Imagining Heaven

The only preparation which multitudes seem to make for heaven is for its judgment bar.  What will they do in its streets?  What have they practised of love?  How like are they to its Lord?  Earth is the rehearsal for heaven.  The eternal beyond is the eternal here.  The street-life, the home-life, the business-life, the city-life in all the varied range of its activity, are an apprenticeship for the city of God.  There is no other apprenticeship for it.

I found this wonderful reflection in today’s reading from Celtic Daily Prayer.  While our churches do a wonderful job of many things, I think they often neglect a critical aspect of their role: the Church must prepare God’s children for their death.  Our lives here are very short, some far too short, and the Church must not overlook the essential function of bracing people to spend eternity in the presence of the Eternal.

In part, I think the Church has allowed people to carry on with several deeply flawed paradigms.  When we think about our deaths, if we think about them at all, many have a sort of childish view of paradise.  We might imagine an antiseptic place where everyone sits around on clouds, playing harps and admiring our bright, shining white robes.  Or we sometimes picture a sort of Big Rock Candy Mountain, like recess in elementary school with lots of playing and big mounds of ice cream.  While these metaphors are culturally ingrained, we won’t get very far travelling down those roads and they don’t really compel us to do very much.

Part of the reason these images don’t impel us toward conversion is another paradigm we have worked with for so long that it has lost its impact.  Too often, the Church has viewed our lives here on earth as a sort of pass/fail examination. We have tacitly approved an understanding that upon our deaths we will face God’s judgment, and will then be directed to either Door Number One or Door Number Two. By the time we face the examination, however, it’s already too late to do anything about it.

If we have been “good” we will go to heaven, and if we have been “bad” God will consign us to the fiery lake for all time.  The trick, therefore, lies in avoiding the really bad sins, and trying to rack up enough bonus points so that the Lord will (perhaps reluctantly) give us a room in His eternal home.  In certain quarters, the Church has really stressed this vision of the afterlife, particularly focussing on that conduct which will result in our banishment to Hell. This paradigm, of course, rests upon a foundation of fear rather than genuine conversion of our hearts.  (My father used to refer to that sort of faith as a kind of “fire insurance”.)

Now, there’s nothing that’s stunningly wrong with any of these traditional metaphors.  I think, however, we may treat them too simplistically, and may have overlooked the metaphorical nature of this truth.  It’s kind of like an icon, which may offer us a genuine pathway into a spiritual reality.  But when we’ve become too attached to the icon itself rather than the spiritual insight it offers, the icon can become an idol.

The reading today suggests another approach.  Rather than our lives being a kind of mine-field we must avoid to pass the test, the reading suggests that we view this life as a place to learn how to live in heaven.  Today, we are each rehearsing for eternity: we are learning how to love, how to give fearlessly, learning compassion, learning forbearance, and learning how to imitate Christ.

There’s a wonderful old spiritual exercise in which we try to imagine our time with the Father in paradise.  What parts of our lives just don’t seem to fit there?  What attachments or addictions will I have to release for my life in heaven to make sense? Will that bit of gossip I found so interesting in the lunchroom move me closer to God’s presence or further away? That old resentment I held onto, will that stick out like a sore thumb when I’m bathed in the light of God’s presence?

The passage teaches:  “The eternal beyond is the eternal here.”  Jesus put it a little differently, saying “The kingdom of God is within you now.” Luke 17:21.  Both passages reveal a deep, spiritual relationship between how we live today and the reality we’ll encounter in the afterlife.  Mother Teresa noted that relationship when she said, “Our life of poverty is as necessary as the work itself.  Only in heaven will we see how much we owe to the poor for helping us to love God better because of them.”

The Church must again take seriously its role in preparing us for our deaths, and we must take that preparation of ourselves as our sacred and solemn work.  Paraphrasing Billy Graham, our home is in heaven; we’re just travelling through this world to get there.

May the peace of Christ disturb you profoundly,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

20 responses to “Imagining Heaven

  1. barbaraduffield

    What a wonderful example…this world learning how to be in the next. I know I’m not ready but I hope I’m getting better at it. Sort of like learning to walk or ride a bike…it doesn’t generally come out perfectly the first time. God, be patient with me. Amen.

