Hope of heaven
The thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts, and our brains. — Paul Simon, “Train in the Distance”
Since I was looking out an airplane window, en route to my childhood friend’s funeral, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the white marshmallow clouds and golden sunshine skimming over the blue lake of sky brought heaven to mind.
Even as I teared up I smiled at the immaturity of this concept of heaven. I could all but see Care Bears hopping from cloud to cloud and sliding down rainbows.
The biblical description of heaven is quite lovely, indeed. There will be streets of gold, 12 gates made of a single pearl, and a river of life, clear as crystal.
The Bible also gives us descriptions of what living in heaven will be like. There will be no evildoers. There will be no tears or pain or death. There will be no night.
John’s Revelation tells us that we will dwell with God. We will see his face and serve him.
As wondrous as that sounds, there is much left to the imagination. This has been fodder for countless works of poetry, songs and visual arts. It also creates dissention among Christians who interpret heaven differently.
I can’t remember the context, but one night my daughter surprised me by saying, “What’s so great about heaven? I don’t really want to go there.”
I quickly responded, “Oh, but it will be wonderful. You’ll never have pain or be sad. There will only be happiness.”
She thought for a moment. “But you can’t be happy if you’re never sad.”
I would never criticize the Holy Spirit, but in the moment I was not supplied with the right words.
Here on Earth we must have darkness to see the light. There is no breathtaking sunrise, full of hope and promise, if the sun never sets.
Mortals have no resolution without dissonance. Yet this dissonance can have a transcendent beauty of its own. Music is perhaps the best example of this.
When the “ah” slides into the “men” at the end of a hymn, which half hugs the heart more dearly?
Think of the last triumphant phrase of the Messiah’s “Hallelujah” chorus. Each syllable of the final word is stretched out, the subdominant chord swirling somewhere high in the church rafters. The soul yearns for the final chord even as it trembles within the magnificent suspension.
What I realize as I age is that the Bible offers the outrageous promise that someday, in a new heaven and Earth, it will be possible to fully live the good things of life without having to experience their dark counterparts.
I take this on faith because it does not seem possible.
I find that my specific vision of heaven changes as I do. I remember drawing a picture in Sunday school of heaven as a place filled with rainbows and flowers.
As a young adult I saw in heaven the promise that someday all my questions would be answered.
I am now in the middle stretch of my life. I have spent over a decade traveling paths with seemingly endless divergences. I have created community only to leave it. My dearest desire is to give my children roots both long and deep.
These days when I look to heaven, my consoling hope is expressed best by Isaac Watts’ words:
“There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come. No more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.”
Sarah Kehrberg lives in Asheville, N.C.
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