You are NOT Going to Heaven

Oops. Did you just spit your coffee on that new white shirt? Sorry. My bad.

While you’re cleaning up there and before I go any further, I think a disclaimer may be in order. Everything I say about God, aside from my own personal experience, is my humble opinion and has no basis in fact.  What did you pay for that opinion? Nothing. So, what is it worth? That’s right. Nothing.

So let’s continue.

There are many different beliefs and opinions concerning heaven and hell. But, there is only one fact: no matter what someone tells you, no matter what “proof” they provide, no one knows. No different than a recent conversation I had with a friend of mine who collects clowns. She thinks they’re delightful and enchanting. I actually believe they were created by some satanic force to kill us in our sleep. So, who’s right? (I’m pretty sure I am, but I have no proof of that either.)

So, if your bubble just burst or your halo deflated, I apologize. But this is kind of important stuff to consider because if heaven and hell aren’t an actual piece of real estate, then maybe your reason for being nice, or not, to the jerk next door needs to be reevaluated. And, spoiler alert, this is not going to be easy or fun.

Heaven This is not heaven!

fire And this is not hell!

Diana Butler Bass speaks of this idea of heaven and hell as “vertical faith”. She says:

“Sacred traditions replete with metaphors of God in the elements were replaced by modern theological arguments – about facts and religious texts, correct doctrine, creation versus science, the need to prove God’s existence, how to be saved, and which church offers the right way to heaven. These are the questions of vertical faith.” (Did you catch that –  metaphor was replaced with fact?)

So, when it is said that we make our own heaven and hell right here, where we live and move and have our being, what exactly does that mean? Well, this is the tough part I referred to earlier because our Western brains can’t seem to grasp or accept anything mysterious or inexplicable. Everything in existence has to be named and categorized or it gets cast aside as irrelevant.

We are very good at compartmentalizing everything in our lives. Nice people who are low-maintenance  get to be a part of our club. Unpredictable, moody, or disagreeable people don’t get to join. We easily converse with those who agree with us and avoid or argue with those who don’t. We “attend” church on Sundays and then divide up the rest of the week into unrelated “things”. We even compartmentalize life and death. We separate the two with the certainty that there is no connection (Mufasa would not approve!).

circle of life

You may be too young to recall the days when wakes were held at home in a family parlor where the life and death of a loved one was celebrated as a continuum.  That all changed with the advent of the funeral parlor. Funeral parlors opened so “professionals” could manage the uncomfortable aspects of death and turn bodies into pasty replicas of loved ones. Frankly, I think funeral parlors came into existence when some guy got tired of his mother-in-law hanging around in a box in his living room for a week, but I can’t prove that either.

Anyway…

Considering how we keep everything in our lives separated into neat tidy boxes that we can easily manage, like peas and applesauce on our dinner plate, (yuck, don’t want those to touch each other) it’s no surprise how easily we accepted God’s separation from us as well. We can’t fathom the thought of God being right here in our midst looking for any soft entry into our walled up hearts. If we could just stop for one minute, let down our guard, and imagine how different; how rich and full our lives would be if we let Him in.

Try as we may to ignore it we all have an emptiness that God placed in our hearts that can only be filled by Him and not with things of this world. Augustine said it best: “Lord, you have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”  I think, as I found in my own life, it requires us to admit our need for God; to truly see how our lives are empty of purpose and meaning without Him; that He has not left us to fend for ourselves.

How about this uplifting thought: Gian Carlo Menotti tells us, “Hell begins on the day when God grants us a clear vision of all that we might have achieved, of all the gifts which we have wasted, of all that we might have done which we did not do.” Wait now, this is actually good news. If hell is here now, and we somehow figure out what our true purpose is then we have a chance to correct our pathetic, despicable, pitiful selves before we drop dead. That is Good News, right?!

oh-crap-was-that-today

So, what does all this mean? Again, I can only speak from my own experience. For most of my life I ignored God and when I did acknowledge Him it was usually in a display of anger directed at Him. I believed He was distant and could care less about me – a heathen.