    • Barbara,

      I think none of us are ready, hence the necessity of grace. And another very workable synonym for that grace would be “God’s patience”. Amen, and amen.

      Be blessed, and be a blessing,

      Br. James

  2. thank you for this wise and profound post; such a deep and rich teaching of how to live. I used to be taught that in any unexpected day or time, my house/ home (real, metaphorically, Spiritually and more) should be ready f to receive the Lord as a guest. It was, and has always influenced my appreciation of my surroundings….”may I greet the Lord here, am I ready? … and countless of areas of self review as in your teaching today. Thank you so much. You are a constant source of Inspiration. Linda

    • Dear Linda,

      You are far too kind. I think the teaching you received about receiving the Lord as a guest was quite good. It resonates with the advice of Hebrews, “Do not forget to show your love to strangers, for some have received angels unawares.”

      Many thanks for the support and encouragment.

      God’s great peace on you and your house,

      Br. James

  3. Yes!!! Thank you for your thoughts in this post. Now, may Church leaders help people live into eternity! such that God’s will is done on earth as in Heaven. Amen.

    • You’re most welcome, Jacob. Thank you for the support and encouragement. I hope the Church soon takes seriously its role in leading God’s people into Eternity and the profound mystery of a life in God’s presence.

      God’s great peace,

      Br. James

  4. Charles Fogarty

    This is so apt for my day today. Twenty years ago today my dear friend Robert Nemchik passed away much too young. I’ve often imagined greeting him on Heaven’s streets as I met him on the streets of West Hollywood, laughing appreciatively at my joke. God’s neighborhood is a happy place.

  5. Because we are creating our lives in each moment, it only makes sense that we are also creating our eternity. If one believes in reincarnation, it becomes obvious why we are in this life now: to finish with patterns of being that do not serve us well. Why would anyone want to spend eternity addicted to drugs or alchol along with the woes associated with addiction? If one believes that this is our only incarnation as a human being, one has to ask: where was I before this? You know that I believe we have always existed — we are eternal beings, a presence forever. Upon death, we might return to our place of origination yet we return more of who we truly are. Or, we might move on to another iteration of existence — we might be complete and need no further lessons, but I doubt that. As partners in the universe which is expanding and growing and changing, we cannot remain stagnant. We must expand, grow, and change as well.

    • Barbara,

      I think our role in creating our eternity is so often overlooked. Our commitment to change, to conversion, must be of primary importance. If we are writing the story of our lives every day, it should be a page-turner.

      God’s peace on you and your house,

      Br. James

  6. Norman Pittinger used to say that in heaven we would “clutch resurrected martinis in resurrected hands.” That’s delightfully Pittingerian, but grace-fully incarnational as well. So much heaven-talk is pretty spooky. The grace of heaven will surl ely be as perfective of our created nature as is all grace. Dancing in the presence of The Blessed Trinity might well include some good music, food, friends, and “resurrected refreshments.”

    • Bishop,

      I don’t know of Norman Pittinger, but I think I would have liked him. I absolutely agree: grace perfects nature, it does not destroy it. (Good heavens, who might have said that?) Jesus so often described the Kingdom as a kind of banquet, or a feast, that I’m incline to believe he wasn’t joshing about that. Thanks so much for your thoughts, your Grace,

      Br. James

  7. There is so much truth in this one! Great insights, from you, and from the Celtic Daily Prayer.

  8. Good insight brother James… I love it!

  9. Dennis Alvarado

    What a profound topic to deliberate indeed. Your choice from Celtic Daily Prayer and Your words definitely stirs up a different approach for my consideration James. I find myself Inspired to comprehensively devote myself to more(hopefully all) things in my path. Thank You for bringing this to my attention and I Pray we All rehearse our parts Gracefully & thoroughly– and learn our lines well, while we are here and in coming Existence that is to be. God Bless You Sir…………………


  10. Noel Williams (prhayz)

    This is an especially excellent post Br. James. Most preachers do not preach like this anymore. As Christians, we must overcome the world to go to heaven. Therefore, the life we live here will determine whether or not we make it to heaven. The world is the devil’s kingdom. He’ll do anything to stop us from going up yonder. I sincerely thank you for sharing this most inspiring post. God blesses.

  11. Loved all the comments to “Imagining Heaven” and loved reading “Imagining Heaven” even more. It’s one to keep!

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