The Heaven I Thought I Knew

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A_Diana

Several decades ago, I stopped talking about heaven as if it were up there somewhere in the ethereal blue sky, far away from the life we know here.

The pictures of heaven that were painted for me when I was a child were not particularly attractive. The idea of sitting around on a cloud, strumming a harp and singing non-stop just didn’t cut it with my 9-year-old self. It doesn’t cut it with my 70-year-old self, either—and this self is a heckuva lot closer to actually seeing heaven than that 9-year-old was.

When I took a course on Revelation in seminary, I was struck by the power of the worship described in that book. I was pushed to re-think my whole concept of an eternity spent with God. I began to wonder about all that non-stop singing and to question the sort of rootless, purposeless existence a cloud-sitting, harp-strummer would have to endure in the heaven-I-thought-I-knew.

Maybe heaven is a place where there are many good things to do, maybe even good work to do? The highly metaphorical language of Revelation tells us there are rivers and trees and a garden—so who cares for those? There is also a magnificent city, glistening in the light of an eternal sun—who keeps that place running? There are all kinds of people there, streaming up the road to join in the celebration. Where will they live and what do they do?

Maybe heaven is a place where the learning we begin here on Earth continues, where we can try all different kinds of instruments and not get stuck with harps. There might be lots of lovely things to look at and wonder about, to plan for and bring to fruition. Maybe heaven is a place of catching-up and catching-on, of finding exactly the right rhythm of working and resting. It could be that Heaven is where we discover more and more layers to love and kindness and strength and wonder.

Now this is a heaven I can dream about and actually look forward to!

I began to read about the Celts in ancient Britain and France and about what they described as “thin places”—spots or times here on earth where we brush up against the reality of heaven in the here-and-now. That really made me look at this world we live in and the world that is to come with a different set of eyes.

What if heaven is actually right in front of our noses, near enough to touch and yet completely removed from us because it is in a different dimension? I know, I know—cue the spooky sci-fi music! But really stop and think about it.

We worship the Unseen God, and yet that same God is here, right? When we lose a loved one, we can sometimes feel an almost palpable echo of their presence still with us. Or, on the flip side, when we sit at the bedside of someone who is making that final passage, we know this truth: their bodies are right there in front of us … but they are gone. I do not pretend to understand any of this; I just know that thinking about it touches some really deep places in me.

So I will mention a few of the times when I’ve found myself in a thin place, and I’ll let you sit with those for a while and draw your own conclusions, okay?

  • At 2:00 a.m. in the morning, about twelve hours after I said farewell to a much-loved parishioner who was dying, I sat bolt upright in bed and said to my husband, “Tim was just here!” Ten minutes later, the hospice nurse calling to say Tim had passed away at the exact moment I awoke.
  • My beloved spiritual director instructed me to sit and look long at the ocean until the ocean begins looking back at me. Sounds weird, right? But something happens inside me when I take the time to do this—and it takes about an hour—there comes a flash, a moment, an insight where I “hear,” clearly and kindly, God’s voice telling me how loved I am, even in my smallness. It takes resting in the bigness of the ocean for me to receive this gift.
  • Climbing the hill on an island off the west coast of Ireland to stand in the ruins of an ancient monastic community, I can “see” their prayers rising like the flocks of birds that are physically in front of me.

Heaven is real and heaven is close. Earth and heaven are connected in ways that are mysterious and amazing. Can I hear an Amen?? How have you experienced the presence of God/the reality of heaven in a ‘thin place’ in your life?

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Diana Trautwein
Married to her college sweetheart for over 40 years, Diana is always wondering about things. She answers to Mom from their three adult kids and spouses and to Nana from their 8 grandkids, ranging in age from 3 to 22. For 17 years, after a mid-life call to ministry, she answered to Pastor Diana in two churches where she served as Associate Pastor. Since retiring at the end of 2010, she spends her time working as a spiritual director and writes on her blog, Just Wondering. For as long as she can remember, Jesus has been central to her story and the church an extension of her family. Not that either church or family is exactly perfect . . . but then, that’s what makes life interesting, right?
Diana Trautwein

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  • Saskia Wishart

    Oh I love this. The clouds and harps never sat well with me either. But those thin places, oh they are fuel.

    • pastordt

      Amen. they ARE fuel.

      • Daniel Dale

        “Heaven” by Randy Alcorn is a real eye opener. My Dad is about to start teaching a bible study and I got to read the study notes.Amazing.

        • pastordt

          I’ve heard about that book – I’ll have to check it out. Thanks, Daniel.

