Soul Erosion: the Deformation of Saul (1 Samuel 18-31)

This sermon explores the other side of spiritual formation. It is like looking at the negative of a photo. What we see is disquieting, but we have real reason for hope.

Listening time: 24:13

Sorry, but because of technical issues, we do not have video for this sermon. (I’ve been told I look better on radio than on video anyway.)

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Doubt Roots Deeply in a Closed Mind

Faith is one of Christianity’s cardinal virtues. St. Paul ranks it alongside hope and love as something that will survive the end of the age. Christians are taught that they are justified by faith and must learn to live by faith. Everywhere in Christianity, from the earliest times until now, faith is key.

So, if someone begins to have doubts, where does that leave them? If “Faith is the badge of covenant membership,” as the New Testament scholar N. T. Wright put it, will those who doubt be put on probation? Are they in danger of having their membership revoked?

Doubt is a very painful thing in any meaningful relationship, whether that relationship is with a spouse, an employer, or God. To doubt the love of a spouse, the commitment of an employer, or the existence of the Creator God can be excruciating. That pain is compounded when a Christian doubts God, for doubt may represent a spiritual failure or even a lack of what Wright calls “covenant membership.”

Doubt – and I have no doubt Wright would agree – does not endanger a person’s “covenant membership.” It is the nature of humans, whose knowledge is limited and whose reasoning is imperfect, to doubt. Doubts find entrance into the human mind through the flimsiest of evidence. We not only doubt spouses, bosses, and God; we even doubt ourselves.

It is, however, a mistake to deduce the absence of faith based on the presence of doubt. Humans are big enough to have room for both. Doubt is not evidence of the unreality of faith, still less of the unreality of God. It is evidence of a searching mind and, sometimes, an insecure heart.

Even C. S. Lewis, one of the church’s greatest apologists, faced doubts decades after his conversion. After his wife died, Lewis wrote: “What grounds has [her death] given me for doubting all that I believe? I knew already that these things, and worse, happened daily. I would have said that I had taken them into account … Of course, it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not in imagination.”

The novelist Madeleine L’Engle has written of Lewis, “It is helpful indeed that C. S. Lewis, who has been such a successful apologist for Christianity, should have the courage to admit doubt about what he has so superbly proclaimed. It gives us permission to admit our own doubts, our own angers and anguishes, and to know that they are part of the soul’s growth.”

Maybe doubt is not as unhealthy as many of us have thought. Maybe it is not as terrifying. But what is one to do with it—for it certainly is uncomfortable?

Some people, thinking that doubt must always originate with the devil, are so alarmed by the presence of doubt that they run for intellectual cover. Instead of thinking through the doubt, as C. S. Lewis modeled for generations of believers, they hide from it. They are so frightened by doubt that they shut the doors of their mind, which means they have shut the doubt in with them.

What people don’t understand about doubt is that it grows best in the dark. Doubt roots deeply in a closed mind. It grows strong in the absence of light. The frantic effort to shut out doubt ends up fostering its growth.

People who won’t think won’t overcome their doubt. But thinking is not enough. Action is also required. When doubts arise in any relationship, including a relationship with God, a combination of thought and action – communicating, spending time together, working together – is required. Thinking opens the curtains and lets in the light. Action sweeps out the dust.

Sometimes doubts arise in a relationship not because of what the other person has done, but because of what we have done or failed to do. When it comes to God, if we do what we know he disapproves or fail to do what we know he wants, our attitude toward him will change and doubt will be introduced. We will begin to doubt that he is truly for us. Eventually, we may doubt that he exists at all.

(First published by Gannett.)

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How to Set Your Heart on Things Above

Craig Larson tells about driving to work in a suburb of Chicago and seeing an SUV with the words Texas Longhorns prominently displayed on the spare tire case. The trailer hitch was adorned with a steer-head. The license plate frame was bordered, top and bottom, with the words Longhorns and University of Texas.

But the license plate itself read, “Land of Lincoln.” Here was a person who had undergone a great transition, had moved from Texas to Illinois, but whose mind and heart was still in his former place. He didn’t yet identify with his new home.

