Edward blinked several times and stared at the doctor. His mind was searching, grasping as his emotions churned inside of him. "How should I feel?" Edward thought to himself as a variety of emotions caused him to shift several times in his chair?
The doctor continued, "I have seen cancer like this and honestly I don’t think that you can expect to live more than several months. I’m sorry."
At this moment Edward found out a very real truth about our existence on earth; it is fragile. The idea that we have the ability to control circumstances is more an illusion than a reality. As Edward just found out, there are many things that are not within our ability to control more than we care to admit. If we do not accept this fact, we are in for a lot of disillusionment and pain.
If life defies our finest efforts to control it, if life is bigger than us, how can we make sense of our existence and bring some order and predictability to it? I believe that it has a great deal to due with our perspective of life. We must have a big enough picture to allow us to make sense of the many situations and issues we will face. If our focus doesn’t go beyond today, we may become discouraged, disoriented or be unable to deal well with unexpected problems that come our way. Take Edward for instance, his routine problems paled in comparison to his unexpected, approaching death. If his model of life was too small to handle the impact of his approaching death, he would have to scramble to enlarge it or sink into despair.
When we talk about perspective (our focus), we are talking about how we view life in our own unique way. It is the way we think about life, the way we see life. The way we think about things is similar to the beam of a spotlight shining in the clear night air. On a dark night, a spotlight will illuminate a small circle of light while the rest of the night remains wrapped in darkness. Everything outside the beam of light is beyond our field of vision.
Let’s assume that we illuminate a squirrel eating peacefully on the branch of a nearby oak tree. We would probably not be unduly alarmed, in fact, we might experience warm feelings of benevolence. Suppose you continue to move the beam of light and come upon a tree that is shaking. As we study it, trying to detect what is making it shake, a tiger suddenly springs out of the tree toward us. A jolt of fear puts new energy to our feet as we flee. While the tiger was outside the beam of our light, we were not aware of his existence and we would not react in fear and panic. What is within the beam of the light has a huge effect on how we feel and act.
The way we focus our minds (our perspective) can be thought of as a spotlight. As we roll things over in our mind, we are focusing our mind on these things, we are thinking about them. At these moments we are less aware of other things that are happening around us, but very aware of what we are focusing on. If we go to a social event, we may focus on the glass that was dropped and miss everything else that is going on in the room. We may focus inwardly at times, perhaps someone said something insensitive to us and we focus on our hurt feelings and miss the compliment someone gave us or the wind that rattled the outside shutter or . . . . We, like a spotlight, are only able to focus on a limited number of things at one time and we miss much of the rest of what is going on around us. What we focus on has a big effect on how we feel and then choose to act.
One philosopher of old stated that what happens to us in life is not as important as how we interpret what happens to us. A similar event happens to two different people. One of the individuals blows it off while the other individual experiences a crisis. Two different interpretations, two different reactions but the same event.
Suppose you are going about your busy life in the fall of the year and all of a sudden you hear the first Christmas carol of the year, one of your favorites. It catches your attention, and you focus on it. If your past Christmases were good, you probably experience pleasant feelings. If the past Christmases hold bad memories or if you have to spend the coming Christmas alone, you will probably feel bad. What we focus on and how we interpret it has a profound effect on how we feel and then how we choose to act.
As we grow older we become more aware of our mortality. We are coming to the end of our stay here on earth and thoughts surrounding dying begin to capture more and more of our attention (mental focus). We may wonder what it feels like to die physically or what it is like to deal with the death of others that we love and know. We may wonder what happens to us physically and mentally at the point of death and what happens in the great unknown after death. If we focus solely on our life on earth, we are left to flounder when the events of this life, such as death, that are beyond our control strike us. Try as we may, we will not be able to control some circumstances of this life and we certainly will not be able to prevent our death.
