Who Will Be in Heaven?

Heaven is as real as potatoes. I’m as sure there’s a heaven as I am that the sun will come up tomorrow. Heaven is wonderful beyond human imagination and will fulfill our deepest longings. It will surpass the beauty of earth because it is new and unspoiled, an uncontaminated Eden without pollution or destruction. We will have perfect, imperishable bodies untouched by sickness or deformity. No one will experience sadness, pain, or loss because blight and evil are altogether unknown. Above all, Heaven lasts forever because our host is God, Himself. Heaven is his and it is pure as He is pure.

The older I get, the more I long for Heaven. William Wordsworth famously complained that “the world is too much with us,” and I couldn’t agree more. It isn’t just that I’m older and weaker, although I am that. My heart aches for right in a world that seems overwhelmed by wrong. I crave kindness, love, and gentleness, but the world seems to praise the rude, arrogant, and godless. I’m weary of headlines brimming with murder and crime, and I’m so done with our society’s ridicule of what is wholesome and pure.

Could those of us who long for heaven be simply creating a dream world? Are our ideas merely the result of poor education and lack of sophistication, the hillbilly concepts of backwoods snake handlers? After all, on every hand brilliant scientists with their astute minds pooh-pooh the existence of God. How can I integrate my belief in Heaven with that? And—can my belief in an exclusive heaven survive alongside the teachings of the world’s other religions? Is heaven even real?

The Bible Teaches Heaven

Yes, Heaven is real. I make that claim because that’s what the Bible teaches. It’s important, though, to understand if what we believe about heaven is what the Bible actually does teach. What many people today believe about heaven is a conglomeration of the Bible, popular culture, superstition, and even other religions. What is it you believe?

The idea of an afterlife seems to have been around as long as the human race. People are fascinated with it. The spark of human personality is so compelling that we cannot imagine this short life will end it. The afterlife is invariably linked to our understanding of the soul, that part of us that surpasses the physical and sustains the human spirit beyond the grave. Common among various religions is the idea that eternity is a place where we will pay for our sins or be rewarded for our goodness. Many eastern religions understand the afterlife as a place where one is in transition from one life to another or as a condition in which we continue to improve or regress.

Most religions teach, in one way or another, that people die in various stages of readiness for the hereafter.

  • Hinduism teaches that you have to achieve perfection to earn heaven. Reincarnation gives each person endless chances to “keep trying” to get it right. This can go on forever.
  • Buddhism teaches that each person can ultimately achieve Nirvana, but that It is neither justifiable or reasonable to believe in an eternal heaven or hell. Meditation, good works, and kindness help each person find inner peace and transcendence from the physical world.  “The wise man makes his own heaven while the foolish man creates his own hell here and hereafter.”[1]
  • Islam teaches that a physically rewarding heaven and horrible hell are real. Allah will compensate the faithful for what they did, or did not do, on earth. The virtuous will go to heaven; those who don’t measure up to the Quran’s teachings, to hell. In other words, going to heaven depends on what you do.
  • Mormons believe everyone will go to some level of heaven, and even that marriage will continue (for those who were wed in a Mormon Temple.)

Fake Heavens

 Today many people prefer to create a heaven with which they are comfortable. The recent flood of books and films that describe near death experiences and visions of heaven have clouded biblical teaching. Rob Bell, who famously founded the Mars Hill Bible Church later said that his book, Love Wins, led to a fallout with the congregation and forced him on a “search for a more forgiving faith.”[2] He now believes everyone will be saved and that orthodox Christianity is unpalatable.

He’s not the first—or the last—of a swelling number of Christians who are moving away from any idea of hell. God is perceived as “too loving” to send people to hell. Besides, any teaching that claims any lifestyle or habit is right or wrong is politically incorrect. I allege that a significant percentage of Christians have utterly abandoned any concept of living a holy lifestyle different from the lifestyles of non-Christians. Their “OMG” lifestyle contains just as much alcoholism, adultery, pornography, and self-indulgence as the rest of society. They ignore or explain away New Testament teaching that clearly labels sin for what it is. Is it any wonder that Christians like this readily follow the idea that what is “justifiable” or “reasonable” takes precedence over what scripture teaches about being a Christ follower? Such believers cannot imagine that they, their children, or loved ones might be excluded from heaven for any reason. They have therefore created a God who overlooks sin. But if God overlooks sin, Calvary was totally unnecessary.

What did Jesus teach?

Jesus said told Martha after Lazarus died, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying.  [John 11:25}. He told his disciples that he was going to prepare a place for them so that they could live with him in his father’s house [John 14:1].

 So far, so good. But Jesus also told Martha, “Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die.” To the disciples he added, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. [John 14:6]. He also warns us, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” [Matthew 7:22-23] And that is a warning not just for ourselves, lest we deceive ourselves into thinking we are following Christ when we are not. It is also a warning that we not be sentimental as though everybody who is a good person who died is going to be in Heaven.[3]

Here’s the real issue: sin. Neither good works nor being a good person erase sin. Meditation is useful and can bring a more serene lifestyle, but by itself does not take care of the sin problem. God’s heaven is exclusively for the sinless. This is not snobbishness or saying that Christ followers are better than other people. Christ provides a way through his sacrifice. “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation” [Romans 5:6-9]. God is just and merciful. His overwhelming love sent His sinless son, Jesus Christ, to forgive our sins. Who could be more forgiving than that? But hear this: rejecting this last and best option will keep you out of heaven.

