Friday, August 24, 2012

Eternal Life

John 6:56-59

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

An Air Force chaplain I worked for a long time ago made these words his credo.

“I feel thrilled every time I read them,” Chaplain Harland Getts often said at Wednesday night bible studies in the chapel at RAF Woodbridge in England.

But the chaplain never attempted to define what Peter was thinking about when he said “eternal life.”

“People come to me,” Billy Graham said in many sermons, “and say, ‘Billy, I don’t want to live forever.’ I tell them, ‘You have no choice. But you do have a choice where you spend forever.’”

Where? And what is eternal life?

Hieronymus Bosch, the 15th century Dutch artist who spent much of his life imagining the afterlife, depicted an upwardly spiraling light as a pathway to heaven for the redeemed.

Bosch’s “Ascent of the Blessed,” painted in 1490, looks a lot like the shaft of light persons describe after near-death experiences. The painting is one of four panels of a larger work entitled Visions of the Hereafter. Other visions are “Terrestrial Paradise,” “Fall of the Damned,” and “Hell.”

None of the visions portray an afterlife you’d want to visit for very long.

Cartoonists in The New Yorker and other publications draw eternity as a cloud occupied by deceased persons who wear wings, white gowns and halos. I remember one cartoon showing two bored guys who have obviously been sitting on the cloud too long. One says to the other, “Wish I’d brought a magazine.”

Of course there is no scriptural evidence that this is what eternal life is like. Thank God for that.

Then again, most of our images of heaven and hell are metaphorical.

The afore mentioned Chaplain Getts was Southern Baptist. His nemesis was a short, pot-bellied, flat-topped Southern Methodist chaplain named Lou Evans. Chaplain Getts was a courtly Virginian with Old Dominion manners. Chaplain Evans was an unpolished Mississippi farm boy. The two didn’t exactly hate each other, but both were convinced the other was doomed to hell for lack of a coherent theology.

One night when the chapel staff gathered for dinner, Chaplain Getts told a story replete with passive aggression and simplistic allegory.

“I had a dream last night,” the chaplain said with a straight face. “It must have been a nightmare because in the dream I had died. Even worse, I was sent to the gateway of hell.”

Chaplain Getts described a long, dark stairway that descended deep into bowels of the earth. The further one descended, of course, the hotter it got.

“I was given a box of chalk,” Chaplain Getts said. “And I was told to write down one of my sins on each of the descending steps. When I got to the point where I had no more sins to write down, on that step I would stay forever.”

The chaplain described the intensifying heat as he got lower and lower into hell. Miraculously, he had no trouble remembering any of his sins. Each time he stepped down he remembered another sin, and the temperature was getting intolerable.

“I was in the process of writing down my last sin when I heard footsteps below me,” Chaplain Getts said. “Someone was running up the stairs. I turned, and there was Chaplain Evans, about to run past me.

‘What’s going on?’ I asked, very much annoyed. ‘Are they letting you out?’

‘Naw,’ Chaplain Evans said. ‘I’m going up for more chalk.’”

I must have found the story amusing because I’ve remembered and repeated it for many years. But it is not a useful description of eternal life.

Perhaps most of us think of eternal life as a permanent extension of the life we have now, but free of pain and the infirmities of age.

But even if we are convinced that our lives are good, could we actually endure them forever?

In Thornton Wilder’s three act play, “Our Town,” we get a chilling glimpse at the quality of our lives in Act III.

As the act begins, we see the village cemetery of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, where the drama has been unfolding. The graves are represented by folding chairs arranged in neat rows. Actors representing the dead sit silently on the chairs.

Emily Webb, the main character of the play, has died in childbirth. A subdued funeral procession escorts her to her chair where she takes her place. There, she is welcomed by her late mother-in-law, Mrs. Gibbs, who tells her it is best to sit quietly and forget about her earthly life.

