Another reason we don’t talk about heaven

When I was writing my last post, I thought maybe I should write this one first.

My last post suggested that one reason mainline pastors don’t talk about heaven much is because talking about heaven requires us to deal with questions about who does not end up there. I believe there is truth in that, but I’m not sure it is the biggest reason why so many pastors say so little about heaven.

My fear is that many pastors do not talk about the way to heaven because of doubt about the doctrine itself.

This doubt can take more than one form.

The mildest form of this is an impulse to “correct” the flaws in popular piety about heaven. If you read the Bible, it does not take much effort to notice that the Bible speaks about eternity with God not in terms of wings and harps and clouds, but in terms of a physical life in resurrected and redeemed creation. The idea that life after death involves living on as a some sort of ghost among angels is popular but not biblical. The biblical promise is that after Christ returns again creation will be redeemed and heaven and earth will be one. We will live on in bodies of flesh and bone, but free of the death and frailty that so marks our existence now. It will be utterly different than life as we know it, and yet we will still have lungs full of air, stomachs taking in food, and skin feeling the softness of a puppy’s fur.

Observing all these things is mere orthodoxy.

But sometimes, we pastors can be so devoted to clearing away the errors of popular piety about a heaven full of ghosts that we sound like we are calling into question the idea of heaven itself. We want to appear wise more than we want to help our people love God and trust in what they believe.

This can be fixed with more care in the way we speak.

Some problems, however, run deeper than words.

Some pastors don’t talk about heaven because they do not believe the orthodox teaching embodied in the great creeds of the church. They do not believe that Christ will come again and judge the living and the dead. They do not believe that some of us will spend eternity with God and some will be consigned to hell. They do not believe in a final reward for the righteous and final punishment for the wicked.

I love my brothers and sisters in the clergy who struggle with doubt or secretly disbelieve the things we say in the creeds of the church. I do not know how I could stand up and preach every week if I seriously questioned the baptismal faith I am called to preach as a pastor. It would cause me deep pain to be so divided, but I hope that we would all recall that we are called to preach the faith of the church rather than “our own theology” and not let our own doubts keep us from sharing the great hope of heaven and eternity with God with the people who gather in worship with us each week.

I appreciate you taking time to read my thoughts here. I’m curious what you think. Do mainline pastors speak and preach about heaven too little or too much? Why do you think this is so?

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The treacherous first step

John Wesley reads the Beattitudes as both an account of the perfected Christian life and as a description of the journey we take toward that state. The first and enduring rung on that ladder is poverty of spirit, which Wesley described at great length but sums up with the following words:

Poverty of spirit then, as it implies the very first step we take in running the race which is set before us, is a just sense of our inward and outward sins, and our guilt and helplessness.

It is a proper awareness of our “mere want, of naked sin, of helpless guilt and misery.”

Let me not sugar coat this, though, because I have found in my study of Wesley that this first step is the one that we most fight against, most try to skip past, and most deny as having any basis in “contemporary” Christian thought, obsessed as we are with being infectiously peppy and upbeat. We want to jump to the blessing that poverty of spirit brings without actually being poor in the first place.

Here are some of Wesley’s words about the thoughts of the one who is poor in spirit.

“In me,” saith he, “dwelleth no good thing,” but whatsoever is evil and abominable. He has a deep sense of the loathsome leprosy of sin, which he brought with him from his mother’s womb, which overspreads his whole soul, and totally corrupts every power and faculty thereof.

The one who is poor in spirit is deeply aware of his or her own pride, vanity, thirst for praise, envy, jealousy, hatred, anger, opposition to God, love of the world, and self-will.

It is difficult to overstate how pessimistic Wesleyan Christianity is about human nature. There is not a speck of the talk that we so reflexively engage in to defend our own faults and “short comings.” The notion “Well, you are only human,” is neither defense nor justification, but is rather an indictment.

As we come to terms with this, we can see why Wesley was hounded out of so many churches and why the movement he founded was always derided by many good church leaders. In our day of bright and sunny Christinianty in which faith is often offered as a kind of “be happy” solution to the difficult things in life, I expect Wesley would meet a similar reaction in our churches as he did in his day.

We sing hymns still at times about our sense of unworthiness and our sinful nature, but if we hear the words we sing, we often do not really think they apply to us. Sinners are other people. I just have problems and struggles that hopefully God will help me get over.

And here is the problem that our contemporary ways of thinking have. Wesley was so adamant about the desolation of sin because he knew that only when we could look without flinching at our own sin could we experience salvation with joy. For him, the blackness of sin set the stage for the brilliant sunshine of salvation. But so often for us, our tepid and halting admission of our own sinfulness and helplessness leaves us with a similarly tepid experience of the gospel.

Poverty of spirit is the first step toward the joys of Christian salvation, but it is a deep step down for many of us and we often will not take it unless we stumble and fall into it.

Will we bend our knees?

I have been away from regular blogging for some time, and I am finding it difficult to get into the regular pattern once again. Such is the way with all things in life, yes?

As I try to pick up this habit and discipline again, I am going to return to something that has long sustained me in both my writing and my spiritual life: Reading and responding to the works of John Wesley.

In the past, I have written some on his 13 sermons on the Sermon on the Mount. For a time, I am going to read through them again and write about some of the things I encounter in them. I hope it is useful for you.

And so, let us begin with his first sermon in this series, where I come across these words.

Let us observe, who it is that is here speaking, that we may take heed how we hear. It is the Lord of heaven and earth, the Creator of all; who, as such, has a right to dispose of all his creatures; the Lord our Governor, whose kingdom is from everlasting, and ruleth over all; the great Lawgiver, who can well enforce all his laws, being “able to save and to destroy,” yea, to punish with “everlasting destruction from his presence and from the glory of his power.”

In my notes in the margin of my book, I wrote in response to this: “our democratic instincts rebel against this.” And they do, do they not?

We Christians who have been born and raised in America have within us a deep passion and prejudice in favor of democracy. We consider it by reflex the only just way for a country to be organized and resist by instinct any suggestion otherwise. We expect our rulers to be responsive to the “will of the people” and for the laws of our land to be constantly adjusted to the changing — we always flatter ourselves by saying advancing — norms and values of our society.

All of this prepares us poorly to be people who understand what we mean when we say “Jesus is Lord.” We use the words, but we do not really grasp what we say or we say it without really believing it. In some part of our soul, we do not bend the knee.

Of course, this problem did not start with us. Genesis 3 is the same story. Exodus 32 is the same story. And on and on.

We can recite the creeds as many times as we like, but we still must wrestle with the temptation to say in our heart: “Yes, Jesus is Lord, but …”

The simple truth is this. Jesus is Lord, the Creator of all, and he can therefore do whatever he wishes. We have no “rights” to invoke against him. If Jesus were to require our life right now, we have no room to protest. If Jesus lifts us up, we have no reason to boast at our achievements and if Jesus brings us low, we have no reason to complain at our treatment.

If we cannot say “amen” to this, then there is very little chance we will hear the rest of what Jesus has to say in the Sermon on the Mount with proper ears.

And so, I am called to examine my heart. Do I say the words “Jesus is Lord” and truly mean what I say? Or do I reserve some of my democratic demands to press on God? Do I bend the knee? Do I say it is better to die on my feet? Am I ready to be taught or do I have things I want the teacher to agree to first?

I pray that Jesus gives me supple knees and a ready heart.