Finding Heaven by Bob Ritzema
“Stand by You,” a recent pop song by Rachel Platten includes the following lyrics:
Even if we can’t find heaven, I’m gonna stand by you Even if we can’t find heaven, I’ll walk through Hell with you Love, you’re not alone, ’cause I’m gonna stand by you.
It’s an uplifting anthem even though, if you really think about it, if you’re actually walking through hell, having someone beside you would probably only marginally improve the experience. Presumably the language is figurative, and the message is “I’ll be with you even through the hard times.”
The video for the song doesn’t contain any walking-through-hell scenes, either literal or figurative. Instead, it shows Rachel singing and people showing warmth and caring to others. At one point, what looks like a church choir joins Rachel, clapping and dancing enthusiastically. Maybe no one is finding heaven, but they certainly seem optimistic in their pursuit of it.
All this reminds me of the church I’ve been a member of for the last three-and-a-half years. I wrote last September that we had dwindled to just a few members and were considering disbanding. That prospect troubled me, since those who remained had invested so much in the church, serving and supporting one another. Though the situation looked grim in one sense, in another way I thought we were exactly what a church should be. I wrote about our conversations with each other then:
“It felt at the meeting like we had spent years climbing a mountain, slipped back down nearly to the base, and were wondering if we had it in us to climb the mountain again. But what if the mountain has nothing to do with how many members we have or how many attend Sunday services? What if the mountain we needed to climb was to be faithful to Christ through hardship and to let him shape us so that we became more like him? In that case, judging from what happened at the meeting, we’ve already climbed the mountain and are at or near the summit.”
We decided then to continue as a congregation, and worshiped together every week for almost five months. We had a few more people who were once peripheral members attend more often, but for the most part it was the same dozen people who continued praying for each other, singing together, studying the Bible, and sharing our joys and sorrows with each other.
In January we had another meeting. Though we weren’t in financial difficulty yet, we couldn’t afford to pay the pastor’s salary for an extended period of time. He was feeling pulled to be in a larger, more conventional church. A few other people expressed the same desire, and some of the rest acknowledged that, as much as it pained them, the best decision would probably be to disband. We all said that we want to maintain our relationships, and we made plans to meet regularly with one another once our Sunday morning services stopped. Our last worship service as an organized church was eight weeks ago.
I am said about this. I’m consoled, though, by the thought that, during our time together, we truly were what a church is supposed to be, supporting each other more unselfishly and maturely than I had ever seen before.
What does all this have to do with finding heaven? I recently ran across a reference to something Puritan pastor Jonathan Edwards once said about the church. Edwards asked, how is the church like heaven? He decided that gatherings of believers were like heaven not because of the signing or the Bible reading or the sermons. Heaven wasn’t in the meetings and activities that members attended or the charismata, the gifts they possessed. Heaven was found in love. D.A. Carson, who summarized what Edwards said about the church, added:
“The greatest evidence that heaven has invaded our sphere, that the Spirit has been poured out upon us, that we are citizens of a kingdom not yet consummated, is Christian love.” (In Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of I Corinthians 12-14)
So, having been part of a church where everyone loves everyone else–and lives out that love by listening, encouraging, reaching out, and helping–is to have found heaven. My church no longer meets, but still it lives on because we still love each other. Sure I’m sad, but mostly I’m grateful. Why did I have the opportunity to experience heaven while still on earth? I may never know. But, having found heaven (or, rather, being found by it), I look forward to the next time I’m there, regardless of which side of the grave that happens.
By Bob Ritzema