“If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved” (Romans 10:9-10 NLT).

Ultimately, I agree with C. S. Lewis, who said in The Great Divorce, “If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell…. There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it.

 

[1] https://www.budsas.org/ebud/whatbudbeliev/303.htm

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rob_Bell

[3] From an interview with John Piper https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/can-loved-ones-in-heaven-look-down-on-me

Becoming Ageless, or the Purpose of Aging

Are you fascinated with how people age? I am. A popular Internet feature called, “Where Are They Now?” features photos of show business legends when we knew them and as they look now. Usually the changes are dramatic. After fifty years, some people are unrecognizable. Others look almost the same. Why is that?

Henry Winkler before and after
Henry Winkler as “the Fonze” on “Happy Days” and in 2015

Well, there’s genetics, skin tone, and, with the complexity of the human body, multitudes of reasons for this. Ultimately, does it matter? Some say yes. They feel that their looks are too important to allow nature to take its course, which explains the surging worldwide phenomenon of cosmetic surgery and why Hollywood stars seem almost ageless.

But only for a while. Clearly, growing old is inevitable. Our bodies were never intended to live forever. Have you noticed that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead once, but not twice? Lazarus died like the rest of us will. It’s inescapable.

The question is not “How can you look good as long as you live?” but “What can you learn about being truly ageless?” Being ageless is a matter of the spirit, not the body.

Becoming ageless

Becoming ageless is the exact opposite of looking as young as you can for as long as you can. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take care of yourself or that you should dress sloppily. Rather, we must change our focus from the physical to spiritual. Dr. Paul Brand, trail-blazing hand surgeon who did groundbreaking work with lepers in India, was son of missionaries. Long after most people would have retired, his parents stayed on in India. And, after his father died, his mother flatly refused to move back to England and take up residence in “one of those graveyards for old people,” remaining until her death in a remote village in India where she continued her loving work among those to whom she had given her life. In later years, she disliked how she looked as she grew older and so she removed all the mirrors from her house so she could concentrate on her beloved villagers. They never saw an “old person,” but only a woman alight with Christ’s love and the Holy Spirit who lived with them until she was finally carried out on a stretcher. She clearly was ageless.

How vastly different from those around the world today who are obsessed with appearance: looks, and above all, a carefully crafted public image. Was there ever a time when more people spent more time creating a facade that they think will impress people but which is, in fact, far from reality? Besides the political and entertainment personalities who do this, don’t many of us put pictures and information on Facebook and Twitter that we think will impress people? Not to mention dating sites, where 10% of dating profiles have been determined as fake, particularly from men.[1]

I am trying to pay less attention to the way I am aging, but I confess that I am way too aware of my wrinkles and loss of muscle tone. It’s vanity, plain and simple, and I’m working to shift my focus. This is what God is telling me: He chisels away our mortality so we can reveal his image. This has to do with aging, healing, sickness—everything. The purpose of aging is to abandon the physical. When we expend Herculean effort to look young and vibrant, we miss the purpose of aging, which is spiritual vitality. Have you considered that feebleness is really a gift?  We are given youth only long enough to learn that our bodies are not the place to invest.  The death rate is 100%.

As a pastor I was sometimes given a window into the true nature of the physical. I watched a beautiful young woman in her late twenties decline shockingly from aggressive cancer. As her abdomen swelled with the virulent malignancy, her muscle tone and body fat elsewhere was cannibalized by the awful disease until she became skeletal and almost unrecognizable. Just as extraordinary, however, was the spiritual growth that blossomed within her ravaged body. When I saw her just before her death, I could not hide my immediate dismay at her awful appearance. She smiled and said, “It’s okay, Pastor. I’m abandoning this house very soon for one that is both perfect and eternal.” She glowed with an inner light that moves me even now as I recall that sacred moment. I could almost see the exchange taking place as her spirit outgrew and displaced her body.  I have never forgotten this moment when the true nature of physical life was laid bare before me.

God makes everything new.

In the film The Passion of the Christ Jesus says to his mother on his way to Golgotha, “I am making everything new.” These words of Christ actually come from Revelation 21:5, although I found them deeply moving and fitting during this scene. It is the risen, glorified, and resplendent Christ who explains heaven in John’s vision.   This is not just an overhaul, or a sprucing up of things that need repair. No, this is absolutely new, never before witnessed creation, just like at the beginning of time. In this way Time Works Backwards.[2] All the way back to Genesis before the fall. Unspoiled. Unpolluted. Untouched by sin. Forever beyond the ravages of time, because time will be gone. Forgiveness, grace, acceptance, and healing will have finally and completely accomplished their purpose. And we will have a new body, not a clumsy remake!

“My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20).

“Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven….Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth.  For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3).