But Emily is determined to go back, to re-live at least one day of her short, happy life. Ignoring warnings by Mrs. Gibbs and others in the cemetery, Emily chooses one of her happiest days, the day she turned 12.

But the experience is devastating. Emily is at first thrilled to be reunited with her loved ones, but she quickly realizes that the people around her – her mother, her father, her younger brother, the boy next door – are so preoccupied with minutia that they barely notice one another.

Desperately, Emily tries to get her mother to look at her, but her mother is absorbed with other insignificant things.

This is not living, Emily concludes, and she can no longer stand the pain.  Life, she realizes, should be lived intensely “every, every minute.” But the loved ones she re-encounters on her twelfth birthday are scarcely alive. On her way back to the cemetery, Emily asks the Stage Manager if any one is ever able to live life to the fullest.

“No,” the Stage Manager replies. “The saints and poets, maybe – they do some.”

Emily returns to her chair. Her husband, George, kneels in front of the grave and weeps inconsolably, but Emily watches him vacantly, without emotion.

Thornton Wilder forces his audience to face a daunting question: if we don’t live life to the fullest now, why would we want to live it eternally?

Tony Campolo, who I knew before he was Tony Campolo – when he was just a charismatic young sociology professor at a small Christian college – used to try to define eternal life to the pre-lobed evangelical kids who flocked to his classes.

He described it as existential, a word guaranteed to fog the eyes of most freshmen. When one is born again, Tony explained, one experiences God’s presence with an existential energy that never fades. Those special moments accumulate and intensify until they form a chain of ecstatic existence, and in the last microseconds of our physical lives we dwell rapturously and forever in our own existential memories.

Unless I misunderstood Tony.

As a born again Central New Yorker with New England roots, I’m not sure I’m wired for the existential ecstasy required for the experience. It’s not that we un-emotive white folks aren’t pleased by the words of eternal life; it’s just that we respond to them differently.

“Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”


Whether that qualifies as an eternally charged existential moment is open to analysis.

As Thornton Wilder, who grew up in Maple Bluff, Wis., understood, it takes a lot of concentration to live each moment with an intensity that justifies being alive. We don’t spend a lot of time in each moment. There is always the preceding moment and the following moment to worry about. Now is not around long enough for us to get emotionally involved with it.

The John F. Kennedy library has posted online hundreds of high definition photographs, many of them in living color, of the 35th President. They appear in slow succession as a screen saver on my laptop.


There in uncanny digital detail is a young man at the top of his form and near the end of his life. My favorite is a picture of JFK seated in straight-back chair against the wall of the Oval Office, his arm around a little girl wearing a red dress and leg braces. The President’s bad back would not enable him to pick the child up, so he sat down to greet her. It’s a photo-op of the highest order, but the President is not looking at the camera; he’s looking into the child’s eyes, reflecting her shy smile.
It’s a high quality, perhaps even existential moment, frozen in time. I don’t know what else was on the President’s agenda that day, but this moment strikes me as having a special quality. It could be one of those rare, fleeting moments when the lives of two persons had the intensity Emily Webb missed so much when she re-lived her twelfth birthday.
I like to think it’s a quality moment that both the little girl and the young president would define as an example of life at its best – a reason to look forward to eternal life. But the moment was gone soon enough. The moment may a dimming memory for the girl who, if she lives, would be in her fifties today. I doubt the laconic president ever commented on it.

Our lives are full of passing moments that bring pleasure and pain. All of us have memories too unbearable to recall, and we all have had moments of bliss we wanted to preserve forever.

