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Turning From a Different Gospel, Part 2
The Unexpected Inadequacy of Individual Salvation and a Posthumous Heaven
Welcome to Part 2 of my current series, Turning From a Different Gospel. If you missed Part 1, you’ll definitely want to read that first. You can find it here.
Our extendable dining table is made of walnut wood. From a distance, its rich color and variegated grain pattern make it photogenic. That’s a great quality when you’re trying to sell a house and you need nice pictures for the listing. Up close, though, it’s full of dents and scratches.
There was a time that bothered me, when I saw those dents and scratches as mere signs of damage – like the calcifications in my shoulder joint and the scars on my knee. But my line of sight has shifted recently. From my current vantage point, I can see that those dents and scratches are remnants of meaningful moments in the past and therefore access points to all kinds of memories: a rousing game of Jenga between a little girl and her grandmother, a small exuberant hand pressing gel pens a bit too firmly on too thin a sheet of paper, a beloved guest sliding a napkin dispenser across the table to another beloved guest.
We bought that table in August of 2012 as an act of faith. It wasn’t in response to anything as earth-shattering as, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1) And it was far less risky and outrageous than what corn farmer Ray Kinsella did in the film Field of Dreams when, after seeing a vision and hearing a voice whisper, “If you build it, he will come,” he plowed under a big chunk of his corn crop to build a baseball field. Nevertheless, Peter and I responded to what felt like a divine invitation.
We had recently joined a racially and socioeconomically diverse church in Atlanta that made it possible for us to be in community with people very different from us. Prior to that, we had always attended predominantly white churches filled with middle- to upper-middle-class professionals. It was a significant change – one that brought with it a sense of new possibilities in the realm of hospitality.
If you buy it, they will come.
That potential energy converted to kinetic energy soon afterward. Within a month, we were hosting a community group from the church and providing dinner for somewhere between 8-15 guests every week. A few months later, we became volunteer leaders/overseers of the three community groups that met in our region of the city. On several occasions over the following year, all three groups met at our house for one big gathering.
Even though Peter and I are both introverts easily exhausted by crowds, we loved the ones that formed in our home. We loved getting to know the people who filled the seats at our table, in our living room, and on our porch with their diverse voices, smells, life stories, accents, sociolects, joys, heartbreaks, talents, dilemmas, and personalities. They made us laugh, cry, oo, ah, and scratch our heads (and sometimes shake them). They exposed and challenged our prejudices, blew up our simplistic assumptions, expanded our perspectives, and pushed the boundaries of our imaginations.
We bought a table, and they came.
We bought the table from a store in Atlanta committed to supporting craftspeople and sustainable practices across the country. Because of this, we’re connected to its origins in ways that feel rare these days for people who live in a post-industrial society. For example, we know that the wood from which the table was built came from trees that were birthed into existence when black walnut seeds germinated in the soil near the Shenandoah Valley over a hundred years ago. We also know that an artisan in West Virginia named Beverley Hovermale was the person who hand-built our table and that she completed it on June 5, 2012. Her signature and the date of completion are written in Sharpie marker on the underside of the table.
Jesus too was a carpenter. (Mark 6:3)
Beverley Hovermale died on April 1, 2017 at the age of 44. I never knew her, but because of the internet, I’ve seen a picture of her and know a tiny bit about the kind of person she was. Her obituary reads, “She enjoyed gardening, coloring, puzzles, crafts of all description, taking scenic rides, and most importantly, was devoted to family and caring for her parents.”
I find myself longing for a civilization I’ve never known – one where those who make and those who buy know each other as friends and aren’t so structurally separated by machines, distance, processes, middlemen, and retailers. One where physical goods (like our table) that support the health of creation and embody the handiwork of its people are accessible to everyone instead of primarily the affluent. It’s a longing for shalom.
By him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth… in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:16,17)
I lie on the floor under the table and run my finger across Beverley’s signature. A part of her lives on here, as does the walnut tree that was cut down. For the last nine years, the work of her hands and the century-old life of that tree have been connected to every meal that’s been served on this table, every sheet of homework that’s been completed here, every game that’s been played on it, and every trivial or substantial or joyful or sorrow-drenched conversation that has taken place around it. They’re also connected to the theology-expanding work that the Almighty has done and continues to do in our hearts and minds through it. Over time, the Lord has used this expandable table to expand our imagination for what’s possible in a life totally immersed in his.
If you buy it, I will come.
It’s become a regular reminder of the Lord’s Table and the cosmic realities it represents, like the reality of a great multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing together before the throne and before the Lamb (Revelation 7:9), gathered into one body because of his crucifixion and resurrection, together awaiting and laboring with all our might with a gaze directed toward the final resurrection and new creation (Revelation 21:1).
But let me not get ahead of myself. First, let me tell you how our practice of hospitality shifted from hosting events to hosting people.