If God is known as “Father” then it would stand to reason that I would view Him just as I viewed my own father. In which case, he would be distant and aloof. He would be sitting on his sofa eating ice cream and mindlessly watching TV, while the world fell in around him. Or if my mother was any indication of who God was as a parent, I would have run like hell in the other direction. I would have seen Him as a controlling, punishing, and unforgiving God. And who needs that? Either way, He would not get a Father of the Year award from me and there would be no Hallmark card created for Him.

I think we actually like the notion that God is way up there while we’re way down here.  We might be relieved to think He’s not watching when we try to run our own lives. “Don’t need you, God. I’ve got this!” We’re probably hoping He’s much too busy with other more important things to pay any attention to us mindlessly sleepwalking through life?

olive oil sleep walking

In many traditional faiths, God sits in His heaven and doles out rewards and punishment to each of us according to our merits or sinfulness. Think of Job in his most distressing time and how his friends wagged their accusing fingers at him, certain that he had sinned in some terrible way to have been the recipient of God’ wrath. “It’s pretty obvious Buddy. You screwed up big time! Now, you need to fess up before God gets His second wind!”

So, what changed for me? It certainly wasn’t that God changed His ways. No, I had changed and it wasn’t because I was growing in knowledge about God. It was because I opened myself to a relationship with Him that allowed me to experience who God really was, not who I created Him to be. Knowing about God and experiencing Him is the critical difference necessary to live as fully as we are called to live, and to trust what lies ahead. God tells us in Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” We can choose to believe what we have long been told about a God whose wrath is to be feared, or we can choose to experience the God of immeasurable love and compassion.

Oh, if we could just grasp the reality of heaven and hell perhaps we would live our lives differently so that Menotti’s words would not be the end of our story.

Listen to these prophetic words of Father Richard Rohr:

“When hell became falsely read as a geographical place, it stopped its decisive and descriptive function, and instead became the largely useless threats of exasperated church parents. We made (heaven and hell) into physical places instead of descriptions of states of mind and heart and calls to decisions in this world (emphasis mine). We pushed the whole thing off into the future, and took it out of the now.

Jesus clearly says the kingdom of heaven is among us (Luke 17:21) or “at hand” (Matthew 3:2, 4:17). One wonders why we made it into a reward system for later, or as Brian McLaren calls it, “an evacuation plan for the next world.” Maybe it was easier to obey laws and practice rituals for later than to actually be transformed now.”

A bit more on the reality of hell by Joanne M. Pierce in Sojourners Magazine (italics mine):

“Pope Francis said, ‘Hell is wanting to be distant from God because I do not want God’s love. This is hell.’ Most contemporary theologians would agree with the pope. Hell is not about fire and brimstone; it is about our freedom to say no to God, our freedom to reject love and choose loneliness. When we close our hearts and tell the world to go to hell, we are in fact choosing hell for ourselves. Hell is the absence of love, companionship, communion. We are not sent there; we choose it. God did not create hell; we did.”

When I write a blog post there is always an AHA moment involved. Sometimes it’s what prompts the post, and other times, like now, it comes in the process of writing. It’s like getting my proverbial thump from you-know-Who that causes me to stop and listen closely knowing I am about to be inspired. It happened this morning as I was sitting in silence. Okay, actually I was whining to God. I had a particularly bad couple of days and sleepless nights. I beat myself up so much I thought there would be obvious bruising when I got up this morning.

What I read was in the Gospel of Thomas. Yes, there really was one, but he didn’t make the cut. Neither did Mary Magdalene but don’t get me started on that one! So, Thomas writes, “Jesus said, “Seekers shall not stop until they find.  When they find, they will be disturbed. After being disturbed, they will be astonished (my emphasis). Then they will reign over everything.” Now, hold that thought a minute. The scripture verse we are most familiar with is similar, but clearly less challenging, it is Matthew 7:7, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”  Our shallow, non-threatening translation? Just ask and you’ll get whatever your little heart desires. This reads like a Christmas wish list: Apple AirPods? Done. Captain Marvel Legacy Hero Smartwatch? It’s yours. Chanel’s Quilted Tote bag? Because Lindsay Lohan!? Whatever. Here you go.

