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

WACK!! Welcome to my Most Profound 2×4 Moment Ever!

Originally posted on October 25, 2012

Many people use, and believe, the expression, “the patience of Job”.  Actually, Job was not a patient man. Perhaps a bit more patient than his lovely wife who told him to “Curse God and die!”– And his so-called friends who insisted God had exposed him for his wickedness. Their accusations had no limits:

Eliphaz, like most people in Jesus’ time, and many people even today, sadly, believed suffering was a direct result of sin; that suffering exposes you to God’s wrath – you’re busted!

Eliphax tells Job that he suffers at the hand of God because “those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same”. (Job 4:7-8)

Bildad chimes in, “God has rejected you because you’re evil!” (8:20). Ouch!

And, of course, not to be outdone by the others, Zophar annihilates any sense of worth he may be clinging to, “You’re a damn fool! Waxing poetic nonsense like you can dupe everyone, even God. Are you crazy?! We’re going to hang out here until God decides to give you a piece of his mind. And he will. You watch. If you weren’t such an idiot you would reach out to God while you still have breath in you!” (Job 11-14). Honestly, that’s all in there. Okay, I might have taken some license with it.

So, would “patient” be the appropriate verb for Job? After all, he admits, “I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest; but trouble comes” (Job 3:26). I do, however, believe Job endured through more hardships than most of us could possibly imagine. So, let’s give him that.

Then, there was God, who was eerily quiet, until he came storming out of the whirlwind (38:1-40:2) into Jobs broken heart, revealing his power and majesty. And what was Job’s response? How could it have been anything other than “what shall I answer You? I lay my hand over my mouth” (40:4). And later, “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (42:3). So, I think we could also give Job credit for finally surrendering to God even in the midst of his suffering; even though he still had no idea why God allowed him to suffer such pain and loss. God owned him no explanation and he no longer questioned God.

As for me? How long have I been questioning God? Forever, I think. Questioning often grew into whining and whining into mistrust until I felt I would never know or abide in the deep faith I so longed for. I was too afraid and too busy trying to control my own destiny. I talked about surrender and wrote about surrender, but felt my hypocrisy would one day be exposed because I wasn’t living it. Easy enough for me to tell you to surrender your life to God! Go on now. You’ll be fine. Honest.

In all fairness to my fragile ego, in two of the major events in my life: writing a book and going to graduate school, I did get the first part of God’s calling right. Go. The problem was my need to second-guess him; to run on ahead of him. But, let’s go back to where it all began.

God said to me one day, out of the clear blue, “Write a book.” Long story short, it was a work in progress for ten years: written, rewritten, and self-published twice. Writing the book was the part of God’s call I listened to and accepted.

The part I added later went something like this: “I’ve just written a book! Since this came from you, Lord, I can only assume it’s going to be on the New York Times best seller list! WOW! I can’t wait!” When that didn’t happen, I began to grow weary of God failing to meet my expectations and started to whine and complain, again. “God, why did you have me write this book? There have been so many mistakes made in the process. You knew I didn’t know what I was doing. So, why? Why? Why? Why?” Those incessant questions were born out of my feeble attempt to control the process and the outcome.

The next chapter begins with a friend asking me to speak at her church. I muttered a few words in God’s direction, “Lord, if you are now calling me to speak, even thought this is also something I never would have imagined doing, then I will do it.” I enrolled in a Speakers Training Workshop, had promotional DVD’s made and mailed to everyone I could imagine would care. I was offered a few opportunities to speak, and although I was extremely nervous, they went well and the feedback was positive.

Would it surprise you that I again tried to finish this chapter without any input from God? Oh boy, speaking! Yippee! I wanted to be faithful, funny and famous; Beth Moore, Sheila Walsh, and Chonda Pierce all rolled into one. And why not? This was God’s calling for me and he doesn’t do ordinary. But, except for those few opportunities, I sat by a silent phone practicing my funniness in the mirror.

“Oh, hahahahaha Linda, you are so funny!”

Wait, don’t leave! There’s more! In 2006, I was approached by my pastor to consider a program that would entail studies for a graduate degree in Pastoral Care (I still have the laugh lines from that one!). Seriously, I was nine credit hours short of an Associate’s Degree from a community college, and this was a graduate program! Right! To appease my pastor, I completed the application forms certain they would not accept me.

When the letter came I confidently opened it. My rejection began with “We are pleased to inform you…” That’s not nice I thought. You are pleased to tell me what I already know – I’m a loser?

But wait…

The letter went on to say they had accepted me. .

“Oh shit!” That’s what I said. That word usually only comes out in extreme circumstances like a car coming at me head-on, being stuck in a burning building, or having Robert Redford knock on my door and I’m in my bathrobe and curlers. (Yes, I’m that old!).

So…

“OH SHIT!”

An impossible and immutable reality was staring me in the face and I was scared to death! But, I went, frightened and uncertain, and graduated in 2009. Glory be to God – well, and to Linda, who, after one semester of preaching classes, and a head full of myself, determined that I would probably become the female Billy Graham on the preachers circuit. But, alas, more dashed dreams of fame.

