Wendy Rush interviews LifeWell Conference keynote speaker Sy Rogers about the conference theme ‘Heaven on Earth’.
Many of us are brought up to believe in Heaven as a place that we go to when we die. How can we experience Heaven on Earth?
SR: The Hebrew concept of Heaven is not so much a ‘place’, as it is a state of being: the word for Heaven means ‘Expansion’. Related to this, a proverb I really like sums up my perspective: ‘Your life on Earth is the womb of your eternity.’ That is: I began life in my mother’s womb–but not to live there permanently. The light is dim…hearing is muffled…there is restriction. It is the necessary place of beginning and formation. But then, through birth I am irrevocably pushed out into the realm of expansion: I can move, function fully, see, hear and know others face to face. I think this well represents what it’s like to cross over into life beyond life, the realm of Heaven–an obviously expanded state of being. We no longer see through the glass darkly…we see God face to face…we are no longer bound by limitation and corruption experienced here in this realm of life.
As for experiencing ‘Heaven on Earth’…I don’t know that we can, at least not fully of course. But I think we can have powerful, wondrous and transformational moments and glimpses. As we echo God’s heart toward others, as we impart love and service to bring blessing and benefit to others, this is a tangible way in which a refreshing echo of Heaven can be demonstrated in our broken world. Heaven on Earth was glimpsed when Jesus–God incarnated–was among us. Though the world around us remains corrupt, Jesus did effectively establish a permanent beachhead for His ever expanding Kingdom–which the Holy Spirit continues in the hearts of those who will receive Him. More personally, in moments of prayer and communion with God, we can be very tangibly impacted and changed–dramatically or gradually through the processes of God at work within us. This too would be a way of bringing light into darkness, freedom into bondage, and a taste of the Heavenly into my Earthly life.
Why is it important to bring something of Heaven to Earth?
SR: Our world is in desperate circumstances: wars, poverty, disease, injustice and oppression…these are just some of the many ways that invoke suffering and a sense of personal abandonment by God. For Christians, our good works in the suffering world around us are a demonstration that God sees and cares…and takes action to intervene. In this way, we can become ‘God with skin on’. We bother to intervene because lives are precious, especially to God. Our efforts to serve others, to bless and benefit them, are a tangible demonstration that God is still among us, working through His people, to lift burdens and ultimately point back to God, His love and salvation through Jesus. That’s the greater message. Though God is routinely blamed for the woe of the world–suffering which He allows—He has not abandoned us. Regardless of how wretched life on Earth can sometimes be, God holds forth the reality of an eternal realm beyond this life–and how to access this, as well as providing comfort and grace and true purpose in contradiction to the reality of now.
Can you give an example or two of what Heaven on Earth would look like?
SR: It’s all around us, if you have eyes to perceive it: selfless love, such as that of iconic Mother Teresa, investing care, dignity and preparation for the dying in the slums of Calcutta. Corrie Ten Boom, who along with her sister Betsy, comforted and encouraged their fellow prisoners in the Nazi death camp, reminding that present injustice is not the final verdict, and death is not the end; Jesus has come to make the way back to God for us. The lovely saint whom I knew, Sabina, famous as the Angel of Dresden, who rescued teen prostitutes from the streets, rehabilitating them into a healthy life-because of God’s love. The wonderful Nick Vujicic, motivational speaker and Christian evangelist, whose remarkable life–in spite of missing arms and legs–demonstrates that joy, satisfaction, purpose can still be discovered even in the midst of great disadvantage. Such real life stories remind us, Heaven is greater than Earth. Mother Teresa, Corrie and Betsy, Sabina and Nick have all had this glimpse, transforming them into agents of a greater hope in the midst of great challenge.
More personally, Heaven came to Earth for me, in various ways: the healing of my damaged soul, through the process of wise counselling, and a gob-smacking inspirational vision…or the healing of my body from illness during a powerful prayer and worship meeting. These events remind me Heaven on Earth is something I can personally experience. Isn’t that why we pray? When we do, we are invoking and initiating something of Heaven into our Earthly concerns. Less dramatic, but still profound as it is natural: talking with God…having access to Him…connected to Him by His Spirit…that’s my GPS locator of Heaven on Earth–anywhere, anytime.
