Tag Archives: Heaven

The Sermon, part 26: Two Roads

Read Matthew 7:13-14

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” (Matthew 12:30 NRSV)

two_roads_by_jelly_bonWe have now entered into the final section of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”, which is a series of three eschatological (end-time) warnings. The first of the warnings is a very famous and often misunderstood teaching which utilizes two roads, one which is broad and wide with many traveling on it, the other which is long and narrow with few ever finding it, let alone travelling down it. The more desirable road leads to the desirable gate EVER; whereas, the less than desirable road leads to the most desirable gate of all.

Of course, we all know which roads these are, even though they are literal roads. Even if we have never stepped foot into a church or picked up a Bible, there are very few in the Western World (and beyond) that haven’t heard AC/DC’s Highway to Hell song blaring out of the speakers. Conversely, many know the less than desirable road as the road or the way to Heaven. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, Michael Landon even had a show called “Highway to Heaven” which, despite it’s name, showed the “straight and narrow” road of God through the eyes of an angel seeking to do good in the world.

Pretty simple so far, right? It seems pretty clear that the well-traveled road leads to hell and the least traveled road leads to heaven, right? It seems clear that those on the highway to hell are outside of Christ, while those on the jagged trail to heaven are those who belong to and follow Christ, right? If all of this is true, it then follows that the warning is for all of the people who are choosing the wrong road, right? It must be a warning for all of the people choosing the “easy way” over the straight, narrow, rugged trail that leads to heaven.

Who do you think we’d find on the highway to hell? Perhaps, the adulterers, the addicts, the theives, the sex offenders, the greedheads, the liars, the cheaters, the prostitutes, and the wild partiers? In some Christian circles, anyone listening to AC/DC or bands like Marilyn Manson are traveling the Highway to Hell; if you think about it though, that is kind of like a badge of  honor to Rock N’ Roll and Heavy Metal bands! I mean, for real! Beyond the Highway to Hell, who do you think are going to heaven? Well, duh! Christians, right? As for music, what could possibly be better than listening to the Newsboys sing “God’s Not Dead” live for an eternity in heaven. Yes, that was sarcasm.

While all of this may seem clear and obvious, it is actually wrong to assume all of the above. First, we must remember that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount” is being addressed to Jesus’ disciples, not to the masses. Yes, the multitude gathered are listening in and they do apply to them as well; however, Jesus’ warning is not geared toward the outsider; rather, it is being delivered for the insiders.

The roads to hell and/or heaven are not predicated on what music you listen to, what your view on same-sex marriage is or isn’t, or whether or not you are Christian. Hard to believe, right? Well, it is the truth. In fact, Jesus preached this Sermon before the term Christian (let alone the relgion) even existed. Rather, these roads are being presented as a warning to Jesus’ followers who have just been instructed on the standared God is calling us to uphold.

The “Highway to Hell” is the easy road. It is the road  most people travel because it requires little work or commitment. It does not have much, if any, accountability. The Highway to Hell is the road that tells us that we can be the judge and jury of what God wants. It is the way that abandons the very heart of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. The rugged, narrow and long road to heaven is hard to find and remain on because it requires an absolute commitment to Christ and his way of being. It means making Christ’s way our way, and since Christ’s way leads to the cross, most would rather just not go there.

When I say “most”, one must avoid the inevitbale pitfall of thinking “non Christians”. Again, as a reminder, Jesus is addressing his disciples. These are the people who are following Jesus, not the ones who are not. What this means is that Jesus is warning HIS DISCIPLES to avoid choosing the easy way, over his way! The only way to heaven, according to Jesus, is summed up in the Golden Rule, “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you, for this is the Law and the prophets.” The Golden Rule, of course, is the summation of the two Greatest Commandments.

Thus the easy way to love oneself, one’s agenda, one’s idealogy, one’s theology, one’s doctrine, one’s religion, one’s whatever over and above loving others as oneself. To do this is to also love onself over and above God. That is the easy way and most, if not all, of us find it without any trouble at all; however, Christ is calling us to a wholly different and harder way and warning us that our way leads to our own destruction. Christ’s way, however, leads to the Kingdom of God.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
The long and rugged pathway to heaven is the cross; it is the way of love.

