Tag Archives: Heaven

“I’ve Sent my Heart on Ahead”


A Reflection on Loss and Love, Hope and Reunion

Loretta Lynn’s son, Jack, drowned while fording a river on his horse back in the late 1980’s. As you would expect, this was a devastating loss for her, and she wrote about the experience of her deep grief in an article for the Guideposts magazine published in August of 1990.  Now, I’m not really a Guideposts sort of Christian, and I certainly don’t look to country music artists for very much of my theology.   And yet, I have never forgotten this article that Loretta Lynn wrote for Guideposts back in 1990.   After telling her story, Loretta Lynn finished that article with these words –

lorettalynnIt’s been around five years now since Jack died. And I’ll tell you something: The bond I have with him is still as strong as the bond I have with my living children. Anyone who knows me will tell you that Jack’s death has changed my life, and the biggest way is this: My dreams are not here on earth anymore. Why spend precious time running around chasing after money or fame when we’re not going to be here that long? A blink of an eye and we’re gone. There are wonderful things here, all right. There’s… our family, and there’s music and flowers, lots of things that I love… But my biggest dream is living with God and what happens when we get there. The time we’re gonna have! …Momma and Daddy and Patsy Cline and Jack…the parts of me that have been missing won’t be missing anymore… The Bible tells us to store up our treasure in heaven, “for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” When the time comes for me to cross that ol’ river myself, don’t fret too much for me. It’ll be an easy trip—’cause you see, I’ve sent my heart on ahead.

In her own “down-home” folksy way, what Loretta Lynn said here is something that the church has long taught and believed.  Our identities survive death and our relationships find their final fulfillment in heaven.  This is how the Venerable Bede, an English monk from the eighth century, someone the church has officially named as an indispensable teacher of the Christian faith, wrote about it –

 A great multitude of our dear ones are there expecting us; a vast and mighty crowd of parents, brothers, and children, secure now in their own safety, anxious yet for our salvation, and longing for the day when we will come to them and embrace them. What joy there will be on that day when we are together again. (Paraphrased)


Separated by more than a thousand years, one from the “hollers” of Appalachia and the other from the moors of Northumbria, one a Doctor of the Church and the other one a Country Music Superstar, two people possessing vastly different capacities for theological refection and expression, and yet, Loretta Lynn and the Venerable Bede, are two people who have shared a common faith, and who have looked to the future with a common hope. As Christians, they both believed that they would be with their loved ones again after death.  So, where did they get such an idea?  And the quick answer is Scripture.

bookNow, there is no single verse from the Bible that I know about that explicitly says the people we have known and loved here in this life will continue to be known and loved in the life to come. This cherished belief and consistent teaching of Christianity that our identities and relationships continue after we die is more a matter of the “preponderance of the evidence” than the citation of any single specific “chapter and verse.”

 To make the case for this idea that sustained both Loretta Lynn and the Venerable Bede in their seasons of sadness and loss, I would first point to the way that in the Bible’s earliest books and first stories the way that death routinely gets described is as a matter of being “gathered to one’s people” (Abraham – Genesis 15:15; 25:8; Isaac – Genesis 35:29; Jacob – Genesis 49:29; 33). Some say that this is just a reference to them being buried in a “family plot,” but others view it as a reference to the continuity of one’s community. The people with whom we are most intimately connected here are the same people with whom we will be most intimately connected there.

Second, to make the case for the church’s teaching that Christians will be with their loved ones after death, I would point to the way that Old Testament figures like Jacob, David and Job all talked about their own personal expectations that after they died that they would be reunited with somebody they loved and had lost in this life. For Jacob (Genesis 37:35) and David (2 Samuel 12:23) it was the death of a child that prompted them to both say, “I will go to him one day,” clearly voicing their belief that their most meaningful relationships in this world were going to continue in the next one. And in what is widely regarded as one of the most important affirmations of faith in life after death in the entire Old Testament, Job spoke of his own rock-bottom conviction that he himself would survive death as himself –

 I know that my Redeemer lives, and that he will stand upon the earth at last. And after my body has decayed, yet in my body I will see God!  I will see him for myself.  Yes, I will see him with my own eyes.  I am overwhelmed at the thought! (19:25-27)


Third, to make the case for the cherished Christian belief that our relationships find their final fulfillment in eternity, I would point to the way that Old Testament characters like Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration showed up as themselves again in the New Testament long after their deaths, and that they were recognized as being the same people then as they had been before. In fact, all of the stories of Jesus’ own resurrection include this same element. Despite some significant changes – resurrection is not resuscitation, it involves more than just the reanimation of an old form but an actual transformation into a new one – Jesus was always eventually recognized by His friends to be the same person after His death that He had been before His death, and His relationships with those people He had known and loved and who had known and loved Him before He died continued after He had been raised from the dead.

orbAll of these strands of the Biblical witness combine to convince me that both we and our relationships as Christians will transcend death. We will be with our loved ones, our faithful departed, again. And for me, the exclamation point for this conclusion of faith is that story about the good thief in Luke’s account of Christ’s crucifixion that read as we began. “Remember me,” he begged Jesus in their dying throes, “when you come into your kingdom.”  And Jesus answered, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” “You” and “me” – this tells me that our individuality will continue. “You with me” – this tells me that our relationships will be preserved.

