I’ve struggled to understand heaven for almost my whole life. I began with the same abstractions as everyone else: heaven as a bunch of angels floating around on fluffy clouds. As I grew, the vision changed into that selfish idea that heaven is the place where all of my dreams come true. I’d live in a mansion, all of my dead pets alive and with me, eating pizza all day. Finally, as I came more and more to know the brokenness of the world, I came to the place where I viewed heaven simply as life, fixed. All of that was before Isaac.
Isaac is our third son, three out of four. He is often described with the same words that might apply to many boys his age: cute, silly, stubborn, happy. But there are other words that describe Isaac as well, words not always applied to his peers: impaired, delayed, disabled. Isaac has no natural lenses in his eyes. He developed cataracts as an infant and the lenses had to be removed. While our legs are as nimble as any other part of our bodies, his are simultaneously weak and rigid. He walks with the aid of crutches, or a tiny walker known as a gait trainer. The first step in understanding what heaven might be, could be, will be, is understanding what it is not. If you want a vision of heaven, you first need to take a good long look at sin.
We tell people Isaac suffers from Cerebral Palsy, that’s a word most people have heard before, even if they have no idea what it means. Cerebral Palsy is a big umbrella which covers any type of damage or malformation to the central nervous system very early in life, often before birth. More specifically, Isaac has a condition known as FAR 1-480. It isn’t a disease. It isn’t a description. FAR 1-480 is a place.
We were driving down Route 283 in Pennsylvania, when I looked over at my wife and asked, “How many genes do we have?” She’s a doctor; she knows things.
“Maybe 20,000?” she answered.
“And genes are part of chromosomes.”
“Right, chromosomes are made up of genes.”
“So, how many genes does each chromosome have?”
“Well, they aren’t all the same. You have 46 chromosomes arranged in pairs. Each pair is different, but I’d say that each have at least a few hundred genes.”
“And FAR 1-480 is a gene.”
“No. It’s a location.
“Think of it this way: the Human Genome is a world. Think of a globe.”
“The Genome is a world. The twenty-three chromosome pairs are like regions. Maybe one would be the US/Canada pair. Genes are places in those regions.”
“Like, towns, mountains . . .”
“Yes, this highway would be one gene on the US side of the US/Canada pair.”
“Okay, that makes sense”
“Think of FAR 1-480 as a specific location on this highway: mile marker FAR 1-480.”
“And that’s where the problem is.”
“Yeah, that’s where the problem is.”
We think of sin as bad things we do, ranging from deliberate acts of harm to others to choosing the lesser of two options. That is correct, but also limited. Sin isn’t merely an action or a series of actions. Sin is state of being. Sin is what we do and think, only because it is who we are. Sin is elemental to the experience of life on planet Earth. When Adam and Eve took that first bite of sin, it was more than just their psyche that changed. The serpent went from a walking, talking, creature to a legless being which slithered on the ground. Food no longer grew itself, but now required man’s labor to make it grow. The animals, all living together in the garden, began to kill and eat one another. The garden itself vanished, no longer accessible to humans, who were thrown out into the land of labor and struggle. It wasn’t only humans who changed when sin entered the world. The world changed, and it must have been a terrifying moment.
“Broken” is a word we like to use to describe this fallen world and the people in it. I suppose it works as good as any other, but it doesn’t quite get to the heart of the issue. This world is broken, but it still functions in many ways. Yet, that working is incomplete, unfulfilling. It is a glimpse of what it was meant to be. I don’t see the world so much as broken, but smudged. Like a landscape painted by a master painter, but before the paint had fully dried, someone came along with a wet paper towel and smeared it across the face of the canvas. Now we have places and moments where we can almost see what the master intended, times when the smudging is minimal. We also have places where we have no idea what was intended, just an undecipherable jumble of colors. In those places life is just one giant smudge. Sin.
