Are You Just Passing Through?
When I was a teenager, I was at church pretty much any time the church doors were open. There was Sunday school on Sunday morning, then a Sunday service, followed by choir practice for my mom (I sat outside in the car) in the late afternoon, and then Sunday evening services.
Additionally, we went to "prayer meetings" on Wednesdays (I would go to the youth version), and Thursdays were often set aside for "door-to-door-witnessing." This is where we would literally go knock on and people's doors in the neighborhood and ask them the following question:
"If you died right now, would you go to heaven or hell?"
We were obsessed with the afterlife, and how to ensure we ended up in the right place in the said afterlife. It consumed most of the sermons I heard, all of the Sunday school lessons, youth meetings, and pretty much everything else I was taught.
I was taught that this world was corrupt and awful---filled with sin and sinners.
Not only were we to avoid both sin and sinners, but we were also taught that our ultimate goal was for the next life where we would spend eternity in heaven while all those sinners went somewhere else... if you know what I mean.
I recall many of the hymns we sang were focused on the very same thing.
There was this one:
Somewhere beyond the blue
The Angels beckon me
From Heaven's open door
And I can't feel at home
In this world anymore...
And this one, too:
And cast a wishful eye
To Canaans fair and happy land,
Where my possessions lie.
And lest you think that kind of anachronistic theology went the way of the dodo... think again. I had someone recently tell me with a gleam in their eye that they saw all of the things going on in our world right now as signs and symbols that the world was going to end.
The gleam in their eye came from their firm belief that they would be snatched away to glory before all that happened, though. More specifically, they were going to be "raptured" to heaven when Jesus came back to save the true Christians, and then he would kick butt, take names and send all the liberals, heathens, and reprobates to the fiery torments of hell.
But here's where I feel for folks who find themselves struggling with this kind of harmful, escapist theology. You see, in the face of so much chaos, change, and uncertainty all we want to do is find a way to make sense of it all. When everything falls apart, we want to find something to hold on to that provides an anchor.
And here's a bit of a confession in all of this...
I long for a better tomorrow, too. It might not take the same escapist form I grew up with, but I long for a day when the shalom of God permeates all of Creation. I long for a day when swords are beaten into plowshares... all tears are wiped away... when there is no sickness... hatred... division...
But the way toward a better world isn't found by escaping discomfort, pain, uncertainty, or longing. It is found when we learn to live in the midst of all of those things and then allow the peace of Christ to fill our hearts in spite of it.
Pema Chodron puts it like this:
When things fall apart and we're on the verge of we know not what, the test for each of us is to stay on that brink and not concretize. The Spiritual journey is not about heaven and finally getting to a place that's really swell. In fact, that way of looking at things is what keeps us miserable.
When we surrender to the moment, and allow ourselves to experience Christ in us, through us, and all around us, it won't matter to us at all how chaotic things might seem to be. We cannot and must not become concretized or frozen in an escapist worldview.
Jesus was far less concerned with the afterlife than he was in this life. He constantly urged his followers to embrace both the gifts and needs of the present as well as cast their eyes toward a vision for a better world tomorrow.
Jesus knew how we respond to our present moment both forms and informs the way forward into our future, and our abilities to embody both the "now" and "not yet" aspects of the kingdom of God in this world.
May you find hope for the future by surrendering your need to control your present. May you live in expectation of what God will do, but with eyes wide open to what God is doing. And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.