On Being Heavenly Minded…

heart cloudI’ve been in pastoral ministry for over 22 years and this past Sunday I preached my first sermon on heaven. I’ve mentioned heaven countless times in sermons through the years (how could any pastor not?), but I’ve never preached a sermon that focused on the topic heaven. I suppose the closest I’ve come has been at funerals, especially if I was using John 14 as a primary text. You remember John 14?

1 “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. 2 There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? 3 When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.”

Yeah, that makes a pretty good text for funerals, which is about the only time we give any serious consideration to the idea of heaven. I suppose that’s why I’ve never preached an entire sermon on heaven. Heaven’s close association with death doesn’t make for much good Sunday morning sermon fodder.

A couple of years ago, several authors came out with books about heaven. Randy Alcorn had one entitled Heaven. Don Piper did one a little older entitled 90 Minutes in Heaven, and still another that became a New York Times bestseller was Heaven is for Real: A Little Boys Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, by Todd Burpo. And, of course, Max Lucado has now weighed in with Beyond Heaven’s Doors, which is an adaptation of an earlier book of his re-marketed for renewed sales effect (nothing like a little consumer Christianity, huh?).

I didn’t get too much into the description of heaven, even though the Apostle John gives us a pretty good one in Revelation 21:

10 So he took me in the Spirit[b] to a great, high mountain, and he showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God. 11 It shone with the glory of God and sparkled like a precious stone—like jasper as clear as crystal. 12 The city wall was broad and high, with twelve gates guarded by twelve angels. And the names of the twelve tribes of Israel were written on the gates. 13 There were three gates on each side—east, north, south, and west. 14 The wall of the city had twelve foundation stones, and on them were written the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

15 The angel who talked to me held in his hand a gold measuring stick to measure the city, its gates, and its wall. 16 When he measured it, he found it was a square, as wide as it was long. In fact, its length and width and height were each 1,400 miles.[c] 17 Then he measured the walls and found them to be 216 feet thick[d] (according to the human standard used by the angel).

18 The wall was made of jasper, and the city was pure gold, as clear as glass. 19 The wall of the city was built on foundation stones inlaid with twelve precious stones:[e] the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20 the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst.

21 The twelve gates were made of pearls—each gate from a single pearl! And the main street was pure gold, as clear as glass.

22 I saw no temple in the city, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light. 24 The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the world will enter the city in all their glory. 25 Its gates will never be closed at the end of day because there is no night there. 26 And all the nations will bring their glory and honor into the city.

John gives us an image in our mind, but still our minds can’t comprehend it. We can only imagine…like the song says, but imagining it makes it no less real, and imagining it brings us hope. Really, though, me trying to explain what heaven looks like is like me trying to explain how beautiful Ireland is. As much as I long to go there, I’ve never been there. I’ve seen postcards. I’ve watched documentaries, and I’ve even been to Enoch’s Irish Pub (it’s the 2-for-1 burgers!), but I’ve yet to set foot on the pristine green shores of the Emerald Isle. I think I know how beautiful Ireland is, but as I begin to tell others, I can only tell them how beautiful I believe it is. I hope to go there one day, but until I do, I just can’t know.

Of course, then there’s the whole understanding Revelation thing, and what did John mean when he wrote it. What does all the symbolism mean, and if beasts and candlesticks and dragons was symbolic language, is the language of Revelation 21 symbolic, too? It can become very confusing, indeed! It doesn’t make us wonder any less, but it can be all quite confusing.

So what if John can be confusing. That fact doesn’t change my mind that I believe heaven is real. I believe heaven is real for two reasons. Number one, I long for heaven. A few years ago, Billy Joel wrote a song entitled River of Dreams. 

 It’s a pretty catchy little ditty that he wrote in response to his daughter’s questions about what happens when we die. Joel says:

In the middle of the night
I go walking in my sleep
Through the jungle of doubt
To a river so deep
I know I’m searching for something
Something so undefined
That it can only be seen
By the eyes of the blind
In the middle of the night

I’m not sure about a life after this
God knows I’ve never been a spiritual man
Baptized by the fire, I wade into the river
That runs to the promised land

Billy Joel can say he’s not a spiritual man, but he really is. His words give him away. He longs to know what’s on the other side of death. He longs for it because he was created to long for it. We all are. We’re all searching for that life everlasting, for heaven. It’s written into our hearts, our minds, and our very souls by God himself. That’s what the writer of Ecclesiastes said in 3:11—God has placed eternity into our hearts. Eternity is written within us. It is a broken and fallen world that causes us to doubt. The longing is just one way I know heaven is real.

