Our Stories

Credo XIV

“(I believe in)…the communion of saints,”

My first Communion terrified me. At age fourteen I “confirmed” my baptism vows, meaning I relieved my parents and baptism sponsors of their responsibility for my eternal soul. Now heaven or hell was completely in my hands. The next step was Holy Communion.

A line of us sat in the first row of the cathedral-like church, the boys in suits and ties, the girls in modest dresses, reciting the liturgy that forgave our sins. It was now time to march forward to the rail and receive Communion. But what if we thought something impure before we got the bread and wine? What if we had doubts? What would happen to our eternal souls if we still went through with Communion? We whispered among ourselves and wondered. We thought about escaping, but the exit routes seemed to be blocked by stern-looking ushers. And even if we made it out of the church, we would still have to face our parents. Nope. It was a done deal. We had to march up and take our medicine–like all sacraments, for better or worse. Needless to say, we all survived.

Since then Communion has been less terrifying and more meaningful. It’s a radical thing to take into your self the body and blood of Jesus. Maybe the bread and wine “transubstantiates,” maybe the bread and wine are “symbolic,” or maybe we don’t have words for a reality that we can’t understand completely.

Jesus wants to be part of me. No…that’s not exactly right. Jesus insists on being part of me. He demanded something unheard of back in His time on Earth. He said, “…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

Shocking. Discipleship ranks thinned considerably. Only twelve guys hung around, and one of them would betray him.

Ease up, I want to say, It’s only bread and wine. But that’s not what Jesus said, even when He offered bread and wine. He said, “Take and eat; this is my body.” And a moment later, He gave them a cup of wine and said, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant…”

No other religion has anything like it. It is not in the Jewish tradition. In some ways it is repulsive, suggestive of cannibalism, a nearly universal taboo. Only Jesus insists on being literally part of His followers, body and soul.

That’s a great story, but it’s still not the whole story of the communion of saints.

I brush by this phrase when I recite the Apostles’ Creed in church, thinking vaguely of our monthly Holy Communion ritual and saints. I get a foggy vision of St. Augustine, St. Francis, St. Patrick sharing a loaf and a cup. But that vision gets the original intent of the authors wrong.

At the time the Apostles’ Creed was written, the church used the term Eucharist for the sacrament Protestants started calling Holy Communion a thousand years later. And when those authors of the Creed did their work, the church hadn’t canonized many saints. The authors meant something totally different.Communion with a small “c” is sharing intimately and generously. Saints with the small “s” are believers like you and me.

Jesus gives us a foretaste of “the communion of saints” at the Last Supper. We remember His words during our Eucharist rituals, giving his body as the bread and his blood as the wine, as recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But in Luke’s gospel, Jesus gives us His feelings: “You’ve no idea how much I’ve looked forward to eating this Passover meal with you before I enter my time of suffering. It’s the last one I’ll eat until we all eat it together in the Kingdom of God.”

We worship a God who is eager to share a meal with us. He promises that we’ll do it again. He promises a communion of saints now and in the world to come. 

I remember our first Thanksgiving in Jacksonville with our four-year-old and six-year-old sons. We were living in a sparsely furnished three-bedroom apartment, driving two old cars, one of which had no air conditioning, twenty-five thousand dollars of debt hung over our heads, and I was working sixty to eighty hours per week. Friends had invited us to dinner, but the boys came down with chicken pox on Wednesday; we would not have been welcome guests. Our family would be alone, a long way from anywhere we had ever called home.

My last patient on Wednesday afternoon gave me a smoked turkey–an odd, unexpected, but timely gift. The next day, the four of us prayed, opened some cans, and sliced our donated turkey. I have never been so grateful that we were together, we had enough, and we had hope. This was a communion of saints. 

I remember our last prayer partner dinner in Jacksonville. For five years, three men had met with me weekly and prayed for our church, our community, our lost friends, our families. Our wives also met weekly and prayed. Then circumstances changed and they all moved, but one night we gathered together and celebrated birthdays and prayed together and remembered together and hoped together. This was a communion of saints.

There have been other times that a meal turned into a communion of saints–the last night out on a canoe trip I guided on the Llano River for a group of teens from the Lutheran church in Odessa, Texas; a dinner at the unlikely Claude’s, a fine French restaurant in Davao City, Philippines, at the end of an evangelism crusade; another at a restaurant in San Jose, Costa Rica, after a medical mission. Last Friday, nine fellow church members gathered at our home and ate shared food and watched a movie about Jesus and prayed together for the things on our hearts. These are communions of saints.

