Monthly Archives: October 2012

Heaven Begins Today

21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” – Lk 17:21

Heaven and Hell do not exist as geographical entities. But if they did, would that make earth the border between them? In the spiritual realm, is earth like the border lands between Texas and Mexico, a convergence of differing influences?  Would that explain our mestizo spirituality? Even when we think of Heaven and Hell more theologically, the idea of “here” (or maybe “now”) as a permeable divider still holds. Consider Heaven to be the state of perfect and total union with God. Likewise, Hell could be viewed as a complete absence of God’s presence. Now we live in the middle, sometimes leaning more one way, and if we’re honest, sometimes the other. Every post-modern author and director in the world strives desperately to convince us of our mixed spiritual heritage. Each bad cop a hero, every heroine with a tragic flaw.

These broken hero/redeemed villain characters speak so clearly to us because we recognize ourselves and our lives in their stories. On some level, we realize we are spiritually amphibious, both body and soul. We live, at once, connected to and disconnected from our Creator. We thrill at the scent of perfume floating amid the stench of sulfur and death because it smells like home. We appreciate the flower growing in the dump, even when the odor of rotting garbage overwhelms us. There, in Gehenna, we too readily recognize the images of our world given us by media and social network. They are self-portraits, after all.

Hell on earth is easy to imagine. And too easy to find. Carnage and death, oppression and pain, disease and destruction spill upon us from every arena. If you think Hell is only found in history or Hollywood then stop reading this and buy a plane ticket. Go anyplace where people live in fear. Afghanistan. Darfur. Drug riddled neighborhoods. Alcohol soaked homes. Abusive relationships. We know hell is no mythical realm of fire and brimstone because torture and torment are burning realities too particular to ignore.


And if Hell is here, then what of Heaven?

We’ve lived so long with the myth of “pie in sky in the great by and by” that we still struggle to wrap our arms round the simple proclamation of our Lord, “the kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus doesn’t say maybe, or tomorrow, or there. Jesus says here and now. Heaven doesn’t begin when we die. Heaven begins today.

For every death, birth.

For every tear, laughter.

For every addiction, sobriety.

For every hunger, satisfaction.

For every loneliness, relationship.

For every sorrow, joy.

For every darkness, light.

For every sinner, redemption.

Heaven isn’t something that will happen. Heaven is something that is happening. All around us. Every moment. Every day. Heaven is the abundant life we can choose to live in Christ. Whenever we seek first the Kingdom of God, we find Heaven. Wherever we love our neighbor, we find Heaven. However we allow Jesus to calm our storms and heal our blindness and carry our burdens, we find Heaven.

If we dare to do unto others, unto the least of these, unto the orphan, the widow and the alien in the land then we touch the Heavenly realm. Jesus didn’t give us the Holy Spirit so we could go to Heaven. Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit so we could be in Heaven. In redemption. In justice. In mercy. Wherever and whenever and however we find ourselves living in Christ, then and there, here and now, we realize that Heaven begins today.

A Good Habit, Undeveloped

Bad habits aren’t the problem. At some point, even if it takes a good long while, you will recognize a bad habit for what it is. If for no other reason than it drives someone you love crazy. Eventually you will see the bad. The undeveloped good is easier to miss.

We used to walk and run and play. Then we grew up and learned to drive and graduated. Now we’re out of shape, overweight and miserable has become the norm. We never learned to eat well before because we didn’t need to. A good habit, undeveloped.

We used to be in love. Each stolen moment together a taste of heaven. We talked and shared and cared without trying. Then we got married and had kids and bought a house. Now we live together without knowing each other and miserable has become the norm. We never learned to communicate, we never learned how to work at a relationship because before we didn’t need to. A good habit, undeveloped.

We used to follow God. We studied and served and loved God. His thoughts and actions affected our own: in art and morality and politics and business. At some point we replaced following God with going to church. Instead of fitting our life into God’s, we practiced fitting small pieces of God into our life, where He fit, where He was convenient. God became putty. God filled in the cracks.

We used to have cracks in our lives. (We still have cracks, only now in our hearts and our relationships, instead of our calendars.) Empty, open spaces with nothing to do. Remember those days? Remember back when stores actually closed, and kids didn’t practice every night and work ended at some point? Now we have Sunday soccer and 24 hour drive thru and an ever-present office in the palm of our hand. We emerged from Christendom counting on our ability to fit God into the cracks only to discover the cracks had disappeared.

