My mother Trudy used to tell me about a dachshund she once had. When she was feeling low, she would sit on our front stoop. The dog would join her on the top step and lay his head in her lap. From time to time he would look up at her in brown-eyed sympathy.
She would say, “He always knew when I was sad. And he would sit with me to make me feel better.”
Trudy never sulked or moped about. She loved to laugh and to eat, to cook and to buy gifts for the ones she loved. And yet, a continuous stream of tender sadness ran through her heart.
During the Second World War, she had endured the allied bombing of her hometown Linz, Austria. Toward the end of that war, the Nazis confined her to the concentration camp Mauthausen.
She had married unwisely, eventually escaping my father’s control and abuse. Her older son Joseph died. And Marie—her only daughter and my little sister—died as well.
Sometimes mom would drift back in her memory to earlier days and talk about “my little girl.” She was never maudlin or weepy. She seemed to be taken up into a tender nostalgia for what might have been.
This same woman who had suffered so much loss never gave in to despair.
Even when we were broke and homeless, she always believed that things were going to look up soon. Her response to my own meltdowns and hissy fits was always the same. “Remember, tomorrow is another day.”
Paradoxically, my mother knew about hope precisely because she knew about loss and sorrow and pain. Her theology was not sophisticated. Her faith was simple but deep. It could be summed up in this phrase that I borrow from Rob Bell: even this.
God can bring infinite, indescribable beauty and joy and goodness out of even this. No matter the heartache or the pain, the humiliation or the insane messiness, Jesus redeems it and restores it. He says, “I am making all things new.” Even this. (Revelation 21:5)
Heaven figured prominently in my mother’s experience of hope. And to tell the truth, heaven is a central element of my own sense of hope.
My first theological lesson came from my mother.
My little sister Marie died when I was three. Her life was fleeting, and I have no memories of her. Instead, I remember experiencing her absence. My mother comforted me—and no doubt comforted herself—by telling me that Marie was in heaven. One day, we would see her again.
Even this. Jesus will redeem even this. The loss of a child. The shattered heart of a mother. A child’s confusion and sorrow. Even this.
As a child, I thought of heaven as a place that we go after we die. Like many people then and now, I pictured a paradise to which my sister’s soul had flown.
After all, my night prayer was the one that many of my contemporaries would likely recognize:
Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Some people start thinking about heaven as they face their own mortality. They understandably wonder what will happen to them after they die.
By contrast, my thinking about heaven began with my sister’s death. My question—even as a child—was not what would happen to me when I died. Instead, I wondered what happened to one I love but see no longer.
My thoughts about heaven are never merely ideas. There is a yearning for heaven in my soul. A longing for peace and healing for those who have gone ahead of me to a distant shore. A desire that the circle be unbroken for all eternity.
And now I realize that a yearning for God’s perpetual presence in our midst lies at the very heart of my thoughts. For it is in Christ that all will be well. All will be made whole.
The author of Revelation teaches us that what I have been calling heaven is shorthand for something far more thrilling and mind blowing than a place that good souls inhabit.
God will come to dwell in our midst. God’s presence will transform our bruised and battered world into a new heaven and a new earth. In Jesus God heals the physical, moral, and emotional injuries of the world.
Heaven is this very place, but in a future appointed by God. This place transformed by God’s perfect, abiding presence. This place. In all its sorrows and selfishness, in all its deprivation and oppression, in all its indifference and violence, this place will be transformed. Made new. Even this.
God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
Jesus’ resurrection is the first wave in God’s restoration of the fractured creation. Jesus is the beginning of the new creation. And by following Jesus we are taken up in the wake of the new creation.
When each of us crosses over to the other shore, we will look back at the lives we lived in this time and space and say, “Why, heaven was already happening. Even there.”
Our most joyful moments will look to us as anticipations of the infinite joy we will then know in immortal flesh. The heartaches and suffering and even our moral failures will seem to us from heaven’s perspective to be the wounds that were already being healed.
As my friend, professor, and Catholic priest Tom once told me, I don’t know what heaven’s plumbing looks like, but I believe. Jesus is making all things new. Even this.
Two decades have passed since my mother died. I sometimes ache from missing her. I am comforted by images of her spiritual body strolling through alpine meadows strewn with spring flowers. Laughing and running and playing with her little girl Marie and our brother Joseph. All of them trailed by a dachshund whose stubby legs can barely keep pace.
In their midst stands the risen Jesus, in whom and by whom and through whom they all inhabit a new heaven and a new earth.
God will not discard this creation. Neither will God destroy it. In Jesus, God is even now making all things new. Even this.