If Death is Not the End

My grandma died when she was 62 and that was way too early.

Our rides in her beat up old red car that we lovingly referred to as “the Klunker,” our hot summer evenings talking on her front porch, and our quick trips to the local restaurant with the best milkshakes in town… were all cut short by an insidious and dreadful disease called Alzheimer’s.

She would never get a chance to meet my beautiful wife or hold my kids in her arms.

Neither would my grandpa who died of cancer when he was 80.

When I held his hand as he lie asleep in his hospital bed just a couple of days before he passed, I thought about the countless nights I spent at his house, the smell of breakfast and pipe smoke each morning, his flat top haircut, and either a Bible on his lap or Andy Griffith on the television.

Some memories never fade.

But while there is immense joy in being able to remember all of the time we spent together, it is coupled with the haunting reminder that our lives have absolutely no power over death. Whether it is my grandma, my grandpa, me, or even you, our end is certain.

And that reality, our powerlessness to death, is one of utter sadness and despair, because death is our final ending.

So much for family and friends and relationships.
So much for our pursuits and endeavors.
So much for parties and celebrations and having friends over for dinner.
So much for art and music and creativity.
So much for sunsets and mountains and shooting stars.
So much for the smell of breakfast in the morning and sitting on front porches in the summer.

It all comes to a crushing, brutal, and inconsequential end in death.

And you can’t help but feel as if we have been short-changed somehow, like it all should have meant something.

All of this time on earth for absolutely nothing in the end… except for the assurance of death.

But if death is our end and our end is meaningless and inconsequential… then wouldn’t all things leading to that end be meaningless and inconsequential as well?

Said another way- if death is the end toward which all life is moving… then why does anything in our lives matter at all?  Why ascribe any purpose to it whatsoever? It is all death in the end anyway.  

Yet we live and breathe and act each day as if it matters, like it has some sort of importance or significance.  We ironically fight for life as if it is worth something, like it has meaning and value. We grieve when loved ones die. We treat cancer and search for the cure for AIDS and go to the family doctor and try to eat healthy… because we prefer life over death. We spend our time, energy, and resources protecting and defending life and standing for those who cannot defend themselves.

But why do this if it is all death in the end… and life is of no consequence?  Why do we even have a preference for life over death?  Why involve ourselves in any pursuit or endeavor while we are alive?  Why waste our time on anything at all?

Why should we paint and design and build? Why should we continue to create and imagine and dream?  Why play music and write stories and cry when there are happy endings in movies and plays if it all just tragically ends?

Why?

I think the answer is simple:  Death is not our end.  

And if death is not our end, and if there is actually a purpose toward which we are moving, then all things leading toward that purpose is full of meaning and is well worth our time.

That is precisely why the resurrection of Jesus Christ is so important for humanity… because it gives us hope and assurance that, while we were powerless against death, only God has the power to defeat it.  Therefore life, not death, is the purpose toward which we are moving and everything we do to that end is valuable.

That is the very foundation of faith.  It is the belief that God is working toward the renewal of all things, and by virtue of asking God to be the active and present center of our lives,  we begin participating in that renewal right now.  It is a life that looks like Jesus in everything we do.

And it is that reality, God’s power and victory over death demonstrated in Jesus Christ, which is the pinnacle of human happiness and joy… because life prevails and gives us meaning and purpose today.

Family and friends and relationships all matter.
Parties and celebrations and having friends over for dinner is a foretaste of how life will be one day.
Art and music and creativity is a reflection of what we were made to do and what we will continue to do at the renewal of all things.
Sunsets and mountains and shooting stars are a present glimpse of new creation when death is finally exhausted.
And yes, the smell of breakfast in the morning and sitting on front porches in the summer with everyone we love is just the beginning of how good life will be when Christ returns.

No more pain. No more tears. No more death. No more decay.

So live and breathe and act each day as if it matters, like it has some sort of importance or significance… because it does!

For in Christ’s resurrection… all things are made new…. even and especially you.

The World Would Be a Better Place If We All Died

I was watching a reality television show last night in which the contestant, who had been stranded on an island all by herself said, “Being in solitude for ten days makes you realize what things you really value.”

This was a very insightful and introspective comment.

All too often we become attached to and dependent upon so many inconsequential and non-life giving things that we lose sight of or take for granted those things that are of the utmost value and have the most meaning in our lives.

As I sit here and reflect, my wedding ring is a great symbolic illustration of this idea. My wedding ring means everything to me. It represents the commitment my wife and I have with each other. It represents the union we have that will never be broken. It represents the vows we took and depth to which our love will always endure and never fail. All of that and more in a simple ring. It’s absolutely beautiful.

