My dad died last Saturday. It was expected, and so completely not expected. Six years ago he had three major surgeries; recovery from the last one took a full year. Last May he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, which can be treated but not cured. The doctor said he’s had patients live five years with that. I learned in February that a few months earlier, Dad was given a year to eighteen months to live. So in a very real sense, I’ve been expecting this for six years … and a year … and three months. But still ….
There is a loneliness in grief, the reality that even when surrounded by loving, caring people who are doing everything right to offer support, none can know truly what I am feeling, how I am grieving. Even those who have known deep grief cannot know my grief. There are common aspects of grief, common stages; yet there can be no truly common grief.
And so we grieve alone, even in the midst of other grievers—others who have experienced the same loss.
And yet there is One who not only grieved His own loss, but whose omniscience allows Him to know the deepest solitude of my loss—One who truly can, and does, grieve with me … and in whose comforting presence I do not grieve alone.
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:20 (New International Version)
I ‘ve been camping out in the Sermon on the Mount lately. It’s always been a hard piece of the Bible for me: while others dove into the water and paddled out to the big waves, I felt like all I could ever do was body surf near the shore. They got the excitement of deep truths; I got sand in my shorts. But this year at my church, we’re getting back to basics, and at church it doesn’t get much more basic than Jesus. I figured we probably ought to spend some time with the longest recorded message from the Master, so here I am, camping out on the mount.
The Beatitudes—that list of “blessed are those who…”—seemed pretty straight forward. Until I actually started studying them. And with some help from Dallas Willard (The Divine Conspiracy), I realized they may not be anywhere near as straight forward as I thought. In fact, they all seem a little upside-down. That shouldn’t have surprised me, coming from a teacher who said things like, “the first shall be last” and “whoever wants to save their life will lose it.”
So I pressed on and came to the verse above. Now, I know enough about the Pharisees and “the teachers of the law” to know that no one—and I mean no one—was going to surpass their righteousness. When it came to following the law, they not only dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s, they made sure that every serif was in the right place. (Note: this is written in a sans serif font, which I’m sure the Pharisees would frown on as being too liberal.) What in the world did Jesus have in mind, then, suggesting that the only way to heaven is to out-Pharisee the Pharisees?
I was a high jumper for a few years in middle school. A pretty average one, I admit, but I have fond memories. (Except the triangular poles: those really hurt when you landed on them.) In high jump, they start with the bar at a pretty easy height—one every competitor ought to be able to get over. And as soon as you clear one height, they raise it. That’s where that cliché comes from, “raising the bar.” But Jesus starts out with the bar pretty much right up top. It’s like asking a middle schooler to compete against Dick Fosbury‘s 1968 Olympics gold medal record.
Well then I kept reading Jesus’ sermon, and he wasn’t done! He keeps raising the bar even higher: it’s not enough to steer clear of murder, now I’m not even supposed to get angry at them. It’s not enough to avoid adultery; even looking wrong at a woman can get me in trouble. (The original #MeToo?) And on and on he goes, inching up that bar of righteousness, until it’s definitely out of reach.
By the end of Matthew 5, I’m feeling pretty small. And then, as if all this bar-raising weren’t enough, Jesus slaps one more bumper sticker on the car: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (verse 48). Good grief! There’s no way! Jesus’ expectations are just too high; I can’t possibly meet them. Clearly, I can never live up to his demands.
But then I get another nudge. I turn over a few pages (and a few years of history) to one of the longest letters in the Bible, written by a guy named Paul. A guy who, by the way, was a Pharisee. And as Pharisees, he was tops. If anyone out-Phariseed the Pharisees, it was Paul. For a while, Paul made a mockery of Jesus’ teachings. Paul didn’t just get angry with people (mostly people who followed Jesus), he dragged them off to prison and worse: he made sure they got the death penalty. And then he met Jesus. In a spectacular, blinding, world-changing way. And it changed the world.
And decades after Jesus said “you have to be more righteous than the Pharisees,” Paul wrote that “no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law.” (He’s actually agreeing with Jesus, by the way; you just can’t read only Matthew 5 to know that.) Paul went on to write that “the righteousness of God…is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” (See Romans 3.)
So here’s the deal: if you want to try to earn your way into heaven, well good luck with that. In fact, you’ll need luck, because no amount of doing good will get you over the bar. (Neither will luck!) The good news is that Jesus already cleared the bar. He lived the sinless life that we can’t; he was the perfect sacrifice, dying in our place; and the faith that we need to have in order to be accepted by God? Well, he gives us that, too. And God, by his amazing, incredible, totally undeserved mercy, looks at you and me and sees one thing: the righteousness of his Son.
I’ll never be good enough for God. Neither will you. But Jesus is. All you need to do is believe.
Though death is dead
to death he wages war
Each death a vict'ry
in this lovers' quarrel
'tween sin and death—
two partners in the fight
to steal mens' lives
and lay them in the grave
Yes death is dead
but still death carries pain
As one much-loved
slips out beyond our grasp
And leaves a hole
that never shall be filled
Though life and time
for us yet linger on
Yes death is dead
and sin's defeated, too
That much made known
one Resurrection Day
When One who died
for sin lay buried in the ground
And three days on
no longer to be found
Yes death is dead
and life is sweeter far
When lived with hope
of life beyond the grave
A life for Him
who buried death itself
To give us life
eternally with Him
[Written in honor of my sister-in-law, Jeaneen Blackinton Davis, as she fought a brain tumor that finally stole her life on April 27, 2015.]
