Monday, May 18, 2015

counterfeit worship

Image result for pantocrator
Christ Pantocrator, one of the first images of Christ developed by the early church
Image from sophiainstitutenyc.org
I have started a series of talks in our faith community on the Decalogue (deka = 10, logous - words, commonly known as the Ten Commandments since the 16th century). You can find the gist of the first one dealing with worshiping God here, It must be remembered that these directives were given to a people whose only experience of government was being slaves to cruel masters. These ten words were meant to show them a new way of life, a life lived honouring God (the first four words) and treating their fellow human beings with respect and love (the last six words). Jesus summed it all up by saying that all the law and prophets were found in these two commands: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbour as yourself.

Yesterday I talked about what it means to make an idol and worship it. Here is the text from Exodus 20: "You are not to make any idol or image of other gods. In fact, you are not to make an image of anything in the heavens above, on the earth below, or in the water beneath. You are not to bow down and serve any image, for I, the Eternal your God, am a jealous God." (Exodus 20:4-5a, The Voice).

A graven image (how the King James version translates it) is an idol carved out of stone, wood, or metal. What is at the heart of this directive is a caution against creating the gods we want: gods who would give us control over the complexities and problems of life. An idol is a counterfeit, a dangerous substitute for relationship with the one True God (The Voice commentary). The second word given by God is a reminder that the Holy One is beyond our senses, the Father in heaven cannot be controlled or manipulated, and the Eternal is a living person, not an object.

Shortly after these directives were given to the nation of Israel, we read the story of Aaron making a golden calf for the people to worship (Exodus 32). Because Moses was nowhere to be seen (he was up on the mountain doing God knows what), the people came to Aaron and asked him to make them a god, something tangible they could worship, something which could lead them forward, give them direction. Aaron asked for their gold, the people willingly gave it, and out of this he fashioned an idol in the shape of a calf. The people were elated, Aaron built an altar in front of the golden calf and declared that they would have a feast to the Eternal One. And so the idol worship began.

Some sobering lessons to learn from this story.
1. True worship of God is not birthed in impatience.
2. True worship of God is not birthed out of a need for something tangible.
3. True worship of God is not birthed through demanding that leaders make something happen.
4. True worship of God is not found in expensive and impressive furnishings and equipment.
5. True worship of God is not a payment for something to happen. Worship is a reflection of God's loving generosity and faithfulness, not an exchange whereby we give God worship in order to secure God's generosity.
6. True worship of God not a product of our own imagination or labour.
7. True worship of God is not about pleasing or appeasing people.
8. We must be careful not to redefine idolatry and call it worship. God tells us how to worship him, we can't do it any way we want See Exodus 21-31 and John 4:23-24.

So does this mean that we should avoid all imagery, all paintings, pictures, statues, or visual representations of God? The overly cautious iconoclasts would probably say yes. I side more with the Orthodox who view icons as an important aid in worship. Icons, like hymns, prayers, scripture readings, and other rituals we regularly incorporate in our personal and corporate worship, are windows offering movement in two directions: we commune with God and he communes with us. Instead of using words to describe God, icons use colours, lines, and shapes. Some call it theology in colour. The second word is not about outlawing images, but about how we use images. We can gaze at a picture in a magazine and desire to possess and own the object or person. That's an idolatrous gaze. Or we can gaze at a picture of a loved one and grow in affection for them, desiring to be with them. That's an iconic gaze. The iconic picture is meant to lead us to an encounter.

Similarly, in Celtic spirituality we have this phrase, "thin place," which refers to a place where the boundary between heaven and earth is very thin, where one can catch a glimpse of the divine. In the Old Testament we find many such thin places: the burning bush, Mount Sinai, the covenant God made with Israel, the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire, the tabernacle, the fiery furnace (Daniel). In the New Testament, the primary thin place is Jesus, where heaven and earth, divine and human, co-exist in a person. I believe that thin places are sometimes happened upon, like the burning bush, but we can also cultivate thin places in our lives. When I sit down at my table every morning and read the scriptures, I am cultivating a thin place. The more I do it, the more likely I am to encounter Jesus there. When we meet every week as a faith community, we are cultivating a thin place. Every time we gather together to worship, to pray, to speak about Jesus, to love and care for each other, we invite the presence of God into our midst.

