I have a little mixed media piece by Brandie Butcher-Isley on my bedside table, depicting an old-fashioned photograph of a girl, who looks wise beyond her years, standing on a hill fashioned out of newsprint. In the centre of the piece are the words ‘maybe this is heaven’.
Although I love the craftsmanship of the piece (which the artist explains here) I’ve never completely understood its meaning. I cannot even articulate why I was drawn to it in the first place and usually I know exactly why I want a certain piece of art. I think there was a time when I viewed the piece cynically: maybe this is heaven. I’m a Christian but of the doubting Thomas variety: while I love the idea of Jesus and the resurrection and seeing face to face, there was for me that creeping fear that – in the end – our lives may amount to little more than a three-dimensional photograph on a foundation made of paper. Maybe this is heaven.
Now I am in the midst of what can only be described as a Job season – well, a Job season minus the boils – and I suddenly see the little piece of artwork quite differently. I have every reason in the world to be miserable. Most people would describe my current state as hellish – not Syria hellish, of course – but 50 shades of unpleasant to be sure. Yet things do not feel hellish as God is very, very present right now. It’s like that Leonard Cohen song that Anne Lamott likes: “There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” In the hell, there is always the glimpse of heaven.
In my darkest hour, I have been surrounded, literally and figuratively, by angels – Christians and non-Christians alike. I have learned that there are strangers who will take you in to comfort you and pray with you. There are people who will – without thinking about all of the other things they need to do – jump onto a commuter train to be by your side. There are people who will share with you their own – often secret – stories of pain and tell you how they survived. All of this has transformed the darkness into something rather holy. Which is, of course, the very point of Christ, I believe. He does not prevent our suffering, but because he understands human he will be entirely present when we need him and will offer tremendous love both directly and through other people.
One particular angel – a wonderfully funny Christian woman I’ve always wanted to meet in person – came into my life recently, when I needed her the most. She shared with me a verse that has helped her through some very dark moments. It’s from Isaiah 41:10 and in the past week I must have recited it at least 100 times:
Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness. (KJV)
This promise by God is not for tomorrow or the next day or six years after that. It is for today, in the present moment; for us, whatever our state. God may not spare us from the pain of our circumstances, but He will help us, strengthen us, and uphold us right here and right now if only we have the courage to ask. Heaven is not simply somewhere we go in the future. Heaven is offered now.
The little collage on my bedside table has taken on a much more optimistic tone. Perhaps the wise little girl in the photograph has figured it out: maybe this is heaven. This is what Christ died to give us – at least for our time on this very fallen planet: the feeling that we are never alone, the feeling that miracles are possible even in the midst of our pain, the feeling that in the end love does win.
Even in our hell, maybe this is heaven.