An earthly focus can be very short-sighted, self-defeating, discouraging, and perhaps, even depressing. As we grow older, an earthly perspective (focus) sees the helplessness and feebleness we will all go through. We see the deterioration of our independence, our growing reliance on others. We see the aches and pains we will experience, the possible stay in a nursing home. Lastly, we try to visualize what it is like to actually die, no one has come back to tell us what it is like, it is an entirely new experience. Will it be painful? What happens to us as we pass through the door of death? At death we give up control of our life completely, what will happen to us?
In the Bible we are told over and over that there is a land beyond this earthly life. It provides us with a much bigger, more complete view of our existence. It takes into account all the aspects of life on earth and more significantly, beyond. Rather than being bound by a narrow, incomplete view of life, it extends all the way through eternity.
If we are "born again" Christians, the Bible gives us an eternal vision that prepares us for Paradise. We are challenged to look beyond the problems, confusion, and pain that swirl around us here. If we really want to understand the totality of our life, to face the real truth about our existence, we must form a picture that is big enough to include eternity.
One of the biggest obstacles to describing heaven is the limitations of our vocabulary, experiences and our imagination. We simply don’t have the words to describe something so superior to what we know here on earth. Heaven lies beyond our imagination’s finest attempts to picture it. It is simply too different from what we experience here of Earth and goes far beyond our limited intelligence.
Consider a man who was born deaf and sightless. Suppose you are trying to communicate to him what it is like to listen to your favorite music while seated in a beautiful park. You would have to use Braille or some form of communication that he could understand. How would you describe the musical instruments to someone who doesn’t realize that strings of the right composition, mounted on a wooden frame, can produce tones? How would you describe the concepts of sound, tones, notes, the combining of notes to produce music and the different types of music? How could you explain to him how beautiful music touches you in the deepest parts of your spirit and the comforting emotions we many times feel when we hear it? The whole idea of communicating this to a blind and deaf man is not only monumental, but seemingly impossible. He doesn’t have the vocabulary, experience or imagination to comprehend what we are diligently trying to describe. We may deeply desire to share the impact that beautiful music has on us, the color and richness it adds to our life, but he simply doesn’t have the ability or tools to comprehend it.
So it is with describing Heaven. The Bible does tell us of a handful of individuals who have seen Heaven in their life and came back to tell us. One of them was the Apostle Paul. He gave the following explanation in 1Cor. 2:9, "However, as it is written: No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him."
And again in 2Cor 12:2-4, "I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago - whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows - was caught up to the third heaven. And I know that this man - whether in the body or away from the body I do not know, God knows - was caught up into Paradise, and he heard utterances beyond the power of man to put into words, which man is not permitted to utter."
Though there is much we do not understand and cannot comprehend about heaven, there are some things we do know, at least in earthly terms. Jesus Christ himself came from heaven to this world and made this assertion about His homeland in John 14:2&3, "In My Father’s house there are many dwelling places (homes). If it were not so, I would have told you, for I am going away to prepare a place for you. And when I go and make ready a place for you, I will come back again and will take you to Myself, that where I am you may be also."
Christ is reassuring us that He will return for us and take us to His Father’s home. He described Himself, at times, as the bridegroom and those who love and serve Him as His bride. The Jewish people understood more precisely what He was talking about since He used illustrations from their culture. Ray Vanderlaan, in his book "Echoes of His Presence" gives us an insight into what Christ was talking about. At one point Ray described the process a Jewish couple went through during their engagement and following marriage. The engaged Jewish man, the bridegroom, would build a room onto his father’s home, called an insula, for him and his bride to live in once they were married. Quoting from "Echoes of His Presence":
Mikha’els’ heart pounded with exertion and excitement. Each stone he lifted and set in place brought him closer to the day he could bring Elisheva, his bride, home.
As the youngest son, Mikha’el had watched his four brothers marry and bring their wives to this father’s home. And before their weddings, each of his brothers had done what Mikha’el was now doing - adding his own living quarters to their many rooms that already surrounded the large courtyard.
