Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Great Commandments Prayer Model

My current sermon series is focused on offering realistic guides to improving the prayer life of people who feel that it is important. The last sermon was on models of prayer. It was grounded in the model of prayer Jesus taught the crowds on the side of mountain and taught the disciples when they asked. We have come to call this The Lord's Prayer. And it is repeated throughout churches and homes on a regular basis.

I drew the implication out of what Jesus says in those passages relevant to the prayer (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:1-4) that this was not THE prayer that followers were to pray, but a model to prayer. That is my take on that passage. It can be read in the sense that this was the prayer that they were supposed to pray. The disciples seemed to take it that way and commend early Christians to pray that same prayer (plus the line "for yours is the power and glory forever) three times a day.

The point I wanted to make is that models of prayer are useful guides in entering our prayer times. They focus us on God and make the most use of the time that we spend there in the throne room of God.

I pulled together some models of prayer that I have heard taught through my years of faith journeying. A.C.T.S., P.R.A.Y., the Hand Prayer, the Jesus Prayer, Breath Prayers. I printed them out on sheets of paper and offered them to the congregation to use in their own times of praying. But there was one that I offered that I have never encountered before. I saw the potential of a very critical piece of Christian life as the inspiration for a model of prayer.

By the way: if anyone finds where this has been done, I will gladly renounce any claim to this being an original idea.

The Great Commandments
Jesus is asked, "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40, NIV)

In this dialogue, Jesus identifies three centers of love - God, neighbor, and self. 

Loving God requires a surrender of the whole self, not just a partial self commitment. Heart, soul, and mind (Mark and Luke also include body in this line of thought) are all the components of self. To be obedient to the Law means to bring the full self into alignment with God through obedience, devotion, and faithfulness.

Loving your neighbor is not a matter of obedience, but it is a matter of respect. Jesus is pulling both of these commandments straight from Old Testament Law. Leviticus 19 lays out a set of ethical conditions based upon relationship between people. Faithfulness to God required that those who loved God would treat others with respect. Devotion and faithfulness to another is still implicit in this commandment. We are not to turn our back on our neighbor. To do so would violate the custom and culture of hospitality. 

Luke's gospel (which puts these commandments in the mouth of a Mosaic law expert) expands on the understanding of neighbor. The parable, famously known as The Good Samaritan, expands neighbor to include not only those who are like us in nationality, language, custom, or religion but also includes those not like us in these ways. The Samaritan is the good neighbor to the Judean who was left beaten and abandoned on the side of the road. Extending hospitality as custom and culture required is not limited only to the person who has lived next to you for decades. It also includes those who have no home, who have a different language or culture. It includes the beaten and the abandoned. 

The final class of people we are to love is ourselves. It would be very easy to say that Jesus is teaching that we should not be selfish. That is part of the the greater understanding of the way of life Jesus led as an example. But there is also the understanding that if we don't love ourself in a healthy way, we cannot truly love our neighbor or God. If we don't respect our own heart, mind, soul, or body, then how can we treat others with hospitality in those same areas of self? If we don't know our own heart, soul, mind, and body well enough to care for them, then we are not bringing our whole self to love God in a healthy way. 

In the process of examining the three commandments, I began to see a model of prayer that could be used to guide us into loving God, others, and ourselves in healthy ways.

The Great Commandment Prayer model
Any prayer should begin with God. In this model, we turn our attention to love of God. It helps to keep heart, mind, soul, and body in the back of our head as we are praying in this way. The focus of this prayer of loving God would include:
  • Surrender our whole self to God - our hurts and joys, our thought patterns, our personality, our desires
  • Seek God's wisdom and will above our own
  • Listen for God's leading by quieting our mind and heart
  • Confess the true sins we have committed against God and others
Once we have moved through the areas of this prayer, we are able to shift our focus toward others. We begin by offering those confessions of true sins in the previous area of prayer as a promise to act upon that confession and seek forgiveness in the ways we have treated others. We can also bring the needs and concerns of others into our prayer focus. As we lift others, we need to keep in mind that loving others is not just about those we know deeply and intimately. Jesus commanded the disciples to love four types of people: one another, neighbor who are like you, neighbors to the stranger, and enemies. So a practical application to prayer in this regard would be:
  • Lift the confessions, seeking of forgiveness, and needs or concerns of family, friends, church members;
  • Lift the confessions, seeking of forgiveness, and needs or concerns of the people who live around us and work around us;
  • Lift the confessions, seeking of forgiveness, and needs or concerns of strangers and people we don't know personally (politicians, random people we hear about through our day, the people in news stories, etc.);
  • Lift the confessions, seeking of forgiveness, and needs or concerns of enemies or people who have or wish to hurt us.
It seems like a lot when it is broken out that way. But it really is bringing the teaching of Jesus on who we are to love in line with the commandment to love our "neighbor" as ourselves.

Finally, we turn our attention to our own life. We pray with attention toward the complete self:
  • heart - pray for our hurts and joys, our feelings toward God and others;
  • mind - we seek to fill our minds with the Word of God and meditate upon it;
  • soul - we bring our faith, hope, joy before God and ask for their revealing to us and strengthening;
  • body - we bring our needs, wants, and desires to God and humbly ask for their fulfilling.
 Like I said, I don't know if this is original. And I know it is a little cumbersome. It isn't easy to remember all of those. And this is definitely not a cute little acrostic that we just keep in our back pocket and pull out when we want to pray. But I believe that it is something that we can implement over time with discipline and practice. It is a model for a true quiet time of prayer. It isn't a model to just toss up while driving down the road (don't pray that way any way!).

It is something that could be done over the course of the day. The prayers of loving God could begin our daily journey. Praying during the course of the day for others could happen at any time. It would be effective, especially, at times when someone is brought to our attention. Finally, we take time at the end of the day to bring our life with its ups and downs, successes and failures, and put our whole life before God.

Below you will find the outline that I printed out on a quarter sheet of paper. It will basically fit on a 5x8 index card or 3x5 with a little shrinking.

Maybe you will find it useful as you seek to improve your praying life. 

Great Commandments Prayer
Love God -
Surrender to God - Seek God’s wisdom and will
Listen for God’s leading - Confess true sins
Love Others -
Family and friends
Neighbors and co-workers
Strangers, government
Enemies, those who would do harm
Love Self -
Heart - feelings toward God and others
Mind - focus on the Word of God
Soul - bring your faith, hope, joy, peace into prayer
Body - seek God’s provision for your needs

Monday, January 30, 2017

My Isolated Opinion

I have been dumbfounded over the turn of events in the last few days. This weekend saw the unfolding of a dramatic political catastrophe as President Trump issued an executive order halting refugees and immigrants from certain nations. There are various stipulations and exceptions included, as is the case with most actions of government officials. But the issuance of the executive order has led to the most chaotic of weekends.

The primary means of entrance to the United States for refugees and immigrants is by air. The international ports of entry have been doing the job of following the order the President has executed. That has turned the major entry port airports of the nation into hubs of chaos, protest, and confusion. Those persons and families that were leaving their country of origin when the ban went into effect were not allowed to fly to the U.S. Those who were on planes and landed were denied entrance and detained or were forced to return to their country of origin. Some who were detained were allowed to enter, finally. Others are still being held.

Added to this chaos was the arrival of protesters who filled the arrival areas of airports. There were chants and signage decrying the injustice that was being carried out. Attorneys were mixed in with the protesters offering services to families of detained individuals. This all was added to the mix of regular travelers deplaning. The images from media and social networks were clusters of people crowded into the arrival areas.

As I have sat and absorbed all that has been happening, I realized a few things.

First, this is wrong. This is injustice. This is turning our back on people in the name of fear. This is rejecting people because of their nationality. This is pointing at someone and saying they are not worthy of our help or the opportunities available to all. They are being shunned because they are from a place in the world where bad people have done bad things and we don't want those kind of people here. The sad reality is that many (or more likely most) of those who are being turned away had those bad things by bad people done to them. They are leaving their homeland. They are leaving the life they have built for themselves. They are abandoning everything that was important to them 2, 5, 10 years ago.

Ask yourself this question: what would it take to make you give up your home, your social circles, your possessions and move to another nation? Not only that, but imagine that you are leaving your homeland to move to a place where the popular opinion of that new land is less than welcoming of your race or nationality or religion? What would it take to force you out of your home and into the arms of a land that didn't want you? That is what these people are facing when they decide to come here. They wanted to find an opportunity at a better life. They wanted to find a place where they could live in freedom and peace.

And this is what they are greeted by:
  • Guards in uniforms barred access to the land of the free.
  • Crowds of people shouting and yelling in a language that may not be easily understood. 
  • People offering to "help them" with their situation.
  • A President who has labelled them as "detrimental to the interests of the United States".
In the 1800's the family of my father chose to leave Germany. There were economic problems. There had been wars and political unrest. There were droughts and people lost their only way to produce enough food for their families. The new frontiers of the United States were an opportunity to make a new start. They sold all they had and bought passage to the United States. Little did they know that they would be rejected because of their religious affiliation. They would be associated, along with Irish immigrants, of being to blame for any imagined hardship that their neighbors experienced.