The formula is: people who know Jesus gathering together and sharing in gratitude and hope, and receiving joy. If you’ve experienced this, good. If not, you should. You need three things: know Jesus, be in a Christian community, and be a saint.

Other religions have saints. The Hindu tradition, Buddha, and Islam each lay out a course of action that can lead to a holy life if one is willing to work hard and follow that path. Those who are disciplined and fortunate become holy men, saints.

I’m not that kind of saint; I’m not that good.

Jesus likes saints, too, but He makes it easy. That is where the communion thing comes in. When He insists that I eat His body and drink His blood, He is insisting that I allow Him into me body and soul, and trust Him to lead me on a path toward perfection. I don’t have to be anywhere near holy to take Him up on this offer. It’s open to the worst of sinners. He offered it to Judas after Judas had already taken the betrayal money. The difference between Jesus’ plan and other plans for sainthood is that my own discipline and hard work count for nothing with Jesus. The only thing that counts is my surrender.

In the Book of Revelation, Jesus says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”

It’s that easy. Open the door. Let Jesus in. He will fill you up and you won’t be alone. We’ll eat together and laugh together and hope together. That’s the promise. That’s the communion of saints.

Credo XIII

“(I believe in)…the holy catholic church,”

On my first mission trip, I traveled to the Philippines with an evangelism team carrying my first aid kit outfitted for international travel. I expected to provide support to the team and to participate only marginally because I was way out of my comfort zone. We travelled for over twenty-four hours and crossed a dozen time zones and the international dateline. When we arrived, I not only didn’t know what time it was, I didn’t know what day it was. We slept for a few hours, awoke groggy, brushed our teeth and put on our best clothes because it was Sunday morning there, even though it would be a dozen hours before Sunday morning arrived back home. We were going to church with our host.

Cement floor, cinder block walls ten feet high under a tin roof twenty feet above, humid air circulating through steel rafters, barely moved by distant fans–this was church in Calinan, outside of Davao City, Mindanao, the Philippines. Six hundred men and women crowded together, singing and dancing to amplified gospel music sung in Cebuano, Tagalog, and English. I felt disoriented and alienated, and then, surprisingly, like I was at home. Though on the opposite side of the globe, I worshiped the same God, the same Christ, with the somehow connected body of believers, the catholic church, the church universal. Magic.

After returning home I shared my experience with the OR team while we waited for the patient to arrive. The circulating nurse, Donna, asked me a tough question. I had known her for several years, first as an ICU nurse and then as an OR nurse. From previous conversations I knew she was raised Catholic but no longer attended church.

“Dr. Lohse,” she said, “why is the church filled with hypocrites?”

Of course I wanted to argue that this wasn’t so. But I couldn’t really. I didn’t know her experience; no doubt she had a very clear example in mind. And I could not disagree; I could think of a few examples myself. Jesus seemed to have the same outrage at the religious teachers in His time. The scrub nurse, the OR tech, the anesthetist all waited for my answer. I’d already confessed that I believed in the universal (catholic) church. Did I believe in the holy church?

Jesus, on the night before His trial and execution, had the famous Last Supper with his disciples. The last thing He did before they left the room was share a cup of wine with them, and the last thing He said was, “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many…Truly I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

I am told that this phrase, so familiar to us in our communion service, is a paraphrase of the vow given at the Jewish ketubah, the finalization of betrothal before a wedding. The bride price and dowry are agreed between the families and the groom drinks a cup of wine and swears to abstain until he is ready to take his bride. Jesus is preparing His followers, His church, to become His bride.

You would think that Jesus, being God and all, could have found a better bride.

We have scandals. Congregations fire good pastors who preach a gospel that offends the status quo. Good pastors quit in frustration or depression to find work somewhere, anywhere, else. Boring preachers preach congregations into somnambulance and extinction. Congregants have affairs with pastors. Priests prey upon children. Evangelists skim extraordinary profits from fervent converts. Healing ministries offer the incurable unrealistic hopes. Spiritual gatherings deteriorate into cults that separate people from their families and exploit them for the slavish adulation of an all-too-earthly authority. Yes, there are the hypocrites.

And yet.

We are the holy catholic church.

We are the bride of Christ.

We are the hope of the world.