When Peter talked about Jesus’ words of eternal life, he was certainly thinking about the good times.
Peter did, after all, understand the nature and authority of the one who was making eternal life possible. “Lord, to whom can we go?” Peter asked. “You have the words of eternal life.” Then Peter added an important postscript: 
“We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
No one knows the details of all the moments Peter and the other disciples spent with Jesus. No doubt they were not all moments of existential quality. There were moments of pain, moments when they were rained on, moments when the sun blistered their feet, moments when they argued among themselves, even moments when they were frustrated and angry at Jesus. Jesus could, at times, leave them confused and perplexed, so that the disciples complained among themselves, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?”
All of which suggests that eternal life is not based on existentially intense experiences in the presence of Jesus.
As most Christians have discovered, every day with Jesus is not necessarily sweeter than the day before.
Nor, as Thornton Wilder suggested, is eternal life dependent on the quality of the moments of our lives, requiring is to live “every, every minute” with an intensity that reminds us of life’s value. Those who live that intensely are candles in the wind, flames that flare brightly and all too briefly.
But Peter sensed that Jesus, “the holy one of God,” was not sent to make eternal life difficult to attain, nor was the eternal life of which he spoke a mere extension of the often mundane lives we live on earth.
At the heart of Jesus’ message is God’s love for all God’s creatures, and Jesus made it clear that whatever eternal life held for believers, it was good.
Like a New Yorker cartoonist, Jesus drew metaphorical images of heaven that were not literally likely but easy to comprehend: a golden and happy kingdom, and the ultimate high rise apartment building.
“Do not be afraid, little flock,” Jesus told his fretful followers, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32).

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus said. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:1-2).
Both of these heavenly images are as far-fetched as Pearly Gates, and Jesus knew it.  Like artists and poets and scholars across the centuries, Jesus was trying to build an emotional impression about a state of being no living person can comprehend: not a mere place one goes to sit around forever, but a perfect reunion with the God of love – the God who was, is, and evermore shall be – the God who is the Great I Am and indescribable through the paltry grammatical devices we use to measure the passage of time.
What does all that mean exactly?
Beats me.
Nor will any of us know until it’s our turn to experience what Peter simplistically termed “eternal life.”
But we can be sure of this: eternal life will be measured by its quality, not its quantity.
And Jesus assures us: whatever it looks and feels like, it will be good. Very good.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Jesus: The Hidden Years

NOTE: Most of these weekly musings are prepared as sermons for the blessed remnant at North Baptist Church in Port Chester, N.Y. -- a small but gracious group of folks who indulgently tolerate most anything they hear. May their tribe increase. P.E.J.

I begin most days reading a brief devotional by the late, great Henri M. Nouwen, a Dutch-born Catholic priest who wrote 40 books about spirituality. Daily emails of these snippets can be obtained at

Each day, emails from Nouwen’s writings take seekers on a guided tour of the mysteries of the universe, offering fresh insights into Jesus’ teachings about life, death, faith, and moral behavior.

This week the editors chose a Nouwen comment that has stuck in my mind like the lyrics of a old song that bursts forth with new and unexpected meaning.

“The largest part of Jesus' life was hidden,” Nouwen wrote. “Jesus lived with his parents in Nazareth, ‘under their authority’ (Luke 2:51), and there ‘increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favor with God and with people’ (Luke 2:52).  When we think about Jesus we mostly think about his words and miracles, his passion, death, and resurrection, but we should never forget that before all of that Jesus lived a simple, hidden life in a small town, far away from all the great people, great cities, and great events.  Jesus’ hidden life is very important for our own spiritual journeys.  If we want to follow Jesus by words and deeds in the service of his Kingdom, we must first of all strive to follow Jesus in his simple, unspectacular, and very ordinary hidden life.”

Jesus had a hidden life. Of course he did. The Gospels are accounts of the special moments in Jesus’ life, observed by many, and passed along by oral tradition for decades until someone decided to write them down. The gospel writers are not so much inspired recipients of God’s dictation as they are the beneficiaries of careful Middle Eastern Griots – oral historians and story tellers – whose job it is to pass the same basic story to succeeding generations. We know from African oral traditions that Griots have been remarkably reliable in preserving great truths over many centuries, so the basic veracity of the gospel stories is not in question.

But it’s clear that the stories of Jesus became memorable when he said or did something remarkable. There are perhaps three decades in his life about which we know nothing, but which we must assume to have been – in Nouwen’s words – simple, unspectacular, and very ordinary.