I was supposed to move right from graduation to a position as Pastoral Associate in my comfortable little church. But, yep, you guessed it, that’s not what happened. After three grueling years of studies, I was told that position was not available due to lack of funding. So, there I sat in my pile of poopy dreams and unfulfilled aspirations as imminent writer, speaker, preacher and/or Pastoral Associate faded into oblivion.

For three years, I have been bellyaching to God just like Job. And then it happened, though not out of a whirlwind. God’s preferred method of attention getting for me is a 2×4.

While driving down the highway, minding my own business – from out of nowhere – WHACK!

“Are you paying attention, Linda?”

“I am now!”

Suddenly, I was pummeled by God, or at least that’s how it felt, with a review of the course of events that had transpired. Here’s a chronology of those events:

  • My book is the story of how God reached into my pain and suffering at the hands of others, and my own sinfulness, and spoke healing into my brokenness. He used the process of writing the book and the opportunities I have had to speak to continue that healing, which in turn, has helped others who have shared their own experiences with me.

 

  • Graduate school was really, really, REALLY a struggle for me. Writing graduate level papers and reading the works of theologian’s like Thomas Aquinas and Bernard Lonergan, made my head explode! I was anxious most of those three years. I felt inadequate at best and downright stupid at worst. Academically, I felt I was not on the level of most of the other students – always looking over my shoulder waiting for someone to show me the door. I got some of it, forgot most of it, but, somehow, in the process, I grew spiritually in    ways I could never have imagined. One of my last classes dealt with the foundations  of ministry. I remember my professor telling me at the end of the semester that I had  a simple way of approaching ministry that would serve me well. He was telling me  that I didn’t need to feel incompetent because I couldn’t put together a string of  theological thoughts that would rival the best in the field. But I didn’t understand or  appreciate his words at the time.

 

  • Just before graduation, I asked my pastor, “Do I still have a job when I get out of here?” He replied matter-of-factly, “No.” I was shocked! He stated that because of the economy they could not afford to hire an associate. I was devastated and shaken to my foundation. I would only realize later that much of that was due to fear. If I was going to apply for a position in a different church, how would I fair in the interview process? Even though I had a 3.7 GPA, I had little confidence in my abilities, especially since I knew there would be lots of applicants and very few positions available. Oh yeah , and I was old. So, I insisting that I lived too far from the churches that were making job offers. I’d wait for something else to come along.

 

  • I have often heard people say that they did not have closure when a loved one died. I have come to believe, since my mother’s death, that closure happens in the day-to-day moments when we do or say stupid things, or we fail to love well. Scripture tells us in Matthew 5:23-24,“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” Don’t wait, take care of it immediately. It’s too late when you’re lying cold in a casket, or your ashes are scattered over the gulf course.

Do you see how God has moved in my life over all these years? I didn’t until that fateful trip in my car last week, when all of these events and situations came flooding into my head – then my heart. And, just as with Job, God spoke:

Linda, Linda, Linda, what am I going to do with you?! I called you to write a book, to do some speaking, to go to graduate school. Who told you you were going to be a famous writer, speaker, or preacher?! Much of the time you ran off on your own without waiting on me; without even consulting me. You had it all figured out and then when it didn’t happened the way you planned it, you came complaining to me. My time is not your time, my ways are not your ways. It’s about obedience and trust, Linda. I think you are finally ready to hear that. Why, according to your timing, has it taken so long?

It was important for you to feel the pain of the loss of your mother and to go through your own healing process before you could enter the sacred space of others who suffer; are dying, or have lost a loved one. This is Holy Ground that I am asking you to step into. You were not ready before.

Somehow you have managed to move in the direction I have called you. You’ve made it an uphill climb, but you have been falling forward, so that’s progress! I placed the desires in you before you were born, and I have set in place my plan for you and long to bring it to completion…

If you will just get out of my way!

A few days after the Holy Whacking in my car, I received a Daily Meditation from Richard Rohr. Quite appropriate I think:

All of Jesus’ guidance for ministry…are very concrete and interpersonal. They are all about putting people in touch with specific people, and especially with people’s pain. Person-to-person is the way the Gospel was originally communicated. Person-in-love-with-person, person-respecting-person, person-forgiving-person, person-touching-person, person-crying-with-person, person-hugging-person: that’s where the Divine Presence is so beautifully revealed.

I have come to understand through personal experience what Richard Rohr also says about grief and death and dying:

We must learn how to walk through the stages of dying. We have to grieve over lost friends, relatives, and loves. Death cannot be dealt with through quick answers, religious platitudes, or a stiff upper lip. Dying must be allowed to happen over time, in predictable and necessary stages, both in those who die graciously and in those who love them. Grief is a time where God can fill the tragic gap with something new and totally unexpected. Yet the process cannot be rushed.

It is not only the loss of persons that leads to grief, but also the loss of ideals, visions, plans, places, and our very youth….Grief work might be one of the most redemptive, and yet still unappreciated, ministries in the church. Thank God, it is being discovered as a time of spacious grace and painful gift.

What a dunce I was, “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3). I pray I have finally learned to wait on God and know his plan for me is perfect; to trust his infinite wisdom more than my finite and feeble efforts to do things my own way.

Okay, that is the post from 2012.

And the saga continues…

I would like to conclude with a quote from Glennon Doyle that sums up where I’m at right now in my life.

do the next right thing

“About time – huh God?!”

“Still not holding my breath, Linda.”