Comfort Food: Revelation 21:1-4

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4 NIV)

The passage of Scripture I have read most often in the three weeks since my mother’s death is Revelation 21:1-4. It portrays the Apostle John’s vision of the new heaven and the new earth. The description is stunning. It’s beyond comprehension. How can a water cycle work if there is no longer any sea? If there is no sea, there is likely no rain as well. Apparently the water cycle is part of “the old order of things” which has passed away. I see beautiful symmetry here to the paradise described in Genesis 2:5-6, where rain had not yet fallen and the earth was nurtured by ground water. In John’s vision the curse of the fall has been reversed. Tears have been resolved and death has been removed. Only the presence of the Lord himself is better than that. What a promise!

This passage is comfort food to me. It’s also an enigma. Two days before my mother died, her pastor came to visit her at the hospice house. The family was all gathered around mom’s bed. Mom wasn’t really awake. The pastor asked if we had any Scripture requests. I quickly listed three or four passages, from which the pastor selected Revelation 21:1-4.

As she began to read, I settled back and closed my eyes, waiting for the familiar words. But the pastor was reading from a different version of the Bible and the words I heard were not familiar: And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;” (Revelation 21:3 NRSV)

Suddenly my eyes flew open and my head jerked up. Wait a minute! “They will be his peoples”? Plural? It can’t be! God has only one people. I didn’t like what I had just heard. I suspected textual abuse grounded in a liberal agenda. I was distracted and agitated internally, although I didn’t say anything or indicate an objection. I was able to escape to the genuine comfort in the passage, but there was now a burr under my saddle which I needed to resolve.

The first thing I had to address was my bias. The text says what it says and it means what it means. Authorial intent has nothing whatsoever to do with what I want the verse to say or want it to mean. Good Bible study is a systematic search for revealed truth, not a recitation of preconceived conclusions. Faulty Bible study leads to faulty conclusions. I run into a lot of bad theology by people who are sincere, but sloppy in their Bible study. In short, motives matter. And methods matter, too.

The following week when I returned home, I opened my Greek New Testament to Revelation 21. I’m not a Greek expert by any means, but I was well trained in seminary decades ago. I know what to look for. And what I found surprised me. Two things, actually.

First, there’s a pesky textual variant here. In some manuscripts the word “people” is singular. In other manuscripts, the word is plural, which would be literally translated “peoples.” The publisher’s notes in my Greek text indicate this variant has a high degree of doubt about which reading is correct. I would have to do textual criticism to determine the correct word. But for me it’s been too long. I’m going to have to rely on the scholarship of others. A textual variant with a highly uncertain conclusion tells me that other people long ago struggled with the same question I had. When they heard the “wrong” reading, their heads jerked up, too. And somewhere a scribe changed the text along the way, intentionally or not, knowingly or not. Then others made copies. That’s why there’s a variant reading in some manuscripts. My first surprise was finding an unexpected textual variant. We don’t know for sure which reading is the original. I’m going to lean on the scholars who assembled the critical text of the Greek New Testament.

My second surprise was that the editors of the Greek New Testament ultimately chose the plural word for “people.” In fact, both the received Greek text and the critical Greek text use the plural (laoi), not the singular (laos). Surprise! There is, at a minimum, a grammatical argument for translating the passage, “they will be his peoples” if the plural reading of variant is correct.

But a grammatical argument is not enough. For starters, “people” is a tricky concept to distinguish between singular and plural. In the singular, it means the populace in general or a particular nation or ethnic group. The plural form of the word occurs only four times in the New Testament (Acts 4:25, Romans 15:11, Revelation 17:15 and Revelation 21:3) and generally refers to the nations or the peoples of the world. But it’s not always translated “peoples.” In fact, all the major English Bible translations (except the NRSV) translate the plural “laoi” as a singular “people” in Revelation 21:3.

The people of God is a thematic thread which runs throughout the Bible. In the Old Covenant, Israel was the people of God. In the New Covenant, the church is the people of God. Perhaps, together they might be the “peoples” of God in Revelation 21:3. Yet in a very real sense, God has only one people, those whom he has redeemed in Christ. The plural in Revelation 21:3 might refer to their origin in the nations of the world. But the support for that is speculative. Or it might refer to the nations turning to Christ at the end of time. When the nations turn to Christ, they will become his singular people regardless of their ethnicity.