The Table, Expanded
A few months into our leadership stint, one of the families in our community group – a single mother and her young daughter whom I’ll refer to as Lydia and Cheri – were given a short period of time to find another place to live. There were numerous factors that prevented a simple solution. Peter and I discussed their complex dilemma with our pastoral staff. After many emails and phone calls, our assistant pastor identified a family shelter that had space available for them.
But as Peter and I talked and prayed about it, we felt uncomfortable with the idea of sending them to a shelter. We had space in our house to host them, and the gravity of our responsibility as spiritual leaders weighed on us. Were we committed to living out the commandments of Jesus or merely to teaching them?
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. (1 Peter 4:8-10)
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)
It was hard to know what was in God’s Word and feel okay with offloading the burdens of this family to complete strangers. Let’s be real, though. We knew that the individualistic and nuclear-family-centric orientation of our own demographic (our own socioeconomic class, to be more exact) and the high moral value that so many in it assign to setting boundaries meant that if we made that choice, it would be justified and excused in a hundred different ways, even, and perhaps especially, by other Christians.
If you receive them, you’ll be receiving me.
We took a quick inventory of our attachments: privacy, guarded time, predictability, psychological comfort, freedom, convenience, family vacation. It became obvious that the wellbeing of two incredibly vulnerable people on the brink of disaster were far more important than all those things combined. We invited them to live with us for as long as they needed to.
This Can’t Be As Good As It Gets
There’s a lot I could write about concerning those few months that Lydia and Cheri lived with us. The community we all formed did good for everyone involved. Three generations of Dominicks (Peter’s mom lived with us at the time) and our guest family ate dinner at the table together almost every night. And because the girls shared a room, my daughter, an only child who was three years old at the time, felt like she had a sister. She was over the moon. For weeks, she announced to everyone she knew, “Cheri and I are sisters!”
I shared a few things about this time in a talk I gave in 2015, which you can listen to if you’re inclined. But here, I’m going to focus on a particular conversation I had with Lydia in which I ended up sharing The Four Spiritual Laws.
Here was a woman going through one of the worst seasons of her life, dealing with devastating consequences of things like theft, cruelty, abandonment, government bureaucracy, and more – consequences that needed to be addressed urgently and substantively in order for her to flourish. I knew that Jesus possessed what she needed, so I talked to Lydia about him. But I resorted to the “muscle memory” I had developed in college, and that meant I told her the following: that God loved her and wanted her to know him personally; that sin was the problem that separated her from God and that her own efforts to reach him weren’t enough. Then I told her the good news – that Jesus was God’s provision for this sin problem through his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. And then I invited her to receive him as Savior and Lord, promising that it was the way she would experience his love and plan for her life.
There’s a diagram at this point in The Four Spiritual Laws that looks like this:
I remember pausing for a moment when I looked at it, uncomfortable with its suggestion that she and her sin alone were the cause of the frustration and discord in her life, that if she only had a Christ-directed life, things would fall into place and become harmonious. On another page, there was a reference to “eternal life,” which was never clearly defined in the booklet but which I had for a long time understood to mean getting to live forever with God in heaven after death.
I wondered internally, “Wait. Is the promise of a futuristic heaven supposed to be magnificently therapeutic? Is the act of yielding to Christ supposed to make everything evil, wrong, and unjust suddenly tolerable?” There’s no mention in The Four Spiritual Laws of evil, suffering, and injustice or of God’s attitude and intention toward such things. I had never noticed it until that moment, when it seemed like there should have been. Nevertheless, Lydia was spiritually hungry. She wanted to know God and agreed to pray the prayer in the booklet after me as I recited it: "Lord Jesus, I want to know You personally. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Savior and Lord. Thank You for forgiving me of my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be."
I should have been ecstatic. A soul saved and bound for heaven! But something was off. I felt for the first time that the message wasn’t that great. Was this feeling a form of blasphemy? I knew that the gospel was supposed to be good news to the poor (Isaiah 61:1, Matthew 11:5, Luke 4:18, 7:22), but what I had just shared with Lydia didn’t seem like it was. Her circumstances cried out emergently for redress and repair in concrete and immediate ways, but this message offered primarily a personal relationship with God and a posthumous heaven. It suddenly felt remote and small – almost inconsequential. It was profoundly disorienting.
In the movie As Good As It Gets, the main character, Melvin Udall (played by Jack Nicholson), barges into his psychiatrist’s office in a state of agitation demanding help. Turned away for his failure to make an appointment, he enters the waiting room and says to the other patients, “What if this is as good as it gets?”
I felt like Melvin, but it was more like, “This can’t be as good as it gets! This can’t be the best that Jesus and Christianity have to offer. What am I missing?”
I was missing lot, as it turns out.
Stay tuned for Part 3, “Plato Hiding in the Rafters of Western Christianity.”