I’m old enough now to have crossed that mysterious line when I have just as many family members and dear friends on the other side of death as I have here on this side. Some of my most important people are over there now. I love them deeply. I miss them terribly. And from the depths of those feelings I suppose that it would be easy for me to project a belief in the continuity of personality and relationship after death because I so want it to be true. But, without denying these feelings and desires, I can honestly say that my confident hope in a heavenly reunion is at least as much a matter of what I find in the Bible as it is a matter of what I find in my heart.

Philipp Nicolai was a German Lutheran pastor in the 16th century who had to bury 1300 members of his congregation – men, women, and children – who died in the days of the plague. This pastoral circumstance forced Pastor Nicolai to think deep, and long, and hard about what becomes of us and our relationships when we die. And what he finally concluded, based on his own thoughtful and prayerful search of the Scriptures, was that what awaits us as Christians is in fact a heavenly reunion. He wrote –

…Parents and children, husbands and wives, bridegrooms and bides, brothers and sisters, neighbors, relatives and friends… will be reunited in heaven and they will love each other with an ardent cordial love that is a thousand times stronger, and with an embrace that is far more friendly than any that might be imagined here in this world… (paraphrased)

Is this right? My heart tells me “yes,” and I believe, so does my Bible. DBS +





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“Do Something Beautiful for God… Become Someone Beautiful for God”

Tradition says that after considering other religious options, that the Russians consciously chose Eastern Orthodox Christianity to be their state religion because when they experienced its worship for the very first time, they “knew not whether they were in heaven or on earth… for on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty… and they could not forget that beauty.”


I thought this about our worship at Northway on Easter Sunday morning. I cannot forget that beauty — the Choral Scholars’ Quartet singing Mendelssohn’s “O Come, Every One that Thirsteth,” the flowering of the cross, the y’all come and sing version of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, Margaret and Justin’s astonishing piano and organ duet during the Offertory, the spectacular spread of blooming Easter lilies, the choir’s lush anthem and stirring preface to our processional hymn, and the worship team singing “Beautiful Things” after my morning meditation on “Beauty from Ashes” (Isaiah 61:1-3).

I didn’t know if I was on earth or in heaven!

goodWe have tended to underestimate the power of beauty as one of the God-triggers in our souls. One of the three “transcendentals,” we’ve tended to rely on the other two so much more in practice. Our activist impulse, that God-implanted desire to do something, anything, to make the world a better place orients us towards the way of the good.  And our drive to understand things both great and small routinely puts us on the path of the true. But classically understood, beauty is just as sure a way into an awareness of God as is our drive to do what’s good and to know what’s true.

I based my Easter message this year on the line from Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant” song about how the mission of God’s Messiah when He came would be to exchange “ashes for beauty” (61:3), and how this has become a familiar way for Christians to think and talk about the promise of Easter. After the brutality of Good Friday and the emptiness of Holy Saturday, when Jesus was raised on the third day, this exchange occurred — the ashes of death, despair, and apparent defeat became the beauty of the resurrection to newness of life. At the lowest moment in the story of Jesus, “all of the shattered fragments of spiritual power were suddenly quickened, strengthened, and clothed with loveliness.” On Easter Sunday morning I said that this is what Christ came to do – “to bring a new life out of the old ashes” (James D. Wilson). And this is not some abstract theological concept.  No, this is immediate and personal.

It’s about the difference that Jesus Christ makes in your life as your Lord and Savior. It’s what we mean when we sing – “I once was lost but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.” It’s about the ashes of death giving way to the beauty of life, both eternal and abundant. It’s about the ashes of despair giving way to the beauty of hope.   It’s about the ashes of shame and guilt giving way to the beauty of forgiveness.  It’s about the ashes of division giving way to the beauty of inclusion.   It’s about the ashes of defeat and discouragement giving way to the beauty of transformation and renewal.  It’s about the ashes of regret giving way to the beauty of regeneration.  The power of Easter is in how it takes our ashes and makes them into something beautiful.

Years ago Joseph Aldrich wrote about how it is the beauty of the Gospel and not just the Gospel’s words that has the real power to transform people. He wrote –

…The “music” of the gospel is the beauty of the indwelling Christ as lived out in the everyday relationships of our lives. We must become recipients of God’s blessing, begin to incarnate His beauty in our relationships, and open these relationships to the non-Christian… Once this “music” has been heard, then expect to be asked for the “reasons for the hope (beauty) that you have.”  Play the beautiful music, and they’ll listen to the words of the song. (Life-Style Evangelism 21)

motherMother Teresa was famous for telling her little brothers and sisters of charity all around the world to try to “do something beautiful for God” each and every day. This prompted Philip Kosloski to write an essay for the “National Catholic Register” on the beauty of Mother Teresa’s life and work for the weekend last September when she was canonized a Saint in the Roman Catholic Church. He asked —

…Will beauty save the world? Yes it will, but it must be a Beauty united to Truth and Goodness, and a beauty that encompasses all aspects of life. The Gospel we preach to the Modern World will not be found effective if it does not recognize the importance of beauty, especially the beauty of Christian witness.

