One reason we don’t talk about heaven

I have a theory about why some pastors talk so little about “the way to heaven” in the mainline church. I have no evidence at all to indicate whether my theory has any merit, but since it costs you little to read these thoughts, I hope you might indulge me for a few moments.

I think that one reason we in the mainline talk so little about “the way to heaven” is that talking about it will require us to observe that not everyone ends up there. And drawing attention to that truth makes people — the preacher among them — uncomfortable.

It is easier to avoid saying such things because the moment we say out loud that not everyone goes to heaven, we instantly have a lot of questions to answer.

“What about my son/daughter/husband/wife/mother/father who does not believe and never comes to church?”

“What about me? Sure I gossip and harbor resentment in my heart toward others and refuse to forgive that person who hurt me back in the day, but I’m going to heaven, right? I mean, I come to church every Sunday.”

Questions like these arise out of anxiety and fear, and are unpleasant to confront for all involved. Pastors, as a group, prefer to ease people’s fears rather than heighten them, so our impulse is often to create wiggle room that avoids the hard implications of the truths we believe.

I am prone to this. I am an empathetic person who scores high on the Feeling scale on the Myers-Briggs type indicator. Not only do I want to offer comfort to people who are hurt, but I also want people to like me. So, my inclination is avoid and deflect questions like these. My impulse is to say things like this: “Well, yes, your uncle Bud expresses contempt toward God and church, but I’m sure Jesus is working on him and will judge him with mercy.” My impulse is to shy away from saying what the Scriptures say about Bud because I know that will deepen the anxiety of the person who brings me the question.

But protecting people from anxiety about God is not my job.

If a man came to his heart doctor weighing 350 pounds, smoking every day, and eating nothing but fast food, we would not consider the doctor heartless, cruel, or unkind if he told the man the truth about the likely outcome of his life. Indeed, if the doctor worried about upsetting the man and told him that things would probably be okay, we’d say the doctor had failed to do his job.

When a pastor does that very thing, avoids the truth, we often call it being “pastoral.”

And so why doesn’t the church talk much about “the way to heaven”? One reason — and I know there are others — is because talking about it upsets people. Talking about it always involves talking about the fact that not all ways lead to heaven and, in fact, most of the ways that the world likes to tread lead away from heaven. This makes people uncomfortable and fearful and angry, and we don’t want to deal with that in the church.

But here is the problem. People need to be uncomfortable before they can find comfort in the gospel. If we are too tender about disturbing their hearts, we will find that they often remain impervious to the true blessing of good news and apt to wander far from the road that leads to heaven.

If people never feel themselves to be lost, they will not rejoice at being found.

And so, the challenge I take from these thoughts is this: If my task as preacher and pastor is to lead people in the way that ends in glory, I must not be too sensitive about the pains they might experience along the way. God uses those pains and even causes them. Yes, as pastor, I must find a way to speak always with grace, always with the aim of building up and edifying, but also always in truth. To do anything else is to shirk my calling. Lord, help me.

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The questions I get asked the most

In my work as a pastor, I’ve come across a curious gap. It looks like this. In my work with regular Christians and non-Christians, the questions I get most often are some version of the following.

Who is going to heaven?

Is ____________ in heaven?

How do I get to heaven?

The word “heaven” is not always used, but that is the meaning of what people ask and what they want to know about. Even when people ask less heavenly questions, the concern about heaven is in the background. If someone asks me about their divorce or the pet vice that they can’t give up and want me to help them justify, the unspoken question behind the conversation is often something like “can I still get into heaven, despite the thing I’m asking you about?”

A lot of people think a lot about heaven, and a lot of them think I am a person who should be able to help them find answers those questions.

Despite these facts, I don’t hear pastors and contemporary theologians talk much about heaven. Or rather, what I hear and read most is caution about putting too much emphasis on heaven. We are advised not to be so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good and taught the ways that popular notions about heaven are not biblical. I have many teachers who can help me redirect and divert attention from these questions to “more practical” concerns.

