Imagine there's a heaven: Text of commissioning address by new EFC president

30 March 2023

An address by EFC president David Guretzki delivered at his commissioning service in Mississauga, March 27, 2023

Watch a videocording of this address
It's 1971. Brian Stiller is an energetic Youth for Christ worker, Bruce Clemenger is a dashing young teenager, and David Guretzki is pulling a dog’s tail on the family farm. The Vietnam war rages. North America is convulsing with the sexual revolution. Quebec is emerging from its own Quiet Revolution where thousands are quietly exiting the church.

Thankfully, Canada was beginning to open its borders to wider immigration and was on the verge of waking to its maltreatment of the Indigenous peoples. It was, as sociologists might call it, a liminal age, an age on the edge of radical change.

That year John Lennon released one of the most played songs of the twentieth century – “Imagine.” The song hit #1 shortly after its release here in Canada. The opening lines are arresting to be sure: “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try, no hell below us, above us only sky.” Had Lennon sung the song a couple decades earlier, the song would have been scoffed. No heaven and no hell? Nothing beyond earthly existence? What drug is he on?

McGill philosopher Charles Taylor identifies the ability to imagine a world without transcendent realities a fundamental marker of the secular age. After the Second World War, most Canadians couldn’t have imagined a purely materialistic reality, and yet by 1971 – and certainly today – such a conception by an average, everyday Canadian doesn’t even break an intellectual sweat.

And if we’re honest, even those who call ourselves Christian, though intellectually convinced of eternal transcendent realities, have to admit that practically we live much of our day-to-day lives oblivious to them. It is for good reason that many observe, including me, that we are no longer just heading toward a post-Christian Canada, but that we’re already well past the tipping point.

As I’ve prayed for guidance by the Holy Spirit to lead the EFC into the places God wants us to go in the midst of this current context, I have come realize that we will need to face this public secularity in theory and practice head on. The question is, How shall we do this?

Lately I’ve wondered if we keep thinking and acting that maybe, with just a little more strategy and effort, we can still see things turn around. But I think we need to acknowledge we’ve hit a spiritual brick wall and that we are going to have to stop ramming our heads into it in hopes of breaking through. It’s just as insane in the spiritual realm to think we can keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results.

Here I’m reminded of Mark 9 where a demon-possessed boy who is often cast into fire or water is presented to the disciples for healing. When they are unable to do it, they bring the boy to Jesus who promptly exorcises the spirit. When the disciples ask why they couldn’t cast the demon out, Jesus gives a rather cryptic response: “This one comes out only by prayer.”

Now we might think Jesus is saying some unclean spirits come out by other means than prayer. But let’s face it – are there any spirits that come out other than by prayer? No, Jesus isn’t telling us some esoteric fact about the nature of spirits as much as revealing to the disciples what they had become inappropriately accustomed to – that by saying a few words of exorcism, by anointing with a little olive oil, that spiritual problems could be solved. So, too, we ask: What do we do when suddenly the technique, the program, the visioning and strategizing don’t work like they used to? Jesus gently inquires: “How about praying?”

The EFC’s mission is to unite Evangelicals to bless Canada in the name of Jesus. Interestingly, it’s that last phrase, in the name of Jesus, that is biblically associated with prayer. “Whatever you ask for in my name,” Jesus says, “I will do.” In past years, Evangelicals have sadly been increasingly fragmented and divided on all manner of things, some important, others less so. But there’s at least one thing I hope we could all agree on: That the spiritual blockages of our day will only be penetrated when we stop battling one another long enough to turn our faces to God in holy prayer in the name of King Jesus.

And so I am calling us as a movement, whether denominations, churches, schools, organizations or individuals: May we pray together, united in the name of Jesus and by one Holy Spirit, “Our holy Father in heaven, may your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven!”

If John Lennon were alive to sing yet again, “Imagine there’s no heaven,” a great host of Canadians would yawn and say, “Who needs to imagine?” On the contrary, it’s much more difficult today to imagine there is indeed a Father in heaven and even, to echo Paul’s prayer in Ephesians, that there’s a Father in heaven who is much greater, much truer, much more beautiful than what we could ever imagine.

As we work together as a movement to bring the Good News, the gospel, to a culture that desperately needs what it no longer perceives it needs, our minds must be transformed again to what God’s kingdom really is all about and why Jesus came announcing it in the first place. To use Walter Brueggemann’s phrase, we need a renewed prophetic imagination which is not merely wishful thinking, but the exercise of doing what the Bible calls walking by faith and not by sight.

