Rehearsals for eternity: Life as preparation for heaven or hell

I went to a funeral once and wondered if somehow I had crashed the wrong service. The preacher up front was talking about a man I knew, but what he said seemed to have little to do with the person I had worked with at this one particular job.

The preacher kept going on and on about this man and his faith and his decision to believe and so on, but the man I knew hadn’t been to church in years and never said anything about God one way or another, except occasionally to use the word “damn” as His last name.

I suppose the preacher was doing the best he could, talking about a man he scarcely knew, and he was probably trying to reassure the family that this fellow was squared away with God, but it occurred to me that this man wouldn’t like heaven very much anyway. Not that he would like hell, mind you; nobody really wants to go there, but most people, like this man I worked with, really don’t want to go to heaven either.

After all, this guy didn’t want to hang around with Christians on Sundays, so why would he want to spend eternity with those same people? And he didn’t say much about God, except for the swearing I mentioned earlier, so praising God forever and ever wouldn’t quite be his style. And if that man really didn’t care what God had to say, wouldn’t serving Him for eternity be total misery?


The hot rod Mustang

(A poem about sex and God and marriage)


Not even old enough to drive

When it rounded a corner and rolled by

Beautiful, loud, and full of promise,

I stood there gape mouthed and moon eyed,

Starting at the rumbling fury that was a Hot Rod Mustang

And that which would become my obsession.


I told my friends and they told me,

For they too had glimpsed those hopped up and fanciful cars.

We speculated what it would be like to drive such splendid machines,

All of us projecting unveiled assumptions with feigned expertise.

Ricky, the kid down the street, even claimed to have even driven one,

When he was away on vacation the past summer,

But we all called him liar, liar

Despite him saying, I swear to God,

Honest I did, really.


Ricky did have magazines, though, lots of them

With full-color photographs of incredibly hot rides

That we perused feverously, lavishing our attentions

On those glossy fantastic images.

Those cars were not like the ones our parents drove, mind you,

Though we knew they actually did drive,

For that is what mothers and fathers do.

Those muscle cars were truly of another kind,

Leaping from the page,

Full of heat, speed, thunder, and rancid tire smoke.


One time I snuck into a movie theatre,

Dark with vile sticky floors,

Where a hot rod Mustang flashed across the screen.

Fishtailing with tires squealing,

That car flat out hauled ass down the road

Launching airborne over hills, banging back down on the shocks,

Lurching and swerving and rocking before sliding sideways

To a sudden desperate stop.


I now know what I saw simply was not real.

Multiple cars wrecked in the filming

Stunt drivers suffered horrific injuries

Strategic camera angles accentuated every lunge and turn.

But something about that movie and all those magazines

Gave me expectations about the automotive experience

No amount of public school drivers’ education could correct.


Then I discovered a hot rod Mustang in my father’s garage.

We were estranged at the time, so I would sneak over to his place

And peer through the window at the car parked in shadows.

Eventually I jimmied open the door, slinked inside

And actually touched the hot rod Mustang.

The door was unlocked, so I got behind the wheel, grabbed the shifter

And imagined nighttime cruises with a girl beside me,

Her long hair blowing in the wind.

I took a real girl to the garage not long after

And we did just about everything in that car except actually drive.

I found the keys in the glove box,

Started the engine,

And we got all hot and bothered in the garage,

Nearly poisoning ourselves on exhaust.

We were still too young to be legal,

When our excitement mounted to a frenzy,

And I pushed open the garage door,

Rolled the car out on the street

Banging and grinding the gears.

We almost wrecked before we got the thing back inside.

It was such a fiasco,

You would have thought we’d have given up on the Mustang.

In a way, we did, because after that bleak anti-climactic day,

We never got in the Mustang again, though she did ride in cars with other boys.


I found another with whom to ride.

We put serious mileage on the car,

Did all kinds of things my father wouldn’t have approved of

While courting both exhilaration and disaster alike,

But we convinced ourselves otherwise.

Other girls followed

And the Mustang was driven far too hard

Until my father barged in.

He knew all along what I was doing.