So with us: we must identify with our new home, with the Kingdom of God; and with the head of our home, Jesus Christ. It is crucial that we think of ourselves as belonging there, not to what the Bible refers to as the Kingdom of the World.

How do we do that? The classic step of identification is baptism. In baptism you identify yourself as Christ’s person before the world. If you have not been baptized, consider taking this important step.

It is also important for us to invest in the Kingdom of God. If you want to set your mind and your heart there, put your treasure there. “For where your treasure is,” Jesus said, “there your heart will be also.”[1] What did he mean by treasure? Well, certainly he meant your money. Start investing it in God’s kingdom. Give it to the poor. Give it to the church. Give until you feel it.

But money is not your only treasure. Even more precious is your time. Get involved in God’s work. Join a ministry team. Volunteer to serve the homeless and the needy. There are plenty of opportunities. Find one and get involved.

Another high value investment is your reputation. Let people know, as often as you can, that you are Christ’s person. Do it in subtle ways: invite them to church; mention something you’ve read in the Bible; put a bumper sticker on your car. Do it in obvious ways. Come right out and tell people you are a Christian; share your testimony; talk to them about Christ.

 If you invest in the kingdom of God, your heart will follow and, as surely as night follows day, your mind will follow your heart. Then your heart and mind will be set on things above and one day you will look up, see your Master suddenly standing with you and say, “You know, Lord, I was just thinking about you.”

[1] Matthew 6:21

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Formed and Deformed: the Spiritual Formation of David

Viewing Time: Approx. 24 minutes

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Justice Offers Forgiveness but not Escape

I once called on a mother of two girls who were in our little mission church’s Sunday School. I was nervous about what I had to say. Her daughters were both out of control, disrupting Sunday School classes and even worship services. I had come to recruit her help.

She did not attend church with her daughters; a neighbor brought them. I knew that she might take offence at my request. As tactfully as I could, I stated the reason for my visit. “We could use some advice,” I told her, “on how best to help your daughters get the most from their time at Sunday School and church.” I then diplomatically explained what had been going on.

She became defensive. She recounted how she had confronted a school principal and “let him have it,” after a teacher tried to discipline one of her kids. I knew I was on shaky ground.

That’s when the earthquake happened. It was not, as I feared, an outburst of anger directed at me or the church. This woman was angry at God, fiercely angry. She seized the opportunity to tell me, whom she regarded as one of his representatives, how he had botched everything up.

Within moments, she was pouring out a story about her kind, loving, and religious mother. Next, she told me of her sadistic and abusive father. Her mother had died years earlier from a cancer that filled her final months with suffering. The God in whom she believed had apparently done nothing to relieve her. She died in agony.

Seeing her mother die like that was almost more than she could bear. Her childhood faith had been violently shaken. But then when her foul and abusive dad died peacefully in his sleep, it sent her over the proverbial edge. He had been healthy all his life. He was not even sick in his death. He suffered no pain, no worries. His heart had simply stopped.

How could God let him get away with it? After what her mother had gone through, she had thought that her father should suffer a long and painful death and then, as she put it, “rot in hell.”

I hardly knew what to say. I had been pastoring only a few years and had never encountered such hatred and malice. I gave her some pious-sounding advice and made my exit. It wasn’t long before her girls quit coming to our Sunday School. My visit did no good and may have made things worse.

That was a long time ago. If I were to have a similar encounter today (and I have had several since that time), I would not be so quick to give advice. I would listen and try to understand. Rather than use advice to shut the door to the powerful emotions expressed, I would try to stay with her in them, weeping with one who weeps.

Though I would now hesitate to advise, I would want to respond to an assumption she had made. She thought that God had let her father “get away with it.” She was mistaken. There is a reckoning. The Bible teaches that people will either be forgiven or condemned for the evil they do, but no one will simply “get away” with it.

Nazi killers who fled to Argentina and lived out their days there did not get away with it. Nor do rich oppressors who use their wealth to escape justice. Nor did this woman’s father. There will be justice for her and for him.

