I’ve always heard that the story of the thief on the cross next to Jesus (found in Luke 23:32-43) is about the fact that it’s “never too late” to put faith in Christ and be forgiven. This is true, however, the more I read this story, the more it becomes apparent that something much larger is happening in the heart of the thief. In Luke’s gospel, the author spends most of the story highlighting the idea of the kingdom of God, describing it with stories and sharing what Jesus teaches about it. It is supposed to be a real, tangible kingdom, but also one that is spiritual and not yet complete on this earth. The Jews expected the kingdom of God to be an overthrow of the Roman Empire, who was controlling them at the time.
Amidst the paradox, confusion, and the king of this kingdom’s own imminent death, the thief chooses to believe that the kingdom will still come. He knows Jesus will be there to see it too, saying, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom”. Not only does he trust that what Jesus says will come true, but that He can defy death in order to see it happen. This was no “If you could do me a favor, please let me into heaven, Jesus.” This was a startling assertion of faith that contradicted everything the dying man should have believed based on his immediate circumstance.
In a broader discussion about how creation is longing to be renewed, Romans 8:24 says, “hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has?” And Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see.” In other words, hope longs to see what faith knows will happen in the future. Do we have faith for today like that? Amidst war and injustice and racism and everyday violence and corruption (and so on)–can we look death in the face like the doomed thief and have faith in a different end to the story in the kingdom of God? Faith in Christ anchors us; it’s not just vague assent to whimsical claims, but a trust that supersedes our reality, telling us that we will see God and His kingdom in its fullness one day.
As I’ve noted throughout this series, cities are complex places, displaying all shades of reality–best to worst. The New Jerusalem (as described in Revelation 21), however, is the eternal city that we look forward to as Christians that will not be plagued by systemic racism, corrupt leadership, anger, pain, or any other kind of evil. Perfection and joy and unity will characterize that city.
A reminder for my brothers and sisters in Christ: the New Jerusalem comes at the resolution of the story of this world. There is much pain and sorrow yet to be faced, but at least we know that one day it will all be made perfect and right. I hope this story ignites that hope inside of you, dreaming about what it could be like to be in that new city with our Lord one day…
The empty, golden streets sparkled under the light of glory radiating from Zion. The holy hill was bathed in light from the throne room out, into every conceivable corner of the awaiting city. The Father had prepared and lighted a place where He would dwell with His people in eternal day. Every building stood luminous, parapets and pagodas next to Victorian mansions and Arabic palaces. Colors yet unseen and treasures unheard of on the earth below lined each block. Every brick, jewel, flower and plant caught the brightness of the sky. Twelve pearl gates glowed effulgently around the perimeter of the city. Gentle music of celestial choirs near the throne caught the breeze and filled the air with praise and harmony. The sky itself was painted with the shimmering pastels of dawn, subdued in anticipation.
Gradually, the chorus from the throne room rose to new heights in a jubilant, euphonious cheer. Adulation of the Almighty started pouring down the mountain, flooding its base. Cherubim, seraphim, and every kind of heavenly creature emerged from on high, singing in mellifluous unity and descending Zion into the city.
As they passed through the streets, they cried, “Holy, holy, holy!” into the alleys and paths and parks. To the fountains and flowerbeds they cried, “Worthy, worthy, worthy!” But their praise had not yet met an ear to hear it. Through the center of the city on the broadest road they went, headed north to Judah’s gate. When they arrived, the roaring host swelled with movement and sound. Here they waited, unable to contain their heavenly joy and bliss. A mighty angel stood outside the gate, resolute in his solemn duty, waiting just as expectantly as the throng behind.
After a few moments, the clouds beyond the gate stirred, and a powerful wind began blowing from beneath the city into the gate. A hush fell over the heavenly horde, and stillness too. The great pearl gate swung open slowly. The angel stepped aside to the city wall, knelt down, planted his sword in the ground, and bowed his head to honor him who was finally arriving.
From amidst the clouds, a man rose with his arms extended upward. He floated up completely into view and landed just before the threshold of Judah’s gate. He stood there for an instant, and the cosmos stared. Every creature held their breath, drinking in his form. He was majestic and victorious, the firmest man to ever stand. His head was held high. He was glorified, and all the crowd strained to see his hands and his feet in the light shining from the mountain.
Then he took a single step, and entered the city. In the silence, the sound resounded, and every being felt the tremor in the ground. A human foot! Come through Judah’s gate! They all roared more ardently than before. They welcomed him with every ounce of strength and adoration that they had. Their darling had returned. They feared him, they were in awe of him, they loved him.
As heaven’s worshippers reeled in the city, a new throng was forming, this one outside every gate of the city. From Reuben, from Dan, from Simeon, from all. In unison the other eleven gates opened, and the city began to fill. The angels from every gate found every name of every person in the book of life as they passed through the jasper walls. Once inside, the people joined the exultation. It was ages of the faithful, from Eden to the ends of the earth. They were every tribe and tongue, every color and nation. All together they delighted to follow their champion.
