Jon Hevelone's blog
I did something really embarrassing in our church service Sunday. As I preached a message I repeated the words of an old, old (very Baptist!) hymn, When We All Get to Heaven.
Sing the wondrous love of Jesus;
sing his mercy and his grace.
In the mansions bright and blessed
he’ll prepare for us a place.
And then the chorus comes ringing in:
When we all get to heaven,
what a day of rejoicing that will be!
When we all see Jesus,
we’ll sing and shout the victory!
I was surprised that hardly anyone in our congregation had heard of it, and so at the end of my sermon I walked to the piano and started playing. Carried away, I began singing the words. If you have ever heard my singing you know what it sounded like. Luckily, nobody walked out.
Which brings me to the Bible’s picture of worship in heaven, with a massive white robed choir of redeemed people singing praises to God. With a choir that size gathered from the four corners of the earth singing to God himself, no less, they had to be good. It’s pretty obvious that they’ve been to choir practice. Lots of choir practice, if any of them sounded like me.
Likewise, as we look ahead to the time when we will be in Heaven’s Church we better pay close attention to the church family we are in here on earth. Being part of a fellowship of believers, a church, is absolutely vital if we are going to grow in our faith.
We are so much a part of an individualistic culture in America. We think we can worship God sufficiently while hiking the Appalachian trail or out on the golf course or beach combing or sitting home with our telly-vangelist, but we can’t. We need each other. We need to be connected with others in Christ’s body so we don’t stagnate, but rather develop maturity ourselves and help others along in their own life journeys.
Jesus never said that where one person is walking down Mass Ave on an iPhone listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers or Death Cab for Cutie that he was there with them. No, he said “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Mt 18:20) This isn’t my take. This is what Jesus said. Deal with it.
In Alice in Wonderland Lewis Carroll had Alice ask, “Cheshire-Puss, would you please tell me, which way I ought to go from here?” The cat answers, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” If you want to get to Heaven’s Church -- or heaven itself, for that matter -- you better get to know the One who is The Way. He has prepared a place for you in heaven, and also one right here on earth for you. In this earthly place you can practice your singing skills in choir rehearsal as well as all the other skills that go into living Christianly. You don’t want to be embarrassed when you do show up at Heaven’s Church singing and shouting the victory!
With the NBA playoffs still occasionally making headlines despite the media circus that swirls around the Los Angeles Clippers and their bigot billionaire boss, Donald Sterling, I am reminded that preaching is a lot like the game of basketball. There are times when you are hot, and there other times when you just can’t hit the basket.
I’ve had my fair share of both experiences. (Preaching, not shooting hoops.) Sometimes I feel as if I can turn my back to the basket, flip the ball over my head, and know it will slip in with nothing but net. Then there are times I give it my best shot and can’t even hit the backboard. The funny thing is that those times when I’m on are often the times when I let the Holy Spirit do the work, and the times when I’m off correlate with my strange idea that I can do it better myself.
So how do you preach? With power, with conviction?
“But Pastor Jon, I don’t preach at all.”
Oh yes, you do. Every one of us preaches -- by our lives. If we are to have a viable church, an effective Christian influence in Arlington and the other communities in which we live and work, then we need the Spirit’s presence in our lives. If somehow we expect to help meet the deep needs in people’s lives, only the power of God is sufficient.
The only thing that will make a church relevant today, the only thing that will give you credibility and make you useful in serving the Lord will be God’s presence in your life. When we live Christianly -- being open to God giving us new depth and integrity in our faith, we will find that who we are will “preach” loudly in a society that craves authenticity and soul.
Christian character in a world of racial bigots, greed, and frivolous sexuality is an unanswerable and powerful kind of statement. It is one that we as followers of Jesus Christ must make in our daily life. Please notice I am not talking about an increased religiosity or “churchiness” -- a superficial coating of sweet evangelical piety or a display of phony churchmanship. I am talking about you and I being in contact with God in such a way that somehow, despite all of our imperfections and weaknesses and mistakes the presence of Christ can still be seen in our lives.
Is there evidence of this in our lives today? In my life? In yours? If so, it will preach. And meanwhile, go Doc Rivers! Go LA Clippers! And go First Baptist family! Preach it!
We are people of habit. So much of what we do is done on “auto-pilot,” allowing us to get the routine things done while our mind is focused on other things. Sometimes habits are rather strange, or even unproductive. I must frequently participate in that barbaric ritual of wearing a tie. I can not tell you how many times I have tied a tie. I have the procedure down pat. Yet to this this day I can not tie one unless I am looking in a mirror. No mirror, no knot.
Someone said that a habit is just a behavioral groove we get into. Unfortunately, sometimes we dig the groove so deep that it becomes a rut, and we are stuck. This gets pretty bad when the habit or groove we find ourselves stuck in is destructive. You do know about these kinds of habits, don’t you? Feasting on too much junk food, slacking off, or poisoning the air with gossip or inappropriate responses are all habits that can reap unhappy consequences.
