taking the words of Jesus seriously

Chester has been my Monday night dinner companion for the better part of five years. He’s my friend, despite having never once lifted a finger to help or encourage me or anyone else, despite having often expressed the most debauched kind of selfishness, and despite his contempt for faith.

The doctor says Chester has six to twelve months to live, but everyone knows he won’t last that long. It isn’t just that he refuses to go back for radiation and chemotherapy; he was in terrible shape already. He lives alone, he eats only fast food, and he started smoking and drinking again as soon as he got home from the hospital. His lung cancer is just the last straw.

I prayed for Chester the other night, but after all the ways he’s abused himself over the years, I wasn’t about to ask for healing. Actually, I’ve never thought prayer was very useful in terms of getting God to do the right thing anyway. It is us who need righteous motivation, not God. If God is Grace, she’s already doing her level best.

I didn’t pray for Chester’s salvation, either. Frankly, what worries me is not that his immortal soul will burn in Hell. What worries me is that I’m no longer sure he—or I—has an immortal soul to burn or save in the first place.

I always thought it was a package deal; if you believed in God, then you must believe in some kind of afterlife, too. And so I did, or at least so I told myself. While Heaven and Hell had nothing to do with my reasons for becoming a Christian, it went without saying that accepting Jesus as my personal savior meant accepting that such eternal destinations actually existed, along with my own immortal soul, which hitherto had been hanging in the balance between them. It never occurred to me that someone might put their faith in the living God without being persuaded that something awaits them beyond the day they die. It only occurs to me now, I think, because I am well on my way to becoming that someone.

It isn’t that I don’t like the idea of waking up on the other side of death, fully conscious as the one and only Bart Campolo, ready to be surprised and delighted by whatever God has in store. Actually, I like that idea very much. My problem is that it seems to me utterly impossible that my individual identity will somehow survive the inevitable demise of my physical brain.

I am no neuroscientist, but I have studied enough to know that each of the many and various parts of my personality has a physical location in my brain, and that if and when that location is altered in some way, my personality will be altered as well. Stimulate my limbic system one way, and I will become more sexually aggressive. Stimulate it a different way and I will become depressed. Damage part of my amygdala and I will become unable to form loving relationships. Damage part of my prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, and I will lose all sense of right and wrong.

In other words, my brain and my soul are essentially one and the same thing. My individual identity is a particular arrangement of particular organic matter over a particular period of time, and when that period comes to an end, that matter will be rearranged into something (or perhaps someone) else. So then, when my ashes return to ashes, and my dust to dust, I reckon Bart Campolo will be no more.

And yet, just as I still believe in a living God, I still believe in eternal life and daily strive towards that goal. I very intentionally love and teach as many children and young adults as I can, trusting that by so doing I am becoming part of each one, even as my parents and best teachers became part of me. In this way, I hope and expect to live on through their lives even after I die, and then in the lives of the younger ones they teach and love. As long as my line goes on, it seems to me, so will I. Even so, my personal immortality is not the point.

The point is that, as one who has so deeply appreciated my own human experience, I am desperate to ensure endless generations have that experience as well. I cannot breathe forever, but this air is so sweet that I want someone to breathe it always. I want someone—many someones—to taste this wonderful food, and to savor this fabulous wine. Having family and friends has been such a joy to me, laughing and dancing and making love have been so delightful, working to exhaustion and then resting has been so satisfying, and raising children so terrifying, believing in God so inspiring, and aging so interesting, that I can’t stand the thought that people might cease to do those things. I love life, after all, not just my own life.

Striving towards eternal life, for me at least, is not so much about getting God to punch my ticket for Heaven as it is about doing all I can to ensure that humanity itself endures, and in particular that best part of humanity scripture calls the image of God. It is about asking Grace to guide my thoughts and actions, to literally flow through me into the lives of those who are growing up behind me. It is about keeping the faith by loving my neighbor, and trusting that both of us are thereby becoming part of God’s endless love.

That’s right, both of us. Me and Chester, in this case. We’re in this thing together. So what if I am the lover this time, and he is the taker? I’ve been the taker plenty of other times, and besides, we all need friends like Chester to teach us about loving out of our nature and not just to get a result. I wish he had been less crude and selfish, and I wish he had done more for others during his life, but over the years Chester still became part of me, without even trying. So then, if I live on somehow, I reckon he will too. I know that isn’t fair, of course, but Grace is always better than fair.

In the meantime, however, confused as I may be about matters of eternity, Chester is on his way back to the hospital, and I am on my way to visit him. I may not always know what to believe anymore, but none of us needs to pray very long to know what to do.

Bart Campolo is a veteran urban minister and activist who speaks and writes about grace, faith, loving relationships and social justice. Bart is the leader of The Walnut Hills Fellowship, a local ministry in inner city Cincinnati.

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