More TSS posts can be found on Facebook.
First, here's a story that's been bouncing around the web for several years that came to me again this week.
Our 14-year-old dog Abbey died last month. The day after she passed away my 4-year-old daughter Meredith was crying and talking about how much she missed Abbey. She asked if we could write a letter to God so that when Abbey got to heaven, God would recognize her. I told her that I thought we could, so she dictated these words:
Will you please take care of my dog? She died yesterday and is with you in heaven. I miss her very much. I am happy that you let me have her as my dog even though she got sick. I hope you will play with her. She likes to swim and play with balls. I am sending a picture of her so when you see her you will know that she is my dog. I really miss her.
We put the letter in an envelope with a picture of Abbey and Meredith and addressed it to God/Heaven. We put our return address on it. Then Meredith pasted several stamps on the front of the envelope because she said it would take lots of stamps to get the letter all the way to heaven. That afternoon she dropped it into the letter box at the post office. A few days later, she asked if God had gotten the letter yet. I told her that I thought He had.
Yesterday, there was a package wrapped in gold paper on our front porch addressed, "To Meredith" in an unfamiliar hand. Meredith opened it. Inside was a book by Mr. Rogers called "When a Pet Dies." Taped to the inside front cover was the letter we had written to God in its opened envelope. On the opposite page was the picture of Abbey and Meredith and this note:
Abbey arrived safely in heaven. Having the picture was a big help, and I recognized her right away. Abbey isn't sick anymore. Her spirit is here with me just like it stays in your heart. Abbey loved being your dog. Since we don't need our bodies in heaven, I don't have any pockets to keep your picture in so I am sending it back to you in this little book for you to keep and have something to remember Abbey by. Thank you for the beautiful letter, and thank your mother for helping you write it and sending it to me. What a wonderful mother you have. I picked her especially for you. I send my blessings every day, and remember that I love you very much. By the way, I'm easy to find. I am wherever there is love.
This story tugs at our heart strings, doesn't it? We know a human person at the Post Office chose to buy that book and write back to Meredith and her mother, and it makes us feel good that someone did that. But not a one of us believes a person named "God" sat down and wrote a letter to that little girl. We don't believe that because we don't think "Heaven" is a place where the Post Office delivers mail to God.
Last week, the Sunday school class I attended did talk about John Shelby Spong's book Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World. And one woman in the class was upset because some of the others (maybe most of the others) disagreed with her beliefs about heaven. I got the impression heaven was such a real place to her that she could almost imagine that letter to Meredith was written by God. Church people tend to say things like "up above" when speaking of God. Where does that come from?
Let me show you the world as envisioned by the writer(s) of the book of Genesis in the Bible.
DAY 1 — In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless nothing in the midst of chaos, and darkness was everywhere.
ASIDE — A day or so before class, I paint a flipchart page blue, as in the background above, to represent the dark, watery chaos.A wind from God, the Spirit of God, swept over the face of the waters that early Hebrews believed were present at creation. God's first command was "let there be light" and there was light. And even before naming the light "Day" and the darkness "Night," God could see that the light was GOOD. That was the very first day, counting from the first evening to the next.
DAY 2 — Next, God decreed a dome to separate waters from waters, with some water above the dome and some below.
ASIDE — The dome is that white paper taped onto the blue (above). Imagine a glass bowl, inverted, and carefully placed in your tub. There would be air inside it, and the bowl would keep out the water above and the water below.God said it and it was so, and God named this dome "Sky." That was the second day, counting from one evening until dusk the next day.
DAY 3 — Then God decreed that the waters under the Sky should be gathered together in one place so dry land could appear. God said it and it was so, and God named the dry land "Earth" and the gathered waters "Seas." And God saw that together the Earth and the Seas were GOOD.
ASIDE — You could imagine those mountains on the sides as holding up that dome. And the land extends down into the lower water like pillars to help hold up the sky. Maybe there's an island of dry land in the middle, as I've shown.On the same day, God told Earth to produce vegetation, with seed-bearing plants and fruit trees of every kind. And it happened just that way. And once again God pronounced these things GOOD. That's how it was on the third day, counting from one evening to the next.
ASIDE — Notice I drew some green vegetation and trees on the brown hills.DAY 4 — God speaks again, and this time we have lights in the Sky to separate Day and Night and to shed light upon the Earth. God said it and the Sun and the Moon appeared, with stars thrown in to fill the night Sky. Light was separated from darkness, and God saw it was GOOD. And lighting up the Sky was the fourth day's work, counting evening and morning.
ASIDE — I put Day on one side and Night on the other side of my picture. Help me out here by using your imagination.DAY 5 — Then God was ready to command the waters to bring forth schools of fish and other creatures to live in the waters and birds to fly across the Sky above the Earth. Along with abundant numbers of every living and moving thing, God also created winged insects. And once again God saw that these creatures were GOOD. That's when God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the Earth and the Seas." That's what God did on the fifth day, evening and morning.
ASIDE — Now it gets fun. If you double-click on my photo, you can see my birds flying in the Sky and swarms of fish in the waters. I threw in a purple sea monster for fun, and made the monster monstrous, with three heads. Why not?DAY 6 — Next, God told Earth to produce land creatures, and this included both wild animals and what we'd call domesticated livestock, as well as the creeping things that move along the ground. And once again God saw that these created things were GOOD. And on the day the animals were created, God decided to make humans in the image and likeness of God. These humans would have responsibility for the fish and the birds, the wild and tame animals, and the creeping things. So God did it, creating humans in male and female forms. After blessing them, God told the humans to "be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth." And those first humans were given responsibility for the care of all living things. Their food would be from the plants and trees, just as that was to be food for the birds and beasts. And it was so. God saw every created thing, and really, it was VERY GOOD. And that was the sixth day of creation.
ASIDE — I drew stick figures, asking the students name four-legged animals. Is that a dog, a giraffe, or a horse on the hill to the right? You decide. Then I add a couple to two-legged animals and let them decide which is male and which female. Hmm, is there a snake up in that apple tree?DAY 7 —And there you have it. God's good creation. On the seventh day, God rested.
So where is heaven? It's above the dome, where God can open windows to let the rain and snow fall down to earth. You can see earth in the middle of my picture, and — though I failed to draw it in — Sheol is below the earth. Sheol is the place where everyone goes when they die, and it wasn't "hell" as we think of it these days. It was just "under the earth" where everyone is buried when they die. Here's a drawing like mine, but one that shows Sheol.
Three layers — heaven on top, earth in the middle, and burial beneath the earth. (But not as far down as the waters below the earth, which gushed up as fountains when "the whole world" flooded in the time of Noah.) So is heaven a place? In what sense?
I asked in a children's sermon, "Where is God?" Someone said, "Up in heaven." I asked, "Which direction is that?" All the children pointed to the ceiling. I asked, "Which direction is up, for people who live in Australia?" Some pointed down. I named places all around the world, and our fingers were pointing up, down, left, right. We finally agreed that God, who is love, is "in our hearts."
So is heaven in my heart?