November 1, 2009
All Saints Day
There is a This American Life TV episode that opens with two scientists talking about their research into how the brain stores memories. They discovered that when rats were injected with a substance that blocked a certain chemical in the brain, those rats lost their memories.
When these scientists published their findings, they started getting e-mails from people who wanted their memories erased. One of the scientists began crying as he read one of the e-mails out loud. “This is sad to me,” he said.
It is sad. Think about your life. About all of the memories you have. Memories of loved ones who have died. Childhood friends. Birthday parties. Weddings. Your children as babies. What kind of terrible memories must be lurking in some people’s minds to make them want to erase everything; to start with a blank slate?
“God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”
This vision John gives us is a beautiful vision. A necessary vision. It is a vision that Christians have clung to through persecution and war and slavery and untold numbers of personal sorrows and tragedies.
“And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”
We tend to think of eternal life with God as completely other than what we experience now. That when we die our souls somehow fly away . . . up there . . . to another place, another mode of time, another reality. That our flawed earthly existence will be erased, replaced with heavenly life.
Now I do not claim to know what heaven is like—to know what happens when our heart stops beating and our lungs cease drawing breath. And I do not think that John’s apocalyptic vision in the book of Revelation is intended to be taken as a literal statement of what will happen in the future.
Still, I believe there is truth in this vision of the new earth and new heaven. The truth that this earth—God’s magnificent creation, our bittersweet home—does not need to be removed. It needs to be redeemed and transformed.
People are not whisked up into some other place in the sky. The new Jerusalem comes down. This Jerusalem is not the same violent, greed-filled place that it had been. But it is still Jerusalem.
But it is no longer the place where the women are told by Jesus to weep for themselves and for their children. It is now a place where God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.
But it is still Jerusalem.
You might, at this point, be thinking, “So what?”. I would guess that most of you do not spend a lot of time considering heaven—the after-life. You may believe along the same lines as I do: that we cannot know when the world will end or what exactly will happen to us when we die. Better to spend our energy following the way of Jesus—loving our neighbors, encouraging peace, working for justice. When we die, we are in God’s trustworthy hands. No need to figure it all out beforehand.
Yet, as I’ve been reading this passage, as I’ve been thinking about this idea of a transformed reality—as opposed to a removed and replaced reality—I’m thinking that what we believe about the end times, about the afterlife, may have more bearing on our call to follow Jesus than I have thought.
Transformation versus removal.
We see the tendency toward removal in our penal system: the continued use of the death penalty; the scarcity of programs that work toward transforming the lives of the prisoners. But there are people of faith stepping in and offering the alternative of redemption and transformation.
I gave some input last week on a draft of a clergy letter against the death penalty. This letter is being put together by the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, and will be sent to members of the Kansas Legislature. It is a good letter. As an English nerd, I found a few punctuation errors and felt the need to rearrange some sentences to make one of the paragraphs more coherent. But it was a good letter. It talked about how hard the death sentence can be for victims’ families. It talked about how innocent people have been killed and how biased the sentencing can be. It pointed out that the death penalty has not been shown to be an effective deterrent for violent crime.
Then another clergy wrote in to suggest this addition: “Finally, as people of faith we believe in and affirm people’s capacity for change and transformation. We believe that no individual is beyond redemption and that our government should not condone policies that deny the prospect of redemption.”
As Christians, we believe in transforming the person, not simply removing them.
One Christian organization that takes this call to transformation seriously is Magdalene, Inc., in Nashville, Tennessee. Magdalene provides group houses for women who have been in jail for prostitution and drug use. The women live in community and work in a cottage industry making candles and beauty products. It also provides a safe space for women to tell their stories, which time and time again proves to be a healing process. It is a two-year program. Not all of the women who come make it through. Some leave and return several times. Many women will tell you that Magdalene has allowed them to transform their lives.
Transformation versus removal.
Watch these ideas battle in our foreign policy. Our efforts to remove terrorism seem basically to have increased animosity toward the United States. What would happen if, instead of trying to defeat Al Qaeda members, we worked to redeem and transform them? I don’t know. Most people would probably dismiss the suggestion as naïve.
Many people argue that we should not even talk to our enemies. I want to know how anyone will transform from enemy to friend if we never speak to them.
It seems that these questions of foreign policy also apply to our personal relationships. I would say that people in our society are more inclined to remove themselves from a relationship with a difficult parent or sibling or friend than to work toward the transformation of that relationship.
About a month ago I talked with a pastor friend of mine who was going to have coffee with his brother—a brother he had not had a conversation with in over thirty years.
When we look at the state of marriage in our society we can definitely see this tendency toward removal. While some marriages, I believe, need to end for the well-being of those involved, many divorces occur simply because one or both parties decide that removal is easier than transformation.
Carol Greib passed on a great article to me about a woman whose husband tried to leave her. He told her that he didn’t love her anymore and he wanted a divorce. She told him that she didn’t believe him and wouldn’t give him a divorce. He wanted to remove himself from the life he had. She insisted on transforming it. The transformation wasn’t easy. But eventually the husband came back to the family. And the marriage was transformed.
Of course, it might not have been. The husband could have decided to move to Cancun and never see his wife or children again.
And I think that is the crux of why we—as a society—seem to favor removal over transformation. We can control the removal. It might not give us the best result, but we can control it. We can abandon the relationship. We can administer the lethal injection. We can drop the bombs.
Transformation, on the other hand, is ultimately the work of God. We can work towards it. We can facilitate it. But we cannot make it happen.
The young woman who goes through the program at Magdalene house might go back to drugs and prostitution. The enemy that we befriend might continue to hate us. The relationship we try to mend might remain broken and painful.
Yet still, God calls us to work toward transformation. Toward redemption. If we follow the way of Jesus, we will do this—healing the sick, befriending the lonely, feeding the hungry, challenging oppressive powers. This is the work of the Kingdom to which we are called.
Sometimes our efforts will succeed. Sometimes our efforts will fail.
Always we have God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth. We can rest in the knowledge that God is the Alpha and the Omega. God was at the beginning. God will be at the end. And God is with us now. God’s home is among mortals. God dwells with us as our God, and we can live joyfully as God’s people.
God’s promises are for this life. And this morning, as we remember our loved ones who have died, we rejoice to know that God’s promises of transformation are also for the life to come. Thanks be to God.