Will There Be Stories in Heaven?

Humans love stories. And all the best stories have something in common: a conflict that’s central to the story, ending with a resolution. Whether it’s the common trope of a secret agent saving the world from the machinations of a criminal mastermind, or a person coming to terms with who they are, or a detective finding out who committed a crime, all of the best stories involve some kind of conflict that is resolved. Story is even central to Christianity—a story of sin, loss, and death culminating in the final solution: redemption and heaven.  Stories like this resonate with us, make us long for our own resolution and redemption, remind us that not all of life is in the conflict.

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And in a way, it seems that’s what life on earth is all about. Falling, fighting, failing, learning, and going on again as each new challenge is passed and redeemed. Life is not a static progression of good things continuing to happen to good people. Whether it’s a tough job, a bad marriage, a broken family, or all the other things that happen in life, we each have our own struggles.  And life is marked by these struggles. We feel stronger when we’ve resolved an issue, fought through the bad times, kept going.

Of course, things don’t always turn out well in our stories. Sometimes we keep fighting, only to see no change. Sometimes people give up and commit suicide. Sometimes our problems are irreversible, like infertility or health problems or the pain of a severed relationship. But always, always, there’s a conflict. There’s never been a person yet who’s lived a conflict-free life.

But it makes me wonder—will our stories matter in heaven? In heaven, we’re told that all our tears will be wiped away. There will be no more sorrow, no more pain. There will be only joy. Our stories will be neatly divided into a dichotomy—on one side, heaven, is the resolution and the peace and the joy, and on the other side, hell, is the conflict and the pain and the brokenness.

Will a story made up only of the good things mean anything? From my limited perspective, humanity longs to hear stories about terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days, not wonderful, amazing, fantastic, perfect days. There’s a reason fairy tales end with living happily ever after—no one wants to read about what happens when the dragons are killed and the prince and princess are married. It’s enough to know they’re happy.

In the story of Christianity, heaven is the resolution, the happily ever after. This life is short, fleeting, ephemeral. Yes, there’s conflict and pain and sorrow, but that’s not the final answer. The sun shines after the rain; joy comes in the morning. But once we have our final answer—will we remember the conflict leading up to the joy? Will our pain and struggle count for something? Will there be stories in heaven?

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Easter

It’s fitting that Easter happens in springtime. The earth has been waiting, cold and dead, but with the coming of spring it becomes green and alive.

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Ginkgo trees

Small buds are bursting out, as their tombs can no longer contain them.

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Rain falls gently, bringing life.

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Blossoms

Trees bloom with the promise of the fruit they will bring.

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A small garden

Gardens are tended carefully with hope.

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As we celebrate springtime and new life, we also celebrate the resurrection of Christ, giving us new life. Happy Easter!

A Packed Cathedral

Why would 20 or 30 Chinese stand outside a church in -2 Celsius weather for two hours? Most immediately, because there was no sitting or standing room inside the church. More broadly, because there is a spiritual void in China, and many Chinese turn to God to fill it.

This past weekend, we did some traveling in China to the ancient capital of Xi’an. Since we were there over a Sunday, we went to church. Research done beforehand had turned up a few churches, and we settled on St. Francis Cathedral since it was historic (built in 1716) and there was some English  information about it (quite scientific, eh?). Apparently it was closed for 14 years for the Cultural Revolution but made a strong comeback, and even opened up the first soup kitchen for the poor in all of China in 2005. Unfortunately, while our research told us service times, it failed to tell us what language those services were in.

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So we showed up at 9:30 for the 10:00 service, and found out it was all in Chinese! We followed along where we could (we understood “Amen” and “alleluia” and “Jesu”. . .and that was about it). All the songs sounded very Chinese, and the girl sitting next to me obligingly held over her songbook so I could “read” along. I tried to sound like I was singing in Chinese, anyways, but it probably didn’t work.

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The inside (brightly colored in Chinese style) of the church.

It was amazing, though, to see all the Chinese people who came to the service. The building was completely full–standing-room-only full! Even though we arrived half an hour early, we were still too late to sit in the pews in the nave. We had to sit in the quire. And the people who came after us had to sit behind the priest. There were people spilling out the doorways too, who stood for the whole two hours in the cold.