Dean and I visited the Abbey at Iona a few years ago. This is a place where God has been worshiped daily for over a millennium, where prayers have been prayed by many saints over hundreds of years. And it is one of those thin places where the presence of God is tangible. St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal is another thin place, a place with a rich history of healing, a place where hundreds come to pray and worship. It is great to visit these special places, but I am equally devoted to creating thin places in my own life, cultivating worship and prayer in faithful ways which not only draw me close to God but make his presence available for others.

Let this be one of the gifts we, as worshipers of God, give this world: a thin place where others can encounter God.

Friday, May 15, 2015

before the judge

Image from crooksandliars.com
Judgment. The word sends a shiver through most people's souls, even those who proclaim to have salvation through Jesus Christ. I suppose this is because most of us immediately place ourselves in the position of the accused. To many of us, God as a Judge is not a reassuring thought. And that is strange, if you stop to think about it, because in the scriptures, the Righteous Judge is often portrayed as a very comforting figure.

C.S. Lewis suggests that in the Bible we find basically two views of judgment: what he calls the Jewish view and the Christian view.[1] The Jewish view is that of a civil case where I see myself in the position of plaintiff, a person unjustly wronged (stolen from, taken advantage of, etc.). The cry is for justice. In contrast, the Christian view of judgment is that of a criminal case in which I am the accused, on trial for the wrongs I have done against God. In this case, the plea is for mercy. When we are the plaintiff, we want to get before the judge, we want our case to be heard (not always so easy in previous centuries where you needed money or influence to get a hearing). When we are the defendant, we would rather avoid appearing before the judge. It will, in all likelihood, end badly for us.

A brief look at the Psalms shows both views. In Psalm 9 we have the writer in the position of the plaintiff: "Eternal One, arise! Do not allow mere mortals to win the day. Judge the nations Yourself. Put the fear of God in them, Eternal One. Remind the nations they are mere men, not gods." The Psalmist, viewing himself as the innocent party, understandably wants the worst sort of punishment enacted on those who have done him wrong: "For you supported my just cause. From your throne, You have judged wisely. You confronted the nations; You have destroyed the wicked. You have erased their names from history." In our day and age, we might demand the maximum sentence, perhaps even the death penalty, or in the case of punitive damages, want to "sue them into the stone age," as one person so eloquently put it. Basically, the plaintiff views justice as equal to the ruin of the wrongdoer.

In Psalm 50 however, we see the writer in the position of the accused. God is the plaintiff: "Who do you think you are? Listing off My laws, acting as if your life is in alignment with My ways? For it's clear that you despise My guidance; you throw My wise words over your shoulder. You play with thieves, spend your time with adulterers. Evil runs out of your mouth; your tongue is wrapped in deceit. ... While you did these things I kept silent; somehow you got the idea that I was like you. But now My silence ends, and I am going to indict you. I'll state the charge against you clearly, face-to-face." The Psalm ends with a sentencing of sorts, a directive from the Judge. "Set out a sacrifice I can accept: your thankfulness. Do this, and you will honor Me. Those who straighten up their lives will know the saving grace of God."

The Psalmist who was so sure of his righteous position must not be divorced from the Psalmist who stands accused before God. When hurt, we want to hurt back. But when we have done the hurting, we want leniency. So how can we reconcile these two? In Psalm 51, we find a penitent man, asking not only for forgiveness but transformation. Here is a man keenly aware that his reckless actions have caused pain and harm to many: "Look on me with a heart of mercy, O God, according to Your great compassion, wipe out every consequence of my shameful crimes. Thoroughly wash me, inside and out, of all my crooked deeds. Cleanse me from my sins." Instead of asking the Righteous Judge to wipe out his enemies (like we found in Psalm 9), the Psalmist asks God to wipe out the consequences, the terrible price paid by others (as well as himself) because of his crimes. The desire for justice is turned inward instead of outward as the Psalmist continues: "Create in me a clean heart, O God; restore within me a sense of being brand new. Do not throw me far away from Your presence, and do not remove Your Holy Spirit from me. Give back to me the deep delight of being saved by You; let Your willing Spirit sustain me."

