Making Space for Heavenly Talk

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People often tease me about my aversion to drama. They suggest I may be missing some kind of gene, the emotional one that seems to trigger and be triggered by some kind of emotional experience. But apart from the obvious way that being around persons who were dramatic in my childhood prompted me to look for calmer waters in adulthood, the other reason I am the way I am is death. Blogging about heaven these last several weeks has reminded me how often I am involved in funerals, memorials, celebrations of life. To be so involved is to know persons who are dying, to know those who love them and to spend quality and meaningful time with people who ache with grief over the loss of special people. That sense of “what is it all about” is a heaven-type of conversation and it reinforces for me how small many of our grievances are, how ridiculous our drama can be and how very little of it matters at the end of our lives.

I am not speaking here of grievance as it relates to a parent who abandons us, or an abusive spouse who called us names for 50 years of marriage or a sibling who systematically created a toxic environment for our family to endure. That to me is less a grievance and more of a trauma. And for any trauma there is need for healing, therapy and long lasting work for any kind of hoped for reconciliation. But when I think about the hours, the days, the months, the years and in some cases the decades of grievance over someone not inviting me to a gathering, or a slighted comment someone made at my expense at a party or not being asked to perform some duty at a gathering of friends and co-workers, I do think we will all regret this drama and the time it consumed in our lives.

Of course these dramas and grievances are the direct result of our own compromised self-esteem. All of us have weak points, I don’t like to be teased about my weight or being lazy. I don’t react well to either. My wife says that when someone offers an innocent tease about either of these topic at me in a public space she wants to leave the room before I have a chance to respond. It’s usually not pretty. But I do know that 99% of the sting of these comments is on me, it is not about someone being mean or nasty or intentionally hurtful, it is about my own issues with feeling heavy or lazy. And because I know this, deep down, when the moment passes I do not let it linger. It is not about them, it is about me. If I let such comments get to me accumulate, become the monster grievance can become, I would end up one of those people who carry a list of “hurts” to my grave. And in a heavenly context what we want to focus on in those last weeks, days, hours, is the love we received and the love we gave the truth we experienced and the justice we helped bring to life.

Now that I am older I find myself reminding others and reminding me that these “hurts” will pass, are more about me than others and need to be held in context, as they are small pebbles surrounding an ocean of dynamic relationships and cosmic revelations. Again, there are abusive and painful moments that rupture our identity, these experiences need professional help and intentional work. Life is not all a bowl of cherries and naïve positivity is a form of denial, not a healthy way to live. But surely one of the things meant by the Apostle Paul when he wrote to the people of Corinth, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” is that as we mature we learn to separate the childish from the adult. Surely we must learn to separate the small and petty grievances from the life-changing traumas that require healing and work. If we don’t do this work, if we don’t mature, then the result is surely a large chunk of our time consumed with grievance that has much more to do with me than others. Heavenly conversations, talk that lasts and makes life worthwhile, needs space to breathe and the attention to be imitated by those we leave behind.

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Something About Heaven

Something about Heaven by Katie Munnik       

The Presbyterian Record – December 9, 2013

Last week, Plum and I went to a drop-in playgroup hosted by a local church. I’m one of the regulars there – for the past couple of years, Blue and I made a habit of going, but now it’s Plum’s turn. He is perhaps a bit small still, but the coffee and chat (and habitual cake) are good for me, I think. And I can tell myself that you are never too young for stories and songs. More or less and maybe.

You see, the story last week was about heaven. There’s been a bit of a theme running about houses and this was the last in that series, looking at heaven as God’s house. The woman telling the story read out a bit from the book of Revelations and told the children about how the heavenly city of God would be made of precious gems. She showed them her engagement ring, but I’m not sure the kids really “got” it.

I wondered afterwards about the first readers and hearers of Revelations – those persecuted early Christians who could understand the symbolism of these visions and find strength for their faith in the luminous descriptions. I suspect that in their daily life, gold and gems were the stuff of the imagination. Not only unattainable for a struggling people, these riches were largely unseen. They might be glimpsed in the glitter of priests’ garments or adorning a shining king. But those glimpses would inevitably be few and far between. Today, we might ogle (and google for that matter) celebrities’ extreme wealth from the privacy of our own homes – connected as we are to the larger world through the internet of course, and also through print media, movies and television. But in a culture without mass communication, that kind of experience of wealth would have been unseen by most. Jewels were things that must be imagined.

In the lectionary reading from Isaiah this week, we have a vision of the Messiah akin to this kind of vision of heaven in Revelations.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.

Again, the unattainable is described, and what has only ever been glimpsed will be seen clearly. What a song for advent! Justice bright as jewels, words full of longing for blessing, full of a people’s memory of God’s creating hand, God’s firm covenant with all creation. This redemption is as yet unattainable but so longed for. In this song, the people’s memory and hopes are gathered together beautifully and as we read them in the light of our Advent candles, they shine.

I wonder about connecting these songs to images that children might find easier to understand. The newspapers have been full of images of people marking Nelson Mandela’s death, and our children have been curious about his story. We’ve spoken with them about injustice and bad laws, and peoples’ hopes for equality and freedom.  They may not understand the politics, nor even what 27 years in prison means, but in the story, they glimpse something of Isaiah and John’s visions.

