Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Bluegrass, Heaven and Hermeneutics

As mentioned previously, I recently got the chance to play at Deuel Vocational Institution. It was my first trip to a prison. The images, sounds and smells of the place are still vivid in my memory; the musky, windowless chapel; the out of tune piano; the austere, wooden pews. I felt like I was playing at a revival meeting.

The people left a far more lasting impression. These men abounded with joy, gratitude, humility and love. Their perspective on life was heartening and challenging, as it revealed some deficiencies in my own thinking. This became readily apparent when we played I'll Fly Away. I've never had a particular penchant for the song. It isn't too obnoxious musically, but the refrain seems so escapist. When I hear it, I'm instantly reminded of the more unsavory aspects of dispensational theology (e.g. the world is bad, we need to get out of here, Jesus came and died to get us out of the world, heaven has no relation to the present world, etc.). However, as we played the song, my perspective began to change. I witnessed men weep as they cried at the top of their lungs...

When the shadows of this life have gone
I'll fly away
Like a bird from these prison walls I'll fly
I'll fly away

Oh how glad and happy when we meet
I'll fly away
No more cold iron shackles on my feet
I'll fly away

Suddenly the song made sense. No longer was it an odd bit of dispensational escapism. It was the cry of the prisoner who longed to be free. To see eighty men proclaim their coming liberation was a sobering experience. These brothers know captivity. They inhabit a symbolic world which constantly reminds them of bondage. Thus, their appreciation for the liberating work of Jesus is profound.

The comfort of suburbia has afforded me the time and space to reflect on heaven. Yet, it has often blinded me to heaven's beauty. I remain quite ensconced in this world, and regularly fail to long for the world to come. The prisoners live in a different context altogether. Every day they see the bankruptcy of life without Christ, and thus they zealously long for eternity.

As we left the prison, the chaplain quipped, "aren't you glad you don't have to spend the night?" I am glad to live on the other side of the bars. Yet I don't want to be glib about the human condition. Everyone is in need of liberation, and Jesus will establish a kingdom forever marked by freedom and life. Though I don't wear the garb or live in a cell, I need Jesus as much as any prisoner, and my heart should ache for his return.

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Romans 8:18-25


Damian Romano said...

That song reminds me of the movie O' Brother Where Art Thou. A beautiful hymn indeed.

Chris Ross said...

Jeffrey, thanks for the encouraging post.

Just FYI, the dispensational concept of the afterlife is actually a lot more like our present existence than the one generally espoused by Reformed and covenant theologians. We (I'm speaking as a dispy) believe there will be a 1,000 year period when Christ will reign on Earth, as its Sovereign; and this will be followed by eternal life in the New Jerusalem, in the new heavens and earth God will create.

Our Reformed and covenant brothers would say, more simply, that this present existence will be followed by 'the eternal state', or Heaven.

I realize this is getting into the finer points of eschatology, and that your comments on dispensationalism were peripheral to your post -- but I suspect the idea you have of 'the more unsavory points of dispensational theology' may derive more from a caricature of that system, than the actual doctrines which its proponents believe and teach.

Keep up the great blogging. Peace in Christ.

PS - Have you heard the Jars of Clay version of I'll Fly Away? It's pretty good, I think.

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, excellent post.