Friday, July 29

Where is Heaven Located?

Ideas are extremely powerful. Our culture's popular notion of heaven is one of the most depressing and misleading, all at the same time. Part of the problem is geography--or should I say "cosmography"--this vague feeling that heaven is located far away in space and probably time.

I was a little surprised and helped by a recent Christianity Today article on Jack Hayford:

Jack Hayford "got up on the platform and read to himself the passage from the pulpit Bible—John's vision of ecstatic worship around the throne of God.

"Ten days later, Hayford says, in the church parking lot, he suddenly caught a mental picture so vivid that he understood God's message. What he saw was an alignment between the throne of God described by John, and the church he pastored on Sherman Way in Van Nuys. One seemed to blend into the other: vast multitudes of praising creatures in John's vision overlapping with the praising people of the Church on the Way. As Hayford saw it, the entire San Fernando Valley, ten miles wide, became an amphitheater of praise surrounding God's throne.

"Reality, as Hayford came to grasp it, is that God works simultaneously in the visible and the invisible, in the physical and the spiritual. The worshiping church stands at the heart of his reign. Thus the church Hayford pastored (and any church, potentially) was more than a gathering of people dedicated to a far-off spiritual kingdom and to somewhat abstract principles. The church at worship became an expression of the power of the kingdom of God, with the literal presence of God in the middle of its sanctuary.

"David Moore says Hayford's theology of the kingdom of God is strikingly similar to George Eldon Ladd's."

Genesis 1:1 says "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." N.T. Wright, in a sermon I was listening to (mp3 files here) says that God created two interlocking realities, or maybe it would be more precise for me to say parts of reality, one seen and the other unseen. As I understand it, because we are spirit and animal we exist in both the heavenly and the earthly realm. The so called "enlightenment" (I think of it as the endarkenment) has blotted out the unseen part from our worldview, our consciousness, and blinded us to anything we can see with our physical eyes.

One of my deepest yearnings and dreams is like that of the man called "Son of the unclean" who put it succinctly: "I want to receive my sight!"


Two books I read recently resonated deeply with me--almost too deeply for comfort. Here are a few quotes:

"Restlessness is another type of loneliness. It refers not so directly to the experience of alienation or estrangement from others, but to the constant dissatisfaction and restlessness within us that perpetually keeps us frustrated and in a state of unrest. . . . this type of loneliness is not caused directly by our alienation from others, but from the very way our hearts are built, from our structure as persons." --Ronald Rolheiser, The Restless Heart, p. 48.

Boy, do I feel this. I think he's right--this loneliness, this restlessness, is a universal experience for human beings.

"The essence of Christian spirituality is following Christ on a journey of personal transformation. The distant land to which we are called is not heaven. Nor is it some external, physical place. The distant land is the new creature into which Christ wishes to fashion us--the whole and holy person that finds his or her uniqueness, identity, and calling in Christ." --David Benner, Sacred Companions, p.26.

Whoa--not heaven?!? Hmm. . . . yes, I think that's right. That is true. Especially if that new creature is a person fully united with God in an eternal embrace of love.

"We find ourselves on this earth as pilgrims, possessing some astoundingly deep capacities, sensitivities, and cravings. We go through life hungering and thirsting for both the infinite and the finite. Our hearts desire not just the infinite, that which is beyond the persons and things we know, but also the finite, the persons and things we know. We want both.

"But what can ever quench that loneliness? Union, communion, consummation. Our loneliness will be fully satisfied by our coming together in radical union with God, others, and physical creation itself; in a union in which we will not be swallowed up, as a drop in the ocean, but in which we will each still have our own self-identity." --Ronald Rolheiser, The Restless Heart, p. 102.

Yes! But wait, wait, wait--radical union with physical creation itself? What does he mean? Hmm. I will have to ponder this. Anyone have ideas? It does sound a little like something C.S. Lewis might have said, but I can't remember where . . . I shall have to re-read The Weight of Glory which I do almost annually. I really would like to understand this more.

