Pie in the Sky
by Fr. Jack McArdle
Heaven is a state of being, rather than some place to which we go. It is being in God, and living with him, and allowing him live in me. What makes heaven so mysterious is that we think of it as something that comes after we die. I think that is a great mistake. There is nothing I will get when I die that I am not offered now.
The difference between now and hereafter, is that the struggle will be over, the tensions will be gone, the weeds among the wheat will be burned, and I will have arrived. I will have arrived where? I will have arrived as good wheat in the store-house of the Lord, as part of a harvest that is saved, and that can no longer be choked with weeds, or flattened by wind and rain. The wheat won't be any better than it was before the harvest; it will, however, be safer.
Please remember that the struggles and the tensions are good, because that's what life is. If God gave me a choice of perfection now, I would turn it down flat, because I would have no further reason to live. Any compassion and empathy I have has come out of my struggles with my own brokenness, and any worthwhile growth in my life has always been at times of conflict. If I really took the Lord seriously, and came to believe his promises, I would see my life now as being full of opportunities, rather than burdened with problems. To the fool every opportunity is a problem, but to the wise every problem is an opportunity.
We go back to the raisins in the scone again. Of course, there are weaknesses, but, a million times more important than that is the power that is made available to me. As the children today sing, as part of the First Communion programme, "Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, heaven is in my heart." Wouldn't it be wonderful if these children believed that, and did not think of heaven as something that happens after we die? And especially as something that I have to spend my life earning, and saving up for!
This is like re-inventing the wheel, as if Jesus hasn't done enough to bring heaven down here among us. When Jesus went down into the Jordan river, we are told that the heavens opened, the Father's voice was heard, and the Spirit came upon Jesus in visible form. When Jesus bowed his head on Calvary, the veil of the temple was torn in two, the veil that separated the people from the Holy of Holies, which was thought of as being the dwelling of God. From that moment, as St. Paul says, we can come boldly into the presence of God, assured of his acceptance, because of what Jesus Christ has done for us.
In the Mass we say "Lord, by your cross and resurrection, you have set us free. You are the saviour of the world." Would that we really believed that! If we believed that, we would not be working our tails off to earn or merit something that is ours already, if we would only accept it. I would strongly argue that my Christian vocation has nothing to do with getting to heaven, but has everything to do with getting heaven down here. I often think that it is much more difficult to get heaven into people, than to get people into heaven.
Let me return, for a moment, to the struggles, tensions, and failures that are part of our journey on this earth. Have you ever examined a tapestry from both sides? On top, it is a work of art, and a joy to behold. Underneath, there's neither beginning nor end to it, with wool, and bits of twine going all over the place. That's our view of life, and, I believe that God has a very different view. God sees from above, we can only see from below.
Imagine, if you can, a huge oil painting stretching the length of a wall, and the scene is one of extraordinary beauty. Now cover the painting with a cloth, and cut out a small hole in the cloth, to reveal just a tiny part of the scenery. That's my view of the over-all scene. At death, the cloth is whipped away, and the full scene is unveiled. What I had been able to see is still there, but, it is now part of the complete picture, and I see it as something that is very much part of a much bigger scene. I am now like someone standing in a large cardboard box, and I cannot see out over the sides of the box. At death, the sides of the box fall away, and I look around, with a gasp of wonder, at the vast expanse of beauty that surrounds me, something that had been there all the time, but, with the limitations of my humanity, I was unable to even imagine.
What I am saying is that it is all here now, even if I cannot see it. When I look into the distance, I cannot see beyond the horizon, even though I know there is so much more out there. I share the limitations with my fellow-travellers, even though we all know there is much more to it than that.
Life, now, is living within the limits. Life, for us, is to live the now fully, and leave the future to the Lord. I need never worry what the future holds, if I believe that the Lord holds the future. Jesus has come among us, to walk the journey with us, and he is most insistent in telling us that he will never abandon us, or desert us in the storm. So much of the gospel stories have to do with my journey now, than with the lives of people then.
I remember crossing the Sea of Galilee, with a group, and we stopped the boat, and spent about two hours reflecting on passages from the gospels. Those passages were about storms, about terror, about panic, and about fishing all night, without success. It brought the gospel very much alive and present for us all. The gospel is now, and I am every person in the gospel. .
I cannot emphasise enough that the struggles, tensions, and failures of life are the very things that make life worthwhile. Without these, I would have no compassion, empathy, or sense of fellowship with those with whom I travel the journey of life. I honestly believe that, viewed from beyond the gates of death, these same struggles and failures will be seen very differently from how they may appear now.
