Oh, how I long for heaven in a place called earth Where every son and daughter will know their worth Where all the streets resound with thunderous joy Oh how I long for heaven in a place called earth
Song writers have common themes and images that run through their work. Jon Forman is one of my favorite song writers because he resonates with a theme that has run through my thinking over the last decade: the transience of this life and the transcendence of the life to come.
In the song, A Place Called Earth, he focuses on the “borderlines” between the transience of our lives and the longing for transcendence. It’s an age-old theme. It’s a theme that has been the subject of some of the greatest writers in the history of world from the author of Ecclesiastes to Shakespeare.
The video embedded above was a recent live performance of this song off the new EP, Departures. Linked below is the studio recording of A Place Called Earth that was written by Jon Foreman with his brother, Tim, and Lauren Daigle. I encourage you to listen to it in all of its orchestral fullness.
The hope of the Christ follower is the longing for heaven, a place where everyone knows their worth through the eyes of Jesus who will greet us face to face. We have this hope, however, this treasure, in earthen vessels. (2 Corinthians 4:7) We long for heaven in a place called earth.
Oh, the wars we haven’t won Oh, the songs we’ve left unsung Oh, the dreams we haven’t seen The borderlines
Jon Foreman’s plaintive voice captures the angst of these lines perfectly. We try to notch our belts with victories, but what of all the defeats? The songs we have left unsung? The great dreams we dared to dream that we haven’t seen?
All our victories are hollow trophies at the end of our days. Memories of them begin to fade from the moment of victory. Like the entropy to which our universe is subjected (Romans 8:20), those memories will fade into utter obscurity long after we have taken our last breaths.
We see this on the borderlines. On the borderlines, where we peer out over an endless expanse yawning out into a far distant future, and beyond it into an eternity we can’t even fathom, we realize our utter insignificance…. if we can see that far.
I am starting a new Bible reading plan for the year, and so I am back to Genesis. Reading through the rich text of Genesis 1 again I am seeing some things I hadn’t really noticed before. Consider the following (with my emphasis added):
“Then God said, ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruitafter their kindwith seed in them‘; and it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seedafter their kind, and trees bearing fruit with seed in them, after their kind; and God saw that it was good.
“God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind; and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’“
“Then God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth after their kind‘; and it was so. God made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and the cattle after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind; and God saw that it was good.”
Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it….'”
I color-coded the various provisions that form the pattern that informs my thinking today. The provisions in each color correspond with the other provisions of the same color.
Now, let me see if I can put all my thoughts together in a coherent whole.
First of all, God ordered (in the sense of designed) all living beings to multiply after they own kind. We see this everywhere in nature: apple trees bear seeds that grow into new apple trees; asparagus plants bear seeds that grow into new asparagus plants; lions beget lions; polar bears beget polar bears; yellow polka dotted salamanders beget yellow polka dotted salamanders; bluefin tuna beget bluefin tuna; and purple finches beget purple finches.
This is the order of living things. Not only that, but we now know that something (call it evolution or something else) works powerfully within living beings to reproduce and even to adapt with changes over time.
Every living thing bears seed or otherwise reproduces more of its kind. Human beings included, but only humans are made in the image of God. (Hold that thought.)
God “blessed” the living things He created, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply” and fill the earth. (Gen. 1:22) He also blessed man who He made in His own image, and gave similar orders: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it….” (Gen. 1:28)
Note that God “ordered” (as in designed) the living things He created to reproduce after their kinds and to be fruitful and multiply, but God ordered (as in not only designed, but commanded) man to do the same. The difference is an important key to understanding what God is doing.
Unlike the other living creatures which are designed to reproduce and multiply after their kinds, humans have some agency in the matter. God designed them for the same purpose, but He also commanded them to do it because humans are created in the image of God who has agency – the ability to exercise will and to do (or not do) things.
Humans, of course, had no choice in their creation, but they do have choice in whether to “participate in God’s design” and how they would participate in God’s design. This choice was demonstrated in the one tree in the garden that was forbidden to them.