My heart is broken at the way that our President, his staff, and many of his supporters are talking about these people who want a new start in their lives.

Second, after a conversation through Facebook posts, I realize that I am not informed enough or intelligent enough or wise enough to speak into the debates that are raging. My worldview and opinion are too narrow to be of any use in contributing to the noise. I don't have the means to sway others to see my point of view. I am not articulate enough to express how I see this playing out. So I am left with the option to isolate myself on this position.That is why this little corner of the internet exists: for me to play out my opinions and ideas, isolated from the mainstream of thought.

I don't think this was a smart play by the administration. Issuing an executive order that is Constitutionally questionable that led into chaos at one of our weakest infrastructure points while sullying the nations reputation seems to be bad administering of the office of President. There is the possibility that due process has been violated. There is the real threat that this has led to airports becoming even more vulnerable as a soft target and opened them to some type of attack. The nation that has prided itself on being welcoming and offering a life of freedom and opportunity has stubbed its proverbial toe.

We are being represented as isolationist, xenophobes, racist, and bigoted. And that is only from our friendly nations. I am not a nationalist. I am afforded luxury and freedom to do things that would not be available in other places. But I am not sold to the idea that the United States is the perfect representation of all that is dear in life. I reserve that level of devotion and allegiance to a greater Kingdom. And the rules of that Kingdom dictate that this is a horrible injustice before God and the rule of love.

The Kingdom of God is portrayed as a mountain in the Old Testament. It is represented as standing so that the nations can look to it, move toward it, climb to the heights that it offers, and experience the fruit of its existence. Zionists have taken this to mean that Israel is that mountain. But for Christians, we should understand that when Jesus Christ came to proclaim the Kingdom was at hand, this was the mountain that was prophesied. The Kingdom is open to any who would seek it. Jesus offered the fruit of the Kingdom to Judeans as well as Samaritans and Gentiles and Romans. He offered the fruit of the Kingdom to any who would seek it out. He offered it without condemnation for their sins or justification for his superiority. He offered it without expecting thanks or receiving payment.

For everyone who believes that the United States is "one nation under God", then it is time to get yourself in line with the Kingdom. It is time to put your xenophobic, racist, bigoted ways behind you and recognize that skin tone or nationality or even religion is a barrier to God's nation.

But do you really want to know what chaps my hide? It is this:
The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law. In addition, the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including "honor" killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.
That is so hypocritical. First, we cannot admit those who do not support the Constitution? Due process is the interference of the pursuit of life, liberty, and property. Where, Mr. President is your support of the Constitution by denying people the right to due process under the Constitution?

Second, the United States cannot support those who would place violent ideologies over American Law? It must be okay for people to be violent in their ideologies as long as it supports your agendas or your popularity, then. If they are violent and citizens of these peaceful United States, then we can allow them to plan and perpetrate acts based on violent ideologies? And the next line, as long as they are engaging in acts of bigotry and hatred, they get an excused?

My guess is that you are clearing the way for your Muslim registration act. This would give the precedence to ignore due process, and allow for the creation of a registry of individuals based solely on their religion, without regard to their citizenship status.

I'm not angry. I'm not ranting. I am tired of being accused of being complicit in these acts of injustice just because evangelical Christians supported the election of President Trump by a large majority. I have become so turned off to the evangelical movement that I do not want to be associated with them in any way. If that means that I must be labeled, then label me. But I am fed up with being accused of being some sycophant just because I hold a more traditional view of my religion. I am sick and tired of being blamed for the chaos that has been wrought in just one week of the Trump presidency. And I do not want to be associated with this act of injustice.

But you know what? I have to be. I have to be associated with it because he IS the President of my nation of origin and citizenship. I have to be associated with everything that is happening because I have a vested interest in this nation. But that does not mean I need to bow my head to his seat of power or raise empty platitudes of what a good job he may do. The man is proving his incompetence for the position which he has been granted.

But I'm not learned enough to speak with authority in this regard. And I am not intelligent enough to properly critique what is happening. So I have chosen to let my ignorance show in this inarticulate place of the internet.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

This daily bread

I am sitting here working through the Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6. It is the foundation for my sermon Sunday. I am cruising along doing some work in Greek (yes, I still have a little functionality in the language). I am working down through some alternate translations to squeak out subtle meaning that is lost in the rote recitation we sometimes fall into. There is some interesting things for study and preaching. The one thing that is stopping me to write this is one little word: epiousios.

The familiar phrase is "give us this day our daily bread". Every word in that phrase is common and easily understood except for epiousios - daily. All my life I have visualized and understood this phrase to mean that God is providential to the level of taking care of our daily needs. And it is a refreshing thought to know that our creating God is also compassionate toward our insignificant needs of daily providing. That is the kind of God we have.

The word, though, is strange. It appears to be a unique word to Matthew and Luke. Not just in the Bible, either. It seems that this word is unique in the Koine Greek language of the contemporaries of the Gospel. Origen, an early Christian theologian from around the 2nd/3rd Century, even attests that the word is unique in Greek language (Thayer's Expanded Greek Definition, Electronic Database.Copyright © 2002, 2003, 2006, 2011 by Biblesoft, Inc). That means that this word, most likely, does not just mean "daily". Other uses of "daily" are translated from kata, a preposition of direction or motion or diffusion. That word needs its own study. That means the only two uses of epiousios are in the Lord's prayer.

There are multiple suggestions for how to translate and interpret this word. Each changes the implication of the caring God slightly.
  1. Thayer's goes with the default understand of the "bread of sustaining." A bread that sustains us along the daily journeys we undertake.
  2. Thayer's also uses the understanding of "the bread that suffices from day to day." Each of these emphasizes the daily provision.
  3. Abbot-Smith offers three variations. The first is "bread for the coming day." It is not the bread of today, but the bread of tomorrow.
  4. Abbot-Smith's second variation is "bread of sustenance" or "needful bread". It is the bread necessary for life.
  5. The final variation Abbot-Smith offers is "bread pertaining to today." It is the bread that we have before us this day.
It is a real head scratcher. And it may seem insignificant in the grand picture of the Bible. But for me, it is challenging and reassuring.

This is challenging because we have a word in the New Testament that we don't know what it means with exact precision. For people who believe that every word of the Bible is written in cement and we know what God is about, this is not a problem. They don't seem to care that there are mysteries still to be dug up within the Bible. For people who believe that every word of the Bible was inspired into the minds of a writer, then this is fascinating. God inspired a writer to use a word that no one else was using. God inspired a writer to create or transform a word in order to declare something new.

It is reassuring that God is affirmed as the providing God. None of these translations take away from the God who sees our needs and provides. None of this undermines the work of God to bring something to us that will sustain us; whether today or tomorrow or day-by-day. God sustains us in the bread for each day's need that sustains us for every day. It is a bread that maybe some don't know they need. It is a bread that some may long and hunger for, yet cannot determine its source.

Perhaps it is a bread that you and I offer to the world at large. It is a bread we pray for in faith that God will provide, so we have it in supply. It is a bread that sustains life and we know that life is more than flesh and blood, mouth and stomach.

Perhaps it is the bread that sustains that accompanies the water that quenches thirst forevermore. It is not a sliced white bread or an ovenbaked flatbread. It is not even gluten filled or gluten free. It is a bread that begins to be formed within us on a daily basis when we turn our lives over to God in complete surrender. It is a bread that nourishes us through the days of our living from a Spirit that inhabits our lives. It is a bread that fills us with peace and hope and faith and joy because we know the Baker, the Savior, the Redeemer, the Healer, the Christ, the Son of God - Jesus.

Footnote: This was written in the midst of a spiritual winter. Today has been one of those days that being a pastor is less about what I can do and overwhelming about the knowledge that I can do nothing. Within the span of 3 hours I had been updated on 7 different lives that were experiencing stress. All of them were people I know. Some of them were family. Some of them were like family. All of them were experiencing pain and worry, anxiety and stress. And I can do nothing to help them. All I can do is pray.

Father God, Jesus my Lord, and Holy Spirit who brings life and order - give me and all those I hold in my heart this epiousios bread. Amen.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

E. Stanley Jones' Ladder of Prayer

I have spoken of my respect for E. Stanley Jones. I return to his sermons and writings often times when I am in need of wisdom or learning. He is my favorite theologian of the 20th Century.

In 1943, ESJ published a little booklet or large pamphlet, How To Pray. It is not long. It only takes about 15 or 20 minutes to read through attentively. It is very practical and down to earth, as was Jones' style. It is worth reading if you would like to transform your understanding of prayer.

Because I am preaching a series of sermons on Improving Our Praying Lives. I wanted to offer some practical guidance on how to pray more often or longer. Essentially, I wanted to offer something to people so they could get more out of their time of prayer.

ESJ's booklet has been one of my resources of study for this series. I didn't want to take his guidance and turn it around in my sermons. Instead, I have really distilled the information into my own offer of guidance. What he offers to praying people is worth sharing, though.

ESJ approaches the question of "How do we pray effectively?" He does so in three categories of steps. The first, the lowest rung of prayer as he calls it, involves the first step into prayer and the background thoughts to hold. The second category of lists are the positive steps toward or into effective prayer. The final category are the 9 steps of prayer.