Finally, at the risk of sounding cliché, I must admit that in this season of my life, enjoying a lingering dinner with my family and friends…laughing together, being together…holding my grandchildren…such wonderful moments put all the melodrama of life on hold, and are a slice of Heaven on Earth for me.
Understanding that we are all broken in some way, what is the first step towards addressing our brokenness?
SR: Self-awareness is half the battle already won! Unfortunately, many of us tend to be self-critical, and religiously idealistic. When we come into awareness that we are indeed in need, we tend to struggle with shame–that we are ‘bad’ and God is ‘mad’. Truth is, we are human and therefore, vulnerable. God is not mad, but He is aware and concerned that we do not live in ways that are self-defeating, bringing harm to ourselves and others. God is also our Understanding and Compassionate Advocate: He loves us and desires to help us. His love will take us just as we are–but He will not leave us there…His love will lead us forward toward responsible living.
Illumination, awareness and discernment are from God. When He has ‘made us aware’ of something broken within, it is not to shame us. Rather, it is to show us what we don’t want, what doesn’t work, and what we don’t like. That then becomes the pivot toward finding our solution–because there are ALWAYS solutions. So we begin the journey of discovering why we are in need AND what we CAN do about it. That’s when informed professional evaluation may prove helpful. Some needs may be best served by a variety or layers of support: trusted friends, pastor, therapist and support group. While addressing personal matters requires the risk and humility of admitting need, there is no shame in wanting to resolve a problem. Follow through may best be achieved with added wisdom, support and accountability toward the goal. Hearing the stories of others who have overcome challenges–similar or different–can be very empowering and provide practical insight as well.
How should we respond to others who are longing to see change in their lives?
SR: I would not be who I am today, had it not been for the love and support of other, more mature believers during key seasons of my life journey. These many men and women accepted me AS I WAS. But they also championed and mentored me toward emotional and spiritual maturity, for which I am profoundly grateful. Any changes in my life were really not a goal, but rather a by-product of growth. It was healthy relationships that fuelled that growth, both with God and His people. Christianity is the Relationship Faith–how I connect to God and others is at the heart of being a Christian. Jesus came to make that right and healthy connection with God available to us. Out of that relationship, our human to human relating should begin recalibrating as well: service, instead of selfishness; responsible conduct instead of exploitation or manipulation; trust instead of wariness and isolation, forgiveness instead of revenge. Responding to God, submitting to wisdom and support, and persevering in the process of growing, have kept me on track in spite of my residual weaknesses.
Scripture wisely challenges us to treat others as we would like to be treated. If I want to be ‘understood’, I need to practice being ‘understanding.’ If I want mercy and patience, I need to invest mercy and patience. Scripture admonishes us who claim to be ‘stronger’, not to lord it over the weak, but rather, to be compassionate and considerate and supportive of those who are having a tougher time moving forward in life. It’s easy to be critical or judgemental of others, but it’s much better to be an advocate, mentor, example and champion to others. There is no room for conceit nor contempt in God’s family.
For someone reading this, I would encourage: Don’t give up on God or yourself. God does not set us up to fail, but to succeed in His purposes–even if it takes time and persevering effort to get there. Worthwhile goals are rarely easily achieved…but don’t let that dissuade you. If you fall down– and who doesn’t–then get up. In the real race that matters, it’s not about being fast, or smart, or rich or lucky. Rather, it is about Not Giving Up. So don’t give up on God’s love, nor His capability to bring you through. Don’t give up on your present or future. I’ve learned that moving forward in life is not an attempt at earning God’s love nor redemption–Jesus gives each of us generous access to both. But growth into responsible stewardship of my mind and body affords me opportunity to move beyond self-defeating patterns, get healthier and get on with life! Perhaps that’s a practical way of making a bit of Heaven on Earth!
Sy Roger’s unique life and three decades of ministry have inspired and encouraged audiences from London’s Royal Albert Hall to many of the world’s most influential pulpits. Regarded as a gifted communicator, award-winning talk show host, recording artist and pastoral care specialist, Sy is a leading voice regarding sexuality, cultural themes and God’s character.
Read more about Sy at syrogers.com.