Way back in 1987 Belinda Carlisle hat a hit with the song Heaven is a Place on Earth (from the album Heaven on Earth). I don’t particularly like it, but, as if to prove it is time to get back to work, it has been playing around my mind. It’s the usual sentimental stuff, reducing heaven to the latest romance. But, the theology is probably better than intended:

Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth ?
Ooh heaven is a place on earth
They say in heaven love comes first
We’ll make heaven a place on earth
Ooh heaven is a place on earth…

…When I’m lost at sea
I hear your voice
And it carries me

In this world we’re just beginning
To understand the miracle of living
Baby I was afraid before
But I’m not afraid anymore.

So, heaven is not airy-fairy future stuff, but to be rooted and lived here and now. It begins with love and takes away the need to fear. Just as throughout the Bible it is God who keeps taking the initiative and comes to us (we don’t go to him), so in John’s ultimate vision (in Revelation) it is the ‘heavenly city’ that ‘comes down to earth’.

So, we are a weird people who live now as if heaven were already here. After all the challenge of Jesus was whether or not people could dare to believe that God is present even while the Romans remain. Or is God – as popular atheism thinks of Christian thinking – just the crutch there to help us resolve all our problems and prove himself by sorting everything out in our ultimate favour? Jesus seems to think that people who are open to the possibility of God being present in this world – despite the ‘evidence’ of particular circumstances – are those who are free from fear and can truly live. Read the Gospels – that’s the story.

Anyway, I was rather surprised before Christmas to see the following poster in a hotel foyer:

I wasn’t sure if I was being asked to value heaven at £99 or what. But, I certainly hadn’t realised it could be so easily accessed!

Yesterday I visited two thriving inner-urban churches in Croydon. I don’t often get emotional, but yesterday was different.

CroydonIn the first church I confirmed ten people, including adults who have come from right outside the church and found here that God has found them. They have also found a church that offers beauty in worship, a lively engagement with the good news of Jesus Christ, and a multi-ethnic community of wonderful people who welcome all-comers. After the service everyone went through to the hall for coffee before returning to the (by now cleared) church for a huge lunch – about 100 of us. I didn’t want to leave. I love it there and would happily join the church if I lived there (and wasn’t the bishop).

In the afternoon I went to another parish in a neighbouring area for a formal visit. The Vicar went there nearly four years ago when the church had an average congregation of 15 and was an obvious candidate for closure. I promised her that if she found the job was not do-able, I would look for a good parish for her – for she had at least tried to do the impossible. She told me yesterday that she had asked her congregation what they would like to do on my visit to show the bishop what their church/parish was all about – and they had said they wanted to have a party.

Having had an hour with the vicar in the vicarage, we walked to the church with the possibility that nobody would be there. When we walked in there were in the region of 150 people from dozens of different ethnic origins, of all ages (from babies to very elderly) and all types. There was a brass band to play for the brief Harvest Celebration at the beginning of the party. And there was a huge feast of food and drink to be shared. When I was asked to say something, I got very choked up and struggled to get the words out.

FeastEvery image of heaven in the Bible seems to involve a feast. Jesus was criticised for partying too much – and with the wrong people. Yesterday I glimpsed heaven in two churches with inspired leadership, sacrificial ministry, encouraged people and a generous openness to their parishes.

And all this hides the day-by-day ministry of working quietly in some tough places in tough cirumstances and addressing some tough challenges. The clergy (and others) are fully involved in the life and institutions of their local parish communities. They command huge respect and affection from local people – including those who don’t darken the doors of the church.

I don’t want to identify the parishes as the attention won’t necessarily be helpful. But their clergy have my unmitigated admiration and I am immensely humbled and proud to be their bishop, to learn from them and to be inspired by them.

I realise this sounds a bit cheesy. And, yes, there are lots of parishes like this in South London. But I needed to say it about these two in particular today.