Archive for the month “November, 2013”

Holy Hooters: A Church for Men

In the face of declining membership, some mainline churches are getting their creative juices flowing in an effort to attract the unchurched.  Inspired by Church-in-a-Pub, where beers mix with Bible texts, and Crown shots with Communion glasses, a church in Houston has conceived a radical idea for putting a smile on men’s faces when they think of worship:  Church at Hooters.

The brainchild of John Hanson, Outreach Director at Christ Community Church in the Houston suburbs, Church at Hooters has received a two-thumbs up from male worshipers.  “The church is not a building.” Hanson said, “It’s where God hangs out.  We’re just trying to be like Jesus, taking the Word to where the people are.”  When asked, “Why Hooters?” Hanson responded, “We’re just trying to keep abreast of the times.”

Worshiper Jim Beerson is downright smitten with this innovation in worship.  “You know,” he said as he smiled at the buxom waitress topping off his Bud, “this way I can connect with God and creation all at the same time.  It’s a First Article kind of church.”

Hanson shrugs off criticism that some men might be at Hooters for something other than the Word.  “People come to this church for all kinds of reasons,” he said.  “So some are here for the wings and breasts.  Who cares?  They’re here and that’s all that matters.”

When asked what she thought of this nontraditional way of worship, waitress Crystal Watts replied, “It’s kind of funny, you know.  Besides some of the guys having Bibles, it’s really just like any other night at Hooters.”

*Disclaimer:  for those of you who tend to take things literally, this article is satire.  At least for now it is.)

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If you enjoy my writings, please consider purchasing my newly published book, The Infant Priest:  Hymns and Poems.  This poetry gives voice to the InfantPriestfrontcovertriumphs and tragedies of life in a broken world.  Whether you weep, rejoice, struggle, or hope, through these hymns and poems you can speak to God with honesty and fidelity.  By buying a copy, you will also aid mission work, for 25% of the proceeds from book sales go to benefit Lutherans in Africa.  Click here to purchase your copy.  Thanks!

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God Doesn’t Celebrate Thanksgiving: A Turkey Day Reflection

It seems a bit strange that many of us will stuff our mouths this week with a bird whose life preaches against us.  For consider the turkeys, which neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.   Turkeys don’t worry, don’t horde, don’t complain.  turkeyfaceThe eyes of all turkeys wait upon You, O Lord, for You give them their food in due season; You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.  Yet here we are – our eyes waiting upon the next paycheck, waiting upon the next promotion, waiting upon Wall Street to rise and fall, waiting upon everything but You, O Lord.  So before you swallow that bite of turkey, remember that you eat a creature that surpasses you in piety.  Eat, yes, but season your turkey with the ashes of repentance as it preaches just how little your faith is, just how little you trust God, just how little you believe the Father is good to you.

And if that isn’t enough to call you to repentance, think of how not only does an animal with the pea-sized brain show you how utterly sinful you are, even brainless flowers are closer to how God intends them to be than you are.  For “consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”  Roses are red, violets are blue, colored by God, preaching to you.  Preaching – that you might confess that, at heart, you really don’t believe God wants nothing but the best for you; that daily you doubt His goodness; and that when, push comes to shove, you fear, love, and trust in just about everything more than God.  Heed those preaching flowers; heed, confess, and believe.

Believe, O sinner, that the mercies of almighty God, our heavenly Father, are new unto us every morning; believe that though we have in no wise deserved His goodness, He abundantly provides for all our wants of body and soul.  For He does, and He has, and He will.

God doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving.  He has no one to thank for the earth is the Lord’s and all it contains.  He receives nothing as gift.  Rather, He is gift. He is Giver.  God gives, we receive, and that is the sum of all reality.

Without being asked, certainly without being pressured, He floods every individual, every city, every nation of this world with gifts beyond telling.  “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all this is within me, bless His holy Name,” for all that is within me is a gift.  My body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses.  Food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, family, and on and on it goes, ever millionth of a second a million gifts received.

