Saturday, July 16, 2016

IN DEFENSE OF A “PIE IN THE SKY” FAITH

Some years ago I saw a promotional notice for a spiritual growth seminar to be held in a church in the city near where I was living at the time.  Part of the promotion read:  

Why does God let me go through such painful circumstances? Why does he seem indifferent to my prayers?
We’re tired of spiritual pie in the sky. We want authentic, God-as-he-really-is faith – the kind that holds us together when our world is falling apart and equips us to offer strength and hope to others. 

Whether or not the promoters of this workshop realized it, the phrase “pie in the sky,” comes from the anarchist and syndicate labor organization of the early 1900’s called the Industrial Workers of the World, or commonly referred to as the “Wobblies” (actually still in existence).

I am certain that the Wobblies had many grievances that were worth consideration in those days and probably still do.  And, since the group was originally involved with organizing migrant and day workers, they no doubt represented many people who otherwise felt helpless against big industry.  However, the Wobblies had another side to them as well. They had a perspective of life that ridiculed any thought beyond this present life. The Wobblies especially derided those who looked at life as being in some ways being a preparation for eternity. They mocked those who placed their hopes in eternity.

One of the ways that the Wobblies did this was through the singing of distortions or parodies of popular hymns of the day.  Pie in the Sky is one of those parodies.  This was a perversion of the hymn, In the Sweet Bye and Bye.  This hymn (the real one) was often sung by the Salvation Army, a Christian organization for whom the Wobblies held considerable disdain.

The labor organization despised the view that the true reward for virtuous living would come not in this world, but only in heaven. They accused the Salvation Army for not caring for the earthly needs of people – a view, I think, that came more from prejudice than from actual fact.

The phrase “Pie in the Sky” came from the chorus of the parody of the song, In the Sweet Bye and Bye:

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
But when asked how ‘bout something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet: 

You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die. 

The Eternal Perspective

As in most issues, there are extremes on each end.  I am sure that the promoters of the workshop which was to take place at the church in the city would not have shared the same view as the Wobblies. Rather, they were merely seeking a present-day reality to their Christian faith as well as the future promises.  I understand this desire and longing of these Christians.  I have felt the same way.
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However, this is the way that the Salvation Army Christians would sing the song: 

There’s a land that is fairer than day,
And by faith we can see it afar;
For the Father waits over the way
To prepare us a dwelling place there. 

In the sweet by and by,
We shall meet on that beautiful shore;
In the sweet by and by,
We shall meet on that beautiful shore. 

Earthly Pie

However you may feel about either of these songs, it is clear at least to me that the great danger exists in placing too much emphasis on earthly fulfillments of promises, while at the same time giving inadequate attention to the fact that our existence as Christians really is an eternal one.  In fact, there can be no healthy view of the present-day promises of God without having a proper understanding of our place in eternity.

I do not mean to say that the ministry of the church should be unconcerned with the physical and emotional needs of the world. This is the attitude of which the Wobblies accused the Salvation Army of having (It was, I think most would agree, an unfair accusation).

When we look at the life of Jesus, we see that compassion is foremost in the character of His ministry.  Everywhere that Jesus went, He healed the sick, made the lame to walk and brought sight to eyes that had never before seen light.  Jesus fed people by the thousands and even helped in such seemingly unimportant matters as providing wine for a wedding where the host had not adequately prepared for the banquet.

This compassionate and caring attitude was carried over to the early church.  After the resurrection of Jesus, He appeared to the disciples to tell them that they were to continue His ministry; “As the Father has sent me, I also send you,” He told them (John 20:21 NAS).

It seems that the first century church took this charge seriously.  James warns us of an empty faith that would see a brother or a sister without clothing and in need of daily food and that would say to them “be warmed and filled” without giving them what they needed.

“Of what use is that faith,” he asks (James 2:15-16).

It is the same perspective that was brought out by John, who writes: “But whoever has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?”  (1 John 3:17 NAS).

So committed was the church to provide for the poor that those who owned land or houses would sell them so that the needs of all would be met.  The result was that “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34 NAS).

When the early church was giving the commission to Paul and Barnabas as missionaries to the Gentiles, Paul writes: “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Galatians 2:10 NIV).

