Thursday, October 30, 2008

Visions of Heaven

Recently, I've had several people ask me what I thought about life after death experiences. (I could attribute the interest to the recent visit to SBU of Mr. Don Piper, who wrote a best-selling book about his visiting the gates of heaven when he was dead--and obviously returned to life to tell us about it. But, others have asked me the same question who don't attend SBU. So, this must be a hot topic.) Some of my students have asked, "Mr. Piper said he died and went to heaven. What do you think?"

It depends on our definition of death. Of course, we seem to rely upon biology to define death. But, even physicians cannot tell us the precise moment someone dies. Is it a flat EKG? No, hearts can stop and start again. Is it a flat EEG? No, bodies can be kept alive by machines for quite some time. When does a man die?

If we define death theologically, a person hasn't died unless he returns with a resurrected body. To be sure, there are several stories of resuscitation in the Bible. But, when Jairus' daughter, or the widow's Son, or even Lazarus was "raised from the dead," they simply returned to life in their mortal bodies. In other words, they weren't dead. When a man sees God, he's dead. No one sees God and lives to tell about it. Only one man died and came back to life. His was no resuscitation. Jesus came from the dead with a resurrected body. That's the proof that someone died according to the New Testament.

So, what do we make of experiences told by Mr. Piper? Some, I think, make the wrong assumption and discount his experience, "Well, since he didn't die according to what the Bible says, his experience wasn't legitimate. It can probably be explained biologically: something somatic that made him think he died." So, once again, we leave it to biology to define our theology.

I think he had a real experience. But, he didn't go to heaven. He didn't see heaven as it is. He had a vision of heaven, similar perhaps to what Paul described in 2 Cor. 12 or what John saw in his Revelation of Christ. Paul couldn't tell whether he had an "out of body" experience or not. John saw things and kept using the expression, "it was like this or that." Similes are comparative language. John did not see heaven as it really is. He saw what heaven was like. The same, I believe, could be said of Mr. Piper. He had a vision of heaven. He did not see it as it is. That doesn't make his experience illegitimate. Something happened to him. The question is: how do we interpret his experience? I think the Bible already has.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Time for Meditation

I've been thinking about the story of the Transfiguration lately--due primarily to Sufjan Steven's song "Transfiguration" from his "Seven Swans" record. There's one part of the story that has always intrigued me (come to think of it, the whole story is intriguing--very mysterious). Anyway, it's the part where Jesus tells the three who saw the whole thing that they should keep it to themselves for a while (Matthew and Mark's version). Of course, scholars have rightly concluded that the Transfiguration was a preview of Easter. So, the instruction to keep things under wraps until later makes perfect sense: the three wouldn't have the framework to explain what happened on the Mount until the resurrection. As a matter of fact, Luke has Jesus saying to them after the event, "Let these words sink deep into your ears . . . ," and then he goes on to forecast his passion and resurrection. The combination of "don't tell anyone" and "let these words sink deep into your ears" has profound implications, I think, for those who follow him today in a world of full disclosure ("talk shows" use to be pretty rare; now they're everywhere).

Sometimes I think we're quick to relate an "experience with the Lord." We talk of "the Lord said to me" or "God told me," trying to give words to a mystery too deep for conversation. And, before we know it, our words clutter the event of our interior life to the point where we can't make sense of the mystery anymore. We spoke presumptuously, too soon, as it were, and the voice in the cloud is lost in the sound of our own words.

A few times in my life, I've kept the secret to myself, reticent to speak of what I thought I saw and heard. Then, with time, the mystery comes into focus, the words make sense in light of later events. It's as if I've come down from the mountain of the presence of God, finding meaning in everyday life, common events which turn out to be extraordinary moments of clarity for me. This is a conversation that takes time, this correlation of things heard and things seen. Sometimes I think it's better not to share what we've received--especially when it comes to the mystery of God.

"Let these words sink deep into your ears."

Friday, August 29, 2008

I Need To Praise God

God came through for my friends, and I'm so grateful. Even though I was angry with Him over their plight--even vented a little bit, questioning His care for them--I now must give Him credit for taking a seemingly hopeless situation and turning it into life. He does that all the time, doesn't He? If there's anything we Christ-believers must cling to with the very passion of our lives it is this: the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ turns loss into gain, sorrow into joy, despair into hope, death into life. Thanks be to God for the life we have in the Crucified One.

There are scars, to be sure. My friends still have a long way to go. But, to see them smiling in light of some recent good news sure did my heart good.

