i've been working on the heaven chapter some more this week. still working tonight and tomorrow but here's what i've got so far. feedback? what did you used to think heaven would be like? what do you think now?
I’m often afraid of Heaven. If I think too long on it, I feel a shivery nausea run through me before my thoughts skip somewhere safer. The sheer, unfathomable Otherness of such a place or existence always overwhelms me. I think it’s the same with most people. I think that’s why books like The Lovely Bones are such a hit: they make our fear manageable. One of my earliest and most revisited memories is of my mom calming my fears about Heaven. She found me hysterically sobbing into Carebear in the dark of my canopy bed. When I admitted that the source of my panic was the thought of spending “a forever” in Heaven, she laughed (the nerve!), but then got very serious.
“What’s the hardest thing you’re learning in school right now?” She asked.
Sensing a diversion and feeling one hundred percent above her child-psychology tactics, I answered hesitantly
“Now imagine an ant trying to do your long division homework…do you think that’s possible?”
I remember cracking up, thinking that was just about the funniest thing I could picture,
its little antennae twitching and fizzling as it struggled to compute. Haha! Stupid little
“No! Their brains are way too small!”
And then she told me that’s what it’s like when we try to understand something like Heaven. She said our human brains are too small to handle something so God-sized.
“You don’t have to be afraid of something just because you can’t understand it. The trick is learning to trust that God does.”
But that’s such a challenge from the very beginning. We have so many weird images of heaven fed to us – no wonder most of us are terrified. One of my least favorite childhood movies, All Dogs Go to Heaven shows it as this weird, cloudy void with a phone that can receive red-hot calls from Hell. And the dogs bounced from cloud to cloud as they sang their chirpy cartoon songs and I clenched my teeth thinking Don’t fall through! FOR PETE’S SAKE STEP MORE CAREFULLY! Because one wrong move and you could straight up FALL OUT OF HEAVEN. I remember having nightmares about that voice in the locket – you can never come baaaaaaack. You can never come baaaaaaack. What a horrible, horrible movie.
There’s the Philadelphia Cream Cheese indulgence view of heaven where we all lie on clouds half naked and eat piles of cheesecake or onion rings or baby carrots – whatever makes you happy. Because, to most American minds, in a place of no tears there must be partial nudity and plates upon plates of food.
And I was (ok, still am) a big-time fan of the Phillie Cream Cheese view.
When I was younger I had a borderline frightening obsession with chicken wings – I would eat them day and night if I could, tearing through them like a savage feral child, just stumbled in from my woodland home. My parents say that the only reason us kids any self-control whatsoever is because of their mini temperance act: if things got out of hand, like if I got that look in my eye where they knew I was seeing everyone as a giant, talking chicken wing or when I would wake up early to try and eat the leftovers for breakfast, they put us on prohibition: I wasn’t allowed to have chicken wings and for similar reasons my little brother Ryan (who was a fatty little kid) wasn’t allowed to have candy. It was torture and I remember comforting myself with the thought: well when I get to Heaven, I get to have all the chicken wings I want. And I pictured me and Jesus sitting Indian-style at a sturdy, primary colored Little Tykes table, leaning back on our cloud chairs and sharing an enormous platter of chicken wings. And the platter would magically refill itself every time it started to get low and Jesus and I would throw our greasy faces back and laugh, laugh, laugh. Ryan of course, would be there too in an overstuffed armchair, his chubby ankles sticking straight out off the edge. He would have a similarly magical cut-glass punch bowl in his lap, filled to the brim with Blow Pops and Razzles and Pixie Sticks and Hubba Bubba. (And there would be no licorice present because I was fairly certain that Lord Licorice From Candyland was the devil and there was no way he was sneaking up into my heaven through his tasty consumer products.) We would eat and eat to our hearts content, therefore fulfilling St. John’s prophecy that in heaven there would be no tears, no suffering etc etc. And the glorious songs we sang would blend into an everlasting jingle for our favorite snacks, in order to show God how grateful we were for the endless food. I love these fishes cuz they’re soooo delicious! Gone goldfishing!!! Thanks for that blue box, Kraft macaroni and cheese – we got the blues!!!
And then, probably sensing that they were feeding the chicken and candy obsession rather than squelching it, my parents kind of snatched that snacky version of heaven away and start to teach us a more serious faith. No, you won’t be eating Smartfood all day, because you’ll be too busy praising God. And I pictured us all floating around in choir robes, our hands folded Von Trapp style, high on our chests. And there are so many versions of this boring Heaven from TV shows, movies, even children’s books to feed my imaginings. You know - people just kind of hovercrafting around, admiring the beauty, being pious, talking in library tones. Like my grandmother’s retirement megavillage in Florida. All landscaped and perfect and quiet and cookie-cuttered. There’s a pool but no splashing, bikes but no racing, shopping – but from stores like Chicos, Naturalizer and GNC. Let’s be honest – it sounds more like a punishment than an eternal reward.
To add to this, my parents started to read us the baffling descriptions of Heaven from Revelation. Then, in what used to be more of an echo-ey endless fog-filled buffet, some architecture slid into place. Now Heaven had streets of gold, mansions with countless rooms, seas of crystal, jewels everywhere and freakish multi-limbed (but friendly) talking creatures. It was like The White House, Emerald City and Narnia all rolled into one. I was torn between glee and terror. Because you see, places like that - that are terribly large and beautiful are generally very cold and lonely places. I would have much rather heard that Heaven was like a snuggy cabin from a Thomas Kinkade painting. And we would all gather around that magical fire and sing twangy bluegrass songs. A plain but homey Heaven was much more appealing to my small-town mind than a dazzling, colossal palace filled with sunshine and stainless steel.
Even as I’ve grown up and seen more of the world, I can’t say much has changed. I feel closest to God in small, warm settings – at candlelit Christmas Eve services, canoeing on the river, reading the Bible in a coffee shop, snuggled up by the woodstove. When I go to conferences, when I tip my head back in the St. Paul’s Cathedral, when I shrink down beneath a curtain of stars, it feels like there’s too much space. Like He’s dissolving.
Maybe I’m trying to fit Him into my little ant brain…or maybe my little ant brain is trying to tell me something - like that perfect communion with a God who is Love is less like visiting the Wizard of Oz and more like snuggling up by the fireplace. Like that when we’re all “up there”, chicken wings and all – it won’t feel alien, vacant or cold. It will feel a little bit like coming home.
(And ya, ya, ya I get it that we will also be filled with awe and wonder and fall on our faces to worship, etc. But I don’t think it will be a trembly, fearful worship like so many pastoral type people describe. I think it will be more like the first time you see Mickey Mouse. You hide behind your mom’s leg at first because he’s freaking huge and you weren’t expecting such enthusiastic grandeur…but then you start to grin because you think I knew it! I knew you were real and I have believed in you for so very, very long and you’re FINALLY finally here! And he reaches out his arms to you and your smile nearly cracks your face in two because he wants to hug you. He wants to hug you of all people. )