What do we mean when we talk about “the kingdom of God”? Do we mean an actual place or a state of consciousness? Do we mean “heaven”?
The “heaven” I heard about growing up in a regular mainline Christian church sounded about as interesting as an old ladies sewing society. The streets of gold thing, for example. We are urged to not care much for gold down here so why would we want to walk around on it? Concrete or asphalt work real well for me. And if we do walk on streets of gold, it will not be with our present feet because Jesus plainly said, “flesh cannot inherit the kingdom of God.”
Who wants to hear Little David play his harp for more than an hour or two? I’d rather hear Chet Atkins or Thumbs Carllile. With all respect for the angels, who wants to hear them sing all the time? Unless Willie Nelson or Eddy Arnold or Waylon Jennings or Leon Redbone or Patsy Cline are going to be doing guest shots, hold the angels.
I don’t mean to be disrespectful of anyone beliefs but honesty compels me to say that most of what I heard about heaven from the pulpits of my youth left me with a big yawn. Actually, it gave me a desire to avoid going there.
Maybe “heaven” and the “kingdom of God” are separate things. But how can they be? I counted 70 references to “the kingdom of God” in my Bible concordance and 29 references to the “kingdom of heaven.” Most of the time they appear to be describing a condition or state of awareness and not a physical place.
So I do not see either “heaven” or the “kingdom of God” as some vague place in the afterlife. It has no meaning for this life unless it means a present power that can change lives, relationships, structures and institutions here and now. God’s rule is not something to long for but a reality we can live out today, right where we are.
When someone –preacher or funeral eulogizer – gets me to thinking of heaven as a place dead people go, I often remind myself that Jesus told us in the Lord’s Prayer to daily pray for the kingdom to come, “on earth as it is in heaven.” When we read the entire prayer, we see that He believed we could bring the kingdom to earth by being thankful for our daily bread, forgiving one another and delivering ourselves from evil.
Some of our images of heaven are enticing. My friend Terry Smith wrote a great song titled “The Far Side Banks of Jordan.” It was Johnny and June Cash’s favorite gospel song. If you’ve seen the move “The Apostle” with Robert Duvall, you will remember it from the sound track.
The song talks about a couple who have lived together and loved each other for a long time and one of them is lamenting that they will soon be parting, but assures the other, “I’ll be waiting on the far-side banks of Jordan, I’ll be waiting drawing pictures in the sand, and when I see you coming I will rise up with a shout and come running through the shallow waters reaching for your hand.”
My brother Blaine and I once talked about how many of the images and thoughts in gospel music we have sung all our lives can be emotionally satisfying even when you may not accept all the theology behind it. So I say “The Far Side Banks of Jordan” says a lot about heaven and the kingdom of God. It says our love for one another is heavenly stuff and lasts eternally. It says our yearning for each other is holy. It says our hope for a reunion with those we love will not be disappointed.
The kingdom of heaven, as Jesus said, is always “in our midst.” In our love, yearnings, hopes and dreams.
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