We should talk about heaven.
Yesterday I wrote a whole post about the upside of following Jesus without mentioning heaven, because until recently, heaven seemed more like a “bonus with purchase” add-on item than the reason I invested faith in the first place. I have crystal clear memories of how frustrated I’d get whenever a Christian came at me with pamphlets and questions like “If you get hit by a bus and die today, do you know for sure where you’ll go?” but could not handle even the most basic conversation about whether Jesus could help me now, in this life here on earth. Since then, I’ve erred on the side of emphasizing the Jesus-here-on-earth benefits. I’ve always been a very here & now kind of believer.
I know I’m not alone in how this pandemic has brought questions of life and death to the forefront. Early on in the crisis, when the word “quarantine” was newly tossed around as a possibility, a leader I respect prefaced a warning with, “Now I’m not saying we’re all going to die…” Immediately, I thought, “Well, actually, we are…” (Did I mention I’m also pragmatic?) I don’t mean that to be morbid. It’s just that I’ve seen enough in life to be very clear that despite our best, most careful efforts, we have no control over this reality. We don’t know when or where or how. We just know that this is one thing we we all experience.
That’s terrifying. So we Cross-Fit and Keto, or take a single shot of bourbon every night after dinner because that’s what our grandpa did and he lived to be 97, and we keep an entire genre of health & wellness publishing alive as we devour the latest opinions about how to extend our time here on earth. I get swept up in this as much as anyone. I even learned to like kale.
But kale can’t save me.
And yet my biggest struggle isn’t fear of death, actually. It’s the sense that sometimes life feels like little more than a long slog towards this inevitable outcome. Like there’s not even enough life in life to justify the effort, if you know what I mean.
If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you know that I disappeared last October after admitting that our adoption, after four and a half years of trying, had not produced anything remotely resembling a “forever family.” Things got much worse on a few different fronts after that, and I simply could not come up with anything remotely positive to post about. It felt like my best act of public service was to shut up and keep my head down. Because inside, I looked at the big picture of life and was so completely discouraged by how hard it is, how each time something wonderful happens I’m left waiting for the other shoe to drop, how sad things, when they happen, seem par for the course, while excellent, beautiful things really do seem like miracles. Why are celebrations are the exception, rather than the norm??? I didn’t want to spread those thoughts around. Even at my lowest, my misery doesn’t love company. When I’m miserable? I want to be WRONG.
Before you ask, yes, I was doing all the things: I worked out 3x/week, ate healthy food, sought support from friends, and got myself a therapist (who said, “holy crap, that’s awful…”) I kept myself afloat in that way Anne Lamott describes that involves the “water wings” you put on little kids at the pool, the ones not designed for adult weight that just barely keep your head above the waves. It wasn’t exactly abundant life. I might have mentioned this to Jesus, this BIG UGLY GAP between daily life here in our house and the promises He made about how we’d have peace and inexplicable joy in the midst of chaos. I was like, “Jesus, you may have overcome the world, but the world is knocking the &^*% out of me…”
I’m delicate that way, in my prayers.
Then out of nowhere, a book popped up in my Amazon feed about heaven. For whatever reason (by which I mean, it was one of those weird things God prompted me to do) I bought the book and started reading it immediately, expecting something about sitting on clouds singing hymns all day. Which had always sounded AWFUL to me, but now that I was living in this low-grade hell on earth, it sounded okay enough. Better than here, at least. Clouds are soft, and some hymns are good for napping. I was behind on sleep, so that seemed…better, I guess. It was fine. I’d have settled for it. But God wasn’t giving me that skimpy little offer.
Instead, the author of this book looked at what the Bible says about heaven and came away with a much more varied and dynamic picture. He suggested that heaven will actually be life on earth the way it was intended: no snake, no lies, no tricks or manipulation. Which also means no fear, no shame, no need to hide. No sickness. No trying to explain yourself and yet still being misunderstood. No adoption struggles because no child abandonment and so no orphans.
I’ll be honest: my initial response to this was pretty guarded. I was like, “What will we DO all day if we’re not untangling all this mess?”