[1] https://blog.siftscience.com/2016/what-percentage-of-dating-profiles-are-fake/

[2]  Phrase from The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis

The Truth about Getting Old

“You’re not old, grandma, not really old!”  One woman’s five-year-old granddaughter comforted her about turning 65 and, holding her face in her hands, assured her that she really was still a valuable person.  Getting old is a problem if even little children don’t want you to become an old person. Why?  Where does a little child get the idea that old is bad?

Today when our youth oriented society hears “old,” they immediately conjure up images of incontinence and vacant-eyed Alzheimer’s patients. It seems that most everyone in this country associates getting old with bad things: poor health, deteriorating appearance, being dependent on others, and even irrelevance. “In the workplace, if you reach a certain age, you’re getting a message that you really should get out of the way, make room for younger people, and at the same time, getting a message that you’re a burden on society if you do.”[1] It is almost to the point that to refer to someone as “old” is offensive.  And we do not like to talk about dying. But that’s another blog.

Did you ever think about being old when you were young? I never did. That happened to someone else, like my parents. Mostly I never even thought about it. It was at my fiftieth birthday party that the “old” jokes started coming out. We all laughed when somebody gave me an application for AARP. It was hilarious that I was given a cane with a horn on it. Other gifts were a magnifying glass, a nose hair trimmer, a couple of quarts of prune juice, and a box of Depends. This was all good-natured fun and we loved it.

But now–suddenly, (if you can call two decades “suddenly”)—here I am, almost 72. Now, don’t immediately jump to my defense and say, “That’s not old!” It’s okay. However, my body and mind are undergoing something big, and I want to talk about it.

I have found myself woefully unaware of the profound effects aging can have. On top of that, I am surprised about how intensely these changes affect me when I thought it would be “no big deal.” And, if I fulfill my parents’ genetic legacy, I’m just a novice at aging with decades still to go.

Growing old: the bad news.

  • Aging changes your body, like it or not.

I used to think, when looking at my parents, “Why do they look so sad all of the time?”  Now I see those same expressions on my face! It was not sadness, disapproval, or anger. It was gravity! We praise those who, like actress Cicely Tyson, are still starring in Broadway shows at 90, but the truth is most of us will not be this vigorous at 90, even if we exercise, eat right, and keep a great attitude. Our bodies wear out, period. We wear out at different rates and from different things, but we do wear out. Genetics deals each of us a different hand when it comes to aging. I hope that you’re in the majority of the population who do not have arthritis. However, neither Karon nor I can wear the shoes we used to because our feet hurt too much. Your hair may be white but your face is still smooth. My hair may still be mostly brown, but my face looks like a road map.

We find our list of doctors growing to include urologists, ophthalmologists, cardiologists, rheumatologists, and, for some, oncologists. Our shopping trips now take us to aisles at Walmart we never expected to be in. We look around, embarrassed, when we select Depends Shields, “for drips and dribbles.” (I can imagine the young graphic artist who designed this package rolling his eyes. He never imagines that he, too, will need such things.) We ask people to speak to our left side because that’s our good ear. And why does everyone mumble these days?

The Mayo Clinic suggests that we can expect these changes as we grow older: your cardiovascular system, your bones, joints, and muscles, your digestive system, your bladder and urinary tract, and your memory.[2]

  • Aging can change your mind, like it or not.

Most of us older people have moments when we can’t remember where they put our keys or forget or confuse people’s names. Like the two couples below…

Two elderly couples were enjoying friendly conversation when one of the men asked the other, “Fred, how was the memory clinic you went to last month?”

“Outstanding,” Fred replied. “They taught us all the latest psychological techniques, like visualization, association, and so on. It was great. I haven’t had a problem since.”

“Sounds like something I could use. What was the name of the clinic?”

Fred went blank. He thought and thought, but couldn’t remember. Then a smile broke across his face and he asked, “What do you call that flower with the long stem and thorns?”

“You mean a rose?”

“Yes, that’s it!”

He turned to his wife, “Hey Rose, what was the name of that memory clinic?”

Some normal, mild memory loss comes to almost all of us with aging, but many will face more serious cognitive impairment, dementia, or Alzheimer’s. (My mother died of Alzheimer’s.)

  • Aging robs us of family, friends, and independence.

According to the U. S. Census Bureau, 800,000 people in the US are widowed each year. 87% of those are women. Loss of a spouse is ranked as the number one stressor. 60% of these widowed (men and women) will experience a serious illness such as cancer, shingles, or heart disease in the twelve months following that loss.[3] In addition to this there is an increased likelihood that a recently widowed person will die (between 30% – 90% in the first three months and around 15% in the months thereafter). This is one of the best documented examples of the effect of social relations on health.[4]

cw-shultz
My Mom and Dad, Clair and Retha Shultz in 1999. He died in 2003.

The loss of independence is extremely difficult. I remember someone called me after church one Sunday and said, “Dave, I followed your parents home from church today and your Dad was all over the road.” Not only that, but he was parking half on and half off the curb. More frightening was the thought of the accidents that might happen. We finally had to insist that my Dad relinquish his driver’s license.

As he entered the nineties, my Dad struggled with a deep sense of irrelevance. Not only was his car gone, but so were his study and woodworking shop, two places that defined him. Then his mind began to fail, as did his ready wit. When I look in the mirror I see my Dad’s wrinkled face looking back at me. I am trying to prepare myself for these contingencies.