Do you doubt it?  Do you think that He who has given you His own Son will now withhold anything from you that you need, that is good for you?  He who delivered up His own Son to pay for your unbelief, will He do bad things to you now that He has made you a believer?  He who found you when you sought Him not, who saved you when you wanted Him not, who embraced you when you fled from His arms, will He now roll you up in a ball and cast you away as unwanted garbage?  No, a thousand times no, for He rejoices over you as a groom over His bride, He loves you as a father loves His child, He tenderly cares for you as a mother does her nursing infant.

If God so cares for turkeys, and if your Father so beautifully clothes flowers, He will most certainly clothe you with the garments of salvation and cover you with the robe of righteousness.  Indeed, He has.  He has wrapped around your body and soul the coat of His Son.  The robe of His faithful life and bloody death has been made your own.  If Joseph had his coat of many colors, then you have the coat of only two colors – white for the purity of Jesus and red for His blood.  And no jealous brothers will steal it from you.  No Potiphar’s wife will rip it from you.  He who hung naked on the cross for you will let no man or woman, no devil or false prophet, no temptation or trial, not even death with all its fury – none of them will remove from you the red and white coat of Jesus’ blood and righteousness, the robe that gives you access to the wedding feast of the King of kings.

It is truly meet, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places gives thanks to the Father, but today we do so quite intentionally and nationally.  We give thanks to the Father that He cares enough for us to use even a turkey and flowers to call us to repentance, to teach us faith, and to say once again, “Lo, I am with you always, and I love you always, and always and forever you are my beloved, my own, mine, all mine.”  Yes, thanks be to God!

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If you enjoy my writings, please consider purchasing my newly published book, The Infant Priest:  Hymns and Poems.  This poetry gives voice to the InfantPriestfrontcovertriumphs and tragedies of life in a broken world.  Whether you weep, rejoice, struggle, or hope, through these hymns and poems you can speak to God with honesty and fidelity.  By buying a copy, you will also aid mission work, for 25% of the proceeds from book sales go to benefit Lutherans in Africa.  Click here to purchase your copy.  Thanks!

Norman Rockwell’s Nightmare: The Screwed Up Biblical Family

Take my hand and let’s go for a brief stroll through the rose gardens of that sweetest and most touching of personal histories: the biblical family.

Take a look at Lot’s family. They called home the town with the name that afterward became inextricably linked to anal sex.  Before they hightailed it out of Sodom, a mob amassed to sexually assault two newcomers whom Lot was housing for the night.  But this gracious host, in paternal love, offered up his two daughters for gang rape instead.  A true candidate for father of the year, this dad.   Later, as they hid in a cave, nostalgic mom having become a salt pillar, the girls got father wasted, had sex with him, and nine months later Lot cradled two incestuous (grand)sons in his arms.

But that’s only the beginning.  There is Abraham, husband of gorgeous Sarah, who cons all Egypt into thinking she’s his sister, lest they slit his throat and bed her. And sweet Sarah, so at her wits’ end with infertility, arranges a hook-up between Abe and her servant, then winds up despising both the mother and child, and ditching them to die in the desert for all she cares.  Old Abe again, obviously no candidate for Viagra, fathers yet more kids with a second wife and the concubining co-wives he kept on the side.

There is Mr. Honesty himself, Jacob, who marries two jealous sisters, both of whom spend the rest of their lives attempting to out-pregnant each another. So zealous are they that they send in pinch hitters, their servant girls, to score some home-run babies for the team.  Jacob’s oldest son, Reuben, rolled in the hay with one of these baby-makers, thus having sex with his half-brothers’ mom.  And speaking of these brothers, so deep was their disgust and envy of the younger brother, Joseph, that they came nigh to murdering him outright.  Instead, in brotherly compassion, they only tossed him into a well and sold him into slavery to the first travelers who happened by.

