Where In the World is Heaven?


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What if we lived as thought the invisible dominion of God is at hand, really, right here, as close as your next breath–all around us waiting to be realized? Many “authorities” like to tell us exactly what will happen when we die. You don’t have to dodge manipulative brimstone around here!

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This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Romans 8:35-39

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

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Early Church Context

The Early Church[1] was all about creating paradise on earth, ushering in heaven to the right here and now.[2] On the earliest church walls, frescoes of paradise surrounded the worshipers. Before Christianity was co-opted by empire and military crusades, the goal, mission and core values of the church were simple: love and justice, bringing a touch of heaven to the world God loves. Love and justice—abundant life for everybody in the here and now. For me, the terms love and justice are redundant. If you love someone, you want fairness for them.

In the church, we spend a lot of time using words to describe things that are indescribable, just as Jesus did. When Jesus said “in my Father’s house are many mansions” he was, in many ways, not intending making sense.[3] Instead, he was making meaning.  Think of it: inside of God’s house are bigger houses, like the TARDIS[4] in Doctor Who. This is not a concept that can be downloaded to the congregation during a sermon. Meditate on this if you want to find meaning.

Likewise, Paul, in today’s letter to the church in Rome, was describing heaven on earth. He writes that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. There is no principality, no condition, no president, no supreme leader, no poverty, no nothing! to separate us from God’s realm of love. Life and death cannot do it. Even the angels cannot separate us from the love of Christ. The kingdom of heaven—the realm of the divine—has always been and still is readily accessible in this world!  It is up to the church to reclaim this beautiful reality and then, acting out of gratitude, bless this world and God’s people in it.

Earth Angels

Last night, I flew home from Atlanta where I conducted the funeral for my dear friend, Joanne Owens. Joanne was a biblical scholar and the mother of my best friend, Julie. Looking back at my life, I can see a clearer journey toward openness and love. Joanne was essential for my spiritual development. She was the author of The Official Sunday School Teachers’ Handbook, a master teacher and a lifelong student. That said, the only thing her husband requested that I say about Joanne was this quote from Fanny Flagg’s book Fried Green Tomatoes.

I guess you already know that there are angels masquerading
as people walking around this planet.

You have people like that in your life, too, those whom God placed here, who give of themselves, expecting nothing in return. Who is yours, your saint, your angel, the one who helped pull you through? These people remind us that the kingdom of heaven is already here, all around us, perhaps just out of our grasp, as close as our next breath—when we acknowledge ourselves as God’s children and claim the heaven all around.

We regard such earth-angels as sure bets for to make it into heaven. These are the saints I want to see in heaven. I do not want to see the people I don’t like: the guy who murdered my friend, the people who told me I was going to hell because of who I love.[5] I do not want heaven to be full of “those” people, the ones who destroyed and cheated, the ones who made the world a mess, but they will be there as they return to their Source, just as I will, just as you will.

Brahms’ Humanistic Christianity

Composer Johannes Brahms had a hard time with the topic of heaven.[6] In a few minutes, the Summer Choir will sing an excerpt[7] from his German Requiem, a composition that breaks with traditions both musical and theological. Did you know that, in A German Requiem, Brahms did not write of resurrection, nor heaven, nor of Jesus Christ?[8]  Expediently understood as an agnostic with a lot of integrity, Brahms refused to rattle off the traditional religious dogma with which he did not resonate.

Was God working in Brahms? You bet. (Have you heard his music?) Just as science does not require our validation to be true, The Spirit, or whatever you call God, does not require our validation before going to work on us. Stepping aside of the tradition, Brahms does not mention the traditional “day of wrath and judgment” as famously depicted in Mozart and Verdi’s requiems. Instead, Brahms looked for spiritual comfort through biblical texts that spoke to his own soul, addressing particularly his losses and griefs. Of course people objected because, well, complaining gives us purpose, and, just as in church, with every decision someone will claim that you’ve ruined their life.