  • Age can diminish spiritual vitality.

The Bible talks a lot about age and offers many examples of people who maintained or lost spiritual vigor. Notable is King Solomon: “As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been” (1 Kings 11:4 (NIV).

Dan Davis, a Lifeway author, writes[5]: “Notice how this verse does not begin. It does not begin ‘When Solomon was young and imploring the Lord for wisdom’ or ‘When Solomon had just completed building the temple….No, it begins ‘When Solomon was old.’”

Worldliness, you see, creeps in slowly….it sits down and talks like a friend. Worldliness does not, at first, talk to you about bad things. It just talks to you about…things. Before long trivia fills your mind. Television programs, games, and doctors’ appointments become the focus of your days. And slowly, the eyes of your heart become heavy, start to close, and eventually you fall asleep. You stop reading the Bible, stop praying, and stop thinking about God. And that was Solomon’s undoing. Solomon was still smart, but he lost his focus and abandoned his first love.

Constructive responses to growing old.

 Even in the face of such daunting statistics, we can face the future with hope and joy. David Roper in Our Daily Bread [6] observes, “Old age does not have to focus on declining health, pining over what once was. It can also be full of tranquility and mirth and courage and kindness, the fruit of those who have grown old with God.”

  • The human spirit can transcend difficulty.

ree-glamor-shot-2005
My Mom, Retha Shultz, posing for a “glamour shot” at 90. Mom lived until she was 97.

I am blessed with stellar examples of this upbeat and give confidant attitude. My Mom used to say that “old” was one decade beyond wherever she was. She meant by this that she would not let a fatalistic and downcast mindset overtake her.( You can read her story here: That was then. This is now.)

flo-on-ferris-wheel-columbus-oh-2007
My mother-in-law, Flo Neal, riding the Ferris wheel at the Ohio State Fair in 2006, the year before she died at 1986.

My mother-in-law, Flo Neal, became noticeably more vibrant in her eighties. She refused to allow pain or handicaps to limit her. In fact, we didn’t know almost until her death that she had terrible pain in her legs from peripheral arterial disease. Until the day she died, at 86, she disciplined herself to reach out to her neighbors and friends, many of whom still testify to her dynamic spiritual impact.

  • This body is just our temporary home. Our spirits are eternal.

Paul’s illuminating words underscore this essential truth. “God, who first ordered ‘light to shine in darkness’, has flooded our hearts with his light….This priceless treasure we hold, so to speak, in a common earthenware jar—to show that the splendid power of it belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:6-7, J.B. Phillips). We must remember every morning that our fragile and transient bodies are but a short-lived residence for our spirits, which are unconquerable!

David Roper, who I quoted above, must use a walker because of peripheral neuropathy. “I’m trying to learn, however, that my limitation, whatever it may be, is a gift from God, and it is with this gift that I am to serve Him….Seeing our so-called liabilities this way enables us to go about our business with confidence and courage. Rather than complain, feel sorry for ourselves, or opt out, we make ourselves available to God for His intended purposes”[7]

  • Being active can vastly improve the years we do have.

helen-karon-and-dave-90th-b-day-june-2012
Karon, Helen, and I in Seattle at her 90th birthday party in 2012. She’s still going strong!

Medical science continues to discover how vitally important exercise is for the human body, no matter how old you are. Helen Flynt, my adopted mother, now in her mid-nineties, still walks three miles a day, a longstanding practice that surely contributes to her energetic schedule. In a recent email, she told me that, “I try to limit activities to two a day, if possible” (in addition to walking, of course). She also attends special events, such as a Regional minister’s meeting, a three-day affair in Portland (she lives in Seattle), a Mariner’s baseball game, and regularly is involved in weekly church functions and monthly interest groups, such as Quilter’s Anonymous. Until a year or so ago she also was in the Senior Swingers Orchestra that performed several concerts a year, but she dropped out because “it was taking too much time for rehearsals and programs.” I am exhausted just contemplating this schedule.

Obviously, Helen’s energetic lifestyle is beyond many of us, but we all can exercise, even if it’s only walking regularly. Karon and I play tennis three times a week. Don’t imagine us leaping across the courts with tanned and muscular bodies. No, but we do play doubles with other seniors, a great way to enjoy the sport when your joints complain. Most in our group are old hands at joint replacements, cataract surgeries, and back surgeries like mine. As beneficial as the exercise is the hour and a half we spend laughing three times a week. The point is to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine. Move, move, move. Your body is built for exercise.

  • Our spiritual life is capable of endless growth and enrichment!

Even as our bodies weaken, our spirits can blossom as never before. I love this promise from Psalm 92:12-15

But the godly will flourish like palm trees
and grow strong like the cedars of Lebanon.

For they are transplanted to the Lord’s own house.
They flourish in the courts of our God.
Even in old age they will still produce fruit;
they will remain vital and green.

They will declare, “The Lord is just!
He is my rock!
There is no evil in him!”