…By drawing closer to God, our lives reflect a particular beauty, which has the capacity to attract others to the beauty of God. In seeing the beauty of God in our lives, others see that being a Christian is not something oppressive or burdensome, but is actually liberating and beautiful.

“… the Christian life is called to become, in the force of Grace given by Christ resurrected, an event of susceptible beauty to arouse admiration and reflection and incite conversion. The meeting with Christ and His disciples… must always and everywhere have the potential to become an event of beauty, a moment of joy in the discovery of a new dimension of existence, an invitation to put oneself on the road to the Father of Heaven to enjoy the vision of the Complete Truth, the beauty of the Love of God: Beauty is the splendour of the truth and the flowering of Love.” (The Via Pulchritudinis, §III.3 – Pope Benedict XVI)

You see, we don’t just believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ as Christians, we live it. The Gospel’s exchange of ashes for beauty that Christ’s resurrection 2,000 years ago embodied now plays out in our lives as the ashes of the rebellion of our sin and the brokenness of our lives getting exchanged for the beauty of our transformation and personal renewal.

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. And all this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself…” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18)

Because Christ is Risen and we are walking in newness of life through our share in it by faith (Romans 6:1-1-11), this Eastertide let’s go do something beautiful for God, or better yet, let’s become someone beautiful for God. Because of Easter, our ashes have a beauty appointment.  DBS +

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“Will There Be Baseball in Heaven?”


When he was just a little boy of 11, David Holmquist, the Athletic Director and longtime Basketball coach – one of just 17 coaches to win 800 or more games, and the only active NAIA Division I coach with 800-plus wins – at Biola University in La Mirada, California, decided that it was time to get right with God.  The Cuban Missile Crisis was unfolding on the international stage, and every night for two weeks David went to bed not sure if he would awaken in the morning to see another day.  And so David finally decided that things in the world around him were just so uncertain that it was probably time for him to ask Jesus Christ into his heart as his personal Lord and Savior.   But before he could, there was one thing he really needed to know.  And so approaching his dad one evening after dinner, David explained that he was ready to accept Jesus Christ. This seemed to please his dad, and he immediately began to lead his son through the steps of a well-rehearsed “plan of salvation.”  When they got to “the sinner’s prayer” step, David interrupted the process to ask his question.  “Before we get to that,” David asked his dad, “there’s just something that I’ve really got to know — Will there be baseball in heaven?” David was sorely disappointed when his father said “no.” But trying to help, David’s dad quickly added, “But there will be lots of things in heaven so much better than baseball.”  Something better than baseball?  At the age of 11, David says that he couldn’t imagine what any of those “better than baseball” things might be.

Well, David says that he finally prayed the prayer of salvation with his dad that night asking Jesus Christ into his heart even though it was something of a disappointment for him. “I just couldn’t imagine how heaven was going to be any fun,” David explains, “without baseball.” And there are some of us who are right there with him. [David Holmquist – “Will There Be Baseball in Heaven?”Christianity Today 38 (10 – January – 1994): 30-33].


When my dad died, the only spiritual question that my mother seemed to have for me as her minister son concerned their dog – “Barney” – who had been put to sleep right before dad’s health took its final and irrevocable last turn. “Will your father and Barney be together again in heaven?” was all that my mother wanted to know.  She asked with such intensity and earnestness, that I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I really didn’t think so.  But, “There will be things so much better that Barney in heaven for dad” was what I was thinking in my head, but what came out of my mouth was, “I really don’t know for sure, but let me see what I can find out for you.”  That’s something I learned in seminary.

When you’re uncertain, stall.  Invoke the “mystery” clause of faith, the Deuteronomy 29:29 “secret things belong to the Lord” trump card to every question that stumps you.   And so I extricated myself from my mother’s grief-filled question with that well-rehearsed response.  She nodded her head, told me okay, but quickly added, “So, we’ll talk about it again later.”  I may have bought some time, but I wasn’t off the hook.  I knew that this question would circle back around again and again until I came up with an answer.  I knew that my mother, relentless in that motherly sort of way, was going to hold me to my promise to look into the prospects of dogs in heaven.  And what I found out surprised me.

HeavenYou see, there are lots of Christians who actually believe that when we get to heaven we’re going to find our most cherished pets waiting there for us, and C.S. Lewis, the formidable British Christian whose books about Christianity remain bestsellers 50 years after his death, was one of them.  He reasoned from 2 Corinthians 2:9 – “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” Based on this verse which promises unimaginable bliss when we get to heaven, C.S. Lewis argued that if what it’s going to take to make you truly happy in heaven is having your special dog, or cat, or parakeet right there with you, then God will see to it that it happens.  And Biblically, it doesn’t hurt that when God’s promised future for us and for all creation got pictured in the Hebrew Scriptures, the picture included animals – “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6), or that the praise of “every living thing” surrounds God’s eternal throne (Psalm 150:6).

Is this argument persuasive?
I don’t know.

