The Problem with Heaven

20 07 2012

“I never have and I never will question my salvation!”

This is how someone recently responded when the life they were living was being challenged — a life that  . . . well, let’s just say it didn’t really reflect the things of God.  So as the person was challenged, this was the response.  “I never have and I never will question my salvation!”

Now as a reformed believer, eternal security it something I embrace with my whole being.  We are God’s — all of us — and nothing will ever change that!  I don’t believe that we can ‘loose our salvation’ or in any way ‘backslide’ out of the arms of God.  We can close our eyes to God’s will and way in our world, and choose to ignore the love and grace and mercy that has been given for all to enjoy; but it is never lost.  All one needs to do, ever, is open our eyes to it and embrace it.

So what troubles me with this person’s attitude is NOT the eternal nature of the response.  What troubles me is this person’s understanding of salvation.  For what it being expressed is the idea that one’s life is not related to one’s understanding of salvation.  Salvation is about one’s death — and where one goes when one dies!  And more often than not, it’s about what one believes when one dies, that will allow us entry into that place.  Salvation is reduced to what one believes; and when this occurs, how one lives is compromised!  And such thinking is not uncommon!

Far too many people in the church today only think of heaven when they think of salvation.  “Being saved” is about dying and going to that place where streets are paved with gold, and where there is no crying and no pain.  There are few implications for the life that one lives here and now; for all that matters is holding fast to certain beliefs, so that when we close our eyes on this life, we are saved from opening them in that place where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth!”

And that is what I have a problem with — not because I want to take away anyone’s picture of some kind of afterlife.  If the traditional views of heaven are what keep people going and gives them hope in this life, then far be it from me to try and take that away  But if this is where one’s understanding of salvation ends . . . well, that’s when I have a problem with heaven!

You see, if there are only ‘eternal’ implications’ of salvation, and if it doesn’t have any kind of an impact on the lives we live here and now, then we are missing out on one of Jesus’ greatest teachings — that the kingdom, or commonwealth of God, is at hand!  If salvation is only about being saved from the fires of hell when we die, then we stunt the Gospel’s power and we distort the teacahings of the one who came to give us new life, IN THIS LIFE!

Salvation is about so much more than an afterlife.  The salvation that Christ brings to our world is also about being saved from living lives that do not reflect the light and love of Jesus.  It’s about being saved from living in ways that do not bring wholeness to our world, that fail to embody divine grace and mercy, and that miss out on the hope and and joy of living the way of truth and life.

None of us should evey question our salvation . . . ever!  But such certainty should never make us irresponsible in the lives we are living.  For when our view of savlation becomes so narrow that it includes nothing more than going to heaven when we die, and when ‘getting there’ is less about how we live and more about what we believe, we’ve missed the Gospel completely.

And when that happens . . . well . . . hey . . . is that the gnashing of teeth I hear?

50 Shades of Beige

11 07 2012

No.  It’s not a new, sexy novel.  It’s life!  I realized that yesterday.

Most of the downstairs of our home hasn’t been painted in years.   The kitchen, family room, and dining room have been done twice since we moved in; but because of the high cielings, I’ve been unwilling to tackle the living room and foyer.  Then, two weeks ago my wife and I purchased some new furniture, and now I have no choice.  I can’t put off painting any longer.

So yesterday I began peeling wallpaper and patching 12 years worth nail holes; and in the living room, everything went fine.  I spackled, sanded, and painted, and the walls now look as good as they’re going to look.  But then I went into hall and began doing the same thing.

Spackle . . . done.  Sand . . . done.  Paint . . . not so much!  Clearly, our foyer was not painted the same shade of beige as the living room.

I quickly made my way to the cans of paint stored in my garage, and to my surprise, way in the back, I found four more cans of paint that looked like they might match.  “Lulled Beige” . . . too light.  “Sawyer’s Fence” . . . to dark.  “Antique White” . . . too grey.  And soemthing called “Hotel Carl Tan” . . . way too brown!

“What on earth?” I said to myself.  How many shades of beige do we have in this house?

Completely disgusted, I went to sink to begin washing four, now-dirty, paint brushes, wondering why paint stores had to make so many different colors.  Why not just . . . Beige, or Grey, or Brown?