In conclusion, I jerked my head up that day partly because of surprise and partly because of ignorance. I strongly affirm the standard translation “they will be his people” in Revelation 21:3. There’s room for genuine debate. The text does allow the possibility of the NRSV translation “they will be his peoples.” Yet the collective Scriptures are clear that God will assemble a singular people who belong to him from among the nations. It will be out of this world.

For a grieving heart, that’s comfort food.

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Four Details for Dying Well

As we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we need a big-picture perspective. Yesterday dad told me he was unable to make decisions about mom’s funeral service. He asked the family to handle the details. I told him that was fine. He needed to be doing only two things: 1) process his emotions and 2) process his faith – in whom he was trusting. That’s the big picture.

Nevertheless, when we die our loved ones will be busy. Since my mother’s death Monday night, I’ve recognized four simple tasks we can do before we die which will help our family when we’re gone. My mother did some of them. Others she did not.

  1. Get a will. This is the single most important detail for dying well. If you die without a will, your family will have to do a lot more work to settle your estate. It will be messier and cost them more money. You need a will whether or not you are wealthy. If you don’t have a will, get one now. If you can’t afford a lawyer, find a friend with a computer and buy inexpensive software to write your will. It won’t cost much and it won’t take long. It won’t matter to you, but it will matter to your family. Copies don’t count. It must be an original. Mom had a will and she had told us exactly where she kept the original document. Thanks, Mom!
  2. Complete a planning book. The funeral director will want immediate information, beginning with vital statistics. You might know a lot of the data from memory, but don’t trust your memory. It’s amazing how much we “know” that isn’t true. This information is going to become the official record. Get it right. Mom had a planning book. It wasn’t completely filled out, but it really helped. It was the primary source for writing her obituary. Mom included some of her wishes regarding her funeral. The main problem was that we didn’t know where it was. My sisters looked for an hour or two before they found it. I don’t know what we would have done without it. Get a funeral planning book and fill it out. You can get one online or from a funeral director. Fill it out and tell your family where it is. Mom also kept an up-to-date address book, so we were able to contact distant relatives and old friends. A few numbers didn’t work, but it was a helpful resource. Thanks, Mom!
  3. Collect the photos. Most funerals now include a display of pictures. If you don’t create a photo collection for your funeral, your family will have to do it at the worst possible time. This was something Mom didn’t do, even though she once had a ton of pictures. Actually, she made it worse a few years ago by giving each of us a photo album of our childhood. Mom didn’t have those photos afterward. Naturally, we didn’t have them with us when we rushed to her bedside. Therefore, we didn’t have many family pictures when we needed them for her funeral. When we were collecting pictures, twenty years were largely missing from mom’s parenting years. We managed to patch something together, but there was more stress than necessary. Collect your photos. Tell your family where they are. Even better, get digital copies.
  4. Keep some cash. When you die, all your financial accounts will be frozen immediately. It will take a minimum of two or three days for the paperwork to reactivate your accounts. But your family will need money. In our case, dad went to the bank and withdrew money only hours before mom died. That helped with immediate expenses like meals at a restaurant. He couldn’t even use his credit card. That’s why he needed cash. Funeral expenses are yet to be paid, but dad has set aside savings for that. To die well, don’t leave your family with the expense of your funeral. It may cost them more than you expect. Save long-term for the funeral. Keep some short-term cash.

When the pastor arrived to plan the funeral service, Dad stepped up to the plate despite his grief. He joined the meeting and contributed to the discussion. I think it was a helpful experience. I give him credit for courage and courtesy. He had asked to be excused, but when the time came, he stepped up with grace. It was a good family moment.

Death

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)

Mom died just a few minutes before midnight last night. She has completed her sojourn. She now walks by sight, not by faith. It is well with her soul.

