My five-year-old son and I were walking home after dropping his nine-year-old sister at school when I noticed he was carrying a small plastic box with a couple of flowers in it. As we talked about it, he looked up at me and asked if plants “go to heaven.” As I thought about the description Isaiah gives of the new heaven and new earth, I told him that I was pretty sure there were plants in heaven.
As he collected more plants and flowers, I started to think more about heaven. Many of us often think of it as a kind of disembodied existence of floating clouds and cherub angels. But the biblical descriptions of restored creation are anything but that; instead, the life that continues after this one is depicted as solid and real, a place even more real than here-and-now, where we’ll walk and live in a Creation restored. As I thought about this, I recalled Dallas Willard’s description in The Divine Conspiracy of heaven as a place of “ongoing creativity,” “active,” and unimaginably creative” and how we are invited to start preparing to live in God’s ongoing and creative Kingdom now. God’s plan, says Willard, is for us to develop now as apprentices to Jesus so that we can participate with him in that ongoing life. And to do that, says Willard, it’s essential to keep this reality of our future in front of us:
To live strongly and creatively in the kingdom of the heavens, we need to have firmly fixed in our minds what our future is to be like. We want to live fully in the kingdom now, and for that purpose our future must make sense to us. It must be something we can now plan or make decisions in terms of, with clarity and joyful anticipation. In this way our future can be incorporated into our life now and our life now can be incorporated into our future.These thoughts weren't new to me, but in that moment they abruptly sunk home in an unexpected and surprising way: I began to notice the people walking around us and it suddenly dawned on me that each of them—the two teenage boys walking around the corner towards us, the young mother walking to her car in front of us, the grandmother opening the van door to let out her Saint Bernard—were eternal creatures with invitations to live in that ongoing and uninterrupted Kingdom of God. My chest tightened and time seemed to do one of those funny slow-down things as I gazed at them. They looked extraordinary and full of eternal purpose, amazing, singular and rare beings whom God loves and longs for—as he loves and longs for all of us. I felt like I was encountering family, cousins or aunts for whom I felt swelling and genuine affection and care. Is this, I thought, anything like how Jesus saw those around him when he walked this earth? No wonder he reached out with such love, confrontation, passion and intensity. We creations of God really matter.
While I’ve known this intellectually for some time, I’m not sure the eternal nature and significance of each of us had ever been that real to me before. And I'm finding it difficult to really convey the depth of what I experienced. Even as I type, I can still feel the tightness tugging at the edges of my chest, but the strength of it is fading. For Jesus, however, I would venture to guess it never fades. It is a breathtaking and amazing way to perceive.
I think Willard is definitely on to something. This discipline of keeping our future before us somehow enables us to live firmly and creatively in the Kingdom now. Today, it gave me a humbling and amazing glimpse who we are and what we mean to God. For at least that moment, it deepened my ability to encounter others with a sense of familiarity, with a sense of I know you—we share the same amazing, never-ending creation, invitation and purpose.
And, for a moment, it sure felt like I was walking on the edges of heaven.