As we were leaving, we saw on the doorway that they DID have an English service–at 3:00 p.m. So we went back for that that afternoon.

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See the weathered stones?

We got there early again, hoping to sit in the regular pews so we could see better what was going on (it’s hard to listen to a sermon when you’re sitting behind and to the side of the preacher!). But no sooner had we sat down than a Chinese lady approached us and asked if we could read one of the readings and the prayers. (They told us they asked foreigners because they’re doubtful about everyone else’s English.) So we put on our vestments and went up to sit where we were before. Thankfully, there was another American there who regularly attended the church, and he explained when we were to read and how to bow and all that.

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It was an interesting mix of Chinese and Western architecture.

They never asked if we were Catholic or Protestant. It seemed to be enough that we were there and we were white. In fact, after the service we met a Pakistani who was Catholic. He said, “In Pakistan, nobody cares if you’re Catholic or Protestant, because there are so few Christians. The important thing is that you’re Christian. We have so much discrimination from Muslims that dividing against ourselves would be pointless!” 1.5% of Pakistanis, are Christians, he said, and he went to a church where 10,000 of them (both Protestant and Catholic) worshipped, married, and fellowshipped.

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In China, this attitude seems to hold as well. As Evan Osnos shows in his book Age of Ambition, for the last forty years Chinese have sought what Mao denied them: fortune, truth, and faith. Fortune, the Party has done a good job supplying. Truth it tries to counter through censorship (but pure negation is weak). Faith it has tried to supply through nationalism. But nationalism is a brittle and dangerous substitute for true religion, and one that is ultimately unsatisfying.  And so Chinese are turning to God.

Mao did his best to destroy traditional China. Then in the Reform and Opening period (starting in 1979–this church re-opened in 1980), Communist China was reformed and has gradually disappeared (even the ugly buildings are slowly being torn down). In the words of eminent historian John Lukacs, “Communism is a wasm.” Now, according to the Economist, China has a quickly growing–to the tune of 10% a year–Christian population. The light persecution offered by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), like taking crosses off of churches and stopping large house churches from meeting, makes Christianity more attractive to many Chinese. The blood of the martyrs (as long as it’s not too widespread, as it was in Tokugawa Japan), is indeed the lifeblood of the church.

So visiting this church, seeing so many Chinese praying and singing to God in their native language, was a reminder of God’s faithfulness. Old farmers, young children (who loved turning around and staring at us, until we winked at them and they blushed), middle-aged mothers and fathers all gathered together to worship God. That’s why people are so eager to come to church that they’ll stand outside in the cold for two hours–because they know that their God lives.

Whither Sex?

Some days you just feel so. . .assaulted by messages from everywhere. Everyone’s obsessed with sex—who’s having it, who’s not having it, who’s complaining about people having it, who’s trying to “stop two loving people” from having it. Can we just say “Enough?!”

All this obsessing about it makes me think that perhaps you’re actually not happy in all your many sexual relationships because you feel the need to shout to the whole world that you’re happy with what you’re doing and it’s really wonderful and OMG everyone should be doing it. You’re not fooling anyone.

Yes, sex is vitally important. It’s so important, in fact, that the survival of the human race depends on it. And that’s a fact that tends to be forgotten in all the hullaballoo. Sex isn’t only something created to fulfill our personal needs. It does do that, and it’s wonderful, but it’s far more than that. And for this very reason, it should not be taken lightly.

Perhaps it’s your body and you’re consenting—but if you happened to create a new life, would you desire to destroy it with your next breath? Then you’re not ready to have sex.

Perhaps you’re overcome with longing for a person and want to express your commitment to them. But you’re not ready to really make that commitment, to say, “I give you my body, my soul, my whole life—I am wholly yours.” If that’s the case, then you’re not ready to have sex.

Sex isn’t just about love, or about consent, or about any of the other things we’re told it’s about (growing up, becoming a man/woman, expressing yourself…you name it, we’ve all seen it). It’s beautiful, and heartbreaking, and vulnerable. And, at its core, it’s about creating life.

