Have you ever been at a party standing in a group of people you've never met in your life feeling awkward, and then someone asks what people think of a certain film -- and suddenly the group explodes with excited discussion? Even for an introvert like me, I can move from superficial conversation about the weather into an engrossing conversation over deep life issues almost immediately if the starting-point is a film I've seen.
If you are like many people of faith, especially those of us who are not part of traditions with strong evangelistic tendencies, it's a lot easier to reveal your thoughts about a film than about your faith. The mere thought of discussing faith conjures images of greasy, fire-and-brimstone evangelists wearing polyester suits constantly invoking the name of "Jaayyzus."
While many of us are fans of Jesus (however you pronounce his name), we want nothing to do with a faith that presumes that its god casts every person who doesn't believe the way they do into hell for eternity. Nor do we wish to imply, by sharing our faith, that the Divine has somehow given us all the answers to life's really important questions, such that if a person doesn't have our same faith, we must "enlighten" them to show them the true, "true way."
Yet many of us also recognize that our faith really has made a profound difference in our life. Despite how ugly "evangelism" looks when we are harangued by street preachers or televangelists (or in-laws or colleagues), we really do know that we have something worth sharing ... if only we had the means to share our faith without coming across as self-righteous jerks.
Curiously, when Jesus sent out his twelve disciples instructing them to share their faith with others, the kind of faith he taught them to share was the exact opposite of what we get from the fire-and-brimstone crowd. Jesus did not tell his disciples to go out and preach about hell. Jesus did not conceive of hell as the evangelists do in the first place. To Jesus, hell was not an eternal torture chamber. Hell was Gehenna. Gehenna -- the word most frequently translated as "hell" in the gospels -- was literally the name of a garbage dump outside the Jerusalem walls where the people cast their refuse and waste. That garbage dump served as a metaphor for Jesus. Specifically, Gehenna was a metaphor for a wasted life.
Considered from this perspective, most of us know a lot more than we think we do about hell - about wasting the life God has given us. We waste our lives when we hate our enemies instead of loving them; when we judge others instead of seeking to understand them; when we spend more time trying to extract the speck in our neighbor's eye rather than the log in our own; when we worry more about material possessions than our walk with God.
We waste our lives when we hold onto grudges and refuse to forgive; when we do unto others what we would never consent to have done unto us. This way of life turns our lives, and theirs, into a living hell.
But enough about hell. Jesus did not instruct his disciples share their faith in hell, but in heaven! Not heaven as an afterlife reality, but a this-life one (though Jesus did believe in an afterlife).
According to Luke 10:9, Jesus instructs his disciples to tell people, "the Kingdom of God has drawn near to you." As I discuss in my most recent book, Gifts of the Dark Wood, this teaching is more radical than it appears. The verb translated as "has drawn near" is, in Greek, a form of verb that indicates a past action with ongoing significance in the present (Present Active Indicative). So what Jesus is actually asking the disciples to proclaim is that heaven, or God's Realm, is already here. In essence, we are already living our eternal life. Heaven is available right here, right now - not in its fullness, but in the fullest way we can experience heaven at this stage of our existence.
What does heaven look like in the here-and-now?
I find heaven among those who find pathways to loving their enemies instead of hating them; those who seek to understand others rather than judge and condemn them; those who prefer to extract the logs in their own eyes rather than the specks in their neighbor's eyes; and those who focus more on their walk with God than their walk with Wall Street.
I find heaven among those who are more ready to forgive than hold a grudge; who embrace faith over fear (even as they struggle now and again with fear). I find heaven among those who are more concerned with embracing the handful of today's blessings than with spending all their time worrying about tomorrow's curses.
More and more, I discover heaven's door wide open even in the most obscurest of circumstances, precisely where Jesus promised I would find it: like when I am poor in spirit; when I mourn the loss of a loved one; when I hunger and thirst for righteousness in a world gone mad; and when I work for peace in a world that never seems to ask the question, "Who would Jesus bomb?"
When I find blessings even in these most unexpected of places, I discover that blessings may be found literally everywhere. Therefore I live less constrained by my fears over what may happen in the future and am more confident that heaven's blessings await no matter where the future leads, even to death's door. In other words, I waste a lot less of my life and spend more of my time embracing the life I've been given.
While I love going to the movies, I find myself even more interested in hearing people share their stories of where they have found heaven in this life -- especially in the midst of powerful struggles. Increasingly, I'm even feeling comfortable sharing my own. How about you?