Later that afternoon, still fuming over the fact that I now had a foyer wall with four different colors of paint on it, I began thinking.  I really do like beige — no matter what the shade.  And I like it because it’s so simple, and ordinary.  And that was when I remembered a comment that a friend made to me several weeks ago at a graduation party.  Several of us were talking about raising adult children — for we all agreed that there was still a good bit of ‘raising’ that needing to be done even though our kids were grown — and one of the women said this: “I hope I’ve done a good enough job teaching my kids that most days, are just days!”

Most days, are just days!  Think about that!

Most days we don’t go out to dinner.  Most days we’re not on vacation.  Most days we’re not having Thanksgiving dinner, or going to Easter Brunch.  The reality of life is that most days are just normal, regular, routine days, just like the day before.  We get up, grab a bowl of shredded wheat, go to work, come home, make a burrito for dinner, watch some tv, and go to bed.  Then we wake up the next morning, and do the same thing all over again.  And the key to a healthy life is learning to be content with those days!  Everyone loves vacations, and cruises.  We all like going out to dinner, and celebrating the holidays.  But learning to enjoy the everydayness of everyday, is where one finds real peace and joy.

Much of my house is beige.  Not all of it — our dining room is a rich shade of brown.  We have a guest bathroom that I striped with black, white, and grey.  My daughter’s room is a light shade of purple, and one of my sons’ room is blue.  There is color in my home.  But . . . much of it is beige!

You see, as much as like color — and I really do like color — a house with red rooms, and green rooms, and yellow rooms, and orange rooms, would overwhelm the senses.  And similarly, lives where there is no beige . . . well, that’s not just the way life is.  And our children need to know that.   And we need to teach them that.  That is . . . if we ever want them to learn to be content.

Today, there is more painting on my to-do list.  Somehow I have to take care of that foyer wall.  So . . . off to Lowe’s I go.

I wonder what color would look good on that wall?

I think I’ll just go with beige!

GA – Final Thoughts

8 07 2012

Reflections on the 220th General Assembly

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Closing worship at the 220th meeting of the General Assembly of Presbyterian Church (USA) meeting in Pittsburgh, PA, ended with the affirmation that “the Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ;” and few things were more evident than that during this year’s national meeting of the denomination that I have called home for the past 29 years.  It was an honor and a privilege to serve as one of the Teaching Elder Commissioners from the Presbytery of Eastern Virginia, and I humbly sought to carry out my responsibilities with energy, intelligence, imagination and love.  And here I have to confess that while I think I did pretty well with the intelligence, imagination, and love, when it comes to energy, I was a wimp.  At midnight on Friday I had had enough, and so I skipped out on the last hour and half of that day’s plenary session.  It was way past my bedtime and I simply was in no condition to be making important decisions for the church.  Other than that – I gave it everything I had and sincerely hope that I was faithful in all I did and said.

For me, the highlight of GA is always worship; and this year was no different!  Above all, this is what I will take away.  The Moderator of the 219th Assembly, Cynthia Bolbach challenged us to continually remember that our primary calling is to bring people into the presence of Jesus.  Brian McLaren encouraged us to continue to speak in the prophetic voices that mark our past.  Margaret Aymer reminded us that in the presence of Jesus, the only label that matters is ‘faithful.’  And the day we left, Yena Hwang charged us to make sure that the path to that place where Jesus is, is kept as broad and as open as possible.  Drama, dance, a jazz band, a choir, bells, and congas lifted our spirits, honored our God, and displayed new and fresh ways for worshipping communities to express themselves.  And of this has scarred my soul in beautiful ways.

Countless decisions were made, some of which I agreed with, and some of which saddened me.  But I will remain faithful.  Great days lie ahead for this church, provided we keep talking, praying, wrestling with one another, and following the Spirit into a bright and glorious future.

To all you Presbyterians reading this, take heart.  We may be bruised, but we are not defeated.  Bruising simply comes with the territory!  God is being glorified throughout this denomination that we love so much, and our prophetic and faithful voices ARE making a difference.

And to all of you who are not Presbyterian and reading this.  Well . . . if you don’t yet have a faith community, check us out.  We might just surprise you!

GA – Day 8

7 07 2012

Few days here in Pittsburgh have been as full as Friday, July 6!  The Assembly began their deliberations at 8:30 am and continued well past midnight.  Much was accomplished and several important deciscions were made — the most significant of which was the action to NOT redefine marriage.