This ministry to the needy extended to healing the sick and infirm.  When Peter and John came upon a beggar who had been lame from his mother’s womb, Peter said to him, “I do not possess silver or gold, but what I have I give to you; in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene – walk!”  (Acts 3:6 NAS).

This healing ministry became so well known that people carried the sick into the streets and laid them on cots with the hope that even Peter’s shadow would fall upon them and they would be healed.  “And also the people from the cities in the vicinity of Jerusalem were coming together, bringing people who were sick or afflicted with unclean spirits; and they were all being healed”  (Acts 5:15,16 NAS).

Now for Some Pie that Nourishes

I have dwelt at some length on these “practical” ministries of Jesus and the early church so that there is no misunderstanding of the importance of these works.  Some would say that these ministries are of the “authentic, God-as-he-really-is faith – the kind that holds us together when our world is falling apart.”  Some would say that this is the ministry of the church “when asked how ‘bout something to eat.”

However, these ministries without the teaching of the “spiritual pie in the sky” are not the ministry of the church. Our message actually is primarily one not of this earth, but one of eternity.  But if helping people with their physical needs is not to be the primary concern of the church, if the foremost ministry is instead to be spiritual pie in the sky, what then exactly is this teaching which the promoters of the seminar had grown tired and the Wobblies scorned?

The teaching of the pie in the sky includes the perspective that, no matter how we may try to fill our lives with the goods of the world, even if we manage to accumulate great wealth, when every aspect of our present life is considered, we are to really expect very little from anything that this world can give.  It is the perspective that demonstrates that “in the world, [we] have tribulation” (John 16:33) and that the real hope of the Christian is beyond this life and this earthly existence.

Despite what the promoters of the workshop have said, of this hope, I have not grown tired.  In fact, I have seen that it is only by making this hope our goal that we clearly see the present-day benefits of Christianity in our lives.

“Take courage,” Jesus said, “I have overcome the world.” 

Overcoming the World

What exactly did Jesus mean when he told us that he has overcome the world?  Did he mean that through him we can, in this present life, arrive at a point that we will not be bothered with the “tribulations” of this world?  We must be careful how we answer this question, because the manner in which we answer it will, in large part, determine our goals and priorities.

As we read through the ministry of Jesus and that of the early church, it becomes very evident that the inordinate quest of temporal answers to present day difficulties actually conflicts with the teaching of Jesus.  It prevents us from seeing that the true promises can be and only will be fulfilled in eternity.  This is among the very first things that Jesus tells his disciples:

“No one can serve two masters,” Jesus told them.  “Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.  Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?”  (Matthew 6:24-25 NIV).

After giving his disciples the examples of how God provides for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and telling them that by seeking only these things they are no different than pagans, Jesus tells them this:

“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6: 24-33 NIV).

These words of Jesus sound to me a little like “pie in the sky” teaching. 

Determining our Priorities

The only miracle of Jesus that is recorded by all four Gospel writers is that of the feeding of the five thousand.  As Jesus went around Galilee healing the sick, he attracted a very large following.  As he was sitting on a mountainside near the Sea of Galilee speaking with his disciples one day, Jesus lifted his eyes to see a large crowd coming to him.

In the well-known story that follows, Jesus uses the occasion to teach his disciples about the provision of God. Jesus takes the only food available at that place, a lad’s lunch of five barley loaves and two fish, and uses those scant supplies to provide enough food so that the people ate until all were satisfied.

When the people saw what Jesus had done, they said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14).

Jesus, seeing that the people intended to come and to take him by force to make him their king because of the food that he had supplied for them, retreated to a place where he could be alone.  That night, Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee (it was like a large lake) to Capernaum, a town on the other shore.

The next day (perhaps it was about breakfast time) the crowd who had been fed on the mountainside, began looking for him.  They concluded that Jesus must have crossed the sea and had perhaps gone to Capernaum, so they themselves got into small boats to go and look for him.  Amazingly enough, they found Him.  “Rabbi,” they said, “when did you get here?”

Jesus understood their motivation in seeking and following him. He said to them, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.  Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” (John 6:26-27 NIV).

