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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Open our ears

When you go through seminary, you are taught how to listen to other people. In formation classes and in pastoral counseling classes, we are taught how to listen. If you take a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education — as all United Methodist clergy candidates in Indiana are required to do — you get both classroom and practical training in how to listen.

We need all this because it turns out that listening to other people is incredibly difficult to do.

We usually don’t listen to people. What we do is sift through things other people say in search of bits and pieces we can react to. Or we react involuntarily out of our own emotions, wounds, biases, and convictions. We don’t listen, and we don’t hear. We use the other person’s statements as fodder for our own.

I’m am reminded of this frequently. I’m reminded of it in my own life because I do it all the time and need to be reminded to listen rather than react and respond. I am reminded as well because the members of the United Methodist Church have been actively engaged in not listening to each other for many years.

I see it all over our church conversations and politicking about sexuality.

Time and again, I read and hear the words of clergy who claim to be representing the views of others, but they say things that the other person would never claim as their own. We attribute to others motives they do not hold and evil intentions that they would disavow, and yet we continue to attribute those words and motives to them.

More often than not, people defend such statements by saying they are only reporting what they hear coming from the other person. But they are not really listening. They are reacting. If they were sitting in a session with their CPE instructor, they would rightly be invited to take a closer look at their descriptions of the other person.

Here is the simple process I have been taught, and I try to hold on to.

After another person speaks, report back what you heard them say. Then ask if what you said is what they said. If they say it was not, then you try again, until the person who spoke agrees that what you said is what they said.

Of course, in dialogue across the denomination, such an exchange is rarely possible, but the spirit of that exercise can and should inform how we talk to each other and about each other because we cannot love each other in disagreement if we are not willing to listen to each other.

And let me be clear, being willing to listen does not require us to agree. I can listen to your position so well that I am able to state it back to you in words that you would claim as your own and still say I do not agree. We can listen to a person and still conclude that they are wrong or in error, and we need to permit them to do the same regarding our positions.

In the end, every one of us is going to meet Jesus and discover that we are wrong about some of the things we believe. Only God knows everything. It is a sign of humility to listen to someone who does not share our opinions. When we listen, we acknowledge that only God has nothing to learn about the world.

To listen is not to agree.

To listen is not to endorse.

To listen is simply to treat the other person as you would like to be treated.

The Bible calls that love, and calls us all to do it.

In the coming months, the United Methodist Church will come to some decisions that will change the very nature of our church. It is unavoidable work. It is work that we should carry on as Christians.

I pray God will convict me when I fall short in this area, make me ready to repent, and help me to better love my brothers and sisters even in the midst of disagreement.

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.