The truth is, we are both plaintiff and accused. We sit on both sides of the court. There are claims against us and we have claims against others. We have had wrong done to us and we have wronged others. We are not blameless nor are we without hurt. But we are not the Righteous Judge. We can demand the destruction of our enemies like the Psalmist, but it is not ours to enforce. We can plead for mercy and forgiveness, but it is not ours to demand.

So what can we do with our pain and with our guilt? Author Anne Rice writes: "I myself am haunted by destructive things that were said to me when I was a child, and over the course of my adult life. I can think of something said to me when I was ten years old and feel exquisite pain remembering how humiliated or hurt I felt. What that means to me, however, is not only that I must forgive each and every instance in which such things happened, but that I must admit that my own words and actions may still be hurting people who can remember them from numberless incidents... All that gossip, all that criticism, all that spitefulness, all that meanness, all that verbal sparring, all that anger - all that failure to love." [2]

Rice echoes the prayer in Psalm 51 as she continues: "Think what a beautiful thing it would be if I could take back every unkind word I ever spoke, or every unkind deed I ever did, either deliberately, or accidentally - if I could take back every moment of pain I ever caused another human being. How can I do this? Only in surrendering this knowledge, this admission, to the mercy of Christ."

Amen, sister. We cry for justice for the oppressed and wronged. We cry for mercy for the wrongdoers. We are both. This is why we find comfort in God, the Righteous Judge.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms. Glasgow: Collins, 1981.
[2] Anne Rice. Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession. Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2008, p. 233.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

the planter's prayer

One of my planters this morning
This morning was planting day on my balcony; I placed three small, toddler flowering plants in each of my terra cotta containers. One of the pots had some gnarly, root-laden dirt in it so before I started planting, I lugged it down 3 flights of stairs and emptied it in the backyard. I dug through the other 2 pots to loosen the dirt and remove any big roots. Dean had bought me a brand new, extra large bag of Miracle Gro potting soil, so I dragged the bag which was nearly half my body size over to the pots and began to transfer dirt from bag to pot. Of course, some of it ended up on strewn on the balcony, smudged on my pants, and wedged underneath my fingernails (despite wearing gloves). While I was in the process of digging in the dirt, it started to rain. It wasn't too bad, just a few sprinkles, so I carried on, picking up the pace.

I made three holes in each pot, carefully lifted the toddler plants out of their plastic containers, sprinkled some fertilizer in the bottom of each hole, placed the plant in its new home, and packed dirt around it till it was snugly in place. The sun came out as I was finishing, so I watered the pots to make sure everything was fully hydrated. I took my dirty self inside and washed the blackness off my hands and shoes. Then the rain started to come down. Hard. Big drops like small H2O cookies. I stood at the back window, watching the fragile plants, newly transplanted, their roots still in shock from the pulling and prodding, and I hoped they were okay.

I hoped they would not be damaged by the sudden spring rain storm. I hoped their leaves were not too small and fragile to withstand the big, heavy drops of rain. I hoped there would be no strong winds and no unexpected hail. Most of all, I hoped that they would put down solid, deep roots, gather rich nutrients from the moist soil, and flourish in the coming days and weeks. I hoped that they would grow big and strong and beautiful and bring much joy and life and colour to the world.

As a church planter, I readily recognise that the hopes and prayers I breathed over my tiny plants this morning are the same hopes and dreams I have for those in my local faith community, those who look to me for help, for friendship, for stability, and for nourishment. I cannot fully protect them from the harsh world. I cannot give them all the nourishment they need or desire. I cannot guarantee a safe and steady journey through life. But I can speak to them tenderly. I can offer food and water for their souls and bodies. I can point them to the sun for warmth and draw them into the shade when things get too hot. I can place them in the richest soil I have access too. But I have to let them go in order to let them grow. I have to give them space and time to put down deep roots. I have to trust the Creator that rain and sun and storm and shade will be given in appropriate measure. I have to trust that the Creator has placed growth and transformation in the very fibre of every being. I can plant and water, but I cannot make anything grow. That I must trust to the Creator.