Although Brahms took his texts from The Luther Bible[9], some said he should have stuck with traditional Catholic[10] (Latin) libretto, should have been less personal, should have been less touchy-feely and more religious (dogmatic). Brahms was too spiritually real for that! As they say in recovery programs, “religion is for people afraid of going to hell; spirituality is for people who have already been there.”[11] Brahms had been there, having just lost his mother, then his friend Robert Schumann. His unrequited love for Schumann’s widow, Klara, is the stuff of Meryl Street movies.

Then, to add insult to grief, at the premiere of A German Requiem, the conductor was so offended at Brahms’ lack of convention and dogma that he, the conductor, had the soprano soloist, who was also his wife, stand up in the middle of the Brahms Requiem and sing an aria borrowed and interpolated from Handel’s Messiah, “I know that my redeemer liveth”.[12]  Of all the nerve!  For some, not mentioning Jesus by name is somehow a personal attack on God and puts us in the fast lane to ruin. Might God be bigger than our expectations?

The Interview and Remedial

I interviewed to pastor a church here in San Francisco—the most bizarre interview I have ever endured. It went on for five hours during which time I was grilled by six self-appointed inquisitors who were sent from on high to protect God from the apostate that surely I am. One said, “well you finally mention Jesus on page three” as if someone would go to seminary and two concurrent ordination processes just to infiltrate the church and, I suppose, lay in wait until my  Satan Sleeper Cell was called into action.[13] The afternoon was awful! At the end of the interview I was wiped out and irritated. And then the final question pushed me over the edge: “Do you believe that hell is a real place?” My response: “Oh yes sir, I most certainly do. I do now.”[14]

God does not need our protection. God doesn’t even need our theology. It’s the other way around. We need purpose, we need the words, we require guidance, we grow through theology and spirituality and religion. We need the practice of heaven if we are to find meaning and bless the world God has let us borrow.

Catholic spiritualist and theologian, Richard Rohr, puts it this way:

If we would imitate Jesus in very practical ways, the Christian religion would be made-to-order to grease the wheels of human consciousness toward love, nonviolence, justice, inclusivity, and care for creation.

Mature religion serves as a conveyor belt for the evolution of human consciousness.

Immature religion actually stalls people at very early stages of magical, mythic, and tribal consciousness, while they are convinced they are enlightened or “saved.” Then we are more a part of the problem than offering any kind of solution.[15]

 

Current Events

For our country, this past week was a problematic rhapsody in tribal behavior — conduct beyond the pale.[16] Does anyone else feel like civility and reasoned discourse are being shredded, and the most disgusting behavior gets rewarded, all the while safety nets for the “least of these”[17] of God’s children are being taken away in the name of tax cuts. From this, the youngest among us learn leadership and decorum. When the current president leads the Boy Scouts Jamboree in boo-ing the former president, what are we becoming? We’re in big trouble if we accept this kind of behavior. People of faith must respond. Children and the future do need our protection and vested interest.

And then the focus turned to our transgender family members in yet another attempt to scapegoat a entire demographic. To my trans siblings in Christ: you are not a burden. You are not a distraction. You are children of God, and I’m proud to call you family. For the church, no one better than trans people embody what it is written in Genesis: “In God’s own image God created them male and female.”[18] And. Not or. And. No one experiences God like trans people.[19] What a missed opportunity to see God more vividly! Such scapegoating is imposed for the sake of a power-hungry and insecure leader. If you find this confusing, you must keep going, keep praying, keep developing in Christ, and find your spiritual mojo. Grow and evolve into the love machine God made you to be.

 

Locating Heaven, Locating Jesus

One of my favorite meditations is to imagine as many reasons as I can for why God chose 2000 years ago as the time and the ancient Near East as the place to become fully human in the person of Jesus. Is there a reason God chose to incarnate into an Aramaic-speaking itinerant Jewish prophet, a person of color, a refugee?

