We are actors thrust upon a stage without a script. We have the first few acts of the play, and some inkling of the exciting but ominous end. So, how do we fill in the remainder of the play?
In the last post, I talked about why and how heaven shapes our life on earth. I used the metaphor of a stage play, where we have the script of the first few acts and some inklings about the end of the story, and have to improvise to fill in the gap. We have 2 rules: (1) to be faithful to the events of the story as it starts and ends…the story has to make sense as we move from scene to scene and; (2) to make sure our improvisation keeps faith with the meaning of the story contained in the script that we already have…our improvisation can’t just make up any old meaning – it has to make fit with the start and the end.
The problem is, most of us don’t like improvisation. So we avoid it in a few reliable ways. One of the most common ways is to worship the play. We come up with a script that uses the same language, plot, characters that are contained in the first few acts that we have been given. Because it’s all we’ve got, we stick to it rigidly. On the metaphorical stage, we endlessly repeat the first few acts. Meanwhile, the audience has walked out from boredom. Another common strategy is to ignore the play. We get fed up with sticking to the script and just have fun. I mean, something good is happening at the end, isn’t it? And repeating the same old lines was fairly boring and frankly some important parts of the story just don’t make sense in this day and age. So, we concentrate on amusing ourselves, and desperately trying to keep the audience’s attention. The last tried and true strategy is to watch the play. Improvising is too hard, and the antics of the worshippers and the ignorers is too much to bear, so we sit it out in the seats.
Note, this metaphor is not of a church service or gathering, but of our whole common life: discipleship, work, witness, worship…everything. We, the followers of Jesus, having been handed the Old Testament, the life of Jesus, the witness of the early church and some inklings of the end…tend towards slavish imitation, wilful ignorance, or surrender of our spiritual inheritance. But these 3 approaches aren’t the only way. Improvisation is the way. Improvisation isn’t making it up. It isn’t starting with nothing, it stays faithful to the message of what has been handed to us. But we take account of the changing stage on which we now find ourselves, and also keeps faithful to the ‘end’ that we know is coming and is already here. Our life here on earth, if we want to follow Jesus, has to make sense not only in terms of the EVENTS of the story of God and his heaven, but it also needs to make sense in terms of the MEANING of the story of God and his heaven.
Regardless of what view of heaven we have, it affects our practice of church, discipleship and mission. This is what eschatology is all about. Humans naturally work towards an end. We are narrative beings. We tell ourselves, sometimes literally, big and small stories. All these stories have ends (actual events & also meaning) which we bend our lives towards. If the story you tell yourself is one in which you are a hero, your life will bend towards egoism and heroic deeds. If the story you tell yourself is one in which you are a passive actor, then you will probably not act to take responsibility of your life.
In the same way, my view of the ‘end’, of ‘heaven’, shapes the way I live now as a disciple of Jesus. We instinctively work to bring about the ‘end’ that we desire or have been taught to desire. I think this is a human characteristic, regardless of the particular religious commitments we hold. Even for the thoroughgoing atheist, she has an ‘end’, a purpose of human existence, in mind, and her life bends toward that end.
If you believe that heaven is a place where you don’t have a body, then in this life the body won’t be a thing of value, and there’s not reason to value it. If you believe heaven will be an individual state of mind, psychology will be important to you. If you believe heaven is populated by your enemies, then that will transform your treatment of your enemies. If you believe that heaven is where people are physically beautiful, then the ugly will always be slightly suspect. And let’s not forget that these beliefs are not the ones we know we have, but the ones that lie deep inside us, often unconscious.
This characteristic of ours, to bend our lives toward the end, towards heaven’; this is the reason Jesus spends so much time talking about the ‘kingdom of God’, or the ‘kingdom of heaven’. He knows that our view of these ultimate events/meanings deeply shapes the way we live now. The Israelites thought the kingdom would be a place of freedom from oppression from foreign rulers – Jesus says the kingdom is within you. Children were exploited, ignored, seen as spiritually immature – Jesus stakes our entry to the kingdom on imitating them. We think we can get away with apathy toward the poor because God has forgiven us – Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
I’ll write a post someday about how our view of heaven affects our practice of church and mission (and vice versa), but in the meantime…What’s your picture of heaven?