And then there is David’s family. Oy vey!  This peeping Tom, ogling the beloved wife of one of his soldiers, summons her to the royal bedroom so he can have his way with her.  She winds up pregnant, so David, all sweetness and light, gives the husband a vacation from the war to make it all appear legit.  But the husband, semper fi to his brothers still deployed, keeps it zipped; he won’t enjoy the pleasures of which his comrades are deprived.  So David, flexing his regal muscles, arranges a murderous “accident” on the battlefield.  Then being the gracious and compassionate king he is, makes the grieving widow one of his crowd of wives. Despite David’s subsequent repentance, his family is royally screwed ever after. The baby conceived in adultery dies.  A brother rapes his half-sister, and is slain in revenge by her brother, Absalom. Later Absalom stages a coup against his father, has triumphant coitus with all his dad’s concubines, and is subsequently defeated and executed.

Shall I take the time to mention the prophet whom the Lord told to marry a whore? The Levite who gave over his concubine to such a violent gang rape that she died on his doorstep, and whom he afterwards dismembered? How Judah’s daughter-in-law tricked him into thinking she was a prostitute, they had their tryst, and she became pregnant?  It’s all there in the Holy Bible.

I’m sure—indeed, I know—that these darker, nastier stories don’t tell the whole biblical truth. No doubt there were countless families who could have posed for a Norman Rockwell painting: loving, monogamous spouses; obedient children; siblings who got along. Thank God there were such families. And thank God that there still are.

But thank God also for these tales of horror, where men and women do the unspeakable to those whom they are called to love.  In these stories, lust and hatred and selfishness and revenge and spite and apathy and every other vile emotion of man pits husband against wife, child against parent, brother against brother. There is no whitewashing of evil within the biblical family. The sheer fact that it is recorded, that of all the events in these people’s lives, these were chosen to be chiseled into the stone of the church’s remembrance, tells us something.

normanrockwellthanksgivingIt tell us—it tells me, anyway—that even though I’m dragging around the skeletons of two failed marriages; that even though I have screwed up in ways of biblical proportions; that even though I have acted out of lust and hatred and selfishness and revenge and spite and apathy and every other vile emotion of man, I know a God who takes pity on such men. Amazingly, he has been known to forgive them, to use them in his kingdom, why, even to publish their writings. How like God to have Israel and the church sing so many songs by one whom most remember as an infamous adulterer and murderer, but whom God remembers as a son and heir of heaven.

Are you from, part of, or the cause of a screwed up family? Take heart. God paints his own family portraits. And he’s quite willing to include you in the picture.

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If you enjoy my writings, please consider purchasing my newly published book, The Infant Priest:  Hymns and Poems.  This poetry gives voice to the triumphs and tragedies of life in a broken world.  Whether you weep, rejoice, struggle, or hope, through these hymns and poems you can speak to God with honesty and fidelity.  By buying a copy, you will also aid mission work, for 25% of the proceeds from book sales go to benefit Lutherans in Africa.  Click here to purchase your copy.  Thanks!

A Bad Haircut, Breaking Bad, and the Monogamous Truth

It all started with a bad haircut.  The girls at Supercuts had been doing an A+ job on my rather unchallenging haircut for years.  But as I sat in the chair one afternoon, eyeing a heavily tattooed gal buzz to and fro atop my head, I decided it looked so easy that I could do the same at home. So the next weekend my children were with me, I planted myself in a back porch chair, placed in my daughter’s hand a newly purchased pair of clippers, and let her go at it.  At first, all went as right as rain.  As the more challenging task of trimming over the ears presented itself, I reassured my daughter, “You can do this.  Just take it slow and easy.”  So the #2 guard popped off.  I sat statue-still.  And the bzzzz of the clippers neared my ear. 

 

A few seconds later, my daughter uttered that most momentous of words, “Whoops…”  My son, who’d been a spectator to all this, slapped his hand to his mouth.  And I, who but a few minutes before had been calculating how much cash I’d be saving over the next few months, ran to the nearest mirror, threw on a baseball cap, and hightailed it to Supercuts.  Grinning rather sheepishly, I pulled off the cap to reveal to my tattooed hairdresser the quarter-sized bald spot on the side of my scalp.  When I showed up to work on Monday, sporting my usual goatee and the new look of a virtually shaved head, one of my coworkers hollered, “Hey, Heisenberg!”  And that, dear reader, is how I was introduced to the award-winning series, “Breaking Bad.”

