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by Ted Schroder
Oct 10, 2018

When Jesus instructed the disciples to pray to "Our Father in heaven", (Matthew 6:9) he was introducing a new way of approaching God. We are to speak to God as little children to a parent who loves and cares for us, and who, at the same time, is to be respected and honored, and not taken for granted, because of who he is and where he dwells. The Lord's Prayer begins with a revelation of the nature of God: God's personal parenthood expressed as Father, with all that membership in his family as sons and daughters implies; and God's dwelling place in heaven, as other than earth. Intimacy and infinity are combined in this introductory address to God.

C.S. Lewis wrote, I fully agree that the relationship between God and a man is more private and intimate than any possible relation between two fellow creatures. Yes, but at the same time there is, in another way, a greater distance between the participants. ... We ought to be -- sometimes I hope one is -- simultaneously aware of closest proximity and infinite distance. (Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer, p.23)

That distance is as small or great as the distance of earth from heaven, and our attitude to it determines how we feel about our communication with God.

What do you believe about heaven: its existence, its location, and its characteristics? Colleen McDannell & Bernhard Lang have written a review of the beliefs over the centuries in Heaven: A History. They survey a variety of approaches including the Swedenborgians and the Mormons, who, it seems, have a more elaborate idea about heaven than the average Christian. The views of heaven over the centuries seem to reflect the culture and arts of the time. We tend to project onto heaven our own longings. Many are fantastic and something with which we would find it hard to identify, so that heaven can appear to be a merely a figment of our imagination rather than an eternal reality. Belief in heaven accompanies our belief in God. What we believe about God, transfers to what we believe about heaven. Since we need to believe in God to make sense of this world, we need also to believe in heaven.

Miguel de Unamuno, the philosopher, wrote, We must needs believe in the other life, in the eternal life beyond the grave, and in an individual and personal life, in a life in which each one of us may feel his consciousness, and feel that it is united, without being confounded, with all other consciousnesses in the Supreme Consciousness, in God; we must needs believe in that other life in order that we may live this life, and endure it, and give it meaning and finality. (The Tragic Sense of Life, p.258)

Prayer connects us with that other life in the present and so assists us in giving our lives meaning. Scripture warns us to be careful in our attempt to draw near to God. He is as close as our breath and yet as distant as infinity. "God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few." (Ecclesiastes 5:2) Therefore we approach our heavenly Father with awe, and not with a disrespectful familiarity. We remember that he is on a different level of reality than us. "Since you call on a Father who judges each man's work impartially, live out your lives as strangers here in reverent fear." (1 Peter 1:17)

Heaven is a mysterious place to us. It is in another dimension. Some call it another plane rather than another place. Science fiction owes a great deal to the biblical teaching about heaven. The popularity of science fiction that describes parallel universes and the ability or danger of entering and leaving them, taps human aspiration to believe in another world. From Star Trek, with its ability to transport mortals into all sorts of environments, to Stargate, with its portals through which one can explore a variety of different time/space continuums, we have learned to imagine different dimensions from our own. The Bible posited this reality at the beginning of human history in the stories of the patriarchs and the prophets.

At Bethel, Jacob dreamt about a ladder or stairway which rested on the earth and reached to heaven. "The angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the LORD.... When Jacob awoke from his sleep he thought, 'Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.' He was afraid and said, 'How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.'" (Genesis 28:12-16) When God is present on earth, even when we are not aware of it, that place is the gate of heaven. God can come and go, and we call it heaven, for heaven is where God is. Jacob's response is fear or reverent awe.

Later in human history we read that, at the end of his life, God was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind. As he and Elisha were walking along and talking together, "Suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind." (2 Kings 2:11) The chariot and horses of fire symbolized strong protection as well as the forces of God's spiritual presence as Elijah was taken. It attempts to describe the indescribable departure of Elijah from earth and his entry into heaven. Elisha's reaction is worship and grief at the loss of his spiritual father.

