When I was in fifth grade I remember asking my dad when he thought Jesus was going to come back. You know, just your typical Friday night conversation. He sighed and paused for a second before answering in a tired voice,
“I don’t know. But I hope it’s soon.”
I was sitting in the back seat of the car and we drove on in silence for a while. I wouldn’t have said it out loud but I remember thinking,
“Are you kidding me?”
There was so much I wanted to do! I wanted to learn how to drive like my big brother! I wanted to kiss a boy! I wanted to go to Elizabeth’s sleepover party, make it to State in gymnastics, and read the next Sweet Valley Twins book. My options seemed endless. I couldn’t even fathom wanting Jesus to come back.
I think there were two things at play for me that day:
First, I hadn’t lived long enough.
My dad was 42 at the time of that conversation and had already lived through things like the Vietnam War and the assassinations of JFK, Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy. He’d already lost friends, family and his own father to death. He’d seen ugliness and fear and sadness that I hadn’t yet seen. When I was 10, things like the Challenger explosion and Chernobyl were still small, far-off blips on an otherwise occupied radar.
I hadn’t yet seen some of my own friends die. And I certainly hadn’t seen some of my friends’ kids die. I hadn’t yet seen 9/11 or the Iraq War. I hadn’t seen the shelling of the Gaza strip or the Rwandan genocide. I hadn’t seen my mom in the ICU or my grandparents in the throes of death. I hadn’t seen the orphanage where my nephew lived for the first year of his life. I hadn’t seen a teenager shot to death for playing the music too loud at the gas station. I hadn’t seen a man shot in the back at Wal-mart while he chatted on his phone. I hadn’t seen Columbine, Sandyhook, SPU or, just last week, Marysville Pilchuck.
Second, my theology of Heaven was undeveloped and entirely erroneous.
When I was ten, I imagined Heaven to be a vast, colorless, empty space where we would all be laid out in front of God, on our backs. God was inordinately large and sort of glowing and sitting on a huge chair or throne of some sort. We didn’t move. We just laid there in a perpetual state of other-worldly awe. I was also under the impression that I would no longer recognize or know my mom and dad, my sister and brother; much less my beloved dog. I have no idea how I managed to conjure up a vision so unbearably bleak but I was certainly in no hurry to hasten the day to it.
I think my vision of Heaven was desolate and dreary because my understanding of God was desolate and dreary. As a child I imagined God watching over me with a constantly wagging finger and a tsk tsk tsk whenever I strayed from the path of righteousness which felt like a daily, if not hourly, occurrence. I had an amazing sense of my own sinfulness as a child and it was only in my 20s that my theology swelled to include the belief that I am held in the mind of God by a love so vast and capacious it’s incomprehensible.
Once my perception of God changed, so too did my perception of Heaven. My awareness of God’s love spun outward and stretched wide and I began to see Heaven enfolded therein. Those spaces in my imagination that were once bland and lifeless began to fill in with color and life and zest. The book of Revelation, while certainly confusing in places, gives us so rich a vision and so grand a view that it’s nearly impossible not to long for such a place. God will wipe the tears from our eyes. All of our mourning and grief and anger and sadness will be swept away by the boundless, ineffable love of God. Death will lose it’s sting and all things will be made new.
The birth of Jesus was the in-breaking of Heaven here on earth. It’s come in part but not in full. If we’re paying attention, though, we can see it. Elizabeth Barrett Browning said,
“Earth’s crammed with Heaven. And every common bush afire with God.”
Earth is crammed with Heaven. It’s why we love it so. It’s why we cling so tenaciously to life. When our breath catches at the sight of the orange-red leaves of October against the gray Seattle sky; when we hunker down by the fire with our kids on a windy night; when we cheer and jump and scream watching the Sounders score the winning goal; when we sip the most perfect espresso or raise our glasses in a toast with friends; when we read a good book, make bread or love or art, this is Heaven. These things are the signposts of God’s abiding love and they give us a glimpse of what will one day come in full.
It makes sense then that when I see ugliness and despair so desperate and wild that it feels as though I might not resurface, I long most earnestly for Heaven. When my anguish and my grief are so great and the hand of fear grips my heart, like it did last week after yet another school shooting, I ardently hope for Heaven and I search most eagerly for those signposts of Heaven; those places of joy and beauty and incandescence. It’s when I understand my dad’s sentiment most keenly.
The word maranatha is used just once in the Bible and there is some dispute about it’s meaning. It could be translated, “Our Lord has come!” or it could mean, “Come, Lord!” If we take both meanings together, the word feels rich with the hope for Heaven. Heaven is here, the Lord has come! Heaven is not here; come, Lord! It’s the tension of the two that can be hard to hold. The beauty in the world and the depravity. The joy and the anguish. But hold it we must and it’s in the holding that we are pulled close and hemmed in by the boundless love of God. Maranatha!