I want to avoid any infraction of copyright infringement or misusing the "fair use" rules. I will not post the individual lists. That seems to be violating what is right and good. But I want to touch on the reflections of what Jones offers to the praying person.

"...a heart of religion has ceased to beat and religion becomes a dead body of forms and customs and dogmas." There are times when Jones sounds like the trumpeters of the Christian anti-religion movement I have spoken against. But he is not so far into the rejection of "religion" as a category of life, though. This statement draws the clearest line between understanding religion as a necessary part of living a life of faith and religion as a set of rules. Forms, customs, and dogmas that are dry and dead curse the church with irrelevance. For Jones, prayer is key to avoiding this curse.

"Lord teach me to pray" I wonder if the majority of Christians who struggle with prayer have ever made this the first thing that is said in times of prayer. Every day is a new opportunity to experience the eternal God. God is so far outside our frame of reference that knowing how to approach God in relationship is alien. Asking how to pray every time we pray seems to be courtesy to the greater God we wish to approach.

"Prayer is not bending God's will to our will." The reality is most of us in the American church have not matured beyond the early prayer forms we all learned. And many of those prayers emphasized "give us our needs" to the minimization of  all other aspects of prayer. And that has corrupted a very important teaching of Jesus on prayer. John 14:13-14, Jesus says, "And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it." That has inspired a path of disappointing prayer life. Effective prayer is not trying to convince God that our will is the answer. But we sometimes approach it that way. Effective prayer is knowing God's will well enough that when we pray, we are in tune with God's purposes.

There will be inevitable dry periods of prayer. Jones is very clear that there will be times when prayer is not energizing or rewarding. And that experience causes people to doubt the value of prayer, the strength of their faith, or the attentiveness of God. But sometimes we just have seasons when we don't have the dynamic prayer life we once experienced. We must press forward to get through. The feelings we experience in prayer are not nearly as necessary as we feel they should be. Continue forward so the passion may returned is Jones' suggestion.

Determine if your prayer need fits within Christ's character. I love this bit of guidance. I remember as a youth the "prayers of my heart" that were so inspired by the hormones of a teenager. Thank God, the answers to those prayers were answered in God's favor and not mine. They were not in the nature of Christ. Answering those prayers in my favor would have really been a trainwreck. And our prayers as adults sometimes display the same hormonal or emotional bend. They are prayers out of our flesh nature. They are a response to urges or feelings that would pass if we were patient. They are shallow and would be filled temporarily. Then it would have reinforced a bad habit of seeking lesser things instead of the higher things of God.

Become the kind of person God can use to answer prayers through. God answers all prayers. And sometimes we are the answer to our own prayers. We have been moved to ask God to intervene. We are touched by the necessity of the one we are praying for. We are often times within arms reach of the person we are praying for or the situation that needs God's intervention. We can be the means of bringing God into that need. God has called people, through baptism and discipleship, by the power of the Holy Spirit to be witnesses in the world. That has implications from the Old Testament where witnessing brings social, societal, obvious change into lives. Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is at hand," then healed and restored, released and enlivened lives. Then he told his followers, "Go and do what I have shown you."

Promise God what you will do and do everything loving about it you can. Prayer is about hearing what God wants to happen in the world in, through, and around our lives. The more we mature into prayer we realize that prayer is not about wishlists for our benefits of being a Christian. Prayer is about God reoriented us outward into the world. Prayer is the opportunity to see the need and being transformed into an answer to that need. It is also a spiritual binding to the task that needs to be accomplished. 

This booklet is a great addition to your library of Christian resources. It is practical and meaningful for daily living. The small glimpse I offer here is just a little taste of the wisdom the E. Stanley Jones offers to our generation.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Political opinion in process

I didn't write yesterday. And I forgive myself.

I sat here and started to write something about the beginning of Trump's presidency and where I am with that. But I wasn't feeling it. I couldn't inject (or eject) the emotional energy to make something appear.

But I forgive myself for not getting that done. It wasn't really a horrible failure. I accomplished other things that were appropriate to the bigger picture.

I am going to attempt to process my view of the Trump presidency. This is not an opinion piece. It is the attempt to form an opinion. I am not sure of anything at this stage of forming an opinion.

This is the content of an email I wrote to a trusted friend. I was asking his help in working through these thoughts. I share them here, with some expanded thoughts, as part of my processing.

I am trying to process the transfer of power. One thing that I notice about the method of how we move from one leader to another is relatively easy compared to some parts of the world. But I would not call the transfer of power peaceful. Or it may be better to say that the transfer of power that we have seen this year is peaceful but not peace-filled. It has been getting progressively worse over the last 4 elections. We have seen the sides drawn up against each other in more animosity. Yes, that is the word that I intended. There may not be animosity toward an individual that they know personally of opposing viewpoint. But there is animosity toward the opposition in general, as a whole. And that has made each election and inauguration progressively less peace-filled.

I believe that Trump is not what the nation needs as a leader. I read a piece about the consistency that Trump has shown with regard to his political statement. He has shown very little deviation from his positions over the course of 30 years. And I really don't have a problem with that. I can disagree with positions and not have that erode my opinion of a leader. I do have a serious problem with Trump as the leader of this nation solely in the realm of how he publicly treats people. The way he has spoken in the past about women and people of differences (race, physical ability) has been rude and de-humanizing. And, as was pointed out during the election race, there are plenty of documented cases of those words. In addition, he has not ever really shown a repentant attitude, nor has he shown any contrition toward those comments and attitudes expressed. He has even made comments that support an internal idea that he has not wronged anyone, nor need to ask for forgiveness.
If a leader doesn't feel that mistakes are natural, nor there is a pressing need to seek forgiveness, then I see little humility possible in leading the nation. And a humble leaders listens to all those who are led. And believes that they are valuable and worthwhile as individuals and human beings. I don't see that Trump has shown that capacity in the past. And I don't believe he will be any less consistent in the future.

And I believe that his appointments to Cabinet positions are truly bad. I don't follow political players box scores. I don't have the baseball card editions of the players on the field. But I have to wonder if his appointments are intentional. If they are intentional, I wonder if those appointments are:
 1.) retaliatory against the Federalization of certain aspects of government (education, health insurance, arts), or
2.) if he is attempting to sway "conservative" voters' opinion by attacking the headline grabbing topics early, or
3.) he is woefully ignorant of Republican decentralization/state's rights efforts, or
4.) his grasp of political operations is so limited that he cannot see the destabilization their ineptness will cause, or
5.) his effort to appoint these people is his effort to "drain the swamp"; meaning he truly wants to appoint politicians who are outside of the inbred political gene pool.

All of these are possible or any combination.

There are also his "first 100 days" promises. There is some magical idea of what a new President will accomplish in 3 months and change. But the promises that are being watched have the potential for a lasting chaos at the international, national, state, and personal levels. There have been no clear plans revealed for what will replace or prepare for the vacuum that will be created. There is no positive, forward momentum offered for these actions. The only thing that has been tagged to these promises are to undo what has been done. One step back with no way forward is not positive movement.

As I said, these are not final thoughts. These are opinions in process. I believe we are early in the work of bringing in a new administration. And there is every chance that once they all get into place, they may gel into something that is positive for the nation. But from my seat, a long way off from the front line of the Beltway, I don't see the nation starting off on the right foot.

Friday, January 20, 2017

My fictional world

Writing fiction is something I have thought about for nearly 20 years. It began in seminary. I don't know what started it. I can't point a finger at the impetus for it. I only know that sometime during seminary, I began to write down story ideas. And I still have those notes. They are going to be the seeds for Friday Fictions.

I don't plan on being an author. There are plenty of other fiction writers that do a much better job than I ever will. I may eventually try my hand at publishing them through Amazon's service, but who knows. I just know that I have stories that bounce around in my brain. And they want to come out. I also want to get them out. I would like to free up some hard drive space in the mental attic.

A lot of the ideas I came up with during that time were allegories. They grew out of the intense period of study and introspection that seminary requires. The allegories are the ramblings of a young theologue. I had so many new concepts and models paraded before me that I needed to form a temporary construct to handle all of them. Those constructs are weak after 20 years of practical ministry. But they are ripe for plundering for fantasy and fiction.

Most of the things that I will be attempting to write will be science fiction, fantasy, or potential history/alternate history. By the last, I mean to "fill in the blanks" on historical events or lives. I have two stories that are newer than my original notes. They are potential history pieces. They are attempts to fill in the blanks that are left. They just happen to be about biblical characters. They developed, once again, as constructs to deal with new concepts or processing of thoughts.

If you have ever wondered what I do with all my wild and crazy thoughts gleaned from study, here is the answer. They get turned into fictional stories.

And now I am going to attempt my hand at forming those ideas into words.

