Fathom Mag
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Heaven and Earth and In Between

If I think too much about heaven, I’ll forget about earth.

Published on:
June 10, 2020
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5 min.
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I can still hear the jubilant, static-blurred strains coming from Nan’s car stereo as she drove around with me and my sisters. “I’ll fly away, fly away, oh glory, I’ll fly away,” the choir sang. My grandmother wasn’t much of a singer, leaving our car rides quiet except for the music from her cassette tapes and the occasional smack of our tongues on the hard candies she kept in the glove compartment. 

Even though her gospel music is still in my ears, I don’t often think of heaven. Heaven has a far-away quality, causing my mind to push it to the cob-webbed corners of my mind. And all the while the good things in the here and now easily catch my attention. I’m busy with this moment, this task, this service, this entertainment. Perhaps I’m afraid if I think too much about heaven, I’ll forget about earth. 

Loving

Earth, after all, holds abundant glory, boasting God’s initial declaration of goodness. With rich and varied colors, textures, sounds, tastes and scents, our world offers a feast for our senses. In its immensity and intricacy, we still have things to explore and discoveries to make. And it is this world, scripture tells us, that provides an integral part of God’s revelation to us in Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky displays his handiwork. Day after day it speaks out; night after night it reveals his greatness.” To ignore the creation is to ignore God. 

Of course, the earth also bears the deep wounds of sin and corruption. Things are not as they should be: death and decay overtake the living. Lament is not exclusive to humans—Paul says that “the whole creation groans and suffers” over the bondage that God subjected it to under the curse. 

Yet, even in this season of intense worldwide groaning, we catch glimpses of mundane beauty—the birds calling outside a bedroom window, the slow unfolding of spring flowers, the meeting of two pairs of eyes above masks, expressing in one quick moment a deep compassion and solidarity. Each day offers reminders, however small, of the goodness of creation, of the blessings of the here and now. 

We are not, we must cry vehemently, just putting one foot in front of the other, tunnel-vision focused on the future. Now matters. My present day, with its usual agenda of breakfasts, schooling, meetings, writing, screen-time, and cooking, matters. To mimic God’s love for what he has made, I must pay attention to and bear responsibility in the present moment.

Longing

When I read the Scriptures, I don’t actually find many people expressing longing for heaven. Instead, God’s people long for communion with God himself. From the moment Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden, away from the place where they walked and talked with God, the stories of scripture are filled with a longing to return to a life of intimacy with God. 

God’s people long for him, not for an other-worldly paradise. And if their eyes looked heavenward, it was not because heaven was a place they longed to go, but because they longed for God to come down. The psalmists filled their poetry with longing for God, like in Psalm 42: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.” Isaiah cried, “If only you would tear apart the sky and come down!” And Jesus promised his disciples in Matthew 5 not that they will soon leave the world, but that “they will see God.” 

Here the scriptures confront me, but not as the gospel songs of my grandmother would: not as to how much I long for heaven, but how much I long for God. It is that desire that will put me in continuity with God’s people. 

As with every longing, it is future-oriented. Longings by definition reach, extend away from the present moment and into the future. And so our longing for God: as we wander east of Eden, our hearts yearn to return to the place of intimacy and communion with him. 

Paradox

Yet, the question is, does a longing for the future denigrate the present and diminish our living and enjoying God’s good world now? If our eyes are so fixed on the future, will we ignore the present, both our responsibility to and our affirmation of its beauty and wonder? 

Theologians use the world telos to describe the purpose, the goal or the end of something. Hans Boersma writes, “Our own identity too lies in the future; we are what we become.”[1] If we are what we become, then a vision oriented to the future is in fact necessary for the present. This is the significance of Paul’s command in Colossians 3 to seek those things that are above and his claim that we ourselves are raised with Christ there. Paul is not advocating a bifurcated humanity, with souls in heaven and bodies on earth. Instead, he recognizes the material present alone cannot account for our lives, that who we really are is bound up with who we will become, and that our lives and hearts must be directed towards that end—ordered rightly, to use Augustine’s language.

Here—should we be surprised?—we find a paradox: the future gives meaning to the present. When we order our hearts toward God, our longing, instead of removing our attention from the present moment, shapes the way we live now. “To the degree that we live in sync with the final end for which God has created us, we are already being habituated to seeing God in the here and now of our everyday lives.”[2] The future breaks into the present. It is not a vain wish, but a reality proclaimed by the Gospels: on the mountain, the disciples tasted the future when they saw Jesus transfigured before them. “Earth’s crammed with heaven,” as Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes, “And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.”

My work and yours, then—public or private, great or small—does not simply give us something to keep our hands busy while we wait for Jesus to return. Instead, with our hearts fixed on a future of God’s glorious presence with us, we ought to work in a manner consonant with that future. We work to demonstrate what the disciples saw on the mount of transfiguration: God is here, and he is glorious. 

Part of that work concerns the creation, as the place where God will dwell. It too has a telos: its renewal and reinstatement as the place of God’s dwelling. It is this end that makes sense of our need to care for the earth as diligent stewards. If God will destroy the world, then, like sailors on a sinking ship, we ought to abandon it as quickly as possible. But dwelling, not destruction, is the goal of the world, and even as we are what we become, so is the world. This world waits expectantly for the king: so we prepare it for his return. We restrain waste and pollution, we preserve species and habitats, motivated by our desire to see and to reveal creation’s future beauty and glory in the present. 

Rather than giving us tunnel vision, our longing to see God transforms our vision now so that in the everyday things—my children cuddling our new puppy, my husband’s hands deep in soapy dishwater, the rain soaking into our wooden fence—we recognize the presence of God. Perhaps only as in a glass darkly, but soon—wonder of wonders—face to face.  

Laura Cerbus
Originally from Western Pennsylvania, Laura Cerbus lives and teaches in Melbourne, Australia, where she is becoming acquainted with the beauty and grief of cross-cultural life. Along with her husband and three children, she worships and serves in a local church revitalization. She is the submission editor for Velvet Ashes, an online community for women serving overseas, and she writes at lauracerbus.com.

[1] Hans Boersma, Seeing God: the Beatific Vision in the Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018), 20.

[2] Hans Boersma, Seeing God: the Beatific Vision in the Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018), 20.

Cover image by Julian Hochgesang.

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