Now, back to Thomas. I’m guessing that his gospel was rejected by the powers that be because they were afraid they could not control us if we discovered who God really is and the power that truth gives us. Of course I wasn’t there, so I’ll admit I’m really just pushing hot air, but I think the verse is useful for making the point of this blog.

Thomas tells us that we are to be seeking God and when we find Him in our very hearts, it’s all over. What being “disturbed” and “astonished” means to me is that this only happens when we experience God.

I also read Micah 6:6-9 this morning which tells us what God wants from us. In verses 6-7, these two stupid rich guys were trying to gather up all the best they had to appease God and buy their way into heaven. Somebody even threw in a first born child for good measure. But, God rejects their attempts to buy His favor. God, “Nope, I don’t want your stuff, I want you.”

“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Let’s look at that last verse again. Read it slowly because it is the very core of who we are called to be as children of God: And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

I fully believe that we are living our heaven and hell right here on earth, in our day in and day out lives. Each time we make choices to love and serve others, or conversely, serve ourselves. Each time we seek out those God calls us to bring His love to, or we take care of number one. Each time our hearts break over the pain and suffering that permeates our world and then do something about it or turn our backs and cling to our fear of what it might require of us. With every choice we make to love or hate we choose our own heaven or hell right here.

Now, how does that translate to what eternity looks like for us when we take our last breath?

Wait for it….

Wait for it…

I have no idea.

But, I will tell you this: I have lived as a sinner/saint (don’t laugh, my mother-in-law thought I was a saint once for about five minutes) and everything in between, in my seventy years. I have lived many years of anger, pain, and bitterness. I have been hurt and I have hurt others. At one point I attempted suicide because the idea of living another moment was too unbearable (clearly I sucked at that too – thank God).

In recent years, I have been blessed to live with the indescribable joy of a rich and full life, even in the messy parts.  A life that encourages giving, serving, and caring for others. That calls us to be in relationship with God and everyone around us – to be Christ to a broken world.  A life that requires forgiveness of others and ourselves. To be totally honest, still today, my virtues and faults are often intermixed on any given day. We humans are complicated, but it’s okay.

I now know that I can show up for life unkempt, messy, disordered, and at times unpleasant because I am a beloved sinner. I know I serve a God of mercy and unconditional love so I am not afraid to humble myself before Him and I am not afraid of what lies beyond this life.

And as for you, my friend, if you’re reading this you are still breathing, and if you’re still breathing it’s not too late. Even if you feel like your life is empty and you’re a total failure – you’re wrong! How do I know that without even meeting you? Because you were created in God’s image and He said as much when He first laid eyes on you as a tiny thought in His imagination, “Yep, I did good, real good! You’re a work of art, even if I do say so myself!”

You always have another chance to get life right. To erase regrets, to heal broken relationships, to seek forgiveness, to serve others, and to be all you were created and gifted to be! God is your biggest cheerleader (don’t try to visualize that!).

And, dear ones, this is not something you want to put off till Monday, like that diet!

I will leave you with this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson “You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.”

 

May God bless and keep you. May God’s face shine upon you and give you peace,

Love,

Linda

When You Quit Believing in Santa, You Get Underwear

Do you remember how long you believed in Santa? I remember slowly doubting when I was about seven. Santa became suspect when my brother and sister, who are older, began to make fun of me. But I didn’t want to stop believing. Christmas was magical. Santa made it so. For a child Santa is the reason for the season (we can only hope they outgrow that belief).

