I am deeply appreciative of the contributions of some powerful contemporary Christian authors (like N.T. Wright and Dallas Willard) who have refocused our attention on the meaning of salvation as a living, vibrant wholeness in the here and now, not just a one-way ticket to a beatific Bahamas in the sky by-and-by. All the worn and trite images of salvation—fire insurance, get-out-of-hell-free cards, playing harps in feathered bliss, etc.—are just that, very worn and weary. It’s no wonder evangelism has fallen on hard times. Who really has a lot of energy to ponder the streets of gold and the many mansions? Does that build the kingdom? Does that feed the hungry? Teach the children? Strengthen the weak? I get it. Really I do. There is nothing about heaven that doesn’t start now.
I have recently finished several weeks of reading about Thérèse of Lisieux, that extraordinary young woman with all kinds of energy but not enough life to spend it. Dying at 24 years old, she just frankly didn’t have time to get as tired as some of us are after, well, several decades more of life! Faced with a premature, and quite excruciating death, she simply and ferociously transferred her human energy to do God’s work into a business plan for heaven. She is famously known for saying, “I will spend my Heaven doing good on earth.” I’m sure she is very busy, for there is much good that needs to be done, for sure.
There is still a role for a vision of paradise, a golden glimpse of an escaping ray of light that beckons us forward and that quiets fears of death and separation. The echo from far off of surprised laughter, the kind that we hear when someone’s measured expectations have been completely and ecstatically overturned. The breathy gasps that escape when someone stands before unreasonable beauty. The warmth of long-missed embraces.
Thérèse tells us of a dream she had when she knew her disease was terminal. She dreamed of meeting Mother Anne of Jesus, a friend of St. Teresa of Avila’s and the founder of the Carmelite order in France. Mother Anne gently consoled her, encouraged her, and spoke words of love to her. Thérèse concludes thus: “The storm was no longer raging, heaven was calm and serene. I believed, I felt there was a heaven and that this heaven is peopled with souls who actually love me.”Yes, how could it be otherwise? How could this great cloud of witnesses, who have all made this same journey, feel other than encouraging and loving toward us who continue the pilgrimage? And doesn’t this encourage us? Shouldn’t this encourage us? Is it so bad, really, to yearn for the day when our faith will be sight, and our broken efforts swallowed up in triumph?
I have a miniature rose in my yard, and despite the travesties of my gardening neglect, it thrives. It bears small rose after small rose after small rose, and every day it delights me. This life has many such small and wondrous pleasures. The color of autumn light; the pleasures of love and family; the Rocky Mountain peaks in various depths of blue; the perfect watermelon; the soft call of the doves. Life—this life, here and now—is precious. These are the days to craft the Kingdom of God in words and songs, in prayers and meals and dollars and votes and friendships and childcare and classrooms and hospital rooms.
This life is nothing to despise or reject, and is the field in which our burrowing and busyness can result in finding buried treasure and pearls in our pockets. But its joys are a prelude, and the praise and thanksgiving they kindle are only down payments on Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, where thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, with all who have gone before us, await our voices to make their alleluias complete.
“At present alleluia is for us a traveler’s song, but this tiresome journey brings us closer to home and rest where, all our busy activities over and done with, the only thing that will remain will be alleluia.” ~ Augustine