Meanwhile, there’s a new Julia Donaldson book which has recently been added to the children’s bookshelf here. It’s called The Paper Dolls. The dolls in the course of their adventures make their way into a little girl’s memory:

“where they found white mice and fireworks, and a starfish soap, and a kind granny, and the butterfly hairslide, and more and more lovely things each day and each year.”

There’s been great debate here as to whether the kind granny has died or if she, like our own collection of grandmothers, just lives very far away. We haven’t made up our mind. Memory is a vibrant and elastic place. But we do know that these remembered things are kept safe somehow. Like all the good things we remember. They might be unattainable at present. Or as of yet only hoped for. Glimpsed and longed for. But kept safely. Like the hopes of the people as sung by Isaiah. The vision in John’s Revelation of a bright and precious heaven. The hope we hold for God’s good work among us. The prayers for peace for Africa and everywhere that we shared in church last week.

Looking and Listening For Heaven

Yesterday we celebrated the life of the late Doris Phillips, many of you knew her. Her husband Bill is here every Sunday and most everyone in Halifax knows Bill! To help me shape the theme and tone of the celebration I met with Bill and his two sons Dave and Peter. What they shared with me were stories about Doris that described someone who witnessed to a love she felt for nature, for friends, for new experiences and for her kin. I was struck by the difference in this conversation as opposed to many I have about someone who has died. No one in the room was trying to convince me or themselves that Doris merited a celebration, that she had earned some honour, or that this celebration would be a litany of her achievements and accomplishments. Rather, the description offered was one of witness, what Doris saw she engaged, she entered into, she came to be part of life.

In Christopher Morse’s book The Difference Heaven Makes: Rehearing the Gospel as News the heaven that is described is less a building where those deemed worthy go and received their eternal reward and more a given way of living that God gives to us as a gift, here on earth, that we are called to witness and live out. Morse says this gift that we receive often comes in the form of parables, a mysterious story about real persons doing real things that don’t always make sense in our “real” world. Morse says it begs the question, what is the “real” world anyway? If heaven calls us to live differently than the “world” or our current culture demands we believers in Jesus are forced to make a decision, to choose between heaven and what is. Thus Jesus’ words, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” If the kingdom is coming, if it is real in heaven, then surely our calling as Christians is to witness the reality of this kingdom as it comes to earth as it has in heaven.

Morse writes, “the teachings of Jesus contain the heavenly state of affairs that are at hand not in hand. This is expressed in parables, as Matthew 13:34 explains, Jesus told the crowds all things come in parables, without a parable he told them nothing. Jesus used parables because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” In other words, for us to truly comprehend the message of Jesus one must hear with a new clarity, see with a new vision, understand with a new heart and a new mind.

Morse further points to Paul’s letter to the Galatians chapter 4, verses 4-6 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son…in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” There is also Galatians 1:4 Jesus came to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. “This invasion of God has come to liberate us from the powers of the present evil age…the gospel is not about human movement into blessedness; it’s about God’s liberating invasion of the cosmos.”

And what do these parables of heaven reveal to us about heaven? Morse says that “the imminence of heaven comes in ordinary, earthly realities such as a sower of seed, a grain of mustard seed when it is sowed, leaven in bread, treasure in a hidden field, a merchant seeking pearls, a fishing net, a king seeking to settle accounts, a householders seeking to hire labourers, a royal host inviting guests to a wedding feast, or ten bridesmaids with their lamps going at night to meet the bridegroom.” There is a clear sense in these parables of seeking, of the intent to redeem, of the surprise that comes when it is smallest, the least, the most unlikely, who is being sought and who offers a reflection of the kingdom, of heaven.

Hear these words of scripture:

Matthew 13:16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.

Mark 4:9 And Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

Mark 8:18 Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?

To know this Jesus, to understand this kingdom, to experience this heaven one must see differently, ear differently than the way we have been taught. There is a required adjustment, a realignment, a new lens, a new heart, a new mind. And we are called, with this new vision, to be discerning and open and watchful of the heaven that is at hand, not in hand.

Karl Barth is arguably the great theologian of the 20th century. His works of theology have stood the test of time and he is frequently referenced by the great theologians of our time. Before he was writing dense texts of theology Barth served as a country pastor and Morse was able to find an old sermon when Barth shared with his country parish his understanding of this heaven. “And when heaven comes to us it brings the higher world down to the lower. It is the kingdom in which the kingship means that the forces of what is in principle the unseen and heavenly world assume form and enter the earthly world and become active in it.”

When I was Lucy’s age I was obsessed with coins and treasurers that had been covered with layers of dirt/earth over time. I had this metal detector and would go to Point Pleasant Park, beaches, public places, and place the detector over the surface I was covering on foot. I would spend hours and hours, unfortunately all I ever recovered were a few quarters and some rather worthless rings and watches. To this day I now walk with one eye to those passing by or coming the other way and the other eye on the ground, looking for “treasure” people have dropped or tossed away. I will tell you I have found a lot of money over the years! But I want you to know the most amazing things, people, experiences I have found were heavenly ones, when I witnessed heaven in my midst, when I saw/heard Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. I remain vigilant, aware of what is going on around me, and eager to engage what God is placing in my path, our path. I pray you will feel likewise, that you will know this heaven and want to engage it, witness to it and celebrate it. Heaven is like a buried treasure, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. Indeed, it is. Amen.

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