Now we have no cracks left in our calendars. No holes in our days or weeks left empty. Our schedules rush at us pre-filled, so our days are determined by what we turn down. There is no time we are not moving and planning and going and running as fast as we can to keep up. It’s not that we no long follow God. We gave up on that a long time ago. There are simply no more cracks to fit Him into. So we crammed God into Church, at least He’s safe in there (and let’s face it, we don’t mind him boxed up and out-of-the-way) Now Church becomes one more option on the list of things to do. A good habit, undeveloped.

But hear me closely. God is more than wall putty. And God will not remain safely tucked away in the Church you used to attend. God never wanted to fit into the cracks in your life. God has always wanted you to fit into the cracks in his. There are three of them. Shaped like nails. And when we fit our lives into His, when we enter into the embrace of those arms outstretched on the cross, when we dare to seek first the kingdom of God then all these other things are given to us, as well. The rush and the madness and busyness fall into place. Not because the world changes. Because we change. Our perspective. Our practices. We find ourselves thinking more about God first, not as an option but as the option. We live in Him and find Him living in us. And with us. And through us. Then all of a sudden we realize God stands no longer as a good habit undeveloped. Now living in Him we discover the life he promises, the life of abundance.

One Man Difference

And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.”

And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”

— Mark 8:27-29

So I grew up going to church. Not C&E, take it or leave it, once in a while going to church. We were there every Sunday. Without fail. Skipping church was such a rare occurrence that those few Sundays we did miss stand out like snapshots in my mind. Shoot, I was eleven before I learned there were any t.v. shows on Sunday mornings. Even illness wasn’t a good excuse for a church absence. I tried faking sick one Sunday only to discover my dad had instituted a “no church, no play” rule. Took care of that foolishness real quick.

We went to Sunday school and youth group and kids choir and VBS. My parents were leaders. They served on the altar guild, the vestry (ie/ elders, board), as layreaders and ushers and communion servers. The church basement is where I discovered the blessed aroma of  mimeograph ink (that reference will date me, think pre-xerox copying technology). They hosted a Friday night Bible study at our house. Most of our friends came through church, those strong family friends where you wind up friends with the kids whether you like them or not because your parents are all friends.

Think about it this way. We went to church enough to get in trouble. We kids knew the place and the people well enough to stop being on our best behavior. We ran in the parish hall. We climbed up stairways and into tunnels that were off-limits. We threw things. We acted like we were at our best friend’s house, which is not bad theology when you think about it.

We were churched. And our church was a good one. Moderate, sacramental, fairly biblical by Episcopal standards. We were engaged. I helped lead worship and church retreats as a teenager. We were good. We mostly behaved and said “yes ma’am” and “no sir” and went to school and played sports and said the Pledge of Allegiance. We were baptized. We were confirmed. And we were missing the point.

Well, that’s unfair. We weren’t missing the point, not entirely. And I certainly can’t speak for anyone but myself. I certainly knew about God. I learned the Bible stories. I learned the rules of solid middle-class American Christianity. I learned to pray and that God loved me and Jesus died for my sins. As Paul put it, I was a Pharisee of Pharisees. I was given everything I needed to be a Christian.  And I certainly would have said I was one. Right up to the day when I met Jesus.

The funny thing is, he didn’t look anything like I expected him to. But then he never does, does he? No, he wore thick glasses and was skinny and kind of goofy. But he was a killer at foosball. His name was Dave Parks. And no, he wasn’t Jesus, but he is the one who showed me Jesus in a way that changed my life.

Our high school had a Campus Life group. Campus Life is a para-church organization (like Young Life) who reaches out to high school students with the gospel. We had a weekly meeting at different people’s homes. And everyone went. At least, as a freshman, that’s what we told our parents. And let’s face it, as fourteen year old boys, by “everyone” we meant “girls”. And not just girls, but women. Seniors. So I and all my friends started going to Campus Life for the same reason most high school boys do anything. Because there were girls there (and food). Dave Parks was the leader of Campus Life at my high school.