"Any growth comes from God, so the ones who water and plant have nothing to brag about. God, who causes the growth, is the only One who matters. The one who plants is no greater than the one who waters; both will be rewarded based on their work. We are gardeners and field workers laboring with God. You are the vineyard, the garden, the house where God dwells." (1 Corinthians 3, The Voice).

Friday, May 01, 2015

too quiet

Image from ruleoflife.com
My life has been pretty quiet the past few months. Don't get me wrong, it is busy. It has been one of those terms when I am teaching, traveling, going to conferences, trying to move forward on my thesis, grading assignments, and meeting with professors and students and people in my spiritual community. But in the midst of the busyness it has felt pretty quiet. Quiet in my spirit. No fireworks. No great excitement, No awesome revelations. No getting caught up in a whirlwind and taken to heaven. No pillar of fire by night. No guiding cloud by day. No burning bush. Just the humdrum of reading and writing, lecturing, going to the gym, praying, reading the Bible, gathering with followers of Jesus, and doing the dishes. Pretty quiet inside.

At times I ask my spirit - hey, are you alive and well? I hope so, I respond. I wonder to myself - is God with me? I guess so, I say, but I can't always tell. And maybe, on a particularly quiet and busy day, I allow myself to wonder if this whole faith thing is a figment of my imagination because nothing much seems to be happening.

And then, on a quiet Monday night when four of us are sitting around a table, reading a chapter in a rather innocuous book, I feel the tiniest shudder, a movement inside me. And I know it is the Spirit of God breathing on me. I don't remember exactly what we were reading about, maybe something about not complaining, or perhaps something about Pentecost, but I feel my spirit fluttering, a subtle breeze wafting across it. It is so gentle that I almost disregard it, dismiss it as too small a thing, mostly a nothing.

And then we come to a directive in the book: Share a story about a time you experienced the Holy Spirit in a special way. And when everyone sits there mute, I speak up. I confess that my life in the Spirit has been very quiet lately, and that I might even have complained about that a bit, the mediocrity of it, the lack of excitement. But if things had not been so quiet, I never would have felt the subtle movement, the tiny breeze, the breath of the Spirit wafting over me just a moment ago. And I almost tear up at the realization that God is very close to me indeed.

Being in a quiet place allows us to catch the subtle movements of the Spirit. It encourages us to be attentive to the smallest of changes in the spiritual atmosphere. We are, in some ways, more wholly alive than when we are bracing ourselves against a whirlwind or shielding our eyes from a burning bush. In quietness, we can hear the drop of a pin. In the calm, we can feel the slightest change in the wind. In stillness, we notice the smallest movements.

Quietness cultivates attentiveness, awareness, sensitivity, stillness (not prone to agitation), contentment (not needing constant stimulation), and stability (not easily distracted or discouraged). The Spirit of God's presence is all the more lovely and beautiful and breathtaking for its restraint. May I never complain about the quiet because in it I hear and see and feel and taste and smell that God is good in ways which the whirlwind could never teach me.

-----------------------

The Quiet World by Jeffrey McDaniel 1998

In an effort to get people to look
into each other's eyes more,
and also to appease the mutes,
the government has decided
to allot each person exactly one hundred
and sixty-seven words, per day.

When the phone rings, I put it to my ear
without saying hello. In the restaurant
I point at chicken noodle soup.
I am adjusting well to the new way.

Late at night, I call my long distance lover,
proudly say I only used fifty-nine today.
I saved the rest for you.

When she doesn't respond,
I know she's used up all her words,
so I slowly whisper I love you
thirty-two and a third times.
After that, we just sit on the line
and listen to each other breathe.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

head, heart, and yummy snacks

Image from whatsgabbycooking.com
Last week I was in Media, Pennsylvania at the annual Society of Vineyard Scholars conference. Besides beautiful, sunny, warm days and the meeting of friends new and old, what impressed me most about this unique gathering was the co-mingling of academic rigour, encouragement, critique, worship, prayer, beautiful art, pastoral care, prophetic warning, repentance, and great snacks. I have never been to anything quite like it before, but it left me wanting more.