Many of us are still busy with activities, travel, and hobbies. Even in retirement it is easy to let time for Bible reading and prayer slip away. How tragic if now, with flexible schedules, we slide God and His Word to the back burner. This is why illnesses, pain, and difficulties can be our friends, because they make us realize our need for constant connection with God.

arlyne-wells
Arlyne Wells (taken from her Facebook page in 2016)

Arlyne Wells was in a dreadful automobile accident twenty-four hours after her high school graduation in 1989. Left a quadriplegic for the past twenty-seven years, she exudes an outgoing positive attitude and daily uses her Facebook page to post uplifting and positive scriptures and quotations. She has a great sense of humor. She surely faces constant and enormous physical and emotional challenges, disappointments, and pain, yet she chooses to invest her time by cultivating her relationship to God and encouraging others. This focus allows her to keep upbeat and optimistic rather than allow her handicaps to defeat and discourage her. Arlyne is not old but she is facing many challenges typical of old age. She is doing it with grace and a growing spiritual vitality born of her strong will and intention to help others.  I want to do this.

[1] Laura Carstensen @ http://www.npr.org/2016/02/06/465819152/times-have-changed-what-should-we-call-old-people

[2] See the full article here http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/healthy-aging/in-depth/aging/art-20046070  This article also suggests the best ways to stay as healthy as possible.

[3] http://www.widowshope.org/first-steps/these-are-the-statistics/

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2636447/

[5] http://www.gospelproject.com/2013/01/07/creeping-worldliness/

[6] “ Red Hackle,” Our Daily Bread, September, October, November 2016, November 27, Our Daily Bread Ministries, PO Box 2222, Grand Rapids, MI 49501-2222

[7] Ibid. “This Gift.”

Letting Go

letting go
Seven days ago was that perfect day gardeners dream about: sunny, a light breeze, time on my hands, and work that needs to be done. This is what I love and have always loved. I remember even as a child the satisfaction of sweeping dead leaves from the sidewalk and weeding flower beds so they look better. The love of growing things and landscaping yards has been my hobby for as long as I can remember. I have scoured plant catalogs for days as spring approached and woefully discovered that what arrives in the email rarely bears even a slight resemblance to the bountifully blooming plant pictured on those pages. Nevertheless I persevered: fertilizing, spading, weeding, and planting. I drew landscaping diagrams on graph paper and witnessed the circles and lines transform into flowering crab apple trees and beds of brilliant tulips. I wore out wheelbarrows and shovels and frequented local nurseries so much they knew me by name. I designed pergolas in California and rock gardens in Arizona. And I loved every minute of it.

Seven days ago Karon also answered the gardener’s call and tackled a project that involved moving rocks, a furniture dolly, and a wheelbarrow. Not that long ago I would have been the one moving rocks and wheeling them to a new spot with the furniture dolly. Seven days ago, not so much. Work like that now disables me for several days and so, much to my chagrin, I step aside and let Karon do the “big” jobs. Instead, on that perfect day, I settled for a less arduous task of trimming last fall’s dead foliage out of the planter and around the bird feeders. I felt the warm sun on my shoulders and listened to the house finches fussing over the sunflower seed in the feeder. My favorite music was playing from Pandora in my back pocket. Yes, it was a glorious day. In about an hour I had filled up the trash can and slowly stood to view my handiwork. Yup, it looked great!

The next morning it was hard to stand up and I reached for my cane. Burning pain accompanied those familiar aches in my back and down my legs. It subsided long enough for some tennis with friends, but by afternoon I knew that my evening plans would not materialize. Karon went to the church dinner without me. My pain sidelined me from our Sunday service, too. Odd, sitting home on Sunday morning.

 

A Painful Realization

Later, as I sat reading the Bible and writing in my journal, I sensed that another milestone was arriving that I don’t want to acknowledge: soon I am going to have to give up gardening. I can hardly even write these words because it’s inconceivable to me that this day may be near. But I’m afraid it is.

As we age we start saying “goodbye” more and more often. The children grow up and leave home. The grandchildren grow up, too, and get married. We retire and leave meaningful work we loved. We sell the house and downsize, probably the first of other such moves. We attend more funerals than weddings. We adapt to hearing aids and patronizing strangers. We catch a look at our reflection in the Walmart window and see our father or mother instead, stooped and wearing big tennis shoes. Can that be us? Yes. I’m afraid that very few of us look like the “vibrant” older adults on the cover of AARP magazine.

Socrates quote

I’m learning that letting go is part of aging: we must let go of the demand that everyone agrees with us, looks like us, or thinks like us. We must let others—even our children and grandchildren—be themselves. I must let go of my perfectionism. (I know, I know. But it’s so hard when everyone needs my advice and so many pictures need straightening.) I must let go of things that are not good for me, and now—sadly–that includes some of my favorite things.

Many people—some not that old—face difficult change. Even children cope with cancer, cystic fibrosis, autism, and their parents’ divorce. Thousands face eviction, evacuation, or the catastrophic loss of life and limb in natural disasters and war. If we don’t die first, we will all grow old.

Our national and world situations seem worse than ever, and there is a lot of discontent these days on the Internet:  people rail at change and post online about being “mad as hornets” about this and that. I admit that I am disgusted along with the psalmist who pleaded to God, “Don’t let liars prosper here in our land” (Psalm 140:11). I fear America no longer even faintly resembles the America I know and love, and the majority of voters share neither my ideals nor my hopes. Every generation faces similar wars, losses, and personal disappointments.

