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As Christians around the world celebrate Jesus’ resurrection during the 50-day season of Easter, thoughts turn to heaven. Indeed, that is the Easter promise: God brings life from death, and all of us can share in that everlasting life.
But Christians tend to water down the good news of Easter by thinking that “heaven” refers only to life after death. In John’s gospel, Jesus says that those who believe have eternal life now (John 3:16; 3:36; 17:3). The really good news of Easter — of Jesus’ resurrection — is that heaven can’t wait until life after death. It breaks in now, into the mundane and the magnificent of this world.
Easter is a taste of what is to come: joy in all of its fullness (John 16: 20-22). Here are five ways to let the joy of the life to come spill into life today:
1. Go sailing
An ocean is a helpful metaphor to explain what eternity is like — its seemingly bottomless depths are a nice image of the profundity of eternal life.
We think of time as a straight line: 1 p.m. follows noon, year 2015 follows 2014, on into the future. But eternity, by definition, transcends time: it is beyond or beneath what we call “time.” Think of it this way: imagine that you are on a boat sailing the ocean. Time is what you see around you, the surface of the water. But every once in a while, a fish jumps or a wave laps against the boat. Then you get a sense that there is a whole world beneath the ocean that you do not see, some inexhaustible depth.
Do you remember your first kiss? Or when you were playing a sport and you were completely in your zone? Do you recall an insight that totally astounded you? Is there a favorite piece of music or work of art that you get totally lost in? In these moments, time seems to stop, and eternity breaks through our consciousness.
This happens more than we think — we just have to notice.
2. Visit Iowa
Our five senses only go so far. They help us see, hear, taste, touch, and smell the world around us, but they do not help us perceive eternity unless they are fueled by our imagination. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote in The Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one sees rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
St. Catherine of Siena reminded us, “All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said ‘I am the Way.’” Thus, while on the journey of faith, it is good to look around for hints of heaven.
At the end of the movie Field of Dreams, a farmer played by Kevin Costner meets his long-lost father (and other deceased baseball players) on a baseball diamond that he built in his cornfield. The father appears in the prime of his youth, reveling in the game he loved. In the last scene, the father and son have a conversation:
In case that video doesn’t play for you, here’s the can’t-miss dialogue:
Father: “Is this heaven?”
Son: “It’s Iowa.”
Father (looking around at the playing field): “I could have sworn it was heaven.”
Son: “Is there a heaven?”
Father: “Oh yeah, it’s the place dreams come true.”
Son (looking at his wife and daughter on a porch swing of his farmhouse, surveying his corn fields in the setting sun): “Maybe this is heaven.”
3. Look for the color purple
Spring tells the story: after a long, harsh winter, lifeless branches and the hard earth birth green shoots and then a burst of colors. How often have you exclaimed at the beach or your favorite hilltop, “This is heaven!” Such breakthrough experiences in nature really are glimpses of heaven, a promise of amazing things to come but worth reveling in right now
In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, two central characters, Shug and Celie, have the following conversation about God getting our attention in nature:
Listen, God love everything you love — and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.
You saying God vain? I ast.
Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.
What it do when it pissed off? I ast.
Oh, It make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.
In Steven Spielberg’s movie adaptation, the characters walk through a field of purple flowers in this scene:
4. Share a good meal
Artists have long given us a heaven with harps and pearly gates, puffy clouds and people with wings. When Jesus spoke about eternal life with God, he was much more earthly. “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast” (Matthew 22:2) and “in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14:2). Throughout the gospels, we find Jesus eating and visiting people’s homes. In this way, he showed people how down-to-earth heaven really is.
We can glimpse heaven in our meal sharing and home making. Consider a family meal filled with good company, delicious food and succulent wine, laughter and meaningful conversation. Or consider when a home feels safe and peaceful, welcoming and filled with loving care. When a meal is not simply about fueling the body and a home is more than just four walls and roof, we can experience transcendence.
5. Love Someone
Though heaven in the Christian tradition means that we enjoy life with God, I do not imagine God and me staring at each other for eternity. To be united with God is to be united with all whom God loves. Imagine a wheel with many spokes. The closer the spoke gets to the center of the wheel, the closer the spoke gets to the spokes next to it. To be drawn into the life of God means to be drawn into the life of another.
Heaven is a party, a banquet where everyone has a place at the table. It’s the celebratory feast that the father throws for the prodigal son returning home (Luke 15: 22-23). In the ocean of love we call eternity, all barriers that we put between ourselves on earth dissolve. And there remains only love (1 Corinthians 13:13).
In the words of the dying Jean Valjean in the musical Les Miserables, to love another person is to see the face of God. God is love (1 John 4:8). So to love deeply now is to know in some way what heaven is like.
In Lent, Christians nobly spend time and energy giving up something or doing something. This year, try practicing Easter as well, by noticing and savoring heaven all around us.
Images via Shutterstock.