People’s deeds follow them, even across the border of death. Understanding this, St. Paul wrote, “The sins of some men are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them.” But whether ahead or behind, a person’s sins go with them. There is forgiveness – that is the welcome news of the gospel – but there is no escape.

The mother with whom I spoke would have had a happier life had she forgiven her father. Perhaps she would have been able to do that if she had known that God had taken up her case and justice would be done.

(First published by Gannet.)

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David and Goliath: Root and Fruit

The Story of David and Goliath
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The Christian Mind

A Jesus-follower’s mind is to be filled with things above: God’s will, his gifts, his character, his plans for us.  People who have been connected to Christ, who have undergone the Great Transition (who have received God’s own life through his Spirit), have God on their minds.  The most noticeable difference between the spiritually strong and the spiritually weak is that the strong think more about God.  Much more.  He is frequently on their minds.  I suspect that if the average Christian used half the time he normally spends thinking about entertainment to think about God, he would be a spiritual force on the earth.  His life would be revolutionized.   He would experience greater purpose, deeper peace and fuller joy.

There is a great story in David McCullough’s book, Truman.  One evening when he was president, Mr. Truman decided to take a walk on the Memorial Bridge across the Potomac.  In the course of his walk, the “Show Me State” president became curious about how the middle span of the bridge was raised, so he decided to find out.  He went across one of the catwalks (can you imagine a president doing such a thing now?) and through the inner workings of the bridge, and suddenly came upon the bridge tender, who was sitting down, eating his evening meal out of a tin bucket.

The man showed absolutely no surprise that the president of the United States was suddenly standing next to him in his secret place on the bridge.  He just swallowed his food, wiped his mouth, smiled and said, “You know, Mr. President, I was just thinking of you.”

Truman loved that.  He told that story again and again.[1] 

When Jesus comes to take us home, perhaps unexpectedly, wouldn’t it be great if we could say, “You know, Lord, I was just thinking about you.”

That won’t happen by accident. We must make a decision to have God constantly present to our minds. We can support that decision by listening to Christian music during the day, by reading or listening to good biblical teaching, by taking in sections of Scripture through study and memorization. If we fill our minds with the ideas that Jesus himself thought and expressed, we will make a place for God to dwell.  If we seek things above, Colossians 3:1, our mind, Colossians 3:2, will certainly be set on them.

[1] David McCullough, Truman (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992),  623

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David and Goliath: Seeing Beyond the Appearances

(We had technical problems this week and so the video is not yet – and may never be – available. If we can get audio or video, I will post it later in the week.)

This one of the most familiar stories in the Bible. That’s a problem for me because you already know what’s going to happen. You even know details: Goliath is over nine feet tall; David refuses to wear Saul’s armor; he chooses 5 smooth stones for his sling. You may even know (or think you know) what moral I’ll draw from the story and what application steps I’ll suggest.

Maybe you do know what I am going to say … but maybe not. These events are usually framed as a story of faith overcoming insurmountable odds; that’s not how I’m going to tell it. It doesn’t do it justice.

For one thing, it misses an important element of the story because it skips over chapter 16. Chapter 16 provides information that sets up the action in chapter 17.

In chapter 16, God sends his faithful servant, the prophet/priest Samuel, to anoint Saul’s royal replacement, David. At a critical point in the chapter, we read that “the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in power.” One verse later, we learn that “the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul.” This puts us on notice that the story here is not simply about David versus Goliath, but David versus Saul. That’s the primary story the author is telling.

Also in chapter 16, we are told how Samuel discovered the identity of Saul’s replacement. God sent him to the home of Jesse of Bethlehem with a mission objective but almost no details. Years earlier, when God sent this same Samuel on a similar mission, he gave him extraordinarily detailed information. But not this time.

Question: Why did God work one way one time and a different way the next? There are probably many reasons, but one is so that Samuel – and through him all of Israel and all of us – could learn an important lesson. Imagine that God had said, “Go and anoint Jesse’s youngest son, the ruddy and handsome one who shepherds his father’s sheep. You’ll find him on Thursday morning in a field one mile east-northeast of Bethlehem.” That would have gotten the job done, but getting the job done is not God’s only – or even primary – interest. He is interested in developing people.