PRAYER
Lord, help me to embrace the long and rugged pathway to heaven. Amen.

The Beatitudes, part 9: Persecuted

Read Matthew 5:10

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3 NRSV)

Nailed hand on wooden cross.

 

 

Jesus, having given a series of blessings to people who were normally not considered by society to be blessed, bookends his series of beatitudes with, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:10 NRSV). The New Living Translation puts it in what I think captures the heart of what Jesus is saying, “God blesses those who are persecuted for doing what is right.” In other words, in the eschatological plan of God, in God’s end times plan, those who stand up for what is right and who do the right thing at great cost to themselves, will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.

It is important to note that this particular beatitude seems to have been written by Matthew himself as away of coming full circle in Jesus beatitudes. I am not suggesting that Matthew fabricated it, or that it doesn’t represent what Matthew believes Jesus was saying. Quite the contrary. Matthew uses this particular Beatitude as a literary device to bring Jesus’ beatitudes right back to where they started. This particular “beatitude” is not found anywhere else in the Gospels, and it is not to be confused on what Jesus says regarding persecution as a whole in the following two verses as well as in Luke 6:22

What’s more not only does it nicely bookend the beatitudes in between it and verse 3; however, it also ties directly into what is to follow about persecution itself, and how Christ’s followers should react to persecution. Christ’s teaching on persecution as a whole, and what his followers’ repsonse should be to it can be found in both Matthew and Luke.

So often, when we read this blessing we tend to read it in one of two ways. We will either read Jesus as saying, “Blessed are those who are oppressed and persectued, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Or, if we don’t read it that way, we read it in the following way, “Blessed are those who are oppressed and persecuted because they are Christians, for theirs is Kingdom of Heaven.” Both ways of reading it are not entirely wrong as it is true that Jesus teaches that in the Kingdom of Heaven puts a special emphasis on those who are “the least of these” by society in this current age. It is also true that Jesus does say that those who are persecuted for following him are blessed as well; however, Matthew 5:10, though certainly related, does not explicitly say those things at all.

What it does say explicitly is the following: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for doing what is right, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Notice, Jesus doesn’t put any stipulations on that. He doesn’t define who, where, what, when or how that comes about. Does Jesus mean that anyone who stands up for what’s right possesses the Kingdom of Heaven? What if they are not Jewish (in Jesus’ context), or what if they are not Christian (in our context)? What if they are not one of us, what if they are from Samaria (in Jesus’ context), or what if they are from Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Russia, etc. (in our context)? Also, what if their “right” is in opposition to our own thoughts, beliefs, actions, etc.?

Jesus does not specify any of that. He does not put restrictions of that statement whatsoever; rather, he simply states, “God blesses those who do what is right, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Of course, as we discussed earlier on in this series, “righteousness” or “doing what is right”, really amounts to doing justice, living justly, and standing up for justice. Those who do so will certainly be attacked by those who are in support of injustice (whether they realize it is injust or not).

And to tie it back to Jesus first blessing of the “poor in spirit”, they are not defined by religion, race, geographical location, or any other thing that we divide ourselves with; rather, they are defined by three things: living justly/seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. Anyone, regardless of who they are or where they come from, who seeks and strives to live that out in their lives possess the Kingdom of Heaven, both now within them as well as when that Kingdom is fully realized here on Earth. This is what Jesus is telling us. Even if you are persecuted now for doing what is right, the reward that follows will certainly be well worth the persecution. I pray we all open our hearts to, and define our lives, by that very truth.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY “If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.” (1 Peter 2:20 NRSV)

PRAYER Lord, strengthen me to do what is right, even in the face of persecution. Amen.

Kingdom Building

Read Luke 16:1-13

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.” (Matthew 6:21)

throwing-away-moneyWe are a people who thrive on success, particularly financial success. After all, it is money that makes our world go ’round, right? We are taught, from young ages, what it means to make money and to save up. We are taught the importance of investing our money and, hopefully, growing our stock portfolio. Capitalism thrives on successfully making and investing money. Wall Street is an entire capitalistic empire based on making and investing money, and people have shown that they will go to all ends in order to see that success through.

