One of my earliest spiritual growth spurts came during my college years at a summer conference in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. One of speakers was Phil Armstrong, a former missionary to Southeast Asia. I particularly remember one experience he shared, that went something like this:
I arrived at a remote village just as night fell. I was due to speak that evening at a gathering on top of the high hill before me. In the twilight, I could see row upon row of rice terraces, laid out as the terrain allowed, with no discernable path through them.
Someone called my name, a local who had come down to meet me. I asked him for directions. The man smiled. “It would be hard enough to find the way in the daylight. Impossible at night. I have come to guide you. I am the way. Follow me.”
That was the first time I saw the Christian faith as a journey, a hike from a valley slipping into the shadows to a summit open to a sky full of stars. And, of course, I thought of Jesus’ words, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
Perhaps the most critical part of our journey is the transition involving death. And it seems to me that we typically understand preparing for death as putting one’s affairs in order. But that is not the major focus of any other trip. Leaving things in good order is important, but not more important, or urgent, than packing well for the trip ahead.
Anyone who follows Jesus Christ knows at least the general itinerary of their amazing journey. Their trek was planned before God made the world. They consciously chose to follow the Risen Jesus on that path when they met him through faith. Physical death is a consequence of human sin, involving the tearing apart of body and spirit. Our spirit is kept safe in heaven with Jesus until his church brings the gospel to every group of people on the planet. As soon as that great project is completed, Jesus himself will return and physically raise everyone from the dead. Those who rely on God’s grace will follow Christ into a renewed heaven and earth, to live and grow in God’s presence forever.
That means that almost all of our existence lies in the future, on the other side of death. It’s important, therefore, to focus on where we’re going. In effect, we need to pack well for our trip. Some things we simply may not take with us. Other things we don’t want to leave behind. Consider this packing list:
We can’t take with us any of our stuff. Savings, investments, house, car, wallet, hobby equipment … all of it stays behind. No photos, no diplomas, no awards, no memorabilia. We can’t even pack our smartphone. The reason is simple: at the moment of death, it all ceases to belong to us. Every bit of it will become someone else’s property.
One brother whose body was quickly wearing out asked me, with a twinkle in his eye, if his beloved dog could go with him. I told him that I was sure he would if he could, but no, the dog stays.
It certainly makes sense to give whatever instructions we feel are appropriate to direct our bequests. But the fact that we can’t take any of our stuff with us underscores how we can spend too much energy accumulating and obsessing over it.
The most difficult “stuff” to leave behind is our body. Human beings were not meant to live as disembodied spirits. We are designed as a fusion of spirit and body—a spirit that is able to know other people and know our Creator intimately, fused to a body that serves as a perfect interface to manage the physical world. Sin brought death, which disintegrates that fusion. Our redemption in Christ will not be complete until we are resurrected as he was. But until that time, death means that we must leave our bodies behind.
Of course, for so many of us, that is not entirely a bad thing. Our current bodies wear out, and leaving them behind means not having to pack a lot of pain and dysfunction. Still, we need faith that the Lord will literally hold us together until the renewal of all things.
Speaking of faith …
Faith in Christ is one of the things we absolutely must pack. The Bible outlines the stark contrast between the astounding potential of human beings, and our disappointing moral failures. While some indignantly ask how God could justify condemning us, the Bible is more concerned with how God can put up with us. How could God be truly good if he easily excused people who are not?
But God found a way, by taking on our humanity to demonstrate in person how human beings are supposed to live. Then he willingly absorbed on our behalf all the just punishment which he, himself, demands in response to our offenses. This “way” that God found was embodied in Jesus Christ. There can be no just forgiveness apart from Christ, and there is no limit to God’s forgiveness through Christ. He is the way.
Anyone who packs faith in Christ realizes that there is no room left for our junk—things which are incompatible with that faith.
Junk, like our sense of guilt. People who are forgiven by God are no longer considered guilty by God. It’s like being tried and convicted of an offense, but someone else arranged with the court to pay your fine or serve your time. Your debt has been paid. Your guilt was real, but is no longer relevant. In essence, it no longer exists.
Junk, like shame. Shame is a wilting sense of not being accepted, or being unacceptable. We each can think of things we feel ashamed about. But the repeated message of the Bible is that Jesus gives us new identities—connected with who we already are, but perfected. Jesus arranges for us to be adopted by God, become members of a new spiritual family, and citizens of a new spiritual kingdom. Anything we ever felt ashamed of is part of our past. We are not allowed to take it with us on our trip.
Junk, like unresolved regrets. Christians are responsible to seek forgiveness and reconciliation with anyone they have offended or neglected. Broken relationships that we allow to fester damage both ourselves and others. But once our trip to heaven begins, we leave unhealed hurts behind. We trust in God’s forgiveness, and commend those we have hurt to his care, asking him to bless them in spite of us.
Guilt, shame, regret. If we tried to pack these things, they would never get past customs. We must leave them behind. Forgiven sinners are welcome in God’s presence. Our former sin and misery are not. Jesus left all that buried when he rose from his grave, and it stays buried forever.
We can’t carry any of our stuff with us. But we can check-in the luggage of resources, time and energy spent loving God and loving others. Jesus was clear that all such treasure will be shipped to heaven and be there waiting for us.
We can, in effect, pack the love we shared with people who had nothing to give us in return. All the listening, understanding, prayer, and discrete aid given without the need to be admired for it. All the warm family acceptance of other Christians, no matter their culture, politics, skin color, or personal struggles. All the generosity of soul offered to our neighbors, no matter their culture, politics, skin color, or personal struggles. All the effort to hone whatever it is that we can best contribute to the church’s health. All the effort to model Jesus’ character by making this world a better place. Every word, prayer and dollar directed to sending the gospel around the world.
The value of these actions is automatically shipped on ahead, so we can include it on the list of what goes with us when we leave this life.
Packing our relationships requires discernment, since some will continue, and others will not.
We must all stand before our Creator for his fair evaluation of what we did with the life we were given. His evaluation determines our future, whether it will be a blessed experience with him, or not.
Except that everyone who humbly faces their many shortcomings and trusts in Christ to save and guide them, has already been forgiven. We are approved for Christ’s sake, as he makes it clear that we are with him. We can, therefore, pack our mutual relationships, confident that they will continue. As death draws near, we can say, “Farewell. We’ll celebrate when we’re together again.”
People who are not connected with Jesus must await their final evaluation to learn their future. It’s impossible to be confident about their outcome. As death draws near, it may be more appropriate for us to say a final “Goodbye,” and celebrate now what they have meant to us. And who knows? Perhaps some of them will decide to pack faith in Christ before it’s time for them to leave.
Jesus made it clear that death is not just about leaving; it’s about going somewhere. We would be wise to pack well for the trip.
Of course, death sometimes comes unexpectedly, and we may not have a final opportunity to prepare for it. That’s why we should make our packing list ahead of time. This is a crucial part of our journey that we simply cannot afford to get wrong, and it’s so easy to lose our way in the twilight.
May the way find us. May we hear Jesus call our name and invite us to follow him.