If all we get from disappointment and aging is bitterness and anger, are we not missing the most fertile years of our life to become like Christ? We can learn to face loss without becoming resentful. We can learn to accept change without blaming others or God.

 

Good from Loss

I remember hearing a missionary friend once tell me that his life had been characterized by lots of goodbyes: goodbye to friends, favorite restaurants, familiar neighborhoods, and family. But he went on to say that he discovered there also were many hellos: new friends, new foods, and new things to appreciate. Maybe we can learn to look for hellos: more time for reading, perhaps; or more time to pray. Some may face the frightening prison of Alzheimer’s disease, but most of will always be able to pray. God is endlessly creative and has the knack for making things out of nothing. (Read Genesis.) Cannot He create fresh ideas in our aging minds and bring us to refreshing discoveries about transferring our reliance from what we have lost to what we still have; and ultimately to God alone?

We must learn to let go. These are the years to get rid of our controlling demands and our stubborn wills. Have you ever thought that anger is a demand? These are the years to take time—we have plenty of it—to cherish others and find ways to encourage them and help them to feel good about themselves. These are the years to finally study the Bible and ask God to reveal himself to us in different ways. Now is the time to learn contentment and to accept—with joy—what each day offers.

Perhaps every generation is surprised by aging. Even though we as children have seen our pet turtles and goldfish die and, more recently, our parents fail, it’s a shock when we are the ones who hurt every morning and walk everywhere with aching feet. Perhaps being forced to let go is God’s way of gently forcing us to prepare for the transition from a physical world to one of the spirit, from being independent to interdependent to dependent.

let go and let God copy

Last year one of my first blogs was about my mother’s transition from life to death and her phrase,” That was then. This is now.” My mistake was thinking it was easy.

 

No Curses Remain

 

family hug
God’s everlasting blessing

May God bend close to you today and hold you tightly in His big arms. There you will find endless peace, wonderful comfort, and limitless grace to face whatever comes your way. At times it seems that physical bodies are sabotaging us,  My degenerating spine and resultant pain remind me to contemplate Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:7, 16-18 (NLT) “We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves….Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.”

You and I may never meet on this earth, but we joyfully look forward to that Day when Jesus Christ will make everything right and new. In that Land where God Himself is light and all darkness, sin, illness, and death are forever banished, we will dance and never grow tired, we will sing and never lose our voices, we will visit new friends and old, and we will finally understand every marvelous nuance of God’s Word because we will sit at His feet and He will explain all things to us. We will live in that new Eden where we visit with God in the cool of the evening. There God’s angels will show us “a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. We will see it flowing down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grows a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. These trees produce healing for all physical, spiritual, emotional illnesses. We will all splash like children in those waters [1] (which are the source of those miraculous healing pools of Bethesda [2]).

No curses remain. There are neither genetic defects nor agonizing memories of abuse. No bullies, hatemongers, or tyrants will be present. Never again will we see, experience, or even hear about wickedness, evil, murder, or war, for God is the King and this is His Kingdom where the wolf and the lamb will live together and a little child will lead them[3]. The throne of God and of the Lamb is there, and his servants worship him. And we will see his face and there will be no night there—no need for lamps or sun—for the Lord God will shine on us and in us. And we will reign forever and ever.

Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

[1] Adapted from Revelation 22

[2] John 5:2-4 Inside the city, near the Sheep Gate, was the pool of Bethesda, with five covered porches. Crowds of sick people—blind, lame, or paralyzed—lay on the porches waiting for a certain movement of the water, for an angel of the Lord came from time to time and stirred up the water. And the first person to step in after the water was stirred was healed of whatever disease he had.

[3] Isaiah 11:6

Saying the Wrong Thing at the Wrong Time

Has it happened to you? A well-meaning friend or even a stranger has offered advice that you did not ask for and ended up totally baffling you or leaving you feeling worse than before. “Aren’t you married yet?” someone said to our wonderful single friend who had endured horrible relationships and yet was a positive and insightful woman. I still remember a family friend looking me up and down when I was about ten. “David, you’re too fat!” she exclaimed.

Off the top of my head, there are a few categories of comments we make:

  1. Nitpicking (“Pastor, you pronounced Mephibosheth incorrectly. I knew you’d want to know.”)
  2. Uncalled for advice (To someone with cancer: “Well, you know the statistics. One in three will get it.”)
  3. Judgments (“She looks like she’s pregnant”), and
  4. I don’t know what to say but I have to say something. (To the pastor: “I enjoyed your little talk.”)