It was a real choice, and it had real consequences. It had to have real consequences or it wouldn’t have been a real choice. That choice was part of what it meant to be made in the image of God. Without the ability to choose, humans would have been just like the other living things God created. The ability to choose set humans apart.
As the story goes, humans ate the fruit of the one tree that was forbidden.
They exercised the choice God gave them. In eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, humans opened up their world to all the ways they might choose to go against the order of creation.
Throughout Genesis 1, we read over and over again that what God did “was good” (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). If what God designed was good, choosing to operate counter to that design would be evil (the opposite of good).
None of this is very revelatory so far, but I am getting there.
Genesis 1 reminds me of 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul says:
God gives [all living things] a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish.
1 Corinthians 15:38-39
The order/design of life – of reality – is immutable. Life is ordered the way God created it, though humans have some choice (within limits) of whether to align with God’s design or to buck against it. Indeed, the story of the fall is the story of humans exercising that choice and of an adaptation that God built into His design to accomplish His ultimate plan.
A couple of stories in the Gospel of John illustrate the dichotomy of the natural world and the spiritual world. These are two of the most iconic stories in the New Testament, and they happened in close proximity in time to each other: the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, and the story of Nicodemus.
In this blog post, I want to focus on the encounter of Jesus with and Nicodemus, the Pharisee. Nicodemus was a religious leader of some prominence in the community. Many religious leaders of the time felt threatened by Jesus, but not Nicodemus.
He sought Jesus out to ask him some questions, going to Jesus at night, which suggests that his visit might not have been viewed favorably by his fellow Pharisees. He acknowledged the “credentials” Jesus demonstrated, the miracles that he had done, indicating an openness to what Jesus would say. Without waiting for a question, Jesus initiated the following dialogue:
“Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?'”
(John 3:1-4 ESV)
I think was an honest question. The context suggests that Nicodemus wasn’t challenging what Jesus said. He just wasn’t following.
We see by his approach to Jesus that he was open, but he didn’t understand what Jesus was getting at. “What was Jesus trying to say?”
It’s ironic, perhaps, that some Christians who say they take the Bible literally, don’t recognize the ubiquitous use of figurative (non-literal) language and ideas in the Bible. We can’t approach Scripture in a wooden way and hope to understand the depth of it.
If you have wondered what it means to be born again, let’s take a look at what Jesus said to Nicodemus and how Paul applies those concepts after the death and resurrection of Jesus. But first, Jesus continued:
“[U]nless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.'”
Jesus obviously didn’t mean that a man must re-enter his mother’s womb and be physically born again. He also doesn’t literally mean that man must be born of water, like out of a lake or something. He does seem to be saying literally, though, that man must be born (again) of Spirit or he cannot enter the kingdom of God, so let’s dig into it and try to flesh out what he means.
I read recently in the book, Gospel Justice, about the parable of the good Samaritan. The book focused on the priest who failed to cross the road to help an injured man. Bruce Strom offers a few possibilities about where the priest was going and why he was in too big of a hurry to help the injured man.
As I reflect back on what Bruce wrote, I can imagine God asking the question to the priest that hangs in the air: where are you going?
Where are you going?
God might ask that question not because He doesn’t know. God knows our every move and the words we are about to speak even before we say them. God might ask that question because He wants us to stop and think about it.
Where are you going?
Most people would have an answer of course. My 20-year-old might say that she is going to take a semester off of college to work, not knowing what college will look like in the fall with the virus outbreak still ongoing. My 25-year-old might say he is taking a year off before starting grad school. My 27-year-old might say that he is working, saving enough money for a security deposit, and the first and last months of rent for an apartment that he will need if he gets the job as a grad assistant that he has applied for.
My 30-year-old might say he is going into his second year of seminary. My 33-year-old might say he is going to keep mulching and working from home until the stay-at-home order is lifted and he can go back to work. My 34-year-old might say that he is going to patent a UV light that kills the coronavirus.
We might have longer term answers, too. I joke that I am going to work until I am 80 to pay off the college debt I incurred for my kids. I think about the possibility of retirement, as remote as it seems.
The priest in the parable might have been going home or going to church or going to visit a friend. He might have even being going to help someone in need. The priest might have had a good destination in mind, but the parable is clearly meant to contrast the priest to the “Good Samaritan”.