Another way I know heaven is real is because I believe in God, and ultimately that’s what heaven is…it is the place where God resides. It is the place where God’s presence gives light and life to everything. More than being the place God resides, everlasting life (can’t talk about everlasting life without talking about heaven) is God’s life, and it is both quantity and quality. I heard the story of the old couple who died and went to heaven. St. Peter was there to greet them. First, he showed them their mansion. The man, overwhelmed by the sheer luxury of it all, asked, “How much does this place cost per night?” St. Peter replied, “Sir, this is Heaven, it doesn’t cost anything.” Then St. Peter took them to the dining room where table upon table was piled high with the most delicious foods you could imagine. Again, overwhelmed by the glory of it all the man asked, “How much for the meals?” St. Peter said, “You forget, this is Heaven, it’s free.” He then took them out back where they saw a fantastically beautiful golf course. As the man stood there open-mouthed St. Peter said, “Now before you ask, there are no greens fees, this is Heaven, everything is free.” The man looked at his wife and said, “You and your confounded bran muffins, I could have been here 10 years ago!”

There is a sense in which we should hasten the day, but we don’t have to do so. We have access to God’s life now through our relationship with Jesus Christ. We get a taste of heaven now. Every time we baptize an infant or an adult, we’re catching a glimpse of heaven. Every time we kneel at an altar and receive the bread and cup, we are literally breaking off a piece of heaven in the here and now. When we do, we find strength to keep moving. We find grace to hold on. We find forgiveness, and mercy, and peace. We find hope, and that’s heaven on earth for sure.

History is moving toward something. Heaven is the place and the time when God’s salvation is ultimately completed. Heaven is about God’s work of salvation in God’s creation. It is the culmination of God’s salvation. All that God has been doing in his creation since the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden is restored, renewed and reconciled in the new heaven and the new earth. The bible begins with Genesis, and God, the Father, Maker of heaven and earth, and it ends with the restoration and renewal of all that has been broken. We end with heaven.

Just a few thoughts from Sunday. Just a few thoughts from my first ever sermon on heaven.

Until next time, keep looking up…

…but I keep trying!

“Because I’m not the perfect pastor, that’s why!” Someone asked me why I named my blog “Not the Perfect Pastor,” and the foregoing statement was my reply. People read my blog title and see not the perfect pastor, but don’t always see the tag line (or should that be subtitle) “but that doesn’t keep me from trying.” The key for me is in the trying part.

perfect peopleI’m not the perfect pastor. But I long to be the perfect pastor. There are days I don’t want to be a pastor at all (they are few in number, but they happen). There are days that I would rather be anywhere but “at work.” There are days I get frustrated with the “work” of ministry. There are weeks I don’t want to write a sermon. There are days people get under my skin. There are days I let my frustration show in ways that are not necessarily pleasing to God or encouraging to others. But, even on those days, I keep trying. I get up and go to work because that’s what I’m called to do. I can’t do anything else…not because I can’t do anything else, but because there is this divine compulsion that won’t let me do anything else. I long, deep in my heart, to be the perfect pastor, to always say the right thing, to always do the right thing, to have the next sermon be better than the last sermon, to be the best example of grace, forgiveness and love.

There are examples of the perfect pastor I have in my mind. They are men and women who showed the love of Christ in real ways. I know enough to know they were probably not perfect, either, but I know they were always striving to do that which is right, that which reflected the best of Jesus even while dealing with the worst of humanity. That reality gives meaning to the admonition Paul gave to Timothy “hold on to the wholesome teaching you learned from me” (2 Timothy 1:13). That was Paul’s way of saying “follow my example.” I want to get to the point in my life where I CAN say “follow my example.” Others have gone before me and given me the example of how to be a great, if not perfect, pastor. I keep trying, even when I fail, because I don’t want their example to be in vain. Nah! I won’t mention names of these people. Some are still living, and I wouldn’t want to ruin my idea of their perfection. They’d call me and say something like, “If you only knew…”

I don’t know why I think I should be the perfect pastor. I’m not perfect at anything else, either. I’m not the perfect husband. Just ask Vanessa. No, on second thought, don’t ask her. But, the fact that I’m not the perfect husband doesn’t keep me from trying. I keep trying to do those things that would make me the perfect husband. I keep saying “I love you” every day. I will surprise her occasionally with flowers or a card (probably not as often as I should, but hey, I’m not perfect). I try to remember to clean up after myself. I try to let her know what’s happening in my work life so she doesn’t wonder. I try to be an encouragement to her when it appears she’s having a bad day. Do I always get it right? Heavens no! But, still I try.