The doctor was right yesterday morning. It did turn out to be mom’s special day. About 4 p.m. Carol and I were alone with her when Carol noticed that she seemed to be awake. These moments would last only a few seconds, so Carol quickly suggested that I read Scripture and pray with her again. I read Joshua 24:15 and reminded mom about her plaque with that verse. She nodded weakly. I told mom that for her, that verse was more than a plaque, it was a proclamation. It was a promise mom kept.

Back on Saturday when we arrived at her hospice room, I told mom she had lived her life well and had two remaining tasks. The first was to meet her eighth great-grandchild, James Walter Clevenger. She performed that assignment admirably to our joy and delight. I might add that James played his role perfectly, as well. Mom’s second task was to blaze the trail of faith to the end of life and model for her family how to die well. Usually that task is given to dads. Husbands die first in a majority of marriages. But in this marriage, that responsibility was given to mom. She was doing her final task very well.

After Scripture and prayer yesterday afternoon, mom was still awake. So I took the opportunity to tell her we thought she still had some time left. Carol and I might return to Minnesota. I told her that dad, Pam and Brenda would take good care of her. Would it be OK if Carol and I returned to Minnesota?

Mom croaked, “Yes!” in a loud, clear, deep tone that sounded almost like her normal voice. She was giving me mother’s permission for the final time. Perhaps she was also giving herself permission to die.

Within a few minutes, her condition deteriorated significantly. Her breathing became much more shallow and irregular. At 4:30 p.m. we called in the rest of the family, sang hymns for mom, and watched as death crept nearer. Dad sat silently and held mom’s hand. We all had one question, “How long?” Pam and Warren were sitting attentively with mom when she quietly passed into the Lord’s presence.

Barbara Bush, one of the world’s most prominent women, recently died. She is reported to have been a great woman of faith who loved Jesus and anticipated heaven. I marvel that the transcendent God who directs with the flick of his finger the course of the universe – or multiverse, if you prefer – would stoop in his imminence to notice Barbara Bush. I marvel even more that this same God embraced an obscure, unknown, elderly woman lying unnoticed by the world in a hospice bed and carried her into his presence. More astounding yet is that this same heavenly Father offers the same invitation to anyone who will respond to him in faith. If God’s transcendent power is unspeakable, his unmatched imminent grace can only be called “amazing.” The superlatives of language have been exhausted before they plumb the depths of God’s divine attributes. No wonder the great Apostle John concluded his book of the Revelation with, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus.”

      And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
     The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
     The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
     Even so, it is well with my soul.
                                                 Horatio G. Spafford, 1873

Decline

“All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” Isaiah 40:6-8

When we left Minnesota last Friday, the air was cold and the ground was snow covered. But here in Ohio, it’s spring. The air is much warmer. Many flowers are in full bloom. The lawn service mowed dad’s grass yesterday; it was quite shaggy.

The scene is different in room 7 at the hospice house. It’s not spring here. Quite the opposite. Mom has declined like flowers fade and grass withers. Her breathing has become labored again. Her mouth is dry. Mom has faintly nodded an occasional response to our questions, but she is declining. She is aware for only a few seconds at a time. This morning the doctor said today could be her day, but we think she could linger a while longer. Our anticipation that she might rally is gone. She is in God’s hands.

There have been no more conversations like the ones we had with mom on Saturday. But we still have had some mutual interaction. Saturday Cara held up baby James, who squealed in delight at his great-grandma. Mom squealed back a nearly identical sound at a much deeper pitch. It was a great moment. And a fleeting one. Yesterday Cara held him up for her again. Mom did not squeal this time. But she smiled in recognition and appreciation. It was enough.

Once again, we wait. But we’re not waiting for death. We’re waiting on God.

Retreat

“In my Father’s house are many rooms…. I am going there to prepare a place for you.” John 14:2.

This morning mom is weaker. There was some recognition and a big smile for little James, the great-grandson she met for the first time yesterday.

Mom agreed to Scripure and prayer, but she fell asleep during my explanation of John 14:1-7. I’m used to people dozing during my sermons, but they usually wake up after the prayer. Mom is still sleeping and didn’t wake up when our oldest son Nathan arrived.