Heisenberg, as I was to discover, was the street name chosen by Walter White, who is the high school chemistry teacher turned meth cook in “Breaking Bad.”  Early in the show, the goateed “Heisenberg” shaves his head, thus the inspiration for my coworker’s nickname for me.  His reasons for the radical haircut, however, were worlds different from my own.  Walt is fighting lung cancer.  And since the chemo is already leading to hair loss, he pulls out the clippers and razor one morning to hasten the inevitable.

As I sat spellbound, episode after episode, season after season, I beheld the transformation of a man.  Without revealing too much, lest some of you have yet to watch the show, among the array of changes in Walt, the one that most captivated me was his gradual acclimation to the lie.  Not only did falsehoods ripple outward to permeate his whole life, he also improved at telling lies.  At first, he bungles it.  But over time, practice making perfect, he can lie with the best of them.  Indeed, it becomes second nature for him, for his whole life is steeped in a masquerade of mendacity.

The lie is a seductive lover, as Walt discovered, and as I discovered at a point in my life as well.  It harnesses a host of emotions, everything from fear to our deep-seated desire for happiness, and uses them to create phantom realities to which we desperately cling.  We turn to the consolation of the lie when confronted with truth so painful, so frightening, we don’t want to face it.  How many children have slipped farther and farther into darkness because parents hid their heads in the sands of the lie that this was just a rebellious phase they’re going through and they’ll be back on the straight and narrow soon enough?  How many marriages have gone from sick to dead to rotting while one or both spouses clung to the lie that somehow, someday, things would work themselves out and love and fidelity would magically return?  The lie is a physician who calls lung cancer a chest cold, who keeps pumping meds into a body with no beating heart. For the lie pretends to put the best construction on everything. 

The lie is not only a seductive lover; it’s also realistic and crafty.  It knows that it can’t have all of you at first, so it’s willing to share you with truth, at least for the time being.  In fact, the lie is agreeable to a ménage à trois between you, the truth, and itself.  It puts itself out there as an open-minded, open-bedded lover.  The lie was fine with Walt having a secret life cooking meth, so long as he was doing it to make money for his pregnant wife and teenage son.  The lie is fine with the pastor who’s a closet alcoholic or porn addict or adulterer, so long as his teaching and preaching is in conformity with the Scriptures.  The lie is fine with a church the doctrine and practice of which is mostly in accord with the Bible, but which clings to a tiny bit of heresy or unbiblical practice here and there.  Why is the lie so free of jealousy?  It’s not.  It only pretends to be.  The lie is supremely patient.  It knows that, so long as it has a foothold in your life, it will steadily gain more ground.  So it bides its time.  Like a drop of dye dropped into a cup of water permeates the whole, so will falsehood gradually take over, until no aspect of your life is free of it.   

As beautiful as the truth is, as freeing and heavenly and perfect as it is, the truth is hard to love.  Unlike the lie, which seems so easygoing and flexible and understanding, the truth is intolerant of anything opposed to it.  She will share you with no lie.  Nothing short of your whole-hearted, whole-bodied affection does she demand.  It doesn’t matter if it’s in your public or private life, in the boardroom or in the bedroom, while the world is watching or while you’re all alone, the truth wants 100% of your attention.  She knows the seductive power of the lie.  She knows that, like herself, it wants all of you, but it goes about that complete conquest craftily.  And truth knows that the lie has an ally within you, that weak and self-serving nature slouching inside, one that is all-too-agreeable to the broad and easy road.   

But truth knows that the broad and easy road leads to ultimate destruction.  The lie decimates marriages, destroys careers, pollutes churches, corrupts officials, perverts pastors, and ultimately ushers its devotees into the yawning mouth of the fiery abyss.  Truth is the other side of love, and love will have none of that death for you.  The love of God compels him to compel you to a life of truth. As hard as the truth is to face, to love, and to remain faithful to, you will find only there a peace that is more than momentary.  For there you will find truth and love embodied in the man, Jesus, who gives you his all, and demands your all, that you may find in that unity of truth and love, a life really worth living.