Yet the truth is that on a daily, and even more indicting, a weekly basis… I don’t even think about my wedding ring. It has become so commonplace in my life that it can’t compete with the million other things I have going on in my life or the million other things that I think about on a daily basis. I would even be willing to say that these other thoughts and pursuits pale into comparison to the importance and significance of my wedding ring, yet I never think about it.

So does the fact that my wedding ring has been buried by my lack of attention to it take away it’s symbolic value and power? Absolutely not.

Does it’s symbolic value and power lose influence in my life on a daily basis when it is rarely (if ever) thought about over the course of my daily routine? Sadly yes.

It’s completely possible that the most important things- those things that we hold to be most dear, those things we hold to be most valuable, and those things that remind us of who we are, can become quite ordinary and even forgotten when having to compete with the clutter and interests of lesser things in our lives.

I have had this principle ring true for me over the last 18 months since I stepped down from leadership at our church and began a significant time of rest and flying under the church radar, which I have jokingly referred to as our “40 years of wandering the concrete desert of Columbus.” And little did I know how much I needed the desert to rediscover what is most important to me and what I value the most.

But it is in the solitude of the desert where God strips away everything- everything we think we are, everything we think we know, our attachments, our false identities, our idols, and those things that are inconsequential and non-life giving- and then reminds us of those things that God values.

The last year and a half caused me to ask a ton of questions about who I am and what I value as God began to strip away everything.

What’s the point of it all?
Why do I do what I do?
Does anything ever really change?
Am I wasting my time?
Does any of this even matter?
Do I matter?

Amidst the difficult questions, the seemingly aimless wandering, and the solitude of the desert, God had finally stripped away everything.  And it was in that place where I stood naked and alone with only God and God’s love surrounding me, reminding me of the one thing, the most valuable thing, that answers all of my questions… the cross of Christ.

Sometimes we need the desert to find our hearts and souls… and to remember who we are and what our purpose is. And no matter the endless circles and varied pathways we take in this desert life, the point at which they all converge is at the cross. For it is when we come to the cross that we choose to no longer go our own way.

But I really wish there was a way to write about the cross that isn’t weighed down by all of the religious baggage it has accumulated for so long. And I wish there was a way to introduce you to the cross for the first time without you thinking of it as a throwaway, anachronistic icon. Much like my wedding ring, the cross has become so commonplace, to the point of being lost as a ancient relic of another time, that it can’t compete with the million other things we deem as “important” in the 21st century.

I wish I could write about the cross in a way that isn’t shackled by religious baggage or buried by a mountain of inconsequence, but rather in a way that truly means something for you today and that impacts your life and your relationships. If I could do that I am certain that every person (Christ follower or not) would see the cross’ simple and symbolic beauty and importance… and how it has the power to transform individuals, families, and communities.

At it’s very core, the cross represents a confrontation and revolt against anything that puts us, rather than God, at the center of our own lives. Picking up our cross and denying ourselves daily is the pathway to holistic and abundant living in perfect union with God.

And why would anyone not what that?

Can you imagine what the world would look like if every person would pick up his or her cross, deny his or her self, and follow the selfless and other-centered way of Jesus?

Can you fathom a world in which we give up all of the gimmicks, fads, and self-help schemes and simply picked up our cross daily and denied ourselves?

Can you envision a world where entire communities are redeemed and look to the interest of everyone else in grace, humility, mercy, and love… by simply deciding to pick up our cross and deny ourselves daily?

Can you comprehend a world in which real power is demonstrated by sacrificing ourselves in grace, humility, mercy, and love for the sake of others by picking up our cross and denying ourselves daily?

The cross is the power of God to put to death and then bring to life- first in Christ and then in us.

To put to death curses and bring to life blessings.
To put to death impatience and bring to life patience.
To put to death indulgence and bring to life self-control.
To put to death hostility and bring to life compassion.
To put to death blame and bring to life mercy.
To put to death neglect and bring to life care.
To put to death excuses and bring to life honesty.
To put to death busyness and bring to life balance.
To put to death pride and bring to life selflessness.
To put to death hard-heartedness and bring to life kindness.
To put to death negativity and bring to life positivity.
To put to death resentment and bring to life forgiveness.
To put to death division and bring to life unity.
To put to death labeling and stereotyping and bring to life seeing the beauty in every person.
To put to death complaining and bring to life praising.
To put to death entitlement and bring to life contentment.
To put to death brokenness and bring to life wholeness.
To put to death bitterness and bring to life joy.
To put to death war and bring to life peace.
To put to death hatred and bring to life love.
To put to death defeat and bring to life victory.
To put to death my kingdom and bring to life the Kingdom of God.