Admittedly, walking by faith instead of sight is tremendously difficult. It’s not easy today to believe that an invisible God is truly real, that a loving Jesus truly loves, and that a convicting Holy Spirit truly convicts the world of right and wrong. Such belief is hard when our eyes so often see evidence to the contrary. Injustice, war, violence, crime, infidelity – the litany of evidence is endless – makes us look foolish to believe in these divine realities. Yes, it’s hard to live as if heaven is real when everything around us seems to testify against it.

So, we need to ask God’s Spirit to revive and renew our prophetic imagination, an imagination not based on personal preferences or opinions but on the demands of Jesus’ call to be his disciples. Let’s hope we begin to recognize the deep cost it will be to us personally, organizationally and denominationally to orient ourselves to the kingdom of God revealed by Jesus in the Spirit. So what then should we imagine? I can hardly do justice to that question here but let me offer just few things.

First, imagine a movement where the gospel truly is at the heart of our unity. We are, after all, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Now we know the word “evangelical” has come on hard times. Some have wondered, understandably, whether it’s time to abandon it altogether. Sure, the word’s become encumbered with all kinds of encrustations – political, cultural, even colonial. Granted. Let’s do our humble best to address those legitimate critiques. Let’s confess our failures, accept responsibility, and make changes where we can.

But then let’s remember that even if we succeed in chipping away the encrustations, we shouldn’t be surprised that where the gospel is preached, there will always be those who resist, react and attack. Indeed, Scripture tells us that the purest manifestation of the gospel, the preaching of Christ crucified, will always be a stumbling block.

Here I believe that we as Canadians have much to learn from millions of our brothers and sisters around the world, from those who bear the label evangelical at great cost to life, limb and liberty. It would be a sad day indeed if as a movement we forget the core of who we are – people who believe and live as if the gospel, the evangel, is true and that we would be willing to suffer and die for it if necessary.

We are a people who believe there truly are some things that are true, right and beautiful, despite that the majority, the politically elite, or the intelligentsia may believe otherwise. This is the gospel imagination we need to enliven what I believe has often been a movement more known for our fear of not fitting in than for our devotion to the One who has given us life abundant and eternal.

Second, it’s unfortunate that evangelicalism has been popularly portrayed as if it is primarily a movement of a mainly white, European crowd. Yet for those willing to see and to experience it in its reality, the global evangelical movement today, including here in Canada, is perhaps the most culturally and ethnically diverse movement on the whole planet.

And why should this surprise us? Jesus’ gospel mandate has, after all, from the beginning commanded us to go into all the world and to make Jesus disciples of all nations. The book of Revelation, of course, feeds our imagination when it testifies that the end result of the gospel will be a grand eschatological song sung by people from every tribe, every tongue and every nation. Imagine that mass choir!

The question is: Are we taking this vision with the utmost seriousness it demands? Putting this imagination practically to work will mean truly to worship with, work with, identify with, and fellowship with those across cultural, ethnic and national boundaries. It will mean asking how we are seeking publicly to allow God to make visibly manifest in our nation today a beautiful mosaic of his body comprised of many peoples, many colors, many nationalities, many tongues! It will also mean repenting for the times we have been unwilling to do so. Oh God, this is our prayer!

Finally, I’m convinced our calling to be an evangelical fellowship of Jesus-following people means bearing with one another in the fellowship of suffering. Paul makes it clear – if one part of the Body of Christ rejoices, we all rejoice. But the converse is also true: If one part suffers, we all suffer together.

Doubtless, there are great joys in knowing Christ and sharing in the resurrection life He promises. But we cannot, as Paul reminds us, know Christ and His resurrection without also sharing in His sufferings. And here I ask: Imagine that we, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, became known not as a people who simply utter the word “Jesus” on our tongue, but who are known as a people who embrace, with all the inconveniences, pains and costs, the sufferings of those around us who have no help, have no hope and have no means.

Imagine we became the people Jesus calls us to be – a resurrection people who nevertheless love the poor, the needy, the marginalized, the ostracised, the invisible, the helpless and the voiceless – that we love them so deeply that a watching world can only conclude that we are followers of King Jesus. Perhaps that is the glimpse of heaven that people today are having such a difficult time imagining.

Imagine there’s a heaven. It’s not easy. But let’s try. Amen.

Photo of David Guretzki by Blair Gable.

Author: David Guretzki

Related Articles