Entrenched

*Poem and artwork by Eric Verbovszky

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Entrenched in our churches,
walls we’ve built in our searches,
they’ve become our perches.

Not crossing valleys,
stuck in our alleys,
on our way to our rallies.

Afraid of the fog,
drunk from our grog,
aghast at braving the bog,
staggering in our own smog.

Content in our jest,
we call others possessed,
with ourselves most impressed.

Entrenched,
we’re benched,
unable to wrench,
only serving to quench.

Hearts to the Spirit
– a spear right into it –
churches have to submit.
We must commit.
We have to admit.

Though the circus enticed,
the grog and the fog must be sliced.
They simply do not suffice.
They’re not valuably priced.
Our focus must solely be Christ.

God gives us the dove,
with license to love,
a power from above,
to take off the gloves.

Go,
show,
so others can know.

Speak,
seek,
no fear to seem weak.

Share,
care,
words everywhere.

Guide,
beside,
shepherd the countryside.

Teach,
preach,
the Spirit will reach.

 

 

 

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Correctly Understanding the Theology of “Heaven is for Real”

I recently had the privilege of watching a great movie.  You might be familiar with the title.  It’s called “Heaven Is for Real.”  I had heard about the book for quite a while but never had an opportunity to read it.  When the movie came out, I put it on my list of films to watch.  But it wasn’t until a few days ago, with my fiancé, that I finally watched this story.

If you’re interested in a movie with lots of action and a suspenseful plot, it’s probably not your type of movie.  But if you’re interested in the gospel of Jesus Christ and learning about one boy’s incredible, God-given vision of eternity, then watch the movie.

Granted, the movie has been adapted to a film version from the book, so I’m sure there were some changes.  However, at the end of the day, the basic story is the same: Colton, at a young age, became sick with appendicitis, and while unconscious on the operating table, had a vision of Jesus Christ and heaven.  He recovered, only to have extraordinary and unexplainable observations and insights.

I have to admit, though, I was a bit skeptical at first.  Trained in theology, I need to be able to think very critically about stories like Colton Burpo’s.  The particular branch of theology that this movie deals with is eschatology – the end times of this fallen creation in anticipation of the coming age in a new creation.  While it doesn’t deal with the “end times” specifically, it does deal with life after death, which is related to eschatology.

That is why I can appreciate an article like Drew Dyck’s, “What Hollywood gets wrong about heaven.”   It is definitely a great article.   Drew reminds us of scriptural accounts of heaven from the prophets Daniel, Ezekial, and Isaiah.

Drew writes, “In Scripture, when mortals catch a premature glimpse of God’s glory, they react in remarkably similar ways. They tremble. They cower. They go mute. The ones who can manage speech express despair (or “woe” to use the King James English) and become convinced they are about to die. Fainters abound.”

He also reminds us of John’s revelation, in which heaven is presented as an awe-inspiring place.  But it is also quite terrifying from the perspective of our fallen and limited human understandings.  I like the text CNN uses for the link: “heaven is for scary real.”  It’s because it is for scary real.

It’s also why I can also appreciate noted Christian leader John MacArthur’s critique, “Heaven is Real; Hallucinations are not,” in which he says he simply does not believe the child at all.

However, as smart as the man is, I, along with many others, disagree with John MacArthur’s theological viewpoint. He is approaching the movie from his system of thinking, which comes from a very rigid Reformed theology.  Don’t get me wrong, though – he makes several legitimate points and has an understandable reason to write what he wrote.  His article should be taken very seriously because there can be such a wide variety of  these types of near-death experiences.  He offers great input as part of the conversation, but as a former professor used to say to me, “What’s the so-what?”

Unlike John MacArthur, coming from the Wesleyan tradition of Christianity, I cannot simply ignore someone’s profound personal experience – especially when the boy’s experience offers such unexplainable happenings like Colton recognizing his great-grandfather as a young man, Colton knowing that his mother miscarried, and Colton recognizing the Christ from a painting done by a little girl, whom he had never met or heard of, on the other side of the world who had a similar experience.

In the Wesleyan tradition, I have to at least try to reconcile a story like Colton’s with Christian tradition, Christian experience, theological reason, and scripture.  We must think a little deeper in order to figure out how this makes sense with a correct understanding of theology and scripture.  We must ask, “What’s the so-what?”  We’re on the right track; we just have to think a little harder.