It certainly satisfied my mother, and I suppose that I’m grateful for the thought if for no other reason than that it gave her some peace after dad, and Barney were gone.  What C.S. Lewis’ argument about dogs in heaven has done for me is to remember the Bible’s promise that heaven is going to be a state of unimaginable bliss for those who love God.  It’s going to be so good that our eyes and ears won’t believe it, and our hearts won’t be able to fathom it, and now, at least in my head and heart, we’re talking about baseball in heaven again.


Another idea that C.S. Lewis had that I find compelling is that God gives us little foretastes of what heaven is eventually going to be like throughout our lives here and now so that we will continue the journey towards it. They are partial and fragmentary glimpses of it at best, but they point us in the direction of what God has in store for us in eternity because He loves us.  For some people its music that points their hearts to what’s coming next.  For others it’s a great painting or a masterpiece of literature. For nearly all of us it’s our relationships with our loved ones that alerts our hearts to what awaits us in eternity.  The preacher in Ecclesiastes said that “God set eternity in the human heart” (3:11), and for some of us, what stirs eternity in our hearts is baseball.

Am I making too much of baseball? Perhaps…
But is it not also a possibility that you’re making too little of baseball?

The nationally syndicated political columnist George Will once observed that people who say that baseball is only a game are the same people who say that the Grand Canyon is only a great big hole in the ground.


Ken Burns in his PBS series on Baseball pointed out that this game has “mythic proportions” in the American soul because it’s all about “getting home,”  and as the Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft reminds us, all of the great stories of Western Civilization are stories about people trying to get home – The Odyssey, The Exodus, The Divine Comedy, The Canterbury Tales, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Alice in Wonderland, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn The Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.


The late Bart Giamatti, the seventh commissioner of baseball who was a professor of renaissance literature at Yale University before leading major league baseball, always made it a point to say that one of our most common words for heaven, the word “paradise,” is a Persian word that means “an enclosed park,” or a “green space.”  He argued that baseball matters spiritually because ballparks remind us of the Garden from which we were expelled and of the paradise to which we are going.


Tim Stafford in an article on baseball in Christianity Today a number of years ago suggested that the spiritual significance of baseball is like that of the Passion plays of medieval times.  It is the story of the noble struggle that leads to victory and the hope that is born of defeat — themes intrinsic to the Gospel story of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection itself.


And finally, Richard Mouw in his study of common grace – God’s delight in everything that He made and not just in what He saves – suggested that what common grace means is that God can enjoy a good baseball game for reasons that “stand alongside of, rather than being subservient to” His work of eternal salvation.  He “shines in all that’s fair” as the title of his book on common grace borrowed from a line of the hymn “This is My Father’s World” (#59 in the Chalice Hymnal) puts it.  And in some mysterious way, as Revelation 21:24 hints at, in the final restoration of all things, “the kings of the earth will bring their splendors into” the New Jerusalem for the glory of God and the eternal joy of His redeemed people.  And since baseball is one of the true splendors of this earth, I’m not counting out the possibility that there is going to be baseball in heaven.  DBS+


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“Befriending Death”


Peter Kreeft, the very fine Christian Philosopher who teaches at Boston College, says that death wears five faces – that of an enemy, a stranger, a friend, a mother, and finally, a lover (Love is Stronger than Death – Ignatius Press – 1992).  This continuum moves from negative and alienating perceptions of death – “enemy” and “stranger” – to more positive and intimate perceptions – “friend,” “mother” and “lover.”  This book with its development of these fives “faces” of death is more than worth the effort it takes to read, but the big idea that I’m interested in with this blog is the journey by which this change occurs, how death ceases being the enemy that we avoid at all costs to the friend that we welcome and perhaps even embrace.  It’s what the spiritual author Henri Nouwen described as the process of “befriending death.”  In his 1994 book Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring (Harper Collins), Henri Nouwen asked –

Is death something so terrible and absurd that we are better off not thinking or talking about it?  Is death such an undesirable part of our existence that we are better off acting as if it were not real?  Is death such an absolute end of all our thoughts and actions that we simply cannot face it?  Or is it possible to befriend our dying gradually and live open to it, trusting that we have nothing to fear?  Is it possible to prepare for our death with the same attentiveness that our parents had preparing for our birth?  Can we wait for our death as for a friend who wants to welcome us home? (xii-xiii)

I thought about these things as I watched the movie “Heaven is for Real” last week.  I had not planned on seeing it, but a review in the paper that said that it set a new high water mark for faith-based movies, and an interview with Greg Kinnear, the engaging “star” of the movie, on one of the Sunday Morning Talk Shows peeked my interest.  And so I invested the $6 for an early bird matinee on my day off and the two hours it took to watch the film.  When it was over I had the feeling of having just seen a Hallmark Special – a really well acted and well produced television movie, but a made for television quality movie nonetheless.  It was not terrible, but it was pretty schmaltzy and it played for the easy emotional response at every turn.  The crisis of faith that it narrates could have been more profoundly explored in the dynamic between a character in the story whose son was killed in military action and her relationship with the father of the little boy who survived his medical crisis and in the process had his experience of heaven.  That’s a story that I would have liked to have seen.  But instead what we got was the standard sentimental/inspirational story where everybody hugs in the closing frame while somebody affectively sings a beloved hymn.  It was probably the best Hallmark Special I’ve ever seen, but at the end of the day, it was still just a Hallmark Special category and quality film.  Two unrelated notes: (1) If there’s an Academy award for cute, then the little boy in this movie has already got it locked down; and (2) the audience – and there was a pretty good crowd of us in theater – were all people in the last decades of life, 60, 70 and 80-somethings.  For us the question about the reality of heaven is apparently not just some abstract debate, instead it’s pretty urgent and immediate!