Speaking of Lewis, he says, “What does not satisfy when we find it, was not the thing we were desiring.”

I think my feelings about this are best captured by one of my favorite African philosophers, Augustine of Hippo, who cried, “Oh, Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in you.” --Confessions

I find myself restless a lot, if I pay attention to my body and feelings. Now if I could remember to channel that restlessness by crying the plea of Augustine whenever I feel it, or of this great quote from one of John Donne's Holy Sonnets: "Batter my heart, three-personed God . . . bend thy force to break, blow, burn and make me new."

Wednesday, July 27

More on Scientific Prayer

Well, I can now give first-hand testimony that it's tough to blog while on vacation, then packing up house and moving, changing internet service providers, etc. I'm finally logging in once again, sitting in my house, surrounded by boxes.

I noticed a blog entry which gives detail and more theological musings on scientific studies of prayer, which you might like here at Christianity Today's blog.

Wednesday, July 13

Scientific Prayer II

Michael Shermer is right--we can't fall into the trap of
believing God's a cosmic lab rat who will respond to our stimulus
(prayer) by doing the task we set for him. (See my previous post--"Scientific Prayer?" of July 9).

Yet, having been trained as a mathematician and scientist in college,
I like the scientific method and I think it can be useful in learning
about the unseen reality--and how it interacts with seen reality.

Dennis Ortega urged a group of us to practice "trial and error
prayer." Pray for many things, and pay attention to what kinds of
prayers God answers and doesn't answer. For over ten years now I have
tried, on my better days, to do that.

One thing I've found is that God does NOT answer prayers to change
someone's will.

I have had many friends pray--indeed, I myself have often prayed--for
someone to stop behaving in a certain way, or make a certain
decision, or the like. Somehow, that never seems to be answered, at
least not directly.

And as I reflect, I realize God has never thwarted my will, either.
Even when I beg and plead that I would be stopped from doing a
certain action--I never am. Have you noticed that? God won't make you
do anything.

What I notice, however, is that God will gladly arrange circumstances
and provide resources so that if I choose to use them, I can take
"the way of escape" from the situation where I would be likely to do
what I don't want to do.

Similarly, I conclude, God will bring individuals, knowledge, and
circumstances in front of someone I am praying for to enable them to
make a certain decision if they want to.

God respects the sanctity of our own will so much as to make it
inviolable. Perhaps that is fundamental to being human. We can never
thwart God's will, and God will never thwart our will.

Viktor Frankl, the psychologist interned in the Nazi concentration
camps, observed that even in those most vile circumstances there was
still room for the human will to operate. Corrie Ten Boom made a
similar observation: Those who chose to forgive their tormentors and
be thankful for what they did have, escaped insanity that plagued so
many "survivors"--people who lived to tell about their experience,
but psychological and spiritually were enslaved and destroyed by the

So back to prayer and unseen reality. If I'm right, this law holds at
least as true as the law of gravity: Prayers for people's
circumstances and situations may be answered, even physical healing,
but prayers to change someone's will and choices are fundamentally unanswerable.

What do you think?

Saturday, July 9

Scientific Prayer?

In his column in the November 2004 Scientific American, the sharp and amusing Michael Shermer, public atheist and publisher of the Skeptic (, picked apart a variety of studies on the effectiveness of prayer.

He raises a number of excellent points. Most of these studies are flawed scientifically. While it's exciting to be able to say "Scientists have shown prayer works," unfortunately it actually makes Christianity seem less credible when the researchers aren't extremely painstaking.

On the other hand, you can poke holes in almost any scientific research, even very good studies, since science is really an art.

But I am intrigued and amused by Shermer's concluding paragraph: "The ultimate fallacy is theological: if God is omniscient and omnipotent, he should not need to be reminded or inveigled into healing someone. Scientific prayer makes God a celestial lab rat, leading to bad science and worse religion."

Yes! In a sense it does. We too easily succumb to vending-machine theology, thinking that if we can just figure it out, we can get the responses we want from God. But God is not mocked. He's a person, and the least manipulatable person in the universe. Reading the biographies of Jesus convinced me of that.