The academy tends to do some things better than the church, in my opinion, and some of these are the ability to listen and speak with humility, to embrace different voices and learn from them, and to welcome critique instead of bristling defensively against it. At the conference in Media, I had the opportunity both to present a paper and to offer a critical response to a panel of three presenters. It is good to be at both ends of this dynamic. It is good to be in the vulnerable position of a presenter who is offering their ideas for consideration by a learned community. I always get a bit nervous before I give a paper because I know I am exposing part of myself to people who may disagree with me, who may find my ideas simple or faulty, or who may deem my words mostly irrelevant. On the other hand, I find it equally difficult to be the responder, the critical voice asking tough questions, pointing out inconsistencies, or suggesting that ideas need to be reworked and reconsidered. It feels a bit awkward, to be honest, but in the true spirit of learning, most people at these events graciously accept critique, especially when the words are spoken out of kindness and humility. Academics generally realise that critique is necessary to make one's work better.

One of the highlights of the conference was a talk given by Stanley Hauerwas (Duke University), one of the USA's most influential contemporary theologians. His critique of the systems we find ourselves working and living within was sobering. He constantly drew our attention to the distinction between the values of the kingdom of God and the values of our current culture (including church culture) and urged us, with strong language, not to confuse the two. Our Western society is addicted to using violence, aggression, and wealth as ways of changing the world, and yet, these were not Jesus' methods. In other ways, Hauerwas suggested, we have become adherents of tolerance, producing people who say: "I believe Jesus is Lord, but that's just my personal opinion." Above all, he urged us to tell the truth: to each other and to ourselves. This means unearthing the deceit and duplicity present in our narratives and beliefs which underlie everything from our political views to our private prayers. Tough to do, but necessary work if we are to be people who humbly follow Jesus with integrity.

Other thought-provoking nuggets from Hauerwas:
- (On the religious right): They have no joy. And if there's no joy to it, it won't last.
- (On how we can engage with other faiths): Are we interesting enough that people of other faiths want to talk to us?
- (On the question: Are we responsible for decisions we make when we don't know what we are doing?) If we are not responsible, this makes marriage and having children unintelligible. Who of us knew what we were doing when we said our marriage vows or when we had a child? When you have children, you never get the ones you want. It takes grace to accept the situations that God gives us.
- Only God exists. We do not. The question is not does God exist but do we?
- We tend to believe that we have no story except the story we chose when we had no story. This is supposedly freedom. But our story starts in God, not in ourselves (paraphrase).

And that's a taste of what it was like to be at the Society of Vineyard Scholars conference this year. I wish you could also have sampled the tiny pretzels and the homemade salted caramels, but maybe next time.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Horray! It's the weekend!

Resurrection Morning by JRC Martin
Many of us are used to thinking of the weekend as a respite from work and the daily grind, a few days to relax, unwind, and have a bit of time for ourselves and our loved ones. During this Easter season, I was reminded of quite a different kind of weekend, a holy weekend. It began when I read something by N.T. Wright a few weeks ago.

Wright draws attention to the parallels between the creation story in Genesis and the story of Jesus found in the gospel of John. For instance, both start off with "In the beginning." Of particular interest are the last few days of Jesus' life in light of the creation story. On the sixth day, God created humankind. On the sixth day (Friday), Pilate brought Jesus before the crowd and declared, "Here is the man!" Also on the sixth day, God finished creation. On the sixth day, Jesus cried out, "It is finished!" On the seventh day, the Creator rested from his work. On the seventh day (Saturday), God incarnate, Jesus, rested in the tomb, his redemptive work complete. The first day of the week in Genesis was the first day of God's creation. The first day of the week after Jesus's death (Sunday) was the first day of God's new creation. [1]

Here we see the deliberate and precise structure of two stories which reveal something about how God creates, sustains, and redeems life. With that in mind, let's take a closer look at the Holy Weekend of Jesus.