Heaven is for Real” is based on the 2010 book of the same title.  It’s the story of four-year-old Colton Burpo’s Near Death Experience during an emergency appendectomy and how it changed the life and faith of both his family and their church (Colton’s father is a pastor in the Wesleyan Church).  Many of you read this book when it first came out, and some of you enthusiastically shared it with me in those days.  At roughly the same time another book with a very different tone about the Near Death Experience, Don Piper’s 90 minutes in Heaven (Revell – 2004), was making the rounds and getting some attention as well.  And then there was Dr. Mary Neal’s extraordinary book To Heaven and Back (WaterBrook Press – 2012).  A good summary of her experience and its consequences on her life can be found at http://www.deseretnews.com/article/765576971/Life-after-life-This-Wyoming-surgeon-says-she-believes.html?pg=all.  But it has been the enduring work of Raymond A. Moody, a physician and psychologist, with people, and especially children, who have reported Near Death Experiences that has been particularly influential on my thinking (Life after Life – Bantam – 1976).


When I was in Houston in the 1980’s I was a volunteer chaplain with the Houston Hospice and served as their first Director of Spiritual Care.  In that capacity I arranged for a series of Continuing Education Events for our volunteers on spiritual issues, and one of the most popular of the series was the one I put together on the subject of Near Death Experiences. I had a couple of people who had Near Death Experiences come and tell their stories, and then I has a panel of religious leaders talk about how they made sense of such experiences from their particular faith perspectives.

In the course of putting this program together, I had to come to terms with my own thoughts and feelings about Near Death Experiences.  Specifically, I wrestled with how they “fit” into “my” theology.  Theology is just a matter of thinking and talking about God.  If you have ever thought or talked about God, then you are a theologian.  You may be a good theologian, or you may be a bad theologian, but if you think and talk about God, then you are a theologian.   Now, what determines whether you are a good or bad theologian has an awful lot to do with your sources and how you use them.   When you say something about God, what makes you say what you do?  What are the sources of your thinking?

A standard tool for theological reflection and conversation is called the “Quadrilateral.”  It is often associated with the name of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, although its origins go back much further than him (some say back to St. Augustine).  Wesley was the Quadrilateral’s great popularizer. The quadrilateral looks like this –


What the Quadrilateral says is that there are four sources for our knowledge of God – Scripture, Reason, Experience and Tradition – and therefore, there are four ways to assess what people are saying and thinking about God – Scripture, Reason, Experience and Tradition.  The critical question in this system is which of the four has primacy?  When a fight between the Quadrilateral’s four components breaks out (and they do all the time), which one functions as the referee?  When reason and experience come to blows, or when tradition and Scripture start throwing punches, which one of the four steps up settles the dispute? Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians say tradition.  Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians say experience. Mainline Protestant Christians say reason.  Evangelical and Confessional Protestant Christians say Scripture.  Because I am a Christian of this fourth variety, Scripture has always had the primacy in my thinking and talking about God.  I am not dismissive of reason, experience or tradition.  They are invited to the party too.  They all have seats at the table of my soul.  They are welcomed and valued participants in the conversation of faith, it’s just that when push comes to shove in my head and heart, the voice of Scripture, properly understood and rightly interpreted, is privileged.  Scripture has primacy in what I think and say about God, and this has a direct bearing on a story like that told by the book and film Heaven is for Real.  The way I look at things, in the final measure, our experiences must be evaluated by what the Bible says and means.  So, what does the Bible say about Near Death Experiences?

Apart from the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and its implications for our own destinies (I Corinthians 15:20-24; 35-50; I John 3:2), Luke 16:19-31, the story of “The Rich Man (‘Dives’) and Lazarus” is our best source of information Biblically about what happens to us when we die.



From this Biblical narrative, I draw some conclusions –

1.  Life continues after we die.
2.  There is a double destiny, a realm of intimacy and blessing, and a realm of separation and sorrow.
3.  These two realms are separated and our place in them gets settled by the time we die.
4.  Our identity remains intact after death, our personality is preserved.
5.  Our choices, experiences and relationships from this life get carried over with us into the next life.
6.  Our relationship with God and each other find their completion in the next life.  What starts here will get finished there.

How do these conclusions line up with accounts of the Near Death Experience in general, and the story that gets told in Heaven is for Real specifically?   Well, I think that they are pretty compatible, but that conclusion is not nearly as important as the process by which I get to that conclusion.  It’s how I work with Scripture, and from Scripture, to test what reason, experience and tradition assert, that really matters.  I believe that “Heaven is for Real,” but not because of a little boy’s Near Death Experience, dramatic as it may be, but rather because I find that it is something that is clearly and consistently taught by Scripture.