Here are the plot seeds:
  • A space exploration story that centers on the corruption of the indigenous species of life by human intervention.
  • A class of people have such a high level of empathy for others that they can experience the passing of someone from life into death.
  • Aliens arrive on Earth claiming to be the origin of life.
  • A committed soldier is transferred to a field hospital unit and must deal with saving lives instead of taking them.
  • A techno-mage transforms people into semi-human or sub-human creatures in return for healing their sickness, infirmities, injuries. 
  • A person is tossed out of their own time, into the future, and must bring wisdom to a severely handicapped society. 
  • A comic book team of heroes
  • The story of Joseph, the step-father of Jesus
  • Apostle Paul the heretic
 Nothing is original here. I wasn't attempting to find some new thought or a story that hasn't been told. Some of these are my way to re-imagine some of my favorite characters or books. Some of them are just playing on the easy ideas of science fiction and fantasy. I really don't have much imagination to create something original. I just like taking what is available and making it my own.

Here is the interactive portion of this post: If you see something that you think might be interesting, let me know. I might just bump those ideas to the front of the line to write.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Writing and writing stuff

For 2017, I have set a goal for myself. I am trying to write more. I have a few reasons I want or need to do this.
  1. I need a place to process thoughts and emotions. It is safe to post things here because very few people frequent this little corner of the internet. And the few who have made this a stopping place are people I feel comfortable blathering on about internal stuff.
  2. I need to sharpen my focus. I feel I may be losing some of my thinking focus. Perhaps age is the foe I am trying to defeat. Perhaps it is mental laziness. Either way, I want to exercise my thought process and writing seems to be a way to do that.
  3. I have projects that I want to finish. I have a book idea on applying best practices of Walt Disney in hospitality and creativity within the life of the church. I have 3 different ideas for fiction that I want to play out. I have plot lines and stories for Dungeons and Dragons that may be interesting to collect in a written form. All of these projects require writing them down in some form. And since there is plenty I want to do, I need a goal to move me toward doing it.
  4. I have more ideas than people interested in hearing them. 
As I said, there are only a few people who read my blog. When I check the statistics, I average about 16 hits per page that I post. And some of those are statistics that generate from my own services that are connected. I have a readership of about 10 on a good day. I am very thankful for you loyal 10. It is encouraging to know that someone is out there, noticing my little bubble of rambling.

But I have felt that I need to organize my thoughts a little more. When I write, it is usually an impulsive thing. I encounter something and feel the desire to express my thoughts. And I rarely feel that my thoughts are worth publishing in a fully public forum. So I put thoughts here, in my semi-private forum. And I need to pursue a little more organization in order to fulfill my goal. Here are my rules for my writing goal.

  1. Write at least 300 words a day.
  2. Write to some outlet that will be useful for me (sorry Loyal 10) including the blog, my "brains", or my book/story notes.
  3. Forgive myself for missing a day.
  4. Write more on days prior to or after a day that will be difficult to write on (Saturday, Sunday, days that I have to travel, sermon writing days).
  5. Schedule daily themes for days that aren't inspired. 
  6. Write on content that you have done previously to build the skills in those types of writing.
  7. Experiment with something new once a month.
That seems like a lot of rules. I need them, though. If I don't expect much of myself I will not make an effort.

Here is my Daily Theme schedule. This is for times when I don't feel inspired. It is just a guide to discipline myself the write.
  • Monday - random topics; current events
  • Tuesday - my 2 Kingdoms book; reviews of books/movies/games
  • Wednesday - sermon research or ideas
  • Thursday - studies (biblical, theological, historical); Dungeons and Dragons ideas; trip reports
  • Friday - fiction
  • Saturday and Sunday (my two most difficult days to write) - emotional processing; television show reviews 
Not only is this my schedule, but this is also my content guide. The process of writing is new to me. When I was in college and seminary, the writing process was simplified: you have a paper due on a particular topic so do it. Living out in the free-range world, without the safety net of professors and deadlines, I am not required to write. I have found something rewarding in it, though. I have found that I enjoy it.

If you are interested in only a few topics that I write about, then feel free to drop in periodically on those days (or the day after for those who are notified by email) when I write to your preference. If you are following along because you are a friend, then let me say, "Thank you!" I am encouraged by that. If you are stumbling across this because you put a certain word in a search engine, then by all means take what you are looking for and look around for something else.

And if you are so inclined, respond in some way if you find something interesting. As much as I enjoy the writing, I am nourished mentally, emotionally, and spiritually in the dialogue that my writing may inspire.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Losing Mystery

One of my favorite shows that I am watching regularly is Curse of Oak Island. It is a reality show (which really isn't my style of show) about 2 brothers on a quest to discover the secret (treasure) of Oak Island.

If you are not aware of Oak Island, then allow me to give you a brief history. Near Nova Scotia, there is a small island. About 220 years ago, a treasure hunt began on that island. Some boys found a depression in the ground at the base of a tree. From one of the branches, right above the depression, there was a ship's tackle block. It seemed that something may be buried under the surface of that depression. Digging began not long after. And has continued until this day. The Money Pit of Oak Island has been the focus of excavations, treasure tales, and conspiracy theories ever since.

I fell in love with the mystery of Oak Island when I read about it in a Reader's Digest collection of stories titled Strange Stories, Amazing Facts. I loved the mystery of it. If fact, this may have begun my fascination with treasure hunting and stories of buried treasure. It was thrilling to think that buried on this island could be a pirate treasure that was beyond imagination.

When the series began on History Channel, I was hooked from the opening credits. Rick and Mary Lagina had the same passion for the mystery as I experience. They followed through on their passion with the financial resources to make a serious attempt to discover the treasure of Oak Island. Along the way, they have sought out the rumors and legends that have grown outward from the original story of a buried treasure. The series moves back and forth between the work of digging and exploring the sites around Oak Island and tracing leads from rumor or legend. They are now in the fourth season of the series.

Typically I watch a recorded episode. It allows me to catch 2 or 3 episodes at a time. I watch it because it fascinates me. I still want them to discover a treasure. But I realized last night that Oak Island was no longer this mysterious place of legends. The mystery is gone.

I was a little sad at this prospect. This is something that I have loved for most of my life. That book, which I still own, was brought into my life in 1980. For 36 years, I have been enthralled with the story of Oak Island. But watching the effort to uncover its secrets has removed the thrall. I see it as something less engaging.

And I have to wonder: do Christians feel that way about faith?

Christianity is a faith of passion. Lively faith relies on a sense of mystery so that we want to pursue the God who first loved us. But I don't perceive a sense of mystery in many Christian conversations. I sense that people want the answers. They want it spelled out. They are not content with the gap of faith and want solid ground upon which to journey.

Where is the mystery in our churches? And greater than that, where is the wonder? The amazement? The awe?

Oak Island may not have a treasure. The more I watch the show, the more I believe that there is nothing there.

And I watch as our worship services decline across America. I had two conversations with two separate people miles apart where this was expressed: we want to do something but we don't want it to be just a Bible study. My own experience is that Bible study is not worth the time or effort to do because people do not seem interested. Prayer services are hard to find unless there has been a tragedy and people feel the need to be together.

Worship, Bible, and Prayer are all mysterious, wonder full, amazing, and awe inspiring. But most of our churches are experiencing the decline of these. The church has lost its sense of mystery.

Faith is still present, but I wonder if it is a faith with a healthy dose of mystery or just resigned to not having the answers it wants. I wonder if faith is trusting in the unknowable questions or blindly following rhetoric and mantra. There is a vast difference between those perspectives. And for a thriving church or faith, I believe we need mystery.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

I hate being afraid...

Last night I experienced something that was either barbecue gone bad or a minor anxiety attack. Whatever the cause, I was afraid. I won't bother with the focus of the fear, because that is not important to this expression of thought. I will say that I know that anxiety and fear were a part of it because it was the same emotions I experienced during my faux-heart attack spell with my gallbladder. Same emotions and feelings. And I hate it.

I have some fears that I am very up front about.

I am afraid of water. This is an old fear. It dates back to when I was a kid. I remember the moment it began. We were at a lake. A family friend was carrying me on his shoulders. And then he dunked us in the water. I got a snout full of water and started choking. It shocked me. And to this day, water still causes problems for me. If I am in a body of water and it splashes me in the face, I experience panic symptoms. If I stay in the shower too long or am having a particular type of day, the water hitting my skin annoys me. And watching people underwater on a movie or television show causes me to hold my breath.

I am afraid of flying. It has something to do with heights. More so, it has to do with understand aerodynamics and the physics of flying. Nothing holds you up. It is air pressure and how the pressure differential over and under a wing work against each other. The only thing that holds you in the air in an airplane is insubstantial. It has no substance or strength. And it takes very little to disrupt that flow.

I think I have a subconscious fear of snakes. When I am experiencing anxiety dreams, snakes make frequent appearances. If I am really anxious about something, it is a snake-filled dream. And I don't even want to watch "Snakes On a Plane". 

I am afraid of doing something new. This sounds odd. And I am not sure if it is a fear of failure or fear of looking like an idiot that lies at the root of it. Both may have a part to play (because I hate experiencing both of those). When I am confronted with doing something new, I will do everything in my power to avoid it. This last Sunday, I avoided doing a live video sermonette on Facebook. I avoided it because I was afraid. I had never done something like that before. I have books that I want to write, but I am afraid that they will not matter to anyone. I am afraid that it will be folly or vanity on my part to try. I am afraid that I will be rejected.