Why is this revelation so exciting?

Maybe it’s just the element of mystery, the idea that we know almost nothing about 90 percent of Jesus’ life on earth. By that measurement, we are stunned that we know so little about the most famous person who ever lived.  And, too, we are amazed that so much of what we think we know about Jesus is based on information we don’t have.

No where in the gospels, for example, are we told precisely how Jesus dressed. We know he wore a seamless robe of undetermined color. The gospel writers make no mention of the likelihood that he wore a tallit, or prayer shawl. Artists occasionally portray Jesus with a scarf over his head, but the artists leave out the corner fringes that would have been prescribed in Numbers 15:38 or Deuteronomy 22:12.

Our most common image of Jesus is of a brown skinned man with long black hair and a beard, which is what most Jewish men looked like in Palestine in the first century. But this image omits curly uncut sideburns that Jesus almost certainly wore with most of his male contemporaries.

Our image of Jesus does not include phylacteries affixed to his forehead, small leather boxes containing scripture verses, that he undoubtedly wore during morning weekday prayers, as all Jewish males did.

If Jesus omitted any of these things, it would have been noticed and remarked upon for gospel posterity. The Griots wouldn’t have been able to resist.

Our common image of Jesus is also that of an ascetic bachelor who eschewed married life in order to devote himself to God and to his flock. Perhaps so. Certainly large doctrines and time-honored practices have been based on that assumption, including the celibate priesthood. But that notion, too, is based on information obscured in the thirty years of Jesus’ life we know nothing about. And if Jesus had broken so radically from the Jewish tradition that the husband-led family was God’s basic unit of society, why was nothing said about it?

Perhaps the Griots didn’t mention it because women were akin to slaves in Jesus’ day, and they saw no reason to mention wives as appendages to the public lives of the disciples. We wouldn’t know Peter was married if his mother-in-law had not fallen ill and required a miraculous cure by Jesus. Did the other disciples have wives who were not deemed to be worth mentioning because they didn’t get sick? Did Jesus?

It’s all speculation, of course. And this is not a lead-in to the premise of The DaVinci Code, the 2003 novel in which Dan Brown posits that Jesus was married to Mary Magadalene and the church covered it up for doctrinal reasons. Until we cross over, we will not know the answer to this and other mysteries. But they are mysteries, not heresies, because they are part of Jesus’ life we know nothing about.

We do know, of course, that Jesus was a carpenter. This has led to entertaining theories as to how he plied his trade, my favorite being a scene in the 1961 epic King of Kings starring Jeffrey Hunter.

Hunter, who also played the callow youth who attached himself to John Wayne in The Searchers and was the bad guy in Walt Disney’s The Great Locomotive Chase, died before he could ice the cake of his career as the captain of the starship Enterprise. But the tall, blue-eyed actor was perfectly suited for the role of Jesus, especially if you think Jesus looked like Salman’s Head of Christ.

Hunter acquitted himself well in the role, portraying Jesus as a likeable guy who didn’t lord his special status over everyone else.

But screenwriter Philip Yordan seems to have struggled with how to portray Jesus as a savior who got his fingernails dirty working with wood.

Brilliantly, Yordan conceived a scene found no where in the bible in which Jesus’ mom, played by Siobhán McKenna, interrupts her son as he attempts to slip out of the house to save the world. But wait, she asks, have you made that little wooden table you promised me? Aw, Mother, I’ll get to it, the savior replies with a polite smile as he swoops out the door. But he knows and she knows and YOU know it’s never going to happen.

Anthropologists have a pretty good notion what other Palestinian carpenters did in the thirty mysterious years when Jesus lived under Joseph’s authority. According to the Christianity Today Library (
“As carpenters, Joseph and Jesus would have created mainly farm tools (carts, plows, winnowing forks, and yokes), house parts (doors, frames, posts, and beams), furniture, and kitchen utensils.”