I’m also not the perfect parent. As much as I long to be, I’m not. How many times have I sat around and wished I could do it over again. How I’ve counted the things I would do differently in my parenting. I never spent as much time with them as I should. I never had the right words at the right time…you know, like you see on TV and in the movies (think Bill Cosby here, or if you’re really old think Robert Young or Ozzie Nelson). I suppose if I had hired a group of writers who had a week to script my reality, things would have been different. I didn’t. They aren’t. So, I keep trying. I still have time to be the perfect parent. I still have time to get a few things right with my children. I still have time to tell them I love them. I still have time to offer them better advice. I still have time to model the type of behavior that will help them be better parents and disciples. The key will be to practice those things in my own life now. Will I always get it right? No, but I’ll keep trying because I want to be the perfect parent. I can still do it.

Apparently, I’m not even the perfect blogger, either. The perfect blogger would blog every day (you know who you are!), and would have the perfect words to say on almost every subject, combined with the right amount of humor, the appropriate amount of sarcasm, a touch of political satire, and yes, just the right length so as not to be a drain for people to read. But, I’m not perfect, and sometimes I will go ten or twelve days without blogging (not a very good way to build followers, is it?), and even then, I struggle with something to write. Seriously, it’s supposed to be an on-line journal, but I can’t post everything I like to journal about. That would really destroy your picture of me (at least I like to think it would–which demonstrates, yet again, that I’m not perfect). But, just because I’m not posting doesn’t mean I’m not wanting to, or even that I’m not writing, or thinking about writing. And so, I keep trying, sometimes not so perfectly, but trying anyway.

I keep trying. I keep trying because I do want to be better, and I believe I can be better. Why do I believe that? One word–grace. I’m nothing if not Wesleyan, and I believe that we “go on to perfection.” It would be really easy to try to explain what “perfection” is from a Wesleyan perspective, but this post would get long, and you’d get bored, and it would detract from the reality that I believe I can and will do better than I’ve done in the past because Jesus gives us grace to do so, if we will open ourselves to the Spirit’s power and submit ourselves to His guidance. Isn’t that what Paul meant in Romans 8:2 when he wrote, “And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death.” I think Paul reiterated it in verses 12-13, “Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. For if you live by its dictates, you will die. But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live.”

Key for me is opening myself to the Spirit’s power in my life. Putting myself in the place where the Spirit can do His work in me, for it is the Spirit’s work to “perfect” me, not mine. My work is to be in the place where He can work, and then let Him. I do that through prayer. I pray daily to live a life of character and integrity. Sometimes He answers that prayer, other days I don’t allow Him to answer it. I do that through a daily discipline of bible reading and meditation. I do that through opening myself to accountability from colleagues and brothers and sisters along the journey. I do that by intentionally practicing those spiritual disciplines that open myself to the work and guidance of the Holy Spirit in my life. No, I don’t always get it right, but I keep trying, and a lot of days I get it right, not because I’ve done it well, but because I was open to the Spirit working in me. I believe there is grace and growth even in the trying.

We Wesleyans call this whole process sanctification. We believe in it. If we believe in it, maybe we should practice it a bit more. So, please, don’t get hung up on the “Not the Perfect” part of my blog title. If anything, focus on the “keep trying” part. Better yet, keep trying with me.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Hi, My Name is Lynn, and I’m an Evangelical…

f-Green-FreshMethod_Shutterstock-Designus-SeanRobertsSometimes I feel like I need to belong to a 12-step program to help me deal with my issue. I feel compelled to stand up and confess that I’m an evangelical (much like an alcoholic stands up and confesses in front of his/her group), as though about the only thing one shouldn’t be in the United Methodist Church is evangelical. I’m also getting the sense that it’s not just in the UM world that being evangelical is frowned upon. Unfortunately, when I say “evangelical,” too many folks hear, “right-wing, bible thumping, turn-or-burn, divisive, hard-line, hate-filled, intolerant, mean-spirited, and homophobic.” These are all terms I’ve heard or read to describe evangelicalism in recent months. I sure hope that doesn’t describe me!