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God: The Biggest Loser

Jacob’s having a family reunion tomorrow—a reunion with the brother who, for all Jacob knows, would still love to have his head on a platter, beside a bowl of steaming lentil soup, of course. A river is flowing between Jacob and his family. And the setting sun has left his world in shadow. Then and there, while he’s all alone, in the dark, and afraid the next day might be his last, God shows up, eager for a fight.

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“A man wrested with Jacob until daybreak.” A man. We privileged readers need only skim down a few verses to discover the ‘man’ was actually ‘God.’ Jacob had to fight all night to figure that one out. All he knew at the time was that a stranger attacked him under cover of darkness. So he fought, he fought tooth and nail. And by dawn, Jacob was still going strong. The only way the adversary ended the bout was by playing the divinity card. Sometimes it seems God doesn’t fight fair.

Here is the remarkable thing: not that God appeared as a man, not that he picked a fight with Jacob, but that God lost. The ant bested the elephant. Jacob whipped the Almighty. Even after the Lord dislocated Jacob’s hip, he held on with a bulldog grip. He outhit, outwrestled, outdid God.

And here is the even more remarkable thing: not that Jacob won the fight, but that God delighted to lose. No man likes to lose, to have his opponent claim victory over him. It matters not if the battle is over a woman, a job, a ballgame, or is just a barroom fist fight. The runner-up does not pat himself on the back for a job half-ass done. He may be a good sport about it, smile for the camera, congratulate the better man, but secretly he hates the loss and covets another chance at victory. So it is with man. So it is not with God. When it comes to fighting with his people, God is the biggest, and the happiest, loser.

For when God loses, we win; and when we win, God wins. The God who is last is the God who is first. He crowns Jacob with the laurel of a new name, Israel, a name that means, more or less, “I beat God.” I strove with God, I went fist to fist with the Maker of heaven and earth, and I emerged victorious.

For Christians, their odd God wins by losing. He lost to Israel more than once. Later he would lose much more than a wrestling match with his children; he would lose his life. He would fight with them much more than one night; he would struggle with them year after year, but finally they would prevail. They would not let him go, but would pin him down, hands, feet, everything. But when dawn broke after his loss, he would step forth to proclaim his people’s victory. And he would crown them with a new name, a new nature, a new life. And they would see, in the crucified and resurrected Jesus, God face to face.

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New Secret Documents Reveal the NSA May Have Been Spying for God

The most recent papers leaked by Edward Snowden have left Washington in a state of shock, and the church near paralysis.  The classified documents reveal that none other than God himself has access to your email accounts, Facebook messaging, bank account transactions, texts, phone calls, and possibly more.  An inside source confirmed that even the Pope’s personal Droid was tapped.  The beleaguered NSA has been implicated in this stunning breach of privacy.  Though details are still sketchy, it seems churchgoers in particular may have been targeted.

Senator Ron Wyden, who has been an outspoken critic of the NSA’s snooping, was incredulous.  ”My God,” he said on the Senate floor, ”is nothing sacred anymore?”

Repercussions have already surfaced in the lives of some victims of this purported joint God-NSA alliance.  Erwin Jones, a long time resident of Dallas, was served divorce papers last week by his wife when she found out that he’d been conducting more than business with his secretary during those long Tuesday night meetings.  Erwin blames the government agency, of course, but his most heated criticism is reserved for the Almighty.  ”Listen,” he said during a phone interview, ”I’ve been a member of the church my whole life, tithe faithfully, and attend Mass every chance I get.  I’ve paid my dues.  And this is the thanks I get?”  When asked whether this breach of trust had rattled his faith in the Lord, he said, ”Hell yes it has!  In fact, so much so that I’m seriously considering leaving the church to join the Episcopals.  At least their God has the decency to mind his own business.”

Where some see problems, however, other spy opportunities.  At Western Hills Family Church, Houston, TX, Pastor Dave reacted to the supposed pact between God and the NSA more optimistically.  ”People are really pissed at God about this.  I totally get that.  My concern is not how much or how little God or the government knows, but the people affected by this. I mean, that’s my calling, my ministry, to help them as they struggle through this.  I’m not some ivory tower theologian, all ‘God this and God that’ stuff.  My passion is people.”  To reach out to those affected by this scandal, Pastor Dave has launched a sermon series entitled, ”Finding Happiness Between Big Brother and Father God.”

General Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, brushed off questions from angry believers who feel their right-to-privacy has been violated.  ”We only do what we’re asked to do, people,” he said.  ”So if an order comes from above saying spy on this person, or intercept so-and-so’s emails, we do it.  No questions asked.”

Though he would not agree to an interview, the Almighty did respond that as the national conversation continued about his possible involvement with the NSA, he would certainly be listening.

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Kissing the Bride through Her Veil: The Barriers We Put Between the Bible and Us

I was in 2nd or 3rd grade when, in addition to roping steers and wiping out the local sparrow population with my slingshot, memorizing the first chapter of the Bible became my fixation. (Yes, I’ve always had an above-average portion of the inner nerd.) Being a King James kind of kid, words like firmament, winged, and creepeth tumbled off my southern tongue as I chiseled the chapter into my memory. When I’d accomplished my goal, my pastor caught wind of what I’d done, and I soon found myself front and center one Sunday morning, rattling off the account of creation like an underage rabbi in Southern Baptist garb.

Do you ever want to go back in time, not to meet some famous person, or to experience some monumental event, but simply to meet the younger you? To rediscover some fire in you that once burned hot and bright, but has cooled through the passage of years to smoldering embers?

I wish I could tell you that my youthful devotion to the Scriptures only grew with me as I matured from a boy into a man. But the Bible and I have had an on-again off-again kind of relationship. Through the years, I suffered through moralizing Sunday school lessons and struggled through theologizing seminary courses; was both pupil and teacher in a boatload of Bible classes; and even penned a few articles and studies that, in one way or another, involved Holy Writ. You might think that, given all that time and effort I’ve invested in the Word, I must really love it. But the truth is that the Scriptures, like all of God’s gifts to me, easily fall prey to the contempt that familiarity breeds.

When I read books or articles that cite the Bible, I have a tendency to barely glance at the verses of Scripture the author quotes, as my eye hurries along to read what stunning insight the writer may have to share next. My mind says, “Oh, that’s just the Bible being quoted. Move along. Nothing I don’t already know.” I’ve noticed over the years, when Christians gather for “Bible Study” time, that actual study of the Scriptures takes a back seat to discussions of doctrinal issues, debates over ethical questions, sharing insights into relationship challenges, bashing the unorthodox, lamenting cultural trends, and a host of other issues, while Bibles sit on the tables open but unread, unstudied, unloved—props of piety not Scriptures for study. How many pastors, when prepping for their next sermon, spend as much time reading, meditating upon, and inwardly digesting the Scriptures as they do consulting commentaries, other sermons, Luther, the church fathers, or anyone else besides the inspired prophets of Christ?

Indeed, let it be said that there is much to be gained from reading books about the Bible, listening to scholars lecture concerning the Scriptures, discussing matters related to the inspired text. But no matter how scintillating the author or how insightful the book, when we detach ourselves from intimate, direct contact with the holy Scriptures, we are kissing the bride through the veil.

We need skin-to-skin contact with those sacred words. I do. We all do. So if you’re like I am, and have let your love for the Scriptures grow lukewarm, if not cold; if you find yourself, like a bored husband, ogling others while the beautiful biblical bride stands right before your eyes; if you discover that you’re looking everywhere but the Scriptures themselves to find out what God wants or says or demands or offers; then
     lift the veil that separates the two of you,
     put your lips to the sacred words once more
     and taste and see that the Lord is good.

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Heaven for Atheists

An atheist asked his Christian friend, “What’s so great about heaven?”

“Well,” he said, “I don’t know where to start, since everything’s great about heaven. It’s beautiful, to begin with. Streets of gold and pearly gates. Just takes your breath away. And there won’t be any hospitals or morgues there because, once we get into heaven, we’re all done getting sick and dying. You also get to be reunited with folks who’ve died, like your parents and grandparents and old friends. I can’t wait for that. And get this, even if there’s somebody there you didn’t really get along with in this life, no worries, because everybody is fine with everybody else in heaven. And of course, there’s the angels, and what’s there not to like about angels? There’s simply nothing but beauty and goodness and happiness there.”