I grew up in a church, even got married in that same church and had my first son baptized there as an infant. I even feel some institutional allegiance to the place, kind of like claiming alumni status from my high school and college. But it wasn’t family, it wasn’t community, it was an institution. Even after I believed in the ultimate reality of God and the the resurrection of Jesus, I believed church membership to be a quaint tradition, like joining a Christian club, a totally optional activity.

Therefore, my church attendance was sporadic, done only at my convenience with minimal contribution to congregation resources, and I established only the briefest of relationships with other believers. Outside the church, I worked hard to gain worldly success while I drifted into spiritual darkness. Still, I didn’t associate my spiritual state with my church involvement. Eventually, by the grace of God and the love of a good wife, we made it through the darkest of times and ended up in a new city with new opportunities. Mary and I felt a profound sense of gratitude and committed to join a church.

Then I sat through many a church service with the well-scrubbed and well-dressed and well-respected. I harbored a secret cynicism that this was a group of good people gathered to look good, and perhaps looking good was more important than being good. Then I hung around for a while longer and I saw kind people and quiet heroes.

And I found out I was a baby Christian. I had read only two books of the Bible completely, had no prayer life, and, other than my wife, had no Christian friends. Through this church I slowly learned a basic truth about Christian life: If you are going to be more Christ-like, you have to hang around with other people who are trying to become more Christ-like. Otherwise, you drift. You might, like me, drift into thinking that the traditional rules are out-dated, that Jesus may have only “spiritually,” and physically, risen from the grave, that miracles don’t occur anymore, that prayers are futile, and finally that I personally get to decide what is best for myself without ancient Biblical guidelines. And the drift takes me right back to the Garden of Eden, eating apples with snakes.

Peace, joy, and purpose come not from a solitary journey but from a community of love, and the church at its core is a community of love: God’s love for his people, his people’s love for each other. If I had one bit of advice to give to everybody, it would be to spend an hour in church each week even if you don’t believe. If you spend time with people seeking the joy of the transcendent universe and learning how to become better and more loving people, you can’t go wrong. If your goal is inner peace and joy and finding purpose, I’m pretty sure it’s at least as good as your yoga class, your meditation lesson, or your self-help podcasts.

Of course, being a human institution, every church also drifts. In the early days, the church drifted from the gospel of grace toward the rules of religion. In medieval times the church drifted from the majesty of God and the power of the Holy Spirit toward the majesty of Rome and the power of wealth and weapons. In the modern times…I don’t really know. We drift all sorts of ways. All I know is I want to weep on Sunday mornings when I hear the name of the church more often than I hear the name of Jesus. Do we exist as a church to maintain a building and membership roles? Or do we exist to bring good news to the poor, comfort to the sick, and to set the prisoners of alcohol and drug addiction free? I cringe when I hear those who are hellbent on saving the unborn and totally indifferent to the plight of the pregnant, or for that matter, those who stridently claim “reproductive rights” at the cost of infant deaths. We thump our Bibles for law and order, and we thump them again for social injustice. We thump them better than we read them. We are incredibly imperfect. And we are filled with hypocrites.

For a long time I sat in churches with what I perceived to be nice, well-dressed people. Then I sat in churches with what I perceived to be kind, sometimes heroic people, some well-dressed, some not-so-much. Then one day I sat in church and looked around. I’d been in this congregation long enough that I knew many of the testimonies of the people in the pews. And, yes, they were for the most part kind, well-intentioned, sometimes wise, sometimes heroic. But what they had in common was not their goodness but their redemption. I saw alcoholics and ex-cons and serial arsonists. I saw the divorced and the adulterous and the pornography addicts. I saw the greedy and the vain and the selfish. And they were all there raising their arms and singing praise, thanking God for forgiveness and grace, and praying for the strength to be better people, to be more like Jesus. This is the bride of Christ. This is the hope of the world.

I know if anybody who saw me in my worst moments and also saw me in that congregation of sinners would think, Yes, there he is, the hypocrite, with all his fellow hypocrites. What’s he trying to prove?

Yes, Donna, the church is filled with hypocrites. Like me. An imperfect man saved by the grace of God. We are seeking peace, experiencing joy and learning to love. Maybe we aren’t there yet. But we are trying to become better, we are trying to become more like Jesus. He keeps embracing us, loving us, putting us back on course. The bride of Christ isn’t perfect, but the groom of the Church is. He will make us holy.