I'm looking forward to Sunday so I can tell God what I really think about Him. Come to think of it, that's why I go. I have this compulsion, this need to worship God. And, I need to hear others do the same.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Complaining is an act of worship

Lately, I've been thinking about how much we try to impress God with our worship. We want to say the right things. We want to do the right things. And, rightfully so. When we read Leviticus, it becomes pretty obvious that God takes our service of worship very seriously. At the risk of sounding sacrilegious, God seems rather obsessive about it: bring coals from the wrong fire and He'll kill you.

This is why the Psalms are so refreshing to me. I love the way the penitent will often rake God over the coals for not coming through, not making good on promises, not helping in times of need. These laments sound brash and daringly provocative to my ears that are used to hearing American versions of worship songs, inspiring us to whisper "sweet nothings" into God's ears. I sing about sacrifice. I sing that God is "my everything." But, I'm not sure I mean it.

But, I must tell you. I could really get into songs that would inspire me to be honest to God, especially when I'm considering the suffering of others who are far more faithful than I. Lyrics like, "God, why have you forsaken us?" Or, "How long, O Lord? When will you remember the promises You made to my friends who have been faithful to You?" Or, "Why do you keep a safe distance in our times of trouble?" Those who know the Psalms will recognize these verses. They inspire me. I love the fact that our God is so big He inspired His people to complain to Him when times were hard--even in songs meant for worship. Why would he allow such a thing? Because He knows He's our only hope.

Oh God, please help my friends today. You know who they are. I'm angry that they're going through another impossibly difficult time. Why would you let this happen? Please, be their God. Please take care of them. We have no where left to turn.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

PCUSA Debate over Homosexuality

I've been following the debate in the Presbyterian Church over whether practicing homosexuals should be ordained for the gospel ministry. Mark Roberts is a Presbyterian minister who recently left the pastorate of an influential church in California to serve as the resident theologian of a retreat/camp in Texas called "Laity Lodge." I've followed his blog ever since I met him last year (through a mutual friend, former student, Steven Purcell, who's also on staff at Laity Lodge), and have found his writing to be very helpful, insightful, wise, and compassionate. He has a great mind and a good heart--a great combination for the work of the kingdom. Anyway, his blog can be found here:

I think Mark has put his finger on the salient reason why those who oppose ordination of gays and lesbians will never be able to agree with those who do (and vice versa). For those who oppose, it's a matter of personal righteousness. Since same sex behavior is condemned in the Bible as sinful, then those who participate in homoerotic behavior are committing sin. For those who support ordination of gays and lesbians, it's a matter of justice. Since the marginalized are often singled out by the prophets as victims of injustice, then those who fight for the marginalized are doing the work of God because He is a defender of the weak, the outcast, the rejected. So, as Mark writes, those who support ordination of gays and lesbians will never give up until these who have been marginalized in America are accepted--it's a matter of divine justice. And, those who oppose ordination of gays and lesbians will never accept the homosexual lifestyle as anything but sinful because personal righteousness is defined by God's Word not by individual preferences.

So, here's the question that I think will help bring a little light to the subject. Can you think of examples where Jesus defended the marginalized by redefining the margins--what is "unclean" anyway? And, can you think of examples where Jesus defended the marginalized while maintaining the margins--sin is still sin, right? I think the difference will be revealing.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Surprised by Wright

N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope seems to have raised a few eyebrows in the Church. I'm surprised by the reaction to Wright's work. It's one of those cases where I thought everyone already knew what Wright was writing about, i.e., the importance of the resurrection for Christian faith. After finishing the book soon after its release, I thought to myself, "Well. He's done it again. There's nothing new here. But, because he's such a good writer, this will get some good press."

But, here's the shocker: to much of the reading public, there is much that is new here. In other words, Wright has put his finger on a major theological problem in pop Christianity. It seems that most Christians do have a gnostic view of life after death, that the resurrection of their bodies is a rather offensive idea to their modern sensibilities, and that the common way of talking about heaven as "our final reward" does reveal their preferences for the afterlife (by the way, Eugene Petersen issued the same warning a few years ago in his, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places).

I can't believe it. To test Wright's warning, lately I've been bringing up eschatology in everyday conversation with believers (no, not the left behind variety). It's been amazing how many believers find the biblical idea of a resurrected earth and a resurrected body as bizarre and foreign ideas. When I say, "heaven is not our final reward. It's a halfway house until the last day, when God brings heaven to earth and the grave gives up bodies for resurrection glory." They often say, "Really? I've never heard that before."

All this singing about "When we all get to heaven" has messed up our theology more than I realized.

Be careful little mouths what you sing.