While this is normal for our government and businesses, which exsit to make money and to secure the financial interests of our nation; however, what is sad is that this has become the mentality of our churches as well. Often times, it is all about the bottom dollar. In my conversations over the years, I have heard people share that so-and-so is really working to bring “the church” down, or that so-and-so’s really doing something that should not be and, yet, the church is too afraid to hold so-and-so accountable because he or she is one of the larger tithers in the church and they might get offended and take their money elsewhere. No joke, this type of stuff happens in the church.

Of course, this doesn’t just happen in churches…it happens in every part of society. Money talks. Yet, the church is not supposed to be like the rest of society. It is set apart. It is to be holy…to represent God and the Economy of God’s Kingdom…not the economy of the almighty dollar. Yet, t o many in the church my words are nothing more than impractical and idealistic. What’s more, many in the church would find my words here to be a threat, because if one chases out the biggest givers, then one is ultimately chasing out any chance of the church being able to stay open.

I certainly understand the fear and the sentiment. My question is this, are we called to worry about the consequences of our decision to follow God. Yes, there are consequences to following God. People might get offended by being held accountable, church buildings might be forced to close if there aren’t enough funds coming in to support the operating expenses, etc. Those things could come to pass. With that said, there are consequences to not following God and there is something that will SURELY pass if we choose to go down that road: WE WILL CEASE TO BE THE TRUE REPRESENTATIVES OF GOD’S KINGDOM.

In God’s Kingdom, the first are last and the last are first. In God’s Kingdom those can see will be shown to be blind, while the blind will be the ones who see. In God’s Kingdom, the rich will inherit spiritual poverty and emptiness, while the poor will inherit the riches (e.g. fulfillment, joy, peace, love, hope, patience, gentleness, generosity, and self-control) of the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom of God the masters will serve the servants and the servants will lead in their humility. Everything is flipped on its head in God’s Kingdom.

When God’s Kingdom arrives, there will no longer be a world where the few and the elite get everything while everyone else gets nothing. There will no longer be a world where the rich and the powerful get catered to at the expense of everyone else. Christ came to bring an end to such injustice, to such segregation, to such oppression. This is not to say that God scoffs at success or spurns the successful. Not at all; rather, God invites them to see their success as a gift to bring about God’s Kingdom on earth! But God also calls us to not cater to those with money over and above those who don’t. There is no room in Christ for that kind of garbage. If people get offended by that, then they are offended by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and there is nothing that we, the church, can do about that. All we can do is pray and keep on doing the work of Kingdom building that that God has called us to do.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed?” – Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 9:25)

PRAYER
Lord, help me to avoid being lured away from your Kingdom by the “riches” of this world. Help me to use what I have in a way that serves others. Amen.

Cubic Zirconia

Read Matthew 15:44

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant on the lookout for choice pearls.” (Matthew 13:45, NLT)

cz2webWhat do you value? What is it that you place all of your stock in? What is it that you would spare no expense for? What is your gleaming treasure? In today’s suggested reading, Jesus tells of a man who stumbles upon treasure hidden in a field that is so precious to him that he then sells everything he has in order to purchase that field and, by extension, purchase that treasure.

Now for those of us who really hear that parable and really give it some thought, we are left there stunned. I mean, why would someone stumble upon treasure hidden in a field and sell everything they own just to purchase the field with the treasure they stumbled on and could have had for nothing. That just doesn’t make any sense, does it? That seems like the most ridiculous and unlikely scenario ever told, does it not? Come on Jesus, surely you can do better than that?

Yet, the power in the parable is not in its plausibility but in its implausibility, for it is in the extreme and implausible actions of this seemingly lunatic man that we find the truthful point that Jesus is making. Sure, the man could have just taken the treasure and kept it for himself; however, that action would have been cheap and worthless and it would have rendered the treasure as such; rather, by selling everything and purchasing the land, and the treasure by necessity, makes that treasure the most valuable thing the man possesses, for he now owns nothing but the small plot of land and that treasure. The things we value the most will consume our very lives, and our actions will follow suit. Nothing else will stand a chance in competing for our devotion.