That’s why sex belongs only in marriage between a man and a woman. When a man and a woman have sex, they truly become one. They’re not just making love: they’re creating love. And if they happen to be fertile at that time, their love may truly take on the tangible form of a new human life.

That’s why marriage matters. Marriage matters because life matters. If marriage, or sex, is only about two people who love each other blah blah blah, then they’re both meaningless. Go ahead, enjoy your vain life with the girlfriend or boyfriend or wife or husband whom you love all your pointless days on earth. Lots of people love each other all the time and don’t solemnify it. But marriage is different. Where else can you incarnate love?

Not only in having sex, not only in being open to having and raising children, not only in living together through everything—but in combining all those things. Marriage isn’t about any of them separately. It’s when they combine that they make a marriage. In marriage, two people are united, and marriage itself is an expression of their unity, a strong and true commitment.

Sex isn’t just another way to say “I love you.” Nor is it simply a way to provide yourself with a physical good, like, say, eating is. It’s a giving of yourself, a profound, meaningful, and quite ridiculous way to truly become one with another. And for that reason, it can only be completely experienced where it was designed to be experienced–within the confines of marriage.

Gattaca, Sex, and Chocolate Chip Cookies

Warning: somewhat complicated and/or tedious post may follow. I’m no theologian or movie reviewer. Just a crazy blogger.

A few nights ago, since Jared was sick, we watched the movie Gattaca. Made in the 1990s, it’s a sci-fi thriller that starts with the premise that in a few years, DNA will be the promise of the future. Parents will be able to choose what they want their children to look like, whether they will have any heritable diseases, their IQ—pretty much everything about a person can be decided before they’ve even implanted in their mother’s womb (or perhaps they don’t even implant? The movie wasn’t clear).   These people, the ones who are “GMO” people, are “Valid.” Everyone else is “In-Valid.”

The stage is set for some pretty massive and unstoppable discrimination. Everyone has to undergo DNA testing practically every five minutes. People are identified by their DNA instead of their faces, so companies won’t hire you unless you’re a “valid” person. Dating (or courting, if you insist), is reduced to looking at people’s DNA to make sure they were who they said they were. Nothing about personality, character, or even looks—any of the things we value about ourselves and that make us human—is important anymore. Although these “valid” people had longer, healthier lives, they had become less human. They became valued for a collection of traits, not for who they were. Being a person was no longer enough.

Parents had children not because children were a natural outpouring of the union of marriage, a concrete physical expression of their love for each other, but because they wanted a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy who would never get heart disease and would live the life they wished they could have had. People became commodities that you could choose to have, or not, as you wished. And if you chose to have your child the natural way, you could count on him or her being one of the lowest members of society.

What the movie really showed well, though, was the effect this had on the individuals who made up society. They felt undervalued and worthless—even when they were the most highly prized members. All anyone else cared about was what was in their blood. Their hearts and souls—even their intelligence—were suddenly second-rate.

Gattaca may be an extreme example of what happens when sex and children are no longer connected, but the devaluing of human life does happen, even today. We may not see it as that, argue that it isn’t, but it’s still possible to take something good—like marriage or children, and make it suit our own ends.

What happens when we make people into things? This haunting article makes the point clear: when we deny the humanity of others, whether newly-conceived child or fully-grown adult, we deny our own humanity. If they’re not created in the image of God, neither are we.  And suddenly, if a child who isn’t wanted can be killed, can’t we exercise that same right to “choose” the life of a grown person who annoys us or gets in the way of our life?

Just as we can’t choose to remove people when they stand in our way, we can’t add people when we want them there. Human life—all human life—is sacred.  People have dignity. And this sacredness, this dignity, invades all aspects of our lives, even the seemingly pointless ones. It makes sex not simply about pleasure. It makes marriage not simply about two people. It makes childbearing not simply about the mother, and child-rearing not simply about the child. We can’t deny it, and we can’t get rid of it (though some certainly have tried!).