  • HBurns

    Thanks for these beautiful thoughts to ponder Diana. xo

    • pastordt

      You’re welcome, Helen — thanks for stopping by and offering encouragement.

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  • Bev Murrill

    No clouds and harps for me either, sister… so it seems lots of us are agreed on that, no matter how good they look/sound from a distance. I love that in your heaven we can get on with our work and keep catching up and catching on…that’s awesome! I’ve still got a lot of room to get to know some more stuff; so glad I don’t have to stop learning/doing when I take my last breath.

    • pastordt

      I sorta figured we were on the same page here, Bev. Thanks for your encouragement – as always!

  • Olivia Ryan

    Beautiful…how i can’t wait to see that shimmering river and experience the glory that we will behold on that day. I can’t wait to feel the pressure of time lifted and the “pressure of catching up and catching on” perhaps. Amazing food for thought this beautiful Saturday morning. And the FOOD!! I cannot wait for that wedding feast. Loved hearing about your “thin space” encounters.

    • pastordt

      Thanks so much, Olivia.

  • A place for “catching up and catching on.” Yes, I could get into that.
    The writer who makes heaven real for me is C.S. Lewis. In The Last Battle he portrays the Pevensie kids swimming up waterfalls, taking in the beauty, all the while going further up and further in.

    • pastordt

      I agree, Michele – that book was so helpful to me on this topic.

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  • cheriwhite

    Standing at the bedside of my father before he died, I was very aware of the “thin place”. When he had been comatose for several days, he suddenly opened his eyes, looked off to the side of where I was; and with a slow smile crossing his face, he gently said aloud, “Hi Mama”. His mother had passed away many years prior to his passing, but I knew I was experiencing “the thin place”, and I was pretty sure his mama was right there waiting for him to pass through the veil.

    • pastordt

      Oh, how I love this story! I hope something like this happens for my mama when her time comes. Thanks so much, Cheri.

  • Julie Cochrane

    I was 17 yrs old. It was my final year of school and I was at an ISCF camp. Sitting in an old stone chapel during morning devotions, I was suddenly enveloped in what seemed to be bright, warm light. I was overwhelmed by a deep sense of being loved – not in the human sense, but in a spiritual sense. As the service concluded the preacher became aware of my tears and anxiously asked if I was OK. I was unable to speak. Sometime later I realised the Chapel was now empty, and the preacher had wisely left me there alone to enjoy the presence of God.
    Years later, there was an occasion when I experienced another ‘thin place’ in my life. My son was 3yrs old. He was racing as fast as his little legs would carry him along the grassy patch beside a busy road. He could not hear me calling him to stop. He thought I was chasing him. He was laughing, and oblivious to a speeding on-coming car. As he turned to look for me, he ran out onto the road. I screamed. As the car veered away from him, I saw Ben lifted up from the ground and gently placed over on the grass, several metres away from the road – I am convinced it was angelic intervention.

    • pastordt

      WOW, Julie! Amazing story about your boy. Beautiful and mysterious. Thanks so much for sharing these two lovely experiences here.

    • This is so beautiful, Julie.

  • Sandy Hay

    I’m right with you and Bev. I think we must have had similar Sunday school teaching which certainly got in the way for many years. so glad for better teaching, books and a heart that’s willing to change 🙂

    • pastordt

      Me, too, Sandy. Me, too.

  • Lynn D. Morrissey

    Actually, Diana, gotta tell you: I LOVE the harp, and always wished I could play one. Truly! When all’s perfect in heaven, I picture myself plucking one and zinging glissandos with ease. But I assure you, I wouldn’t one want of those rinky-dinky ones that I’d have to hold and pluck upon my lap (reminding me of those dumb autoharps we had in school), and to try to balance the thing while I am wobbling around and slipping through cumulous casltes in the air. No siree. I want me a proper harp! 🙂 All kidding aside, Diana, I loved reading all you have expressed here, because which of us, if we don’t have our eyes open, has God not privileged to perceive His reality and the reality of the other side through those thin places of life? I’ve had those moments rarely, but I’ve had them. One was in an unassuming place, in a coffee shop, when I was depressed and needed desperately to know God’s presence. I was writing about this darkness in my journal, and it happened to be a rainy, dark day. Just as I wrote about the permeating gloom, a bright gleam of light shot through a cloud—a crepuscular spoke from the wheel of the sun, that had been hiding behind the clouds. The shaft beamed straight through the shop’s window, right on my shoulder, warming my soul and illuminating my journal page like a spotlight. At that moment, God was palpable, and I know He was manifesting His warm and comforting presence to me. It’s sad that many teachers have done us a disservice with baseless interpretations of what heaven is and talk of the Rapture, which I personally feel is faulty. Yes, we die, but we’re not whisked away above the clouds. Jesus returns in His second coming, and the dead rise, and we will live with our glorious, resurrected Lord, in our resurrected bodies in the new heavens and the new earth. Heaven comes down and all things on earth are transformed and renewed. God restores the earth as it was originally, only far, far better. So yes, I think you are right on target. We will be eternally occupying the new earth, and we will be enjoying its glory and using our gifts to serve the Lord–but eternally and perfectly. I can hardly imagine it. I have really appreciated reading about the “Reformed” view on this topic, because it has given me such hope, and because it has really resonated with me as true. One book you might consider reading is Heaven by Randy Alcorn. I can’t fully recommend it, because I have just begun reading it, but it is refreshing and so far, rings true. I’ve experienced so many paradigm, shifts in the last couple of years (biblically speaking), and this is one of them. It’s made me realize that rather than just accept widespread Biblical views as Gospel :-), I need to search out truth for myself. Diana, yours is a beautiful, hopeful, and truthful post, and I thank you so much for sharing.
    Love
    Lynn

