party songs, but his life has been anything but a party.
Someday we'll all be the singer in Luke's song. Maybe you already have. The details vary, of course, but we too struggle to repair the heart broken by the tragic death of someone we love. We're dazed, angry, speechless. Unanswerable questions scream for answers. We wish like mad we could reach over and touch our spouse or parent or sibling or close friend just one more time. But all that remains are memories.
We have our own “pier,” where we sit and remember our way back to better days, before the thief called death stole our beloved away. Maybe that pier is a café table, or a park bench, or a bed that has grown far too spacious now. It's more than a place of remembrance though, for that “pier” somehow seems to bear within itself fragments of the one we've lost, almost like a faint aroma that only we have the capacity to smell. For that reason, at that place we feel closer to the person. There remembrance is more vivid.
As psychologically or emotionally helpful as such “piers” may be, the stubborn fact remains that the deceased is absent. She is not in the bed where you used to make love. He is not on the pier where you drank beer together. There is no intersection of worlds, where the afterlife and the present-life overlap. You may raise your beer to toast an absent friend with whom a lifetime of memories were made, but you’re not really drinking with the dead. You may even speak aloud to the person you’ve lost, but her voice does not respond or blend with your own. Your chosen pier may be a spot of surreal remembrance, but it is not a place of real presence. Believe it or not, however, such a place does exist.
Once a week I have supper at a place where I drink with the dead. There is no beer, but there’s plenty of wine. My grandfathers and grandmother are there, a high school classmate at whose funeral I was a pallbearer, a dear friend who lost his battle with cancer in 2006. They join me, and I them, around a table. We sing together. We pray together. We may be in different worlds, but here their world and my world overlap, pulled together by the Lord who rules over the past, the present, and the future. The dead really are present, because they really are not dead. In fact, they are more alive now than they ever were before they died.
Once a week I walk up to an altar that is far better than any pier. The God of heaven and earth, of the living and the dead, is enthroned thereon. He transforms it into a table, prepares a feast, and serves as host of the supper that we call the “Lord’s.” And he brings guests with him. Accompanying Jesus are my grandparents and friends and all those who, through death, transitioned from life with Christ here to a better life with Christ there. Where he is, there are they. Our prayers mix and mingle, as they pray for me, and I pray with them, for all those in need of the Lord’s grace and favor. Jesus feeds me there, and satisfies my thirst, putting into my dying body his living body, pouring into my mortal veins his immortal blood.
In this world, death will inevitably come calling for those we love. Bereft of their presence with us, we’ll visit our “piers” and relive, in memory, all those times we shared. We will await a grand reunion in heaven, where, with our Lord, we will be united once more in a life of happiness that will never be cut short. But between now and then, around an altar, around the Lord, around the supper that bears his name, we and our loved ones already reunite, for we are everlastingly united as members of the body of Jesus, who has conquered death and made us alive in him.
Sit on your piers, and remember the dead, if you wish. But more importantly, kneel at the altar, and commune with the dead, who are very much alive in our living and life-giving Lord.