I believe because…

When I was six, I first believed because the Sunday School teacher told us a story about who could be with God forever in heaven. We needed our own ticket, he explained, holding a carefully folded piece of paper in his hand as an example. We couldn’t get in with someone else’s ticket, or by snipping off a corner of a ticket. He snipped a corner, and then another, and then another. He unfolded the piece of paper to reveal a cross. Our ticket was Jesus, he said. The snippets were just…. trash. Jesus was a friend who would never leave us. Jesus was the one who would bid us welcome into heaven. And anyone who asked Jesus for a ticket could have one. And my six year old heart—longing for a forever friend and a welcome to heaven—believed.

When I was twelve, I believed because—like ballet and piano and reading books—Christianity was part of Who I Was, and What I Did. I belonged. And my well-worn copy of the NIV with its randomly highlighted verses (because it was the highlighting itself that seemed spiritual, not the verse itself), did bring comfort and hope and stability in a time when so much around me was unstable.

When I was seventeen, I believed because the Holy Spirit seemed powerful and I heard stories of mighty answers to prayer. I believed because belief was the gateway to a community of really nice, welcoming people, with a place to use my piano gifts in church, within easy Sunday walking distance.

When I was twenty, my world was turned upside down and I believed because everything else was falling apart. Again and again I was drawn to John 6:63, as the disciples stared at Jesus, incredulous about the difficulty of what he was saying and asking. “Will you leave me, too?” Jesus asked Peter (and me). And my own heart would echo Peter’s reply: “To whom else will be go? You have the words of eternal life.” I had no answers for why God allowed suffering or why He seemed silent in the face of heartbroken prayers, but no other community had answers either. At the very least, Jesus had compassion for the brokenness and had chosen to enter into the heartache. So, he understood. Even if I didn’t. To who else would I go?

When I was twenty five, I believed because I sifted through all the evidence for the resurrection. Compelled by law school’s training to have sufficient evidence and witnesses for anything that claimed to be truth, I learned about the historicity of documents and textual criticism and how it was that we established anything from history to be true. Turned out, the evidence for Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was significantly better attested in history than any evidence for Genghis Khan or Julius Ceasar or a multiplicity of other things we accepted as historical fact. I believed because it was true.

When I was thirty, I believed because I held my newborn child in my arms, and marveled at the wonder of life. How could ears be so perfectly formed? How was it that my body—without any research or intellectual effort on my part—had known exactly how to grow what was needed to house this beautiful life? Surely that was God. Shell-shaped ears and eyes that looked at us and baby breath and the ability to find breastmilk from the first moment? I believed.

When I was thirty six, I believed because again, and again, and again, and again… things happened that could not possibly have been “coincidence”. I would reach the end of my limits on something, send up a quick prayer in desperation, and seemingly out of nowhere an offer of help would come. We would totally run out of money, or time on our visas, or out of patience with our kids… and a gift would arrive, or an official would extend mercy we hadn’t expected, or some moment of delightful laughter with our children would reset our tolerance limits and we would find breathing space again. I’d be tangled up in a relationship, and just “happen” to read a verse that spoke directly to the situation. There were signs of God’s attentive care and involvement all around, if only I had eyes to see.

Last week I read Psalm 107:2:

Has the Lord redeemed you? Then SPEAK OUT.

He has. Again, and again, and again. He has forgiven more sins and healed more wounds than I can recount. He has answered more prayers and paid closer and more loving attention than I could ever give him credit for. I still have days of believing because I feel his presence and know the truth of Jesus… and still have days of believing because I don’t have any other better options.

But I believe.

I do. It’s more than habit or culture or community. I believe there is a living, active, loving God who gives each of us life and breath. I believe he wants relationship with us and a restored world where all of creation (including us) live in harmony. I believe he sent Jesus to make that possible: that pain can be healed, the worst of sins and failures can be redeemed, the most alienated of people can be drawn in.

I believe, and therefore I have spoken (2 Corinthians 4:13).

And, Lord willing, will keep believing and speaking.

I’m in a Weird Place about The Good Place

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Among the list of exciting new premiere’s that the TV execs would like to introduce us to this year is one from NBC: The Good Place, starring the sloth-loving and most wonderful Kristen Bell and the  hilarious, everybody-knows-his-name Ted Danson. This is how NBC describes it:

The show follows Eleanor Shellstrop, an ordinary woman who enters the afterlife and, thanks to some kind of error, is sent to the Good Place instead of the Bad Place, which is definitely where she belongs. While hiding in plain sight from Michael, the wise architect of the Good Place (who doesn’t know he’s made a mistake), she’s determined to shed her old way of living and discover the awesome (or, at least, the pretty good) person within.

