“She said all a body would have to do there was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever. So I didn’t think much of it…I didn’t see what going to Heaven would get me, so I decided not to even try to get there.”
It’s no surprise that a teenage boy would find the idea of walking around all day singing and playing the harp unappealing. Heck, if that’s all heaven is, I’m not interested, either.
When Huck rejects the idea of heaven, Miss Watson quickly changes tactics and starts to warn him of “the bad place.” However, this strategy fails too—Huck quickly says he wished he were already there! Perhaps we can see glimmers of Mark Twain’s famous quip, “Go to heaven for the climate and hell for the company.”
So many of the promises of heaven and threats of hell are just what the song Melody and Jacob sang says they are: empty. Why would anyone want to go somewhere that sounds so boring? Why wouldn’t they prefer the place where it seems all the fun people go?
But what if heaven and hell isn’t about going somewhere? What if it’s about being present here and now?
In a sermon called “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” theologian Sam Wells said this: “The Bible doesn’t speak much about heaven as the eternal dwelling place of Christians. Instead it speaks of heaven as the place where God dwells.”
And God doesn’t dwell up on a cloud, stroking his long white beard. We hear this in the book of Revelation: “See, the home of God is among mortals; He will dwell with them.”
God isn’t somewhere far off; God is right here. And I’m not talking about the God who is an old white man, the God who offers only the empty black grace of judgment. If that is what we mean by God, then I am comfortable calling myself an atheist.
The God I am talking about, the God that dwells with us and in each one of us, is a God of love, a God of peace, a God of justice.
The day before yesterday, I participated in one of the Moral Monday rallies in Raleigh. There, I met a woman who has attended church in the past but not for a very long time. She said that her religion is kindness. She gestured around her at the community of people dedicating their time and their energy and their voice to the cause of justice, and she said, “This is my church.”
Heaven is right here if we’re doing it right—and that means pursuing kindness and seeking the good of all people. When Jesus started his public ministry, he did not say, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to make people want to go to heaven and to make them really afraid of going to hell.” Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”
Methodist pastor Mike Slaughter says, “We have overemphasized getting people into heaven to the neglect of getting heaven into earth.” Good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, setting the oppressed free—these are all ways of doing it right and finding that heaven is right here.
Have you ever seen those bumper stickers that say, “Don’t Postpone Joy”? I’d add to that—don’t postpone heaven. Don’t postpone love or justice or truth or beauty or grace. We don’t have to wait to get in anywhere to have all of that. Heaven is right here if we’re doing it right—and harps are optional.
There’s one other song I always think of when talking about heaven. Sing it with me if you know it:
Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth?
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth.
They say in heaven, love comes first.
We’ll make heaven a place on earth.
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth.
Sarah S. Howell