Years ago in an interview with the writer Annie Dillard in Christianity Today, she was asked how what she experienced of God in nature fit with what she knew of God from Scripture. She answered that what the Scriptures teach are like the black lines of a cartoon in a coloring book for her.  They are what establish the boundaries and determine the shape of the picture.  What nature supplies are the colors that fill in the blanks.  It provides the shading that brings depth and the hue that brings texture to the picture that unfolds between the lines.  And it seems to me that this is exactly how a story like Heaven is for Real functions within the framework of the Quadrilateral.  Scripture sets the boundaries within which reason, experience and tradition then bring their distinctive colors.  The colors bring warmth and have a real capacity to generate deep feelings, but their place is always inside the lines.  It’s “Prima Scriptura” – Scripture first.   DBS+




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“The ‘Aughts’ and the ‘Anys'”


Troubled by some unanswered prayers, one of those “prayers-not-getting-beyond-the-ceiling” periods in her life, one of Catherine Marshall’s friends told her that it might be because “you are going about with a lot of aughts against a lot of anys.”   This phrase comes from Mark 11:25And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have aught against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (KJV).  It helps to read it in a more contemporary translation – And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (English Standard Version).  This struck her as “a shaft of light.”  She understood that certain of her prayers may not been answered because she had not set herself to the hard work of forgiveness.   This very same truth can be found in I Peter 3:7 –

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way… since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.

And so based on this teaching of Scripture, that our relationship with God is directly impacted by our relationship with each other, Catherine and her husband began a new spiritual discipline.

My husband Len and I started on a systematic releasing of our “aughts against all the anys” in our respective lives.  We agreed to spend about 30 minutes each morning, each with a cup of coffee in a separate room, getting our “aughts” on paper. After that we would meet together for verbal prayer release of each person on our lists.  Then we would tear the lists into little bits, put them in a large manila envelope.  Eventually we would burn them. (Something More 39)


In her first book, A Man Called Peter, Catherine Marshall, while struggling with an illness began to ask the Lord for healing.  In the course of this crisis, she said that she began to come to terms with “the practical ramifications of the fact that ‘God is Love.’”

I knew that anything unloving in me, any resentment, unforgiveness, or impurity shut God out, just as a muddy window-pane obscures the sunlight.  Painfully, in an agony of mind and spirit, I began thinking back over my life, recalling all too vividly all of my transgressions and omissions. …Through many days I put down on paper all of the things of which I was ashamed.  Some of it I shared with my mother, some with Peter.  To some people far away, I wrote letters asking for their forgiveness for things they had long since forgotten, or had never even known about.  It took me days to muster the courage to mail those letters.  Then I claimed God’s forgiveness and cleansing. (181)

Here are two practical ways of living the truth of the teaching of Jesus Christ in Matthew 5:23-24 –

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Are you going about with a lot of “aughts” against a lot of “anys”?  It is going to affect your spiritual life.   You need to release them, and in doing so, there may very well be some people with whom you are “first going to have to be reconciled.”  It’s hard work.  It takes courage to do it.  But the promise that it holds out to us as a way of deepening our relationship with God in Jesus Christ is so enormous that I can’t recommend it highly or urgently enough.  In the miracle of reconciliation you will experience the power of the Gospel.  DBS+


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Sing We Now of Christmas “Joy to the World”


Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room, and Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing, and Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns! Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found, far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness, and wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love, and wonders, wonders, of His love.

bI grew up in a strongly Seventh Day Adventist neighborhood in Southern California.   I went past one of their Hospitals, their Regional Denominational Offices and their National Radio and Television Ministry Studio every day on my way to school.  Their “Academy” – a church-related school – was as big as the elementary school that I attended. And some of the friends I played with everyday in the park across the street from where I lived were Adventists.  We were in and out of each other’s houses all the time.  And one of the things that I often saw when I was in their houses were paintings of what they thought that life after death was going to be like, and the images I saw cast a vision that was remarkably physical and this-worldly – like a nice day in a beautiful park.  They always left me confused.  When I died I expected to shed my body, leave this world, go to heaven and continue to exist there forever as a spirit – like an angel.   This wasn’t something that I was necessarily “taught” but rather it was something I “caught.”  “When you die you go to heaven,” that’s what everyone said, and then there was “The Littlest Angel” – that classic Christmas story that we saw every December in elementary school (it was the 1950’s and 60’s) and that made a very deep impression on me. 

C“The Littlest Angel” is the story of a little boy who died and went to heaven as the littlest angel and who then struggled to fit in until he was allowed to return to earth to retrieve his box of earthly treasures from under his bed which in turn were transfigured into the Star of Bethlehem to mark the birth of Jesus Christ.  It’s a memorable and moving story, and it only confirmed my general impression that the goal of life was to find release from my physical existence in this material world to live forever with God in a spiritual heaven.  It would take years for me to discover that my Adventist friends were much closer to the truth of the things that have been revealed to us than the impressions that culture had casually made on me over the years.  Now, more fully informed of what the Bible actually teaches, I believe that my final destiny is not the immortality of my soul in the eternity of heaven – a spiritual state, but the resurrection (not the resuscitation) of my body on a renewed earth.