We must ask how Colton’s story fits in with the greater story of God’s redemption of the creation that is explained in scripture.  The Spirit of God is at work in people’s lives today – even a child’s life – just as much as the Spirit of God was at work in the thousands of years of history that scripture covers.

Moreover, as a Christian I’m asked to believe in the possibility of the miraculous. We have to have faith, after all, in the life, death, and resurrection of a living Jesus Christ!

Perhaps the misunderstanding comes from an overly-simplified version of eschatology in which a person dies and either goes to heaven or hell, and that’s the end of the story.  However, that is not necessarily how it works.  Paul, prophets of the Old Testament, apostles and disciples of the New Testament, and most importantly Jesus Christ, the Messiah, all speak of a resurrection and judgment at the last day and of all things being made new in eternal life with God.  If you’d like to read a little further on this subject, as well as dive a little deeper into the possibilities of immediate life after death, check out a previous post, ““The Great Divorce” and Understanding Eschatology.”  Part of the post summarizes N.T. Wright’s “Surprised by Hope”, which is also an excellent resource on life after death.

What I’ve come to realize is that, most of the time, when people speak of heaven they mean the new creation that God will redeem this world into at the onset of the next age.   This fallen age will come to an end with the return of Christ, resurrection, and judgment unto eternal life or death by Christ.  The earth will be made new, and heaven (God’s dwelling place) will come down to a new Jerusalem.  Those whose hearts Christ judges worthy will dwell in this new creation.   It will certainly be heavenly, but it won’t be heaven proper.

Heaven, properly understood, is God’s dwelling place.  It is not of this earth.  It is the place described in Daniel, Ezekial, Isaiah, and John’s revelation.  It is awe-inspiring and terrifying.

But here’s the key: God did not create humans to dwell in heaven proper.  He created us as the pinnacle of his creation to dwell among the rest of his creation – the beautiful earth described in Genesis 1-3.  It is the beautiful earth we still see today.  And when this creation will finally be fully redeemed, wiped free from effects of sin and fallenness, it will so much more incredibly beautiful!

As people created to be part of a creation, being in heaven proper – a place not ultimately intended for us – would have the exact effect it had on Daniel, Ezekial, Isaiah, and John – trembling, cowering, speechless, and faint.

This quick illustration might help – you were created to drink out of a cup, not from a high-pressure firehose.  A human being in heaven proper is like drinking out of a high-pressure firehouse.  Even a short period of time will most likely produce some extreme consequences for the person!

Or think about this other example – an animal, taken out of its normal habitat, will not do too well; it was designed to function best in its original habitat.  Humans, as creations of God, are designed to function best in God’s creation.  And they will ultimately function greatest in God’s redeemed creation!

Considering everything, we must ask how Colton’s vision fits in with a correct theological understanding of God’s plan for people and his creation.  Ultimately, I just cannot dismiss Colton’s story as hallucination.  Theologically speaking, it cannot be dismissed as such either, as John MacArthur is quick to do.

It can be explained best, however, as a vision from God, given to Colton, of life in this new creation.  It is an incredible experience.  The mystery of God, in all of its greatness, made complete in Jesus Christ, and given to us by the Spirit, has given Colton a vision of God’s new creation – the place so many people call heaven.  Scripturally and theologically speaking, Colton’s vision is actually an accurate experience of the new creation.   Christ has a horse; Christ rides on a horse in John’s revelation.  The new creation is also free from the effects of fallenness; Colton describes everyone as young and with perfect vision (that’s great for me and my fiancé, because we’ve had bad vision our entire lives!).

It is certainly not an event where we can just put our foot down and exclaim with all certainty, “Impossible!”   To do so would be to put the power and mystery of God in a box and limit the work of the Spirit and the risen Christ, which will lead no where good.

God has shown his love to Colton through this vision, and in doing so, has inspired so many countless others to also turn their hearts to the reality of God and Jesus Christ.  And ultimately, hearts oriented and turned toward the love, grace, and glory of Jesus Christ is what matters most.

