Heaven’s Above

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I was struggling for inspiration this week with the homework assignment from my writing group. The title was ‘Heaven’s Above’ (or maybe ‘Heavens Above’, without the apostrophe) and possibly I was having difficulty with it because I don’t believe in a Heaven above, on account of there not being one.

The other night, in a local bar, this young guy came over to talk to my friends and me. He was a doctor from a nearby practice, and he started by asking how, when the time comes, we’d like to die. While perhaps not be the best way to start a consultation, his question provoked some interesting responses.

Then, having somehow detected that my friends and I had reached a certain level of maturity (we’re in our 60s), the young doctor asked what we felt was the point of life. He had, he said, a real need to know this, because having achieved all he wanted at 28, he was left wondering if there was any purpose beyond 30. I like to think we all gave him good answers. There’s life in these old dogs yet! For me, it was falling in love (yes, it happens to old people too) together with friends, lovers and other relationships, particularly those with my grown-up children and beautiful grandchildren. There’s also – though I didn’t bore him with the details – achieving authenticity, accepting yourself and living true to that self. Then there’s all the other things that make life worthwhile; being open to change, having new experiences, learning, helping others, reading, writing, conversation, music, walking… You will, I’m sure, have your own list.

I know that Sartre claimed that ‘Hell is other people’ and Lee Marvin thought much the same thing when he rumbled in Wand’rin’ Star that ‘Hell is in hello’, but Heaven is in these same things; in friendship and our other relationships. There may be some who think it’s easy for me to say all this. ‘After all,’ they say, without knowing me, ‘you have a good life. It’s pretty easy to feel positive about something that’s already going well,’ which is true. Except my life has had its share of traumas, problems and pains, and still does. But life is good and worthwhile in spite of these, and it’s purposeful too without recourse to God or Jesus. Who needs these two old frauds? We make our own Heaven here, now, in our own lives.

Am I saying count your blessings? Yes, I suppose I am, but not, I hope, in a glib way. There are so many good things in most of our lives; all we have to do is make them our own. ‘Lay hold on life,’ as the old hymn says, ‘and it shall be, thy joy and crown eternally.’ Maybe not eternally, but certainly beyond the age of 30.

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How To Be Saved (Possibly)

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Personal righteousness, that’s how. Who says so? Not Paul, that’s for sure; he thinks you get right with God by accepting the salvation made possible by Jesus death (Romans 1.16-17). Jesus on the other hand thinks it’s by being righteous. More than this, he says God will treat you in exactly the same way you treat others. He makes this point repeatedly; what the believer will receive from God will be in direct proportion to what the believer does.

So, according to Jesus, if you want God’s forgiveness, you must first forgive those who have wronged you:

For if you forgive men their trespasses your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6.14)

He applies this principle to other areas too. You want to experience God’s riches and blessings? Then first be generous yourself:

Give and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back. (Luke 6.38)

You want to avoid God’s judgement? Then don’t judge others:

Judge not that you be not judged. For with the judgement you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. (Matthew 7.1-2)

You want God to show you mercy? Then you must first show mercy yourself:

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. (Matthew 5.7)

You want God to show you compassion? Then be compassionate yourself:

The King will say to those at his right hand… I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me… Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord when did we see the hungry and feed thee or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee?… And the King will answer them, Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’. (Matthew 25.34-46)

Do Christians believe that the degree to which they demonstrate mercy and forgiveness to others is the degree to which God will demonstrate it towards them, both in this life and the next?

It’s not that Christians don’t help the needy. Clearly many do, as do some atheists, Jews, Muslims and all manner of others. No, the point is that Christians have lost sight of the fact that for Jesus such behaviour directly equates with righteousness, which in turn determines one’s ultimate fate. There really is no getting away from the correlation that Jesus is at pains to underscore, particularly in Matthew and Luke’s gospels. The only recourse seems to be to disregard it, which most Christians are content to do. They are much happier with the self-centred faith that Paul offers in Romans 5.17, ‘the free gift of righteousness’. This makes far fewer demands, carrying only the minimal expectation that one’s treatment of others has any bearing on one’s own well-being.

Except this isn’t how it works, not according to Jesus; God’s forgiveness, blessing, compassion and removal of judgement are entirely conditional. To Jesus, a ‘measure for measure’ arrangement is how one attains righteousness, which is not God-given, but is worked at in the practicalities of daily life, in relation to others.

I dared to suggest this recently on a Christian blog and was berated for making a ‘Satanic’ suggestion. Not me, but the one Christians say is the Son of God, God himself even. Evidently this doesn’t extend to knowing what he actually says, taking notice of it and doing something about it.