We’ll do what we were made to do, the author pitched. We were created by God with unique purpose. Work was part of the Original Plan. According to the Plan, we will know our gifts and callings and grow into them gracefully without distraction or anyone/anything trying to make us into something else. And our gifts will meet real needs, without anyone feeling awkward or ashamed about needing those things. So, for example, if your calling is to build birdhouses? You’ll know that. You’ll love it. There will be plenty of wood and paint, and lots of people eager to have you build them a little avian hideaway so that birds can make nests in their yards. Doesn’t that sound amazing? I mean, the EASE of it. It’s so STRAIGHTFORWARD.
That’s when I got excited about heaven. For days after that I kept reminding myself, “The best thing about heaven is that this isn’t it!” I can’t tell you how much that helped. It set me free from the constant way people insist that Time is short, so we have to make the most of it, and the demands that we Live each day like it’s our last! (No cooking, cleaning, or toenail maintenance would EVER get done if I lived like that.) But if this life ISN’T all there is, I can stop struggling to make it all meaningful and purposeful in my own effort, and live whatever circumstances I’m faced with head-on, without fretting about how evil keeps destroying this one chance I have to exist. Jesus flat-out warns us that this life is complicated, and far messier than we expect. But then he brings the good news: The story’s not over yet…and this life isn’t the whole story. He says, “Follow me” and then leads us to unending, as-intended, eternal life. We don’t have to miss out on anything.
This is SUCH GOOD NEWS.
This morning a line from a Joni Mitchell song (made famous by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) keeps repeating in my mind. She wrote it during Woodstock, only she wasn’t there. She was in a hotel room in NYC because she’d been invited to appear on a talk show and her agent thought that was the better career move. So she watched this whole MOMENT unfold on television, this mashup of crowds and music and all manner of searching for abundant life. She wrote a song, and anchored it her recognition that what gave rise to this MOMENT was our collective belief that “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden…”
She meant the Garden of Eden.
Here’s where I see the delicious irony of Jesus: Woodstock became a symbol of a culture war in the United States, as this freedom in a field smashed right into the conviction of Christian conservatives that the only path “back to the garden” was strict adherence to a Bible-based moral code. Conservatives wanted to batten down the hatches but hippies kept throwing their clothes off, and nobody recognized that they were all after the same thing: real life as God intended for us in the beginning. And I still don’t think we realize that no matter what we do, we cannot get ourselves back to the garden.
We just can’t. But then along comes Jesus – right into Woodstock and Covid-19 and all the cultural firestorms before and after, both the big public ones and the smaller ones in our homes and hearts – and He lays out an invitation to heaven. When we ask him how to get there, he says “Follow me.” He is the way, the truth, and the life we long for. There’s a destinational element to what He offers.
This didn’t really matter to me when I first considered Jesus. That’s okay. It matters now, and that’s okay too. A great thing about faith is that God knows where we are and leaves room for us to change and grow; to back petal, doubt, and question; and to ask, insistently and specifically (sometimes using ALL THE WORDS) about the gaps we see between the promise and the reality. God has a plan for those gaps, and a most excellent long term plan if we want it. It really helps me to know this.
I hope it helps you, too.
Your experiment? Imagine heaven. A personalized version. Ask Jesus to show you great and wonderful things you can’t know on your own (that’s a promise He makes in Jeremiah). Surrender all the ways your imagination has been hijacked by fear and worry and the lie that things will all work out if you can just get out ahead of every possible problem… and give your imagination back to God for a reboot.
And in this small way, Heaven becomes a place on Earth, infusing this real life with something much, much better and enduring. And we’ll know exactly where we’re going if we find ourselves stuck in front of an oncoming bus ;)
Let me pray for us…
Dear God, thank you that You’ve placed this longing for heaven, for life as you intended, in my heart…and that you’ve also put it within my reach. Take my imagination. Help me see things beyond this day, these facts, this world. Give me a vision of heaven and make it so real that I live some of it here on earth. Jesus, broaden my imagination, and then remind me that You are able to do immeasurably more than that, as Your power is at work within me. Help me live into this incredible truth. In Your name I pray. Amen.