No one group of people is better at this than others. We’ve all put out foot into our mouths. Some people seem to live that way. As we approach another presidential election, be prepared for wild and sweeping statements by just about everyone, whether it’s the latest Hillary bashing, Hillary bashing someone else, the right wingers assigning all liberals to hell, or the liberals calling the right wingers idiots. Hey, it’s our national pastime and its Bibles are in the tabloid racks at supermarkets and the airwaves. Twitter is a helpful vehicle if you want to get the word out quickly. We all know that the truth can be gauged by the number of hits on a web posting, the number of views on YouTube, or the latest polls from the media.

saying the wrong thing-idea copy

If you want to live your life far from the madding crowd, step back from all the hype and blather, take a deep breath, and think before you speak, post, or write. Perhaps we should hit fewer “Like” buttons on Facebook and consider the true needs of the people with whom we rub shoulders day after day. Isn’t sharing posts we have not researched in 2015 like gossiping at the backyard fence in 1940? Our yearning to be the first one to communicate it trumps whether or not it’s true. Or wise. Or kind.

Think before You Speak

I was blessed to grow up in a Christian home. Our denomination leaned toward Wesley rather than Calvin (free will vs. predestination), and we emphasized unity, sanctification, and divine healing. If you don’t know what this means, hang on for a minute. Let me illustrate briefly how even the best-intentioned of people can say the wrong thing at the wrong time.

We loved the doctrine of divine healing and share stories of those who were miraculously restored to health. One of our main leaders displayed on his office wall the crutches and canes of people who no longer needed them. Without discounting any of these marvelous testimonies, let me observe that many slipped into the seat of judgment when talking to or about people who were not healed. Our theology was a little thin at this point. While praising faith we forgot grace, and sometimes assumed—and said so—that people were not healed because they had unforgiven sin in their lives. We criticized their faith as insufficient or flawed. We said they didn’t pray with the right words or passion.

We had to face it as time wore on. Not every Christian was healed. When a prominent and respected national leader’s twins died instead of recovering in spite of prodigious efforts around the world to move the hand of God, we began to relax our theology of healing and consider that God might not fit into the box we had built for him.

What the family—the one whose twins died—needed was not judgment but compassion. They didn’t benefit from the endless speculation about their failures of faith. In fact, I imagine it wounded them deeply. What they did need was arms around their shoulders and an outpouring of love and support.

A Call for Kindness and the Benefit of the Doubt

The other day one of my tennis friends returned from an extended vacation. She had not seen us in a while and wanted to catch up on everyone. When I mentioned the name of another player I knew she didn’t care for, she…let’s say she found it challenging to be positive. (I knew for a fact she had refused to play on the same court with that person.) I mentioned how well the uncared for tennis player had done in her absence, pointing out a few of her good qualities. My recently returned friend looked at me with amazement. “You’re incredibly kind!” she said. Am I? I know that I want to be

What do you say to someone you know has been diagnosed with what could be a terminal illness? Here’s where we need to stop and think before we rush in and say the wrong thing. What not to say:

  • “I’m sure you will be better soon.” This attempt to be positive is inaccurate and unhelpful.
  • “You need to try these essential oils (or organic products, bee pollen, etc.)” Thousands of popular remedies may have marginal benefit if any. Those with terminal illnesses get far too many of these simplistic solutions. Leave prescribing to the doctors.
  • “Have you prayed for healing?” If you are very close friends who share the same faith you might possibly ask this. Too often, however, it strikes the wrong, judgmental chord instead of bringing hope.

Kindness and gentleness, two of the nine characteristics of a genuine Christian (found in Galatians 5:22-23) will guide you. Ask yourself what you would want to have someone say to you.

What to say when you don’t know what to say.

comforting hug-cropped
Being held is one of the best therapies for those enduring loss. If you don’t know the person well, ask permission as some people are not “huggers.”

When your friend is bereaved or experiencing huge loss, sometimes the most eloquent thing to say is nothing. But do not ignore them. Cry with them. Hug them. Send cards or notes. Touch them on the shoulder in passing. Pray for them and assure them of your prayers. Stay in touch. A simple “thinking about you” text from your phone can bring the ray of sunshine they need that day. Be there. Instead of asking how you can help, pick up the mail, run errands, mow the lawn, or take a casserole. People will often forget what you say, but they will never forget how you made them feel.

And as for the news, political candidates, wars, and the economy? Watch and observe. Make your own judgments but don’t be quick to assume you have the answers. Name-calling is the practice of those with small minds. Keep your disdain for people private. Don’t sit in judgment. Offer the kindness of the benefit of the doubt. The greatest man who ever lived said it this way, “Be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

That was then. This is now.

Why we must accept change in our lives.

Ray, Beulah, and Ree as a baby
My mother as a baby with her father and birth mother.

My mother was a remarkable woman. Her mother died of cancer when my mom was six and her only sister, Ruth, was three. She had three stepmothers, two of whom also died while she was still at home. No one spoke to her about her losses as was the pattern of that generation. My grandfather was a wonderful man, but times were different then and he was dealing with his own grief. My mother was launched into adulthood, a naïve young girl without even the slightest idea of what caused pregnancy. A gifted pianist and devout Christian, she went to Anderson College[1]) with a strong faith in God and hope for the future

CW & Ree separate college photos finished
Mom and Dad in college

There she met my father, Clair Shultz. He was the youngest of seven children in a family hit hard by the depression. Inventive and mischievous, he went to college because a Sunday school teacher saw his potential and talked him into it. Mom fell for his pranks, like putting firecrackers under her dorm room door, and they were married in 1935 on a Christmas Day when it was four below zero.