When Jesus ascended to the Father he was taken up from before the very eyes of the apostles, and a cloud hid him from their sight. Two men dressed in white, reminiscent of the two angels at the empty tomb, address the apostles, who are looking into the sky: "This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven." (Acts 1:11) Again the imagery is consistent: Jesus was taken into another dimension, from which he will return. This dimension was identified as heaven.

Stephen confirmed this reality when he experienced a vision at his trial before he was martyred. Being full of the Holy Spirit he, "looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 'Look,' he said, 'I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.'" (Acts 7:55,56) The Holy Spirit enabled Stephen to see the other two members of the Holy Trinity in heaven to strengthen him for his suffering and death.

St. John is given another vision to share with the church that was being persecuted so that it too would be strengthened to persevere. "After this I looked and there before me was a door standing open in heaven.... At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it.... Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders... In the center around the throne, were four living creatures." (Revelation 4:1-8)

In the heavenly realms the Presence of God on the throne is central, indicated by much imagery from the Old Testament: jewels, the rainbow, thunder and lightning. The elders represent the people of God, and the creatures represent the world of nature. These representatives of creation fall down before God and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns, their accomplishments, before the throne and say:

"You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory, and honor, and power, for you created all things,
and by your will they were created and have their being." (Revelation 4:11)

In heaven there is worship, the acknowledgement of the worth of God, and our dependence on him. When we come to God in prayer, we begin with that awareness, with the awe and respect we have for our heavenly Father. Jesus makes it possible for us to come to the Father as little children, to enter the kingdom of heaven as children. When we arrive we fall down before him and worship. Prayer begins with adoration, not with one request after another, like a shopping list in which we ask God to bless us and our loved ones. Worship requires reverence, respect, honor, and humility. Worship does not come naturally to our self-centeredness. Prayer begins with God, not with us.

People who do not worship live in a vast shopping mall where they go from shop to shop expending enormous sums of energy and making endless trips to meet first this need and then that appetite, this whim and that fancy. Life lurches from one partial satisfaction to another, interrupted by ditches of disappointment. Motion is fueled by the successive illusions that purchasing this wardrobe, driving that car, eating this meal, drinking that beverage will center life and give it coherence. (Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder, p.60)

Worship helps a person to center his life on its source of being and consciousness, God the Father, creator of heaven and earth. We enter heaven by means of worship. Worship is the portal through which we open the door to heaven. Unless we are willing to fall down on our faces before him who sits on the throne and worship him who is eternal, we cannot experience the life of heaven.

Since we must physically die before we can enter heaven, we must also spiritually die to our pride and self-sufficiency in order to communicate with our Father in heaven. We have access to heaven through the death and resurrection of Jesus. He is our gate to heaven. Jesus said, "I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved." (John 10:9)

We can enter into the kingdom of heaven here on earth, not by taking a journey to the next dimension, not by taking a journey from this world through the cosmos, but by taking a journey of faith from a state of mind which is disrespectful to God, to that of humble, loyal, loving obedience to Christ. Heaven can come to us when it begins in us.

The beginning of heaven is not only at that hour when the eye grows dim, and the sound of voices becomes silent in death, but at that hour when God draws near and the eyes of the spiritual understanding are opened. We see how beautiful Christ is, and how hateful sin is. It is the hour when self-will is crucified, and God's will and grace is embraced. Then heaven has begun, and will continue. (The Gospel of the Hereafter, J. Paterson Smyth, 268)

It is pitiful to hear people talk lightly about heaven, whose lives on earth have no trace of the love, humility, purity and self-sacrifice of which heaven consists. They assume that they will join God in heaven. But they would be miserable there even if they could get there. They would be entirely out of their element, like a fish sent to live on the grass of a lovely lawn. Those who will join the people of God around the throne in heaven are those who have entered the kingdom of heaven on earth. Those who are able to worship in the other life, are those who are doing it in this life. Recognizing our Father in heaven, requires acquainting ourselves with him right now.
(Excerpted from SURVIVING HURRICANES, pp.156-163)

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