“This World Is Not My Home” A Reminder to Evangelical Christians
I know what some evangelicals’ and others’ immediate reaction will be. I have taught it myself. “The old gospel song ‘This World Is Not My Home’ ought to be left behind because it leads to neglect of the biblical mandate to take care of this world in this “time between the times.”
I can’t quote all the words here, but for those of you who don’t know, this gospel hymn or song was very popular when I was growing up in church in the 1950s and later. It wasn’t sung by congregations as much as by recording artists (for gospel albums) and “trios” that sang in church. It was written in 1908 by John T. Benson. So it might be in public domain, but I don’t take any risks here. Sometimes a publishing company renews a copyright of an old song and so I don’t know.
Years ago and possibly still in some evangelical churches the theme of “heaven is my true home” (“My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue”) was very popular and powerful. For me and my church and family that was when we were poor and sick. For “my” evangelicals life was extremely hard. Our only hope for comfortable living, liberation from bondage to decay (which was our condition), was heaven.
That didn’t mean that we had no concern for this world, but we did struggle so much just to survive that we didn’t have time or power to influence this world in any “big way.” Our concern for this world meant prayer for our nation and its leaders and charity. Many of you, even contemporary evangelicals, can’t remember or imagine what life was like then—for many evangelicals. It was a “hard scrabble” life—for many evangelical Christians.
Another popular song of that time, among evangelicals, was “I’ve got a mansion, just over the hilltop” by Ira Stanphill, a prolific gospel song writer of the 1950s. There was a small controversy in the church of my childhood about whether it was appropriate to sing that song in church. Some wanted us to sing instead another gospel song that said “Lord give me just a cabin in the corner of gloryland.” I know it sounds funny, but it was a kind of theological disagreement about whether Christians should aspire to riches even in heaven.
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Then, for many evangelicals, something changed. We became affluent and comfortable here and forgot all about heaven—except as a lovely place to go when we die. But we rarely ever sing about it anymore and I haven’t heard a sermon about heaven in ages. I don’t know how long ago that was or when it was. I just know I haven’t heard one in a very long time.Now, of course, insofar as our newish affluence has given us the ability to make this world a better place for everyone, especially the poor and disadvantaged, and insofar as it has given us the ability to care for the environment, that’s all to the good. But, in that process, insofar as it happened or is happening (among evangelicals), I fear we have by and large lost any interest in heaven except when a loved one dies. But hope for heaven, “citizenship in heaven,” longing for heaven, has largely gone away from evangelical churches and homes. Where are the songs about heaven? They used to be common in evangelical churches, on evangelical radio, in evangelical devotional life and “talk.”
I could right now and here name and sing scores of songs and hymns about heaven. Popular evangelical song writers Bill and Gloria Gaither have an entire DVD/CD of songs about heaven in which several evangelical pastors and others talk about what heaven means to them because they recently lost a loved one or knew their days on this earth were numbered. But this stood out to me as an attempt to revive interest in heaven.
When I was a child my father, our churches’ pastor and often “song leader” would have the congregation sing “When We All Get to Heaven” and then immediately after that sing “But Until Then, My Heart Will Go on Singing.” That emphasis on heaven was so strong in the Christianity I grew up in that I have struggled for a very long time even to recognize Christianity that virtually ignores heaven as “my Christianity.” And, as I get older, and as loved ones (even cousins) die off in old age or of illnesses (pancreatic cancer, heart attacks, strokes) my mind goes back to that emphasis on heaven as our true home, “the wonderful home of the soul.”
Yes, I wandered away from that for a long time, thinking it “low brow,” unsophisticated in its focus on “eternity” beyond this world, but in my “second naivete” (or third or fourth) I am reconsidering. Have we evangelicals swung too far the opposite direction to where we are so embedded in this world, with comfort here, that we just take “heaven” for granted? Maybe that’s okay, but I doubt it—given the Bible’s emphasis on heaven as our true home.
Martin Luther strongly believed that Jesus was going to return in his lifetime. He expected the return of Christ at any time. He thought he was living in the biblical “end times.” But when someone asked him what he would do today if he knew Jesus would return tomorrow he is supposed to have said “Plant a tree.” In other words, strong belief in heaven and in the return of Jesus Christ does not have to take our minds so completely off this world that we become “so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good.”
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