If a habit is a grooved behavior pattern, then perhaps we can also groove our spiritual growth, creating patterns that are more more Christlike. These new habits can lead to a far healthier spiritual life than we’ve settled for in the past. In fact, Paul advocates training ourselves in godliness, or as he puts it:
Stay clear of silly stories that get dressed up as religion. Exercise daily in God—
no spiritual flabbiness, please! Workouts in the gymnasium are useful, but a
disciplined life in God is far more so, making you fit both today and forever.
(1 Timothy 4:7-8)
Let me toss out two suggestions for beginning your spiritual workout. First, get in the habit of starting your morning with God. Waking up aware that God has given you yet another day to live unleashes enormous positive possibilities. Instead of hitting the snooze on that blasted alarm clock and pulling the covers up over your head, consider yourself blessed that you have a precious day given you by Someone who totally loves you, has your best interests at heart, and has offered to help you not only get through the day, but become a far finer person than you ever could on your own. Let Psalms 118:24 be your wake up call: "This is the day the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it."
Secondly, make it your habit to identify a specific ministry to do for God for the day. What will you do that honors the Lord, helps someone’s life to be a little better, and builds up God’s Kingdom? Paul’s vision for followers of Jesus is for us to “excel in gifts that build up the church” ( 1 Corinthians 14:12). What gift will you give today? Will it be a smile? A friendly word of encouragement? A chunk of your time? Some sweat and muscle power? Prayer? How can you let your light shine so people will praise God because of you? Get in the habit of using some time during each day ministering. It’s a behavioral groove that will keep you in top spiritual shape for life.
Sometimes the daily news is more disturbing to us than usual. This is especially true during the holiday season, when the unfortunate events that happen to others seem to strike an especially responsive and sensitive cord in our hearts.
It seems like we have been in a season of bad news, and I find it easy to grieve with and for others I do not even know. It really makes no sense, but I find myself caring as if they were personal friends, rather than names in a newspaper.
Of course the tragedy that has wiped out a whole family in Arlington is enough to make most people at least wince, if not burst into tears. For those of you reading this from a distance and do not know, a husband and father apparently killed his wife and twin boys, and then himself. The twins would have been one year old this week.
I find myself raging. How could anyone do this? How could it be done just before a milestone birthday party? Just before Thanksgiving, a time we are to draw close to our families and thank God for the blessings of life? And just before Advent and Christmas, the time we celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace? How can this be? How can I feel the loss so personally, when all involved were strangers?
The answer, or at least a partial step toward an understanding, comes when we realize our yearning for things as we wish them to be during the holidays. As a young boy I lived in a small town that celebrated the 4th of July with a fireworks display. I remember lying on my back in the grass with friends watching the bombs bursting in air, the glorious colors exploding across the night sky, the smell of gunpowder drifting down and settling over the enthralled crowd. As an adult, I realize the fireworks display was probably quite limited and meager, given the financial resources of the community and the fact that so many years ago it didn’t take as much to impress us. Yet there is still something within me that says the colossal fireworks spectaculars here in Boston aren’t nearly as awesome as those of yesteryear in small town Kansas.
Likewise, we want our Thanksgiving and our Christmas to be as we wish them to be, and not as they are. We yearn for the magical spark of delight and perfection that is buried deep within our memories. Unfortunately, as we age, our memories tend to expand and become exaggerated. The Christmas tree we decorate today will never match the ones of our youth.
I can not remember a family squabble marring the holidays of my youth. I do not recall the hard work of preparing, serving, and cleaning up after a Thanksgiving feast. I am certain my mother was never disappointed in whatever homemade Christmas present I took such delight in giving to her. And I am sure there were no tragedies in my home town like the one here in Arlington, nor were there problems anywhere else in the world. Everything was perfect.
Unfortunately, Normal Rockwell is no longer painting Saturday Evening Post covers this holiday season. If you come to our house at Christmas, you see a Christmas tree thrown thrown together minus the ornaments we could’t find, presents that may or may not be adored, and family members who occasionally fuss with one another. We live as real people in a real world that is a far cry from the dream world of our childhood. We can wish and wish, but yearning for perfection doesn’t change the actuality of our world.
The bittersweetness of living in a world that is full of incredible goodness, yet is at the same time so broken and marred comes to the front during the holidays, and especially at Christmas. We sense this, we live this, still tantalized by our memories and expectations, and find ourselves jarred when reality doesn’t match our hopes. When reality is especially harsh, such as the Arlington family murdered by who knows what evil forces, we immediately tie the loss into those countless other losses we have personally experienced over the years. It joins right in there with my always yearning for a perfect Christmas like those of my childhood. Unfortunately, there are times when we do not have a white Christmas, and people sometimes do bad things.
Different situations in our lives can cast deep shadows. We can choose to be overcome by the darkness, or to be a light in the shadows. We can continue to trust Jesus Christ’s heart, even when we can not feel his hand upon us. We can choose to believe, trust and follow our God, even if his plan does not live up to our expectations. God does not need our approval for his will to be done.
We do not always get the Christmas we wish. We do not always get life as we wish it to be. Sometimes, from our perspective, life is worse. Sometimes it is better. Always, we can trust that God works through all things to bring good to those who love him. Stay close to him and see how that good will be worked out in your life. That could be the best gift of Christmas you will ever receive.