One of the surprises, for me, of becoming a blogger is the people I get to “meet.” While I haven’t physically met Joshua, he has become a friend through our interactions on social media, email, and Skype. Josh is the real deal. He loves Jesus, cares about the church, thinks deeply, and is working for the shalom of God in the world. It is my privilege to have him on the blog today.
Josh has also been gracious enough to giveaway one of his books to a lucky individual. Leave a comment below and I on Thursday I will randomly choose one individual using a random number generator to receive a free copy of Josh’s book The Skeletons in God’s Closet.
Shortly after I began following Jesus, a friend told me, “Christians go to heaven; non-Christians go to hell.” He wanted to make sure I understood my marching orders: “So our job is to get as many people to become Christians as possible before it’s too late.” I wanted to be open to new ideas, but right off the bat I had a few major problems with this one.
One of those problems was named Jeremiah.
Jeremiah was an elderly Native American who had befriended me. He hated Christianity and, as our friendship grew, he let me in on why. As a child, Jeremiah was forcibly removed from his family and taken to a native boarding school for children to be “civilized.” As Jeremiah walked through the school’s front door, he looked up and saw its motto hanging over the entryway. The motto, as in many native boarding schools of the day, was:
“Kill the Indian. Save the man.”
They came pretty darn close on the first half.
Jeremiah’s boarding school was where he first developed his distaste for America and its civil religion. First, there was the cutting. They cut Jeremiah’s long hair, customary for boys of his tribe, in an attempt to help him assimilate into mainstream society. His hair was not all they cut: he was forcibly circumcised—a confusing experience for a boy of his age separated from his family.
Jeremiah was humiliated.
Jeremiah’s family was already familiar with cutting: locals cut out his grandfather’s tongue for resisting the ban on native languages and continuing to teach youth their native tongue. Intimidation had repeatedly failed to silence his voice, so they used brute force and went for his throat.
Second for Jeremiah, there was the separation. Jeremiah’s family was considered by school administrators to be a negative influence on his assimilation into Western culture. So during the summers, he was to live with a white family in the city while during the school year, his home visits were severely restricted. As a young boy, Jeremiah missed his family and developed a growing sense of shame in his native identity.
Third, there was the loss. As an altar boy in a local church, Jeremiah lost his virginity when a priest began molesting him. This only exacerbated his sense of shame and powerlessness in a culture not his own. The abuse would continue for years to come, but it was not the only loss Jeremiah would experience.
Eventually, Jeremiah fell head over heels with the love of his life. When he proposed to his high school sweetheart, she said yes. Unfortunately, their joy was short-lived. His fiancée was murdered in a racial attack, her car forced off the side of the road by four white boys from the local Catholic high school.
Jeremiah had experienced great loss at the hands of Jesus’ ambassadors: his body molested and his fiancée killed.
Jeremiah hated Christianity. And I can’t say that I blamed him.
So when I was told, “Christians go to heaven; non-Christians go to hell,” the question I asked back was:
Does this mean the molesting priest will go running into God’s kingdom while Jeremiah is kicked outside, simply because of which box each would check on the ‘Which religion are you?’ questionnaire?
Will the knife-wielding tongue-cutters, shaming schoolmasters, and racist politicians be dancing around God’s throne simply because they sat in the pews of a local church, while the voiceless, shamed, and buried of Jeremiah’s community are once again denied fair trial because they found their oppressor’s religion hard to swallow?
Is God really that cold-hearted? Are his ways that superficial? Is his justice really that unfair?
I found myself wondering: Had Jeremiah really rejected Jesus, or simply a severely distorted witness? Had our horrific muck-ups as Jesus’ ambassadors gotten in the way of Jeremiah even encountering Jesus yet? And if so, what does God do with the destructive impact of our witness on his world?
God’s judgment is, I would suggest, not the problem in this scenario. It is the solution.
Weeding Out, Gathering In
Jesus says God’s judgment will be a surprise. This is one of its chief characteristics, its primary markers, one of the foremost things we should expect.
When God shows up, the prodigals and prostitutes are running into the kingdom while the self-righteous and self-made are weeping outside the party. The sick, poor, blind, and lame are partying it up at God’s wedding feast while those who thought their own clothes were good enough are cast out into the darkness. Crowds of pagans come streaming from east and west to the Jerusalem banquet while many of those who carried God’s name unworthily find themselves outside the city, weeping and gnashing their teeth.
Insiders are weeded out; outsiders are gathered in.
Jesus says God’s arrival will be a day of astonishment and reversals. The first become last and the last first. Many who call Jesus “Lord” and did great things in his name are told he never knew them, and many who never recognized him are told that he’s known them all along. Many who thought they were in are cast outside, and many who didn’t seem to recognize there was an in or an out to begin with are welcomed in with open arms.
The name of God’s game is shock and awe.
My friend at the beginning of this post was wrong. The walls that house our Sunday morning worship services are not the same as the walls that separate the beauty of the New Jerusalem from the brokenness of Gehenna. We cannot look around in our churches today and confidently proclaim that our seats at the wedding feast are booked in advance while those outside our walls are destined for destruction simply on the basis of our church membership rolls.
I explore judgment with more depth in my new book, but for here it’s enough to say this: I don’t claim to know Jeremiah’s destiny, yet I have hope. Because surprise is one of the chief characteristics of Jesus’ teaching on judgment. The gospel tells us who the judge is; it does not tell us the particularities and details of his judgment’s outcome. Rather, it gives us confidence that Jesus is a good judge, and that his judgment is good news for a world that desperately needs to be set right.
This excerpt used with permission from Thomas Nelson Publishers.