For this last reason, I am afraid of people. I don't think that they will hurt me. But I am afraid that I will be rejected or ostracized. And due to my depression streaks, any time I feel even slightly outcast, it amplifies my fears. And it is bizarre for me to be afraid of being rejected because periodically I have to face a set of new people. I have to deal with that possibility of rejection regularly.

I really don't know what to do about being afraid. I am at a loss. They cannot be overcome by logic or rational thought. I know, because I try and work through them that way. Except the water thing - I will never understand that one and I don't try. I do attempt to work around these fears, though.

Water fear - I still bathe regularly.

Flying fear - I will get on a plane and attempt to control my fear through it all.

Snake fear - It is subconscious, so I really don't have to work on it. I am not afraid of living snakes. I can handle them and be around them. I respect the dangerous ones and give all of them their space to avoid provoking them.

Fear of new - I have nothing on this. That fear of rejection, failure, foolishness combination will overcome me more than anything. And sadly I have passed that one on to my boys. And I hate that for them. They have so many gifts and strengths that their insecurity about stepping out will handicap those blessings.

And I know what some of you are saying - "Just do it. It isn't that bad."

Easier said to someone than done in our own lives with our own fears.

People fear - I count on one hand the people I depend upon. I count on two hands the people I call friend. I try to broaden those numbers. But even among those who are closest, I keep them at a distance. I wall myself off to keep myself from being hurt or being outcast. I balance the admiration I have for them with the protection I must make room for in my life.

And being in front of crowds isn't my fear. It is intimacy, or the potential for it, with others. I use intellect or broad knowledge of subjects or points of common interest to keep communication lines open. But when it comes to being or allowing people be close, I don't do that well.

Fear is something we all have to live with. We have these things that creep into our heart and soul that cause our way to become difficult. And I hope someday to completely overcome the ones that I have. But I am afraid that I will replace the ones I experience now with new ones relevant to that stage of life.

Until that day, though, I will soldier on.

And breathe.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The End of the Greatest Show On Earth

News is spreading this morning that the Ringling Bros. Circus is ending its 146 year run. The leading cause of the end of the show is it has become an unrealistic business model. Ticket sales have declined. The cost to move the show with its many animals and performers is too high to continue. For almost 150 years, this show has brought joy and wonder to the hearts and minds of children and adults. And now the curtain if falling on the greatest show on earth.

I was reading this article from the New York Times. As I was reading it, I couldn't help but notice that the tone of what was happening to Ringling Bros. is a similar tone that could be applied to the American church.

...cited declining ticket sales,... American churches across the theological spectrum are seeing declining offerings. There are endless reasons for this. And there are a number of strategies to counteract the decline. But there is no denying that churches are working with less revenue. It is just a reality that congregations are having to adapt to in this climate. There are only three realistic options for churches to offer some turn around to this:
  1. Convince the people who are connected to the church to give more;
  2. Convince more people to connect to the church and convince them to give; and
  3. Partner with organizations to be financial supporters in the work that is being done or do work they will support.
And that brings me to the next point of comparison from the article...

{ticket sales} which dropped even more drastically after elephants were phased out from the shows last year... Ringling (and other animal entertainment venues) have been under increasing scrutiny and criticism for their treatment of animals. This is not a judgment piece. It is a statement of fact. But Ringling Bros. believe that there is a correlation between removing the elephants from the show and the decline of people coming to see the show. And how true is it that there are fewer people coming to see "the show" in churches?

Fewer people are attending churches. Attendance numbers are declining. And that worries people at all levels of church hierarchy. The local church feels the pain of seeing fewer people in the pews (remembering when those same pews were filled). Local church leaders discuss it from the practical aspect of "fewer people means fewer resources for ministry" (volunteers and money are necessary to do ministry). Association leaders (the Annual Conference for us United Methodists) see the longer term and the decline of ministry function on a larger scale.

It makes people wonder, how do we get people back? Well, what is missing that people want? What elephants have been taken out that once were there? What kind of elephants to people want to see? Think about this for a minute - what makes elephants so crucial to Ringling Bros. circuses that their absence would cause people to stop coming? It could very well be that elephants are part of the core identity of the Ringling Bros. circus. Elephants are the image of the greatest show on earth. Elephants are the icon. Without the elephants, the show has lost its identity.

Now what elephant is missing in the church? I have plenty of ideas:
  • hospitality - making every person who walks through the door feel like they are wanted and belong and important;
  • one anothering - connecting with others in the body to the level that you invest in one anothers' lives to the degree that every need is known, all hurts are tended, lives are held in accountability, and we grow each other into stronger people;
  • true mission to change lives for better - Jesus Christ came to proclaim a kingdom realized and the evidence of that was that lives were bettered - sick people healed, oppressed people released, poor noticed, forgotten remembered, the lost found and cared about. 
  • sin is not as important as forgiveness - everyone is messed up to some degree (past, present, or future) and that puts us all on a level playing field. If there is sin in someone's life, we don't point at it or poke at it to make it more noticeable. We approach that person in love, grace, forgiveness, and gentleness. Rebuking works well for someone we have a HUGE amount of relationship investment with. Rebuking every sinner we hear about makes us jerks.
These elephants left some of our churches a long time ago, and guess what - those churches have dried up or are getting really wrinkled in the process of drying up. If we introduced these "elephants" back into our churches, and we made them the center of our "show", people would come and see.

coupled with high operating costs, made the circus an unsustainable business for the company... Churches are spending themselves out of business. The latest estimate is that churches spend over 50% of their expenses on staff. Churches pay people more than spend on ministry. Why is that? Because American churches pay people to do ministry. You have pastors, youth ministers, children ministers, worship ministers, music ministers, visitation ministers, pastoral care ministers, and so on. The model of the church American church today is that we pay someone to do the work of the church. And that is so far away from the biblical understanding of church, ministers, and ministry.

The early church had ministers - apostles, prophets, preacher/teachers - who performed a service in the church. It was the service of equipping the church to do the work of ministry. The people who comprised the church were the ones who did ministry. They were the day-to-day, hands on ministry operators. They functioned to train youth and children (mostly in their own homes). They led the community in worship and music. They saw to it that everyone was visited and that everyone was tended to emotionally, spiritually, and mentally.

What would happen if we turned around the American church model and adopted a more biblical model? Staff expense would go down. Ministry expense would increase - but only as people gave out of their lives, not the church budget. The church would make contact with more lives, daily, than is happening now. The needs of the community would be observed more closely and dealt with more swiftly.

"Wait," you say, "wouldn't that put you out of a job?" Yes. Gladly. I would rather spend my time equipping people to do what God has gifted them and called them to do than be the business administrator, social director, and task manager that modern American pastors have become.

The circus and its people have continually been a source of inspiration and joy to my family and me. The American church is not done. But you couldn't tell that by listening to reports or watching people in churches every week. The church in America, and the rest of the world, still has the task of inspiring people, raising new generations of disciples for Jesus Christ that can change the world. It can still touch hearts, minds, souls, and bodies. It could show the world that we have a source of hope and peace and joy. Faith does not require us to surrender any of these. In fact, it is worthless without those. But it also has to be an active part of our church life. Faith is not inspiring when it sits on its spiritual butt. Faith has to live and move. It has to be around other people. It has to be around people who don't believe. It has to be displayed as love - for the God we worship, the Christ we follow, the Spirit who fills and leads us is LOVE. Our faith in that God is inspiring. It quickens our lives and fills us with purpose and drive. It opens our eyes to possibilities and wonders unimagined. 

Friday, January 13, 2017

Seasonal depression

It never fails that when January rolls around, there is a complex of emotions that settle within me. As I have taken stock of my life and what I experience, and explored the information available to me, I believe that I experience Seasonal Affective Disorder. It has been called winter blues. It is recognized as a legitimate type of depression. It is tied to the seasons, in particular the late Fall and Winter seasons.

For me, I begin to experience it in January and it lasts through March. At times it has been worrisome for me. The expression that I experience the most is a feeling of worthlessness. My mind is attracted to the idea that I am useless to people (family, church, colleagues). I dwell in the playground of convincing myself that I am not needed by anyone.

Over the time frame of weeks that I experience this, it progresses and worsens. It is not a good feeling. It is not something that I can just "shake it off". It is not just a matter of thinking about something else. Everything I think of is corrupted by the line of thoughts and emotions. Everything that is done for me has been met with a sense of being useful to them, but not necessarily needed.

And that is where I am today. I realize that the complex of emotions that is my disorder is beginning to rise its head. I am writing this, not for sympathy, but to excise some of the demon that wishes to do battle with my heart and mind.The beginning of these feelings and thoughts are usually random bubbles. The worst that it can get is a consuming focus. And I don't tell anyone about it, usually.

I was completely unfocused on any particular thoughts. I was making my breakfast. And WHAM! I was hit with the thought - nobody needs me. And not knowing it for what it was, I allowed myself to play with that. "I'm not needed. I am only useful. Lisa and boys only have me around because I'm useful to their life. The church doesn't need me because another pastor can be appointed." In the span of only a couple of minutes, all of those thoughts ran through my mind. They were accompanied by feelings of despair and worthlessness.