Elisheva, he thought. I’m glad I’m bringing her to this insula - to this large, loving family. I wonder if she’ll love them as much as I do?
Mikha’el thought of the many hours he’d spent in the courtyard with his brothers and their wives, his sisters, his parents, his aunts and uncles, his cousins, his nephews and nieces. His families’s insula complex was one of the largest in Korazin. Their family community now numbered more than 120 people"
I believe that this illustration was meant to reassure Christians of Christ’s love for them and implies that He will personally take care of them in Heaven. It might also imply that those closest to us on earth will share our Father’s insula with us and the conflicts we have felt will vanish and be replaced by a warm and enduring love. In heaven we will love and be loved perfectly and completely.
Several other insights about Paradise were provided by the Apostle John, who had walked with Jesus while He was here on earth. He had been exiled to an island prison where he experienced a vision of the future from a heavenly perspective. He describes what he saw in Rev 21:4: "God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be anguish - sorrow and mourning - nor grief nor pain any more; for the old conditions and the former order of things have passed away."
Again in Rev 22:5: "There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign forever and ever."
These insights portray a place that is fabulous beyond description. What must it be like to live there. Let’s take a brief trip with a man named Ryan and see if we can gleam a little of what heaven might be like.
The room was large, perhaps a quarter of a mile square. It had high ceilings, marble flooring and walls. It was a beautiful room, large enough to make Ryan feel small, but surprisingly warm and comfortable. There were book shelves on every wall all the way to the high ceiling. Ryan tried to imagine how many books could be stored in this spacious room, too many for a quick analysis.
As his eyes moved to the wall near the entrance, he saw that there were a number of volumes of loose bound books perhaps 2 to 3 inches thick. Though there were several thousand of these volumes, they only took up a very small amount of book shelf, due to the enormous size of the room. He scanned the rest of the room and again wondered how many of these books it would take to fill all the shelves in this immense room.
As Ryan walked over to the shelf area that contained the books, he noticed a plaque over the doorway with the words Edward Smith carved in it. Was this whole room, designed for millions of volumes, built for Edward Smith only?
Ryan scanned the books on the shelf and stopped about half way through, he estimated that he was near the volume 1000. He withdrew this book from the shelf and began reading.
"God is such a marvelous creature," Edward said, "He is constantly creating and giving us opportunities to be involved in His work. A number of those in our insula traveled to the new universe He just finished. Though it is not as beautiful as our home, it is a real improvement over the universe that we once lived in. Sue and I tried to remember how many earth years ago that we lived on earth and decided it was at least 1 trillion. The feelings of love, joy and contentment that we feel here is still overwhelming, I couldn’t believe at first that these feelings and this life could last, but its beauties and wonders are new, fresh, deeply nourishing at every moment, it has never diminished and never grows old, nor do I ever take it for granted."
"We have all been assigned a part in this new creation and it is so fulfilling to see God’s spirit working in us and helping and supporting us. We never seem to grow weary, we are always at peace and have never felt anxiety, discouragement or conflict. Even now as I write, I feel a great gratitude and love for God, he has given us something we could never have earned, His generosity is limitless. How can we not love and trust Him with all our heart?"
Ryan replaced the book and looked back at the first volume. It was thin and drew his attention. Walking over to this book, Ryan carefully lifted it off the shelf and was surprised to find it contain only a few pages. The other volumes after it, contained hundreds, perhaps thousands of pages each. The first page had the simple heading "Edward’s life on Earth" and the dates 10/19/1920 to 3/16/2006.
"I was born in Peoria, Il.," Edward began, and it continued to describe his childhood and adolescence. It sounded familiar, with the struggles and the good times, the pain, the confusion, and the successes of life on earth. "As I approached 60," continued Edward, "I experienced a serious illness and began to face the fact that I was beginning to wear out. For the first time in my life I began to seriously consider that I would age and die. At first this filled me with apprehension. What would it be like to get really old? Would I be able to take care of myself and maintain some kind of independence? How and when would I die?"