When Samuel got to Bethlehem and was introduced to Jesse’s family, he immediately jumped to the conclusion that Jesse’s oldest son, the impressive Eliab, was Israel’s future king. Here was a warrior and a leader, if ever there was one. But he was not the person God had chosen.

Samuel did what we often do: he relied on appearances. Yet, he was wise enough to question his own conclusions and spiritually attuned enough to listen for the voice of God. This is what God told him: “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). That, as we will see, is this section’s theme.

Samuel learned that, and so did David, but Saul did not. He trusted his own judgments and distrusted God’s. Saul was, as we saw last week, overly concerned with appearances. His decisions were dictated by what he saw around him, not by who was reigning over him.

Contrast that with David, who looked beyond the appearances to see the sovereign God. That was something Saul could never do. Appearances always obstructed his view of God.

There is an important (and troubling) correlate to this. People who are transfixed by how things appear to them (their circumstances) tend to be the same people who worry most about how they appear to others (their image). They are more concerned with how they appear than with who they are. They invest more time, energy, and money in managing their image than in transforming their character.

And dare we look at ourselves? If we do, will we see that our efforts to manage appearances – that is, to control what people think of us – has led us to be controlled by the way things appear? That dynamic sets in motion a cause-and-effect chain that spirals away from God. And whatever leads us away from God leads us away from our true self.

You see, when life goes as God intends, people are closer to their true self at the end of their life than at any previous time. That is a beautiful thing. Unfortunately for Saul, he was closer to his true self around age 30 than he ever was again That’s when he nearly intersected with God. After that, the vector of his life led him ever further from God and from himself.

We see these things play out in the David and Goliath story. Let’s set the scene and then we will read 17:8-11. The Philistines (who settled on the western coast two centuries before) have amassed their forces on their side of the Valley of Elah. The Israelites have taken position in the foothills on the eastern side. Neither army wants to be the first to descend into the valley because that will give a strategic advantage to those who remain on the high ground.

So, they wait for days, then weeks, and then more than a month. The better provisioned Philistines are confident that they can outwait the Israelites. Their commanders are hoping that Saul’s troops (most of whom are not professional soldiers) will begin deserting, as they had done once before, and go back to their fields. They’re farmers and they’ve been away from their fields for 40 days, which at this time of the year could mean financial ruin.

On each of those forty days, a Philistine champion has challenged the Israelites to representative combat, winner takes all. If the Philistine wins, Israel must surrender. If the Israelite wins, Philistia must surrender. In ancient times (and not so ancient – Idi Amin suggested something similar in the 1970s), representative combat was practiced around the Mediterranean, and certainly around the Aegean, from whence the Philistines hailed.

But Israel had never engaged in representative combat. When they saw the size of the Philistine champion, they thought that was a wise tradition to maintain. The guy was a giant. His armor was state of the art. He carried a showpiece of a sword and had a bronze scimitar (that is the word the NIV translates as javelin) strapped to his back. He had an enormous spear with a fifteen-pound iron point.

Talk about appearances! Fighting this guy appeared to be a death sentence. No one, not even King Saul (who was head and shoulders taller than everyone else in Israel), dared to face him.

Now, our text, beginning with verse 8:

8 Goliath stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me. 9 If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.” 10 Then the Philistine said, “This day I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.” 11 On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.

The sight of this warrior set Saul and his army (which included David’s three oldest brothers) trembling. Saul found himself between the rock and the proverbial hard place. If a champion did not fight this monster of a man, his troops would begin to scatter, just as they had done in the days leading up to the Battle of Micmash. But if Israel’s champion fought and lost – and who could imagine winning against that guy – they would lose everything.

During the forty days this was going on, David was making provisioning runs from Bethlehem to the front lines. On this day, he had arrived in time to hear the Philistine’s taunts. Verse 10, which the NIV translates as “I defy the ranks of Israel!” is literally, “I heap shame on the ranks of Israel.”