Friday is a day of betrayal (Judas), doubt (for both Jesus and the disciples), violence (Peter attacks a soldier, Jesus is tortured), denial (Peter denies Jesus, the disciples scatter), things going horribly wrong (from the perspective of the disciples), injustice (an innocent man is punished while a guilty man goes free), and finally, death. Jesus prays, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not what I want but what you want." (Matt. 26:39). Later, as he is dying on the cross, he calls out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"(Matt. 27:46). After Jesus is arrested, the disciples begin to question what Jesus said. Was Jesus really the Anointed One, the one sent by God? Perhaps they got it all wrong. Everything is falling apart around them and they think about walking away from it all. While the disciples are understandably disillusioned and distraught, Jesus gives himself to the very last breath.

Saturday is silent. It is the sabbath and nothing stirs. God seems to be silent. The disciples are disoriented, in a state of shock and confusion. What do they do now? Do they go back to their old lives? If not, how do they move forward? They seem stuck, caught in a liminal place between what was and what is to come, unsure of the future, not sure who they are, what they believe, or what action to take. Bishop Campbell says: "In these last hours of the great silence of Holy Saturday, when the Eternal Word reaches into the hidden recesses of death, let all flesh keep silent and in this silence, let us be attentive and listen."

Sunday dawns like any other day, but something seems to have changed. Some women report that Jesus has disappeared from the tomb. Mary says she saw Jesus alive. A few of the disciples go to the tomb to verify that it is empty, but this latest development leaves the disciples even more confused and disoriented. They are not sure what to make of the women's news, since women can be emotional and unreliable in times like this. They are fearful because the events of Friday and Saturday have shaken them to the core and they know they are in danger because of their association with Jesus whom the religious leaders and the Romans saw as a troublemaker. So they huddle together in a room and lock the door. And this is where Jesus finds them on Sunday night.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit." (John 20:19-22).

The resurrection of Jesus is not just a happy ending to a story, it is the beginning of a new creation. When the resurrected Jesus appears, walls, locked doors, and other obstacles become irrelevant. The scarred Jesus reassures the disciples that he is not a ghost, but their trusted friend who bears the marks of love. The resurrected Jesus brings peace and joy to chase away their fear and disappointment. Jesus breathes on his disciples (reminiscent of Genesis 2) his Holy Spirit breath. And Jesus lets them know that they can't huddle in a locked room forever. In the same way that God the Father sent Jesus to not only bring the good news of hope and forgiveness and wholeness but to embody it, Jesus sends the disciples to do the same.

Wright says: "How [can we] show to the world the signs of love, how can we reach out our hands in love, wounded though they will be if the love has been true, how [can we] invite those whose hearts have grown shrunken and shriveled with sorrow and disbelief to come and see what love has done, what love is doing, in our communities, our neighborhoods?" [2]

The question I have is, which day of the Holy Weekend do we find ourselves in? Are we experiencing the death and despair of Friday? Are we confused by being stuck in the silence of Saturday? Or are we caught up in the disorienting whirlwind of change as Holy Sunday unfolds? Is hope crushed, dormant, or fully alive? Are we surrounded by doubt or beginning to doubt our doubts? Is fear beginning to subside because Jesus is near and the hot breath of the Holy Spirit is on our faces? I think it is important to remember that Holy Sunday didn't happen in one instant for the disciples; the events unfolded throughout the day and the ongoing weeks and years as Jesus revealed himself to people and they slowly began to realize the implications of new creation.

One day is not more holy than the next, Jesus is present in times of death, silence, and renewed hope because he has lived through them all. If we are in a Friday stage, let us not despair. Perhaps it would behoove us to ask someone who is experiencing Sunday to pray for us and walk us through this dark place. If we are in a Saturday silence, let us be patient and attentive, listening well and avoiding making any quick decisions. And if we are living in Sunday mode, let us rejoice! The scars we carry from Friday and Saturday can be signs of hope and love to those around us. Let us receive the words of peace from Jesus and let go of the fear that paralyzed us. And let us embody the good news of new creation by reaching out hands of love to those in despair, confusion, and sorrow.