So, let me ask the question again. What do you value? The treasure above represents the Kingdom of God. Do you value the Kingdom of God…do you really, really value it? Do you value what God values? Do you value love, compassion, presence, respect, hospitality, service, sacrifice, grace, faith, faithfulness, justice, mercy, and social/economic/ecological/spiritual responsibility? Do you value the dignity and the divine spark within the all people you know and deal with. Do you treat everyone with equal respect and honor? Are you real in your values? Are your values real in you?

Plenty of people list their values and claim to live by them; however, values are not cheap like talk can be. The very word value denotes something of worth or cost, something to be treasured and sought after. When we claim to hold values that we don’t follow we show that those values are not real to us, we show that we are really seeking after Cubic Zirconia as opposed to the diamond in the rough. When we use values as a mask to hide the truth of who we are and/or the things we do, we are showing ourselves to be disingenuous and fake. We may fool some with that kind of an act, we may even fool ourselves, but we will never, ever fool God. God knows our hearts.

The Kingdom of Heaven is something of profound worth, something worth selling our very selves to purchase and to possess. The truth is that we can never, ever possess it; rather, it possesses us. Though we seek the Kingdom of Heaven, we discover that it searches us out. Though we may be Cubic Zirconia on the outside, God sees in us the diamond in the rough and chisels away the shells that surround us to reveal the inner gem. And once God does that we are transformed into a people who live by the very values that have claimed and shaped us. We become transformed to the point that the very values of the Kingdom of God become our own identity. We not only believe in them, we live by them. Not because we feel obligated, or because we’re putting up some sort of manufactured front, but because it’s who we are.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true.” – Socrates

PRAYER
Lord, help me to not only proclaim my values, but to actually live into the values I proclaim. Amen.

Daniel’s Apocalypse

Read Daniel 7

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man.” (Matthew 13:37, NRSV)

daniel-10-vision-son-of-manThroughout the nearly twenty centuries in which Christianity has existed, many Christians have been raptured by the notion that the End Times are approaching, looking to the apocalyptic texts in the Bible to interpret the events happening in their world. Since the nineteenth century, there has been a renewed and somewhat reimagined End Times narrative that has since become the dominant perception in popular culture of what the Bible is saying in books such as Daniel, Ezekiel, 1 Thessalonians, and Revelation. This popular understanding has been propagated in Christian literature such as “The Late Great Planet Earth” by Hal Lindsey and the Left Behind series. It has been found in the secular world as well in films such as Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen, and other such horror films.

The word “apocalypse” means “unveiling” and in apocalyptic writings, the authors have been given a “revelation” or an “unveiling” of the things that are currently happen and/or are soon to pass in the future. Daniel 7 is such an apocalyptic text, and in modern popular culture, it has been interpreted in light of other apocalyptic texts such as Matthew 24, 1 Thessalonians 4, and Revelation. The problem with this is that these interpretations often do not take the apocalyptic author’s own historical and religious context into account, which leaves us with a heavily skewed understanding of what those texts are stating.

Daniel 7 talks about the winds stirring the sea, four beasts rising up, and ten horns found on the fourth beast (three of which are removed and replaced by another smaller horn covered with eyes and a boasting mouth. The sea is always symbolizes the primordial chaos that surrounds God’s ordered and good creation. Water is both life and death, and the chaotic seas in the ancient world (as well as in ours) are always threatening to destroy us. The winds that are stirring them are the “angels” of heaven, implying that there is a spiritual warfare going on in the cosmos, mirroring the ancient Semitic myth of the storm god (Baal in Canaanite mythology and Marduk in the Babylonian mythology). In the ancient world, beasts always represented Empires and/or Kingdoms. Thus, in Daniel’s apocalyptic dream, the first beast represented Babylon, the second represented the Medes, the third the Persians, and the fourth represented the Greek/Seleucid Empire.

