What's in Your Future?

What will the future bring? You may have felt more confident answering that question back before your 401k turned into a 201k and when in your home, along with the sofa, the bed and the flat screen TV, there was something called "equity." Back then, you might have said, "Ahh, the future looks great!"

But, now, ask the woman who just squeaked by the last round of job cuts, or ask the man who didn't, ask them the question--"What will the future bring?"--they'll be certain to answer, "I don't know."

The future is a mystery, and we are people who have little space in our lives for mystery. Mysteries trouble us, confound us, and need to be solved. Look at our human history. It is a testament to solving the mysteries of our world. After all, there was a time when the wind blew where it chose, we heard the sound of it, but we didn't know where it came from or where it was going (John 3:8). But, now, the Weather Channel will tell us there's a high pressure system off to the North blowing that cold wind all the way down to Miami. The wind? We know where it came from and where it goes. Mystery solved!

There was a time that on a birth day there was a shout of surprise, "Ohhh! It's a boy!" But now the sonogram lets us in on what color to paint the nursery months in advance. No longer are we formed in secret in our mothers' wombs. Now we know. Mystery solved.

There was a time when the phone rang and we would ask, "Who is it?" But now the caller ID tells us, "It's your boss!" Now we know to say, "Let it ring." Mystery solved.

Solving mysteries is what we do well, but the ones we cannot solve? They've got us tossing and turning, biting our nails, and chomping down Rolaids--that is what the future does well.

In his best selling book, Stumbling on Happiness, the author Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, explains how the future is a mystery, wildly uncontrollable, but that doesn't stop us from trying to control it. When it comes to the future, human beings merely create in our minds what Gilbert called an illusion of foresight. We believe we can see and control the future, and so we set appointments, save for retirement, get our itineraries in order, but the future has other plans. So it is that our appointments run into the flu bug, our retirement dreams are hosted by Berney Madoff. And even though the itinerary says destination "Charlotte," the plane landed in the Hudson.

The terribly frustrating reality of life is that we have no control and the future is and will always be for us a trembling, wild, worry wart of a mystery.

Unless...unless you are with Christ. The writer of Ephesians, he calls himself Paul, believes strongly that the future is no longer a mystery, for it has been revealed. He wants to show us our future and so like the ghost of a Dickens' Christmas classic, he grabs us by the hand and pulls us into the future, stopping at our graves and greeting us with those inspiring words, "You were dead...." And then he reads our obituary--it's not very flattering. Listen: "You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air ...the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses...by nature children of wrath...."

Well, thank you, Paul. Nice of you to say. You have us sounding completely irredeemable, much like that obituary that ran not too long ago in a Los Angeles newspaper. Get a load of this. "Dolores," it said, "had no hobbies, made no contribution to society and rarely shared a kind word or deed in her life. Her presence will not be missed by many, very few tears will be shed and there will be no lamenting over her passing. There will be no service, no prayers and no closure for the family she spent a lifetime tearing apart."

Whoever wrote that obituary for Dolores must have consulted Paul--no highlights, just low lights--no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Paul, however, leaves us little time to question or cry; with the obit read, he pulls away from the grave news and towards the great news: For those who have no redeeming qualities, God has "raised us up, and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. So that in the ages to come, he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 2:6-7).

You see, the wonder of this text is that Paul has allowed us to penetrate the future. Not the future that tells us whether we'll have enough to retire, but, rather, a far more encompassing future. Paul sees that God "has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth."

God has set forth a bail-out package of enormous proportions! The amazing grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is gathering up our sins, our failures, our pains, our brokenness, our pasts, our presents, and our great illusions of foresight into the reality of Christ's death and resurrection. This is huge--so huge that many cannot seem to fathom its size and scope. Instead they shrink it and trim it, preaching and proclaiming that God isn't gathering up "all things," just "some" things. You know, the more righteous of this world! The more pure of this world! The things that look right and behave correctly and have some redeeming qualities about them.

Well, what's right, what's pure, what's redeeming? It may depend on who you ask.

My mother tells a story about my brother Mark when he was about 4 or 5 years old. The story begins with my mother hearing her young son shouting at a friend just outside the kitchen window. "Stop! Stop! he yelled. Stop! Stop! Stop!"

My mom looked out and saw the neighbor boy stomping on the ground and my brother shoving him away. "What are you doing? They're only ants," shouted the neighbor boy.

"They've got a right to live too!" was the comeback from brother.

My mother watched as my brother got down on his knees and with one hand he tweezered one by one little black specks into his other hand. Standing back up he looked at all the wounded he had gathered up. "Oh little ants," he said, "don't worry! My mommy will take care of you!"

