Friday, April 15, 2016

April 17, Easter 4: "Bid My Anxious Fears Subside"

Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17,
John 10:22-30

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally Good Shepherd Sunday. The metaphor of the shepherd is one the Lord Jesus applies to himself, and we can assume that the Lord Jesus intended all of its associations and implications.

There is the implication of his divinity, for example. If you refer to Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” meaning the Lord God of Israel, and if Jesus calls himself “the Good Shepherd” and claims that “he and the Father are one,” then he’s implying his own divinity, which, of course, was unthinkable to his audience, even to his disciples, until after the resurrection.

The associations of the Good Shepherd metaphor are of safety and security, and the metaphor speaks to children. Some years ago, at the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, a chaplain observed his young patients continually returning to this metaphor.

So the chaplain built a worship pattern around the metaphor. That developed into the curriculum called Young Children in Worship, which we have been doing here at Old First for a good twenty years. My wife Melody has been leading it and training practitioners in it for thirty years, in the US, Canada, and even Hungary.

I was trained in it myself, over four straight days, in Holland, Michigan, and it was very intense. On the second day, I think it was, we were learning the parable of the Good Shepherd, and I had to put my little cut-out sheep behind a cut-out of a big, dark rock, as if I were hidden. Then the Good Shepherd came out to find his sheep. And I had a sudden emotional reaction, opposite to safety and security. I was afraid of the Good Shepherd. I was afraid he would be mad at me. I was afraid he would be mad at me when he found me. Here I was, a grown-up, a preacher, in my forties, and I was crying. The story opened up my childhood fears, and touched my deep anxieties.

I can remember my father, a preacher, in a state of anxiety when he would fear that he was not saved. Not me. I have never been anxious of my salvation. I’ve never been afraid of hell. My parents always emphasized a loving God, and I don’t remember them ever speaking of hell, as if it were a threat. From an early age I stopped believing that there even was a hell, or that the Bible actually taught it. (Indeed, the whole hell thing is a magnificent mistake of the Christian tradition.)

And yet I did have great anxiety of soul, even in my childhood. What gave me great anxiety was the thought of eternal life. It used to keep me awake at night—eternal life, oh no!

I shared a bedroom with my brother Hank. My mother would come in and say our bedtime prayers with us, and talk to us. I have this memory of her telling us about eternal life—that after we died, we would live forever. And I can remember being terrified.

I didn’t tell my mother, because I must have assumed it was wrong to be terrified about such a good thing. But I used lie awake at night afraid of it, and get stomach aches from it: the thought of living forever and ever and ever and ever and ever, endlessly existing, endlessly existing, never ever coming to an end. I can remember praying this repeatedly: “Dear God, that’s all right, Hanky can live forever, just not me please. Please just let me die when I die. Please, please.”

It scares me still. Even in recent years I have lain awake, sweating, my pulse racing and my heart pounding. You’d think I’d just walk away from the Christian faith, but I could never get myself to not believe. And I never wanted to, because there’s so much else about the Christian faith that I love. Or you’d think I might join up with some liberal, modern Christianity evolved beyond such ancient myths as resurrection. But, as a scholar, I know that the whole New Testament collapses if you try to remove the resurrection. And once you have resurrection, then, as day follows night, you have “the life everlasting, the life of the world to come.” That’s the historic Christian faith, and it is not for me to change the historic Christian faith to suit my own personal anxieties. It’s not about me.

You can imagine that over the years I’ve expended a lot of mental energy trying to conceptualize an eternal life of less anxiety. How about if we will have no experience of time—that eternal life will seem like one, single eternal moment, without before and after, without the feeling of endless extension. Well, maybe—some theologians actually teach that.

But then I read in one of my favorite theologians (Hendrikus Berkhof) that time is one of God’s greatest gifts to us, and that time makes possible bodily life, and if the life of the world to come is both a new heaven and a new earth, that means not the cancellation of time but the renewal of time. He convinced me, so my anxiety remains.

How about if we will be like the elves in The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. I don’t mean to be funny, and I don’t mean the horrible movies, and I don’t mean pointy ears and stringy hair, and I don’t mean fantasy and sword and sorcery, but The Lord of the Rings as a piece of serious literature.

Tolkien intended his elves as humanity unfallen, what humans might be like if Adam and Eve had not sinned. So his elves are immortal, undying, and not in heaven, but on earth, enjoying the earth as one great garden, even when that garden has cities within it. Well, fine, but that is no help, because I’ve still got the same problem at the end, never-ending consciousness, never any final rest.

Maybe that’s my problem: my unrelenting consciousness, my excessive self-awareness, my own mind always turning in upon itself. Maybe in eternal life we will not be self-aware, we will not be self-conscious, maybe we will be like the birds. But that won’t do. Self-awareness is another gift of God to us, it’s basic to being human, it’s implied by how Adam names the animals in Genesis. So self-awareness will be included in eternal life. And my anxiety remains.

I could go on with my other attempts at solutions. But I will tell you where I’ve come to, and that only recently. As for me, I accept eternal life as a matter of obedience. “O God, even if I do not want it, you have given it to us, and I know how good you are, O Lord, so I will accept it. I will have to trust you, O God, with this fearful gift of eternal life, and I will follow you into it.”

It’s a case of the sheep following the shepherd. It’s a case of the sheep hearing the sound of the shepherd’s voice and following the shepherd out of the safe and familiar sheepfold and out into the unknown pasture, out into the space of my anxiety. I will follow you into this eternal life, O Lord, and it’s only because I’m following you that I dare go there.

“When I tread the verge of Jordan, you bid my anxious fears subside. Death of death and hell’s destruction, you land me safe on Canaan’s side.” Safe, safe from myself, safe from my own mind, safe from my anxieties. I want to be able to give you “songs of praises, songs of praises.” I will do that singing even now, as an earnest, as an act of trust and humble obedience. “I will follow you into this, O Lord.”

So in a real sense, it’s not about me. It’s not about me figuring out a notion of eternal life that is fully attractive. It’s not about me, it’s about my Lord, and trusting in him. But at the same time, it is about me, because he calls me by my name, that name that was given to me at my baptism.

It’s about Alexandra Jane Pope, whose name we gave her last Sunday. It’s about Dorcas, Tabitha, and Simon the Tanner, and it’s about you. Because this eternal life of the Good Shepherd is not the Hindu version of ultimate self-negation, as when a drop of water loses its identity forever in the ocean, no, it is about you, your name is precious to God, your unique identity, and God will never let you perish.

That’s the promise. It’s not for you to solve, but it is for you to accept and enjoy, even if it’s only by obedience, and the reason it is about you is because it’s grounded in God loving you. That might be what I can’t imagine now, existing in such boundless love, I don’t think any of us can rightly imagine it now, but that’s the promise that I depend on and that I pass along to you, the promise that I offer you, the promise of the boundless and bottomless and endless love of God for you.

Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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