It was under these Empires, one after the next, that the Hebrew people suffered great oppression under. But, in Daniel’s vision, these Empires wouldn’t have the final say. God was doing something significant, something that would overthrow the forces of evil in the world and would begin the establishment of God’s Kingdom on Earth. He sees someone like the “Son of Man” coming on the clouds and ushering in that Kingdom. The apocalyptic author of Daniel was providing hope for people caught in what seemed like a hopeless situation. God would take authority away from the beast-like Kingdoms and return it to human-like Israel

It was this hope that, 160 years after the writing of this text, a Jewish prophet and teacher would proclaim he was the fulfillment of. That man, of course, was Jesus of Nazareth and he was claiming that he was that “Son of Man” and he proclaimed the arrival of God’s Kingdom on Earth. It was this “Son of Man” that was proclaiming a message that was counter to the powers of the world, one that preached of strength through humility, through meekness, through peace, through compassion, through self-sacrifice and through unconditional love. While Jesus does proclaim a post-ascension time when he would return, Daniel, according to Jesus, was not pointing to an event following the Christ; rather, Daniel was pointing to the Christ event itself. Let us who believe in Jesus as the Christ rejoice, for we have been chosen by him to continue the unveiling of the enduring Kingdom he ushered in! Our call is not to predict the future, but to serve God’s Kingdom today.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.” – Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ (Matthew 19:21)

PRAYER Lord, thank you for revealing to me the Son of Man. Help me to do my part in serving your Kingdom on Earth. Amen.

The Slippery Slope

Read Isaiah 55:8-13

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much.” (1 Corinthians 8:2)

downloadWe live in a world that often only sees in black and white. Things are either right or wrong, good or evil, bad or good, up or down, this way or that and there is no possibility for anything else in between. People who think this way often fear that if you start giving leeway in allowing for more possibilities, or allowing for people to interpret things differently, you start to head down a “slippery slope” toward the pit of destruction.

For example, since the publication of his book, “Love Wins”, Rob Bell has been branded a heretic by people who disagree with his propensity to question Christian dogma in order to shed light a deeper and more profound truth. The book “Love Wins” happened to question the Christian doctrine of Heaven and Hell, or at least the doctrine as it has been understood in the last 2-3 centuries. Much of the criticism against him was launched before the book was even published. All that his critics had to go on (as they obviously hadn’t read it yet) was the title of his book and a short video trailer that featured Rob asking questions such as, “Will only a select few make it to heaven and will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell? And, if that’s the case how do you become one of the few?”

In the video, he points to the fact that many have been taught that the central point of the Gospel message is that God will send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus, who came to save you from God’s wrath. “But what does that say about God,” Rob Bell asks? “What that ends up implying is that Jesus has come to rescue us from God.” The video goes on to ask even more questions, with the hope of sparking a desire in the viewer to refelct on these questions, on heaven, on hell, and on “the fate of every human being to have ever lived.” As his book title suggests, and if you haven’t read it…I highly recommend it, in the end, “God is Love” (1 John 4:8), and love wins!

People really got in a frenzy over this book. Christian book stores started to ban Rob Bell’s books from their shelves, some Christians started to refute the claims that they hadn’t actually read, but assumed were in his book. Franklin Graham went on cable news and called Rob Bell a heretic for not believing in hell, despite the fact that Rob’s book never denied hell as much as re-framed it. Rob’s critics stated that his questions would open up the proverbial can of worms and lead many people away from Christ. The problem is that slippery slope arguments are not logical. It does not follow that by asking questions one will necessarily LEAD people away from Christ. In fact, the fervor over the book actually drew more attention to the book, to the doctrines of heaven and hell, and to the teachings of Christ, as well as to Christianity; it seems that the book helped draw more people to at least stop, pause and theologically reflect on some pretty big theological questions. What’s the harm in that? What’s the harm in trying to point people to the LOVE, as opposed to the WRATH, of God?

