Tuesday, January 24, 2006

My place in the heavenly realm...

Said a friend to a friend one day,
Was a man who passed away
St. Peter met him at the gate
Pete said: Walk with me if you will
I'll take you to the house you built
Man said: I can't wait!

Passed a mansion made of stone
But with each new house he's shown
They get smaller by degrees
Stopped in front of a two room shack
Pete said hope you're happy with that
Man said: How can this be?
Pete said…
That's all the lumber — that's all the lumber
That's all the lumber you sent
Looks like the Builder—Man, he's got your number
That's all the lumber you sent...

("The Lumber Song," words & music by Eli)

I heard this song on the Christian radio the other day, and it got me thinking.

About a year sober, I met up with this real Jesus-freak guy who also went to AA. He knew that I'd newly returned back to church, and was seeking to understand this relationship with a God of my mis-understanding. So he invited me to come to his pastor's house for "a bible study that will really open your eyes." I told him that I'd never studied the bible, and didn't think I'd fit in well. And he said (in words so familiar to addictive personalities) "Hey, just try it once. If you don't like it, you don't have to come back." So I went.

The home we drove to in Leawood (a ritzy neighborhood south of Kansas City) was beautiful, and the welcome I received was a warm one. But it didn't take long to realize that I was not in the right place at all...

You see, the topic for that week's "study" was this so-called pastor's interpretation of the various "levels" of heaven and the structure of the heavenly realm. In this particular pastor's view, the Kingdom of Heaven was like a cruise ship. Your place in eternity was determined by how the spiritual price you paid while you were still on Earth, it seemed.

The folks who were good and righteous, who gave considerably to this particular church and ministry, the folks who did right all the time, would be up on the 1st-class decks of heaven, dining on prime rib and French pastry. The folks who weren't all that perfect would be in the "second-class cabins," whereas the folks who just claimed Jesus as their Lord but otherwise didn't do much would be down in steerage, near the "bottom" of Heaven.

And one's role in the New Heaven and New Earth would be determined in the same way. The cherubim and seraphim would be made up of the truly righteous, and so on. Us barely-repentant critters would spend eternity living as the waiters and janitors for the rest of the holy and glorified assemblage.

It went on a lot longer than that - with lots of diagrams and hierarchical drawings - but you get the gist of it.

And then, as the pastor had completed his presentation, he tacked up a chart of the various levels and branches of heaven on the wall, and asked us to put a blue dot where we felt our lives so far would put us in the celestial pecking order, and then a green dot where we'd like to spend eternity. And he looked out at us with great anticipation.

It was all I could do not to laugh.

Remember - I was just a year sober..

A year earlier, my life as I knew it had ended. I'd been fired, divorced, cut off from my old friends, and contemplated suicide on a number of occasions. I'd been lifted from the depths of guilt, shame, and despair to a place of relative peace, serenity, and knowledge of the absolute love of God.

And this guy wanted to know if I was going to be happy with where my chair may (or may not) be in the heavenly seating arrangements?

I was the last person to speak, and I listened to the other 6 or 8 people rationalize about how they would be on this level, or that area or role. And it's been 14 years since that night, and I still remember the feelings of astonishment that someone would even bother to sit and study this stuff. I remember the pastor turning to me with this expectant air, and saying, "And where do you believe you will spend eternity, Steve?" As best I remember it, this is what I said:
I appreciate you all inviting me into your home, and your bible study group. And I appreciate your welcoming me into your group. But listening to you folks tonight, I have never felt more of an outsider than I do right now. Because evidently we come from two entirely different places.

For 17 years, I walked away from faith - not just away from church, but away from God. I lied, cheated, stole, and broke the laws of God and man. I knew there was a God, but I believed myself doomed to Hell and to be abandoned by God. And only in the last year have I come to understand about being justified by grace through my faith, not by my actions. So I'm a lot closer to the position of the 'good thief,' who simply asked, 'Remember me when you come into your kingdom.' That's my story.

I don't deserve heaven; I am not righteous, or holy, or good. Just being sober in
this world beats the hell out of where I was; so to me, being the janitor in Heaven, in service of the God who saved me, sounds like a damn good deal.
It still does.

