The Promise of Heaven
By Karen Eubank
We arrived to Nam Lim Pa, Kachin State, in the afternoon. I remembered a pleasant stay there last year in a small but bustling village. I knew that most of the village and nearby IDP camp inhabitants had abandoned Nam Lim Pa just three months earlier, but the emptiness was sobering as we drove through. Arriving to Kai Ra's house was a wake-up to a very different situation. What we met there brought the situation very close to home. On the outside, her place was a pretty three-bedroom wood and bamboo home, complete with shutters on the windows and a front deck. Inside was a tragedy. Personal items -- photographs, journals, notebooks, and clothes, both adult and children -- were strewn all over the floor and combined with smoking and drinking debris from the soldiers who had occupied the house. Kai Ra's picture was in many group photos of women at Catholic church events, several Bibles were on a shelf and in her room the window sill held decorative cups and knick-knacks that had survived the looting. We found a gold ring on the floor with Mary embossed on it that we put back on the shelf. I could relate to the things in that house: the Bible, teaching books, children's clothes, and girly cosmetics. Though I had never met Kai Ra, I felt I knew her. This could have been my house, my family, my tragedy.
I had never stayed in a place that had been ransacked so recently. At first I wasn't sure what to do: should I leave things as they were as a testimony, or clean up? We had to stay there so I asked Naw Seng, our Kachin team leader, if it was good to clean it up. Somehow I needed permission from someone "Kachin" who belonged to this experience. He said yes and his wife and I began separating the salvageable items from destroyed things. We threw away trash and rearranged the rooms to be livable. This was more comforting than I thought it would be as, instantly, I felt if this was my house I'd want it picked up, taken care of , loved not exploited. I could almost hear Kai Ra saying, "Yes, please put it back in order the way I would want it to be." Maybe she and I were similar enough so that I could fix it very close to the way she could be proud of. When we finished it looked good.
Unfortunately we stayed in this house only four out of our 10 days in the Nam Lim Pa area. The day after we cleaned up, the Burma Army attacked the next village west, an hour away, and came close from the north and east. While FBR teams moved to the frontline we made a base camp 30 minutes into the foothills outside of the village. Several days later, as the fighting moved further away, we came down to stay at her house again only to pack up the next morning when mortars and machinegun fire came closer. After another night in the jungle we returned again for a last night at Kai Ra's home before leaving the area for our next mission. Surprisingly, as I packed up, I felt very sad. I didn't want to leave her home unprotected. I had put my heart there. I hadn't noticed that I was trying to fill in the gap in her forced absence but I suddenly felt like I was abandoning my post, keeping it the way she had it. I knew the inevitable train of thought: "What will happen to this place? Now anyone can come. It will get trashed again...looted, maybe even destroyed." I was in tears but thought, "None of your tears are going to fix this -- you can't fix this for her. There is nothing you can do." I took photos of her University ID card and windowsill of knick-knacks. As we drove away I thought, "One thing I can do is remember this."
I started thinking about the colors of the wordless book we use to share the gospel in the children's program. The first color is gold and one of the study guides I had read for this emphasizes heaven. I've always focused instead on the goodness of God for that color. God gives us good in this life that is easy to tangibly grasp in our present reality. Heaven is great, an after-death reality, something to look forward to but not as relevant to the here and now. I thought maybe this book put it there because it gives joy to the childhood need of a perfect world out there as well, as the attraction to the extravagant beauty of 'gold streets, pearly gates, and jeweled crowns.' But for a quick introduction and first impression of God symbolized by the color gold, I hadn't gravitated to talking about heaven. I wondered now if I was missing something about heaven's relevance to kids. I thought of how African-American spirituals often emphasized heaven, and realized that for the slaves then, heaven was a much more livable home than their earthly reality. Unlike my own childhood experience of heaven being a plus to an already good life, for many, heaven is the only light in a dark tunnel. To believe in its reality is the lifeline of sanity.
I realized that children fleeing, going from village to hiding place to refugee camps to new arrivals in a foreign place, is happening -- present tense -- all over the world. I asked myself, what is the gospel message for this population? What does Jesus say to these children who don't have a sense of place, belonging, routine, protection, and provision? What significance would believing in heaven -- a perfect home -- have for them? Heaven really addresses a fundamental need, for all of us, but maybe in children especially, for the 'place' that would be what earthly reality is not. I have grown up, forgotten, and taken this gift for granted. Yet this last week I connected with a person, her belonging, her loss, and the temporalness of the symbols we make for 'home.'
I was thinking from the perspective of a child. What about adults? What does the reality of heaven mean to the powerful people of this world? In the book Jesus Among Other Gods, Ravi Zacharias describes one of the conversations Jesus has with those who first tried to understand Him. They asked Him a logical question, human to human: "Where do you live?" In the Eastern world this is a very common question, and helps identify economic status, educational accomplishments, politics and ethnicity. While many religions center on a specific culture and place, which gives them 'identity' and cohesion, Jesus did not identify himself based on parentage or ethnic status, or any other human measure that could be a means of exclusiveness. What he did claim was a home apart from the soil of earth, in heaven, and a kinship apart from humanity, in his heavenly Father. His invitation was for all to join Him there -- to join a unique family system operating on God's rules for power, and opposite to a worldly paradigm of belonging. He invited us to a 'home' greater than we could ever fashion and an identity that could not be threatened by culture or power, wealth or background. The alternative is what I witnessed in Kai Ra's house.
It was hard to arrive at Kai Ra's house -- it was surprisingly harder to leave. Knowing that we need a home is important. God must have built us that way, which is why He reassures that He "is going to prepare a place" for us (John 14:2). We all have claim to that perfect home. Children can treasure it, dream of it, rest in it. But adults have to work for it -- or, maybe,'re-work' themselves to prepare for it, by giving up pride, power, and prestige that have taken heaven's place in their hearts. We must go through the daily workout of turning our 'power' over others inside out. In our adult 'maturity and strength,' we must make our hearts livable for Christ first. As we give Him the authority to direct our hearts and actions in love towards others before self, He will make the ambitions and accomplishments that we intensely seek after, often at the expense of others, fit for a heavenly foundation, to build something eternal for both now, and beyond us in eternity.