After several hours of debate and by a margin of 48% to 52%, the Assembly voted to disapprove the recommendation of the Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues which  attempted to call the church to two pieces of action.  First, the recommendation was to change the Book of Order from referencing marriage as “between one man and one woman” to “two people.”  And second, the committee called Presbyteries and Sessons to enter into a two-year period of study on the subject, reporting their findings to the 221st General Assembly in Detroit.

Discussion was civil, and respectful, and this commissioner’s opinion is that most of the assembly believes that choosing to change the definition of marriage could be a faithful, Biblical decision.  However, concern for the church prevailed!  There was much emotion over whether or not the average PCUSA church-goer would be able to handle such  a profound shift in church theology, so soon after the passage of 10-A.  And such emotion was understood.  However, when fear squelches faithfulness, we ignore the way of Christ and the Spirit is quenched.

Is it also this commissioner’s opinion that because the make-up of our churches is what it is, with the vast majority of our members being over the age of 65, meetings such as this lack, like most Presbytery Meetings, the voice of younger people who simply have different views on God, faith, scripture, and community.

Everything wraps up this morning, and I’ll post one final report on my way home.

GA – Day 7

6 07 2012

We met until 10:30 last night, prayerfully discerning what we believe the Spirit to be saying and doing in the world today.  The most passionate debate centered around encouraging the Church to divest from three companies that some believed were contributing to Israeli mistreatment of the Palestineans in the occupied territories.   But in the end, because less than 1/10th of 1% of PC(USA) investments are held in this three companies, and because of concern over what the unintended consequences of such action might do to our relationship with our Jewish brothers and sisters, a committee minority report advocating more proactive involvement with Palestine was approved.  We decided upon “investment in Palestine” rather than “divestment in Israel.”

Debate was long, and tedious, but respectful and gracefilled.  My hope and prayer is that such a spirit will continue today as we hear and respond to the report of Committee 13 on Civil Union and Marriage Issues.

With regard to the defining of marriage — I was up all night, tossing and turning, wrestling with what needs to be said, and what needs to be done.  What does my one vote matter among 687 others?  Well, the motion to make the invesment motion I referenced above the main motion, passed by two votes.  If just one person had switched, the outcome would have been very different!  So every commissioner matters.  Every voice needs to be heard.  Every vote matters.

As my time here winds down, I remain so very proud to be Presbyterian.  At least at the national level, there is great hope for the church in the 21st century.  Whether we embrace what they’re doing at the presbytery and local level is another story.  But I remain confdient that change can and will continue to come.  I have been particularly impressed with our Young Adult Advisory Delegates.  The Church is full of bright, faithful, and committed young people, and that bodes well for our future.

Sorry I don’t have more to say, but this morning I am tired — emotionally, spiritually, and physically.  Keep us in your thoughts and prayers, and above all, know that whatever is decided today, WE ARE AND REMAIN ONE, in Christ Jesus.


GA – Day 6

5 07 2012

Yesterday’s meeting of the 220th General Assembly began with an ecumenical worship gathering, where readings from Micah 6 and Luke 4 reminded us of God’s call to be justice seekers and peace makers around the world.  So while Joey Chestnut and the “Black Widow” were stuffing their faces with Nathan’s hotdogs in NYC’s annual hot dog eating contest, commissioners in Pittsburgh were hearing God’s call to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind.  (I know how I’d prefer to celebrate to the birth of our nation!)

Ironically, at the end of worship, 99% of the assembly affirmed it’s faith using the words of the Nicean Creed.  But toward the end of the confession, people blindly and without thinking, they read the misprinted words in our worship order, proclaiming how Jesus rose in accordance with the Scriptures, and then “descended into heaven.”

I’ve been thinking about that alot over the past 24 hours, and have realized how easy it is for us to sometimes think that we’ve attained the things of heaven, but stooped too low to get there!  Sometimes, we go about seeking the things of God in ways that deny the very things we are seeking to attain.  And that was how our plenary session began yesterday afternoon.

Vice-Moderator Kara Spuhler McCabe was forced to resign her position due to malicious, inflamatory, and slanderous gossip being circulated around the assembly and out into our churches.  Last fall, Reverend McCabe signed the marriage liscence of a lesbian couple in her congregation in Washington, DC — something she made known in her during her candidacy, and something that a clear majority of our commissioners did not feel disqualified her from serving as Moderator.  Never the less, the nasty, disrespectful, and downright evil ways some went about seeking her removal from office simply has no place in the body of Christ.