Credo XII

“I believe in the Holy Spirit…”

I grew up in a Lutheran church where the Holy Spirit was known as “The Holy Ghost.” One Sunday when my brother and I were aged about four and five, we went to big church with the family, probably on Easter or Palm Sunday, a beautiful Spring day. I remember nothing of the service except that Bruce and I were very impressed by the Holy Ghost. Our imaginations ran wild with the possibilities of real, live (?), ghosts. In church! Everywhere! Best news ever!

After church the extended family gathered at our home for a holiday dinner. While grown-ups bustled around the house setting the table and preparing food and exchanging news, we sat on the front steps and talked about holy ghosts. Pretty soon, we started seeing them.

I don’t know for sure what my brother was seeing, but once he saw a holy ghost, I was going to see one, too. As soon as I saw a flicker of sunlight, I said, “There goes another one.”

In a moment, Bruce said, “I see one.”

Give it a three second pause, then me: “I see a holy ghost.”

Another beat, then Bruce: “There goes another!”

We went on for a while, sometimes seeing two or three at once, having a heckuva good time. It sure beat church and it sure beat behaving at the dinner table.

Unbeknownst to us, the extended family grown-ups had gathered behind the screens of the open windows and doors and they were enjoying themselves immensely–thus the beginning of a family story that has, to my embarrassment, refused to die. 

Yes, it was cute. Yes, it was funny. But now, ask yourself why it was funny. Those two little guys were clearly fooling themselves, and each in competition with the other to be a bigger fool. They could not possibly be seeing Holy Ghosts because: 1) There’s only one Holy Ghost? 2) The Holy Ghost is invisible? or 3) The Holy Ghost isn’t real?

Do you believe in ghosts? Supernatural forces of any kind? Spirits of nature? Demons? My family did not. We were of a northern European mindset that believed in hard work, cause and effect, truth and consequences. We didn’t even believe in luck. Nobody gambled.

Although we kids kept a more open mind, you can see how we might have been astounded to hear about a ghost in church. I’d like to say that further education and experience in the church made the Holy Spirit more real to me, but that would be inaccurate. Ours was a faith of liturgy and intellect, believing in the forgiveness of sins by grace and in life everlasting. But how the Holy Spirit fit into the Christian life? Who knew?

Sure, we heard of faith healing, even watching Oral Roberts on TV…and laughed. We heard of crazy people speaking in tongues and handling snakes and casting out demons, and we thought them all charlatans, weak-minded folks given to superstition, or even clinically insane. My experience on the psych ward as a medical student did not disabuse me of these attitudes.

Then one day when I was a third-year neurosurgery resident at Yale, my dad called me about a case. He had been a deacon for our large, downtown, conservative Lutheran congregation for several years. Now, a FBI agent, a church member, had suffered a gunshot wound to his cervical spinal cord and was on a respirator at Hennepin County General Hospital. The agent had regained consciousness and sent a message to the church requesting the elders of the church lay hands on him and pray for his healing. He quoted the book of James to the head pastor: “Is there anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.”

Lutherans didn’t do that kind of thing. Our prayers for healing usually had the general aim of accepting our suffering in peace rather than any expectation of physical improvement. Healing came from doctors. Comfort came from pastors. But the FBI agent had a persuasive argument. So the head pastor of Central Lutheran Church recruited dad and two other guys to go to the hospital and pray for healing. It couldn’t hurt, and they couldn’t say no.

Dad described the experience to me as strange but oddly peaceful. The agent had thanked them, and they all left wondering if they had performed an act of faith or an exercise in futility. Dad wondered, had I heard of this kind of thing before? What are the chances of improvement with this kind of injury?

No, in four years of medical school, a year of internship, and two years of neurosurgery residency, I had not seen anybody lay hands on a patient and pray for healing. I had no experience with anointing oil. As for prognosis, hard to tell without specific knowledge of the case, but gunshot wounds to the cervical spinal cord are usually fatal and the survivors are virtually always complete quadriplegics without hope for recovery. But, hey, prayers are always good for comfort anyway, right? What harm? The agent might have some anger issues with God when he didn’t get the result he and the elders had prayed for, but that couldn’t last. He would forgive God for not healing him, right?

A few months passed and our family returned to Minnesota for a visit. I remembered the story from a few months before and asked Dad what happened to the agent.

Dad looked a bit surprised, remembering something he perhaps should have told me before. “Yes,” he said, “about six months after his injury I helped officiate at his wedding at Central Lutheran. He walked down the aisle.”

