You have maybe been asked the question, “Will I go to heaven when I die?” Here, heaven is thought to be a place somewhere far away where God lives, only reachable by our death. And if God is so distant both in time and space how can he be relevant to living today?
I am often amazed by how much our perception of the world is influenced by the meaning we attach to words. A significant number of words commonly used today do not mean the same as they did when I was a child, but maybe that’s because I am not as young as I’d like to be! As language changes over time, the distance between the intentions of the original author and the perceptions of the modern reader widens. What they actually meant and what we think they were saying become two entirely different things. Human nature also has this funny habit of moulding meaning to suit our own standpoint.
You do not need to listen to a politician for very long to hear them represent situations in ways that support their perspective and give weight to their views. To some extent, this can be true, too, of the way we read the bible, written as it was in times and cultures very distant from our own. Often we think we know what its words mean, and how we should understand familiar passages because we see them through modern lenses, moulded by the culture we live in and the circumstances of our lives.
Perhaps, to many of you reading this, heaven is the place where God is. It is ‘up there’, ‘beyond the sky’, and beyond our reach while we are here on earth. Renaissance painters, painted images of heaven on ceilings, so that all had to look upwards to see their representations of things otherwise unseen. Beautiful and dramatic as they are, these paintings present a limited perspective, an imagined view of a reality infinitely more incredible than what can be revealed with paint on plaster.
The authors of the New Testament knew a deeper reality and wrote with words that contained layers of meaning that are often lost in their translation. Two words especially matter here, ouranos and pneuma. Ouranos is the ancient Greek word for ‘heaven’ or ‘the heavens’, and yet it also means, ‘air’ and ‘sky’. Pneuma, is the word for ‘Spirit’, but it means ‘breath’, and ‘wind’ as well. So, to explain that Yahweh the God of the Jews lives in the heavens, that is in the place above the sky we call our ‘universe’, is also to say that he is present in the skies in which the birds fly, and in the very air we breathe. To Jewish minds the God in the heavens was not distant at all, he surrounded them with his presence, he was in their every breath. When the wind blew, they saw in its power a reflection of the power of God. When a child was born, they saw the life of God enter their body with their first breath.
Many people think that God is far away, uninterested in our lives, and disconnected by that distance, but the Bible paints a different picture. The Lord’s Prayer taught by Jesus to his disciples opens with the line, ‘Our Father, who inhabits the air we breathe’, reminding them and us, that God is not remote at all. It says that we are never far from him, and he is never distant from us. There is no chasm between us and we cannot walk away from him. He is with us always. We can choose to ignore him, to live as though he does not exist, to close our hearts to him and turn our heads away, but that is only a reflection of our character and not of his. God is present everywhere we turn and longs to be close to us.
The God whose Spirit will fill your lungs, who is in our breath, is closer than any other living being. He is the one who created the heavens and the earth, the sky and the land, the air and the soil. He is the one who has given us life and is in every breath we breathe. May I encourage you then, to get to know him more, to read what he has revealed about himself in the Bible, and if you have been living in a world where you have not perceived God to be present, then I would encourage you simply to take a deep breath.
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