A young lad found a caterpillar in his back garden, and when someone told him that it would break out of its covering, and, eventually, become a butterfly, he decided that he could assist it in the process. So he broke open the covering, and released the caterpillar from within, and, of course, it promptly shrivelled up and died. He did not know that the struggle involved in freeing itself from the crysalis, or covering, was absolutely necessary for it to have enough strength to fly, and to go on living. If you ever waken up some morning, and your life is really together, and the struggles are no more, then, please don't move....stay where you are, and wait for the undertaker...because you have arrived at the third and final stage of life.
St. Paul asks the question, "Having given us Jesus, will the Father not surely give us everything else?" God will always provide me with what I need, and, thankfully, not everything I want. If God was sadistic and cruel, he would grant me everything I ask, and then have a good laugh, because much of what I ask for may not be for my good.
This man died, and found himself in a place that seemed quite pleasant. When he felt hungry, a young lad came in, with a tray of food. When he felt thirsty, the lad re-appeared with a selection of drinks. As he grew tired, a bed appeared out of the wall, and he slept. As time went by, he noticed that, as soon as he felt like something, it was instantly provided. This was very good, for a while, but, eventually, the whole thing became so predictable that he was wondering was there going to be any variety in this kind of life, or was life always going to be more and more of everything.
Finally, one day, he called the young lad, and asked him if he was ever to be without something in this place. The lad replied that such would never happen. "But", asked the man, "even things I only half-want, but don't really need, is that always going to be provided?" "Oh, yes", replied the lad. The idea of the day-in day-out predictable nature of life, did not at all appeal to the man, and he muttered, "With life like this, I am beginning to think that I might be better off in hell", to which the lad replied, "And where, do you think, you are?"
Religion has always focused our eyes on getting to heaven. It was as if, by sheer volume of prayer and effort, I could build a stairway. We were told that life here is a valley of tears, where we are miserable exiles, and are not supposed to really love this life. I would agree with that idea if I had been in Egypt with the Jews, or been following Moses through the desert for forty years. There was a Promised Land up ahead, and it was towards that my attention would have been directed.
I believe that Jesus has changed all of that, and nothing is now the same. Jesus brought heaven down on earth, and the first night he appeared at Bethlehem, the angels came with him. Again, I quote St. Paul, who wrote that having given us Jesus won't the Father surely give us everything else? There is a religious science with a big name, called Eschatology. Now Eschatology tells us that what will come, and I am referring to heaven here, is already here, but will be completed later. It speaks of now, but not yet, just as we might sail down a river in a boat, knowing that, eventually, this river will join with the sea, but, like the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic ocean, it will still continue to move, it will still be water.
I saw a poster one time which said "I believe there is a sea, because I have seen a stream." The real work and function of the stream is what it contributes along its journey ; the animals that drink, the land it irrigates, the fish that spawn. The purpose of the stream is not to make the ocean any fuller. Our life is an end in itself, and it must not be dismissed as some sort of Purgatory, which the catechism used define as " a state or place of punishment, where some souls suffer for a while before they get to heaven."
I would argue strongly that my life, as a Christian, is to make myself available to the Lord, so that he can continue to get heaven down here. There are people on this earth living in hell, and my role is to bring heaven to them, in any way I can. " Make me a channel of your peace ; where there is hatred, let me bring your love ; where there is despair, let me bring your hope, and where there is hunger, let me bring your food." That, I believe, is my Christian vocation. Religion, that would have me concentrated on making sure I myself got to heaven, would be selfishness of the worst kind. It is not possible to bring light to others, and continue to remain in darkness myself. To refer to another song on the First Communion programme, "Christ has no body now but yours ; no hands, no feet, no voice on earth, but yours."
A group of five men arrived at a railway station, to get a train home, after a business conference. They were rushing across the platform to get on the train, before it pulled out, when one of them accidentally tipped a table with apples on it, where somebody had a stall. One of the other men, who was trying to be a Christian, and who genuinely believed that everybody is important, shouted to the others to go ahead, and he would get the next train. He returned to the stall, to find a ten-year-old boy sitting on a chair beside the apples, and the boy was blind. His mother had gone across to a shop to get something.