When Saul and his men heard this, (verse 24) they “ran from him in great fear.” Listen to what they were saying (verse 25): “See how this man keeps coming out? He comes out to defy [literally, shame] Israel.” But David (verse 26) heard something different. He heard this man shaming “the armies of the living God.” David heard more than an insult against the soldiers. He heard an “assault on the living God.”[1]

David heard something different, and it affected him differently than it did the others. They were filled with fear. He was filled with indignation.

David also saw something different than what everyone else saw. They saw an invincible warrior. He saw an uncircumcised Philistine. They saw an adversary too big to challenge. He saw a target too big to miss.

By now Saul had realized that he could not outwait the Philistines, so when he heard that someone was willing to challenge their champion, he had him brought to him. But when he saw David, he said: “You can’t fight him! You’re just a boy and he is a hardened warrior.”

David’s response makes clear how differently he saw things. Saul saw a fighting man. David saw a beast: “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, 35 I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. 36 Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God.”

To David, this Philistine was no unassailable champion. He was a brute who dared to defy his creator. In verse 37, the word translated “paw” of the lion and “paw” of the bear is the same word translated “hand” of the Philistine. David looked past the armor and the weapons and saw just another brute.

When we are overawed by appearances, we miss things. When Saul and his soldiers looked at Goliath in his armor, they saw an unstoppable giant, but they missed what David saw. They missed the fact that his man was so weighed down by his state-of-the-art amor that he moved very slowly. They missed the fact that his armor, which covered almost all of him, didn’t cover his forehead. When they looked at Goliath, they saw humiliation and defeat. When David looked, he saw certain victory.

Perhaps David saw something else. For the past forty days, the Philistines had been getting exactly what they wanted: delay. Time was on their side. Goliath didn’t need to win in personal combat; he merely needed to postpone the beginning of the conflict. That may have been what Goliath’s daily challenge was really all about. It was theatrics, diversion. I suspect the Philistine commanders didn’t want anyone to accept the challenge. Delay was their goal – and the longer the better.

Saul, who was without options, agreed to let David fight, and outfitted him in his own armor. He may have hoped that his men would recognize that armor and think that he had gone to face the foe – he was, remember, always thinking about his image. But after trying on Saul’s armor, David wisely opted not to wear it. He said that he was not used to it. His style of fighting depended not on defense but on offense, not on being able to stand in one place and slug it out but on being able to move quickly to an advantageous position.

So, David took his staff and his sling, which was all he wanted and, he was sure, all he needed. When we think of a sling, we think of a slingshot, usually a child’s toy with a heavy rubber band. But the sling David took was a weapon that was used by armies all over the world. There were two kinds of artillery in ancient warfare: bows and arrows and slings and stones.

A slinger whirled his sling so fast that the stone came out at over a hundred miles an hour. And the stones were no mere pebbles. Archeologists have found slingers’ stones the size of tennis balls. Imagine getting hit by a rock traveling a hundred miles an hour! And the rocks that David would have used were special rocks. The valley of Elah is filled with barium sulphate – a rock with approximately twice the density of normal stones. Analysis suggests that such a rock, thrown at the speed at which David would have thrown it, would have the stopping power of a 45-caliber bullet.[2]

And then there is the accuracy with which slingers could fire their weapon. Ancient documents talk about slingers hitting their target at more than a hundred yards away. Ancient art shows slingers knocking birds out of the sky. When David stepped out onto the field of battle, he did not think of himself as the underdog. He knew Goliath didn’t stand a chance.

And what about Goliath? There are some interesting hints in the text about him. In verse 44, Goliath says to David, “Come here, and I’ll give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!” Why did the invincible warrior say, “come here”? Why did he not go to David? I suspect that moving around in all that armor was difficult.

Goliath was outfitted for hand-to-hand combat, an idea that terrified every other Israelite soldier. But David had no intention of getting close enough to this guy for hand-to-hand combat. He realized that Goliath was powerless against him at a distance. Even his spear was too big to throw accurately.

