The first prayer I ever learned was El Padre Nuestro. My father and I would kneel together on the cold tiled floor in the storefront church. The tops of our heads pressed against metal chairs. Our prayers would take on the form of a call and response.
Whenever I repeated, “your kingdom come,” my six-year-old imagination pictured Disney’s Magic Kingdom castle descending ethereally onto our cul-de-sac on East 10th Street. For a moment Orlando, Florida, no longer had dibs on heaven, and I was happy.
Since then my view of heaven has evolved—thankfully. While Jesus does mention that mansion with many rooms, we often miss the other half of the text that says, “I will come back and take you with me that you also may be where I am.”
Jesus’s words are intimate. Space making. He speaks about mutual hosting and encounter. It’s one of those living truths we can inhabit in Advent.
Heaven has a way of breaking into dusty mangers unannounced. It intersects the breaches between God’s shalom and the world in need of repair. The church, if it’s tuned in, gets to discern these encounters, curate them, and actively participate.
This idea of heaven as present in the now has profoundly shaped my own theology. And it’s largely the reason why I’m a Christian today.
It’s the same truth Jesus communicates in Matthew 25 about the coming judgment of the nations. He curates six simple encounters where heaven meets world, using the intersections of hunger, welcoming a stranger, thirst, sickness, clothing nakedness, and company for the lonely prisoner. In a brilliant, seemingly improv moment, Jesus’s words flow with a certain cadence, “When I was (hungry, naked, in prison) you (fed, clothed, visited) me.”
When the righteous ask, “Lord, when?” Jesus points to his vicarious presence in the world. He notes that every time the righteous engaged a place or person where shalom in the world had broken down, they met Jesus.
Your will be done, Lord, in Harlem as it is in heaven.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning captures it well: “Earth’s crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God; / But only he who sees, takes off his shoes, / The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.” In an attention-challenged world, our formative task is to become more present to heaven.
Our church continues to be on the lookout, asking God what might “Your kingdom come, your will be done, Lord, in Harlem as it is in heaven” look like?
In response, God has not answered us with a bigger church or ecstatic experiences. Bummer.
Instead, we have been pointed back to East Harlem where, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the incarceration rate is more than three times the rate citywide.
God pointed me to an outpost of resistance to this prison narrative. Julio Medina was locked up for twelve years at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. Yet Julio wouldn’t want to be known by this single aspect of his story—or glorify it. When he was released, he became the founder of Exodus Transitional Community, a nonprofit that provides support services to formerly incarcerated men and women as they return to their communities. He chose to become a curator of redemptive stories. He says his mission is to give a voice to the voiceless, “to provide spaces and resources that didn’t exist when I got out…to humanize their stories to the rest of the world.”
Many at Exodus did not have a mentoring presence early on or a father kneeling near. But as they share their stories of hope, I often find myself on sacred ground. My time at Exodus has opened my eyes to heaven again.
Heaven has a way of humanizing the world, unveiling the divine signature in the common or broken. For all our efforts, we don’t bring heaven to earth as much as behold it when it is revealed. In this season Christ invites us to curate these moments, to be involved in hosting Jesus where we find him. Shalom.