Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Fourth Last Thing

I'm waaay overdue on a post here, for which I apologize to anyone who happens to follow my musings. I've had several ideas for topics, but have felt that I needed to "wrap up" the posts regarding the Four Last Things before continuing. Here goes with the final, and most difficult topic:

If people rarely consider or discuss hell, then they almost never consider heaven - at least, not seriously. To the modern mind heaven seems to be either an assumed state or a distant irrelevancy - or both. Questions about who will get to heaven, and under what conditions, are considered gauche. Admission is assumed, even for those who disregarded anything to do with God or salvation in this life. To see this in action, just try suggesting to a family member that such a dear departed is anywhere but "at peace", and you will be castigated for being insensitive and judgmental.

Another more subtle attitude sounds more altruistic: that we shouldn't worry ourselves about heaven because it cheapens any good we do on earth. The idea is that we should want to do good for its own sake, not because it would qualify one for some long-term payoff. A more jaded extension of this view sneers at "pie in the sky bye and bye", or disparages some as being "so heavenly minded that they're no earthly good."

The result of these casual attitudes has been a culture full of people so earthly minded that they're no heavenly good. If there was someone who was heavenly minded, it was Jesus. He even did some scoffing of His own - at those who would consider any good of this world to begin to compare to the blisses of eternal life. If you read Jesus' words - His actual words, mind you, not His words interpreted by some socially-conscious preacher - you find two overriding themes: first, that the purpose of His entire mission, the telos of all the pain and suffering, was to open for mankind the door to heaven. The second is that this admission to heaven was far from foregone. He often warned His disciples most severely that the way was narrow and difficult, and that few would obtain it.

Two major influences helped form my perception of heaven: my father, and the writings of C.S. Lewis. My dad (the one who kept warning me about divine judgment) kept echoing Jesus' words to me - about how nothing in this world even began to compare with the glories of life with Christ. But it was Lewis who helped me see that the beautiful, wonderful things of this life were only beautiful and wonderful because they were little glimpses of heaven. This helped me see beyond the cultural cartoon mythology of heaven as this not-particularly-exciting place where people in robes wandered around on clouds. I've known plenty of beautiful things in my life: stunning sunrises and joyous Christmas mornings and touching homecomings and majestic concerts and quiet evenings at home with my family and so, so many other things. Lewis helped me understand that the only reason those things were beautiful and meaning-full was that through them, I touched eternity - or eternity touched me, as the case may be.

This has become how I think of heaven: not simply as an ultimate goal to be reached beyond the grave, but as something that is seeking to break into this world, to burst forth with a superabundance of life and joy and beauty. That seems to be what you find in Scripture as well. Our parish Bible study is going through the Book of Acts, and in every sermon from Pentecost to the end, there's an undertone of something seeking to burst into our world. That's our role as Christians: to "infect" this drab, drear, monotone world with the color and symphony of heavenly glory. I loved Lewis' image of the Incarnation as like an invasion, a reconquista by the rightful King of the world, and we are His partisans, receiving His supplies and working to expand His reign on this earth. That's the Church's mission, and our mission as members of His Body. Every good deed we do, every act of charity and work of mercy, is an infusion of heavenly glory into this sin-damaged world.

This is not to denigrate the ultimate place of heaven, true union with God and a New Creation. But it is not something we just have to mope around and wait for, putting up with burdens and sorrows here in hopes of an ultimate payoff. Of course, we won't see the full payoff until all creation is redeemed, but we can be a conduit of heavenly grace to the world even amidst our trials and struggles. If we focus on that goal, and strive for it, we bring it closer, and a little more of our world comes under Christ's dominion. That's what being "heavenly minded" really is - and nobody has ever done more good for this earth than those who think like that.

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