Hopefully, this pattern will not continue today.  Hopefully, people will remember that the church is not a democracy, where commissioners listen to what people California and South Carolina want, and then act on what a majority of people want us to do.  The PC(USA) is NOT a representative democracy.  Yes, we do take votes, and we always strive to be mindful of the needs of the people in our pews.  But ultimately our desire is to discern the work and movement of the Spirit in our midst.  We come together and attempt to intelligently and respectfully listen to the voices of all, and then act according to what we believe to be God’s desire for us.

Prior to my departure, a member of Stone House asked me how I was gonig to vote on a particular issue.  And my response was not political or artificial, but grounded in my understanding of what gatherings like this are all about.  I said I don’t think it’s possible for me to know how I will vote because I’ve not yet been part of the discernment process that is such a critical part of GA.  Sure, I knew I was coming with opinions and thoughts on all of the issues that are before us; but in the end, each member of this and every assembly MUST carefully listen to the constantly-moving, ever-challenging, always-prophetic, and extravagantly-gracefilled voice of the Holy Spirit.  Only then do we dare cast a vote on an issue that is before us.  And once we do, we need to trust the voice of God.

Yesterday had plenty of heat and fireworks for me.  Today, I’m looking for that cool and refreshing wind of the Spirit — that still small voice of God — that can, and I believe WILL, lead me and the rest of my brothers and sisters, to those things that bring glory and honor to Jesus.

May that indeed be the case!  Amen!



GA – Day 5

4 07 2012

While the rest of the country is celebrating our nation’s birthday, we at GA are preparing to return to plenary session.  A variety of overtures and recommendations will be coming before us — including a call to divest from companies doing business in Israel, a call for the GAMC to define what it means for a college or university to be “Presbyterian Affiliated” (from my committee!), and yes, the Committee on Marriage and Civil Unions is proposing that we enter into a two-year period of study for the purpose of clarifying our understanding of Christian Marriage.

Unfortunately, it was this last committee’s debate that I found extremely discouraging — and not because of WHAT was being discussed, but rather because of HOW it was being discussed.  For the most part people were civil and respectful; but some were extremely militant, and seemed to believe that they were in a court of law arguing before a judge, as opposed to working WITH brothers and sisters seeking to discern God’s desire for the Body.  The bottom line is that yes, we DO need to reconsider the church’s definition of marriage — and not only because we may need to change our understanding of a union that has historicall been only between a man and a woman, but because of the state of marriage in our country today.  Divorce is rampant.  Cohabitation is becoming the norm.  And the number of single parent families continues to rise.  For these reasons and many others, the Body of Christ has no choice to stop and consider it’s understanding of marriage, and to offer some leadership to our culture as it struggles with an understanding of what it is and what it is not.

Worship gave us the opportunity to hear a stirring message from Dr. Margaret Aymer about Jesus’ seeing peoples’ faith as opposed to any label that society might want to place upon them.  We then remembered elders who had, over the past year, “finished their race and who now rest from their labors,” and departed to a refreshing and uplifting rendition of “O Happy Day.”  Again I say — the best part of GA is worship, and our local churches have a great deal to learn about diversity, enthusiasm, and creativity.

So now, Chai in hand,  I’ll head over to today’s worship gathering, and then begin the day’s work.  While there is a great deal ahead, we won’t forget our nation’s birthday.  In addition to gathering on the roof of the convention center for evening fireworks, all of us are grateful we live in a land where we have the freedom to meet as we are — to decide for ourselves what we believe, and to consider again how God is calling us to live in the 21st century.  The Spirit is alive and well here in Pittsburgh — and I remain grateful for the opportunity to be here.



GA – Day 4

3 07 2012

With committee work well underway, conversation, diologue and debate abound!  And that is a GOOD thing.  People are talking with one another, and more importantly, listening to one another.  And contrary to what some people may think, there is a great deal of respect on display.  No one wants anyone to leave, for among most who are here there is the honest belief that God speaks most clearly when everyone is part of the discussion.

In Committee 17 – Theological Issues, Institutions, and Christian Education, one of our items of business was a panel discussion with Presbytery Seminary Presidents; and what I witnessed was four, relatively young men, excited and passionate about minsitry, genuinely respecting and honoring one another and the work of their respective institutions.  They were approachable and authentic, with a deep love for the church and real commitment training men and women for leadership in the body.

