Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Taken In

    There’s a natural watershed in our lives. We reach the top and stand for a moment and then we’re over the hill. Everything is downhill from that moment on. But no matter: I’m headed for home.
    Home! That’s where my heart is. (Sometimes I wonder if it’s ever been anywhere else.) “I have come home at last!” shouted C. S. Lewis’ heaven–struck unicorn, as he stamped his right fore-foot on the ground. “I have come here at last! This is my real country!  I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this.”
    It’s not that heaven is somewhat like home. It is home. Our earthly homes are mere signs or reflections—primitive symbols of warmth, love, togetherness and familiarity. The ultimate reality is our Father’s house—where there is a father who never dies; who makes a home for the lonely; who treats us like family; where real love awaits us; where we’re included—“taken in.”
    We hear about Odysseus, the Flying Dutchman, Frodo and E.T. and we too want to go home—to that place where everything is impervious to change, where God will wipe every tear from our eyes, where we can cease “to break our wings against the faultiness of things,” where everyone has a friend, where love will never end, where everything finally works out for good.
    Everything goes wrong here; nothing will go wrong there. Nothing gets lost; nothing is missing; nothing falls apart; nothing goes down the drain. Heaven is God’s answer to Murphy’s Law.
    There’s no complete healing here. We are born with broken hearts and some sense of that brokenness stays with with throughout our days on earth. There will always be some measure of inner pain that co-exists with joy, some vague longing, some “homesickness” that will linger until we get home. We are may be somewhat satisfied here, but we’re never quite content.
    One of these days we’ll go home and then everything will be complete. Think of a world where there is no suffering, no sorrow, no quarrels, no threats, no abandonment, no insecurity, no struggling with sagging self-worth. Heaven is where everything that makes us sad will be banished. We will be delivered from everything that has defiled or disrupted our lives.
    It’s disturbing to look ahead and see the same impossible road stretching out in front of us, going on indefinitely. We’re driven to despair or rebellion when we think there’s no point to our misery and no end to it. That’s why we find comfort in the realization that it will not go on forever.  One day, everything that God has been doing in us and through us will be done. He will come for us and we will go home. We will live in our Father’s house forever.
    Ancient people took to analogy much better than we. One of the most convincing figures is that of God himself “taking us in.”
    The thought occurs in the biblical story of the Enoch, who walked with God for 300 years and then “was no more, because God took him in” (Genesis 5:24). It’s as though Enoch and God took a walk one day and got too far from his earthly home. The old patriarch was too weary to walk all the way back so God took him home to be with him.
    One of Israel’s singers saw himself and others as “destined for the grave,” but as he goes on to say, “God will redeem my soul from the grave; he will surely take me to himself” (Ps. 49:15).
    And then there’s that poet who learned God’s presence from his peril: “I am always with you,” he concluded. For now, “you hold me by my right hand; you guide me with your counsel and afterward you will take me into glory” (Psalm 73:23–26).
    “Taken in.” I like that way of looking at my terminus ad quem. It reminds me of something Jesus said, “I am going to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2,3).
    That’s the fundamental revelation of heaven in the scriptures: “being taken in.”
    We can be left out. As C. S. Lewis said, “We can be left utterly and absolutely outside—repelled, exiled, estranged, finally and unspeakably ignored….” If men and women do not want the love that brought them into the world, that sustains them every day and is offered to them eternally, God will let them have their way, though it would not be his choice. In an odd sort of way,  hell, thus, is a provision of God’s love: If we do not want his presence he will not foist it on us. He loves us enough to leave us alone.
    But we must understand what that means: Imagine God appearing and offering this arrangement: “I will give you whatever you want—anything and everything you ask for in this world. Nothing will be forbidden, nothing will be impossible; nothing will be denied (Pascal's Wager)—but you will never see my face again.” Not one of us has ever tasted such loneliness.
    Imagine, if you can, a world without a single friend, where there is no art, no culture, no civilization, no law, no love, no laughter, and nothing else that makes life worthwhile. God is the giver of every good and perfect gift and the source of everything good and true and beautiful. His absence means the absence of everything that gives meaning to our existence. If that’s what hell is, then, as C. S. Lewis has said, hell is exactly the right name for what it would be.
    We can start our own hell here on earth and preserve it for all eternity or we can be united with God now and forever. Through Jesus we can be welcomed, acknowledged, received, embraced, included. To those who have been “taken in” death is not bitter frustration, but culmination and transition into a larger and more permanent love—a love undisturbed by time, un-menaced by evil, unbroken by fear, unclouded by doubt, where “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well” (Julian of Norwich).
    All God’s idylls end favorably; all God’s children “live happily forever after.” That’s the most cherished article of my creed.

Never again will they hunger
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat upon them
    nor the scorching heat.
For the lamb at the center of the throne will be their Shepherd
    he will lead them to springs of living water
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes”
            Rev. 7:16,17


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