Christopher J.H. Wright, the British Old Testament scholar who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite Biblical theologians, in his 2008 book The God I Don’t Understand (Zondervan), explains that what he believes in is “life after life after death”  (181).

dWhat is our final destination according to the Bible?  Most Christians tend to answer, “Why, heaven of course.” There is a question that is often used in evangelistic encounters which goes something like this: “If you were to die tonight, are you sure you will go to heaven?” I confess I have not been asked this question for a long time, but if I were, my answer now would be, “Yes – But I don’t expect to stay there!”  I suppose this might be rather shocking to any earnest evangelist.   Where else do I think I might be going later, or where would I want to go instead?  Of course I believe, as the apostle Paul did, that when I die I will go to be with Christ in heaven (Philippians 1:21-23).  For Paul, the thought of being with Christ made it a hard choice as to whether he wanted to die or go on living for the sake of the work he had to do.  But here’s the point: The heaven I will go to when I die is not my final destination… it is only the transit lounge for the new creation.  Heaven for those who have died in Christ is a place or state of rest, of waiting…  “Heaven when you die” is not where we will be forever.  It is where we will be safe until God brings about the transformation of the earth as part of the new creation that is promised in both the Old and New Testament. (193-194)

“The transformation of the earth as part of the new creation that is promised in both the Old and New Testament” — This is what the Christmas Carol “Joy to the World” is talking about when it tells “earth (to) receive her King,” “and heaven and nature sing,” “while fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy,” that “sins and sorrows no longer grow, nor thorns infest the ground.” The salvation that Christ affects is directly proportionate to those things that need saving, and in Genesis chapter 3, the Fall affects not just us as individual human beings, but all of creation, and so what will eventually be redeemed by God’s saving work in Jesus Christ is not ejust us as individual human beings, but all of creation. “He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.”  This is what that Bible is talking about when it describes the wolf and the lamb grazing together (Isaiah 65:25), the leopard lying down with the kid and the child playing over the viper’s den (Isaiah 11:6-9). God’s saving work in Jesus Christ restores the original shalom of creation – the harmony of everything and everyone fitted together once again in a web of mutual interdependence and well-being.  This is the picture that lies behind the Bible’s talk of the new earth (Isaiah 65:17-25; Isaiah 66:21-24; Romans 8:18-25; 2 Peter 3:8-13; Revelation 21:1-22:5).

As the Reformed theologian Anthony Hoekema explained it in his book on The Bible and the Future (Eerdmans 1979) –

…To leave the (doctrine of the) new earth out of consideration when we think of the final state of believers is greatly to impoverish biblical teaching about the life to come… (and it is to fail to) grasp the full dimensions of God’s redemptive program.  In the beginning, so we read in Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth.  Because of man’s fall into sin,
a curse was pronounced over this creation.  God has now sent His Son into this world to redeem creation from the results of sin.  The work of Christ, therefore, is not just to save certain individuals… The total work of Christ is nothing less than to redeem this entire creation from the effects of sin. That purpose will not be accomplished until God has ushered in the new earth, until Paradise lost has become Paradise Regained.  We need to realize that God will not be satisfied until the entire universe has been purged of all the results of man’s fall. (274-275).

When we sing of Christmas using Isaac Watts’ theologically lofty text and George Frederick Handel’s majestic tune, “Joy to the World,” we are singing about the full scope of God’s saving action from Genesis to Revelation, from Creation to the Consummation, from the Fall in Adam to the Restoration of all things in Christ.  There are very few Christmas carols, let alone hymns in general, with a more cosmic vision of the redemption that God in Christ accomplishes for us and our world, and it deserves to be sung not just at Christmastime, but all year round.  DBS+

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“We’re Marching to Zion”

bThis week I am conducting the memorial service for a church who was originally scheduled together with his wife to be part of the group I am leading that will be making the pilgrimage to the Holy Land that leaves Dallas on Saturday. As I prepared myself for his service the connections were powerful, and I wanted to share them with you.  DBS+

Psalm 121 (New Living Translation) A song for pilgrims ascending to Jerusalem

1 I look up to the mountains—
does my help come from there?
2 My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth!

3 He will not let you stumble;
the one who watches over you will not slumber.
4 Indeed, he who watches over Israel
never slumbers or sleeps.

5 The LORD himself watches over you!
The LORD stands beside you as your protective shade.
6 The sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon at night.

7 The LORD keeps you from all harm
and watches over your life.
8 The LORD keeps watch over you as you come and go,
both now and forever.

We leave for Israel on Saturday; a group of 16 of us from the church, and originally Fred and Beverly were part of it. They were supposed to be buying an adapter for their electronic gear, reading their Bibles and the tour guide that I prepared for the trip, and getting their suitcases down from the attic and dusted off right about now. Instead we find ourselves here this morning, doing this.

Almost the first thing that Beverly told me at the hospital right after Fred had his stroke was “I guess this means that we won’t be going to Israel with you,” and that was clear. Walking the shore of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus called Peter, John and James to follow Him, standing in the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus stood, kneeling in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed on the night He was betrayed and climbing the hill of Zion to trace the path through the streets of Jerusalem that Jesus took to the cross, the tomb and the resurrection were out of the question for Fred. He was going to be fighting for his life instead. Doing everything in his power to be able to sit again, and stand again, and walk again, and talk again. Fred was beginning a different journey.