Their ministerial career began with the pastorate of a small church in Noblesville, Indiana. Two short-term Minnesota pastorates followed, after which they decided to apply for missionary service in Trinidad, British West Indies (where I was raised). Later assignments included some time in Jamaica and then in Kenya, East Africa. They learned Swahili in their 50s.

Change everywhere.

I never realized until just before my father’s death that Mom was the strong one in the family. She endured tropical storms, tarantulas on the front porch, rats the size of housecats in the kitchen, and the near-death of her infant son with whooping cough. She taught Sunday school with flannel graphs, did the mission bookkeeping, and helped start a Bible training school. She also managed the onslaught of change that characterized the rest of her life. One of her biggest challenges was when my sister and I, each at the age of thirteen, were sent back to the States to go to school.

In every place she lived, she had to change. She changed families (thinking of young missionaries as her kids), cultures, and devastating accidents. She traveled around the world more than once, documenting her travels in aerograms written in her delicate hand on airplanes and from distant hotels.

Mom Shultz for obituary
Mom five years before she died

Her biggest adjustments came after she and Dad retired. She was diagnosed with primary lateral sclerosis, a disease which gradually robbed her of mobility: first a cane, then a walker, and finally a wheelchair for more than twenty years. We watched her and Dad downsize from a three-bedroom home (filled with shells from Barbados and zebra skin rugs from Africa) into a two bedroom condo (with spacious bedrooms), and then into an apartment in an assisted living facility. Always she went to something smaller, something less. She gave away her favorite Blue Danube dishes, her bronze flatware from Thailand, and her Chinese buffet. When Dad died at 93 (she was 92) she downsized into an efficiency and finally, no longer able to manage on her own, into skilled care; first a private room and then a double. She gave up e-mail—her lifeline to others—and her checkbook. We watched her gradual devolvement and sometimes joked about her unwillingness to relinquish a final bookshelf of Bibles and well-worn favorites. Pneumonia precipitated her move to skilled care. Now totally cared for by others, her life had shrunk from the entire world to a hospital bed. Gradually dementia shuttered even that world. She died in 2011 at the age of 97.

That was then. This is now

I first heard the phrase, “That was then. This is now,” when they started downsizing. More and more frequently she said the words as if to remind herself that change is inevitable and fighting it is pointless. One of her caregivers, who also was a close friend, marveled frequently that Mom never complained about her disease or her losses. When we asked her about missing Dad, she would say, “That was then. This is now.” To a woman who years before had sacrificed her children to serve the Lord, the scriptural pattern had become her bucket list. “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal (Matthew 6:19-21). I see these words as one of my mother’s greatest legacies to me.

We spend so much time resisting change and complaining about circumstances. We gripe about the neighbors who never mow their lawn and we worry about the solvency of Social Security. We desperately hope that cancer won’t knock on our door and that no one in our family will die too soon. We’re sad to think that the children will grow up, spread their wings and fly away, and then complain when they move back home. Living out my days in a nursing home with overworked nurses and hallways that smell like urine is one of my biggest fears is. I think many have that fear.

If truth be told, we cannot do much about most of these things. But a life lived in fear is no life worth living and I think we underestimate our resiliency and inner resources to adapt to change. The human race has endured the unspeakable in wars and concentration camps. Foreclosures have left us homeless, wars have left us childless, and disease and accidents have left us with lifelong pain. History teaches us, if we will pay attention, that even with such loss and pain people rise above and beyond to find meaning and make a difference. I want to be one of these people.

Things to Remember

  • Enjoy the life you have.

With all of the loss and pain you may have endured, there are good things to celebrate. Try to think about what you have instead of what you don’t have. Thank God for your body, even if it is disabled or ravaged by disease. It’s the only one you have and you need to make peace with it. I’m not saying that life is easy or that you can think positively and change circumstances. Life is hard. But you are a survivor. That was then. This is now.

  • Don’t play the “If only” game.

Many spend their lives wishing things were different. “If only I had married differently.” “If only my daughter had not been in the car with the drunken driver.” “If only…” we can do this for years and it changes nothing. We must grieve our pain—with help, if necessary—but we eventually can make peace with our past. That was then. This is now.

  • Find a creative outlet.

God made you to create. He is The Creator and has made you in His image. Creating things, whether writing a poem or rebuilding a car, is extremely healing. I have written about depression in another blog, and I will be writing about living with pain in another. What I know is that deciding to begin blogging has changed my perspective remarkably. It has given me a place to process my past and to gain perspective from all those gracious enough to respond. What creative things can you do?

  • Reestablish your faith.

Downsize your wants and stop accumulating. Beauty fades. Riches are fleeting. Anchor your life to what no one can take away. Reach out for God and you will find him. How wealthy is that person who invests in eternity!

C. S. Lewis said, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” Bingo. It is my contention that the Bible offers the best future for any of us. Those who cast their lot in with Jesus Christ are assured of life forever with him, above and beyond pain, sickness, and death. And it gives me great joy to think of Mom is heaven, lifting her coffee cup in a toast and saying, “That was then. This is now!”

[1] Now Anderson University http://www.anderson.edu/