Wednesday, March 25, 2015

looking for heaven

Yeast under a microscope.
Image from wonderville.com
Sometimes I think about dying. Over the past few months those thoughts have been more frequent as I happened upon the writings of Kara Tippetts facing her last days after several years of battling cancer. She wrote with such honesty, such kindness, such generosity at a time when it probably would have been easier just to withdraw into her community of family and friends. But she didn't, and the world is richer - I am richer - because of it.

In recent years, a number of books have been published (with some being made into films) in the genre known as "heaven tourism." These are stories written by those who claim to have died and seen glimpses of the afterlife. Just today, LifeWay Christian Resources removed all titles in this category from their stores due to questions of authenticity and the lack of theological support. This week I read the parable Jesus told about the unnamed rich man and Lazarus the beggar (Luke 16). After both die, the rich man finds himself in a place of torment while Lazarus is comforted in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his rich family about their impending fate. Abraham replies that if his brothers are not listening to Moses and the prophets, they won't listen to someone who comes back from the dead. Hard words, but true.

The popularity of heaven tourism saddens me a bit. We are curious about what awaits us after death, but I believe we would do better to pay close attention to the scriptures and teachings we already have instead of looking for spectacular accounts of the afterlife. Instead of dreaming about heaven, perhaps, like Kara Tippetts, we should spend our time living (and dying) with courage and kindness.

I recently taught a class on the topic of eschatology in which I asked the students what they thought should be included in heaven. Their take on a Utopian afterlife included the expected elements: joy, reunion with family and friends, and the absence of death, pain, and evil (especially fascists). Most of us wish for a time when things will be better than they are now, so it is natural to hope for what we lack. But is that really what heaven, what the kingdom of God is all about? Getting what we want? Not really.

Jesus spoke often about the kingdom of heaven and his words included many ideas which were hard for his listeners (and us) to hear. He said that the kingdom of heaven is come near and is among us. He said that we must receive it like a little child, like the poor in spirit, by aligning ourselves with the purposes of God. He said the kingdom of heaven is like a small seed, like yeast, growing from something insignificant into something great. It all makes little sense when you try to put it in the context of a faraway place where we end up after we die. But when we think of the kingdom of heaven as the place where God is with us no matter what the circumstance, it becomes clearer.

Kara Tippetts wrote:
My little body has grown tired of battle, and treatment is no longer helping. But what I see, what I know, what I have is Jesus. He has still given me breath, and with it I pray I would live well and fade well. By degrees doing both, living and dying, as I have moments left to live. I get to draw my people close, kiss them and tenderly speak love over their lives. I get to pray into eternity my hopes and fears for the moments of my loves. I get to laugh and cry and wonder over Heaven. I do not feel like I have courage for this journey, but I have Jesus - and He will provide. He has given me so much to be grateful for, and that gratitude, that wondering over His love, will cover us all. And it will carry us - carry us in ways we cannot comprehend. [1]

That, to me, is the kingdom of God coming near. Life and death intermingled with grace and the presence of Jesus. Pain and loss and weariness overshadowed by moments of bright love and hope and joy.

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann explains the nature of our future hope:
But the ultimate reason for our hope is not to be found at all in what we want, wish for and wait for; the ultimate reason is that we are wanted and wished for and waited for. What is it that awaits us? Does anything await us at all, or are we alone? Whenever we base our hope on trust in the divine mystery, we feel deep down in our hearts: there is someone who is waiting for you, who is hoping for you, who believes in you. We are waited for as the prodigal son in the parable is waited for by his father. We are accepted and received, as a mother takes her children into her arms and comforts them. God is our last hope because we are God's first love.

This is what we long for: not all those things we are missing here in this life, not a mansion in the sky and eternal bliss, but knowing that we are loved, that we belong, that we are waited for. And that is what Jesus offers us every moment of every day, whether we fathom it or not, whether we receive it or not. The mystery of heaven is not really about all the wonders we will see in the sweet bye and bye but about the wonder of divine love which is poured out in generous measure on us right here, right now. In good days and in bad days, in pain and in sorrow, in joy and sunshine and friendship, in loss and in gain, in failure and in victory. We are God's beloved. What more could we want?

[1] http://www.mundanefaithfulness.com/home/2015/3/22/homecoming

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