I don’t know what others mean when I say “evangelical,” but I can tell you what I mean. When I say I’m an evangelical, I mean that I believe a relationship with Jesus Christ is THE most transformative event in a person’s life, and that every person needs (yes, I said “needs”) to know Christ in a life-transforming way. Okay, call it “born again” if you want (Jesus didn’t have much problem calling it that when he talked to Nicodemus), or call it “justification” since we’re being good Wesleyans, but whatever we call it, call it accepting Jesus Christ as both Lord and Savior.

I spent over eight years as a deputy sheriff for the Jackson Parish Sheriff’s Office. I entered law enforcement because I wanted to help people. I soon discovered, though (and perhaps this is what put me on my journey toward ministry), that the type of help most people needed was not the type of help law enforcement can provide. I discovered, in small town law enforcement, that we were dealing with the same people over and over again. A change in their circumstances didn’t equal a change in them. I discovered most of the problems people had were heart problems—spiritual problems. Change a heart and change a life. I also discovered along the way the primary heart that needed changing was my own. An encounter with Jesus changes our hearts. It changes us. He saves us. Yes, from our sins, but also from ourselves. My “evangelical” nature also means that I believe it is the cross of Jesus Christ that makes a life-transforming relationship with Jesus possible. He died to redeem fallen humanity and reconcile us to God, the Father.

Acknowledging that one needs to be transformed by the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ would, I think, also be an acknowledgment that following Jesus is a life-long process (yes, I said “process,”), and if life-long, then sanctifying grace becomes an important companion along the journey. Change is not something that happens only once. Following Jesus affects every area of our lives. It impacts the job we have. It influences the car we drive. It determines how we utilize the resources entrusted to us. Children, go where I send thee, takes on a whole new meaning when Jesus is Lord. I sing with the hymn writer, “All to Jesus, I surrender, All to Him I freely give. I will ever love and trust Him, in His presence daily live.” Unfortunately, I too often find myself singing “Some to Jesus, I surrender, Some to Him I freely give…I surrender some.” That’s because, as an evangelical, I believe following Jesus is a process, and I’m still in process.

Being “evangelical” also means that I have a high regard for God’s Word, the Bible. I’m sorry that I don’t believe it’s just another book, or just another in a long line of religious writings. I believe that God has something to say to us, and for whatever reason, God has chosen to speak most clearly through His Son, Jesus, and through His Word, the Bible. I am Wesleyan to the core, but at the core of my Wesleyan theological framework is scripture–you know, scripture, tradition, reason and experience? Foundational for me is scripture, and it becomes the starting point, or should I say the lens through which my view of life begins. I said it was the starting point, not the ending point, but I don’t necessarily believe that tradition, reason and experience hold the same influence as scripture. I hope one doesn’t find that “hard-line.” I certainly don’t mean it that way.

I’d like to say that because I’m “evangelical” that I am always obedient to the Bible, that I always get it right. My experience has taught me otherwise way too many times. Sometimes, I just blow it. You don’t have to follow me around very long to discover that. But, being “evangelical” doesn’t mean I’m perfect. No self-respecting evangelical I know would ever say that. It only means I can’t rely on my experience alone to interpret right from wrong, or understand God’s will, or speak definitively about what should be the course for humanity and the church. Experience, jaded by sin as it is, is far too unpredictable to be that definitive.

As a committed evangelical, I also believe that God desires to use us to transform the world, that there must be a commitment to social reform and social justice, that missions matter, and they matter greatly. I believe that life transformation happens in relationship, and our lives are changed greatest when we’re engaged with the least, the lost, the hurting, the lonely, the broken and any who are on the margins (we could have a real discussion about who is on the margins, but that should be another blog, and you’d likely call me “mean-spirited” and “divisive”).

There, in a few words, is what I mean when I say I’m an “evangelical.” Sometimes, I get the sense that a person can be anything he/she wants to be, just don’t be “evangelical.” I am, though. I can’t help it! So…

Hi, my name is Lynn, and I’m an evangelical!

Until next time, keep looking up…