Notice also how Goliath taunts David, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” But David doesn’t have sticks. He has a staff. So why does Goliath say “sticks”? Since the 1960s, many theorists have concluded that Goliath suffered from acromegaly, a benign tumor on the pituitary gland that causes an overproduction of human growth hormone. One of the symptoms of acromegaly is blurred or double vision, which happens when the tumor gets large enough to put pressure on the optic nerve.[3]

Whether Goliath had this condition or not, it not really the issue. This is: Saul and his army were paralyzed with fear because they were controlled by appearances. David was able to act and succeed because he saw beyond the appearances.

The story of David and Goliath is frequently used to admonish God’s people to be brave. But bravery is a fruit, not a root; and you cannot have the fruit without the root. The root of bravery is not will power. Expecting people (including ourselves) who lack the root to bear the fruit – to conjure up courage out of the thin air; to be brave by sheer will power – is expecting the impossible.

Planting the root is God’s work, not ours. We can, however, cultivate it. How do we do that? How did David?

For one thing, he listened to and thought about God’s word. The author and editors of 1 Samuel bring this out in a variety of ways. Whereas Saul remains ignorant of the Torah throughout his life (even though as king he was required to personally hand copy the Book of the Law and read it regularly), David displays a comprehensive knowledge of God’s word. This is the David who wrote Psalm 1: “Blessed is the one … whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.” That meditation is one of the reasons David saw things differently, saw things from God’s perspective. Without it, I suspect, he would have been as frightened as everyone else.

Secondly, David cared more about who he was than what he looked like. He would have looked great in the royal armor, but he wasn’t thinking about how he looked. People who focus on how they appear are the same people who cannot see God beyond the appearances.

Here is something else: David was able to trust God in the present because he had a history of trusting God in the past. (Think of the lion and the bear.) We do our best to arrange our lives so that faith will not be necessary, but that leaves us unprepared for the time when it is. Because David had trusted God before, he could do it again.

The only way to be ready to trust God in the future is to trust him in the present. That’s not easy to do but, once you’ve done it, you’ll be able to do it again. God provides us with opportunities to trust him that are suited to our circumstances and ability. What opportunity is he giving you right now? Will you trust him and obey or will you let fear – always the adversary’s chief weapon – stop you?

Last thing: I mentioned earlier that we don’t plant the root – God does that; or, rather, he did it. The root of courage, the root of joy, the root of eternal life is not a thing but a person. In the Bible, he is known as the Root of Jesse, the Son of David, the anointed one, the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings. We call him Lord: our Lord, Jesus Christ.

[1] Bergen, p.192

[2] See Malcolm Gladwell: The unheard story of David and Goliath | TED Talk.

[3] Gladwell

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Let’s Close the Looney Tunes School of Theology

The picture of heaven that floats around in most people’s minds is more dependent on Saturday morning cartoons than it is the Bible. When Elmer Fudd gets blown to bits and finds himself in heaven, what do we see? Forlorn saints sitting on isolated clouds, playing mournful harps. That is The Looney Tunes School of Theology, not the Bible.

The Bible reveals a future that is awesome, glorious … and fun. The most common metaphor in the Scriptures for heaven is a party: a feast, a wedding feast. Good food, good friends, loving family. Laughing, dancing, and singing. I don’t know if there are harps in heaven but, if there are, I bet they rock!

And the residents in heaven – imagine meeting Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, David, and Mary. C. S. Lewis had a clergyman grandfather who “looked forward to having some very interesting conversations with St. Paul when he got to heaven.” Lewis remarks that “It never seemed to cross his mind that an encounter with St. Paul might be rather an overwhelming experience,” noting that when Dante saw the apostles, “they affected him like mountains.”

Meeting St. Paul might well be overwhelming, but he, at least, is human, like us. The Bible is clear that there are also non-human residents of heaven. Some of them are what we loosely call angels, but others are such otherworldly creatures that if you met one of them walking down the street you would probably have a heart attack. Whatever else heaven is, it will not be boring.