We’re pretty good at compartmentalizing sin. The politician might fudge the attendance numbers of her last rally, but that doesn’t make her a selfish mom. The author who plays a little fast and loose with his sourcing isn’t necessarily an untrustworthy friend. That lingering glance across the gym doesn’t make a person a creepy coworker. That pothole at mile marker FAR 1-480 is just that, a bump in one small section of the road. That little imperfection doesn’t cause earthquakes in Southeast Asia, doesn’t influence avalanches in the Alps. As long as we don’t travel that one unfortunate section of our lives too frequently, we’ll be fine.
Maybe we view sin with a little too much optimism. Maybe that little pothole in the road in Pennsylvania does cause avalanches in the Alps. It did for Isaac. One mutation in one small section of one of twenty thousand genes changed his life forever. Isaac can walk, if he has scaffolding on wheels surrounding him. Even then his gait is a stiff, rigid, jerking motion, difficult to watch with any type of self-awareness. We plop him on crutches at physical therapy a few times a week, and he stands there, arms and legs shaking, screaming that we shouldn’t let go of him. Standing, with even a hint of independence is terrifying for him. When Isaac turned three, he had the vocabulary of an eighteen month-old. After a year and a half of speech therapy, he’s on par with the bottom end of “typical development” for his age. Even after all of that work, we ask Isaac a question and wait, wait for whatever goes on in that head of his to sort itself out, find the appropriate words, and shape them with his mouth and tongue. He often answers the first request after a pause, but sometimes a squirrel runs past the window, he hears a car drive down the street, or notices a new shadow in the corner, and he’s off into some other world. A simple touch, a reminder of the question, brings him back home and we begin again. We got lucky. If that pothole in Pennsylvania had had a partner somewhere in Canada, the results would have been severe: no speech, permanent disability, persistent seizures, shortened life expectancy. One miniscule defect across the entire genome and his life was forever altered; two, and it may not have begun at all.
Sin is quiet, and sneaky, and leaks from one part of our lives into the others without us even noticing. The simple fact that we refuse to admit is that the lingering glance at the gym does make a creepy coworker, those fudged attendance numbers do make the politician a selfish mom, and if I obscure the sources and inspiration behind my writing, I am an untrustworthy friend. That cycle lives and continues in each one of us. We’ve each got our own personal potholes that spread a negative influence across our lives and the lives of others in ways we cannot even imagine.
What we are left with is a world filled with pothole ridden people. Some carry their potholes by choice, others have no choice. It all runs over, runs together into a mess of sin and consequences so deep, so tangled, that the one time we were given a moment with a man free from the mess, we killed him. It’s a smeared masterpiece we live in, and whatever terminology we seek to apply to it, we all know it. We all understand that this world falls short of what is possible. We all look for, hope for, strive for more. We all dream of heaven.
So, what is heaven? Is it life fixed? The place where we all get what we want? The place where our pets come back to life? The land of angels and fluffy clouds? Maybe some of that. Maybe all of that. Here is what I know. Isaac is as perfect a young boy as this world can hope to offer, but he is as deeply flawed as the rest of us. The debilitations of his body are no greater than the debilitations of my heart. We would not change him for anything. Yet, there is something there, deep inside him, something trapped, clawing its way to the surface. It is what Isaac could be without that pothole in his genes. What is that like? Who would he be? We get glimpses, see moments of hope and brilliance, our Isaac fighting through the barrier of this world. The smudge on that portion of the masterpiece is shallow and weak; we see what might have been possible, what might have been intended on the other side. In those moments, I begin to see heaven. I get an image of my son, standing tall and strong, running, jumping and laughing. Then I see my other sons, my wife, my father and mother. All of us as we should be, fixed, healed, filled, loved, unbroken. What is possible in that world without potholes, where the love of the Son has smoothed out the bumps before us and paved the way for us to be all we were meant to and more? It is heaven, but the first time I saw it was holding the broken little body of my four year-old son.