Friday, May 14, 2010

The Last Enemy

When Harry Potter found his parents' grave in the last book of the series, he discovered an inscription on it: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." Harry took this quotation to heart, and perhaps it helped him at a crucial moment in his fight against the evil Lord Voldemort.

This quotation originates from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. He is explaining to them that just as death came into the world through a man—Adam—it would also be destroyed by a man—Jesus. Jesus will return to collect the kingdom for the Father. "For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death." (1 Corinthians 15:25–26) Death is the epitome of everything that has gone wrong in God's creation, the results of sin, disobedience, and depravity. When God has eradicated all of the flaws that lead us to death, then He can destroy death itself and we will be returned to the perfect life that God envisioned for us when He created Adam and Eve.

In the end it must be God who defeats death, not us. Still, death will defeat us if we do not trust in the promise. As long as we live in dreadful fear of death, we give it undue power over us. We can't do anything about death right now, and someday it will touch us. That's true. But that's also as it should be. Death is the last enemy to be defeated, so let's not worry about it before it's time. Death will come in the end, and it will be defeated. Why should we be so afraid?

In the meantime, we ought to be focusing on the other enemies, things like sin and and corruption and selfishness. God does give us power to fight those. We can't do anything about death, but we can work towards a healthier life. We can learn to live in joy instead of fear, with hope instead of dread. One day death will come for us, but that will be a day of joy, the day we go to meet God in Paradise. Today we also have a chance for joy if we allow God to help us cast the fear of death and the stain of sin away from us.

The last enemy to be destroyed is death. It will happen, but not right now. Trust in that, and don't be afraid.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


The reason I monitor comments on this blog is that I get a lot of spam. I assume my readers don't want to see a bunch of Chinese writing that most of us can't read, information on where to get the best escorts in New York City or how to buy cheap designer knockoffs, or links to naked pictures of someone's ex-girlfriend. I delete all of those comments before you ever have to see them so that you can enjoy a nice, relaxing, spam-free visit while you read my blog.

Most of us are so used to getting spammed that we hardly notice anymore. I delete about a third of my e-mails without reading anything more than the subject line, and I ignore most of the advertisements I see on television or on billboards along the highway. The problem is that not all spam looks like spam. We know how to spot and then ignore ridiculous advertisements that have nothing to do with us, and we all know to delete those idiotic e-mails from supposed Nigerian princes. But we're still exposed to a lot of pointless garbage outside of the usual suspects like ads, e-mails, and blog comments.

As a Christian, I often have very specific ideas about what kinds of information are useful to me. I want to learn how to be a better person, how to serve God, and how to love others. I want to grow in God's plan for me and enjoy the beautiful creation God has given me to live in. A lot of the information I get every day has nothing to do with those goals. It's really spam. Consider the kinds of messages we're inundated with every day:
  • How to get more money and be a conspicuous consumer so that other people will respect us more
  • Where to get the most fashionable "must-have" items
  • Encouragement to be self-centered and treat ourselves to nothing but the best
  • Pressure to adopt certain values and behaviors that may not match our faith
  • Encouragement to do what everyone else is doing
  • Cosmetic tips that deal with our lives on the surface but don't impact our deeper selves
  • A huge list of ways we can waste our time and talents by doing things that are amusing and easy but not terribly useful
Sometimes I think I want this kind of information, but do I really? I have a better e-mail experience when I quickly delete the spam and move on to the important messages. Likewise, I'm going to have a better, happier, and more productive life if I learn to cut the crap and focus on the information that really matters.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


It's been raining a lot here. One the one hand, I like the rain because when it's over everything is fresh and the green grass is even greener. Because we had rain today, it will be gorgeous outside a few days from now. Still, sometimes in the midst of a long stretch of rain it can be hard to think about the glorious spring days ahead. Mostly we just think about how gross it is outside and it can seem like the rain will never end.

The weather in my soul can be like that sometimes too. On the sunny, happy days, I relax into an easy joy, appreciating my blessings and living in the moment. I know that dark days will find me again, but I don't worry about it because there's not a cloud in sight. On the dark days, though, I can't find any sign that the sun will return. Everything is hard and sad and I feel tired and weak. How will I make it, I wonder? When will my world change and bring me back to a happier, more stable place?

I don't always have control over the seasons of my soul. Challenges come and I struggle to adapt within the confines of my own weaknesses. I can't make the sun come out again all on my own, and I start to feel helpless. The truth is that to a certain extent, I am helpless—at least on my own. Luckily, I have a strong defender who won't let me perish. He won't take away all the bad weather, but he'll help me get through it, and he'll use it to fertilize the growth in my soul. Just like wildfires cleanse the prairie and rain nourishes the grass, God will use these hard times to enrich me in the end. And in the midst of them, he'll help me get through.

With that in mind, I'll close with some lyrics from the song "Flood" by Jars of Clay:

Rain, rain on my face
It hasn't stopped raining for days
My world is a flood
Slowly I become one with the mud

But if I can't swim after forty days
And my mind is crushed by the thrashing waves
Lift me up so high that I cannot fall
Lift me up

Lift me up when I'm falling
Lift me up, I'm weak and I'm dying
Lift me up, I need you to hold me
Lift me up, keep me from drowning again

(Click here to read the rest of the lyrics. Click here to listen to the song.)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What does the LORD require of you?

