How to live in Heaven now

Let’s say you have a great trip coming up. You’ve planned something you’ll really enjoy and you’re excited. The closer it gets the more pumped you get. If this trip is a vacation from a bad job, you’re even hungrier to see it hurry up and get here. This is your mindset every day when you go in to work: This daily grind is something I have to endure until I get to the thing that is going to be the best thing ever. This is now, but that thing I’m waiting for … that is great.

Somehow, we’ve allowed the salvation message to morph into that kind of message. This life is something we have to endure so we can get to the thing that is going to be the best thing ever. Almost like Heaven is a vacation from a bad job, or another way to check out of real life.

Let me be clear: standing in the presence of the most loving Being in the universe has got to trump standing in line at Kroger. Eternal life is a treasure. But practically speaking, we tend to treat it more as an escape. The bigger truth is that eternal life is God’s kind of life. It is this life the way it is supposed to be lived … now.

When we talk about eternal life, we’re talking about sharing in the life of God.* God makes life happen and God’s kind of life is designed to be eternal. It has a beginning (in God) but no end. This is what characterizes the life He gives.

If I choose to share in the life of Christ, then I’m sharing in that life now. I’m living my eternal life now. Eternal life begins now. I don’t know of any other truth that has power to bring more peace than this, nor any other truth we seem so remarkably incapable of embracing.

So here’s a question: If I fear death, how does that manifest in my choices about lesser things? Because if I believe this — if I really believe that my biggest questions are answered — that ought to make a difference in all the other choices in my life. In the same way, if I still fear death then that also will affect my choices about lesser things.

To say I am not afraid of death means I am also not afraid of anything less than that. This way of thinking is the path to peace, which means that peace is a choice I make every day. It is a choice to live as if my biggest questions are already answered.

Does my thought life prove my belief in eternity? Does yours?

 

*I got this idea from Billy Graham’s newest book, Where I Am: Heaven, Eternity, And Life Beyond.

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The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere

I’d just finished a memorial service when a man I’d not met before walked right up and said, “I know just what you were talking about up there. I couldn’t hear a word you said, even though I have my hearing aids in (at which point his wife said, “But no batteries”), but I know exactly what you’re talking about. I have been there. I have seen him.”

I said, “Seen who?”

“Jesus.”

“Really? You saw Jesus? For real?”

“Yes. Eight years ago, I died in a car accident. The medic cut a hole between my ribs and stuck an oxygen tube into my collapsed lungs and I died. Jesus met me. I didn’t see his face but I know it was him because I saw the holes in his hands. I have seen things we can’t even imagine on earth.”

“Like what?” I said, because I’ve just preached a funeral and times like that, these conversations seem less crazy, more relevant. I’m not about to let him go without finding out what he has seen.

“I saw a light,” he beamed, “that was about ten times brighter than the sun, but it didn’t hurt your eyes to look at it. You know how you can’t look directly into the sun? Well, you can look directly at this light but it doesn’t hurt. And it was golden. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.”

“Did you see any other people?”

“There was one person at the end of the tunnel.”

“Who was it?”

“I don’t know. I never got there.” And then he waved his hand in the air as if directing someone to turn around, and he said, “Jesus sent me back here before I got to the end of the tunnel.”

“Why do you suppose you got sent back?”

“He didn’t say, but I think it was because my mother was sick and needed me to care for her. I can tell you this: I can’t wait to go back. I have absolutely no fear of death now. It is so beautiful.”

I stood there in the doorway of that little chapel and let that conversation sink in. I looked at that man who seemed to glow with faith and I let the truth of Heaven wash over me. I wondered to myself: how many normal, every-day, average people have died from heart attacks and snake bites and allergic reactions, only to see Jesus and taste that golden light before being sent back here to live another life? How many have seen those hands with holes in them? Have been handed the gift of assurance in the form of a car crash they didn’t survive, then did?

I suspect it’s more than we think. As Thomas Merton has said, “The gate of heaven is everywhere.”

How would I react if I died and went to Heaven then lived to talk about it? Perhaps more relevant is this question: would I recognize it if Heaven came to me?

In Luke, chapter nine, there is a line that grabs my imagination and stirs me to look for heaven. Jesus has just been talking with his followers about the connection between his glory and our faith, and now he is heading up a mountain to pray with Peter, James and John. As he is praying, the appearance of his face changes and his clothes become as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appear in glorious splendor to talk with Jesus. They talk about his departure from this earth, among other things. Peter, James and John are sleepy but the story says, “When they became fully awake, they saw his glory” (Luke 9:32).

“When they became fully awake, they saw his glory.”

Meditate on that line for a moment. When they became fully awake, they saw his glory.

