On heaven

Belfast, N. Ireland

Lately, I have been musing over the concept of heaven, and what we might mean when we say it. Though I’ll say this anyway, it certainly goes without saying that all of us claiming Christianity (not to mention other faith traditions that have similar notions) have significantly nuanced understandings of heaven – ranging from images of pearly gates, golden streets, glassy lakes, and mansions to perspectives that suggest that any notion of an extraterrestrial, afterlife experience is simply misguided.

For your consideration, I want to present to you a song by Brett Dennen called Heaven. I find the ideas he puts forward here quite compelling. Partake in his verse below (and watch the video if you want to hear the song) and then I will briefly muse upon it:

Heaven by Brett Dennen

Beyond the rules of religion,
The cloth of conviction,
Above all the competition,
Where fact and fiction meet,

There’s no color lines, castes, or classes.
There’s no fooling the masses.
Whatever faith you practice,
Whatever you believe.

Heaven.
What the hell is Heaven?
Is there a home for the homeless?

Is there hope for the hopeless?

Throw away your misconceptions,
There’s no walls around heaven.
There’s no code you gotta know to get in.
No minutemen or border patrol.

You must lose your earthly possessions,
Leave behind your weapons.
You cannot buy your salvation,
And there is no pot of gold.

Heaven.
What the hell is Heaven?
Is there a home for the homeless?
Is there hope for the hopeless?

Heaven ain’t got no prisons,
No government and no business.
No banks or politicians,
No armies and no police.

Castles and cathedrals crumble,
Pyramids and pipelines tumble,
The failure keeps you humble,
And leads us closer to peace.

Heaven.
What the hell is Heaven?
Is there a home for the homeless?
Is there hope for the hopeless?
Is there a home for the homeless?
Is there hope for the hopeless?

Dennen suggests we move beyond the confines of religious dogmatism and seek to understand heaven in two basic, beautiful questions:

Is there a home for the homeless?

Is there hope for the hopeless?

In the end – I hear Brett asking – what else matters? The way we so often talk about heaven actually seems to preclude any possibility of the homeless, poor, abandoned sinner partaking in such a beloved community. As singer-songwriter Derek Webb writes in his song Heaven, a piece that tells the story of a homeless person who died, the unhoused wayfarer journeys to heaven but could not find the door:

Oh, I have been to heaven,
and I have walked the streets,
But I couldn’t find a hand to hold
To keep my on my feet.

So paradise is a parking lot.
A spot up front is your reward.
And all the rest walk down streets of gold
To the house they could afford.

Webb exposes here our notions of merit-based access to God’s presence (for in the end, this is heaven is it not – dwelling in God’s presence?). If heaven is earned, what place does the grace of God play? Rather, as Dennen sings, “you cannot buy your salvation/ and there is no pot of gold.” For Dennen, heaven is a place where all the idolatrous notions of our day to day existence, all the ways we seek to isolate ourselves from others, all the ways we seek to keep ourselves safe from our enemies (through prisons, armies, border patrol, guns), all of them cease to be. As St. Augustine suggested, the borders of the city of God are those of peace. But perhaps we should keep in mind here the biblical notion of peace, that is, shalom, wholeness, good creation. The borders of God’s city are those of wholeness and well-being for all, a beloved community in which no one is above anyone else, and all are provided for. In short, in God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, there is an economy of enough.

Southern Baptist preacher, Civil Rights defender, and idol-crasher Will D. Campbell once described heaven by saying that in heaven, Golda Meir (former Israeli prime minister) will chase Adolf Hitler around for 1,000 years. When she catches him, she will pin a Star of David on his shirt, and they will both fellowship cheerfully together. First of all, we are all probably shocked that in Campbell’s idea of heaven, both Golda Meir and Hitler are present. Secondly, for Campbell, the simple truth was, in heaven, we are all reconciled. All is forgiven. When asked to sum up the gospel in ten words or less, Campbell – frustrated to be forced to make such a drastic simplification – blurted out, “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.”

I suppose at the end of my musings (or rather in the midst of them, for musing is an ongoing process) what I find so compelling are the questions of Dennen’s song: “Is there a home for the homeless? Is there hope for the hopeless?” They stay with me, constantly tapping at my intentions and religious pursuits, asking me to reconsider what is most important. Jesus said often that the kingdom of heaven is here, now, among us. If heaven exists here in our midst, in what ways are we participating in its manifestation? If in heaven we have no guns, no armies, no police, no banks or politicians, no government, no prisons or poorhouses; if heaven is a place of peace, wholeness, beloved community; if heaven is place where everyone is welcome, even the worst of criminals as Campbell suggested; if in heaven there is enough, then what are we doing to bring such a place into fruition now? Or if it is already here, what are we doing to find it and participate in it? Where are we planting our mustard seeds of reconciliation?

It is in the shelter of each other that we live.

These are my musings today. Perhaps tomorrow they will be different.

2 Comments

  1. Neil Christy says:

    Well said! Conversely, no hope for the hopeless and no bome for the homeless is HELL – and it certainly is in the here and now. I am sitting in McDonalds as I write this (10:00am) and behind me are two people (completely covered up so can’t identify gender) asleep in one of the booths with what appears to be all their possessions – something I have never seen before!

    If Hell is in the present, then most certainly is HEAVEN in our journey and moving toward wholeness (shalom) – it’s the process/journey, not the destination!

  2. mtmcray says:

    Indeed. Both heaven and hell are present now. ‘Tis a scary thing when I do serious self-analysis and discover that (more than I care to admit) I can be more active in the circles of hell (denying those aspects of heaven discussed above) than I am in the kingdom of heaven.

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