I pray that throughout the remainder of his entire life, Colton continues to inspire others toward the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“It’s where my demons hide”

The musical group Imagine Dragons has written quite a profound song.  You may have heard it about a thousand times on the radio recently – it’s called Demons.

However, in seeking to understand the story of humanity in relation to God, this particular song also has a certain theological significance.  Perhaps Imagine Dragons did not intend that; yet when seeking to accurately, and poetically, understand humanity, just as this group has done, an experience with God is inevitable.

The lyrics speak for themselves regarding the human condition:

When the days are cold
And the cards all fold
And the saints we see
Are all made of gold

When your dreams all fail
And the ones we hail
Are the worst of all
And the blood’s run stale

I wanna hide the truth
I wanna shelter you
But with the beast inside
There’s nowhere we can hide

No matter what we breed
We still are made of greed
This is my kingdom come
This is my kingdom come

When you feel my heat
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide
Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide

At the curtain’s call
It’s the last of all
When the lights fade out
All the sinners crawl

So they dug your grave
And the masquerade
Will come calling out
At the mess you’ve made

Don’t wanna let you down
But I am hell bound
Though this is all for you
Don’t wanna hide the truth

No matter what we breed
We still are made of greed
This is my kingdom come
This is my kingdom come

When you feel my heat
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide
Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide

They say it’s what you make
I say it’s up to fate
It’s woven in my soul
I need to let you go

Your eyes, they shine so bright
I wanna save that light
I can’t escape this now
Unless you show me how

When you feel my heat
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide
Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide

God certainly understands this condition.  The writers of Genesis state, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5, NRSV).  And God grieved because of it.  He saw the demons hiding within the hearts of people.

Granted, some have given in to the demons hiding within their hearts.  Still, some glorify the demons; a world where all people gloat in their evil ways with no sense of repentance is most likely what God saw in the early chapters of Genesis.

Others may live in denial of aspects of the selfishness that grips them.  It’s okay; I think we’ve all been there at one point or another regarding some type of evil that has gripped our hearts in one way or another.  God has a way of revealing our mistakes and shortcomings and wrongdoings in us.  But by his grace he does not strike us with lightning; rather, he works with us to patiently change our hearts toward his goodness.  We learn to respond in humility so that the tendency toward sin within us may be vanquished.

Yet the lyrics of Demons almost speak of someone wrestling with the evil – the beast – that they fear is hiding within them.  They want to do the right thing, but they just can’t seem to do it.  They desire with all their heart to do it, but the beast inside has too much of a grip of them.  The person simply says, “Don’t get too close, it’s dark inside.”

The human condition – the depravity of humanity, seemingly woven within our souls, nearly inescapable.  As we look at the state of the world, as we honestly look at the state of our own individual hearts, escape from our sins seems impossible.  Many theological traditions have called this total depravity, the idea that sin is embedded so deeply within us that is impossible to root it out and finally get rid of it; no matter what we breed, we still are made of greed.

Still, other theological traditions like my own, the Church of the Nazarene, say that through the power of Christ and his Spirit within us, that disposition toward sin may replaced with a disposition toward God’s holy love.  The theological traditions debate about this point, which is good, but it can also turn into talking past one another.

The reality is not necessarily as clear-cut as we try to make it in our finite minds.  Sin has a grip, an incredibly strong grip, on our hearts.  This cannot be overlooked; but it does not mean that God cannot form us and mold us.  It does not mean that the Spirit cannot be at work within us, wrestling the sin and changing it toward love.

At the same time, though, we press on toward the goal, made possible by Christ, of erasing the tendency toward sin and replacing it with a tendency toward love.  This is, as well, a definite possibility in this life, but it must be one approached with humility, an awareness of our temptations and sins, and an attitude of constantly asking for forgiveness from God and others.

Most of us are probably somewhere in between – wrestling the demons.  But as long as we are seeking after God while wrestling, accept God’s grace, and look to Christ through all of our pains, trials, and failures in this world, we are moving in the right direction.

In understanding our own condition, we must remember that humanity and God are on a collision course.  A song like Demons cannot be complete without God; it only tells half the story.  But the collision is not because of some convoluted idea that God wants to destroy us because of our sins; it’s because God wants to save us from our sins and the pain they cause.