After a couple of minutes of this, I realized what was happening. I was able to stop that line of thinking. But the emotions linger. The skirmish was over. The battle was paused, though. I can sense the next skirmish with my enemy being plotted.

This post is not to gain sympathy or an intervention. I want to name the experience for what it is: a mental illness. I don't control it. I can attempt to divert its effects. I don't bring it on. I know that there have been some circumstances recently that have contributed to it. It is part of my existence. It is a burden. Perhaps a "thorn" like Paul experienced and alluded to in his second letter to the Corinthians (12:7). It is most likely a biochemical malfunction in my body.

There are options for it. There are light boxes that are supposed to mimic natural sunlight. The prevailing thought is that seasonal disorder is tied to the reduced exposure to sunlight in Fall and Winter. There are drug interventions such as anti-depressants that would be prescribed in chronic depression. There are homeopathic recommendations that are supposed to elevate certain natural elements within the body. I have not sought any of these in the past.

I have always struggled with it. That is typically how I deal with physical, mental, or emotional problems. I manage pain or problems on my own. I don't feel the right to burden others with my "stuff". And the strange thing is that culture is okay with that. As a man and a pastor, the prevailing opinion is that I don't have to share my "stuff" because it is awkward.

Mental illness is getting some much needed attention lately. It is something that needs to be dealt with openly and honestly. 1 in 4 people experience some type of episode with mental illness. There is still a stigma about discussing it in "polite company." If there is something that is so prevalent, it seems ridiculous that we do not have the willingness to discuss it openly.

Men are supposed to be strong. Anyone who is open about the struggles loses status among peers, and even among those who know him. Sure there are some who will support him and be part of a solution to improving his circumstance. There is also the sad reality that generally men are supposed to be able to "deal with it."

Pastors have the burden of caring for the struggles of the church (as a business and the people who comprise its constituency). Pastors are to be stoic sentinels able to deal with the brokenness of people's lives and be the source of hope and joy and faith for those in times of need. And they are reminded that the church is not there for the pastors problems. Within our Annual Conference, our options are discuss our problems with our District Superintendents, our colleagues, or seek professional help. And each one of those has overwhelming barriers to effectiveness. I speak from personal experience on a couple of them.

Some times it is just easier to suck it up and walk on, face it and try to cope. It isn't the best way to do it. But I am fortunate that my experience is manageable. But that doesn't mean I must be quiet about it. And there aren't enough people who read this that I would be damaging my reputation or status in using this platform.

And for those who have read this, thank you for taking the time. I apologize if it made you a little uncomfortable. I don't apologize for posting, though. This is my outlet for thoughts and feelings and creative urges and opinions. And if I share too much, you are invited to find a nice happy blog with noise. I won't take it personal, I promise.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Evarigus, the Paladin of Death's Mother

Something a little different. I am trying my hand at some fiction - fantasy, really. This is the origin story for my Dungeons and Dragons character I will be playing. Don't worry if this isn't your cup of tea. But it is my first real attempt at fiction writing. So, please, bear with me.

Evarigus, the Paladin of Death's Mother

I am Evarigus Herdontus. My story, my life, is not important. Except in one little regard. I have a mission. No, I have a calling. I have been presented with a purpose that leads and guides me through this world. It has taken me from the place I had called home and cast me toward the ends of the earth. It has made my simple life before so small in comparison.

It was a small life. My parents disappeared. They were not dead, for there were no bodies or graves to discover. I only have faint recollections of them. They are recollections of loving times. Happiness and warmth comfort me in the memories of them. But then they were gone.

The town folk never explained what happened to them. And when I would walk by, I heard the mutters. “Now in'it such a shame to leave him that ways.” “Right nasty of them folks to abandon the boy and home.” “If weren't for the kindness of folk here, he would be dead.”

They were kind. The folk of that town saw to it I had food or a roof. I had the hand-me-downs of their children's clothes. Patched and mended beyond their liking, I'm sure. But it was a life that could be sustained. No one wanted to claim me, though. No one wanted the shame or the curse.

I never gave up hope that they would come back. My ma and da would some day come trotting back into town. They would find me in the town square. They would grab me up and hug me tightly. All three of us, squeezing each other as if to flow into one another. I still think that will happen. Some day. I know they are out there. My calling will lead me to them eventually.

That calling is what shapes this quest I am on. It started painfully.

I had been “hired” by a family in town. They let me sleep in their barn and gave me food and clothes. In return, I was their sheepherder. I took the flock out to feed. It was my job to look after those dumb animals.

One week I had followed them out of town, farther than I had ever been. I didn't know that place. Something spooked the flock. They scattered in all directions. It took me a day and night to get most of them back. I had penned up all but the big ram. He was the prize of the flock. Big strong animal. I had to find him, or I would pay out of hide for it. The folk might even sell me off.

I found him, alright. He wasn't a big, strong animal no more. Something had torn him apart. I found a cave. It looked like a cave. 'Cept it wasn't a cave. Someone had made it. They carved it into the side of a hillock. They carved the stone to look natural outside. I stepped in to search for the ram. And I saw him laid out in the center of the room. Pieces of him looked like they were ripped right from the body. And all the blood had covered the floor.

I was upset. I cried. I was just a boy. Maybe I was eleven or twelve. That ram had been my buddy and my bed on some cold nights. Now he was gone. And I was going to pay for it. I failed my job.

I stood there for a while. Finally, I was able to think again. I thought if I could bring back part of him that was ripped off, I could show it weren't me that did it. Something got him. I couldn't stop it.

When my barefoot touched that blood, it was still warm. Then the room got lit up. Torches flared up around the room. As I looked around, I saw it wasn't a natural cave. It was carved inside with creatures and people. There were boxes of stone carved right from the floor. It was like someone started cutting away the natural rock and made these boxes as they carved.

When I looked around at the ram, it was gone. The body, the blood, the smell – all of it was gone. And standing in front of me was some one, some thing. It was a tall, silvery, bird-woman. I know I was a boy, but I had looked up on tall folk before. She, or it, was taller by hands. And it wasn't light or armor, the skin was silvery. The torches flickered against the skin. And she had wings and a bird head. Like hawk or falcon. But she had human parts elsewhere.

I was scared. I was so scared that I pissed myself. I won't deny it. Seeing that ram ripped apart was bad. But standing in front of this creature was too much. I was shaking and quivering.

And she just reached out and wrapped her arms around me. She embraced me. Just like I imagine my ma and da will when they come back. She smoothed my hair down. I remember being a little embarrassed cause I hadn't had a wash in a while. I smelled like sheep. And I wasn't sure I didn't have a few bugs in my hair. But she didn't seem to mind. She just rubbed my head and back and made soft noises like some mommas do their little ones.

I guess I calmed down enough for her to let me go. I didn't want to let go. I wanted to stay there. But she took me by the shoulders and pushed back a little. She got down on one knee, so she could look into my face better. I still had to bend my neck a bit to look at her, though.

Then she spoke to. She didn't squawk and whistle like a bird, though. She spoke a few words in something I didn't recognize. Then she spoke to me in Common.

Hello, little one. I am pleased you found this place. My mistress has been looking for someone like you for a long time. What is your name, little one?”

“I'm Evarigus. Most folks that don't know me call me Evar when they hear it.”

Evarigus, I am Mutesh.

“h-h-hello, Moo-tesh.”

Evarigus, I know that you are just a boy. You will some day grow up into a strong man. My mistress desires someone who can help her in this world. Would you like to be that person?”

I wasn't sure what was being asked of me. I wasn't no one special. I was barely wanted by anyone. I couldn't understand how some strange bird-woman appeared out here in the middle of nowhere. And I couldn't understand how her lady would want someone like me.

“What do you want me to do? I'm not no good at much. I can't even keep my sheep from getting killed.”

Evarigus, my mistress doesn't want you for what you are. She wants you for what you can become. She knows how to make you into what she needs. She can help you get better at what is necessary.

“Who is your mistress?” Is she from near here? I don't know many towns around here.”

My mistress is not from here. She is from another realm, another plane of reality. My mistress is a goddess. She is worshiped by many who are far from here. But she sees that this plane, this world needs her. There are wrongs happening right now that she wants to correct. There are things that people are doing that need to be stopped. Would you help her do that?

“I'm not strong enough to stop nobody. I'm used to being kicked and pushed around my the bigger boys. I can't stop no grown up from doing bad stuff.”

My mistress can make you stronger. She can give you the power to stop those who do wrong. She can help you stop bad things from happening.”

I admit that I was hooked right then. I wasn't very strong, and I knew it. Maybe Mutesh knew that I knew it. Maybe she was playing on my fantasies of being stronger than others. Maybe she knew that I wanted to be strong enough to go looking for my ma and da. But I wasn't going to make it easy for her.

“What kind of bad stuff am I supposed to stop?”

Evarigus, do you know what happens when people die?”

“I know some of those churchies talk about living some life after dying. I ain't no churchie, though. They don't like me in their pretty place.”

Evarigus, when someone dies, there is part of them that is no longer tied to their body. That part doesn't need to be bound to this world or this plane of existence. There are other planes where that sense of their self can go.

“There are people who live in this world who believe they have the right to take the body that is left here and use it for their own desires. They use magics and powers and artifacts to make those bodies move again; as if there were life in them….