One year, my brother and I found all the presents wrapped up and hidden in a closet two weeks before Christmas. We shook them and then carefully peeled the tape away to see what was inside. Then wrapped them back up and put them back in the closet. As you might imagine, Christmas morning was a terrible disappointment to me. I couldn’t even pretend to be excited about the gifts I received, even though some were what I had asked for. It was over: The magic, the mystery, the futile fight to stay awake this time, just for a glimpse of Santa. If I could see him just this once, my faith would be restored, and, with tears streaming down my face, I could tell him that my brother and sister were VERY naughty all year and they should both be turned into lumps of coal! 

But, that didn’t happen and now I was doomed to a reality I was not willing to face. I supposed the next thing to go was the Easter Bunny, and then the Tooth Fairy. And then what? I couldn’t bear it!

charlie-brown-aaugh

But wait!  Discovering that Santa is likely the invention of parents who simply run out of creative ways to keep kids in line a few weeks out of the year may have a positive side:

You were always told to keep your list short since Santa had to provide for the entire world!  Now you could make your Christmas list longer and the requests more extravagant.

Parents could do more than Santa because they only have to buy for a few kids and they have deeper pockets. Sweet!

You would not have to share the cookies and milk with him. You know how you always hated sharing. You little Grinch!

You could complain about the gifts received and demand they be returned to the store. You can’t return gifts to Santa because that would make him angry!

Have you ever felt that Santa would be very disappointed in you if you did not give up your “gently used” toys for kids who had nothing?  You could now ask your parents to write a check to their favorite charity allowing you to keep every last toy for your pathetic selfish self.

And what about those stupid pictures on Santa’s lap?  He was creepy and made you cry.

creepysanta4

And – best of all – there would be no pesky “list” Santa would check to ad nauseum! “Santa’s watching you, you little monster! I saw what you just did to your sister! That’s gonna go on your permanent record young man!”

Now that we’re all adults here, and you’ve gotten over your obsession with Santa, what about Christ?  What about your faith in Someone a bit more significant? If you profess to be a Christ-follower, then there are serious implications to consider. I would be remiss if I did not throw in God’s word about his “lukewarm” followers in Revelation 3:16, “So, because you are lukewarm–neither hot nor cold–I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Nothing ambiguous about that, right? But, we are ridiculously skilled at glazing over it like it applies to everyone else but me.

Professing Christ does not simply amount to the word games we play to dodge God’s claim on our lives. It doesn’t matter how you “talk” about Christ if what people see does not match your rhetoric.

What matters is how you “live” Christ in your day-to-day. Are you truly “living” Christ’s message to love and serve the Lord; to being Christ to a hurting world?  That comes from the very core of who you are as the image and likeness of God.

Faith that is shallow and superficial can be enormously attractive to lazy Christians seeking cheap grace:

You have enough to do just paying the bills and trying to one-up your snooty neighbors. Those ladders to climb; that big house to pay for; people to gossip about; weekly therapy, and all your “charitable volunteering”, will require much more of your valuable time. So God will just have to find someone else to do his other work; the work that doesn’t appeal to you. How about that retired guy down the street? He needs something to keep him occupied, out of his wife’s hair and your business.

If you simply go to church on Sunday, hide in the back, and get your card punched you can sneak out before anyone notices you. And be sure you skip “Mission Sunday” and “Sponsor a poor family Sunday” and “Stewardship Sunday” and “How come you’re wasting your gifts Sunday?” It just makes you squirm in the pew.

Never buy into the idea that the abundant love God pours on you is a free gift – no strings attached. It’s just a trick to reel you in. Nothing in this world is “free.”  You know you’re gonna have to pay him back. And from past experience you know that’s simply an exercise in futility. Better to just not accept it in the first place.

If you must relieve occasional guilt for your indifference to the world around you, send a check – commensurate with the size and scope of your guilt – to a charity of your choice.  And, while you’re at it, consider tithing a little of that money you spend so frivolously on your pathetic selfish adult self.

Whatever you do, stay away from church on Good Friday! You know Jesus’ passion makes you very uneasy and almost, almost, makes you long for something more. You’re sure never going to watch that Mel Gibson movie again are you?!

