Could I just tell you a story today?
I’ve been thinking about heaven a lot lately. Maybe it’s the wars. Maybe it’s the sense that the leaders who should be the moral compass of my country have forgotten that greed, fun though it may be in the short-term, is wrong, especially when funded on the backs of the poor and middle-class.
Maybe it’s the sense that the dominant attitude of too many Christians — the ethos of the cultural moment — is much too familiar with Caesar and not enough with faith in the Suffering Servant.
Maybe it’s my disappointment with all of us who know God has called us to be salt and light but are more interested in money and comfort. Did we not know that the ability to make money is a gift from God and that God has plans for that money that may have nothing to do with what we want to do with it?
Maybe trips to hospitals and funeral homes have made me ready for God to do God’s Book of Revelation thing and make God’s home among mortals, ridding us once and for all of death, mourning, crying and pain, Eden realized, at last.
Maybe it’s just edging past middle-age — that’s likely.
I’ve been thinking about heaven a lot lately.
I think it started when I saw the film version of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe again last Christmas. Seeing the movie got me thinking of how C. S. Lewis described the end of the world — the Shadow-Lands — and the coming of the “real” world, the “real” Narnia, the “real” Lucy, Peter, and Edmund.
Near the conclusion of The Last Battle, the final book in the series, Lucy looked hard at what she thought was a garden “and saw that it was not really a garden at all but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.”
“I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and, more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the Stable door! I see… world within world, Narnia within Narnia….”
Lucy had come to realize that she had seen the inner nature of what she had been seeing outwardly “wasting away,” as Saint Paul wrote to the church at Corinth.
“The dream is ended: this is the morning,” said Aslan.
That’s not to say this life is unimportant, not at all. It’s to say this life is important because this life is connected to the next life — if you believe in that sort of thing, which I do. This life, with all its death, mourning, crying and pain — and birth, celebration, delight and joy — matter because this life was created by God and ordained by God as a good place to learn to be, a fitting place to practice being God’s children, a winning place to apprentice our love of God in how we treat one another and a rich place to learn that God values the deeper, “real” values of the Spirit. Saint Paul described those values as “affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity… a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people…involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life” (Galatians 5:22-23, The Message), values that describe, if pale by eternal comparison, what the fullness of life in the presence of God will be like for God’s children.
Lewis closes The Last Battle and The Chronicles series with the affirmation that all Lucy and the other children had experienced in their lives in England and in Narnia up to this point, which was enough to fill seven volumes, “had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” In those words, I sense not escape from a world dying and godforsaken but hope of a world that has been redeemed.
In those words, I sense that the “Shadow-Lands” of this experience, when viewed through the eternal perspective and love of God in Christ, are foretaste, first fruits and preview of life in the Presence of God.
Sometimes that hope resists easy seeing, but God drops into my life enough to keep me looking, especially through experiences of good music and healing memories and the laughter of children.
No matter what mood I bring to worship, the music of worship almost always reconnects me to the hope of meaning in this life and to the greater meaning of this life connected to the fullness of God in the life after this life. Sometimes the choir does it; sometimes the dazzling gifts of our pianist at play.
Sometimes I find it in our singing in worship. Sometimes in our singing the old hymns and gospel songs of promise, many of which were the songs of everyday people of another time who left the working fields of the week hoping to be ushered to a state of place and mind where yokes were easy and burdens light. Sometimes it is hearing the high sounds of an accomplished vocalist or instrumentalist running after some massive work by Bach, Brahms, Fauré, Handel or Rutter. God reaches through the music.
For me, the power of memory is in its ability to catch me by surprise with little parables of heaven. For example, when I was ages 3, 4 and 5, my family lived in a very, small town in Mississippi called Osyka. In my preschool world, within my pre-divorce family, I knew no danger, as long as I looked both ways before crossing the street, and reminded my dog to do the same. The days were easy.
This spring I awoke to memories of Osyka and found, in my remembering, a memory of heaven. I remembered those days and realized that at least some days in heaven will be like:
the memory of waking up
the window above
next to my bed
the curtains gently
the spring breeze
God connected me again to deeper visions, purer dreams of life as it is and it will be, especially through music, and in memory, yes, and through sparkling moments with children.
This happened again in worship on a recent Sunday, during the taking of the offering. It was another Palm Sunday, and a glorious, early spring Connecticut morning, too. The children led us into worship, carrying palm branches, raised high to form arches of praise down the center aisle of the sanctuary for the choir to process beneath.
The sight always moves me. I think of the Lord Jesus coming into our sanctuary, arriving, not a moment too soon or too late, with compassion and salvation, for a distressed and wandering people. The children, not quite aware of the significance of their actions, led us in their childlike tribute to the Lord.
Worship unfolded with songs and prayers and preparation to pass the metal plates of a Baptist offering-taking.
The offertory hymn was sung.
The prayer of thanksgiving prayed.
The ushers went forth to gather the offering, then stood in their places waiting the singing of the “Doxology” — Do you do that, too? — as cue to return to the altar with the collection.
The pianist played the introduction to this very old hymn, originally written as the twelfth verse of an eighteenth-century hymn intended to encourage the boys of an English cathedral school to awaken each day alert to the glory and presence of God.
The congregation stood and began to sing.
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”
The ushers walked down the aisle.
“Praise Him all creatures here below.”
I met them at the foot of the podium and received the plates. Usually I would then turn to walk to the altar to place the plates upon it, but this time I was stopped by a boy’s whispered voice.
“Praise Him above, ye heavenly host.”
“Here! Here!” It was Jonathan, age 5. He had not been sitting in his usual place, near his parents, but with friends. When the offering was being taken, he suddenly realized his dependence on his parents if he was to have an offering to give — it will not be the first time this realization will come to a child, teen or young adult.
As the piano and organ played, and we sang, Jonathan had bolted down the center aisle, secured funding for his quest to give from his parents, but too late to be ready when the ushers passed his parents’ pew. In total focus on giving the gift, with no thought that a congregation might be watching, he rushed to meet me as I turned to place the offering plates on the altar, shoving his gift quickly into my hand and, just as quickly, returning to his seat.
“Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”
I could not help but smile over his innocent enthusiasm in wanting to honor God with his gift. Jonathan made my day. His urgent desire to give echoed the intentions of God the Son on that Palm Sunday.
As I turned again to face the congregation, still standing, lingering in the last, dying note of the “Doxology,” I saw broad smiles all around. It was wonderful. A child’s desire to give had ushered us into worship with greater focus and understanding.
We were united in affirmation of the giver and enjoying the sounds of praise to the Giver of life, as well. Safe and secure among his family of faith, Jonathan, child of God among children of God, moved us closer to a recovery of our own innocence.
It was an experience of heaven on earth. His gift, in response to his young acceptance of the Christ-gift ushered us toward an eternity of vivid compassion, immeasurable healing and limitless love.
Thank you, Jonathan, friend of God.
Oh, I’ve been thinking about heaven a lot lately.
Grace and Peace,