Jesus in the Present Tense
I first bore witness to the chasm between heaven and earth as a child of the church.I stood a head shorter than the heavenly-minded, their eyes clouded over as they sang about that unclouded day to come. I watched as heaven came down, and the idea of glory filled their souls.
Growing taller, He gave me eyes to see and ears to hear. I watched their feet float inches above the earth, rarely touching it. They prayed to a sovereign Father, lord, and savior of all—someday. Their zeal for the future never turning into an interest in running alongside him to reclaim any square inch.
They spit this world out of their mouths without savoring it as a taste of what’s to come. I was old enough to linger near by and grieve the loss of something important, then, over time, I began to glean what they missed—the countless bread crumbs of redemption leading home. I mutter the Lord’s Prayer under my breath—“on earth as it is in heaven,” sometimes adding a quiet expletive for emphasis—in the presence of those who would divide the two.
Having lived in the glow of premature halos, the thought of equal but opposite errors sends anxious electricity coursing through me. Some saints hold onto the idea of a never-too-late divine intervention, another offer of grace compelling those who finally realize their lack of him. Jesus is the only way, they assert—but he keeps making a way for as long as it takes.
I understand the instinct yet want to ask: Which is it? Does Jesus matter in this life or only the next? Is his presence essential in the present-tense? Or may we take or leave him until we decide to take him up again?
The gentleman Eugene Peterson rightly notices something askew—putting into words the angst I felt around heaven and earth separatists. So many Christians obsess over spiritual birth, yet wave their hands at growth. In his book Practice Resurrection, he writes:
“The euphoria of birth lasts a few weeks, considerably longer than the orgasm that accompanied its inception, but hardly indefinitely. For these same recently euphoric parents, growth is marked by fatigue, anxiety, panicked late-night calls to the doctor, confused decisions regarding discipline, worried conferences with teachers, puzzling over adolescent behavior and misbehavior. Birth is quick and easy (at least it seems that way to fathers—mothers have a different slant on it); growth is endless and complex.”
And so it is with all of us. With little imagination, we uncover many applications for Peterson’s words. Birth over growth for the pro-life Christian who ignores detained children. Birth over growth for the Christian who waves their fire-insurance policy in others’ faces of those. Harsh as it might sound, birth over growth for the believer who hopes against hope on behalf of the best people in their lives. Birth over growth defines the idea of longing for heaven but not working to see it here on earth.
Peterson, and the arc of this life, will not let us off so easy. “Neither metaphor stands alone,” he adds. “Birth presupposes growth, but growth proceeds from birth.”
Living between Genesis and Revelation, between the first rebirth and the last, between both sides of the canyon—and stretching our tired arms to bridge the two—is harder than relying on birth, whether it arrives now or later. “On earth as it is in heaven” demands so much of us. Peterson knew it, and I do too. But the sweetness of the middle is the promise of Jesus then, Jesus now, Jesus always.
On my best days, I know perhaps one-hundredth of one percent of the mysteries of heaven and hell, of how Jesus saves and spreads himself to cover all he will call by his name. But I know just enough to know the point of this life, the next life—of any life—is enjoying him, and experiencing his presence as long as possible. Never have I met a soul within his loving embrace who pines for another moment without him. In the now or in the forever.
Heaven calls to me in my times of deepest longing. Hell shakes me up, when I let myself actually consider the darkness and the absence of God. But Jesus occupies—or at least casts a gracious shadow—over each waking thought. He’s my only rock and refuge, my lone source of abiding consolation; the joy which animates my heart; the mercy which blows through this desert life; the warm candle glow that staves off the night. What am I without him right here, right now?
Knowing what I know, I want to kickstart a moment of jubilee, erasing the grudges held on both sides of this strange spiritual coin. I long to harness the power in praying together for heaven to breach earth. No browbeating, no little referendums on heaven and hell. Just a daily experience of our beautiful savior, then tapping out a transmission of his joy to everyone around us. Until his kingdom comes.