It may be the most popular gospel song ever recorded: “I’ll fly away, O, Glory. In the morning, when I die, hallelujah, by and by, I’ll fly away.”
The context of that song is important. It was written by someone who knew what it meant to be picking cotton in the hot sun—someone who longed for the beauty of heaven and an end to suffering. I have never actually liked that song because I’ve heard it sung in very comfortable contexts and it has always felt like escapism to me.
So, as I was preparing breakfast a couple weeks ago, I skipped over it when it came on Spotify. My 9 year-old son, Nate, asked me why I didn’t want to listen to it. I told him that while we are to long for heaven, Jesus also tells us to pray that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. I told him that we are to do our part to bring heaven here.
His next words struck me: “But it’s not here.”
For 7:30 am, five minutes before departing for school, this felt like too deep of a conversation to rush, but sometimes all we have are those brief moments.
I admitted he was right; heaven is not here… yet. “But, God tells us that a new heaven and new earth will come one day. Until then, the things we do on this earth—even what you do at school today—can build heaven on earth now. All you have to do is love God and love your neighbor.”
As I shared this with Nate, he seemed at peace, but it made me reflect on three significant moments in my life.
My sophomore year of high school, I had the privilege of playing the piano with a musical group that performed in Latvia and the former Soviet Union. It was the first time I experienced the suppression of freedom. We were limited regarding who we visited, and the KGB even interrogated some of our team members.
In Latvia, after spending the day visiting an old concentration camp, we piled into a classmate’s room to reflect on the day when we heard yelling outside. We ran to the balcony and saw a young man being beaten in the street outside of our hotel.
“Muir, Muir!” I shouted from our balcony. “Peace! Peace!”
The crowd just watched as one person after another kicked the young man. I can still hear the sound of his head thudding against the pavement. I ran down to the lobby, not sure what I’d do as a 15 year-old girl in a foreign land, but I needed to do something.
I was stopped by an older student. “There’s nothing you can do, Jennifer. This is not your country. There is nothing you can do.”
That refrain echoes in my mind. I don’t know if the young man lived or died, but because nobody else did anything, he may have lost his life.
During my junior year at Gordon College, I participated in the American Studies Program in Washington, D.C., working specifically in the Valley Green Housing Authority in the neighborhood of Anacostia.
I learned about the Somali warlords who lived there, studied the injustice of our healthcare system, volunteered for the presidential election—all of which left me feeling the same way I felt that day on the balcony in Latvia. Was there anything I could do? I felt paralyzed.
Yet I chose to believe the prayer of King David:
I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.
Years later, I was hired to run a children’s program for the participants of a reconciliation event among political and cultural leaders in Amman, Jordan. Palestinians, Jews, Muslims, Western Christians, Kings and Prime Ministers, priests, rabbis, and imams were all in attendance. I later learned that a terrorist group had planned to bomb the hotel where we were staying and had been apprehended the night before I arrived.
One evening as I was praying for the children, I was struck by another one of David’s prayers:
I will listen to what God the Lord says;
he promises peace to his people, his faithful servants.
Surely his salvation is near those who fear
him, that his glory may dwell in our land.
Love and faithfulness meet together;
righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Faithfulness springs forth from the earth,
and righteousness looks down from heaven.
The Lord will indeed give what is good,
and our land will yield its harvest.
This is not a psalm of escapism. This is not a psalm of flying away. This is a psalm that calls forth believers to be faithful in the land and to allow God’s righteousness to come down from heaven.
As we continue on this journey into the Sermon on the Mount (which ironically or prophetically is what my children’s VBS focused on this summer and is what the chaplain at Gordon College is focusing on this semester), I wonder if God is saying something to his people. Maybe he is using the questions of our children to call out our apathy. If we believe heaven and earth can meet, that righteousness and peace can kiss, that there will be goodness in the land of the living, then what does it look like to live that out in each of our homes and places of work?
You’re right, Nate. Heaven is not here… yet. In the meantime, we must do our part to be faithful. Just as we pray every Sunday: Send us out, Lord, to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord. Amen.