    • pastordt

      What a lovely story, Lynn. Thanks so much for sharing it here.

  • Glenda Childers

    Catching up and catching on … I like that.
    Fondly,
    Glenda

    • pastordt

      thanks, Glenda!

  • Oooh, yes. We do need a fresh, more beautiful and more exciting vision of Heaven. Yes. The idea that we’ll be going there only to sit idly does not appeal to me, either. Thank you for this!

    • pastordt

      You’re so welcome, Ganise.

  • Elaine

    I’m glad you wrote about thin places, Diana. Mine happened in my kitchen Christmas 2013 while I was baking cookies while Christmas songs played on the radio. I’ll be Home for Christmas come on and I remembered a dream I had recently experienced about an older brother, stillborn. I’d like to share from a piece I wrote then about what happened that day

    “As the dream memory passed, I thought, Oh! “I’ll be Home for Christmas” is actually my song and William waits for me to come home for Christmas! And in that moment, my simple kitchen became a ‘thin place’ and it was as if I could see through the veil and a robust and glowing man leaned through the portal, grinning – “You’ve got it, Sis! There’s no place like HOME for Christmas!”
    And the timer sounded and the ordinary was all around and I felt my smile and a few gentle tears too as I blew a kiss. I’ll be home for Christmas one day, William, and I know it will be far better than snow and mistletoe and holly!”

    • pastordt

      Oh, I love this, Elaine! Yup, that’s definitely a beautiful thin place. Thanks so much for sharing it here.

  • Louise

    Lovely Piece Diana. I think we should spend more time to think more about heaven. It”s not talked about enough. My ladies group did a study of the Randy Alcorn book – fascinating. There is a thin line between earth and heaven. Sorry to disappoint but clouds do really speak to me. I went to a retreat called Ffald y Brenin last year. All week, beautiful white clouds appeared in a blue sky, I was mesmorised by them. I felt God was asking me to acknowledge the beauty of them, their perfectness. Now when it is a dark day outside, I am always looking for the light that shines through the darkness. It’s always there – that sliver of light shining through the dark clouds. And that is my thin place.

    • pastordt

      Oh Louise, I didn’t mean to deprecate clouds. The opening paragraph, which got cut for this rendition, talked about how I’ve let go of heaven being ‘up there, in the sky’ – so that’s why that image no longer works for me. I believe we’ll see many beautiful clouds in heaven! They’ll just be above us, not beneath us.

      • Louise

        Absolutely. The Alcorn book gets you to think about where you live on earth. But in eternity it will be the best of what you see now. So besides no hurts, poverty etc. flowers will be the brightest colours and most fragrant etc,

        • pastordt

          Yup, that’s the picture I get, too. Cool! Thanks, Louise.

  • Love this beautiful picture of heaven. Yes – I believe it is here and now and in the unfathomable as well. One of the most liberating parts of my Christian journey was letting go of the notion of understanding heaven and learning to live in and work toward restoring this earth.

    • pastordt

      Yes, Annie – I hear that truth. Thank you.

  • “Maybe heaven is a place of catching-up & catching-on, finding the rhythm of work & rest.”

    I really really hope you’re right, Diana.

    Because honestly, “The idea of sitting around on a cloud, strumming a harp and singing non-stop” doesn’t cut it for 33 year old me either.

    The imagery around heaven in this post is like a caffeine shot to the arm. So so exciting.

    I love this post so much. I actually shuddered.

    • pastordt

      Oh, thank you, Tina! So glad this made you shudder — in a good way, I hope!