Roberta Green Ahmanson
In the 1930s, the precocious Jewish New York intellectual Delmore Schwartz wrote a story called “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” the title of which he borrowed from the poet William Butler Yeats. In Schwartz’s story, the dream turns into a nightmare, loaded with irony. But that resonant title has implications that transcend Schwartz’s intention. It suggests, among other things, that when what we dream becomes reality we become responsible for its future and its outcomes. My aim is to remind us of the Dream that became Reality in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and of the New Jerusalem.
From the 4th century on, Christians understood their churches to be outposts, embassies of the New Jerusalem on earth. Their physical beauty and glory was offered to God in praise and to their communities to give a vision of the Homeland, the New Jerusalem scheduled for the end of time. On Sunday, Christians worshipped on home territory. There they were refreshed and restored. There they learned the principles of the New Jerusalem. There they learned God’s structure for a healthy culture, a healthy world. When they left, they sought to put those principles into practice. They built almshouses for the poor, hospitals for the sick, schools for the ignorant, and beautiful churches filled with art and music to bear witness to the glory and the beauty of God and our eventual home.
Christians had been persecuted, sometimes brutally, in the 1st, 3rd, and 4th centuries. Though Christianity became legal in the 4th century, persecution has plagued the Church in various places and times up to the present—in Japan in the 17th century, for example, in Muslim lands off and on from the 7th century to the present, and in Communist countries in the century just past.
Today we are seeing the revival of Muslim persecution not only of Christians but of heretical Muslims and those within their faith who criticize their actions. Our brothers and sisters in ancient Christian communities in Syria and Iraq are being slaughtered or forced to flee for their lives. A leader of ISIS has warned that he is coming after Rome—meaning by that the Christian Church.
In Egypt, the ancient Coptic Church is experiencing what Coptic scholar Sam Tadros has called the worst persecution since 1321. In Nigeria, Christians have been slaughtered by Boko Haram, who have bragged about their capture and forced conversion of young Christian women. In America, historic Christianity is under increasingly intense threat from the courts and from intellectual élites who see our faith and our practice as, if not outright evil, the next thing to it. Times to put us on our knees. Times to spur us to act.
My aim this evening is to remind and challenge each of us to remember and to take up the responsibilities of our founding Dream that became Reality—the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the promise of the New Jerusalem, our template for how to live and work on this earth.
The Grammy Award-winning band Mumford & Sons has a song that goes:
You are not alone in this. You are not alone in this. As brothers we will stand. I will take your hand. You are not alone in this.
Indeed. We are far from alone in our endeavors—either horizontally across the geography of the world today or vertically through time and eternity. I hope to give you a richer sense of how very not alone we really are.
“Think Different.” With those two words, Steve Jobs created a vision, not only for his then-faltering company but also for every person who buys an Apple product. People who buy Apple think different. And, different is cool. But, the verb in those two words is where I want to start. THINK. How we think matters. The way you think got you here today. But the way we think also matters eternally. Perhaps more than we know.
We become what we worship. Our vision shapes our concrete future. The Bible is very clear on this. Today we live in a world languishing for lack of genuine prophetic vision, based in reality, a world threatened by false visions. This affects our lives, our nations, and our world. God has given us a heavenly vision, the New Jerusalem. Christians in the past understood that they were citizens of two countries—this world and the New Jerusalem. We need to reclaim and live in that vision—for our own sakes and for the sake of the world.
In 2008, when American novelist David Foster Wallace died a suicide at the age of 46, the New York Times’ obituary described him as “a titanically gifted writer with an equally troubled soul.” In 2005, the author of Infinite Jest had given the commencement address at Kenyon College. Wallace said:
This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education … . You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship … . In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.
And what we worship makes a difference in who we are and what we do in the world. Proverbs 29:18 says this: “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint.”