Almost 2,000 years before electric power tools, that would have been hard isometric exercise. Apart from providing daily development of the carpenters’ pects and delts, it was also the kind of work that would have placed Joseph and Jesus on friendly business terms with most of their neighbors. Jesus grew to adulthood providing most of the residents of Nazareth with the tools and wooden paraphernalia they needed to live. We can only assume his products were of excellent quality and that he did not overcharge.

Archeologists who study first century Palestinian settlements make it clear that Jesus would have grown up in intimate proximity with his neighbors. According to, an excellent website “where people of all backgrounds learn about Jesus,” the standard living arrangements provided little privacy.

“Houses were all purpose 1-2 room squares, with dirt floors, flat roofs, low and narrow doorways, and front wooden doors,” the site explains. “Often people would sleep on flat roofs during hot nights. The houses were arranged around a central shared courtyard where neighbors performed daily chores (cooking, laundry, etc.) in each other’s company. Water was carried in from a public well and stored in a courtyard cistern. Lighting was provided by earthenware oil lamps. People slept on mats, and owned limited personal goods.”

There are no records or apocryphal gospels that give us a clear idea what Jesus' hidden years were like. We can only speculate that he lived like everyone he knew when he was growing up: a nice Jewish boy raised in the law and tradition of his ancestors, living and working and often sleeping with relatives and neighbors he saw every day of his life.

It was a life of extreme ordinariness. He came into the world in a barn, surrounded by the redolence of fetid hay and farting animals, and we shake our heads that God’s son, the world’s savior, got such an inauspicious start. But even more staggering is the probability that Jesus grew up in mundane, commonplace, everyday surroundings, where he looked and acted like everyone else. The good people of Nazareth knew him as Jesus from the block, not Jesus Christ.

It’s no wonder, then, that when Jesus finally assumed his messianic mode, his intimate acquaintances and other observers looked at him like he’d grown a new nose.

“‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” (John 6:51-52)

Granted, the ensuing passage with its references to eating flesh and drinking blood is difficult for anyone to understand. Jesus’ friends and neighbors are particularly befuddled because they knew Jesus before he was Jesus.

After thirty years of a hidden life among them, Jesus abruptly emerged from the shadows as the light of the world. That’s an unexpected and dazzling transition to behold.

But Jesus made the transition with power and ease, in part because he had put the hidden years to good use. He knew what none of his neighbors knew: that he was the anointed one of God, sent to take away the sins of the world. But he also knew that in order to accomplish his mission, years of preparation would be necessary: years of hiddenness.

“Hiddenness,” Nouwen wrote, “is an essential quality of the spiritual life. Solitude, silence, ordinary tasks, being with people without great agendas, sleeping, eating, working, playing ... all of that without being different from others, that is the life that Jesus lived and the life he asks us to live.  It is in hiddenness that we, like Jesus, can increase ‘in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and with people’ (Luke 2:51).  It is in hiddenness that we can find a true intimacy with God and a true love for people.”

Jesus could not have accomplished his goal if he had spent all his time on earth above the fray, floating like a twilight sprite above the mud and the dust and the suffering. In the thirty years of his life we know so little about, he lived – literally – as one of us. He got to know all our needs, our foibles, our temptations, our quirks, our sins. He got to know us, in a sense, more completely than God the Creator who counts the hairs on our head. The experiences and insights Jesus gained during his hidden years took on a mighty power when he began his formal ministry.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” he declared in terms that the literary minded found cannibalistic.

But Jesus had hit upon the perfect metaphor to describe the sacrifice he was to make to atone for the sins of the world – the sacrifice that opens the door to life for all who accept it.

Neither Jesus’ understanding of his role or the metaphor he used to describe it sprung up over night. Both were the product of long years discovering “a true intimacy with God and a true love for people” when no one was writing down what he said or did.

What developed in the hidden years made the declaration true:

“This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”