Back to the song that I opened this post with...I haven't sent much lumber up yonder, brother Eli, so there won't be much more than a fishin' shack for me. But I'm convinced that being in the presence of Everlasting Love will more than make up for that. Just hand me my broom, and let me sweep the streets paved with gold. After all, the only reason I'd be there at all is because Someone Else paid for my admission ticket...


Jane Ellen+ said...

You know, I think I'm hoping for the shack next door to yours. Seems to me that would be a great neighborhood.

Hope said...

Thank you, thank you for this honest post. Your comments at that Bible study is exactly the kind of thing I heard at AA - gut honest - the kind of comment I just could never make around the tables. I sometimes wonder this many years later if I can today. I admire it when I see/hear it and it never fails to make me look hard at the impostor who lives within me. I can write it all down honestly and be like that with close friends but in some social situations I just freeze. I have lots to learn from you.

Andy said...

This is the kind of thing that makes me want to stand up out of my chair and applaud you.

That was great! And VERY inspiring!

Anonymous said...

Amen, brother! This one struck me. Especially your response...and yet our Father slaughters the fatted calf in celebration of our return (regardless where we are coming back from).

This is an issue I have with Christian radio: not all the theology is as tight as the melody and rhythm. While it might get your body moving to its funky beat, it gets your mind reciting lyrical doctrine that is less than, well, good. Once I read an interview with Matt Redman where he said that after he finishes a song, he submits it to his pastor and others for doctrinal soundness. Shouldn't commercial Christianity be held to the same standard.

Eli's song should be on regular old radio. His lyrics present a heaven that the Gospel doesn't support. They used to have a word for creating theology that appeals to you: Baalism.

Now that that's off my chest, how are you?

Anonymous said...

Where do people come up with this crap!

I do not profess to be a biblical scholar by any means, but I do not recall anywhere that Jesus claims any social structure in Heaven. Class status is an earthly thing born from man. If anything he discouraged the class structures by interacting with all people, even though they may have been “socially unacceptable” at the time. He always referred to all people as children of God. No favorites or otherwise.

I think that God has a place and a “function” for us all in Heaven. It is his call, though, on what our part will be in the greater glory. For us to ‘guess’ what that will be from our actions on earth is just foolish. How can we know or proclaim to others how God will judge us and our lives when we do not understand all that is in the universe. I can see the message of self examination while on earth to be more like Christ, but to have to profess the results of such examinations to the world (or a small group in any setting) is ludicrous.

For us mortals to even think we can place the experience in Heaven into earthly context is crazy. Jesus did not describe the exact details in earthly terms. He did hint to certain experiences using some earth analogy, but always said it was beyond or comprehension.

Steve, do not sell you self short. Even though I do not condone this analogy, to remain in context though, the board feet you have accumulated in my life and the lives in my family alone are enough to fill many flat bed trailers.

Keep on buzzing, saw!

Ed said...

If we ever get to the point of expecting more than a shack, then we likely are not seeing where we can grow. Luke 14 says "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the person who humbles himself will be exalted.” If we think we are were we need to be, we are certainly not in the right mindset.

Jacob said...

Well said.

Anonymous said...

If that's what heaven's really like, then I wanna go to Cleveland.

dudehead said...

Thanks - I'm glad I've met you as we trudge...

Peter said...

Hey Steve man, great post, but I feel the need to add one little thing: while none of us "deserve" heaven (Grace is a gift, like sobriety, right?) and we therefore can't "earn" it as such, I'd have to say in your case that that year of sobriety, with all its struggle and gnashing of teeth and growly thoughts and what have you, is Your participation in your redemption, Your saying "yes", no matter how hard it gets (and it sounds like it's been plenty hard). And you celebrate that date annually with good reason.

I'd venture to say that every day you manage to do all that, just live life best you can in God's gaze without falling off the wagon, amounts to more 2 x 4s going into your house.

Whatever your house looks like, it beats hell out of that bullshit cruise ship notion because it's founded on reality, not a self-serving illusion.

PS: And hey, Jane Ellen, thanks to cyber space, we got that neighbourhood right here, right now! And Chris, amen, brother on Christian radio (I last an average of 2 songs before I have to switch the channel...).

Anonymous said...

One wonders how Eli and the pastor handled the story of the Pharisee and the publican Luke 8:9-14.

Anonymous said...

Incredible and inspiring, Brother. I am incredibly moved by how honest you are when you post. Thanks for your leading and guiding example.