It is, at its core, a show exploring what makes a good person. Or a good enough person, at least. And, true to its billing, it is a comedy. For example, The Good Place (naturally) cannot countenance any swearing, and so Eleanor’s outbursts come out as “that’s so forked up!”, and “bullshirt!”, which are just so obviously not rude I couldn’t help but laugh.

did laugh, but I was also very uneasy watching it – and I’m still processing whether I’ll go back and have Episode 3 keep me company while I scale Mt. Laundry in my living room tonight. I’m thinking probably not. I’m thinking this show may land up in the pile of “I started the series, I saw why people liked it, and I chose not to keep watching”. [For me, this virtual heap of discarded shows includes Breaking Bad (couldn’t stomach it… that bathtub!), New Girl (sex deserves more respect and it wasn’t funny any more), 24 (season 3 broke my heart. I need one redeeming character in a story), House of Cards (again, I need at least one person in the show I can root for). I choose books in lieu of any more hours with these shows.]

So what is it that rankles about The Good Place? It’s that both the premise and point of the show deal with two topics that I care very much about: questions of eternity/the afterlife, and questions on the development of character. What happens after we die? And how do our character choices affect that outcome? On both of these questions, The Good Place posits a theory that is diametrically opposed to what Jesus told us is the truth:

What happens in the afterlife?

The Good Place: If you’ve been a really good person; you get to go to the Good Place. Very few people are good enough to get in.

Jesus: There’s lots of space in my Father’s house; and I’ve gone to prepare a place for you. I’m the way, the truth and the life. Believe in me and I’ll take you there. (John 14:1-6, summarized)

How good do you need to be to get to the good afterlife place (wherever that is)?

The Good Place: Really, really, really good. As in, humanitarian-award-winner good. Better-than-average goodness isn’t good enough. 

Jesus: You need to be perfect. And no-one is. But that’s why I came: to live a perfect life and then die the Bad Place’s death; and offer to take your place. I took death so that you could gain entry to the Good Place. So the answer is: no one is good enough for the Good Place. And yet anyone and everyone is welcome through me. (Matthew 5:48, 1 Peter 3:18, John 3:16)

Of course, the plot of the show is about morally-worse-than-average Eleanor, who lands up in the Good Place by accident, and whose eternal soul mate (I’m not even going to comment on this aspect of the plot) is roped into helping her reform her character there. Now the thing is, friends—unlike Firefly or StarWars or The Hunger Games or any other variety of shows where I step into the world of fantasy and suspend disbelief for a while to enjoy the story—this story is just too important, and too close to home for me to ignore the glaring issues and just “escape” mindlessly into it.

Because, despite the show’s claim in Episode 1 that “the Christians only got it about 5% right on the afterlife, as did the Hindus, and the Muslims…”, Jesus was emphatic that he was the only one who had come “from above” and could tell us authoritatively what it was like (John 3:13). And the rest of the Bible is emphatic that Jesus was the only one who experienced death and came back to tell us how to get “through it”. The Christian claim on the afterlife—founded on Jesus’ resurrection—is more than a 5% gamble. It’s what we’ve staked our entire lives on.

Amy Simpson notes*, “many believe God is so impressed with our efforts at the soup kitchen that he could never bear to dish out anything but indulgence and a wink toward “good people” like us.” The Good Place plays headlong into this belief: if you’re good enough, the Powers That Be will be impressed and you will be Eternally Rewarded. The question is: who is good enough? The answer is: only Jesus, a message The Good Place rejects outright.

“But it’s just a show, and a funny one,” – I hear you say. “Why do you have to be all kinds of Christian uptight about it?”

Fair question.

I suppose the answer to this has to do with bananas and tweezers. In particular, the teensy little rubber bananas they sometimes lay out at my son’s preschool, in front of a mini cardboard box with a monkey face on it and a bright yellow pair of plastic tweezers. Next to it is a similar cardboard box with tiny, blue rubber bones and a cardboard box with a doggy’s face and a pair of blue tweezers. These “toys” are laid out as a treat, and the kids can choose which of the animals they’d like to feed today. Of course my son chooses the monkey, and screws up his face in concentration as he feeds the tiny bananas into the hole-that-is-the-monkey’s-mouth and counts the bananas: one. two. three. Afterwards, they sit on the mat and hear a story about llamas and their pajama drama. Hilarious. So fun. So funny.