Yet Shermer's theological fallacy is deeply flawed. Certainly he's right, that God doesn't need either to be reminded or inveigled into healing. So why pray? Shermer's worldview renders all prayer unnecessary, assuming God is good enough to want to do good, and intelligent enough to figure out how. Again, Jesus' biographies convince me that God is both.

So, why pray? I believe Pascal said, "When God ordained prayer, he conferred onto his creatures the status of being causes." (I'll correct that when I can look it up.) Chuck Miller said something like, "Prayer is not a what; it is a who. It's not an activity, it is a relationship with a person."

Here's another, from Richard C. Halverson:
"Christianity was birthed in Galilee as a relationship.
It spread to Greece and became a Philosophy.
It spread to Rome and became an Empire.
It spread to Britain and became a Culture.
It spread to the United States and became an Enterprise."

Why did God decide that prayer would be required to do many things in this world? First, so we will relate to God. If everything were done automatically for us, nothing would push us to God. Or else if some things were not done, even by prayer, none of us would turn to God even in desperation.

Second, because God is a creator, a worker, an artisan. We are the handicraft of God, and part of our beauty as human beings is our ability to create, to work, to make art.

So God allows us to participate in the work of caring for this world, which is a combination of gardens and cities. Both require planning, care and attention, or else they quickly cascade down to decay. With effort and imagination, they can be beautiful and productive.

So we work with our minds and our hands to participate in creation. We also work in partnership with the eternal artist, the eternal architect and builder, the eternal gardener. This requires prayer.

More on scientific prayer next time.

Saturday, July 2

Eternal Kind of Life

Reality, seen and unseen. Real life. I want to understand it.

I want to understand how to live well, with joy and peace and harmony. This seems like an impossible dream, a utopian speculation, except that I have biographies of a few individuals who lived that way, more or less. Not only by their own account, but also according to the people who lived with them and knew them intimately. And I've actually met one or maybe two people like this, so I'm sure it's not fiction.

George MacDonald insists that eternal life does not mean merely living without end. Who would want that? I love aspects of my present life, but I sure do not want to continue like this forever! Eternity is not about mere duration, he says.

Then what is it?

Dallas Willard remarked in a sermon (found here) that the only place where the Bible describes eternal life is John 17:3. Jesus says God has granted him the authority to give eternal life, and then says, "This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent."

Intriguing. And puzzling. Because Jesus doesn't say anything about duration. He doesn't mention harps, halos or streets of gold. (And by the way, what a boring heaven our culture foists on the popular imagination. I prefer my present life to never-ending harp-strumming on clouds, please.)

Essentially, he says eternal life is knowledge. Knowing God and knowing Jesus Christ.

The Bible is an eastern book, written by easterners and to easterners with a thoroughly eastern worldview. We westerners think of knowledge in a rationalistic sense: information. Data. Head knowledge. Stephen Hawking. But biblically knowledge is a matter of heart as well as head. Actually, often they used the word "bowels." Guts. As in, "What's your gut-feeling about this?"

And people used the term "to know" differently related to people, too. "And the man knew Eve his wife, and she conceived." That doesn't mean he knew of her, or understood facts about her biography or even biology. To know is intimate, interactive relationship.

Maybe poets like John Donne got it right when he used erotic imagery to describe relating to God. Jesus says eternal life is a gift. The gift is the intimate, interactive relationship with God and with himself. And he says nothing about duration.

So I can have eternal life now, at least to some degree. That's what those few individuals had. And I suppose I could live forever without much eternal life. Again, who wants that? (Well, depends on your imagination of God, but I digress.)

So I guess when Augustine said, "You have made us for yourself, Oh Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you," he meant eternal life.

Oh God! My heart is restless! I want that kind of life! Could it be true? Could I actually find some kind of fulfillment for my emotional yearnings, sexual passions, social longings? If that's eternal life, I would like some more, please.