Why didn’t you say anything? I asked

He said I already knew I wasn’t supposed to be driving that car

And I wouldn’t have listened anyway.

He made it plain I was his son,

That he loved me

And even though I had used that word so much,

I had no idea what it even meant.

You ready to listen, now? He asked.

Yes, I replied.

Stay away from that car, until I say otherwise.


For the most part I did stay away,

But others drove hot rods like they stole them

Busting up everything and leaving others to pay.

Occasional women tried to coerce me into taking them for a ride,

Sometimes laughing as they spoke.

Maybe they saw me as a challenge,

Or even worse, a charity case.


I have to admit, I kept thinking about that Mustang,

Even while shunning the movies and magazines.

Memory was my own dank theatre I kept finding myself in

Before walking out and squinting in the light.


When I finally got married,

My father awarded me the keys to the hot rod Mustang.

My wife and I drove a lot, especially during our first year together.

Mostly it was quite wonderful,

Except I would remember the way this one girlfriend

Used to throw her head back when I shifted gears:

My wife didn’t do that;

I wondered if the guys she used to ride with had bigger engines.

We worked through it all, one piece at a time,

Because the Mustang requires maintenance,

But I’d have to say it’s been a good ride.


Now, the hot rod Mustang is parked a lot of the time.

It’s not what you’d call a daily driver,

But we still relish our rides together.

Sometimes, just a quick jaunt to the corner, sometimes a nice long cruise,

We’ve made the car our own and no one else’s.

There was this kid, though, just the other day,

Who gawked as we rolled by,

Standing nearly motionless on the pedals of his bike,

Transfixed by the hot rod Mustang.

I wanted to tell him,

Yeah, the ride is pretty darn cool,

Just don’t get too worked up about it

Because there’s a whole lot about life

And especially love

That doesn’t have anything

To do with a hot rod Mustang.
















Thank God Christians are not all like me

As a Christian, I have gotten to know a wide variety of people that I wouldn’t have even met otherwise. Left to our own devices, we tend to make relationships based on rather superficial commonalties. Our reasons for gathering are sometimes downright petty. There are groups for people who like the same music, or who enjoy drinking beer and watching cars race around in circles, or who own the same brand of recreational vehicle, but when Jesus draws people together to worship and learn to live a new way, a wonderful chemistry occurs.

Opposites, when it comes to people, often really don’t attract; they fight or simply avoid one another, but this sometimes volatile mix is the only way the church has the potential for expressing the incomprehensible vastness of God’s character. Jesus’ original bunch of disciples was an odd mix who wouldn’t have naturally liked each other. Fishermen, tax collectors, egghead intellectuals, and common proletarian types all gathered around the One who called them in the first place.

If we put aside our differences and cling to Christ, we find plenty of common ground as well as a diversity that broadens our narrow lives. Some churches, perhaps by design, tend to attract the same types of people. There are churches favored by artists, intellectuals, punk rockers, professionals, old folks, and other non-spiritual preferences for being together, but I have always desired more variety in my churches.

For a while, I led a small group based on a college campus, which I found artificial and strange. I missed the babies, families, and old folks. Currently, a lot of my Christian friends are different from me, and I like it that way. Even though I’m a teacher and a bit of an intellectual goofball, my friends include engineers, contractors, carpenters, mechanics, and even an art dealer. Some of them have read very few books and watch movies that I consider lame entertainments, but I love them anyway.

Some of them are younger than I am, and they keep me energized. I especially love the older ones, though, who can look from the other side of careers and parenting and share their wisdom. I’m thankful for all the good Christian folks I have known over the years. Some have enriched my life for a season and moved on, and with others I have made it a priority to stay connected. Most of all, I thank God they were not all like me.

I can remember overhearing two guys talking about opera after a men’s meeting. Now, I admire the talent of such singers in a purely removed and academic way, but really don’t like opera in the least, and I’d almost rather be deaf than have to listen to that stuff all the time. But these two men, with whom I had shared good fellowship, they were going on and on like opera was the greatest experience in the world. It wasn’t until then that I realized how culturally different we were, and I almost wept because I knew I would never have even met them if Christ had not been so gracious in bringing us together.