The initial crash has already happened.  Christ, very much the focal point of that crash, was born, crucified, and resurrected as both God and man.  Read scripture and you will find the many lives of people whom Christ has touched – lepers, pharisees, the blind, the lame, and yes, of course, the demon-inhabited.

Through each person allowing Christ to change their heart, that crash is continuing as God’s kingdom breaks further into our world, one person at a time.  God desperately desires you to be a part of that kingdom, no matter what demons or beasts inside you may be wrestling with.

Christ came to not only show how to overcome our selfish, sinful behaviors, he came so that in him, and by the power of his Spirit, we can actually have life in victory over our sins.  Whereas Cain said yes to his overwhelming temptation of killing his brother Abel, by Christ we can say no.

The demons of greed, of failure, of darkness, of fear of whatever beast we believe is inside us that we are currently wrestling, hiding from, and running from – these are the demons that Christ casts away.  These are the demons that Christ will work with us to conquer and overcome.  These are the demons that, by the same Spirit that is in Christ, can be vanquished.

Still, in humility, remember that sin is always lurking at the door, just as it was for Cain (Genesis 4:7, NRSV).  This is the total depravity within us, yet more importantly it is a depravity that, by Christ in us, we have the power to not open a door to that lurking sin.

By the power of the Spirit, we are formed to be Christ-like.  Remember, though, it takes time; it can take a lot of time.  So wherever your demons may hide, allow Christ to work on them.  Allow the Spirit to shape your heart to God’s heart, forcing out the sin and humbly replacing it with love.

As Christ said, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12, NRSV).  May God forgive us of our shortcomings, sins, and mistakes, and may God fill our hearts with his love toward him and one another.

Implications of Entire Sanctification in the Pope’s New Year’s Day Message

The Pope, in his message today, discussed the critical requirement of new life through regeneration in Christ. However, the working of Christ within us is not only a personal event, but a relational event. The validity of that aspect cannot be debated or challenged. Christ within us means evidence of the Holy Spirit manifests itself in how we relate to one another, and even to the creation, at individual levels, community levels, and even national levels.

Pope Francis delivers quite a good message which actually summarizes what, in the Church of the Nazarene, we would call entire sanctification and what it looks like – especially in the fruits of love for one another. Love for one another can often be a challenge, but is evidence of God within us.

Click here for a link to the text; Francis’ words speak for themselves.

A Hymn from Charles Wesley

This Sunday morning, consider the poetry of Charles Wesley as we participate in the life of God and the Kingdom through the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:

“Come, sinners, to the gospel feast,
Let every soul be Jesu’s guest;
Ye need not one be left behind,
For God hath bidden all mankind.

“Sent by my Lord, on you I call,
The invitation is to all:
Come, all the world; come, sinner, thou!
All things in Christ are ready now.

“Come, all ye souls by sin opprest,
Ye restless wanderers after rest,
Ye poor, and maimed, and halt, and blind,
In Christ a hearty welcome find.

“Come, and partake the gospel feast;
Be saved from sin; in Jesus rest;
O taste the goodness of your God,
And eat his flesh, and drink his blood!

“Ye vagrant souls, on you I call;
(O that my voice could reach you all!)
Ye all may now be justified,
Ye all may live, for Christ hath died.

“My message as from God receive,
Ye all may come to Christ, and live;
O let his love your hearts constrain,
Nor suffer him to die in vain!

“His love is mighty to compel;
His conquering love consent to feel,
Yield to his love’s resistless power,
And fight against your God no more.

“See him set forth before your eyes,
That precious, bleeding sacrifice!
His offered benefits embrace,
And freely now be saved by grace.

“This is the time; no more delay!
This is the acceptable day,
Come in, this moment, at his call,
And live for him who died for all.”

Amen.

The Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi

The prayer commonly attributed to the great 13th century Christian Saint of the catholic Church:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon:
where there is doubt, faith:
where there is despair, hope:
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not
so much seek to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Perhaps in praying and living these words in unity with the rest of the catholic Church, we may be a humble representative of God’s holy kingdom, empowered by the Spirit, with Christ as our leader, to a fallen world seeking the hope and healing that only the Father, the Son, and the Spirit can bring.

Amen.