I am both educated and exposed by that line. I recognize myself in the state of Jesus’ disciples. What must I be missing, because I’m not fully awake? If I am not seeing God’s glory is it because God’s glory is absent, or is it because (spiritually speaking) I am slogging through life half asleep?

Would I recognize the gates if they were opened to me? Would you?

When they became fully awake, they saw his glory. I dare you to walk through this day looking for the gate of heaven as if it might actually be real, might actually show up. I challenge you to develop that kind of eyesight — the kind that can see corners of the Kingdom exposed for our benefit, our pleasure, to build our faith and prove again that what we talk about is true.

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Brokering Hope in a Barren World

“Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.” Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! 20 But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born.” – Luke 1:18-20

I just love Gabriel’s grittiness. I love his righteous indignation, and even the hint of impatience with Zechariah’s inability to see beyond the room in which he stands. Gabriel does not appreciate being questioned. You hear echoes in his response of God’s conversation with Job. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much.” Evidently, citizens of the Kingdom do not suffer ignorance or short memories well.

Do you realize who you are talking to? I am Gabriel! I have announced some of the greatest cosmic moves in the history of the world. And now you are going to doubt me? Just who do you think you are?

A good question, because Zechariah is a priest. He should know better. He surely knows the scriptures well enough to have detected a theme of barrenness and late-life births as one of the more prominent themes. God has used barrenness over and over to hint at great reversals designed to move his cosmic plan forward.

Consider these:

  • Sarah was nearly 100 before she had a child.
  • Rebekah was barren until Isaac prayed.
  • Rachel, Jacob’s wife, was was described as barren until she finally had Joseph, who delivered Israel from the barrenness of a famine.
  • Manoah’s wife was barren until she had Samson, who delivered Israel.
  • Ruth, Boaz’s wife, was barren (widowed) until she had Obed, who begat Jesse, who begat David who was the king out of whose lineage Jesus would come.
  • Then there was Moses, who was barren of speech. And the Shunnamite woman who had no oil or food.

And then there was Hannah. Her husband was Elkanah and he had two wives. Hannah was his favorite but she had no children, and it was killing her. She cried out to God in her despair. She wrestled with God over this. She hated her situation. But she hung in there with God. She refused to let go of him. Eventually God gave her the desire of her heart. She had a child named Samuel who would grow up to become the prophet-priest who would anoint Saul to be king. Saul would raise up David in his household and David would eventually become king. Out of his lineage the Messiah would be born.

Hannah’s hope became Israel’s salvation.

In God’s economy, barrenness always points toward hope. Barren people who bear children are breeders of hope. Barren people who wait prove the power of hope. Barren people who never conceive prove that God is faithful even in the deserts. By their willingness to hang in there with God, never mind the circumstances, they prove there is life in the desert … purpose in the desert.

Even more, barrenness has the potential to reframe our hunger so that it leads toward something other-worldly.

I am part of a group walking through the book of Revelation and this week, we spent time white-boarding everything the final chapters of Revelation teach us about the character of Heaven. We listed the kinds of things we love most, along with the awe and wonder of John’s vision. It stoked our yearnings and led us back to barrenness. What if one of the purposes of barrenness is to show us how to hunger for something we can never realize in this life?

What if barrenness can be redeemed by being reframed?

Those who have suffered the deep, aching loss of life without children, or the deep, aching loss of a child taken too soon from this life, may know better than most how to hunger deeply for something we won’t see this side of Heaven. Others of us may have children but still suffer from unfulfilled dreams, lost loves, thorns in the flesh we can’t fix. What if the redeemed purpose of those deep longings and unfulfilled dreams is to stretch us more earnestly toward the Kingdom of God, where all pain and tears have ceased, where all longings are finally, fully realized?

What if barrenness is redeemed when the hunger it produces is refocused on Heaven?

Isaiah seems to hint at this idea when he writes, “Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy …” Paul picks up on this line from the prophet when he talks about the “Jerusalem Above” and our place in God’s family as children of the promise. There is certainly the sense in the biblical narrative that hungers can become holy when they turn toward the Kingdom.

If John’s charge was “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord,” then perhaps this is the substance of readiness: to become so hungry, so thirsty, so moved by the thought of the Kingdom to come that nothing short of that can possibly satisfy us.

Nothing.

As Advent begins, we are in the position again of making ready a people prepared for the next coming of our Lord. Remember that. Our work is to side with those waiting to catch a break, with those frustrated by unfulfilled dreams, with those grieving losses, and to cast among them an imagination that reframes their hungers so that the Kingdom is exposed, so that the second coming becomes their passion.

This is the work of the Church at Advent. It is to become what Carl Medearis calls a “hope broker.”

In your writing, preaching, living, testifying, may you so expose the hope found in Christ Jesus that those on this side of Heaven can’t help but yearn past the temporal toward the eternal.

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