The church is like building with used bricks

The writers of the New Testament also metaphorically present the Church like a building with Christ as its foundation. If a building’s foundation is substandard, any type of construction put on it will be doomed. For instance, a wall might look good for a while, but eventually cracks start appearing, and patching those cracks is only a temporary fix. Other fissures open up, and the structure keeps settling out, becoming unsound and eventually falling in.

The first requirement of a genuinely Christian church is that it is established on Christ Himself; the second is that we build properly on that foundation.

Churches are made of people, which I Peter refers to as “living stones” (2:4). Because my father was a contractor, I know a little about construction, but where we worked, stone houses were rare. We did, however, use a lot of brick. One of my jobs when I was a kid was sorting used bricks that we used for additions that he built on people’s homes. Using new bricks looks peculiar when they butt up to an existing wall that’s been around a while, so the used bricks were ideal for this application.

My main tasks when sorting these bricks was stacking the good ones on wheelbarrows to supply the bricklayers and tossing unsuitable bricks on a truck, so they could be taken to the dump. The bricks that went in the wheelbarrow were not all identical; some were light and some were dark, some were rough and some were smooth, and some were even a bit irregular in shape. These variations didn’t matter, and the walls these bricks became part of were always beautiful.

The bricks that didn’t make it to tradesmen on the scaffolds were what my father referred to as “salmon brick.” Flaky and brittle, they looked much like the others, but they would fall apart, eventually leaving unsightly holes in the wall and threatening the structural integrity of whatever was built.

In much the same way, the church can also use all kinds of very used people, but what it doesn’t need are people who lack an essential spiritual soundness that allows them to be an integral part of His living temple. Of course, we must be patient with new believers and others who are immature, but the ones who detract from the beauty of His temple must be discipled so they may become contributors to His purposes. In all, an atmosphere of grace, but never permissiveness, must be cultivated.


The Body of Christ and severed fingers

In the New Testament, the Church is referred to as the Body of Christ, and He is the head of the whole works. In much the same way as the body functions, some parts are seen, some are hidden, and some are certainly more critical than others, but what the world too often sees is a headless body, one lacking all the vital signs of the Spirit, or one riddled with sickness or maimed in the worst kind of way. On the local level, expressions of this body may be terribly dysfunctional, with too many members doing too much, too little, or nothing at all. Worse yet, some have altogether abandoned their proper places, and the individual parts that leave risk winding up spiritually dead. If I were to cut off my finger, especially the little one on my right hand, I could go on doing much that I had done before, but typing like I am doing now would be more awkward and time-consuming. In a similar way, those people who have refused to be part of the church hinder its vitality. My finger, though, without my body nourishing it, will be worse off than the rest of me, starting to die from the moment it was severed from my hand. Too many Christians who opt for a solo spiritual life are dying while they seem to live.


Doing church

A pastor once told me that if you gave a man who had never seen a church a Bible, told him to go away, read it, and report back later, he would describe a church unlike what any of us have known. First of all, my pastor friend knows a purely biblical church is a concept open to some interpretation, and any interpretation will have its variations and flaws.

This pastor also understands that there is no ideal church. Some things they do in his particular congregation he might do differently if it were only up to him, but as he says, “It’s not all about me.” He continues to be a pastor in this denomination because he feels nothing they are doing is unbiblical per se, and there are many opportunities to serve God and others there. I must admit that I admire his selflessness, steadfastness, and contentment.

On the other hand, I am not such a good man and question why we need buildings with rooms that get used maybe once a week and cost a lot of money, and I have an aversion to committees, boards, many things labeled as “programs,” and  other trappings of institutional churches.

Regardless, even the churches I have committed myself to that were non-denominational and didn’t own buildings were institutions in the making. It seems we’re always trying to engineer some kind of organization out of an organism born of the Spirit and too often strip it of authentic vitality.

Some people may wonder why I even bother with church at all if I feel this way. I could disavow “church” and claim to embrace Christ, as some people do, but I am part of a congregation because it is utterly unbiblical to do otherwise.

The Body of Christ is the universal church, and He places the members in various places within local gatherings. My duty is not to sit in judgment, but to humbly allow the Spirit of Christ within to lead me to a congregation where I can worship, enjoy the company of good Christian folks, serve others, and be served myself.