We can’t reduce people to what they can do for us. It would be folly to choose a husband or wife based on the deliciousness of their chocolate chip cookies, and it’s still folly to choose on the basis of how you feel around them. It’s folly to stay away from marriage because you fear it, but it’s folly to get married because you fear being single. We shouldn’t have children because they can do what we failed to do, or because they can fill a hole in our aching hearts. Children—or any blessings, really—are not ours to command. Just as I don’t believe it’s a “woman’s right” to be able to kill a child whom she has conceived, I don’t believe it’s her right to demand a child when she wants one. Yahweh gives, and Yahweh takes away; blessed be the name of Yahweh.

Obviously I’m not qualified to tell you how to live your life and what specific things you should or shouldn’t do.  So I’ll leave you with a bit of advice from the immortal Shakespeare (did I tell you I’ve watched Much Ado About Nothing five times in the last week? I could practically quote it by heart now). Keep in mind that the middle bit is particularly important: “Serve God, love me, and mend [your ways].”

Have you watched the movie Gattaca? What are your thoughts on GMO people? Are humans inherently dignified, or is that merely a cultural construct that needs to go away?

Multi-Cultural: And Loving It!

A wise friend of mine once told me that every church offers something different. Some churches are “praying” churches, others are “singing” churches, others are “doctrinally solid” churches. Well, church here is a “we love Jesus” church.

Imagine a room (fancy ball-room style with diamond chandeliers and all hanging from the ceiling) filled with over 300 people from more than 150 different countries. You heard me. 150 different countries. There are people from Germany and Namibia, Hong Kong and Lesotho. Name an African country–and there’s probably someone who’s from there.

But it’s not just the multi-cultural aspect that’s amazing. What’s truly amazing–almost miraculous, you might say–is that anyone is welcome at this church. It’s not restricted to the 12-kids-and-a-15-passenger-van crowd (thankfully, because few expats actually own a vehicle here), nor is it restricted to those who only believe a certain way about “tolerance.” Whether you’re white or black, married or single, have many children or no children, certain of your faith or seeking to understand it, this church will welcome you, because it’s focused on something far more important than outward appearances: Jesus Christ.

This church truly loves Jesus. Its focus is not on convincing everyone that infant baptism should always or never be practiced or that Catholics are always wrong about everything or that homeschooling is bad or homeschooling is good. Because really, those things don’t truly matter in light of who Jesus Christ is and the message he came to bring the world. When so many different nations and cultures and people are represented, it’s impossible to fit them all into one small box. “Reformed” or “Baptist” or “Pentecostal” or “Presbyterian” are simply ways of showing how we’re different from all the other Christians out there. Before we’ve even noticed, we’ve formed an “in-group out-group” mentality.

Christianity in America is full of fears. Fear of the unknown, of the liberal, of the world–and even of fellow Christians.

Yet Christianity in America has nothing real to fear. No one knocks on our doors in the middle of the night to take us away; no one breaks up our worship services or requires us to be ID’d at the door. Here in China, those things still happen (though, thankfully, with ever-decreasing frequency). Native Chinese cannot attend this international church, by order of the government. And that’s hard, and that’s wrong.

Yet Americans act as if those things exist for them. As if one person saying “Happy Holidays” is going to change Christianity to dust. As if everything that is different is also wrong, no matter how insignificant.  As if every difference will eat away at their personal foundation. They affirm truth, but are the first to doubt their own truth.

Truth is powerful. Truth speaks. Instead of worrying whether we’ll be subverted into wearing skirts that go 1/2 an inch above the knee or believing that maybe public schools really aren’t the worst things ever, maybe we as Christians should be bold. It’s time to start believing in the unity of the body of Christ, time to see that Christ’s death and resurrection is far more important than some artificial point about theology. Yes, theology matters. But love for your fellow Christians matters more. This, after all, is what St. Paul was telling the Corinthians: knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1st Corinthians 8:1).

Christians, among all others, need to be open to other people, to actually hear what they have to say. If you know you have the truth, why not be open to hearing someone else’s viewpoint? Truth isn’t fragile. It won’t crumble at the first sign of attack. It won’t disappear if it hears a falsehood.

So I’m thankful that this church is free from fear that someone will walk in the door who will subvert the church by eating out on a Sunday. I’m thankful that I get this opportunity to worship with so many from different backgrounds and cultures and denominations. And most of all, I’m thankful that I’m given this chance to love my Savior more.