That is why the world would be a better place if each of us would pick up our crosses and die.

There is so much of me… so much of us… that needs to die. And so much more that God wants to bring to life in each of us.

The cross of Christ is so much more than a nice symbol, a holy representation, an obscure necklace piece, or an optional wall fixture in a church building.

The cross demands blood and sacrifice. The cross promises that there will be pain. The cross beckons you to come and die.

For without death… there is no Life.

The cross is the very pattern and shape our lives should take demonstrated by Jesus Christ. And that is the pattern and shape for a new and better humanity… the pattern and shape of a new and better world.

What is keeping you from denying yourself and picking up the cross of Christ daily? There is no better time than to begin it than today. See how your life, your relationships, and the world around you begins to change.

Forgiving the Guy Who Stole My Stuff

My car was broken into last week.

I don’t know if you have ever had anything stolen from you… but man it stinks.  Debit card.  Credit cards.  Driver’s license.  Cash.  Cell Phone.  iPad.  All taken.  Ugh.

Sure there was the sinking and dreadful feeling of being violated… but to be honest I was more upset at myself for making the mistake of falling asleep on the couch and leaving one of my windows cracked about three inches.

I sat on the couch that entire Saturday trying to make sense of what had happened. I had never had anything stolen from me in my life, nor had I ever had a greater offense against me.

For that I am incredibly grateful.

While so many people have been violated in so many different ways, I am very fortunate that this is the worst offense to which I have been subjected. Believe me… I don’t take that blessing for granted. Not for a second.

But it is in situations like this when I believe that our initial gut reaction to being violated (no matter the circumstance) is to immediately direct our anger and hostility toward the person (or people) who have caused the violation. And the temptation is to label and stereotype the person (or people) rather than to see them rightly as children of God who have become sadly disillusioned and who are in desperate need of forgiveness and the heart-transforming love of Christ.

One may certainly believe that it is easier (and may make one feel better) to say about the offender in anger:

He’s probably some junkie.

He’s probably trash.

He probably came from a good-for-nothing family.

He’s probably a lazy low-life.

He’s probably been a deadbeat his entire life.

But I would argue that… if even for a second… any one of us really truly believes that every single person in this world is a beautiful and valuable child of God (even and especially those who victimize and harm us)… we ought to see our offenders differently. And then consequently… we ought to treat our offenders differently.

Right on.

For those of us who follow the way of Jesus Christ…

For those of us who have been called on to be the embodiment and extenders of peace, mercy, grace, forgiveness, and self-sacrificial love…

For those of us who bear witness to the value and inherent worth of every single human being…

And for those of us whose eyes have been opened by the Spirit of God to see reality anew- the possibility of individuals and relationships being mended and springing with life, opportunity, and hope…

We recognize that our battle is not against human beings… but rather against adversarial forces that work in and through human beings to create war, division, bitterness, animosity, retaliation, and hatred.

We recognize that these same adversarial forces are at work to isolate, label, minimize, tear apart, devalue, and dehumanize human beings with the ultimate goal of complete hopelessness and destruction.

And we will not take part in continuing the endless cycle of death and destruction.  Not with what we think.  Not with what we say.  Not with what we do.

Instead we will bring light into the darkness. We will bless those who curse us.
We will retaliate only with grace and peace and forgiveness and love when offended or assaulted.
And we will give even the shirts off of our backs to those who have already taken what we have.

Because the way of Christ and his kingdom is the most humanizing reality this world has ever experienced. It is this way that treats others as they were created to be treated- as fully human, fully and unconditionally loved by God… with unsurpassing worth, value, and dignity.

And to my offender… that is precisely what I want you to experience.  And that is significantly different than what you made me experience on Saturday morning.

But to that end… and in response to your offense brother… I forgive you.

You are so much more than what you have believed or what others have told you about yourself.

You are not a degenerate.
You are not trash or garbage.
You are not a loser.

You are a valuable, worthy son of God.

There is no depth to which God’s mercy does not reach.

There is no length to which God’s love is not willing to pursue.

And there is no single person that God would ever turn away who returns with a humble and contrite heart.

That includes you.

For the Father always welcomes home the prodigal son with open arms and a celebration.

The truth is that every single prodigal has a choice as to how he will respond to his particular situation.

Will you continue to run away and squander your life? Or, will you come back to the open arms of the Father and take part in the celebration?

I am praying for the latter.

That you may begin to see clearly.
That that your heart would be wholly changed and transformed.
And that God would direct your path to righteousness so that we might celebrate your return home together.

peace brother…

brandon