We live in a time when we are “casting off restraint” and “perishing,” as the King James Version put it, because we have lost touch with the prophetic vision, the vision of the New Jerusalem. Scholars talk about the “de-mystification” of reality in the West. By that they mean that a materialist worldview has captured our imaginations. God and his vision are comforting lies. As the writer of Proverbs knew, matter is not the ultimate reality. So, we seek other ways to meet a real longing. We work and work to buy more and more things. Shopping is legitimate 24/7; any laws to restrict this are considered oppressive. James Davison Hunter explains: “we invest enormous resources and energies to encourage people to engage in “materialistic” consumption and spend nothing comparable on encouraging them to take their civic, public, and political—not to speak of religious—responsibilities seriously.”
And we, as a culture, avoid reality and deaden the longing inside however we can—with work, with sex, with drugs, with alcohol, with distraction. In July 2011, the British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse was found dead in her London home. She was 27 years old. Famous for drinking and drugging, the winner of five 2006 Grammy Awards was ultimately declared to have died from alcohol poisoning, her blood alcohol level more than five times the drunk driving limit. Perhaps her Novello Award-winning hit, “Rehab,” described her inner vision:
The man said, “Why do you think you’re here?” I said, ” I got no idea I’m gonna, I’m gonna lose my baby so I always keep a bottle near.”.........
They tried to make me go to rehab but I said, “No, no, no!”
Drugs and alcohol aren’t the only escapes our culture offers. There are multiplayer online role-playing games, one part of the video gaming business that the December 9, 2011 Economist said is the fastest-growing form of media. The global market has grown by 60 percent since 2006, according to PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the source for the Economist report. Asians, particularly South Koreans and Chinese, are among the most dedicated users. For example, a 2007 New York Times report found that 30 percent of South Koreans under 18 are at risk for Internet addiction. In response, their government has set up 140 counseling centers in addition to treatment centers at 100 hospitals and even the Internet Rescue Camp.
On his blog, Leadership Journal editor-at-large Brandon O’Brien speaks to the longing of our Korean friends when he writes that the Bible instills in us an imagination “that helps us look beyond our own experience.” The Bible, he says, calls us to imagine, as the prophets did, a godly future. And then he comes to Jesus:
Jesus calls us to an even more demanding act of imagination. He stood in the line of the prophets … . “The day is coming,” they had said … . He says, “The day has come“… . Jesus invites his followers to imagine that the kingdom of God is at hand, and with it have come all those promised reversals. If I may be so bold, it appears that the imagination was Jesus’ main target.
The danger here, for the video-gamers, the dream-losers, according to the Psalm writer, isn’t just wasting time. No, the danger is much deeper. It reaches to our notion of what is real about ourselves and our world. Psalm 135:15-18 explains:
The idols of the nations are silver and gold, made by the hands of men. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, nor is there breath in their mouths. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.
We become what we worship. Evidence of the poverty of the secular vision can be found in the histories of the young British citizens who have joined the Islamic State. Raised in the prosperity of the West, they chose a more compelling, if false, vision. Glasgow-born Aqsa Mahmood chose to go to Syria to become an ISIS bride. Would her choice have been different if the West had offered a convincing vision? Would Amy Winehouse be alive today if she had had a different vision? Whatever pleasures video games provide, do they offer a vision, a dream, to build a life on?
Scripture makes it clear that we have dual citizenship: here on earth and in our heavenly home.
My personal no to that question comes from sad experience. Growing up in a small railroad and farming town in Iowa, in the center of the United States, I attended a separatist Baptist church. No movies, no dances, not even square dancing. I was tall and smart. None of this was a recipe for an active social life. Add to that my own fears because of mental illness in our family, and you get a potent brew. Lonely? Longing? You bet. But the town’s old hotel had a lovely, romantic marquee out front. I dreamed of fixing it up one day. Well, more than 30 years after I graduated from high school, I talked my beloved husband, Howard, into buying not only that hotel but also the town’s 1904 Carnegie Library. We renovated the hotel—no two rooms alike, no expense spared—to reflect the stories of the people who built the town: ethnic groups, craftspeople, famous people who came from the town, like the creator of Alley Oop, or famous people who came to visit, like Louis Armstrong. We renovated the library to make a centerpiece for a museum called Hometown Perry, Iowa, to tell the story of the unique contribution of small towns to American life. I was creating the town I wished I had grown up in. I was creating my own alternate reality. My own three-dimensional video game. My own heaven.
