Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Imagining Heaven...A City?

Revelation chapters 21-22:7, Hebrews 7:10

Where do you see God? I bet you are thinking of mountains, rivers, white-tailed deer leaping logs in the forest...

Do you ever think "in the city?"

This summer, the worship theme at Edmonton First Mennonite is; "God in Our City." For this Sunday, June 19, the scriptures we look at give us a "glimpse of glory", a little visual teaser of what heaven might look like......and a central metaphor is the city.

I've got two mental roadblocks pestering my imagination on this subject.

First, I have a hard time imagining heaven at all. Second, I have a hard time "seeing" God in the traffic, pollution, rushing crowds, and street news of the city. My holidays, the times of peace and discovery and rejuvenation always involve getting out of the city!

Imagining Heaven.

Orson Scott Card has an alternative fantasy history novel series centred around a character named Alvin Maker. This man has special creative and shaping powers, he is a "maker." The novels follow Alvin through his growing years as he learns to use his powers wisely, to create, to heal, and to build healthy communities. All the while he is opposing the powers of "unmaking" that are endemic in the world. Alvin's ultimate goal is to build the "Crystal City", which sounds suspiciously like heaven on earth, like the picture in Revelation 21.

And Card loses me with the Crystal City stuff. At first, I thought this is just Card being Card. I really love a lot of his work, and he totally had me with Alvin's story, till Crystal City. I have sometimes critiqued Card because he seems to fizzle with story endings, and this Crystal City stuff fizzles for me. As I think about it more, however, I don't think it is a problem with Card. I think it's a problem with the concept of heaven.He can't write a convincing heavenly city for me, not for lack of talent, but for lack of any human way to grasp the concept.

Heaven is beyond our human imagination. It is not part of our experience, It is alien, foreign, and totally other. Have you ever heard someone say that heaven sounds boring? I think that's because we simply can't imagine something so good without a contrast for comparison. Dinner tastes better when I've experienced hunger. Rest is more exquisite after hard work.

I'm a fan of Joss Whedon's short-lived space-western; "Firefly." In the movie wrap-up (Serenity), there is an experiment involving the hoped for creation of a utopian society. The people of a certain planet are given a drug that removes all ambition, aggression, and competition. It's supposed to create a perfect society, a kind of Crystal City. When the crew of the spaceship, Firefly, land on the planet, they find it littered with corpses. The people, lacking drive, desire, and discomfort, simply ceased doing anything and died in place at school, work, and home.

When I read Rev. 21:4 "...death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more..." I can not get my head around it. The absence of pain sounds like the Firefly thing-what is left then to motivate, to interest, to make the food taste good and the rest  feel sweet?

The remainder of verse 4 is helpful; "...for the first things have passed away."

This heaven, or Crystal City, or whatever stands in for the wonderful ever-after, is definitely a second thing-something we can't describe or understand yet, we can't even quite imagine it convincingly.

God in the City

So I come to my second roadblock, God in the city. My own best imaginings of heaven or paradise go to the images from Genesis, from the garden of Eden. Creation, nature. Isn't that where we imagine perfection, the idea of creation before the fall? That picture isn't quite complete for me either. God creates humans to live in that garden, and humans are inherently relational. We live in groups-cities. So somehow, the clumping together of people I think is part of this original picture too. As soon as we put people together, however, there is conflict and things are constantly is some state of sideways!

My imagining here isn't so much impossible (as above), just difficult. I have to get rid of my stereotypes and assumptions. I have to start understanding the city as part of creation, a place where God is revealed.

In the ancient world, the wilderness was scary, vast, and unknown. The city was civilization, a place for help, it was safer than the wild. (A very tiny taste of this might happen when someone gets lost hiking and has to be in the bush for a few days. The comforts of the city take on a heavenly aspect!)

The vision of the New Jerusalem, in Rev. chapter 1, isn't some vision of the 'second things', it is a gift coming down from heaven to be on earth. Instead of something unattainable, it is a vision of unity and harmony on earth between all peoples. It is an earthly thing made possible by God. It is still a far-off ideal, but at least we can start to imagine what an ideal earthy city might be like.

"I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord..." So, where do we see the Lord in the streets? Perhaps in the creation that is the city and is in the city. In the humans, the created images of God that are meant to live together in groups.

I'm looking forward to exploring this topic of God in our city more this summer. I hope to be challenged by the scriptures and speakers. I hope to catch glimpses of God in Edmonton in ways that I haven't imagined in the past.

How do you see God in the city?

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