By Caleb Jones
One evening in 1991, I snapped awake in my bunk bed around 9pm filled with existential dread. At the time we were living in Graceville, Florida, where my Dad was attending Florida Baptist Theological Seminary, and as a 1st grader I had just managed to really freak myself out thinking about heaven. Growing up in a community of faith was wonderful. Because My dad was in ministry and seminary, I was constantly listening to his conversations about theology and doctrine that were way over my head. These were the topics my dad and his friends were talking about, and I thought being around them was the greatest thing ever. His friends were hilarious, they pulled pranks on their professors and each other, and I got to be part of all of it! They were figuring out what kind of ministers they were going to be, and they were excited and talking about it a lot!
Well, that day they’d been talking about heaven, and I think the thing that really messed me up was the concept of eternity. There were basic things that I was on board with from the start, like no more pain and no more fear, but the idea of praising God forever did not sound fun at all. As a matter of fact, it sounded like hell to me! As fun as it was to be around all these new ministers, I did not like going to church as much as they did, and we went to A LOT of churches. I’m the kid who was so good at kindergarten, they let me do it twice, so having to behave in a service was always a struggle. I equated worshiping God to being in a church service, so in my mind worshiping God for eternity sounded like we were going to be stuck in some celestial choir loft forever. And ever. And ever! I believed there would be no pain and no fear because there would be no change and no chance. Everybody would be stuck facing the same direction, singing on cue, and wearing the same robes -- I couldn’t take it anymore! As a family, we were living next to the campus and sharing a house with some other students. The living room had been turned into a study, and as I ran down the hall crying I could hear the typewriters going while Dad and the other guys were working on their papers.
I told him, straight up, “I don’t want to go to heaven!” I explained why through sobs with tears running down my face. I don’t remember much of what he said to me that night, but I finally went back to bed with the understanding that heaven and eternity were going to be good, not because it would be orderly and sterile, but because of who would be there. Jesus would be there, as well as most of the people that were currently in my life, and that was a good place to start.
A real longing for heaven didn’t manifest in my heart until we moved to Wales and I met so many dear brothers and sisters in Christ. I had an unrealistic expectation of how many Americans would be able to come visit us while we were there, and it slowly dawned on me that a lot of my new British family would really struggle to ever see the home I spoke so much about. I began to long for a way that we could all be together. That’s what heaven is! All of us perfectly loving our Creator, perfectly knowing our Savior, and at the same time perfectly loving each other! I began to see why the Apostle Paul longed for this place after having sown his life all over the map. He’d been leaving a part of himself everywhere he went.
During the week I work for YoungLife, leading a club for our friends with physical, mental, and learning disabilities. Our clubs are the most ethnically diverse gatherings in the entire city, and when I see my friends loving each other unconditionally and thanking God for each other I always think about how great a picture it is of heaven on earth. It’s a picture of our future joy!
The other day, I got to talk to Charlie about heaven. I was able to tell him that right now God speaks to my heart and mind. I explained how I ask God question and meditate on his word, and in turn He is faithful to guide me; how in heaven, I’ll see Him face to face and really know my best friend. Later on in the conversation, Charlie told me that heaven will be great because “the rabbits won't run away from me, and I’ll show everyone how to build cars so they don't have to go around in wagons.”
. . . Fair enough, for now.
Most recently, I’ve longed more for heaven here in St. Augustine as people I know and love are at other churches across the city. The truth is that this life is not eternity. It is finite, and there are only so many waking hours in the day. It's been a hard truth to learn that you can be in the same city as someone and still not see them. I miss knowing that I’d catch up with someone at least once a week at some point on a Sunday. The mission of sharing the good news of Jesus pulls us in different directions, and I have to trust -- just like the apostle Paul -- that Jesus loves the people I love even more than I do. His mission goes forward even when I’m not part of it. One day, we will all worship together. These are my heartaches for heaven at 37 yrs old, and I know that more will come every year.
As a part of my church leadership team, I will talk to you all day long about how important it is for us to gather weekly for corporate worship, not just because we are commanded to, but because it shapes us, grows us, and lets us respond to the word of God as a collective people. I’ll even go so far as to say that St. Augustine needs more churches than we currently have. Even if every one of our current churches got healthier and bigger, it's not enough. Statistically speaking, we need more churches to bring gospel hope and wholeness to the Oldest City. But with that in mind, I cannot allow myself to reduce worship to our various church services as if that's the best thing we’ve got to offer people. It’s not enough. It wasn’t even enough for me as a 1st grader! Our lives are meant to be a picture of what heaven will be like, and my picture of heaven was shaped dramatically in 1991 by how my family opened up our home to others and the love my mom and dad had for anyone under that roof. I don’t think that a dark room with everyone facing the same direction, singing on cue in their own head space, with all the children squared away in some other room is the best picture of heaven. It can be part of the picture, sure; but it’s barely scratching the surface of what heaven will really be like. From Genesis to the Sermon on the Mount, pentecost to Revelation, we see that the greatest snapshot of heaven is when the lights are up and we are talking with each other, having a meal, and discussing a shared scripture. That is what points us to our future perfect home.