“You mean zombies and skeletons and such like?”

Exactly, Evarigus. For my mistress, those creatures are an abomination. They should not exist. And the people who make those creatures are doing a horrible thing. For when those creatures are made, the self of the person they were before is harmed. They experience pain and torment in the other plane where they reside. My mistress cares deeply for those. She wishes to stop the pain that comes to them.

“She wants someone to help her here, in this world, to become her champion. Would you become her champion?”

As Mutesh was explaining what was happening, all I could see was my ma's and da's ghosts being hurt. I know I'll see them again some day, but it was their faces that popped up in my mind. Well, the faces I gave them.

“I'll do it,” I said softly. “But I'm not much to help. And I don't know what I'm doing when it comes to fighting and churchie stuff.”

“Evarigus, I will teach you all you need to know. The first thing you need to know is that our mistress' name is Nebthet. Some call her Nephthys. Others worship her when they worship Kelemvor in this world. She is to be your patron goddess. And I will be your messenger from her.

“ummm. I don't mean to be disrespectful to you or mistress Nebthet, but I gots sheep to tend. They aren't mine to own. And I gots to get them back home.”

Evarigus, I am well aware of the animals you tend. I am also aware that the ram that was slain here was your responsibility. There is no way to replace the animal that was sacrificed. But if you will face the responsibility of its loss with honor, then our mistress will see that you are provided for after. Go, and take care of your responsibility. Then return swiftly, for we must begin your training.”

I turned to leave the cave. But in that moment, I was hit by a wave of the feelings I get when I think about my ma and da. Those feelings that make me cry myself to sleep in the deep parts of the night.

“Will you be here when I get back?”

I will.”

I ran back to the sheep pen. Those blessed, bleating beasts were all still there. Save the ram, of course. I hated having to tell the folk back there that it was gone.

That trip back to town was a mixture of excitement and terror. I wasn't sure if I wanted to face what was coming. And I don't mean just telling about the ram.

When I got back to the farm, I walked right up to the mister. I told him plain that the ram got torn up by something. He was upsets quite fierce. He stomped and raged and knocked stuff over. Then he took it in his head to say I killed it or sold it. He kept yelling at me to tell him the truth.

So I did.

He didn't take it for truth. He just called me a liar and a fool. He took a switch and started beating me. He didn't care nothing for my words or my cries. He didn't stop when I quit, either. I'm not sure when it was he quit. Or why he stopped. I woke up on the side of the road. I had a little bundle of my things from the barn. There was also some bread heels and cheese rind and a couple of little pieces of dried meat. I hurt everywhere. But I didn't have no mind to take care of it. I only knew I needed to go back to the cave.

It took me three days to get back there. I would stumble a ways, then have to stop. I think I kept bleeding, but I didn't have any way to get it to stop. He whipped me down the back and legs. There were cuts on the back of my arms and on my shoulders. If he thought I was some kind of curse, he was trying to beat it out of me, that is certain.

When I stumbled into the cave, Mutesh wasn't there. And that was the end. I laid down right on the spot where I found the ram. And I just wanted to die.

But that was not to be.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Life, death, life beyond death, and the Final Destination.

Before we get to life after death we should have a clear understanding of life here and now. Jesus spoke the words from Matthew 6 to a gathering of people on the side of a hill. They were people who wanted more out of life. He reminded them that life was more than the everyday grind of life. We are prone to lower our eyes and look at life as only going from one day to the next. But life is more than providing for day to day necessities

Genesis 1:30 – life is the very breath of God inside of us. We are animated by the breath of the very same God to spoke creation into existence. Our lives are more than just mundane day to day existence. We have within us life that comes from God. Even that is not the full meaning of life

Jesus speaks a lot about life and eternal life. John 6:35 – the bread of life that brings eternal life. What many people often confuse is what eternal life means. This is also part of the confusion with heaven.

Eternal life is not about some existence after life in this body on this plane of reality ends. Eternal life is right now. It happens in this time and this place. John 10:10 – life abundant is not reserved for after this life has ended. John 5:24 – eternal life is passing out of death into life. That kind of eternal life is part of who we are right now. John 17:3-4 – eternal life is knowing God through Christ Jesus. 1 John 5:11-12 – as we accept Christ into our lives we have that life. What is this kind of eternal life? It is life abundant. It is the life that Jesus offered to disciples. It is living out what we know about Jesus Christ.

If you think about great “saints” of the church, you come up with people like: Augustine, John Wesley, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr. These are typically who most people consider saints. They weren’t created special or different. They were like everyone else. They accepted the life abundant through Christ. They lived eternal life in this life. We are to live eternal life here and now. Eternal life begins in this life through Jesus Christ. When we come into Christ through faith, we receive eternal, abundant life. So our life here is more than just existing.

But through Christ, something else happens in this life. When we believe in the life of Christ, the Resurrection of Christ is always close at mind. You cannot consider who Jesus Christ is without thinking about what became of him. The Resurrection has implications for the life, and death, of every believer. Hebrews 2:14-16 – Jesus renders the power of death powerless - it also brings freedom to those who have been subject to death. Romans 5:12 – all of humanity has been subject to death since Adam - sin is tied to death – where sin has power, death is the natural consequence.

Death is part of life due to the fallen nature of the creation. The consequence of Adam’s choice to rebel against God is that all of the natural world, including the human physical body, is in the process of death and decay. That means that death comes to the physical body. Romans 8:1-5 – those who live by the Spirit are not bound to only the physical life.

We have been given grace to not be bound by physical limitations or requirements. 1 Corinthians 15:56 - Paul says that the power of sin is the law. That does not mean that the law is partnered to sin, but that because there is a law of God, sin is known. The law is limited in its ability to transform and bring that abundant, eternal life

Through Christ, the requirement of the law has been fulfilled. Under the law, right life with God was possible but extremely limited. In Christ, abundant, eternal life with God is possible. Since the law is now fulfilled, sin cannot claim our lives. Since sin cannot claim us, death is now made powerless in our lives. We will all most likely stop being physically. Physical life is only a fraction of our living being. Due to Christ’s death our entire personhood lives on eternally. We have no reason to fear death because it cannot undo who we are. Paul has it right to say that those who are dead in Christ are asleep. The physical body has lost the consciousness or the true life. Who we are lives on through Jesus Christ.


1 Cor 15:54-57
DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory. 55 " O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?" 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; 57 but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Isa 25:6-8
6 The LORD of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain;
A banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow,
And refined, aged wine.
7 And on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples,
Even the veil which is stretched over all nations.
8 He will swallow up death for all time,
And the Lord GOD will wipe tears away from all faces,
And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth;
For the LORD has spoken.

Rom 8:1-5
8:1Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3 For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Hos 13:14
14 Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?
Shall I redeem them from death?
O Death, where are your thorns?
O Sheol, where is your sting?
Compassion will be hidden from My sight.

Heb 2:14-16
14 Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.

Rev 21:4
4 and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away."

Rom 5:12
12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin , and so death spread to all men, because all sinned


But what about people who do not accept Jesus Christ as their Lord? Is victory and eternal life only for the redeemed of Christ? Or do all people have an immortal soul that continues on after death? Many Christians claim special status of having eternal life yet we also claim that the unrighteous have life after death also. Whether we consider it a lesser kind of life or a life in the place of outer darkness is questioned.

Let’s begin with how the ancient people of the Bible believed in life after death. The Hebrews believed in a place called Sheol or the grave. This was the place that the “person” resided after death. Even an idea of a pit in OT writings is the idea of going to the grave. It was not a place of judgment or punishment but was simply the place of the dead. Other cultures around Israel viewed the grave as a place of despair and deprivation, but they also did not associate it with punishment.

The Greeks understood death in a slightly different way. Hades was the same as Sheol – the place of the dead. They also believed in tartaroo, a place where the worst of humanity ended up. During the time of the Greeks, Jews developed the idea of gehenna. The name came from the phrase ge hinnom or the valley of Hinnom. It was a place where child sacrifices were believed to have taken place (Jer. 7:31). It became the valley of the burning garbage dump outside the Jerusalem walls. Gehenna then became known as the place like tartaroo – place of punishment. As we understand the people of the biblical times - they considered there to be a place of the dead where all people went but parts of that after-life were reserved for the very evil.

There is, therefore, a simple understanding that life after death is available to all. Genesis 2:7 – God breathes life into a human and man becomes a living being. Matthew 5:43-45 – God brings necessary things for life to righteous and unrighteous. But there is also an idea that the righteous and unrighteous will not share in that life. Luke 16:19-31 – the separation of Lazarus and the rich man. We have to keep the end of time and God’s plan in sight, though. Revelation 20:11-15 – all people will come before God for judgment.

If we believe that all people will be judged and will be raised to face it then the dead must be somewhere between death and the resurrection. The separation of the faithful and unrighteous is not beyond belief.


Matt 5:43-45
43 " You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.' 44 "But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Luke 16:19-31
19 "Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. 20 "And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, 21 and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man's table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. 22 "Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham's bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. 23 "In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 "And he cried out and said, ' Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.' 25 "But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. 26'And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.' 27 "And he said, 'Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father's house — 28 for I have five brothers — in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.' 29 "But Abraham said, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.' 30 "But he said, 'No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!' 31 "But he said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.'"