I’ve given up on finding a perfect church, because all churches are made up of people, and being one myself, I know we tend to be fairly screwed-up creatures. When I was younger, I used to see the church as a city on the hill, a place radiant with the perfection and character of Christ. Yeah, it should be that way, I suppose, but now I see it more as the place where I learn to forgive others.

Paul exhorted the Ephesians, “Forgive each other as Christ has forgiven you” (4:32). If we all could wrap ourselves around that idea and start living it out, a whole lot of problems in churches would simply work themselves out. This is especially true if we could be like my pastor friend who says, “It’s not about me.”

He is an example to me in the way he lives out the truth of Philippians 2:4: “Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” Most of our church problems begin and end with our own individual arrogance and self-centeredness, which distorts our perceptions of our brothers and sisters in Christ and keeps us from truly loving and serving them and our Lord. It doesn’t have to be that way.



Street preaching, The Sixth Sense, and having lunch with a gay man

During my senior year at the University of Maryland, I was paid a modest stipend as president of our church’s campus ministry. Assuming I was on track to eventual full-time vocational ministry, I poured myself into staging coffeehouses and concerts, leading Bible studies, passing out tracts, and being a leader to the students who were part of our cause.

One of our activities, however, made me extremely uncomfortable, and that was street preaching. The man who had launched the ministry several years earlier was indeed an evangelist, and the leaders after him felt some compulsion to keep proclaiming the Gospel in the open air, so I did the same.

With great trepidation, I would walk out on the mall and start yelling about Jesus and the sin and degradation all around me. The worst part of it all was that people seemed to ignore me. They’d eat sandwiches, toss Frisbees, and act like I wasn’t there. Sometimes it was like being Bruce Willis in that movie The Sixth Sense where he’s dead and only one little kid can even see him. He just moved through this world, dead and ignored, and that’s the way I felt.

I was actually glad on the few occasions when atheists, militant feminists, and other antagonists would get mad and start arguing with me. At least someone was paying attention. The whole business made me so uneasy that I stopped doing open-air preaching, kept a low profile about it, and no one seemed to fault me for quitting.

One fine spring day, I was in front of the Student Union Building, far from my usual street preaching location. I sat on a bench beside another student to eat my lunch, and we starting talking. Just eating and taking interest like a normal person, I steered the conversation toward spiritual matters simply because that’s just the way I am. The guy looked at me sort of funny, and then—it seemed like he was testing me to see how I would react–he said, “I’m gay.”

I told him that the Bible didn’t condone that particular lifestyle choice, and I wasn’t tempted that way myself, but I had problems of my own because I was heterosexual and called to be celibate unless or until I was married. We kept talking, and I was very honest about how tough it was to not have sex, but how Jesus was strengthening me day by day.

He said that at least God might eventually let me have sex when I got married, whereas that wasn’t an option for him. I told him “someday” isn’t worth much today, and I suggested that we need to live life one day at a time, and “God’s mercies are new every morning.” Then I explained how sometimes God takes away not only our sins but even our temptations, but He usually doesn’t, so we become more like Christ by fighting through all those hardships. I also reminded him that Jesus didn’t have sex with men or women either.

The guy finished his lunch and had to leave, so I extended my hand and shook his. “I’m Ray Sikes,” I told him.

“I know,” he said. “I’ve seen you preaching out on the mall. Frankly, I thought you were a real asshole, but now I see you’re a pretty good guy. In fact, I think you are a real Christian, not one of those fakes.”

I thought about those times when I was preaching, when I told myself that all those silent people were actually listening as I ranted about Jesus and sin, and that God was pricking their hearts, even if they showed no response. I was at least sharing the Scriptures, which do have power, so perhaps there was some eternal value to what I was attempting.

On the other hand, sharing my life quietly with honesty and without pretense seemed to have had a more positive effect, at least with that one gay man. And I would have done that without being paid.