The man collected the apples that had scattered on the ground, stacked up those that were undamaged, and put some damaged ones to one side. He gave the boy a few dollars to cover the ones that were damaged, and, as he was leaving, he said, "I'm sorry for what has happened, and I hope we have not spoiled your day." He had turned away to leave, when the boy whispered to him, "Excuse me, sir,....but...but..are you Jesus?" And that, my friends, is exactly what my Christian vocation should involve.
While the apostles travelled around with Jesus, they witnessed many wonders, and they heard wonderful news, as they heard him speak. It is extraordinary, therefore, that when they were alone with him, they asked him to teach them to pray. He taught them the "Our Father". It is a prayer that is worth reflecting on, because it gives a really good insight into the mind of Jesus. The prayer is really about down here, down here, right now. Even when it does mention heaven, it prays that this might become a reality here among us, where life might become more and more as it is in heaven. In this prayer, we ask God to forgive us as we forgive each other right now, and we ask just for what we need today.
On the morning of the Ascension, as Jesus left their sight, the apostles were reminded, quite dramatically, of something Jesus had told them. Two men in brilliant white clothes appeared to them, and asked them why they were looking up to heaven. Jesus had told them very clearly where he was now to be found. He would be found among the hungry, the deprived, the marginalised, and the homeless. In Cry the Beloved Country, Alan Paton writes, "Do not look for me just in sanctuaries, or in the precise words of theologians, or in the calm of the countryside. Look for me in the place where people are struggling for their very survival as human beings."
A man, who had often wondered what hell and heaven might look like, had a dream one night. In the dream he was firstly brought to see hell. He was very surprised to find that hell consisted of a very large room, with a long table down the centre, and the table was laden down with the most delicious food. What amazed him, however, was that all the people around the table were miserable, and completely malnourished, because each had two five-foot-long chopsticks, and they were not able to get the food up to their mouths.
He then was taken to see heaven, and he was even more surprised to find that heaven was also a large room, with a long table down the centre, and the table was laden down with delicious food. Once again, each person had five-foot-long chopsticks, but, things were totally different here, and they all looked very happy and well nourished, as each picked up food with the chopsticks, and fed the person sitting opposite.
And that, in a nut-shell is the difference between heaven and hell, and both are available to us here. I don't believe that God sends us anywhere when we die; rather, I think, he eternalises the direction our lives are taking now. I believe that I am to be his touch-person in the lives of others. One of my own favourite prayers is "Lord, may your Spirit within me touch the hearts of those I meet today, either through the words I say, the prayers I pray, the life I live, or the person I am." Once again, it is about being a channel of his peace.
Martin Luther King used love to quote "You write a new page of the gospel each day, by the things that you do, and the words that you say. People read what you write, whether faithful or true. What is the gospel according to you?" Without wishing to hold one church above another, it is accepted that the Protestant churches are seen to be more into evangelising, or preaching the gospel to unbelievers, than the Catholic church. I believe that this has happened because the Catholic church has always maintained that its greatest force for evangelising is the example and witness of its members.
I always think of Christianity as being more about attracting than promoting, of people asking to join my church, more than me trying to coax them in. If my example doesn't do it, my words certainly won't. The only way this world can become better is when people become better. The best influence I can have in that process is when I myself face up to what, in me, is in need of being redeemed; when I am prepared to name, claim, and tame my own demons.
It was a Saturday afternoon, and a father was taking care of his children while his wife had gone shopping. The weather was bad, so they were indoors, and the children were getting under his feet, every time he moved. He decided on a plan to occupy them. He found a magazine, in which there was a map of the world. He got a scissors, and cut the map into many pieces, and gave this to a seven-year-old, as a jig-saw. He then began devising projects for the others.
Within about five minutes, he was both surprised and disgusted when he saw that the seven-year-old had completed the jig-saw. He asked him how he had completed the work so quickly, and was surprised to hear the lad say "Daddy, I didn't know what the world should look like, and I didn't know where to begin. Then I turned over the pieces, and I discovered there was a man on the other side ; so when I put the man together, I found that the world was together as well."
The whole story is all about on-going Incarnation, which continues in and through all of us. In the final analysis, it about being Christ to others, and seeing Christ in others. In the following chapter, I will develop this further, as we look at how we can do this. Once I come to believe that, because of what Jesus has done, I am saved, then it becomes important for me to begin to look saved!
When I leave all of the future in the Lord's hands, and come back into today, I begin to give this day all that I have. It is only when I experience reconciliation within my own life, that I can begin to be an instrument of reconciliation in the lives of others. Another song I like is "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me."
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Come 'Ere Till I Tell You copyright © Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.