Finally, it became clear that the financial cost was using up all of the savings my husband had accumulated outside the trusts that are the source of our income. My personal “vision” had depleted our family resources. Howard wanted money for his own projects. Our lawyer worried that, should Howard die, I would have nothing to live on. I was also going through menopause, and my body was doing things it had never done before. I was diagnosed as bi-polar II, the less dramatic but still active kind. When I told my doctor I knew when I was depressed but I didn’t see when I was manic, he simply said, “Roberta, I’ve been to the hotel!” At last, our pastor sat me down. I said it seemed like I had been committing adultery with a town. He looked at me and said, “No, not adultery. Idolatry.” Wood and stone. Indeed.
From there I could only repent, close the Iowa projects, and face the constraints of a serious budget. I had to reclaim God’s restraints. We hired a business manager, a retired accountant who had worked for us for years. I had to switch from my idolatrous vision to the reality channel, God’s prophetic vision for my life. Only then was the town able to reclaim its own heritage and move on as it has done.
So, what is that heavenly vision? What difference does it make in real time? Isaiah pictures a heavenly home where there is no violence, no destruction, no darkness, no slavery, no prisons, no faint hearts, no tears, no death. Scripture makes it clear that we have dual citizenship: here on earth and in our heavenly home. For example, in Hebrews 11 we are told Abraham was looking for a city whose architect and builder is God. Hebrews 13 says, “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city to come.”
Then John, in Revelation 21, confirms what Isaiah prophesied and what Abraham knew. He sees the city we are longing for, the city we are made for: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth … . And I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
Growing up in a Baptist church, I had heard those verses many times, usually in sermons about the Rapture and the Last Days. But, it wasn’t until much later that I began to see they had real consequences for life right here on earth. This New Jerusalem was to be my concrete eternal home.
Over the years I have read many books and explored many churches, hoping to discover what Christians before me thought, understood, and did. Before the year 1000, churches often depicted the New Jerusalem on the arch over the altar in glittering mosaic, as can be seen today in the 9th-century Santa Prassede in Rome. In others, the Last Judgment and Christ in eternal glory were above the door as you walked out, as you see here in Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello in Venice. This image, too, comes from Revelation 21: “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk;” and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it.
Between 793 and 805, Charlemagne built a whole church in Aachen, Germany, as a three-dimensional icon of that New Jerusalem. The church itself is designed to welcome Christ when he returns in glory to judge the living and the dead. The building is an octagon, the seven days of creation plus the eighth day of resurrection and new life. The ceiling was originally a mosaic, glittering and golden, showing the 24 elders of Revelation bringing their crowns to Christ. It was copied for the 19th-century restoration. The band at the base of the dome bears an inscription saying that all the numbers have meaning and that Charlemagne built the church. The chandelier, given by Frederick Barbarossa, or Redbeard, in the 12th century, represents the wall of Jerusalem, here with eight gates instead of 12 in order to harmonize with the building.
The gallery above the Aachen chandelier, held up by 32 stone pillars given by Popes Hadrian and Leo III (only 21 are left thanks to French troops at the time of their Revolution) is the setting for the throne where Christ may sit to judge the world.
Research has found that it is made of marble from Jerusalem. On one side is the carving of a game found throughout the ancient Roman world. And, there are graffiti in the shape of crosses, leading some to believe the stone may actually have come from the Chapel of the True Cross in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. We know that Charlemagne had a good relationship with the Muslim sultan Harun al-Rashid. So, the stone of the throne may actually be the sultan’s gift to the Western ruler. Originally it looked straight across to the Salvation Altar, connecting salvation to judgment and to eternal life. Later, in the 14th century, Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV added a heaven-like chapel to honor Charlemagne and the relics of the Savior. His inspiration was the 13th-century Sainte Chapelle in Paris, built by the French king, St. Louis, to house the relic of the Crown of Thorns. That chapel, too, embodied the New Jerusalem.