Marriage: A strong house with no back door

At this point, our kids are grown and my wife and I are closer to sixty than fifty. Not much is written about love between people like us, and we rarely see ourselves portrayed in movies.  Most of the great love stories focus on relationships before marriage, or on unrequited love that is never consummated, or on adulterous liaisons filled with intrigue and excitement. Real love like ours, though, is tough; its substance is a covenant, and it is more likely to grow into contentment rather than buzz with exhilaration.

Christian marriage is radical in its absolute commitment. We enter the relationship and promise before God to have no other lover. When I made my vows, there was no rider that exempted me from those “’till death do you part” pledges if I became bored, restless, stressed, depressed, or simply found someone I thought might be prettier or more entertaining.

At its core, the covenant of marriage is a decision to love, which runs deeper than mere emotion. This love doesn’t ask how I feel; this love demands that I act, but for me this commitment has resulted in emotion and contentment beyond simple romance that often amounts to little more than narcissism with a sense of novelty.

This married love is not always exciting, at least not like the danger and rebellion and raw emotion of young love expressed in secret rooms and backseats of cars parked in deserted places. This is love of another kind, a love that holds my spouse above all others. In a room full of people, there is everyone else, and then there is my wife.

I used to quote a line from a T-Bone Burnett song to her: “All the other girls look the same standing next to you.” This statement is true because there are the other several billion females out in the world, but she is the only one for me. All the rest are in a mutually excluded class.

At this point, my wife isn’t the same girl I married, nor do I expect her to be. She is a fully mature woman, one who has borne my children and raised them well. She has loved me, supported me, and served me for years, and she has been the recipient of my love as well. There is no one like her.

Images of beauty surround me, but I ignore their siren song and find it sad when older men leave their wives for younger women, or even that they find them overly alluring. Youthful beauty, sex, and even romantic love are transient, but God’s love is eternal, and that ultimately must be the strength of any marriage.

There have been times when my wife and I have looked at each other and wondered what we had in common, but there has always been Christ, and He has always been enough. He is our common ground regardless of our differences. Individually and together, my wife and I seek Him and desire His will, part of which involves us continuing together in love, whatever may come our way.

Real Christian marriage is a brave long shot that works its wonders all the time, even in this age of selfish desire. Two people who have said “yes” to God say “yes” to each other, and they exclude all others to celebrate this most intimate of human bonds.

Marriage is a strong house we enter that has no back door exit, and therein we learn to truly love with the unrelenting grace that God lavishly provides.


Kids need both mercy and judgment

We need to be like God to our kids, full of love and discipline and justice and mercy. But mercy without judgment is not grace, and that’s why rules and consequences for breaking them must be in place. I can’t help but think that some kids never really come to Christ simply because they have never been held to any rules and have wrong concepts about mercy and justice. Paul wrote, “The law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24).

Rules can never make us right with God, but they show us how we are wrong so we can come to Him honestly, asking for mercy from Him who is so willing to give it. If we constantly let our children off the hook, they assume God will do the same. He will, but only on His terms, and as parents we need to do our best to lead our kids to Christ, who will care for them when we no longer can.

When she was a little girl, my older daughter loved riding her bike. She and I would sometimes travel for miles, me peddling steadily on my big 26” bike, and she cranking furiously on her little 20-incher from which I’d only recently removed the training wheels. She just loved riding with her daddy, and I often rode farther than I really cared to, simply because she delighted so much in the simple joy of being with me and traveling on a bike. If I couldn’t be with her, there were very limited areas where she could ride. Of course, these rules were mostly for her safety. We didn’t want her getting hurt, and nearby were dangerous roads only to be traveled at certain times with her father.

One day, she grew bored with our restrictions and rode beyond where she was told to go. It was fun for a while, but by the time she returned, the poor girl was wracked with guilt. In tears she confessed to her mother that she had disobeyed us. Wisely, my wife forgave my daughter and did not spank her for this offense; our little girl had suffered enough and knew that she was wrong, but my wife also pointed out that she had also offended God, and my daughter describes this event as a pivotal moment when she in reality came to Christ to be forgiven for her sins. God used the rules given by her parents to bring her to Himself.