"As I rolled these thoughts around in my mind I was drawn closer to God. I found that if I focused exclusively on my life here on earth, I felt more apprehension, anxiety and distress, but if I focused on the bigger picture of eternity, realizing that God had promised me a home in heaven, the distress would melt away. I was so thankful for my deep faith in God. It seemed that I was drawn closer to God as I continued to age. I made many mistakes but each time repented of them and asking sincerely for forgiveness, He had always graciously forgave me. I learned to be transparent before Him, fearing nothing from Him, while holding Him in great love and respect. As I practiced letting Him into every area of my life, I found Him to be especially merciful to me and this caused me to love Him even more deeply."
"Sue died when I was almost eighty. This loss was the greatest of my life. We had been the best of friends, as well as lovers, throughout our years together. We didn’t always see eye to eye, and there had been arguments, but through it all we had learned to work it out and I missed her tremendously."
"The lonesomeness and shock of losing Sue was tempered by God’s promise that our Christian faith, would be the link that would allow us to see each other again someday. Our relationship would be different in heaven, but the Bible seemed to promise that we would be even closer friends there then we were here. I continually focused on the bigger picture and it seemed to counteract the dark thoughts and problems associated with the aging process. In fact, I found a real desire to finish this life well, to stay involved in God’s service to the end. With an eternal focus I found I could get beyond my own problems and see and be more responsive to the problems that others faced. I had more time to be useful in the Lord’s service and found meaning and purpose in following His leading. I learned to love and trust my God more as time passed and at moments had glimpses of those waiting for me in heaven."
"The doctor had been right in his assessment, since within several months I lay dying in bed. Even as I suffered those last few weeks, focusing on God’s love and promises to me, allowed me to keep a grateful attitude. As I spoke to my children, grandchildren and friends, I knew each time could be the last. My concern for their salvation grew as I approached death. I encouraged them to love the Lord with all their hearts and trust and serve Him all their days. I told them I would look forward to seeing them again someday."
"The last perceptions I had of my life on earth were the tear filled eyes of those around my bed. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next but the feeling that everything was going to be all right grew stronger. Someone was holding my hand when I saw a light that drew me."
As Ryan came to the end of the first volume he gently closed it and placed it back on the shelf. His curiosity had been whet and he reached for volume 2. The title was, "Paradise found".
"For a moment there was silence," Edward continued, "and then it seemed I was on a grassy area with a gently sloping hill in front of me. I decided that I must climb this small grassy rise if I was to see where I was. As I reached the top I saw a huge number of people watching me. In the front was a brilliant white figure, seated on a pure white horse. He rode toward me as the whole crowd suddenly raised their arms in a salute and a great shout. They then moved toward me. The Lord dismounted and embraced me. He gave me a gold key, and welcomed me home. How can I describe the love and warmth that overwhelmed me. Faces began to stand out of the approaching crowd, there was Sue in front with Dad and Mom, my brother Luke, aunt Gladys and other aunts and uncles, our local grocer, Jim, and so many other friends and relatives. There were many others I didn’t recognize, but they seemed eager to meet me, also. Some of the individuals looked like something out of an old Bible story book.
There were smiles on Sue’s, and Mom and Dad’s faces as they reached me and gave me a long, warm embrace. Sue took my hand and with Dad and Mom on each side she said "welcome to this wonderful place, let me introduce you to everyone and show you just how marvelous it really is." The colors were so vivid, everything was so flawlessly beautiful. I felt so welcomed, so appreciated, so loved and accepted, and so at peace. My cup was so full, there was simply no room for any more goodness and joy in it. For the first time in my existence, I was completely satisfied. I blinked several times to make sure this was all true, could my cup always be this full and overflowing, could it last? Then with warm and enthusiastic anticipation, and a deep sense of contentment and appreciation, I walked on with those I loved.