My favorite example, though, is the cathedral in Naumburg, Germany. (The original church became a cathedral in 1028, but a chapel to honor those founders wasn’t built for another two centuries, in 1248.) When you step into the nave, the choir is to the east. To the west, there’s a stone screen with brilliant red light filtering through. You can read the story in stone. The Last Supper. Judas taking the silver, his face a portrait of despair. The treacherous kiss in Gethsemane. Peter’s sword severing the servant’s ear from his head. Christ before Pilate, terror in the governor’s eyes. The flogging. Christ struggling on the road to Calvary. Front and center, the Cross, the doorpost. (This may come from the 4th-century commentary by the African Tyconius, who describes Christ as “the gateway” to heaven.) Above, Christ’s bleeding arms form the lintels of the door. Mary is in agony to your left, grieving John to your right. Take a step, another and another. Walk through the cross with me.
Blink your eyes. Ahead is light. Just above, the founders of the church stand poised to step down to welcome you. Beyond the altar, in radiant red, yellow, blue, and green, the prophets, apostles, saints, and virtues call out. Higher still, the Trinity and Christ in glory. All welcome you into heaven. Into the realm of your ultimate citizenship. The New Jerusalem.
All that is well and good, you say, but what difference did it make to the poor and hungry in their time? What difference did it make to the wars being endlessly fought around them? Primasius, an African bishop, who died in 560, wrote that “the pilgrim church rejoices to be formed” after the heavenly Jerusalem to come. That vision was the basis for how these Christians lived in the world. The people who built this vision were the same people who built hospitals and almshouses, even low-income housing. They were the same people who created the peace to end wars for long periods to promote commerce. They created beauty, the beauty of the heavenly vision, and that vision compelled and empowered them to care for the poor, the hurting, the living.
Let me give you two examples from history. The first comes from 6th-century Rome. By ad 568, that great city was in ruins, ravaged by 150 years of Goth, Vandal, Byzantine, and Longobard invasion. Once a city of perhaps 1.5 million, Rome bottomed out at 30,000. Outside the city, continual wars turned fields back into swamps. Invaders threatened and sometimes took over once-productive church-run farms. Malaria, cholera, and bubonic plague followed. Jobs evaporated. Once-flourishing estates were abandoned. Famine became a fact of life. Floods covered the city three or four times a century. Sewers and aqueducts needed repair.
The wealthy fled to the safety of Ravenna or even faraway Constantinople, Africa, or the Holy Land, but one son of an old Roman family, Gregory the Great, became pope in 590. Building on the existing infrastructure, Gregory set out to restore life to the city. He revamped rural papal estates to provide food for citizens, pilgrims, refugees, and the urban poor, all in fair and orderly ways.
Gregory also made peace with the invaders. He provided soup kitchens for the sick and infirm. He set up welfare offices or diaconiae in populated areas within the walls, administered by monastic congregations. “The Church rather than the Byzantine state … was responsible for providing for the urban population,” historian Richard Krautheimer wrote in his classic Rome: Profile of a City, 312-1308.
Gregory’s concern was not unique. Nearly 900 years later, in 1521, the Bavarian city of Augsburg faced a housing crisis for its working poor. The Fuggers, Europe’s most powerful banking family and Roman Catholics, responded. The Fuggerei, the first low-income housing development in Europe, provides housing for the poor to this day.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis put it this way:
If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither.
In the 20th century, Roman Catholic philosopher and theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand put it another way. Why, he asks, did Christ begin his ministry by making wine for a wedding party in the little Galilean town of Cana? Here’s his answer:
[At Cana] we find this divine extravagance, this unlimitedness of charity which reaches to the smallest detail. It is this divine tenderness which excludes no gift from its intention as long as it is a beneficial good to the person … . At Cana, joy was the theme.
In December 2011, Sociological Forum published “The New Normal” by Amitai Etzioni. He cites a 2010 survey by Euro RSCG Worldwide, the world’s largest integrated marketing agency, which reports that “67 percent of Americans felt the recession had served to remind people of what is really important in life. Forty-eight percent said they were actively trying to figure out what made them happy.” That’s documented longing. The idols are failing. But we know what our brothers and sisters in Naumburg well knew. We become what we worship. Aim at heaven and get earth thrown in. Walk through the cross to glory. Live in glory and make earth its reflection.