We also celebrated the 200th anniversary of the founding of Princeton Seminary, an expereinced that brought back a flood of memories of times spent with dear friends, at the feet of great scholars with hearts after the things of God.

Overall, the day reminded me of why I do what I do.  I really love the church, and particularly the portion of the body that we call Presbyterian.  Yes, we have our issues!  That is a given.  But I still believe that the Church can be the hope of the world.  We just need to remember why we’re here — to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly  — to love God and neighbor — and to make disciples of Jesus Christ.  Notice, these are all active, life altering, and world changing activities.  In the slightly modified words of Philip Gulley, from “The Evolution of Faith”, if we spend a little less time worshipping Christ the King, and little more time reflecting the servant spirit of Jesus of Nazareth, well, then just maybe, the commonwealth of God might become a little more of a reality for all of us.

Today we will worship and work once more, and continue to enjoy the Spirit’s presence in and among us.  May we all have the eyes to see, and the ears to hear.

GA – Day 3

2 07 2012

In many ways, Sunday at GA really was a sabbath for me.  Other than a few meetings here and there, I worshipping along the banks of the Allegheny River, met a few more faitful Presbyterian followers of Jesus, and got to know the folks on my committee — Theological Issues, Institutions, and Christian Education.  It was a good day, but I was looking forward to Monday morning worship, and so I was in bed by 10:30.

This morning, the sun woke me bright and early and I took another long walk.  Along the way I stopped for a chai and . . . for some reason, it seemed to taste better than usual.  Brian McLaren spoke at our Commissioner Breakfast/Worship, and as always he challenged and inspired me.  Most significantly, he reminded me how important the diversity of the Body really is.  Yes, I’ve read Corinthians, and I know that to be true — but for some reason, in a place like this, with the kind of business that is before us, that is really important to hear.  Many of you have perhaps seen my quote on Facebook, but for those who haven’t, Brian spoke of conservatives and liberals as the yin and yang of life, culture, and faith.  Conversatives tend to hang on to those things that were achieved by social movements of the past, and liberals are about creating those social movements.  It’s a big circle, and we all need one another.  And if followers of Jesus can’t affirm that — if the church can’t model and exhibit that — who can?  Who will?

So to any of my conservative brothers and sisters who may be reading this, please know . . . that I know . . . I need you!   I need you to keep me grounded, and to make sure that I never forget my roots — for they are what keep me strong as I seek to bend in the winds of life.  I need you to remind me that the box from which I am sometimes so eager to escape, contains things that I am going to need for tomorrow.  And I need you to remind me that sometimes I move too quickly, and that on occasion, I would do well to practice the art of graceful waiting.

I’m tempted now to offer a . . . “but”.  However I’ll resist that urge, and simply close with words that we all know well — we ARE, one in Christ.  At least for the rest of today, I’m going to try and live that.

GA – Day 2

1 07 2012

Yes, I DO have days when I don’t like my job!  There are times when the church frustrates the heck out of me – days when I think that the only thing that will ever change it, is its death!  But fortunately, those days are few and far between.  Most of the time, I love the Church . . . And today was definitely one of those days.  Worship at GA always does that for me.  It’s one of the few times when our denominational leaders don’t just SAY they want worship diversity, but they live it out.  Yes, we’re still stuck with prayers of confession rooted in old ways of understanding sin and forgiveness, and prayer is too often just talking to a God who we believe is all about responding to our pleas and requests, but most of the time, our denomination does worship well.  

Cynthia Bolbach, the outgoing Moderator, who’s been battling cancer since she was installed two years ago, was wheeled to the pulpit; and upon reading the story of the people cutting a hole in the roof of a home where Jesus was speaking, all in an attempt to allow a needy man to see Jesus, she reminded us that that was the goal of the church.  Our challenge, charge, and great joy, was and is to bring people into the presence of the Christ.  And during the closing hymn, as hundreds sang “God Bless your Church with Strength,” commissioners and advisory delegates were led to the meeting hall to consider how the PCS(USA) might best do that.  It was a moving experience, and I am humbled by all that lies ahead.  

So now, I just seek to be faithful.  I attempt to pursue that which my walk demands . . . that which our world so desperately needs . . . 

Faithfulness . . . It calls us to take risks . . . It demands from us strength 

                    . . . It yearns for our courage . . . It is bathed in God’s justice 

                     . . . It longs for our love . . . It is grounded in grace

                    . . . It should never be feared . . . It must not be delayed