Central Lutheran is a cathedral. The aisle is at least fifty yards long and you could only get to it by walking up a few steps. No way a quadriplegic could do this.

Huh, I thought. I must have misunderstood about his injury, because that could never happen. Because laying on of hands and anointing with oil and prayers for healing couldn’t do this. Because, much as I believed God was real and Jesus forgave sins, I didn’t believe in the Holy Spirit. I didn’t believe that God would interfere in the affairs of men beyond to change hearts and minds. He might have created the world, but He didn’t heal spinal cord injuries.

The tables had turned since I sat on the front steps and counted Holy Ghosts while my dad watched from inside the house and laughed because he didn’t see any. Now he had experienced the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit while I watched and, I didn’t laughed exactly, but I still couldn’t see.

That was a long time ago. Since then I’ve encountered the Holy Spirit at the bedside when people who should have died recovered and people who should have been paralyzed got up and walked. I’ve encountered the Holy Spirit in the streets where men who were bent on getting drunk heard the Gospel presentation, left their booze and prayed for eternal life. I’ve encountered the Holy Spirit in the jungles of Central America where I witnessed what can only be described as a demon being cast out of a man.

I think it is possible to think of yourself as a Christian if you believe that God created the world and Jesus was the Son of God who entered human history and died for the sins of the world and was raised again from the dead. That’s the first two parts of the Apostles’ Creed. Those beliefs alone bring you the greatest story ever told and lead you into the most gratifying philosophy of life, the one preached by Jesus. That’s what I once did.

But when I left it there, I only embraced a story and a philosophy, and did not experience the power and the beauty and the joy of God working actively in the world, and in my life, in the right here and right now.

I’m trying to think of how I got from that cynicism I had as a young doctor and to be an old guy who believes in miracles. There is not one story; there are a lot of experiences. But if I could point to a beginning, I would point to the first time I heard God’s direction clearly in answer to a prayer. “No, you can’t fix it,” He said. “Just go home.”

I’ve told the story before, and I won’t repeat it. But I will point out that the experience opened up one new vision for the universe and one new insight into the experience that follows the forgiveness of sin.

The new vision of the universe is simply the recognition that the material world, enormous and complicated as it is with all the matter, time, space, and energy, is not the complete reality. Perhaps I recognized that before in some abstract way, but I was convinced that that spiritual world–heaven and hell, angels and demons, miracles and curses–was separate from our reality. Then God spoke and the veil between the two worlds broke.

Then there is the forgiveness of sin and what happens next. Think of sin as an addiction to a behavior contrary to a life of love and peace. Think of alcohol and drug addiction. Think of gambling and sex addiction. Then think of the addictions our culture encourages: greed and vanity.

The thing about addiction that every addict knows is that you can’t fix it yourself. Over the past hundred years or so, our culture has gone from viewing addiction as moral turpitude to viewing it as disease. I guess this is a step forward. It is the recognition that the individual is helpless, unable to save himself or herself. It is the cultural equivalent of the forgiveness of sins. It is permission to leave the past behind. This is the first step in the twelve-step recovery program modeled by Alcoholics Anonymous.

But the first step, though necessary to leave the past behind, is not enough to give freedom from addiction into the future. For that we need step two and step three: recognize that a “greater power” can restore us to sanity, and decide to turn our life over to that power.

Welcome to the Holy Spirit. I am a sinner incapable of saving myself. I can study the rules, the moral codes, the ethics statements, the Ten Commandments. But what I know and want to control does not rule my behavior. I am not alone in this. St. Paul says, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Those of you who have never been trapped in sin or addiction think that statement nonsense; those of us who have been there know exactly what Paul is talking about. To move forward is to turn our life over to that “greater power,” and that greater power is the Holy Spirit.

Please recognize that this is not deciding to become a better person. I tried; it didn’t work. This is giving up trying to be good. This is surrendering. It is seeking relationship. It is trusting in something intangible, an other-worldly spiritual power. Some would call it “magical thinking.” I call it the Holy Spirit.

This is the essential power of the Holy Spirit, the transformation of sinners into something closer to saints. I’m not at sainthood, but I’m a lot closer than I was when I tried to be good.

There is more, of course. The Holy Spirit has the power to change lives in this world and the next for confessing sinners and those still lost and seeking. It has the power to heal the sick and bring about countless miracles. It is the living spirit of Jesus in the world today. There are specific gifts of the Spirit for each believer. There are no limits.