More and more, this all strikes me as strange.

Here we have lots of evidence before us of a gnawing hunger for teaching and instruction, and often what we offer in response is self-help, politics, and pop philosophy. It would be like going to a dentist for help with a tooth ache and being told to sign up for a plan to put fluoride in the city’s water or being given advice on how to live with the pain.

Perhaps there is in this observation some explanation for the great gap in vitality between the early Methodist movement and the United Methodist Church today. The Holy Spirit stirs up these questions. He causes the ache, but too often we send people away with academic arguments and political slogans when what they need is some spiritual root canal.

Contrary to our practice, John Wesley did not shy away from the topic of heaven. Indeed, the question “what must I do to get to heaven” was the animating force of his own spiritual journey and his ministry. In the preface to his standard sermons he described the sermons themselves as the result of his labors to discover in the Bible the way to heaven. As he wrote: “I want to know one thing — the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore.”

And so I wonder what would happen if that became our question as well. What if the central question of our ministry was “How can I show people the way to heaven?” Would it change what we do? Would it change what we teach?

I hope to explore these questions further in the coming the weeks.

How do we dig the wells again?

As Methodist preachers were facing opposition and struggling to bear fruit in Calvinistic Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1771, John Wesley wrote the following in a letter to one of the movement’s supporters:

If any one could show you, by plain Scriptures and reason, a  more excellent way than that you have received [from Methodists], you certainly would do well to receive it; and, I trust, I should do the same. But I think it will not be easy for any one to show us, either that Christ did not die for all, or that he is not willing as well as able to cleanse from all sin, even in the present world.

As I read this, I found myself wondering what my fellow clergy in the United Methodist Church would say about such a passage.

I do not think many would quibble with the notion that Jesus Christ died for all.

The second point would meet more resistance, as it did among Methodists even in Wesley’s day. Wesley believed that Christ has both the power and the intention of healing us from all sin. In theology class, we call this sanctification. In practical terms, it means that the power of Christ not only pardons us from the guilt of sin but also cures us of the very inclination and desire to sin in any way. In more positive terms, we love both God and our neighbors perfectly.

Wesley believed and taught that Christian could receive this total sanctification and should, in fact, seek after it. He did not argue this because he thought humans were capable of it, but because he believed that Scripture testified that Jesus Christ both wants that for us and is capable of doing what he desires.

This doctrine of Christian Perfection is part of the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church, even if it is not frequently preached and often ignored in practice.

But the controversial nature of Christian Perfection is not the place where I suspect a congress of United Methodist clergy would find the most ground to argue over Wesley’s advice in his letter. I suspect where we would most disagree is over his standard for doctrine itself. Wesley urges the woman to whom he writes to appeal to “plain Scriptures and reason” as the foundation for what she should believe.

I suspect a gathering of United Methodists would quarrel quite a bit if this were proposed as the basis of our doctrine.

Where are tradition and experience from our later 20th century invention the Wesleyan Quadrilateral?

Where are all the critical tools that make the notion of “plain Scripture” anything but plain?

Wesley read Scripture from the privileged position of a white man in a patriarchal society, of course, so what of readings from the margin? Are they still plain?

What about impartations of the Holy Spirit that give us new words?

And so on.

For my part, I find as a pastor in a church that I am not really interested in exploring our doctrinal divisions. They have been well mapped and discussed and remain unchanged. I need to understand them just as I need to understand various reasons people resist the gospel or struggle to grown in their faith. They are the landscape in which I do my pastoral work. But I do not feel my work advances a great deal by trudging again over this well trodden turf.

What I long for is some conversation among those of us who seek to preserve the Wesleyan deposit in our doctrinal standards. I find in the realities of pastoral work among a settled congregation that it is quite challenging to nurture and develop a Wesleyan Christianity. The flock has so long been fed from whatever sources it could find and many different streams, that the particular theological and doctrinal commitments that mark a church as a Methodist church have all but vanished.

How do we dig again these wells of spiritual nourishment?