Sunday, November 4, 2012

The long rope

One of the most winsome preachers of the gospel today is Francis Chan, who Ellen and I heard speak last spring at the Justice Conference in Portland. In his talk, Chan instructed us all to stop listening to people who talk us out of living justly and sacrificially and to remember that love and sacrifice come as mandates from God. Spoken by almost anyone else, those words would be easily deflected and forgotten, but Chan has a gift for making them stick. He’s a little goofy but authentic, hyper yet deep as still water—a great communicator of great truths.

In my downtime over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading good books, engaging in meaningful conversation with friends, listening to music, praying for a deeper sense of God’s presence and direction for my life, and—apropos to Francis Chan—watching lots of online videos. There’s an extensive collection of Chan’s sermons and talks on YouTube where you’ll quickly grasp a sense of both his frenetic, comedic style and his spiritual substance. What I would draw your attention to today is this four-minute clip on the topic of eternity—a subject on which I’ve become a devoted student.

Chan’s illustration of our lives on earth being represented by the red tip of a very long rope is brilliant. In the midst of a busy life, it’s easy to perpetually postpone a reckoning of what it means to die. There’s always one more distraction, one more deadline, one more vacation to plan, one more beer in the fridge--something that sustains the illusion of immortality. Then one unfortunate day we get seriously ill, or have a bad accident, and the possibility of our death suddenly becomes unavoidably real. We near the end of the red tip, which if you don’t believe in the biblical concept of eternity means you’re literally at the end of your rope.

Nearly every Christian I’ve spoken with has an incomplete understanding about eternity. In the first place, they don’t much think about it. If they have, some fear it’s little more than an unending church service, one great hymn after another, forever and ever, amen.  And their hearts sink. That’s it? That’s the good news? Believing that, it’s no wonder so many lose heart and turn back to whatever occupies their time to find what meaning  they can from it. They miss out on the joy of a correct understanding of what heaven is really all about.

People of no faith, on the other hand, act as if none of this much matters. They either live in fear of death, successfully ignore it, or actively defy it. Many believe that once you’re dead, it hardly matters that there’s this thing called eternity. Once you're dead, you're dead.

In "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Mark Twain portrays a view of heaven that’s shared by many both inside and outside the church. Early in the book, the Christian spinster Miss Watson expresses a dim view of Huck’s fun-loving spirit. According to Huck, “She went on and told me all about the good place. She said all a body would have to do there was go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever. So I didn’t think much of it…I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said, not by a considerable sight. I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together.”

The pious Miss Watson has nothing to say about heaven that appeals to poor Huck. What might have attracted him, and many of us, is a description of heaven as a place where we can do meaningful and pleasurable things with enjoyable people. That, in fact, is a fair summary of what it will be like in eternity for those who love God.

The Christian author Randy Alcorn in his book “Heaven” has written: “If Miss Watson had told Huck what the Bible says about living in a resurrected body and being with people we love on a resurrected Earth with gardens and rivers and mountains and untold adventures—now that would have gotten his attention!”

What God made us to desire, and therefore what we do desire if we admit it, is exactly what he promises to those who follow Jesus Christ: a resurrected life in a resurrected body, with the resurrected Christ on a resurrected Earth. Our desires, it turns out, correspond precisely to God’s plan.

Alcorn again: “It’s not that we want something so we engage in wishful thinking that what we want exists. It’s the opposite—the reason we want it is precisely because God has planned for it to exist. As we’ll see, resurrected people living in a resurrected universe isn’t our idea—it’s God’s.”

Twain was rightly critical of organized religion, most especially its hypocrisy. Had I been in Huck’s shoes in this great American novel, I likely would have lit out for the territories like he did. Who wants an eternity of harp music and loitering around in the clouds? A raft trip down the Mississippi River with a runaway slave, on the other hand—now that’s the kind of adventure I know God would approve of and, for all we know, might have orchestrated just for Huck.

Eternity is a long time. It never ends, in case that point hasn't been sufficiently driven home. I expect it to be full of amazements and productive activity. Like Francis Chan, I’m not ready for the red end of my rope to run out just yet, but I’m totally jazzed at the notion that when it does, there’s still an eternity of rope ahead of me. What a great illustration and an even greater hope.


nancy said...

Been a bit concerned over your quietness these last couple of weeks, but can see that you have been using your downtime to explore one of the big mysteries of life. Another beautiful and thoughtful essay!

Prayed for you in church today. Your return to good health is in my thoughts.

grsmouse said...

Thanks for the post. I watched "the long rope" and thought immediately of Jesse Smouse (my father) who died in 1932 at age 40. His red section was short but dedicated to God and now his white is going on and on and on ad infinitum. WOW

Carl Pelz said...

So clearly, deeply, beautifully expressed. Thanks, Peter.