When Jesus taught us to pray “Our Father who art in heaven” the Aramaic word for heaven would’ve been d’bwashmaya. D’bwashmaya does not indicate heaven up there and away. Instead, d’bwashmaya means all realms of light, sound, and vibration. D’bwashmaya is a more scientifically valid alternative than the three-tiered universe of the ancient Hebrew and Greek worldview. “Light, sound and vibration” has more spiritual meaning than the Sunday School pictures of heaven I colored in the second grade. In essence, then, “heaven” is conceived not so much as a place but as a dimension of reality that is already present, like God—equally and everywhere.

Praying Heaven with Our Hands

Episcopalian theologian Tom Troeger does this thing that teaches us about where in the world heaven might be. This is a body prayer, meant to stick with you longer because we learn it with movement. As we say the first line of the Lord’s Prayer, there are three hand positions that indicate the possible locations of the kingdom of heaven.

  1. In here (hands over heart)
  2. In between us and everything (hands reaching out to either sides)
  3. Out there, just beyond our reach (reaching up with finger tips)

While I play some music, please pray with your hands, seeking the heavenly wholeness which is as close as your next breath, all around us and always just out of reach—that almost-but-not-yet place called faith.

High King of Heaven, my victory won
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heaven’s Sun
Heart of my own heart, whate’er befall
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all[20]

Amen, may it be so.

 

[1] Early Christianity described at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_Christianity> (July 31, 2017)

[2] For a full discussion of this topic, read Brock and Parker’s book Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire <http://savingparadise.net/about/> (July 30, 2017)

[3] Lillian Daniel, “Mansions of Mysterious Metaphors” UCC Stillspeaking Writers Group, accessed online at <http://www.ucc.org/daily_devotional_mansions_of_mysterious_metaphors> (July 30, 2017)

[4] “It’s Bigger on the Inside!” video <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ZfyGMNHPLY> (July 30, 2017)

[5] Until the world has changed and life is safe for LGBTQ people, I will continue to self-identify myself, my husband and my sexual orientation. Reminder: I didn’t bring this up, the church did.

[6] More specially, we are discussing eschatology in this service: the theology of final things, wholeness, restoration of the soul with its Source, the end of life, the end of time, the end of the world, the second coming of Christ, “going” to heaven, etc. even though none of these are necessarily literal events or physical locations.

[7] “How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!”

[8] This topic is illustrated beautifully in John Swafford’s 1996 book Johannes Brahms: A Biography, some of which is accessible online at <https://books.google.com/books/about/Johannes_Brahms.html?id=4wRhrLTFWz8C> (July 30, 2017)

[9] Henry Zecher, “The Bible Translation that Rocked the World” Christianity Today accessed online at <http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-34/bible-translation-that-rocked-world.html> (July 30, 2017)

[10] Music/Requiem Mass, accessed online at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Requiem#Music> (July 31, 2017)

[11] Chris Glaser, online blog

[12] Sanford Dole, Program Notes, accused online at <http://baychoralguild.org/program-notes/2014-11-brahms/> (July 31, 2017)

[13] This is a joke. Sarcasm.

[14] See note #13. Sarcasm.

[15] Richard Rohr, “Deepening Connection” accessed online at <https://cac.org/deepening-connection-2017-07-27/> (July 26, 2017)

[16] David J. Lynch, “Trump’s Week Staggers from Bad to Worse” The Financial Times, July 28, 2017, accessed online at <https://www.ft.com/content/bda1dabe-73af-11e7-aca6-c6bd07df1a3c> (July 30, 2017)

[17] Matthew 25:40 “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

[18] Genesis 1:27, Genesis 5:2

[19] I first encountered this idea in Yvette Flunder’s book Where the Edge Gathers — recommended reading, a local prophet.

[20] Be Thou My Vision, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=drZyYLrd90s

 

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