But there is a guarantee. If I can let the Spirit work in me, I can be the kind of person that shows the “fruit” of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Now I’m an old man sitting on the front steps of my life and looking into the front yard. I see the Holy Ghost…and there He is again…and again. I’m seeing an FBI agent walking down his wedding aisle and a brain-dead woman coming back to life and a redeemed alcoholic. I’m seeing me as a jerk in my twenties. I’m seeing us then and I’m seeing us now. And the FBI agent and the woman and the alcoholic and me, and now…we all look a lot more like Jesus.

Credo XI

“…From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”

Once I did a good thing, and I wonder if it is enough to save me. The Sulzbacher Center for the homeless had just opened in Jacksonville and the county medical society was trying to find volunteers to staff a free clinic there on Saturday mornings. They were desperate enough to use a neurosurgeon, so I showed up and did my best to be a decent primary care provider for a few hours. Among the people I saw was a healthy looking Black man about my age and my size who had hypertension and needed his medication renewed. The other problem I noticed when I examined him was that his pants didn’t come close to fitting. He left the zipper undone so he could hitch them up over his hips then left left his shirt untucked so that maybe no one would notice.

I liked the guy. If I got the connection right, he was the guy the cops knew as “Ten-Speed,” a moniker he had picked up because the only thing he owned when he started dealing was a ten-speed bike. He built a little business and had a house and a car by the time he got busted. Now, after some jail time, he was back on the streets minus the house, the car, and the bicycle. Or even pants. It’s hard to get work without pants.

I heard other hard luck stories that morning. If you’ve ever volunteered at a homeless clinic, you know there are lots of sad stories and seemingly impossible situations. Generally, the best policy is to keep your head down, do your job diligently and without judgement and let it go. You can’t fix everything.

But somehow, no pants bothered me. I went home to my closet, found a couple of very serviceable pairs of pants, a belt that could make it work if the pants were too big, a Bible, and a satchel to carry it all. I drove back downtown and asked around the homeless center until I found the guy and gave it all to him. Yes, he was grateful. And I’m grateful to him, because it makes it a bit easier to face Jesus as the judge.

I don’t like to think about Jesus as the judge. He is our Savior. He loves the unlovable and forgives the unforgivable. How can He be the guy that brings the hammer down? When I envision the judge in heaven I relapse into the vision of the bearded old man on the throne sending the righteous to their mansions of eternal bliss and the unrighteous to everlasting hellfire and damnation.

But Jesus tells us clearly that He will be the judge, and the righteousness standard is unexpected. He says, “When the Son of Man comes in all His glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

He says to the sheep, the ones on His right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”

That sounds good. I like this part of judgement. Then, He goes on the give the reason for their eternal reward: they fed him when He was hungry, gave Him something to drink when He was thirsty, invited Him in when He was a stranger, clothed Him when He was naked, looked after Him when He was sick, and visited Him when He was in prison.


He didn’t list regular church attendance, saying the sinner’s prayer, receiving Last Communion, or even forgiveness of sins. He didn’t list financial contributions, large or small, nor a well-ordered, thoughtful life, nor running large charities well. Nope. The sheep getting past the pearly gates sounded like kind and generous people who did little things, one at a time, for Jesus.

But they didn’t do it for Jesus; at least they didn’t think so. The sheep said, “Who, me? I don’t remember that.”

Of course they don’t remember doing that. Jesus ascended to heaven back around 33 A.D.–not likely any of us are going to find Him in jail looking dehydrated, scrawny, sickly, and, well, naked. Even if He did come back and chose that place and appearance, I doubt the sheep would recognize Him. I wouldn’t.

Fortunately, Jesus made it clear to the sheep (and to us): “Whatever you do to the least of these…you did it for me.”

Whoa! I thought I was going to heaven because I said I believed Jesus was the Son of God and He forgives my sins. Now I find out that I need to complete the checklist of caring for the hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick and imprisoned? I’m terrified, my hope now hanging on the one time I shared pants with an ex-con.

That’s the good part of Judgement Day. It gets worse.

The Son of God is still on the Throne. Now He is directing the goats to “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Because they didn’t feed the hungry Jesus, give water to the thirsty Jesus, take in the stranger Jesus, clothe the naked Jesus, care for the sick Jesus, or visit the prisoner Jesus.

Not because they were murderers, rapists, thieves, adulterers or liars. Not because they claimed to be atheists or agnostics. Nope, their sin was one of omission. They hadn’t taken care of the down and dirty Jesus.

