I'm back in New York for April, and am experiencing the full throttle of "home" confusion. Familiar to any international student or diplomat children, I'm asking all the usual questions... Have I gone back home? Or do I have a new home? Where do I belong? But as my lovely friend Hannah Owens once said, I'm confused about my earthly home, but not my eternal one. But maybe my various earthly homes have something to say about the eternal one. In fact, I've been thinking a lot about why I love city-life, so here are some things that living in cities (both New York and London) have taught me about Heaven. In fear for making any specific theological claims about what Heaven physically (or spiritually is), I'll give you my basic thoughts and leave a lot open for interpretation.
One: Humans were created to live in community
As I get ready to leave my house for the day, I close the door behind me and am met with scenes from my childhood. I see me and my block friends, young and full of energy, running through the street to catch a baseball, riding our bicycles with one of the girls enforcing traffic, towering umbrellas over each other in the rain for a tent safe from the storm. Across the street from my house, a group of middle-aged men and women sit on one of the porches, drinking beer around a small barbecue. They’re loud, but we don’t mind. Their volume enables our own. The teenagers are walking down the block, on their way to practice for their Green Day cover band. My older brother walks to the end of the block to visit Angie and Rose, an elderly pair of sisters with whom he had become close.
I step out onto the sidewalk and walk to Metropolitan Avenue, the main street in this New York neighborhood that stretches across Brooklyn and Queens. I have my earbuds in (listening to some rockin' Chance the Rapper) but keep having to take them out when someone greets me with a hello. My friend Lisa’s dad Richard, he knows everyone in town. He’s surprised to see me, I guess Lisa didn’t tell him I was back for Easter. We have a short conversation, he updates me on the situation of the Queens’ drivers getting increasingly crazy, tells me to be careful on my way to the subway. I nod smiling, and continue my way. I barely have time to put back in my earbuds before I get a quick shout from the UPS driver. He pulls up next to me and drives slowly (annoying the other drivers on this busy road). Roland has been our UPS delivery guy for the longest time. He’s lived in New York for over a decade but still retains a strong German accent. He’s heard I went to Berlin while studying in England. He asks me how I liked it, asks me if I speak German now, and tells me to learn it if I can (will do Roland :) ). The drivers behind him are getting upset now, so he lets me along on my way. I’ll surely see him tomorrow when he delivers our amazon packages.
People have this picture of a busy New York. Surely it’s too busy and crowded to know anyone. People move here and leave with the impression that it’s a lonely place, but that’s mostly because they’re moving into a new place they didn’t grow up in. The real New York, or at least the one I grew up in, is basically a collection of real people in real neighbourhoods. People who are living densely on each other’s doorsteps. We know all of our neighbours for good or for worse. The walls are thin, if someone has a fight, we all know. This isn’t the hidden, private life of the suburbs, or even that perhaps of the Upper East Side. It’s real people living together, with access to people of all ages and backgrounds, living life together.
I live in a neighborhood, not a house. My room is where I sleep, but we play outside. Central Park is the backyard for everyone and the Greek diner down the road is the dining room. My life is not my own, and although I retain a lot of my own self and individuality, that individuality seeks ultimately to enhance the community around me. There’s a picture in a block party- all of our different interests and gifts coming together for something more. One family does a presentation in Mixed Martial Arts, another shows everyone how to salsa dance. The Green Day cover band does a live concert, the 5th graders show everyone how to do the East Coast Swing.
"In that way, the parts of the body will not takes sides. All of them will take care of one another. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honoured, every part shares in its joy. You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it." - 1 Corinthians 12:25-27
Two: Culture flows naturally out of creation
The first time recently 18-year old friend Katie ordered a beer, we went to Wetherspoons (of course we did). If you don't live in England, Wetherspoons (or just Spoons) is a chain of pubs throughout the country known for being relatively inexpensive. As we walked in, it was about 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon. I looked around. Gathered around tables were businessmen and construction worker alike; brokers on their break and students doing revision for exams. Everyone comes to the pub for a beer at the end of a hard day of work.
Art movements and ideological revolution alike all started in a similar place. This is where ideas flourish, this is where art is made. At the queue for the bar, everyone becomes equal in the fair exchange of ideas. It's where you can put forth your ideas, wait for someone to argue with them, and start cultural revolutions.
It doesn't matter where you live, humans were created to create. That creation will naturally come out no matter rural, suburb, or urban life. But there's something to be said for a group of densely populated individuals that creates an environment for the exchange of ideas and influence of people to become something greater than a Tuesday afternoon. In moments of communion, we realise what makes our minds different than the person next to us. We can build off each other and see what is missing from life. And we can create it, for the glory of something greater than our own selves.
"For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." - Ephesians 2:10 (NIV)
Three: The Good things of this life are only a small picture of the one to Come
But, I’m reminded that as much as I loved my childhood in New York and as much as I cherish my time in London, this life we live in and thus the cities we live in are inherently flawed. This isn't hard to see, so I'll keep the illustration short. Walking around New York or London can really feel like a Tale of Two Cities. Next to big buildings of enterprise, the homeless hope for enough for a place to stay for the night. You can walk from the Google Building to the Bowery Mission. On the streets of the Strand, the hungry line up for groceries near the embassy. If the idea of a perfect city is one where everyone is taken care of, we have failed, and I think we know this.
But in the good news of Christ is the knowledge and assurance that this life is only a small part of eternity. All of the good things of this life are merely shadows of the one to come; so we can look at Queens neighbourhoods and London pubs and rejoice in what they show about God and his Kingdom, but all of those earthly institutions are at least in part, corrupted by the greed and selfishness of man. The British broker may not listen to what the construction worker has to say, and as much as block parties are fun, the next day I still might hear neighbours fight through the thin walls of our home. Cities are great. But the Kingdom of God is a place the mind can only dream of.
Heaven is going to be awesome. There will be people living in wondrous community. There will be art being made and a continuation of perfect culture. But the most amazing thing about Heaven will be that we get to live in the presence of God himself, in his perfect loving kindness and grace.
"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Look, God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."" - Revelations 21:1-4
For further reading:
Sidewalks in the Kingdom (Eric Jacobsen)
Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life (Makoto Fujimura)
The Book of Revelation (The Bible LOL)