“Thirty-four years ago today…” – a phrase often heard in my home, only the number changing. It was the annual birthday greeting for my brothers, sister, and me; for years the first words heard in the morning or, after leaving home, on the phone when the annually-expected call came. “Thirty-four years ago today….”
With four kids in the family, each year marker was spoken four times, at roughly two-year intervals. Because of our moves, those markers were voiced in different homes, different states, different countries: twelve in Minnesota, Texas, and Canada; fourteen was heard in Texas, twice in British Columbia, and in Los Angeles. Three heard sixteen in Canada—one of those in a hospital bed—and one in Germany. And eighteen…only three times spoken.
That Canadian hospital bed was but a precursor to a more permanent rest that would strike before the third of us would reach that magic number of adulthood, the age at which one could drive and vote, the rite of passage so long anticipated. Three months early; three months premature—no, more than that: a life cut short too young, too much left undone.
And so, the “…years ago today” shifted, from June 30 to March 26. Reset. In 1981 it was, “a year ago today;” in ’85, “five years ago today.” For years, phone calls and cards came on that day, bringing with them the burden-bearing encouragement that even a distant friend remembers – and cares.
We remember thirty-four years ago today: the call, the drive, the airport, the bittersweet reunion…the words, “He’s gone.” The memories are vivid, like an old rerun but in HD. And yet….
Slowly, over time, as the anniversaries drifted into double digits, the phone calls and cards on that day stopped. The wounds of death healed, leaving their mark like an old, familiar scar, but without the chronic pain of an open wound. And then one day, a call – and a realization: “I hadn’t thought about it.” Not a forgetting, but an awakening; the hole in the heart, the hole in life, had become so familiar, so normal, so present that it no longer demanded constant awareness. It’s just there. Life has gone on around the hole; the hole itself is no longer the center of attention, no longer the defining element. Shaping, yes; defining, no.
And as life goes on we celebrate this: his life began…thirty-four years ago today.
If there is anything that evangelical Christians are good at, it is throwing kerosene on a campfire. More often than not, those campfires – at first only warming the toes of a few folks partaking of random fireside conversations around questions that few take seriously – leap into wildfires that ultimately and indiscriminately consume thousands of acres of thoughtful (and some thoughtless) men and women. But as wildfires are wont to do, they ultimately burn themselves out, leaving significant but temporary destruction in their wake; destruction that in time is all but invisible.
Such will be the fate, I think, of the campfire musings of Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. It may be that there is more readily-available fuel – and a larger gathering of campers – around Bell’s campfire than some of the others in my memory (“The Last Temptation of Christ,” Proctor & Gamble’s supposed satanic influences, Walt Disney’s occasional forays into dens of iniquity). Still, I think, the fire would consume itself soon enough were it not for the supply of kerosene-loaded extinguishers aimed by evangelical firefighters.
Some will claim that this is different – bigger – than earlier fires. They will say that his campfire is fueled by the flames of the very hell he reportedly denies. The result, I fear, will be two-fold: first, those who are asking the very questions that Bell raises will be driven not to the Source of the Answers, but to Bell’s book of questions. The fear here is that if (IF) Bell’s answers are, at best, insufficient and, at worst, unbiblical, then those who rely on them truly are in mortal and eternal danger.
Second, those who are not inclined to ask these questions will be driven neither to Bell’s book nor to The Book. Huddled together around the dying embers of their own campfire of second-hand faith, they will have neither the light nor the fuel to invite in and warm those who are shivering under the blanket of universalism.
Rob Bell dares to voice the questions that so many in this sin-depraved world are asking:
“Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?”
“If there are only a select few who go to heaven, which is more terrifying to fathom: the billions who burn forever or the few who escape this fate?”
“What happens when a fifteen-year-old atheist dies?”
“So is it true that the kind of person you are doesn’t ultimately matter, as long as you’ve said or prayed or believed the right things?”
There was a time in my life when I would pass off questions like these with a wave of the hand and a trite, childish, “for the Bible tells me so”-kind of answer. As if just asking the questions somehow betrayed a hellish eternity for the questioner. In the last few years, I have been – by God’s grace alone – growing out of that spiritual arrogance (and whatever ignorance it accompanies). I am increasingly intrigued by, and invited into, such questions. The source of answers for me remains the Bible, yet I recognize that the answers are found not in a few memorized but out-of-context verses, but rather in the “whole counsel of Scripture.”
There’s a very memorable scene in the 1992 film, “A Few Good Men.” A young Navy attorney (played by Tom Cruise) is challenging a Marine colonel (Jack Nicholson) about the death of a private under the colonel’s command. “I want the truth” demands the attorney. “You can’t handle the truth!” shouts back the colonel.
Whether intentional or not, Love Wins is an invitation to all to pursue truth. The question with which you must wrestle – whether you are among the convinced, the skeptics, or the seekers – is, can you handle the truth?