“I’m having a crisis of imagination,” my wife said to me just the other day. “About heaven.”
It’s been a tough year for our family and those near us. A tragic suicide, followed by the loss of our first grandson. Eight months of chronic pain—the kind only narcotics give you any relief from—ends in a total hip replacement for Stasi. Having lunch with some dear allies, they tell us their nine-year-old boy is going blind. And then a friend calls us a few weeks ago to say her body is shutting down and she has months to live. I could go on; we’ve just been around too much loss, and when you do, you grow weary of this hurting world and wonder if the next chapter is really going to make it all worth it. Thus the comment about heaven.
And it made me sad, because there is such thievery behind that confession. We have been robbed. Our imaginations are victims of identity theft, and we are left utterly broke.
Look at the evidence: What are you fantasizing about? For me, it’s a stream in a canyon that takes massive effort to get to so nobody ever fishes it and I haven’t been there for two years and can’t wait to get there this month with a fly rod and no curfew. I’m fantasizing about a road trip through the west. The evening float we do on the Snake River. Heck—I’m fantasizing about the cinnamon twist from the French bakery and the coffee ice cream I know is in the freezer. It’s human nature to daydream.
And you? What are you fantasizing about these summer days?
Very few people are fantasizing about heaven. And I get it. C.S. Lewis said you can only hope for what you desire, and frankly, most of our images of “heaven” just aren’t that desirable, so it doesn’t fill our souls with hope. I’m glad Stasi named it as a crisis of imagination because that is exactly what it is—not a crisis of doctrine, not even of belief, but of imagination. We can’t conceive of it, so we simply don’t think about it. Vague ideas do not awaken fantasies. The schoolboy does not dream of his wedding night, but the young groom, having relished it, is already dreaming about tomorrow night.
After Stasi confessed the crisis, I simply replied, “Think of the Tetons.” Her face lit up like a young girl who wakes and remembers it is her birthday. I was referring to Grand Teton National Park in the northwest corner of Wyoming, a place where the Rocky Mountain West does some of its best showing off. It also happens to be our favorite family place, filled with summertime joy and adventure. Alpine hikes among cathedral peaks in order to rock jump into cold, clear lakes. Huckleberry picking with black bears. Watching moose and grizzly and bison and bull elk in their happy sanctuary. Canoeing the Snake River at dusk, when mist begins to fill the meadows and wildlife comes out to drink, slipping along silently on the river surrounded by virgin forests and you feel you have stepped into The Last of The Mohicans. For us, it is a magical place.
And that’s the key—imagination needs a magical place. “Think of the Tetons,” I said, and suddenly her face looked 10 years younger, and I went on, “There you go—that’s the Kingdom.”
Now—is this just wishful thinking? Am I just offering a kind of vapid comfort, a sweet and syrupy all-dogs-go-to-heaven kind of theology?
Buckle your seatbelts.
One of the most stunning things Jesus ever said, one of the most absolutely-blow-your-mind revelations that nobody seems to have paid much attention to is this:
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne…everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. (Matthew 19:28-29)
Pay very close attention to that first part: “the renewal of all things.” Jesus describes the next chapter of our lives as the restoration of everything we love. A claim so wildly bold and outlandishly hopeful how can we not have this tattooed on every part of our body? A revelation repeated in Acts, and (pardon) Revelation:
For [Jesus] must remain in heaven until the time for the final restoration of all things, as God promised long ago through his holy prophets. (Acts 3:21)
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Rev. 21:5)
The renewal of all things simply means that the earth you love—all your special places and treasured memories—are completely restored and renewed and given back to you. Forever. Eden was our home, and Eden is our destiny.
But nobody seems to have heard this or paid much attention to it, because, for one thing, nobody I know is fantasizing about it. When was the last time you eavesdropped on a conversation at Starbucks about the restoration of all things? And for another thing, everybody I talk to still has these sick, wispy views of “heaven,” as a place up there somewhere, where we go to attend the eternal-worship-service-in-the-sky. I don’t even like the word heaven any more because it has been so saturated with religious poisons, leaching in from underground like the water table poisoned by a toxic waste dump.
Meanwhile we fantasize about that boat we’d love to get, or the trip to Patagonia, the chocolate éclair or the girl in cubicle next door. Of course we do—we are made for utter happiness.
But the restoration of all things—now that would change everything.
Which brings me back to imagination, the Tetons, and the message summer is singing to us.
God speaks through nature. Can we just start there?—God clearly speaks through nature. Creation is no accident—it is a proclamation. A wild, bold declaration. (This will rescue you from so many things; pay very close attention.) Every day sunrise and sunset remember Eden’s glory and prophesy Eden’s return.
So what is summer proclaiming? Allow me a story.
Last week I spent two very long days in the hospital with a friend. Hospitals are melancholy places. Don’t get me wrong—they can also be places of immense relief and hope. I think the people that serve there have taken a heroic stand on the side of hope. But let’s be honest—on the user side, no one there is there because they want to be; they are there because something is wrong, usually very wrong. It is a community of the hurting. People don’t play pick-up games of Frisbee in the halls of hospitals. You don’t hear folks loudly cracking jokes. The corridors are filled with hushed tones and a shared sobriety. Apart from the maternity floor, the staff, patients, concerned visitors all agree, This is serious business. Somebody could be dying in that room you just walked by.
I’d just spent 48 hours in a hospital room with my dear love and I had slipped into that place where you come to think this is all there is in the world—monitors going off all day long, staff coming in and out with urgency, hushed hallway conversations, the stupor of drug-induced rest, the IV and cold rooms and artificial everything. I left at 5:30 to go grab us some dinner, and as I stepped outside I was literally hit with a wave of the glory of a summer evening. It was wonderfully warm. The cumulus clouds were building towers for their evening show. Meadowlarks across the field were singing and singing. I could smell flowers; the aspens were shimmering. All the wonderful fragrances and feelings of summer.
It was like experiencing The Renewal of All Things.
Summer is God’s rescue from all the creepy things we’ve been taught about heaven. Summer is the annual pageant on behalf of The Restoration of All Things, all nature practically shouting at us because we are tone deaf. That’s why you love it so much. We pack up the car and head to the lake or the park; we break out the grill and have friends over, laughing late into the starlit evening; we dive into waters and bake in the sun and in this way we get a good, deep drink of the Great Restoration.
Drink it in friends. Let it speak. You don’t need a bucket list, because all of it is yours, forever. Very soon.
I had lain down under the shadow of a great, ancient beech-tree, that stood on the edge of the field. As I lay, with my eyes closed, I began to listen to the sound of the leaves overhead. At first, they made sweet inarticulate music alone; but, by-and-by, the sound seemed to begin to take shape, and to be gradually molding itself into words; till, at last, I seemed able to distinguish these, half-dissolved in a little ocean of circumfluent tones: "A great good is coming—is coming—is coming to thee…" (George MacDonald, Phantastes)