The Heaven I Thought I Knew



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?