One of the resources to which I’ve pointed the people I’m taking to Israel are the Psalms of Ascent, a collection of 15 Psalms beginning at 120 and running through 134. Eugene Peterson called the Psalms of Ascent “Israel’s dogeared songbook.” Years ago at camp we had these little chapbooks of songs that we would sing before the morning keynotes and at the nighttime campfires. They were the size of your hand and could slip easily into your pocket; the perfect size for going with you and for getting out when it was time to sing. And that’s how the Psalms of Ascent seemed to function too.

The Psalms of Ascent were Pilgrimage songs. They were the soundtrack of the journey that the faithful made to Jerusalem three times each year to be with God at the Temple. They were the script for the soul’s encounter with God that unfolded in the rituals and offerings that took place only in Jerusalem. These 15 Psalms were sung on the road as the pilgrims made their way to Zion, and when they finally got there, on the 15 steps that led up and into the Temple courtyard, the were sung again, one on each step. This is why these 15 Psalms are also known as the Gradual Psalms. They narrate a gradual journey – step by step – into the presence of God.

That Psalm that I read as I began, Psalm 121, is the second in this collection of Psalms, and it is, to my way of thinking, the perfect pilgrimage Psalm. You see, you can’t get to Zion without climbing some hills. The mountains that lead up to Jerusalem are steep and treacherous. Climbing them could wear you out, and if you lost your footing, well, climbing them could literally wipe you out. And so the Psalmist prayed as he approached them: “You mountains may look formidable, but my God is so much bigger than you, and so you don’t scare me in the least! When it’s time to start climbing you, my help will come from the Lord. He won’t let me slip and fall. He won’t let me faint or falter. My God has a good hold on me. He’s been looking out for me from the moment I left home – my “going out” – and He will see me through to my destination – my “coming in.” Can you see why this would be such a powerful prayer for someone who was going up to Jerusalem?

The church loves these Psalms as well, and has made them her own. Because in Scripture itself (Revelation 21:9-22:5) the destination of the journey of faith gets shifted from the earthly Jerusalem to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city with “eternal foundations, designed and built by God” (Hebrews 11:10), the Psalms of Ascent have been “spiritualized” by the church so that they aren’t taken only as a guide for a pilgrim on a literal journey to the physical city of Jerusalem in Israel, but also as a guide for a pilgrim on the spiritual journey to the heavenly Jerusalem. This is how we typically think, talk and even sing about “Zion” as Christians.

Come, we that love the Lord, and let our joys be known;
Join in a song with sweet accord, Join in a song with sweet accord
And thus surround the throne, and thus surround the throne.

We’re marching to Zion, Beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion, The beautiful city of God.

Then let our songs abound, and every tear be dry;
We’re marching through Immanuel’s ground,
We’re marching through Immanuel’s ground,
To fairer worlds on high, To fairer worlds on high.

We’re marching to Zion, Beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion, The beautiful city of God.

Fred won’t be going with me to Jerusalem next week because Fred took another trip “to fairer worlds on high,” a better trip to the New Jerusalem, the true Jerusalem, “the beautiful city of God.”

In the tour guide that I put together for the people who are going to Israel with me on Saturday, one of the things that I suggested is that they find a stone from their gardens at home to take with them to Israel to leave at a sacred place, on some holy ground, as a witness to the fact that they had been there. This was a practice that medieval pilgrims developed to mark their journeys of faith. They all traveled with pouches of little pebbles gathered from home to leave at the places they visited, to mark where their personal encounters with God had occurred. It’s like the altars that were erected by the Patriarchs when and where God made Himself known to them – personally, powerfully, permanently.

On Wednesday last week I asked Beverly and Alex to find a stone from their backyard. This is it. On Saturday it’s going to Israel with me, and next week, in some corner of the earthly Jerusalem I am going to leave it as a witness to the trip that Fred wound up taking instead of that one, his trip home to the heavenly Jerusalem.

In Israel, on the slope of the Mount of Olives facing the city of Jerusalem there is this enormous Jewish cemetery. There are thousands and thousands of graves in it, and on the headstones of most of them are these little piles of stones. It is customary in Judaism not to leave flowers at a grave but a stone. Lots of explanations have been offered for this practice ranging from the superstitious to the sentimental. And I’m not sure that anybody’s got the origins of the practice exactly right. But the explanation that I personally find most convincing is the one that says that the reason why people leave rocks rather than roses at a grave is because flowers wither and fade away, but a rock will always be there.

Leaving a rock at a grave, according to this explanation of the practice, is a way of bearing witness to the fact that the person who is buried there, while absent from our sight, is still just as real as that rock. He lives on in the heart and the values of the person who left it there, but it’s more than that. He also lives on in the nearer presence of God, in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23:6). And this rock from Fred’s yard will be left in the earthly Jerusalem sometime next week as an act of faith that his pilgrimage ended in Jerusalem too, only the real Jerusalem, the better Jerusalem, the New Jerusalem, the home not made with human hands but eternal in the heavens (2 Corinthians 5:1).

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