The atheist mulled this over for a few seconds and said, “You know, that does all sound great. In fact, for one important reason, it sounds like just the place I’d like to be.”

The Christian, surprised, asked, “Really, why’s that?”

The atheist said, “You didn’t mention God. Now that’s my kind of heaven.”

Peel back the outward layers of churchiness, stick a microphone to heart of hearts of Christians, and ask, ”Why do you really want to go to heaven?” The answer, “to be with Jesus” will, I suspect, be low on the list, if it makes the cut at all. Give most people a choice between being with God in a one-room shack beside a cornfield in Iowa or and being without God in a mansion beside the beach on an island paradise, and the majority would be packing shorts and bikinis for the hereafter. It’s all about the destination, baby. Folks are dying to get there, whether God’s in heaven or not. So if you ever wonder just how much Christ is really in your Christianity, ask yourself whether being with him is the principle, all-embracing reason you desire to be in heaven. If it’s not, let’s think about why.

A few years ago, when I was going through a separation that led finally to divorce, I was also separated from my two children by a thousand miles. On my daughter’s birthday I wasn’t there. Months went by between visits. I would talk to them on the phone, but my son, who was only six, wasn’t much of a talker. And even though my daughter and I would speak, sometimes our conversations seemed only to make the separation more tortuous. I wanted to talk to my children face-to-face, to be with them, to touch them. The distance was emotionally debilitating. Choose whatever verb you wish—I craved, yearned, longed, ached, thirsted, hungered—to be with my son, my daughter, for they were all I had to live for. They were my life.

There’s a verse in the book of Psalms where David says, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living, God! When shall I come and appear before God?” (42:1-2). The closest I’ve ever come to experiencing an ache as intense as David’s was when I couldn’t be with the two people in the world that meant the most to me, that were my world. Love that intense creates a thirst that can only be quenched by being with the one you love. There are no substitutes.

To the extent that we love Jesus in this life, to that same extent we long to be with him in the life to come. It’s as simple as that. We don’t miss people we don’t love. Nor do we truly love people we don’t miss. The reason that anyone would choose a heaven without Jesus, or happiness without Jesus, or healing without Jesus, is because he doesn’t mean that much to them to begin with. He may be useful as a divine tool, if you will, to manipulate into getting what we want, when we want it. We become God-users. We use him to get into heaven, where what we really want awaits us: a life free from all the crap we have to put up with here, and full of all the stuff we think will make us happy here on earth. We never stop to consider that we fantasize about a heaven where atheists will be just as at home walking down those golden streets as anyone, for Jesus has become a disposable Lord.

A few Sundays ago, we were singing a song in church that I’ve sung a thousand times. But for the first time, I truly heard these lines:

Earth has no pleasure I would share,
Yea, heav’n itself were void and bare
If Thou, Lord, were not near me.

As happens so often, I realized that the words spoken by my mouth did not match the thoughts whispered by my heart. Would heaven really be “void and bare” to me if Jesus were not “near me”? Do I honestly have “no pleasure” in the pleasures of earth if the Lord is not “near me”? I may have been singing the hymn with gusto, but not honesty. The reason is found in the opening line of the hymn: “Lord, Thee I love with all my heart,” but, even on my best days, were I to sing honestly, I would say, “Lord, Thee I love with half my heart. The world has claimed the other part.”

David depicted his thirst for God as a deer panting for streams of water. I know what it’s like to thirst for the presence of a person I love, but I’m still learning what it means for my soul to crave God. Show me what that means, Lord. Surround my Jericho heart and shout heaven’s shout, that the walls may come tumbling down. Everything that stands in the way of a life wholly devoted to you, raze and replace. Create a clean heart in me—clean of pleasures that bring you pain, clean of idols that make you jealous, clean of desires that you desire not. And in this clean heart, teach me true love for you, thankfulness for your nearness to me on earth, but a thirst for your full presence in heaven—a heaven that is truly heaven for only one reason: because you are there.

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