“Mom! I fed the monkeys!” he says, and from his perspective, he did. But from his teacher’s perspective: he practiced eye-hand coordination, fine motor skills in grasping the tweezers, and worked on numeracy skills. He was also developing social and communicative skills in negotiating with his peers which of the activities they would work on and in which order. And then they listened to stories that weren’t just entertainment about llamas, but share a script on how to handle bedtime without making excuses. How to be patient when your parents can’t respond right away. It’s social scripting, the behavioral therapists tell us. It’s not just entertainment.

He comes home from school thinking he played all day… but his parents and teachers know it wasn’t all mindless fun. He’s been learning-through-play all day. We all do. We absorb lessons through the play we engage in and the stories we expose ourselves to. We learn about life (and the afterlife) and about love and loss and relationships and reality through the play and stories of our lives. None of us are neutral to the stories we surround ourselves with, and so I’m wary of stories like The Good Place which deliver spoonfuls of untruth and mask the taste with comedy. 

But then again, maybe that’s only really dangerous if we’re watching TV mindlessly. Perhaps, for some, The Good Place is exactly the show they need to be watching. Perhaps if it’s more than mindless entertainment, it might cause people to stop and ask themselves how they might fare in the Great Hereafter. If their lives were being assessed, how would they stand? Does that thought make them nervous? If they were Eleanor, and all of a sudden there was a reckoning on their choices – what would they be ashamed of? What would they wish they had oriented their lives around?

Asking those kinds of questions is, I think, a rare and critically important thing. The writer of Ecclesiastes says that one of the excellent reasons people should go to funerals is because it forces them to think about eternity:

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. (Eccl 7:2)

And so maybe there’s an argument to be made that it is better to watch The Good Place than to watch…. So You Think You Can Dance, for example. For death is the destiny of everyone, and there is a real Good Place to come, and we the living, should certainly take this to heart.

The Good Place is not a show I really want to keep watching: I think the answers it gives are wrong. But maybe, just maybe, I should be excited about it because at the very least, it’s asking some of the right questions.


  • Amy Simpson, “Doing Good for All the Right Reasons”, devotional on Isaiah 64:6 in NIV Bible for Women (p 1024.)

 

To be or not to be?

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I had to read Shakespeare at school. I could understand enough of it to vaguely track the plot and appreciate the occasional wordy insult or clever pun, but not much more.

But Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech kept running through my mind as I was preparing a talk on Philippians 1, and it was serendipitous to look it up and find that for the first time in my life, I could really appreciate Shakespeare on my own. And what’s more, it turned out to be both educationally and spiritually encouraging as I compared Hamlet’s speech with Paul’s writings in Philippians 1 – as both of them wrestle with a choice to live or die.

Both are famous passages. Both deal with life and death. But the differences are significant too. In Hamlet’s speech, he is debating whether or not he should commit suicide. On the one hand, he is tired of the pain of living: being subject to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and the “heartache and thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to“. And so he longs for death to end it all: he wants to “sleep“. But, on the other hand, he says if he were to die, there is:

the dread of something after death.
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others we know not of.

And so Hamlet chooses life because, he says, “conscience makes cowards of us all“. He longs to die but is afraid because he is not sure what comes afterwards. For Hamlet, to be or not to be is a lose-lose choice which he ultimately decides as a coward.

Paul, on the other hand, sees the choice between life and death as a win-win choice. In Philippians 1 he boldly writes: “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body…”

For Paul the choice is not, as it is for Hamlet, between painful life and uncertain death. For Paul, the choice is between a fruitful life knowing Jesus now, and eternal life with Jesus beyond death without any of the nastiness of this life. His choice of the latter is a no-brainer, but he chooses life because he still has work to do here.

But here’s the thing which got me excited about comparing these two speeches. The big difference between Hamlet and Paul’s outlook is their view of the afterlife. Hamlet talked of a hope of “sleep, perchance to dream“. Life after death was wishful thinking at best. He describes it as an “undiscovered country“, and laments that “no traveller returns” from there to assure him of what it is like.

Aye, there’s the rub.”

But the difference was that Paul had SEEN THE RISEN JESUS. He had met that one traveller who had travelled through death, who had not only discovered but conquered that “country”, rising again to proclaim that for those who know Him, death has lost its sting. Paul knew that beyond death there was resurrection life to be experienced with Jesus. And so for Paul (with apologies to Shakespeare),

There is no dread of something after death.
The eternal country from whose bourn
Jesus has returned, delights the will,
And makes us bear the ills we have today
’til we rest in bliss we know not yet of.

(reposted in honor of Kathi, who did not lose her battle against cancer so much as triumphantly gain eternal life. “For I am convinced that whether in life or in death… We are more than conquerors through him that loved us.”</em>