The goats likewise answer, “Who me? I don’t remember that.” Maybe they also asked about grace. Maybe they asked for a bit of credit for finishing the Bible study course and memorizing a lot of scripture. Maybe they pointed to evangelism successes.

But no such luck.“Whatever you have not done for the least of these, you did not do for me,” He answers. The goats are going to burn in hell.

Everything about the words of Jesus in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew is disturbing. First of all, hell is real. I like to believe the modern myth that the righteous go to heaven and the others go to sleep. This is the illusion that allows for suicide and euthanasia. I don’t like to think of “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Although details are spare and no doubt beyond our imagination, hell is not a good ending. And now we find out that we get there by being not necessarily bad, but simply uncharitable.

Charity is good, sure. But who would have guessed that eternal joy or eternal suffering would hinge on charity? And a very specific kind of charity at that. It is unconscious charity that is eternally rewarded and it is performed for “the least of these” regardless of who they are or whether they are complicit in their misery. In other words, they are both the deserving and the undeserving poor, they are the ones who got sick and the ones who made themselves sick (think alcoholics and tobacco addicts), the stripped and the strippers, the shunned and the hermits. They are both the innocently imprisoned and the career criminals.

This is a narrow path. You have to be the kind of person who sees suffering and can’t stand to see suffering. You have to ignore all the good reasons for doing nothing, things like: “it won’t matter, anyway;” “they’ve gotten themselves into this mess, they’ll have to get out of it; I’m not equipped;” “I can’t afford it.” Then you have to expect no recognition and expect no reward. You have to be that kind of person. The only thing that saves you is becoming that kind of person.

I’m not that kind of person, not really, not all the time. Maybe nobody is. I’m wondering if my one act of kindness is enough to get me in with the sheep, but I don’t think so. I have to rely on that other thing called grace.

Jesus also said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”

That’s “saved by grace,” but I found out it doesn’t mean just saying the magic words “I believe,” and expecting the free ticket to heaven. Believing in Jesus means surrendering my will to His, listening to Him through prayers and the Bible, and actively seeking Him in my life experience.

Sometimes that life experience can be pretty damn short. Think about the thief being crucified with Jesus and the promise made to him: “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” He didn’t get much time to feed the hungry and cloth the naked, but Jesus put him in with the sheep anyway. This is grace at its most primal. Jesus knows the thief didn’t just say the words; his heart had changed so that he turned into that kind of person, the one who would have given up his pants if he had any to give.

“Saved by grace” is also, ironically, letting go of “trying to be good.” Trying to be good implies I am in control and decide what is good and what is not. It sounds right but it is not: I’ll do good things for Jesus, then He will love me because I am good.

Grace works the other way around. If I actively believe in the living Christ and seek Him out, He will change me. It is this: Because He loves me, He will make me good. He will use me to take care of “the least of these” and I won’t even notice. He will make me into that kind of person. He will herd me over to the sheep.

My friend Mark, another retired physician, volunteers at homeless shelters and free medical clinics two or three days a week. He is kind and generous. He takes care of the home and family needs without complaint when his wife flies away, sometimes for weeks, to serve with Samaritan’s Purse. Nearly every week, he volunteers for the childcare program at his church. Here’s the kicker, the thing that makes him fit in so well with the sheep Jesus describes: he doesn’t do it for Jesus. He does it for “the least of these.” I know, because he professes to be an atheist.

I don’t know if Mark is going to be judged with the sheep or the goats. I don’t really want him to change anything about the way he lives. But I wish he would profess that He trusts and serves Jesus, that He could also claim salvation by grace. I think it would have a profound effect on his children and their children for generations. And I want to be certain he is herded in with the sheep. I really want him to be one of my buddies in heaven.

How many good deeds do you have to do to go to heaven? How many times do you get to pass by “the least of these” before you go to hell? I don’t know. Jesus is sitting on the judgement seat right now. I’m praying for His mercy and claiming His grace.

Credo X

“He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.”

Have you ever wondered what everlasting life would look like? Not eternal–everlasting. If you had been born in 1750, you could have fought in the American Revolution and still be with the Navy Seals today. You could have been George Washington’s aide and Joe Biden’s administrative assistant. By now, you could have learned to speak all of the languages of Europe and Japanese, Korean, and Chinese. If musically inclined, you could play every instrument in the orchestra. If you put a dollar in a savings account with 5% interest, it would be worth millions today. You would be rich! Add a few more centuries, say being born in 3B.C., and the possibilities magnify.

