Hope comes in a lot of flavors and colors and it doesn’t matter whether we’re religious/spiritual or not. Hope is whatever drags us from one day into the next one. When we stop having reasons that make us do that, life gets bleak pretty quickly. Even more, when our “hope” doesn’t have enough elastic in it to stretch beyond our last breath, our lives make a nasty “splat” which nobody may hear but hurts nonetheless.
I recently performed a funeral for a close friend. While many knew him as a pastor, some were surprised to learn that he’s ridden with a motorcycle club for quite a few years. And I don’t mean a bunch of Christians tooling around on weekends to see the fall colors. More than 250 bikers from four “clubs” turned out for “Preacher;” all Ed wanted to do was be around people who did not know about Jesus Christ. Many of the young guns walked out as the sermon started. But the Old Dogs (capitalized because I now am one) with ragged pony tails and faces so chewed up by life that it was impossible to guess their age lined the back of the church three deep. Getting close to death makes one pay attention to things we were too “cool” to pay attention to before.
Books about heaven aren’t all created equal. Many are by people who have claimed to visit there through an out-of-body experience. The take away usually looks like “God exists, atheists are wrong.” But not much more leaving us with a sentimentalized vision of an extended church potluck featuring a gospel quartet singing only songs I like (which would be a first for me since I’ve never heard a gospel quartet do Ellington). But other books on heaven do much more than this; they compel us to think seriously, not about “pie in the sky when we die” but living deeply with impact and meaning amidst the head cheese and blood sausage of our days. Steve Berger does that with Between Heaven and Earth: Finding Hope, Courage and Passion Through a Fresh Vision of Heaven.
People don’t set out to write books about heaven sheltered in libraries. They usually get viciously slapped down by life leaving nowhere else to look but up. Burying a child will do that. Steve’s son, Josiah, stood poised to start university when a car accident tragically altered the picture – a promising life cut off entering its prime. As he and his wife grapple with their grieving and loss, we get to look over their shoulder as Steve finds things he’d preached and taught take on new depth and force coming alive in the cauldron of their own suffering. Steve grieved not only for life lost but life missed. There wouldn’t be any university years, often cited as the best time in many people’s lives. Josiah would never be a husband or father. In a poignantly shared clip, Steve grieves before God over these things and more – all the good woven into life. God simply speaks to him in a deep place saying, “I have made up for all of this and more.” Heaven is far more than the higher floors of retirement. And this should galvanize us for living.
Through Scripture, Steve proposes a model derived from Paul that we could call “hard pressed” living. Based on Philippians 1:21-24, he cites Paul’s feeling torn in two opposite directions, his being squeezed between twin, yet opposite, desires. Desiring to be with Christ in heaven (and it’s no anemic sentimental portrait of either heaven or the lives flourishing there that Steve draws) and yet to linger as an influence and signpost to Christ’s Kingdom drawing many to him while pressing His life into the broken places of this world. This and the implications for remarkable living in the present outlined in subsequent chapters will prove to be bracing reading in our “me” centered times when we gauge spirituality on both sides of eternity by what we’re getting out of it, pushing to maximize our returns while minimizing our investment. While “Between Heaven and Earth” would prove valuable for Christian families who have lost children, giving them some traction points to begin the next steps in the middle of their grief (Don’t just throw this at someone suffering that loss. Give generous listening time.), the book really shines as something that could generate a new center of gravity for anyone.
Death is an attention getter. An old gospel blues chorus runs like this: “You’re gonna need somebody on your bond. Your gonna need somebody on your bond. When it’s way past midnight and death comes slippin’ in the room, you’re gonna need somebody on your bond.” When people as diverse as Blind Willie Johnson, Donovan, Taj Mahal, Buffy St. Marie and Captain Beefheart all get around to recording this tune, all walks of life feel the intrusive push of hopes that deflate leaving life empty and death looming. For Christians who need a recharged upgrade as to what heaven means and especially the kind of life that ramps up to it, this could be good medicine. For those exploring Christianity or returning to it after serious disappointments, this could open a window to a hope that, as Paul says, doesn’t disappoint (Romans 5:1-5).
To read an excerpt from Between Heaven and Earth, visit the Patheos Book Club here.
David Swartz pastors Bethel Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan. He thinks that jazz is sacred music, that books are better company than most people, and that university towns rock. He blogs at geezeronthequad.com.