I was just a little boy, but I noticed something confusing at church. We sang hymns about being eager to meet Jesus in heaven and I heard pastors talking about how much we yearned for the day we went to heaven. But at the same time, nobody seemed eager to die.
It was the first theological mystery of my life. Or maybe it was just sociology. Either way, I was too young to understand those words.
We prayed for sick people to get well. We prayed for long lives for ourselves. We mourned those who died. And in my little brain, that confused me.
If going to heaven was so great, why weren’t all these people eager to die?
I’ve never resolved this paradox, but my spirit feels the deep truth of each side of this apparent contradiction.
My heart never really connected with the paper mâché version of God who seemed to be everywhere in the shallow theology of my youth. God didn’t seem real to me until I started experiencing something — a spiritual presence who seemed far deeper and more complex than the old man with a long white beard who I imagined when listening to the preachers.
The God they talked about was more like a mean parent who was eager to catch me doing something wrong. They told me that their God loved me, but most of what they said made it seem as though he was just eager to enforce the rules which my culture made up for me.
I found that the more I experienced God as a transcendent spirit of pure love, the more I fell in love with his creation. The more I felt his love with that spirit and the more I felt connected to him, the more I experienced joy and peace about the beauty and majesty of all that he created.
The more I felt love this Spirit and the more I felt oneness with God, the more I wanted to experience this world and all of its beauty forever.
Over the weekend, I discovered a beautiful new song from Pat Terry which deals with this paradox — and it immediately made sense to me. It’s called “On and On and On.” (The song is embedded below.)
I don’t care how long I live or how much time goes by
Or how sure I am that God forgives
I don’t wanna die
I wanna go on like the river’s song
Like the blue up in the sky
On and on and on and on
I don’t wanna die
Pat Terry has made beautiful and thought-provoking music for something like 45 years now, but this is the first time I remember him — or any artist making music from a Christian worldview — addressing this paradox. And I love the honesty of these lyrics.
One of Terry’s earliest hits was “I Can’t Wait” in 1975. This song talks about his eagerness to meet Jesus and to “walk those streets of gold.” It was a popular sentiment in the Evangelical church — and expressed beautifully — but I find his newest take to be something I can identify with far more.
One of the reasons I love Terry’s music — both past and present — is that his spiritual and emotional journey shares some similarities to my own. I grew up believing that I had been given all the answers, but the more I’ve learned and the more I’ve grown, the more I realize how little I really know.
In this new album, I find Terry echoing my experience when he sings, “There was so much I was so sure about; now there’s so much I can’t explain.”
The Southern Baptist culture that Terry and I shared taught us to be certain about everything we were taught and to virtually detest this fallen world.
I’m no longer certain about all of what I was taught. I question more and more of those teachings — and I especially question the worldly church culture which produced so much of that teaching.
On top of that, I love this world more and more and more. I love this creation. It’s not the ugliness and meanness and hate of the sin which we bring to it that I love. It’s creation itself — and it’s the beauty and love which humans are capable of experiencing at our best.
In “On and On and On,” Terry expresses some of the joy of this life:
The warmth of April on our skin
The moon and stars at night
The way our heart connected in that clear October light
All of these things I’ve loved so well
The memories always nigh
It’s hard to think someday I’ll tell this sweet ol’ world goodbye
I suspect there’s more good in this world than my hard-core Calvinist friends like to see. Yes, there’s sin. Yes, there’s ugliness. But there’s also beauty and love and joy — and find often find what we expect and what we go looking for.
Ultimately, love is the key which connects the spirit of God to the best in this world. As Terry sings, “Well, in the end, all I know for sure is when our time is up, we won’t have loved enough.”
If we want to be more like God, we have to learn to experience and express love. (I’m still not good at that sometimes.)
If we want to love this world, we have to make ourselves vulnerable enough to love more. Connect more. Experience more. Serve more.
I can’t possibly imagine what it’s like to experience God with the direct of his Spirit, but I do know that the closest I come to that on this earth is when I love others and when I experience the joy and beauty of his creation.
I’m told the spiritual world to come is amazing. I believe that. But I also believe this world can be pretty amazing when we love each other.
Note: You can listen to Pat Terry’s new album, “How Hard Is Is to Fly,” on Apple Music or Spotify or wherever you stream or buy music. Visit Terry’s site for more.