In a few weeks, Lord willing, my wife and I will take a first class vacation across the country in celebration of being married thirty years. I look forward to this, inordinately, in much the same way I looked forward to school starting in the fifth grade, and the yearly ritual of new clothes and new books. Back then I loved seeing all the pretty girls in the hallways, (almost to the point of fighting off the shivers), and I like seeing my pretty girl now; I see us in a cafe somewhere, drinking wine, forking over shares of lobster and spoonfuls of bisque, extending the reach of the menu in the way only friends can. We will talk until we’re sleepy and then Uber our way to a clean room, with chocolate mints on the pillow cases and a tenth story view of the city skyline.
I want heaven to be very much like a restaurant and a well run hotel. I know God will do it better, of course, in ways that our minds can’t comprehend, but this pleasure we take in brand new fifth grade books, drawn butter, and dizzy, teenage love — it seems to be either a picture of heaven, or a picture of our bondage to the world, or in some cases, it might be both. How can we praise God for the sweetness of watermelon and the beauty of the Rockies and the pleasure of love, and still say, in the same breath, “Oh, no, me? I’m just a pilgrim; I’m just passin’ through?”
The writer of Hebrews had this to say about the mighty, faithful, Ark-building Old Testament saints..
“..they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them..”
One measure of our faith, as believers, is this longing for a better country and a better city, but sometimes this world right here wears a very tight, pretty dress. The other day, Mary and I drove across our farm on a day when the fields were all turned up and looking like caked chocolate. Five or six newborn calves scampered around among their mothers, in a canyon looking out over the valley, and the mountains beyond the valley, with their gradient purple “majesty” rising up over the “City of Angles.” Right now, that city is descending into an impoverished, mercy-poxed, socialist hell, but the parasites always die off eventually. The city, if you look beneath the grime, is getting taller, brighter, and more melodic. You can buy almost anything there, from imported silk to naan bread to rare books to three hours of luxury cinema. On some nights, at the Cicada Club, you walk right into charm of 1940 and walk right back out to the safety, and the medicine, of 2018.
The world, of course, is ugly too. The other day, Mary and I were driving home from Santa Barbara and a diesel rig turned over in Ventura, covering the highway in both directions. An ugly, slow morning turned improbably beautiful as we were routed down through Ojai in the early spring. There were orchards everywhere, and low, yellow fog banks of wildflowers, and a statuesque young mother in Yoga black, effectively “naked and unashamed.” She got me to thinking about the way men struggle to define their dependence on women:
Her body was a carnival. Her body was a feast. Her body was a kind of bakery. Her body was honey and butter and the smile you needed after a long day. Her body was fall and winter and spring and mostly summer. Her body put you to sleep. Her body was coffee in the morning and wine at night. Her body was the place all of your children lived before they laughed with you for the first time as grown-ups, and they let you know, as separate, sentient souls.. “dad, you’re okay.”
As a family, we fight. We bicker, hold grudges, all of that, but sometimes you sit around the kitchen butcher block and drink wine together in the late afternoon as the women bake blueberry cakes and my son rolls out some double-stopping on the fiddle. We labor to define exactly what was right and what was wrong with that last movie we all saw. We comb the hair on humanity, chronicle vice and virtue, and the world seems temporarily reasonable, as though the jig-saw puzzle were all coming together. It feels, temporarily, difficult to say, “me? I’m just a stranger here, brother. I’m just passing through.” Passing through? No, thank you very much, I want to stay put.
And then I read the news. I see some Delaware bureaucrat declaring that five year old children, in school, should be able to pick their gender identity without their parents’ consent. I watch the half-wit teenage wrath of a David Hogg, and the even stranger applause of his low-functioning adult fans. I read the story of a 78 year old British man, arrested for homicide, for protecting his family from burglars with a knife. I read about taxpayer money paying for transgender sensitivity training and abortion on demand, and I realize this world is flawed by virtue of its children, most of whom are the spiritual children of the devil. Sadly, most Christians haven’t read the gospel of John carefully enough to know the truth of that statement.
And on these occasions, I think, “yes, I really am passing through. There is a better country waiting for us.”
So, yes, I think this world could represent a kind of bondage, or a picture of heaven, or, for most of us, a little of both. Jesus couldn’t hold up a lily, and marvel at its beauty, if there weren’t something of heaven right here “at hand,” but He couldn’t walk that fearful, bloody road to Calvary, unless He knew there was a better country waiting.
It’s our difficult job, here on earth, to drink the wine, and not worship it, to cherish the bride and not become a slave to women, to feed the poor and still enjoy the feast.