Today’s challenge is two-fold. First, do not allow yourself to get caught up in fear. Unchecked fear is paralytic and keeps us from moving forward from where we are to where God wants us to be. Second, don’t get caught up in the slippery slope. There are more than one way to look at things, and not everything is black and white. There is a lot of gray in the world, and whole spectrum of colors beyond that. Open your eyes to the beauty of God’s world and allow all of the possibilities to be presented before you jump to conclusions. Remember that God’s grace is wide and far-reaching, it calls to all people, and no fear in the world will ever change that.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.” – Socrates (found in Plato’s Apology)

PRAYER
Lord, humble to realize that I do not know it all, and allow me to avoid the slippery slope of thinking I do. In you all things are possible. Amen.

The Garden

Read Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-25

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:6-9 NRSV)

lion_wolf_lamb3We all dream about what living in a utopia would be like do we not. We’ve all tried to imagine what it must have been like to be the first people living in the paradise called the Garden of Eden. We often wonder how different the world would be if the garden were a reality for us today as opposed to being an origin narrative bound in a book.

Can you imagine the first people living in paradise, living in a garden that sustains eternal life? Can you imagine having all of the delicious plants and fruits that you could ever eat? Could you imagine living in a world where people didn’t kill people for greed, jealously, revenge and/or power? Could you imagine a world where animals (including humans) didn’t kill other animals for food, a world where pain, suffering, famine, disease and loss were never, ever experienced?

That is the kind of world that Genesis says that God intended for us, but even in the paradisiacal Garden of Eden tragedy, pain, suffering and separation lurked around the corner. It seems as if even the earliest humans couldn’t attain true peace and/or true happiness. If that is the case, why do we continue to long for it and what makes us think we can ever attain it?

The truth of the matter is that we can attain true peace and true wholeness. We can once again enter the garden if we are willing to do what it takes to live in harmony with with ourselves, with other humans, with all of creation and, ultimately with God. But, as you can plainly see, paradise isn’t free. Everything comes at a cost.

The question is are you willing to do what it takes to work your way back to the garden? Are you willing to turn your body back into the sanctuary God built it to be? Are you willing to take proper care of yourself (i.e., through a healthy diet, exercise, self-forgiveness, humility, spiritual discipline, etc.)? Are you willing to start living in harmony with your neighbors (friends and enemies alike)? Are you willing to live in a harmonious relationship with all of God’s creation? If so, the your answer is yes to the question of whether you want to live in a harmonious relationship with God.

God is calling you to begin your journey back to the Garden…back to the perfect paradise. The truth is we have kicked ourselves out of it and we are the ones holding ourselves from returning to it! God is wanting us to be reunited the divine image we were created to reflect and God wants us to return home. The truth is that you have been equipped by God to stop dreaming and start journeying back to paradise. The path is set before you and the choice is yours. I hope to see you in paradise!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“God comes first. Paradise is not cheap.” – Hakeem Olajuwon

PRAYER

Lord, place the desire for paradise in my heart and guide me toward discovering it. Lead me back to your garden. Amen.

Jesus Is For Real

Read Matthew 13:23-58

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
But [Jesus] said to them, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.” (Luke 4:43)

heaven-is-for-realThis past Thursday, my wife, children and I went to the theater to see yet another faith-based film. It seems that 2014 is the year of faith-based films and, so long as they keep making them, my family and I will keep supporting them. The one we just saw was a film entitled, “Heaven Is For Real”, which is based on the bestselling book of the same name. The film chronicles a Wesleyan pastor, Rev. Todd Burpo, and his family through a tumultuous time.

According to the story, Todd’s son Colton ended up getting sick on a family trip to Denver. After bringing him home, his condition did not improve but got worse. It turned out that his appendix had ruptured and, close to death, Colton needed emergency surgery. During that surgery, he left his body and was able to see both his parents who were in separate places: his mom on the phone with family and his dad, who was in the chapel angrily praying and yelling at God.

Beyond that experience, Colton also experienced going to heaven where he met angels who sang to him and Jesus who came to him on a horse of many colors. Everyone in heaven, according to Colton, were young. While there he met his great-grandfather who he had never met in life, and he also met his unborn, older sister. At four years old, his son had never known his mom had a miscarriage and, to his mother’s surprise, he was suddenly aware that he had another “sister” who lived in heaven.