It’s hard to imagine.

That’s the good part, and it assumes your health remains good and the aging process stops when you are in your prime. The bad part is that you may have buried many wives and several generations of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. Every love will be a loss. I wonder if  it would make me cautious of caring. The price of everlasting life might be loneliness.

It’s hard to imagine.

What would it look like if Jesus hadn’t taken the heavenly option? What if the ascension had never taken place and He continued to walk the earth in bodily form, doing the occasional healing, raising someone from the dead, challenging religious hypocrites everywhere? Would He lead a mega-mega church? Would the humble rebel of Galilee become the CEO for the New World Order? Or would He be an under-the-radar kind of revolutionary?

It’s hard to imagine.

It is also hard to imagine heaven. We can quickly let go of the amusing images of winged angels strumming harps while seated on clouds, and the long-bearded, white-robed St. Peter checking the big book for reservations at the pearly gates. Even in this word from the creed, “ascended” loses literal meaning in our current understanding of the physical universe. Ascending takes one ultimately to outer space, not heaven. And the phrase cannot literally mean that Jesus is “seated.” Why not standing? Why not flying? And what can “the right hand of God” possibly look like? Not four big fingers and an opposable thumb, surely.

We are reduced to metaphor because heaven is beyond our mortal comprehension. Ascended still makes sense in that heaven is separated from the dirt and the darkness that we find when we descend. Heaven is somewhere, but it seems to be in another sphere than our current time-space continuum. Jesus may or may not be seated but he is surely in the presence of the Father almighty and united with the Father in a way that is so far beyond our experience that we can only term it “at the right hand.”

My father was a deacon in our Lutheran church in Minneapolis when I was a teen-ager and young adult. This meant he wore black robes once a month and helped to serve communion. He also went to a lot of meetings and knew all the pastors on a first name basis. It involved a lot more, but I was privy to very little of it. My dad was fairly laconic, and truthfully, I wasn’t interested.

Until one Sunday afternoon when he took a call in my room while I was a college student. Back in the day of land lines and short cords, there were only limited places one could talk on the phone, and on that day my upstairs room was the only available quiet place. He ignored me while I studied at my desk on the far side of the room, but I could not ignore him.

A kid from the confirmation class had apparently been given the assignment to ask a deacon a question about faith. This junior-high-aged boy called Dad to ask what heaven was like.

Although I was only getting one side of the conversation, I got that much, stopped poring over the extremely puzzling calculus textbook, and started listening. I suppose Dad could have told him about the streets paved with gold and the river of life lined by twelve trees along as outlined in the Revelation of John. But he didn’t. He told the boy he didn’t know what it would be like physically, didn’t know about wings or not wings, harps or no harps, clouds or mansions or any of the other common metaphors. He told him that his best guess was that it would be a feeling like the one that comes at the end of a day of hard work when you know you’ve accomplished something worthwhile and you know that everyone you love will have enough food and enough clothing and a safe, warm place to sleep that night, and everything was right with the world. Dad told him that sense of joy and peace didn’t come very often, but that was his best guess about heaven. It would feel like that.

Then Dad listened for a long time. He shared an occasional word of comfort, but his back was to me and his voice was soft. I waited, staring down at the still incomprehensible book, my mind now a million miles away from calculus. When he got off the phone, Dad quietly explained the conversation to me. The part I hadn’t heard was that the boy had lost his father six months before. His question wasn’t academic, it wasn’t theoretical, it wasn’t theological. It was personal. The boy wanted to know Where’s my dad now?

My dad wasn’t much of a music fan or art critic, but after he moved to Florida at the age of seventy he had a favorite print on the wall of his townhouse. It was a rural landscape of snowy fields and barren trees, just past sunset with a golden horizon below and an indigo sky above. In one corner, small compared to the scale of the painting, sat a farmhouse with a wisp of smoke coming from the chimney and warm light poring from the windows. To everybody else the print looked like “winter on the farm.” To Dad, it looked like heaven.

I don’t know about whether Jesus “ascended” or got beamed up or got transformed. I don’t know if He’s sitting or standing or flying. I don’t know what the right hand of the Father almighty looks like. But I’m sure that Jesus is united with the Father in some way I can’t comprehend, except that the union is the ultimate source of all peace and all joy. The price of eternal life is not loneliness. Jesus is there. So is Dad.