He placed his hand on the shoulder of a man next to him, who had the same scars in his hands. Then he arced his arm toward Zion, displaying the horizon. With this gesture, he led them all forward. Through the center of the city they went, this time the streets brimming with people. Everyone danced and shouted and revered the Lord, God of Israel, and his Word. The humans and spirits took up a hymn together: “Praise the Lord. Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the saints. Let Israel rejoice in their Maker, let the people of Zion be glad in their King.”
The march proceeded to the mountain, and the celebration stirred in the wake of the man who entered through Judah’s gate. He led them up the heights, and into the throne room itself. To the epicenter of glory he took them, the entire multitude. The Father of heaven and earth welcomed them in, the train of his robe cascading down from the throne. Infinite goodness and holiness emanated from him into the furthest corners of the universe. His love for the Son and for his Spirit reverberated, shaking the very foundations of the mountain. More heavenly beings flew dizzying spirals around Him, never ceasing in their praise and service and proclamation of His authority over all that He had made.
The heavens dressed the Son in splendor at the Father’s command. He was given a scepter and a scroll with seven seals. His crown exceeded any other ever worn in brilliance and nobility. As a man, he approached the throne of the living God, and sat down at his right hand. The millions of millions watching were breathless. They bowed, prostrating themselves on the ground. “Hail heaven’s king!” they cried. “Hail our priest! Hail the great prophet! Hail the righteous judge! Hail the triumphant warrior! Hail the lamb! Hail lover of the world!”
When the saints saw him crowned, they bowed in utter abandon. They threw their crowns at his feet, declaring his reign forever. No acclaim on earth could they remember, nor any pain, nor sadness, nor defeat. Nothing could grip them more than the glory of their King, the truth incarnate and his magnificence. Their day would never end again; their horizon was eternity at the feet of their Savior, and they rejoiced as was never heard on the earth.
The refrains of the throne room were echoed for all eternity, for thousands more eons. They loved him and inhabited his city forever, God with humanity–praising the man who entered through Judah’s gate.
This poem is about the journey of forgiveness. It was not easy to write, because forgiveness is not something that comes naturally to me whatsoever. But forgiveness is crucial for relationships to last, for peace to exist between people, and for unity to be restored. God designed forgiveness as the process by which we are reconciled, and He forgives us freely because of the death of His son Jesus on the cross.
The first part of this piece describes the temptation to ignore pain from the past, to not look back and to instead bury hurtful experiences in a veil of anger and bitterness. It’s easier to do this and find for ourselves “heinous lovers,” cheap substitutes that distract us from reconciling with people–or with God–that hide the damage we’ve felt or inflicted (much like Israel had difficulty turning to God in biblical times when they were possessed by idolatry). It’s also the temptation of nations (like ours) to ignore the injustices and wrongs of the past because they think it unnecessary when on the surface they exist in a “golden age,” if you will.
The second part, however, is about the fact that forgetting and burying are not an option in the process of forgiveness. We have to uproot the past, dig our trenches and confront the pain and bitterness within ourselves to be able to forgive others. And why? Because God was there when we were betrayed, put through the mud, oppressed, neglected, etc. He was there, and He knew how much it hurt. The same God who has numbered the hairs on your head has counted every scar on your heart too. He knew it, and He decided to bear the weight of that forgiveness for you. He was punished for us on the cross, and took every ounce of our guilt, shame, and condemnation. Because we are forgiven freely for our own atrocities this way, we are called to forgive others (Ephesians 4:32).
My prayer is that this piece reminds us that the only way forward in reconciliation is to seek forgiveness. Today, that requires that white and black Americans dig their trenches together, finding out what is really there in our history and what needs to be forgiven so that we can truly come together. Empowered by God’s Spirit, we may see forgiveness change the landscape of our entire nation.
Lending helpful hands to efficiency and thrivation.
Those tracks are traps;
Cold, steel fingers over
A dismal scene.
Life is choked wandering underneath,
Aimless, ragged, and high
With bodies stooped down,
Frozen by angry lightning overhead.
Those tracks, the walls of cages,
Condemning the hopeless to death and starvation.
These tracks are just tracks,
Those tracks are mortality.
Moving from one major city to another last summer was a major change for me. I had the opportunity to go from Midwest to East Coast, spaciousness to density, Chicago to Philly. What was the biggest difference in my perception though? The El train tracks. In Chicago, not much surprising activity happens under the train tracks on an average day. In Philly, however, the tracks rise above the biggest hotbed of opioid distribution and consumption on the entire coast. It’s a much different picture; people overdose every day as hundreds of homeless and addicted people congregate in the area. It’s a harsh environment, and it’s easy to meet people who are deep in despair.