There was music and games and Dave always gave some kind of a talk that we never really paid attention to. But when he asked questions, I always knew the answers. Because I went to church. And at some point Dave figured this out. Because after one of the usual Campus Life gatherings my sophomore year, he pulled me aside and asked if I wanted to grab a Dr. Pepper and some food after school one day. It must have been in the Spring because I didn’t have football practice. We met at a Burger King that no longer exists. And Dave asked me the question that changed my life. Not “do you know Jesus as your lord and savior,” thank God. As David Platt has pointed out, not even Jesus himself asked that lame question. No, Dave was more subtle than that.

He simply said this, “Look Jay, you know all the answers. You talk a good game. But you’re the worst kind of Christian we have. Because you say you believe but you don’t act like it. Look, either Jesus is who he says he is, the very Son of the Living God, or he’s not. If he’s not, then you should probably just walk away. But what if he is? If Jesus really is the Savior, then that changes everything. And you’ve got to decide one way or the other. Who is Jesus?”

Well, maybe he didn’t say that exactly. I was fifteen. I don’t remember what he said, just that he said it. His words struck home. I left that Burger King convicted. And my life changed. Not over night. Not perfectly. But significantly, nonetheless. That’s the day I chose to follow Jesus. That’s the day I stopped going to church and started living my Faith.

I went from that meeting to Bible study to leading Bible studies in college, to work at a Christian Summer camp, to part-time youth ministry, to full-time youth ministry, to seminary, to the priesthood to planting Grace Church in San Antonio. All because of the difference one man made in my life. All because Jesus showed up, looking like a guy who hung wallpaper for a living so he would have time to pursue his ministry of sharing the gospel with arrogant teenagers. All because of that one question.

Whine In the Desert

“Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink” (Numbers 20:4-5).

Really? Pomegranates? God sets Israel free from slavery and this is what they miss, a fruit so backward  you eat only the seeds? But in Ancient Egypt, the pomegranate was a symbol of prosperity. Maybe even as slaves they prospered. Or hoped to prosper. Even in prison, someone gets to be the trustee.

This is why it is so hard to leave. We grow comfortable, even in misery.

This is why it is hard to leave that job where you are over-worked, under-paid and unappreciated.

This is why it is hard to leave that destructive relationship.

This is why it is so freaking hard to walk away from the comfortable way of dying into the difficult way of living.

Because the desert is hard. The desert has always been hard. The desert will always be hard. It is, after all, a desert.

Yet remember where we are in the story. God has just released the captives, He has freed the slaves. Yahweh, the Lord God Almighty, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has walked before them in a pillar of fire and behind them in a pillar of cloud. He has protected them from the might of Pharaoh’s army. He has led them through a watery grave into a new life on the way to the promised land.

But they are not there yet. First, the desert.

So what do the Israelites do? They complain. They moan. They whine in the desert. The biblical word is “murmur”. They murmur against the Lord.

“Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt?” (Ex 14:11).

“Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Ex 16:3).

Personally, I don’t know about the “meat pots”. Sounds a little bit like a Golden Corral all-you-can-eat buffet of Spam and corned-beef hash. But hey, whatever works for you. But I do know about the murmuring. The murmuring sounds familiar. The murmuring sounds like us.

“This is what sobriety is like? All work and no play? My friends are gone, my social life is gone, my understanding of me is gone. And all I want, every second, with every fiber of my being is to _______________ (fill in your drug of choice – shop, spend, work, drink, eat, and on and on, ad infinitum).”

“Sure I hated myself when I was with him. He cheated and lied and tore me down. He promised things would change, but they never did. So I finally sucked up the courage to leave. And this is what I get? An empty apartment? A big bowl full of nothing? Maybe even a bad relationship is better than no relationship at all.”

“Before I quit, at least I had a paycheck. Not much of one, sure. But it was something. I put up with a lot, for a long time, and I should have left that office years ago. It’s funny, but the treatment I put up with from my boss I would never put up with from my wife. But at least I had a job to go to every day.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again. Our God is not a magician who waves a wand and makes everything okay. God frees us, yes he does (and has and will again, no doubt). God offers us the promised land. But He leads us through the desert.

God never promises to make your life all peaches and cream, or even mashed potatoes and cream gravy. He promises to be with you in the desert (Mt 28:20). He promises to bring you through the desert (Heb 13:5-6). He has even been in the desert (Mk 1:12). But God never, ever promises to help us avoid the desert.

God does not lead us around the desert. God leads us through the desert. Because that is the only way to the promised land. Except for the desert, there would be no promised land. Except for Good Friday, there would be no Easter. Except for the cross, no empty tomb. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

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