While the story is very moving, it is easy for us to get skeptical of such books and such accounts. Theologically speaking, when Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven was he really referring to another place where he would be riding a rainbow colored horse? Was he referring to a place where we all look like we did when we were in our early twenties? Some have criticized the book for presenting an “extra-Biblical” picture of what heaven is. From a scientific perspective, how do we know that Colton wasn’t just imagining Jesus out of things he had seen and/or heard at home or at church. His father, after all, is the pastor of a Wesleyan Church. Secular critics have criticized the book for it’s lack of “reason.”

I must confess that I have never read the book, but when watching the film the details of the boy’s personal experiences of heaven became secondary to the overall point of the film. Pastor Burpo, in one scene, stands before his congregation asks, “If we truly believed that heaven is for real, how differently would be be living our lives?” That is a profoundly good and important question to ask. If we truly believe in heaven, if we truly see that heaven is FOR REAL, if we truly understood that heaven can be brought here on earth and that we are called to be a part of ushering it in, we will be living our lives differently.

I believe that the personal and, by nature, subjective experiences of a four year old boy cannot be proven or disproven. To be skeptical and critical of the fine details of his experience is to miss the bigger point that not only is heaven for real, but THE RISEN JESUS IS FOR REAL and he is calling to us in different ways. For some it is in a near death experience, for others it is in a Scripture verse we accidentally stumble upon. Still others witness the risen Christ in a person they are helping or in someone who is helping them. There are some who have visions and dreams that lead them to the RISEN CHRIST who is calling them into a deeper commitment. No matter how Christ is experienced…the fact remains that HE IS EXPERIENCED and he is calling us to be agents of his kingdom…the very real Kingdom of Heaven…so that the world may come to be as God first intended it to be: A WORLD OF TRUE LIFE AND LASTING PEACE. Experience that Jesus is for real, that heaven is for real, and that your call, no matter what it is or where it leads you, is for real.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” – Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 18:3, NRSV).

PRAYER
Lord, open my eyes that I may see and experience you. Change my heart that I may eagerly follow you. Amen.

A Modern Parable

Read 2 Corinthians 5:17-21

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’ (Matthew 18:21-22)

say_hello_2_heavenHave you ever pondered about heaven and hell? Often times they both seem so distant, they both seem so very far away. We all hang on to life, thinking that the longer we live the longer we can put off having to find out what lies beyond the great divide. Yet are heaven and hell that far away?

One day, while pondering on the nature of heaven and hell, I pictured hearing what Jesus would say about the two if he were living on earth today. What sort of parable would he tell, what kind of illustration would he use to describe the reality of heaven and hell? We all know the imagery he used in the New Testament; however, if Jesus were living on earth today, what example would he provide us? And then I thought of an event that had happened a while back and decided to put the exercise on paper. It went like this:

One day a man came up to Jesus and questioned him, “Rabbi, teach us of hell.”

Jesus looked deeply into the man’s eyes and began to answer in parables.  “Hell is like a schoolhouse of Amish children.  One day a man entered into the schoolhouse, lined up all the girls along the wall, and bound their ankles and hands together.  He called his wife to say goodbye and then started shooting the girls in the back of the head, one by one.  Finally, the man took his own life, leaving several Amish parents without their children, leaving his own children without their father, leaving his wife without a husband, and leaving his parents without a son.

In reaction to the incident, people around the nation began judging the man and his family.  His face was shown all over the television with the words, ‘The Face of Evil‘ written underneath.  People judged him as an evil person and before long such judgments would justify their harassing the killer’s wife and children.”

The man looked back at Jesus in utter astonishment.  “What then of heaven, Rabbi,” he asked.

Jesus answered,  “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the Amish parents who, after their children were mercilessly and brutally murdered by a gun man, met with the family of the murderer.  They brought food, tears, and prayers to the killer’s wife’s door, sat with the wife and kids, ate with them and prayed with them.  They said to the wife, ‘In our hearts we have already forgiven him.’  They also begged the wife, ‘Do not leave this area. Stay in your home here. We forgive this man.’”

