Forgive me, but heaven gets in the way of lots of important work.
Hold on, now. Before you fire off a red hot e-mail response or call me on the phone or assemble a church tribunal, hear me out.
For twenty-five years I served churches as a pastor. For the past ten years I have been a member of an inner city church. So, I feel like I know how church folk think--both middle-class and under-class church members.
Most churches in the United States focus on the needs of their members. Their most pressing concern seems to be eternity and how it will be spent. Naturally, the weekly sermons in most of these churches deal with the issues of salvation: how to obtain it, how to hold on to it, and what it will mean eventually. Being "right with God" remains the central concern. Most of a church's resources follow this fundamental focus so that almost everything flows toward getting people over safely to "the other side." It has been my observation that, ironically, the more a church speaks of God's love and grace, the more preoccupied it becomes with the afterlife.
When measuring the extent of this other worldly emphasis, I have noticed that the economic status of a congregation doesn't really matter much.
Middle and upper-class churches find it easy to get lost (no pun intended here!) in the idea of eternal salvation and bliss--never mind that most members of these churches live mighty near bliss already or that almost all claim to be believers already secure in the arms of Jesus.
In such a thought system, it is easy to ignore large sections of scripture that call for a rather radical lifestyle designed to be deeply rooted in the pain, need and injustice of the world. Ignoring the clear call to this alternative way of living becomes sensible if you embrace the seemingly more important option of pointing hurting people to a heavenly existence that is just ahead for the faithful.
For the typical church member the quest for heaven fuels most of the spiritual energy whirling around her or his religion. At the same time, the "out of this world" focus provides a nice, better, a convenient shield against any serious grappling with the world's harsh, unjust realities as over against lots of obvious, middle and upper-class privilege.
Strangely, things are about the same in the churches of the poor. Again, the emphasis is on the "great by and by" when all the pain and the injustice of this world will be over forever.
Poor folks also feel very confident when it comes to God's love and the assurance of eternal salvation. Rather than organize and take action to improve life, to call for justice and a more equitable distribution of opportunity, or to work hard for changes to the current system in the name of faith, most of the energy is directed toward this constant longing for the life beyond.
Please understand: this theology drives lots of very practical decisions--like how to allocate billions of dollars in response to a world of need or how best to use the creative talents of people who claim they desire more than anything to please their Creator.
In this system, well-to-do believers can enjoy life as they have it, assured that heaven is theirs, along with all the here-and-now blessings that feel like the mark of God's clear blessing. The poor can dutifully accept their present plight, knowing that someday things will be better, that somehow their suffering will be rewarded and their lives vindicated.
The central focus of a life need not be to change or challenge the evil systems of this world. Oh, a few extremists may opt for that approach, but the church as a whole dare not be defined by such people.
I find myself wondering more and more these days if God is really pleased with all this talk about heaven, especially in light of all of the expressions of hell that are everywhere around us here on earth.
What might happen if the church left the matter of heaven to God and took the call to care for the earth a bit more seriously? Just wondering.
". . .your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Jesus (Matthew 6:10)
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