There may be other dimensions than we currently experience. Physicists suggest that more than three dimensions of space (and one of time) exist. One scientist has described these other dimensions as currently “uninflated.” Will they inflate when the one who made all things says, “Behold, I make all things new”? And what do creatures made for eleven dimensions – the number posited by some theoretical physicists – look like?

Over the past few years, I’ve heard the song “I Can Only Imagine” played at many of the funerals I’ve officiated. But we have it on good authority that we can’t imagine. St. Paul wrote: “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, and human mind has not imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.”

And heaven is not the end. We look forward, according to St. Peter, to “a new heaven and a new earth.” There will be work for us to do, friends to meet, beauty to enjoy, projects to complete. Nothing good from the earth we know will be lost, though everything (including us) will need to be changed.

The biblical vision of a just and flourishing humanity in a renewed earth is ravishing. What people call “the end times” turns out to be a fresh beginning, what Jesus called “the renewal of all things.” That phrase translates the Greek word “palingenesis,” which means “genesis again.” Genesis again, but this time there will be no serpent.

In the Revelation, we read that the “old order of things” – the injustice, pain, confusion and seeming meaninglessness of it all – will “pass away.”  The false start will be over, and the runners will return to the blocks. The next time the starter’s pistol – or rather, “the voice of the archangel” – sounds, things will go off without a hitch.

The Revelation describes a world in which the Creator dwells with his creatures and old hurts are removed: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” As the refrain of an old Christian hymn puts it, “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.”

There is no more hopeful vision for humanity than the vision of Jesus. The utopia of the Communists and the Shangri-La-like beyuls of the Tibetan Buddhists pale before it. It is a place where humans are family, God is Father and, because of the gracious intervention of God through Christ, all are welcome.

The invitation stands—but will it be accepted? Or to be more precise, will the one issuing the invitation be accepted? For this is what faith is all about.

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Pulling the Lever: The Content and Connection of Faith

Theology is not meant to fill our heads but to better our lives.

Theologians tell us that when a person trusts in Jesus Christ a great transition takes place in his or her life. That person is literally connected to Jesus Christ and, as such, his history becomes that person’s history. Christ died; that person died. Christ rose from the dead; that person received a new kind of life. This is why Bonhoeffer said that “It’s more important that Jesus Christ died than that I will die…” Of course, it is more important: His story is our story.

Not only that, but Christ’s future becomes that person’s future. Faith in Jesus is momentous. It is life-changing, universe altering. But now what? What does it mean on main street? In my life? What difference does it make?

Many people believe there is a God. They believe Jesus died for sins and was resurrected. That is good. But there are two parts to faith: content and connection, and both are important. The content is what makes the connection possible.

Think of it this way: You may be convinced that a particular candidate for office is the right person for the job. You have researched their voting record and read their goals for America and have come to believe that they should be our next president / senator / congressman / state supreme court justice – whatever may be the case. That kind of thing is the content of belief. The connection comes when you enter the voting booth and pull the lever.

One year at the mid-term elections I was up early and had to go out of town. I don’t remember where I went, but I didn’t have time to vote before I left. When I got home it was one thing after another, ending in a meeting that lasted until after the polls closed. I kept thinking that, after the next thing was done, I would have time to drive down to the township hall and cast my vote, but I never did. I had some beliefs about how to vote, but I never pulled the lever. I never connected.

When it comes to spiritual things, a person can have the content of belief down pat – Jesus is God’s Son who died for sins, was resurrected, and is one day returning – without having made the connection of belief. They haven’t stepped into the booth and pulled the lever.  

When it comes to Christ, content is what we believe about Jesus – and that is fundamentally important; it is hard to overemphasize that. But the connection happens when we go from believing about Jesus to believing in him. We not only trust, we entrust ourselves to him. That’s when we pull the lever; that’s when we connect.

If that second part of faith has not happened for you, if you have not believed Jesus, turned from your sins, and entrusted yourself to him as your leader (the biblical word is Lord), then why not do that today? Right now. The Great Transition can happen in your life here and now and see you through there are forever.

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