[1] N. T. Wright, "Becoming People of Hope," in Surprised by Scripture (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 207-217.
[2] Wright, 213.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

looking for heaven

Yeast under a microscope.
Image from wonderville.com
Sometimes I think about dying. Over the past few months those thoughts have been more frequent as I happened upon the writings of Kara Tippetts facing her last days after several years of battling cancer. She wrote with such honesty, such kindness, such generosity at a time when it probably would have been easier just to withdraw into her community of family and friends. But she didn't, and the world is richer - I am richer - because of it.

In recent years, a number of books have been published (with some being made into films) in the genre known as "heaven tourism." These are stories written by those who claim to have died and seen glimpses of the afterlife. Just today, LifeWay Christian Resources removed all titles in this category from their stores due to questions of authenticity and the lack of theological support. This week I read the parable Jesus told about the unnamed rich man and Lazarus the beggar (Luke 16). After both die, the rich man finds himself in a place of torment while Lazarus is comforted in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his rich family about their impending fate. Abraham replies that if his brothers are not listening to Moses and the prophets, they won't listen to someone who comes back from the dead. Hard words, but true.

The popularity of heaven tourism saddens me a bit. We are curious about what awaits us after death, but I believe we would do better to pay close attention to the scriptures and teachings we already have instead of looking for spectacular accounts of the afterlife. Instead of dreaming about heaven, perhaps, like Kara Tippetts, we should spend our time living (and dying) with courage and kindness.

I recently taught a class on the topic of eschatology in which I asked the students what they thought should be included in heaven. Their take on a Utopian afterlife included the expected elements: joy, reunion with family and friends, and the absence of death, pain, and evil (especially fascists). Most of us wish for a time when things will be better than they are now, so it is natural to hope for what we lack. But is that really what heaven, what the kingdom of God is all about? Getting what we want? Not really.

Jesus spoke often about the kingdom of heaven and his words included many ideas which were hard for his listeners (and us) to hear. He said that the kingdom of heaven is come near and is among us. He said that we must receive it like a little child, like the poor in spirit, by aligning ourselves with the purposes of God. He said the kingdom of heaven is like a small seed, like yeast, growing from something insignificant into something great. It all makes little sense when you try to put it in the context of a faraway place where we end up after we die. But when we think of the kingdom of heaven as the place where God is with us no matter what the circumstance, it becomes clearer.

Kara Tippetts wrote:
My little body has grown tired of battle, and treatment is no longer helping. But what I see, what I know, what I have is Jesus. He has still given me breath, and with it I pray I would live well and fade well. By degrees doing both, living and dying, as I have moments left to live. I get to draw my people close, kiss them and tenderly speak love over their lives. I get to pray into eternity my hopes and fears for the moments of my loves. I get to laugh and cry and wonder over Heaven. I do not feel like I have courage for this journey, but I have Jesus - and He will provide. He has given me so much to be grateful for, and that gratitude, that wondering over His love, will cover us all. And it will carry us - carry us in ways we cannot comprehend. [1]

That, to me, is the kingdom of God coming near. Life and death intermingled with grace and the presence of Jesus. Pain and loss and weariness overshadowed by moments of bright love and hope and joy.

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann explains the nature of our future hope:
But the ultimate reason for our hope is not to be found at all in what we want, wish for and wait for; the ultimate reason is that we are wanted and wished for and waited for. What is it that awaits us? Does anything await us at all, or are we alone? Whenever we base our hope on trust in the divine mystery, we feel deep down in our hearts: there is someone who is waiting for you, who is hoping for you, who believes in you. We are waited for as the prodigal son in the parable is waited for by his father. We are accepted and received, as a mother takes her children into her arms and comforts them. God is our last hope because we are God's first love.

This is what we long for: not all those things we are missing here in this life, not a mansion in the sky and eternal bliss, but knowing that we are loved, that we belong, that we are waited for. And that is what Jesus offers us every moment of every day, whether we fathom it or not, whether we receive it or not. The mystery of heaven is not really about all the wonders we will see in the sweet bye and bye but about the wonder of divine love which is poured out in generous measure on us right here, right now. In good days and in bad days, in pain and in sorrow, in joy and sunshine and friendship, in loss and in gain, in failure and in victory. We are God's beloved. What more could we want?

[1] http://www.mundanefaithfulness.com/home/2015/3/22/homecoming