This looks like a retreat to follow yesterday’s rally. We hope – and expect – that she will awaken to interact with Nathan.

There are 11 people in the room now. Once again, for now, we wait.

Rally

”As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua 24:15

My mom is in a race to heaven. Her first words to me today were “I’m ready.” I replied, as always, that it isn’t our call. Our times are in God’s hands (Psalm 31:15).

Yesterday mom was barely responsive. She spoke hardly a word all day. Today she has rallied. Maybe our arrival helped. After I read a Psalm to her, she started to recite Joshua 24:15.

A short while later, she began to rally even more. “What if this takes a long time? What if I have to go to a nursing home?” She asked.

“You’re welcome to rally,” I told her. “Then we’ll get more time with you.”

Time is uncertain, yet determined, this side of eternity. It’s not fate. Nor is it chance. The future is determined by the providence of God, who exists in eternity beyond time. God is both transcendent and imminent. He is outside of creation (“wholly other”) and relationally intimate. As we stare at eternity, it is God’s imminence, his presence, which is most precious. Our task is to trust him.

For my mom and this moment, that means it’s rally time.

The Last Enemy, Reprise

The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:26)

This week my mother was admitted into a hospice house. Mom is very weak, but alert and aware of her surroundings. She can’t even roll over. Breathing is hard for her. She has to do it intentionally, which is uncomfortable and tiring. She told me and others she is ready to go and be with Jesus. She’s not speaking in a metaphor or feigning false hope. Faith is natural to mom. She knows whom she has believed.

Mom has been slowing declining for some time now. My two sisters spent much of last year taking care of our parents in Ohio. That’s been a huge commitment because they normally live with their husbands (and pets) in North Carolina and Wyoming. But the past year has not been normal. Our brother died last May after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Our parents have needed increasing care. So my sisters stepped up and helped. They have carried all my share of care, for which I’m grateful. Sometimes I joke with them and ask if they’re still married. Fortunately, they both are blessed with flexible and faithful husbands.

Much of last year was a stalemate as dad resisted moving to assisted living and the required stairs in their split-level house became more problematic. I have often joked with mom, saying “What were you thinking?” about the split-level house they designed and built in 1964. She always laughed and said it was just right for the family. It was. It’s still home to me.

They were still searching out other solutions in February when mom became ill and had to be hospitalized. Since then she has never been able to regain her strength. The last time I talked with her at home was Easter Sunday. That week she was hospitalized for what may be the last time. This week as my older sister was driving from the hospital to the hospice house for the transfer, I naively asked if mom was with her. I deserved the sarcastic answer she delivered on the phone, saying, “Right! Mom’s bed is in the back of my car.”

It turns out mom may bypass both assisted living and the nursing home. It’s unlikely she’ll go home to dad. She may be graduated to heaven from the bed in which she now lies with discomfort. She is not at death’s door, but her sojourn’s end is likely not far away on the horizon.

When I asked mom this week if she is afraid, she immediately said, “No.” Then she hesitated and added, “But I’m not sure of the process.” That, of course, is the great mystery of life. We walk the valley of the shadow of death only once. Nobody returns to explain what lies on the other side of death.

Except for one. Jesus came back from the grave and has told us what lies beyond. He’s been there and can describe it to us. Death is not oblivion. It leads to a place Jesus has prepared for us. Because he lives, we too shall live. Mom and I talked about that on Easter Sunday.

I have told people hundreds of times that the other side is far better than this side. I still believe that. I said it to mom again this week. Heaven is not just a “where;” it’s also a “who.” Jesus referred to his death as “leaving the world and going back to the Father” (John 16:28). Heaven is about a relationship with a God who is intimately knowable.

Mom already knows God. Sometime soon, she’ll get to know him face to face. That’s far better. What a privilege!

Postscript: Shortly after posting this entry, I received word that mom’s death might be sooner than I had anticipated. That’s not a reason to panic. It’s a reminder that our times are in God’s hand, as King David eloquently penned in Psalm 31:15. When we are in God’s hand, all is well. Mom told me on Tuesday she is looking forward to heaven. It was well stated. Heaven is worth anticipating.