And best of all, having “religion” in place of relationship makes you accountable to no one. You can just skip merrily along without ever having to “give an answer” to anyone for how you are living your wretched, despicable, miserable life.  Sounds lovely.

So, there you have it. That’s how underwear ends up in your stocking and how Jesus ends up irrelevant.  Neither is a pretty sight; neither will bring you joy on Christmas morning.

We can “pretend” to be excited about the whole “Jesus is the reason for the season” message as we’re reminded once again just how deeply and extravagantly God’s love is by dropping head-long into a smelly manger with smelly animals and not a bit of fanfare!

But it’s sorta like this: even if you LOVE the underwear you receive for Christmas it’s not likely anyone will know unless you wear it on the outside.

underwear boy1

 

And even if you say you LOVE Jesus and your neighbor, it won’t be “obvious” unless you are carrying him and his love for you and your neighbor on the inside in that place where there is a void you have been trying to fill with other things. Then, it will spill out and manifest its radiance and glory to all the world around you!

Brilliant!

Jesus' birth

I wish for you and your family a very blessed

Christmas filled with wonder and awe like you’ve

never imagined it!

 

You are a NEW Creation in Christ

I have read and reread Kathleen Dowling Singh’s book, The Grace in Aging.  She encourages us in our later years to do a life review. She poses this question for us to consider:  “What do I need to clear up or let go of to be more peaceful?”

So, I try to sit quietly with God and that question.  Now, keep in mind, just sitting quietly has its own challenges for me.  All during grade school a common theme on my report card was, “Linda does not apply herself. Linda disrupts the class. Linda talks too much”. You get the idea.

Anyway…

Sitting quietly in God’s presence is just plain frightening to me. It always reminds me of my many visits to the principal’s office, waiting outside his door, anticipating my punishment.

So, yesterday, I was listening to this song. A song I love and have heard often and yet this time it struck a deeper place than ever. Take a listen.

Here is the refrain that kept playing in my head most of the day:

You are more than the choices that you’ve made

You are more than the sum of your past mistakes

You are more than the problems you create

You’ve been remade

And, because I am so weird, here is the vision I got of how I so often see myself:

mr potato head

But, that is NOT what God sees.

As I was rereading my notes in Singh’s book, something else she said struck me (which probably explains Mr. Potato head!):

“These foundational views of who we are, what life is like, what the world is like, what other people are like, and how we should be were formed six or seven decades ago. Because these paradigms are so foundational in our psyche, we rarely examine them. They are our unmindful “givens,” the beliefs of our ignorance. We defend our habit patterns and egos, even though they were created in circumstances that no longer exist by children who no longer exist.

That is powerful stuff! I suppose because I have been the way I am for so long I have been inclined to believe that, like the color of my hair (which…full disclosure…I dye), or the extra fat cells around my middle (which I have become good at hiding under bulky clothes)…

It’s just who I am…I cannot change

How many excuses have I created to hold up the lies I have so long believed: excuses that hold it all precariously together?

I have bought into that lie. I have believed it with all my heart. I have allowed it to run roughshod over my life for too long.

NO! It is NOT who I am. It is who others, in all their own brokenness, have said I am over the years, and I believed it. My parents were both broken in their own ways. Neither had the ability to parent well, and that’s where it all began for me.

What I am realizing is that all those years God was never brought into the conversation. He was never even mentioned or considered relevant. No one, myself included, ever asked his opinion, “So, what do you think, Lord? Isn’t Linda just the most pitiful mess you have ever seen? You made her, wouldn’t you agree that you screwed up the wiring somehow”?

I think it’s about time I sit silently in God’s presence and have the courage to ask him the difficult questions that I have not been able to deal with honestly and courageously. And I know where it must begin:

At every moment of every day God can wipe the slate clean:

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And start over. “Okay, Linda, let’s try that again shall we?”

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He can wipe away the tears, heal the wounds, fix all the broken parts…

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…and remake me into the person he originally created me to be. He can do that for you too if you let Him!