Ezek 32:17-30
17 In the twelfth year, on the fifteenth of the month, the word of the LORD came to me saying, 18 "Son of man, wail for the hordes of Egypt and bring it down, her and the daughters of the powerful nations, to the nether world, with those who go down to the pit;
19'Whom do you surpass in beauty? Go down and make your bed with the uncircumcised.'
20 "They shall fall in the midst of those who are slain by the sword. She is given over to the sword; they have drawn her and all her hordes away. 21 "The strong among the mighty ones shall speak of him and his helpers from the midst of Sheol , 'They have gone down, they lie still, the uncircumcised, slain by the sword.'
22 " Assyria is there and all her company; her graves are round about her. All of them are slain, fallen by the sword, 23 whose graves are set in the remotest parts of the pit and her company is round about her grave. All of them are slain, fallen by the sword, who spread terror in the land of the living.
24 " Elam is there and all her hordes around her grave; all of them slain, fallen by the sword, who went down uncircumcised to the lower parts of the earth, who instilled their terror in the land of the living and bore their disgrace with those who went down to the pit. 25 "They have made a bed for her among the slain with all her hordes. Her graves are around it, they are all uncircumcised, slain by the sword (although their terror was instilled in the land of the living), and they bore their disgrace with those who go down to the pit; they were put in the midst of the slain.
26 " Meshech, Tubal and all their hordes are there; their graves surround them. All of them were slain by the sword uncircumcised, though they instilled their terror in the land of the living. 27 " Nor do they lie beside the fallen heroes of the uncircumcised, who went down to Sheol with their weapons of war and whose swords were laid under their heads; but the punishment for their iniquity rested on their bones, though the terror of these heroes was once in the land of the living. 28 "But in the midst of the uncircumcised you will be broken and lie with those slain by the sword.
29 "There also is Edom, its kings and all its princes, who for all their might are laid with those slain by the sword; they will lie with the uncircumcised and with those who go down to the pit.
30 "There also are the chiefs of the north, all of them, and all the Sidonians, who in spite of the terror resulting from their might, in shame went down with the slain. So they lay down uncircumcised with those slain by the sword and bore their disgrace with those who go down to the pit.

Rev 20:11-15
11 Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. 13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.


Where then do we go if there is an in between place?

The King James Version of John 14:2 reads that “In my Father’s house are many mansions”. Based on that verse, Ira Stanphill wrote the song Mansion Over the Hilltop. Since then that song has become a favorite of southern gospel fans all over the country. It has also been recorded by a number of artists. I’ve got a mansion over the hilltop... is a much loved hymn.

The story of the song is that one day a businessman was giving a testimony in church. His business was failing and went for a drive one. He arrived out in the boonies at a shack at the end of a dirt road. Outside the house was a little girl playing with a broken doll with a big smile on her face. The businessman wanted to know why she was so happy. Because my daddy is building us a mansion over that hill out there and I can’t wait to get there.

But the word that was translated as mansions has been translated differently since the KJV of the Bible was translated. Most modern translations use the word dwelling, dwelling places, or rooms. The Greek use of this word has more to do with a stopping place or a barracks. It is far from a mansion and more importantly, it implies moving on to somewhere else.

The real root of the word is to abide. This is what Jesus eventually gets around to. He begins with saying that he is the way, truth, and life. He shares with the disciples that they know God because God abides in Christ. The Spirit also abides within the disciples. Finally Jesus comes around to saying that God and Christ will make an abode with us. The next chapter has Jesus telling us that disciple abide in him as branches to a vine. The basic idea is that Christ comes to us and abides with us.

If there is a place between life and our final destination (as the Hebrews called it Sheol or the grave; the Greeks Hades), this adds a layer into that picture. The picture is not a mansion over the hilltop that gives us hope. The picture is that Christ will abide with us in whatever that next place is. He doesn’t abandon us in death or stand away from us. Christ remains close to us and brings his presence to us in life and even death. If Jesus comes to dwell in us in life, and has brought victory for us over death then it is very likely that he will also be present with us when the physical life ends. We have a savior and Lord who stays with us even in death, wherever that may be.

Another picture to consider is scene of Jesus and the thieves on the cross. One thief or rebel chooses to join the crowds in mocking Jesus. The other thief appears sympathetic to Christ’s cause. He requests to remembered in the Messiah’s kingdom. Jesus responds that, “Today you will be with me in paradise”. That phrase has been used to speak of a whisking away to heaven to remain forever. But the imagery from that passage is not as simple as that.

First, the thief wasn’t asking to go to heaven. This thief, brigand, and rebel wanted to be remembered in the kingdom that the Messiah was to establish. If this thief was being executed for treason or rebellion, what greater reward would he have than to be remembered as being one of freedom fighters who threw the Romans out of Israel. His desire wasn’t eternal life, it was eternal remembrance

Second, Jesus wasn’t offering him a view of heaven in saying it was paradise. Paradise is a Persian word picked up by the Greeks. The word represents an enclosed garden that is well watered and tended so that it will be filled with plants and sometimes wild animals. Jesus says that they would share that experience together.

Third is the issue of where Jesus believed he would go when he died. Some believe that Jesus went straight to heaven the moment he breathed his last breath. But that is not what could have happened. Jesus experienced death like every other person. There have been people, the Bible tells us, that have escaped death through God’s special providence (Genesis 5:24 – Enoch; 2 Kings 2:11 – Elijah). If there is an experience of a place after death, Christ would have gone through that. Christ shared in the experience of death like all people in order to claim a victory over death. Even Jesus himself did not claim to have gone back to heaven. John 20:17 – Jesus says he has not yet ascended to the Father. When Jesus ascends in Acts 1, it is his return to heaven.

If the thief wasn’t asking to go to heaven, and Jesus didn’t mean heaven when he said paradise, and Jesus didn’t believe he was going to heaven, then what does he mean? Jesus meant something of greater comfort than going to heaven. Jesus uses the word “paradise” with intention. He used a word that would recall for anyone even basically familiar with the stories of Moses the picture of a garden that was closed off from the rest of the world and that was filled with life, vegetation and animal life. He used a word that would draw anyone listening back to the Garden of Eden.

The specialness of the garden wasn’t location, or content, or even its seclusion. The uniqueness of the garden was that God was there (Genesis 3:8). Jesus was saying that today, the thief and Jesus would be in a place of comfort, provision, blessedness, together.

When we hear those words Jesus says, we should be comforted. In death, which Jesus has won the victory over, we go to a place that is within God’s presence. But we do not go alone, the presence of Christ is there also. We do not face death alone. We face death with Christ having already been then and his presence remains with us

Now we come to the hardest part of this. The biblical witness is that we do not go to heaven when we die.

There are 2 reasons for that. First, Heaven is God’s domain. Throughout the Old Testament God is pictured as above or beyond heaven and earth yet interacts throughout both. Heaven is referred to 396 times in the Old Testament. Of those 99% refer to mingling of heaven as space, sky, and something more. 2 Chronicles 30:27 – God’s dwelling place is called heaven. Isaiah 66:1 – God calls heaven his throne and earth his footstool. The Psalms refer to God’s temple in heaven, God looking down from heaven, and his sovereignty over all is established in heaven. The Psalmist in 73 says it succinctly – who do we have in heaven but God.

In the New Testament, heaven is more of a spiritual location than space or sky. In the New Testament heaven is referred to 275 times. Jesus refers to his Father in heaven in Matthew’s gospel a number of times. (Matthew 5:16,45,48;6:1,9,14,26,32;7:21; 10:32,33;12:50;15:13;16:17;18:10,14,19,35;23:9). Matthew 18:10 - Jesus refers to the angels who continually see God’s face. John 3:13 – Jesus says no one has ascended to the Father. Ephesians 2:6; Philippians 3:20 – we are already located in heaven because of Christ. Hebrews 7-9 – heaven is marked by a Temple of God where Christ ministers on our behalf. Revelation 4-5,6 – heaven is God’s throne room and temple where no people are present until chapter 7, after the tribulation.

The biblical witness is that heaven is God’s domain. Humanity’s access to heaven is through Jesus Christ. We have a hope for life after death that is marked by the accompaniment of the presence of Christ. We are not abandoned by God. We will encounter the glory of God without restraint, though. We will know rest from labor and struggle, pain and heartache as God ministers to us. All of that sounds like heaven except for one thing: that biblical picture of heaven is really earth.

The image that many of us have of heaven, golden streets, river of life, endless days, and no more tears, is really not heaven. Revelation 20-21 shows us that heaven and earth pass away. God eliminates the substance of heaven and earth. Then God re-creates heaven and earth. In chapter 21 God puts down a new Eden – the New Jerusalem where there are streets of gold, the River of Life, and the Tree of Life. God is there, also, to fellowship with. Christ is there in fellowship. What we typically think of as heaven is a future new creation.

God takes those of his faithful who live out life in commitment and obedience. God wipes away the elements of this creation. God creates everything new again. Then God puts people in the middle of a brand new world to live as he always desired us to live: with God in open relationship and communion.