The real issue and the heart of the teaching of Jesus was not that he would supply our needs for this life – that is a secondary matter and one that he demonstrated to the people on the mountainside.  The priority that Jesus was trying to teach them is that they should instead search for “food that endures to eternal life.”  By spending all of our time and effort in getting into boats to go and search for breakfast, we miss what is truly important.  This will only serve to try to have our daily needs fulfilled. 

“Pie Eaters”

Perhaps the best summary of the perspective that Jesus was trying to teach is found in the book of Hebrews.  The eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews tells of many of the Old Testament believers who lived lives of faith, whereby which they “gained approval” (vs. 2 NAS), or obtained a good testimony of their time on earth.  I find myself going back repeatedly to the examples of these men and women.

What was outstanding in the lives of these saints was not the aspect of faith that is so often touted in our own day.  A common preaching of today is – “if you have faith God will supply all of your needs and heal all of your diseases.”  However, the aspect of faith that the lives of these people of the book of Hebrews represents is instead “the assurance of things hoped for [and] the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11: 1 NAS).

An Example of a “Pie Eater”

Most pertinent to our discussion is the life of Abraham, whose story begins in Genesis, chapter twelve.  Abraham had been given great promises by God.  God told Abraham to leave his home and relatives and go to an unknown land that He would show him.

“I will make you a great nation,” God told him, “and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2 NAS).

On the strength of these promises, Abraham obeyed and journeyed toward this unknown destination.  Once he arrived, however, he did not see the fulfillment of the assurances that God had given him.  Abraham’s life in this “promised land” was not an easy one, and as for becoming a “great nation” – that is difficult to do when one must wait until he is one hundred years old before he has his first child, as Abraham had to do.

One would think if there were anyone who would grow tired of the same old “spiritual pie in the sky,” it would be Abraham.  That was not the case, however.  Instead of his faith failing (it did falter a bit from time to time), Abraham became increasingly strengthened: 

By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God
(Hebrews 11:9-10 NIV). 

Accompanying Abraham through all of the trials was his dedicated wife Sarah, who at times showed a greater ability to demonstrate her faith.  Nevertheless, in the account in Genesis, we read that Sarah laughed when she heard that she would conceive a child in her ninetieth year.  She may have laughed, but the writer of Hebrews tells us, “By faith she received the ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered him faithful who had promised” (Hebrews 11:11 NAS).

Abraham and Sarah took their little baby Isaac in their arms and in his eyes they saw “as many descendants as the stars of heaven in number, and innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore” (Hebrews 11:12 NAS).

Was it that this old couple was delusional when they thought that this one little baby was the answer to the promise of a “great nation” and that their cotton tarp tent was the fulfillment of the great land that they were to inherit?  Given much of our present-day teaching, many would say that they were deluded.  But the writer of Hebrews says that they were not. 

All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.  For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. 

And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.  Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:13-16 NAS). 

In other words, Abraham and Sarah were willing to forgo the immediate fulfillment of the promises of God for the assurance that they would receive in their future existence all of those things which had been promised to them.  Some might even put it that they were looking to “spiritual pie in the sky.”

This same chapter of Hebrews contains several other instances of men and women who lived by faith, some seeing a token of what had been promised to them, but others – seemingly only hardships. 

Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, in order that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. 

They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated  (Hebrews 11:35-37 NAS). 

The World Was Not Worthy

The writer of Hebrews adds an interesting editorial comment to all of these accounts of men and women whose vision extended far beyond what eye can see. I can imagine that as the writer thought about all of these people, the examples of their faith loomed ever greater and greater in his estimation.

As he recounted their stories, he inserts a somewhat extraneous thought. He says of them, “these of whom the world was not worthy” (vs. 38).  Indeed, the world was not worthy of them, nor is the world worthy to be the recipient of the full promise of God. 

And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect”  (Hebrews 11:39-40 NAS). 

Are Your Really Satisfied with a Quick Breakfast?
Would Not Rather Have Eternal “Pie in the Sky”?

There will always be those who will follow Jesus only as long as He gives them bread to eat. There will always be those who will ridicule a life of faith that is willing to relinquish present day fulfillment for that which is to come.  There will always be those that say we are simply singing a foolish song about “pie in the sky.”

That may be.  But I will cast my lot with those who look to above for fulfillment.  No earthly breakfast can ever have such flavor. 

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2 NAS).

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