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Surely You Were in This Place

In 2007, Joshua Bell, a world-renowned violinist, dressed in ordinary street clothes and played his $3.5 million dollar violin at the metro station in Washington D.C..

Watch the reaction…

That’s right. There was no reaction.

Then, he went back. This time announced.

Every time I watch these videos I wonder how often we think of God and how we miss him in our very midst; how often we expect Jesus to just drop down from heaven:

I'll be back

Just to be disappointed.

Jesus false alarm

Do we realize he has been here all along?

John Phillip Newell tells us that “at the heart of the physical is the spiritual. Hidden within the mundane is the Divine.”

It is in the ordinary, everyday, that God reveals himself most profoundly: Our ordinary-everyday-get-up-go-to-work-feed-the-kids-walk-the-dog-clean-the-toilets-go-to-bed life.

We can miss the magnificence of God in a beautiful sunrise – blocked by a computer screen. We miss the profound in the lonely widow sitting next to us in church, or the tears of a neighbor estranged from his family.

We miss it because we are either waiting for more, or hoping for less. Less would be easier because the thought of an “almighty, glorious, brilliant, magnificent” God – right here where “we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28)” is just too much for us to believe.

But why?

It’s not like Jesus made some kind of grand entrance the first time. Right? I mean – come on – he showed up in a diaper and smelled a bit like a stable.

It's a Bird It's a plane

If we are even willing to consider an encounter with God we’re certain it must be in a beyond super-human, out-of-body event. I actually think we prefer to believe that is the only time he exists. We want God to be predictable and keep his distant.

We want to dress up in our finest attitudes and go somewhere else, far away from our messiness, to experience him: Church, Wednesday night prayer meetings from 7:00 – 8:15, annual retreats in the mountains, revivals, far away mission trips.

But, please God, don’t be snooping around my house when my husband comes home drunk at 1:00 am.

rolling pin

Don’t “show up” right in the middle of my nastiness; my jealous rants against my neighbor, or arguments with my teenaged son. Also, you really shouldn’t sneak up on me when I’m watching my R-rated T.V. show!

So, we move through our ordinary life – constantly on guard – expending all our time and energy to keep God at a comfortable distance. And what do we get in return? An ordinary, mundane, routine, humdrum, tedious life.

I’ll just hang out here, thanks, waiting to die and get to heaven after barely surviving my ordinary, mundane, routine, humdrum, tedious life.

Delightful.

STOP IT!

We can spend a great deal of energy doing “things” in an effort to “get to” heaven where we will finally find happiness; finally meet that ever elusive God. And in the meantime? What about the ‘meantime” that we are wasting; time we will never get back, time we could, as Martin Buber so beautifully said, “be stringing pearls for heaven”?

What do you think about when you read this scripture verse? Genesis 28:16-17, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.”

Bidden or not

And how about Luke 17:20-21, “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.’” (My emphasis)

Ewwww…that’s terrifying, huh?

But, when you refuse to open your heart to that reality, you have no idea what you are missing! For example, I volunteer for a charitable organization. We have a hotline and people call in with many needs: some are homeless, some are so desperate that when you talk to them it’s like looking at a 1,000 piece puzzle with 800 pieces missing. Which is what happened to me last week.

For obvious reasons I can’t give you any details, but I can tell you this, his situation was that 1,000 piece puzzle. When I gathered all the information I could from him and stepped back to review it, I was literally overwhelmed with what he was dealing with, and, of course, he was too. But, I prayed that the Holy Spirit would guide us and bring the people into his life who could help him.

Within three days, all – got that? – ALL the necessary resources he needed were in place! When I spoke to him and told him – we both cried. We were both overwhelmed by the majesty and beauty and tender care of a mighty God who is right in our midst; right in our messiness; right in our suffering; and, yes, in the ordinary.

Later that night I sat in prayer and felt God telling me, like Moses, “Remove your sandals, Sister, you are standing on Holy ground!” How often do you think you have stood on Holy ground and didn’t realize it because you were too busy looking up or looking away?