Thoughts on Easter: “Spiritual but not Religious”

A large number of people label themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”   I can understand this viewpoint; for some it is because of bad experiences with a major world religion, such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.   For others, it is not necessarily because of a previous experience, but just that they are skeptical of the idea of “organized religion.”   Still, some may want to explore different religions before jumping into one; it is dipping one’s feet into the water before fully diving in.   In any case, and no matter what category a person falls under, the individuals who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” recognize that there is something more to life than simply going after common and vain pursuits such as money and power.

However, the label “spiritual but not religious” is misleading; it implies that there is also a group of people who are “not spiritual and not religious.”   To be honest, I do not think it is even possible to be “not spiritual.”   The idea that one could not have a spiritual self at all, or that one could completely destroy or kill one’s spiritual self, does not make any sense.

The spirit is a characteristic of the physical body.   It’s like saying one is one; it simply is.   If you’ve read my previous post, “He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion,” you’ll get a better idea of where I am coming from in stating this.   God created us; God breathed life into us, giving us a spirit.   In this life, the body and the spirit are inseparable.   They are intertwined into one existence – the human being.   What happens to the spirit after death, we do not know exactly (check out N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope); we have many ideas though.   Although, as a minister in Christianity, I believe that at the end of this sinful age there will be a resurrection of the dead and our spirit will return to our body through God’s power; we will live as one existence of the intertwined and inseparable physical and spiritual human being – the way God designed us to be – in a new eternal creation free from the bondage of death.   This is what is supported by Christian scripture and thousands of years of tradition.

There is no one who is “not spiritual.”   It is impossible.   We are all spiritual beings.   Granted, different people may deny or accept the reality of their spirituality on different levels, in effect, respectively, either suffocating or cultivating who they are.   But we are all spiritual on some level.   And as we become more in tune with ourselves, we realize that there is much more to life than simply the pursuit of vain items and materialism.   We begin to realize the importance of the connections that exist within this world.

Jesus summarized it as he echoed the Jewish Shema of Deuteronomy 6: “Jesus answered, ‘The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these'” (Mark 12:29-31).

A few weeks ago in one of my classes at the U.S. Army Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course, one of my Chaplain instructors gave us his thoughts on a definition of spirituality: it is a person connecting with the four c’s – the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation.   Even if it is at a very basic level, we are all making these connections; we are becoming more in tune to the bigger picture of life.   And as a Christian, I believe God made each one of us to have a role in this bigger picture; God created us to be people who are not selfish individuals, but selfless people who are always recognizing the connections we have.

Religion is a vital tool in developing this spirituality.   Through religion, we cultivate and grow these connections and relationships.   And perhaps most importantly, we learn to first develop our connection with God so that we can better develop our connections with the community, the conscience, and the creation.   On our own, it is impossible to cultivate these connections.   But through a connection with God, and with God working in us and changing our hearts, our other connections will grow into something we never believed was possible.

Christianity is based on the person of Jesus Christ; this religion is centered on Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.   Through Christ, we can experience the amazing love of God in his grace, forgiveness, and mercy, despite all that we have done wrong in life.   Through Christ, we can become connected with God.   And through that connection with God, we can learn to truly love one another.   We can begin to understand ourselves, how we fit into the bigger picture of life, and be free from vain pursuits.

During this Easter season, I pray that no matter where we are on our spiritual journeys, whether we are struggling to take the very first step or have already been traveling for a thousand miles, we will begin to see the ultimate form of spirituality as a relationship with Christ.   I pray that we will use the tools that thousands of years of the Christian tradition have given us to develop our connections with the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation.   I pray that we will explore and reflect on different aspects of what it means to be a Christian in whatever context we find ourselves in today.   I pray that we will begin to learn how to worship God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.   And I pray that we learn to love our neighbors in the same way that we love ourselves.

This week is Holy Week in western Christianity. Soon our brothers and sisters in eastern Christiany will also be celebrating these Holy days of the Christian calendar.  Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday – this week is the pinnacle event of Christianity.   The significance of these days for our lives is the culmination of what it means to know ourselves and recognize our spirituality.   The life, death, and resurrection of the Christ and the Messiah is the sum of what our connections to the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation mean in each of our lives.

Happy Easter.   Christ has risen.   Let us celebrate.