I want my kids to understand that obedience is ultimately about submission to God. If I’ve only trained them to obey me, I’ve failed miserably because I cannot always be with them, but if they understand they also have a heavenly Father who sees all they do and, more importantly, loves them and desires their obedience to His wishes and wisdom, they may well make right choices when far from me. Above all else, they must know that God loves them, enables them to be righteous, and forgives their inevitable failures.

I have frequently confessed rather than excused my faults before my children. They know I am in need of His mercy, and when I have dealt with them wrongly, caused them offense, or made them stumble because of my behavior, I have asked them for forgiveness. Parents need not worry about losing credibility if they admit their faults. Children are sharper than we think, and when they see our inconsistencies, they are not fooled.

On the other hand, when they see me as a flawed man obtaining grace, they are less likely to dismiss my religion as a crock of rules given by a hypocrite. Oftentimes, I have come alongside my children, especially as they became adolescents, and I have conceded that my own struggles are much like theirs. I have admitted freely the sins of my youth and of my later life, explained how damaging those lapses have been, and shown them the Savior who forgives and empowers me and can do the same for them as well.



Curbing childish rebellion

One of the verses my kids heard me quote a lot was “rebellion is like the sin of [witchcraft]” (I Samuel 15:25). Old Testament law condemned people found to be witches, and while we are under a new covenant, God is still not pleased with witches because whether they claim to be good or bad witches, they center their lives on having power and not serving God, and/or they commune with weird spirits or the dead instead of the Holy Spirit, or in the case of some of the more “New Age” varieties, they worship nature instead of the God who created all that great stuff in the first place. All of this is idolatry in the first degree, a violation of the first commandment to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5).

The reason I so often quoted that verse about rebellion and witchcraft is that in our society, rebellion is usually taken lightly, sometimes celebrated, and very often excused, especially when referring to children and adolescents. I’ve even heard pastors pretty much say that kids will rebel, as if we are to excuse their behavior. Indeed, ever since World War II, many popular depictions of youth in the media have portrayed them as wild and unrestrained, so I am going against the tide of popular opinion when I say that children should not be allowed to defy authority.

I do believe that young people have a lot of energy, that they are perhaps testing limits at one level or another, and that while they are desperately trying to find their places in the world they will screw-up, but during the whole process they had better recognize that God has the ultimate say in their lives, that parents are there for wisdom and protection, and authority figures like teachers, principals, and police officers are ordained by God.

It’s good for kids to know that there are rules that should not be broken. My children learned the Ten Commandments, and within our household we had rules about when we ate and went to bed and where certain activities could and could not be performed. If children don’t learn that they shouldn’t throw sand in the face of others when they play in a sandbox, they will have problems at school and work and in the families they later create. If a little girl is allowed to wear her dress shoes out in that same sandbox, she will be more likely to resist when a parent suggests that what she is wearing later as a teen is too tight, too revealing, or otherwise inappropriate. Kids need rules to learn how to live correctly, and more importantly, they need to learn that there are consequences when these rules are violated.

“God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he shall also reap” (Galatians 6:7), which means that if we go against God’s ways, there are negative results. In real life, these consequences are often distant from the violations people commit. Wicked people often spend their lives doing what they want, they appear happy and prosperous, and too often we never see them suffer. Dictators die in opulence at old age, drug addict rock stars survive their straight peers, and good people are ignored, impoverished, ridiculed, and killed.

The psalmist lamented this reality when he wrote, “I was envious of the arrogant, as I saw the prosperity of the wicked, for there are no pains in their death” (Psalm 73:3-4). He was discouraged, until he saw their end in judgment (73:17-20).

Kids are too short-term in their thinking and need some help understanding the ideas of reaping, sowing, and judgment. That is why it is good to discipline kids when they disobey. They need to understand that actions result in judgment.

Of course, there are two sides to our roles as judges when we parent, and my kids suffered no dearth of praise and positive reinforcement. When they did well, I let them know. Sometimes, I would hold them and look in their eyes and say, “Listen to me. Some people wait all their lives and never hear this from their fathers: I am very pleased with you.”

I have hugged my children, kissed them, lavished affection upon them, esteemed their uniqueness, and loved them as well as I could, which also meant disciplining them when they needed it.