While these words are obviously not the actual words of Jesus, I do believe that they are true insomuch as they shed light on the nature of heaven and hell.  The fact of the matter is that hell, often times, surrounds us; however, as followers of Christ, we are called to be ambassadors of heaven. The Amish in the parable above, pulled from a real life event, acted as heavenly ambassadors would. Though they were the grieving victims of a heinous, evil crime, they chose to act out of love and forgiveness, rather than out of vengeance and hate. It may be a tall order but, as the Amish proved, it is not an impossible one. May the love of Christ permeate you so that you can show it even to your enemies.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“Love seeketh not itself to please, nor for itself hath any care, but for another gives its ease, and builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.” – William Blake

PRAYER

Lord, teach me to love, regardless of the cost. Just as I am forgiven, give me the humility and the strength to forgive. Amen.

Why Imagine?

Read Matthew 5:1-16; 6:7-15; 13:1-34; Mark 12:28-34

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.'” (Matthew 10:7)

Why Imagine?I was just listening to the song “Imagine” by the late, great John Lennon. The song has long since been heralded as the global anthem of world peace and was Lennon’s best selling song of his entire solo career.  The song challenges the listener to imagine a world without possessions, without war, without greed and poverty.  John takes things that are commonly held to be the cause of war and suffering, and challenges the listener to imagine a world where those things didn’t exist, which John assumes would be a world where the “world would be as one.”

At the top of John Lennon’s list of things to imagine the world without, was the notion of heaven, and conversely, the idea of hell.  To the Christian, such lyrics should make us pause. Why would John Lennon want us to imagine a world without heaven?  What would such a world be like? John then takes it one step further and ends that verse with this, “Imagine all the people living for today.”  For John Lennon, the concept of heaven is one that is foreign to this earth. It is a place far, far away; it is a place that is someplace other than this earth.

Christianity has often taught that this world is something to be discarded, that we are to await “a place that is far better than this world.” Heaven has been taught, by Christians, to be the very antithesis of Earth. Yet, in the Bible we find a different understanding of heaven.  Jesus didn’t speak of the Kingdom of Heaven as a place that was far, far away; rather, for Jesus heaven was right here, right now. Jesus taught that not only could we see and experience heaven on earth, but that we could inherit it. All that we needed to do was open our hearts to God and see the world through God’s eyes.

For Jesus, heaven and hell were the opposite sides of the same coin. As he walked the streets of Galilee and Judea, he saw hell all around him. Starvation, extreme poverty, disease, neglect, abuse, and other terrible things are all examples of the hell Jesus witness all around him. His entire country was experiencing the hell of being occupied by the oppressive and tyrannical Roman Empire.

Yet, despite all of the hell Jesus saw, he also witnessed to the very real presence of heaven in the world. When he chose to heal instead of harm, when he chose to love instead of hate, when he chose to forgive instead of bear grudges, when he chose to stand up for right rather than sit down for the status quo, he was not only witnessing to the presence of heaven but he WAS THE PRESENCE OF HEAVEN…the very presence of God in this world.

And we can be the presence of heaven too. We just need to be willing to get a little dirty, to feel a little uncomfortable and to step outside of the boxes we put ourselves in. We need to be willing to reach out and be LOVE in the lives of those around us. We need to be willing to become vulnerable, just as Jesus became vulnerable, for the sake of those around us.  To do such things is to bear witness to the reality of heaven on earth.

While John Lennon is calling for us to imagine there to be no heaven out there in the sky, he is also calling us to imagine a world in which heaven exists here on Earth.  But he has missed an important truth that Jesus has been pointing us to all along: we don’t have to imagine heaven on earth…we only have to live it.  Pointing to others not living it is not proof that it doesn’t exist. It does exist if WE choose to LIVE it!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

Imagine what would happen if you stopped imagining and started living what you imagined.

PRAYER

Lord, I thank you for my imagination and for equipping to make what I imagine become a reality. Guide me to be your shining light, witnessing to the reality of heaven! Amen.