Who decides what is right, pure, redeeming? My brother saw something worth redeeming in a handful of broken ants. He knew that the love of his mom was so powerful that it could gather up all the hurt in this world and heal it. How much more powerful is the love of God? Paul sees God's love as so great that it includes what the Greeks called "ta panta," the totality. All things! That the ants, the neighbor kid, the cancers, the "ruler of the power of the air," the "disobedient" spirits, the desires of the flesh and senses...will meet their deaths and be raised and reconciled with God!

We have experienced this too, for Paul is really taking us on a tour of our life in Christ, for in our baptisms we have died with Christ, been buried with Christ, been raised with Christ. We know something of being enthroned with him in the heavenly places. We are people who know our futures for "If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's" (Romans 14:8). The Christian life is one in which a glorious future has been revealed, and we can live without fear. Mystery solved. The trouble is we too often live in fear.

I remember Dr. Alfred Heasty. Alfred was a medical missionary in the wilderness of Africa for many years and a member of my congregation. After his death, his wife remembered her husband, saying, "When I married Alfred I thought I was marrying a doctor. I thought I would have to put up with long hours and late calls and the like, but I had no idea I was marrying a missionary too."

She described living in primitive conditions, but then she said, "One of the few luxuries I had were my Cool Whip containers." Can you imagine Cool Whip containers being a luxury?

She said, "We used them in Africa to store our food, because they kept the bugs and rodents out of our home. The bugs were about the size of mice and the mice were about the size of cats."

She said, "I remember one day Alfred came home for lunch and apparently on his walk home he saw some prisoners eating their meal off the ground. The men guarding the prisoners just poured the food on the sandy soil and the prisoners ate their meal mixed with sand and the dirt and the bugs."

She said, "My Alfred saw that and came home and told me about it; and then he announced that he had arranged to give the guards medical care, if they promised to give the prisoners their food on a dish. And they agreed." She said, "My husband asked me to gather all my Cool Whip containers."

"My Cool Whip containers! 'What are you thinking, Alfred? What are we going to do? Have bugs in our food?'"

She said, "Alfred just looked at me and said, 'What are you afraid of?'"

"I'm afraid of the Gospel, Alfred."

And he said, "So am I, but isn't it wonderful?"

This same Dr. Heasty and his wife were my neighbors after they retired from the mission field. And I remember one afternoon a knock on my door and there was Alfred. He told me that he was dying and wanted me to get the elders together to anoint his head with oil and pray over him.

I said, "Alfred, I don't think we do that, we're Presbyterian."

"Yes we do! It's in our Book of Order and, more importantly, it's in the Bible," he said. I consulted both and, sure enough, he was right. So the pastoral staff talked to the elders and the elders said, "Can we do that? We're Presbyterian." We assured them it was in the Bible and the Book of Order. And one evening the elders gathered and laid hands on Dr. Heasty, anointing his head with oil, and saying the most beautiful prayers for healing.

What I know is that Dr. Heasty died later on that year. But now looking back, that wasn't the purpose of our gathering. No, the purpose of the oil and the prayers and the community was in finding ourselves gathered up in some kind of grace that takes all our fears for the future and makes them sit down in the heavenly places.

I've seen it in old retired missionaries; I saw it in a young woman named Katherine. Ten years earlier she was in the youth group. Ten years later she had cancer. She fought against that cancer with everything she had; and when there was no more that they could do for her, she said to me, "I know how to live, but how do you die? I'm scared." I don't remember what I told her. But I remember what she told me, for I watched her handle her days with dignity and grace.

I heard how on late evenings when she could not sleep from either pain or worry, she would call her mother, calls sometime by phone, sometime to her bedside, either way, they would open a hymnal and sing together. "Our God our Help in Ages Past our Hope in Years to Come." They would sing, "God of our life, through all the circling years, we trust in Thee. In all the past, through all our hopes and fears, Thy hand we see." They would sing, "When we've been there 10,000 years bright shining as the sun, we've no lest days to sing God's praise than when we first begun."

They would sing until they could see the future together. And when she finally found the mystery revealed, she could rest. You know how to die when you know what the future will bring. God! When you know what the future will bring. Joy! When you know what the future brings. Life! Isn't it wonderful? It is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Let us pray. God of the past, our times are in Thy hand; with us abide. Lead us by faith to hope's true promised land; Be thou our guide. With Thee to bless, the darkness shines as light, And faith's fair vision changes into sight. Amen.