This is not to say that I prefer Chicago, or that Philly is a hopeless place. They both are important to me for different reasons, and both have major reputations for their struggles too. The point I wanted to make in this piece is that perception plays a huge role in your mission. The world is dying all around us, and some places (like the North Side of Chicago) are just better at hiding it than other places (like the North Side of Philly). The urgency of the gospel seems more palpable among people who toil each and every day without hope and without anyone to save them from themselves or their environment. So while the El tracks have a whole different meaning from one city to the next for me, I know the message of Christ and his promises are universally the solution to humanity’s despair and misery. I’ve seen that light shine under the El in Philly and in the streets of Chicago alike.
I wrote this poem while riding the bus in Chicago one evening, watching all the different kinds of people there are to be found in the city on their way. I thought about how amazing cities can be–centers of culture, resources for people of many backgrounds, hubs of activity in the world. I also thought about their injustice, violence, and the ways that they often just make no sense. Cities bring out the worst and best in humanity. It’s a paradox that I tried to drive home in this piece, with the perspective of the Modern Thinker: a resident of Chicago’s South Side.
I’m amazed at how Christ embraces cities with all their contradiction and confusion. In Luke 13:34 he says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” He loves Jerusalem in the midst of its sin, enough to show grace and love to people there who are completely undeserving. He loves our paradoxical cities the same way, too.
Psalm 26:8 says, “I love the house where you live, O Lord, the place where your glory dwells.” Being in the Old Testament, this psalm is talking about the Israelite temple in Jerusalem, which was significant because it housed God’s literal presence on the earth (see Psalm 84 for another great example of how precious the temple was to Israel). In the New Testament, we find an even more stunning reality: God chooses to give His presence to believers now by being in us. 1 Corinthians 6:19 says, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” Similarly, 2 Corinthians 6:16 says, “For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.'”
Every believer is a temple where God lives. Which means even a small gathering of God’s people on a random sidewalk in a big city can still experience His presence; He is right there with them–bringing light, unity, truth, and peace–amidst everything.
While the songs of the Bible are replete with urban imagery (Isaiah 26, Psalm 46, Psalm 107:1-9, to name just a few), I’ve noticed that your typical hymn or Christian lyric focuses primarily on idyllic scenes. You’re more likely to hear melodies concerning peace like a river or burning suns with golden beams than anything regarding skyscrapers or the concrete jungle. To be sure, these songs are beautiful and most certainly meaningful. I believe, however, that this small detail of our musical expression hints at a subtle but present reality within our cultural expression of the faith: Christians in our context don’t fully believe that they can see God’s glory or creativity through cities. Though the biblical authors saw them as provision, safety, and the place where God’s people share life together, we tend to only see them for all their negative qualities. That is why I’ve written this additional verse to a long familiar hymn, to express that God cares for cities (Jonah 4:11), knows their brokenness, and we can worship God in them–even because of them!
The city of Chicago at this time is the most still that I’ve ever experienced it in the last two and a half years, and I’m sure it hasn’t been like this for a long time in its history. I wrote this while watching the city and contemplating how fragile our grasp on life really is, how easily it seems everything has been halted and we have lost security in so many things we assumed were trustworthy in this world. Even time itself feels meaningless to many of the people I’ve spoken to. But God reaches into those spaces with hope of an eternal future that revives and reanimates.
This is a poem I wrote about two years ago about the nature of poetry itself. Poetry distills an experience to its most potent expression, leaving no words wasted or haplessly placed. It can contain great emotional depth, intellectual prowess, and stunning candor in a small amount of space.
I’ve chosen it as the theme of this collection of writing because in a time when words proliferate more than ever, often what is more helpful to fostering quality thought is a focused stream of concentration on a particular subject. Thinking well and hard is not a popular practice, but it does yield a wealth of wisdom to those who partake in it. I’ve decided to publish content on this site that promotes reflection, without necessarily exhausting all possible comments on any idea. While not every piece will be poetry or even necessarily feature poetry, my aim is that this form’s concise quality will infiltrate the other writings of this collection.
Not only is this my goal, but it is also to encourage quality thought through a paradigm of faith, which–whether admitted or not–colors every aspect of cognition. Regardless of your religious background or personal beliefs, I hope you are able to find worthy dialogue here with a distinctly Christian worldview. It is my belief that our highest thoughts are those that are revealed to us by the transcendent God who is also extremely immanent in our human experience; the One who invented human minds, the languages that they use to articulate themselves, and His Word, the Bible, which supplies us with truth that is ingrained into the fabric of our world.
Finally, I’m hoping that the beauty of written words will be impactful in this space. We are heirs to centuries of rich literature and live in a time where access to most of it is commonplace, so I’ll make use of it often. Join me in enjoying words that sonorously echo from ages past with timeless value.