I work for a private liberal arts college. Our honors convocation is coming up, and it's my job to prepare the programs to go to print. We have three big events with a faculty procession in full academic regalia: Opening Convocation, Honors Convocation, and Commencement. At each of these events, the chaplain reads a salutatory and a valedictory. She's chosen a lot of interesting readings over the years that I've been at this college. She's read poems both famous and obscure and excerpts from authors I've never even heard of. Once she even read a passage from The Lord of the Rings (my nerd friends loved that—it was at their commencement ceremony).

This is the first time since I've been here that she has chosen a Biblical text for one of these readings. Our college is not affiliated with any religious organization, and we dropped our "chapel" requirement about 30 years ago. The chaplain is charged with meeting the religious needs of all students, and organizes observances from people of many different faiths. Although she was trained as a UCC pastor, she often comes across more as a Unitarian, very accepting of a wide variety of faiths and religious expression. Because she must nurture the spirituality of many different people of many different faiths, I think she has to be careful not to come across as "too" Christian at the risk of alienating some people. She has a hard job, and she does it remarkably well. That's why I was so surprised that she would pick a Biblical reading in this college that is so secular and diverse.

The reading she chose is Micah 6:6–8. I've copied it below:

With what shall I come before the LORD
       and bow down before the exalted God?
       Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
       with calves a year old?

 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
       with ten thousand rivers of oil?
       Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
       the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

 He has showed you, O man, what is good.
       And what does the LORD require of you?
       To act justly and to love mercy
       and to walk humbly with your God.

I suppose I know why she chose it. The many different religious expressions at this college converge around the worldview of the liberal arts—enlightenment, justice, humility, cooperation, and creativity are promoted in many different ways to every member of the college community. Whether or not we are Christian, everyone at this college is expected to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with no expectation that we can buy our way in life.

Yet, that's only the surface of what this reading is really about. The liberal arts would teach us that we should be just, merciful, and humble because it's good for society in general, and that's true. But who taught us to be altruistic? How did we come to believe that working for the good of everyone was better than selfishly backstabbing and quarreling for our own profit alone? It is very enlightened to be concerned with the good of society, but at my deepest level, my instincts tell me to abandon everyone but my dearest loved ones in order to meet my own needs. I overcome this urge not through an intellect that convinces me that altruism is better and smarter than selfishness but through a heart that loves others too much to turn on them. My altruism comes from God and the lessons he has taught me, not from the wisdom of my own mind. While I think it's good and right that secular institutions teach us to be good and conscientious citizens, I know I need something stronger to serve as a foundation for those lessons so that I carry them on through even the hardest times in my life—I need God.

I endeavor to be a good citizen because that is what God requires of me. I recognize that God requires it because it is good and right, but I'm not sure if I would have known exactly what good and right are if I didn't have God to teach me and help me. I think that intellect is a marvelous tool when put to the service of God (consider Paul), but intellect is no replacement for God. Walking humbly isn't enough for me. I want to walk humbly with my God.

I wonder how many of the listening students and faculty members at Honors Convocation will draw a similar conclusion when they hear these words.

Monday, May 10, 2010


I smiled as the first person approached, and I tore off a piece of bread with my thumb and forefinger. "The body of Christ, given for you," I said, and I placed the piece of bread in the open palm. I don't remember exactly who came first, but that person was followed by many more in the quiet bustle of communion.

There were the nice people who come to Bible Study on Tuesdays. Most people look serious when they come through the communion line, but these two smiled back at me.

My husband was in the other line, but I still looked up and caught his eye as he came near. I could feel him close, and it was a warm feeling.

I smiled reassuringly at the little girl who seemed so shy that at first I wasn't sure if she wanted to receive the bread or not. But then she held out her little hand and looked up at me timidly. I gave her the bread, and her father put his hand gently on her shoulder as they moved on.

For a while I noticed that the pastor and I were in perfect rhythm. "The body of Christ given for you, the blood of Christ shed for you," we would say in unison. I could hear the other communion servers speaking these lines too. All of us spoke together, on top of each other, and yet each person heard only the one who was speaking directly to him or her. There was sense in the jumble of words coming out of four mouths at once.

The congregation finished the two communion hymns and then the choir began to sing. What a heavenly sound, I distractedly thought to myself as I smiled and spoke to the person standing in front of me. I glanced up at the choir loft, but it was empty. Then I looked down the line of people waiting to receive communion and saw the choir gathered out in the narthex, singing through the double doors at the back of the church. The ethereal sound of their voices washed over all of us, breathing a gentle warmth on our spirits.

A beautiful, tottering old lady whom I've seen often but never formally met approached me. She had the most beautiful pink corsage pinned to her jacket in honor of Mother's Day. I looked at her bright yet wrinkled old face and thought of all of the children and grandchildren whose lives she must have touched. I imagined all the boundless love caught up in that little pink corsage. I didn't know her, but as I imagined the family who had picked out that corsage for her, I loved and admired her too.

Here came the members of the choir, people I've sung with and laughed with. I hoped they all knew how beautiful their singing had just been. I made a mental note to tell them as often as possible how much I enjoy listening to them.

All the faces passed by, people I knew and people I didn't know, but in the simple action of sharing communion I was connected to them all. Finally came a pair of friends with their new baby. As I looked at his tiny little face, he was also my hope for the future, a gift from God with the power to benefit the entire community, the whole body of Christ. Every mother's love, every child's smile, every person's hope was part of the community to which I belonged, and I could feel that more strongly than ever as I stood at the front of the church, watching them all come by.

Then it was over. I carried the pastor's chalice and my empty plate back into the sacristy. Soon we would all disperse into the wide world (or at least into the little town of Northfield), and it would be a while before we came back together again. Still, we would be connected because of this meal we had just shared and the faith that binds us to God and to one another.
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