Of course, “good” and “Samaritan” were two words that Jews in first century Judea would not have put together. Samaritans were heretics and second-class citizens in the Jewish world at that time.
And of course, Jesus chose a Samaritan to drive home the point that the Good Samaritan, not the priest, did the “right” thing in that parable. He did the better thing. He stopped to help the injured man on the side of the road.
It didn’t matter where the priest was going, ultimately; he passed up the divine opportunity to help the man right in front of him.
If God was asking the priest, “Where are you going?” I don’t think he would be looking for the immediate answer. If the priest said he was going to the temple to perform his priestly duties, I think God might have asked him again, “Where are you going?”
We all have places to go, things to do, people to see. We all have goals and aspirations. I imagine God asking this question, not about the destinations, goals and aspirations we have planned, but about the journey: what direction are you moving in?
When two of my sons were wrestling, I would sometimes say to them (and myself): “It’s not about the winning and losing; it’s about the journey.”
The ultimate question about the journey of life is this: Who are you becoming?
I dare say that Kanye West will likely do more for North American Christianity than Donald Trump will. There is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who is found than over the 99, and the kingdom impact may be even more profound.
I don’t know where Donald Trump is in his spiritual walk, if he has one. The fruit isn’t apparent to me (not that I am the one to measure it). Kanye West, on the other hand, has come out of his cocoon with big, bright butterfly wings that have all the markings of a man who is born again.
He just recently announced that he will never sing his old songs (as they are) again. One Facebooker commented that Kanye West will lose millions of dollars if he does that! That is the mark of a man who has been changed by the Holy Spirt, who has traded earthly treasure for a heavenly one.
From “I am God” to “Jesus is King”
From “I am God” to “Jesus is King”, the title of his new album, the transformation is extreme. It strikes me that Kanye West is not a person to do things halfway or halfheartedly. How many of us would dare to proclaim publicly, “I am God?”
Yet everyone who refuses God’s love, who ignores that God is God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, is essentially “saying” the same thing. We might not dare to say it out loud for fear that someone will think we are nuts, but we live as if we are little gods when we do not acknowledge and honor God as God.
We have watched Kanye West live out his extravagant and extreme life in the most public of ways. He is a cultural icon, one of the biggest idols of our time, but he is just a person like you and I. God is no respecter of persons.
On the other hand, God knows the innermost thoughts and intents of Kanye West’s heart, like He knows ours. God knows us all intimately. The good and the bad.
Though he once proclaimed he is God, Kanye West was not too far gone for God to reach him, to redeem him, to wash him white as snow and to set him free from the delusions and blindness that afflict us all (though maybe not as publicly). Until the scales fall from our eyes, our hearts are softened like flesh and we humbly receive God’s gift of life that no one in this world can earn, we are just as “gone” as Kanye West was.
I do fear that Kanye West has a rough road ahead. He was doing 120 mph the other way. Every fiber of his being is in the habit of going in a different direction. The wealthy and the famous are like camels trying to thread through the eyes of needles. It won’t be easy.
But, with God, all things are possible. This was the message Jesus gave us. Though it may be that difficult, God can do in Kanye West what He has done in countless men and women who have responded to that knock on the door, opened it and invited Jesus in.
Donald Trump may be seen as the savior of Evangelical power in the American political system, but I know for a fact that the impact of one sinner saved is greater than all the political power in this country and on earth. Perhaps, CS Lewis said it best:
“… Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live for ever, and this must be either true or false. . . . And immortality makes this other difference…. If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilisation, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual. But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is everlasting and the life of the state or civilisation, compared with his, is only a moment.” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity 74-75
The salvation of Kanye West is of incomparable importance to the kingdom of God over things like the political and cultural influence of people like Donald Trump (or Kanye West for that matter) in this present world. Such temporary influence as a presidency or all of western civilization, itself, cannot compare to the unfathomable glory of the kingdom of God filled with mortal beings changed in the twinkling of an eye fully and finally into immortal, immutable children of the Living God – you, me and Kanye West included.