Every morning I see a poster hanging in my home for a Triple Crown surf contest in Hawaii. During the last 25 years, I have been to several of the islands, but the small town of Haleiwa on the North Shore of Oahu has been my vision of paradise. We all envision paradise differently: The Mall of America, Fenway Park, Disneyland, Pike’s Peak, the Amazon rainforest. Mine just happens to include shave ice, pineapples, macadamia nuts, and crashing surf.
Several months ago, my family gathered in Maui to celebrate my mom and dad’s 50th wedding anniversary. Before renewing their vows in a beautiful United Methodist sanctuary, I was invited to preach the sermon at the morning service before a congregation of Tongans, tourists, and my extended family.
Because of all the sights, sounds, and smells that surrounded us, I took the opportunity to ask if it was easier or more difficult to find God in paradise. I take great comfort in knowing that the human story told in the Bible begins and ends in the gardens of paradise. The environment surrounding the Tree of Life bookends both Genesis (2:8-9) and The Book of Revelation (2:7).
I love knowing that God cared about creating “trees that were pleasing to the eye” in Eden and that it was his first choice, his first plan, and his heart’s desire. Our search for paradise is God-crafted. There are more than two dozen cities in the United States called Paradise. Why? Because the everlasting soul craves an eternal kingdom.
Choices have been set before us in life and you are free to choose according to your desires. Scripture tells us that Adam and Eve made a choice and the trajectory of history was changed forever. There are consequences to the choices we make, but – as the Bible makes clear – they are neither unforgivable nor unredeemable.
Whether you are at the entrance gate of adulthood or the exit gate of this earthly life, the Tree of Life and the garden of paradise plays a huge part in our highs and lows. Our finest moments of victory and our lowest hours of defeat can be found in the lush gardens of our lives. For Jesus, it was in a garden that he sweat drops of blood. It was in a garden that he experienced his greatest agony, his greatest suffering, his most profound loneliness, his greatest betrayal. We cannot be deceived by the beauty of our surroundings. Sometimes the garden is the anti-paradise.
But more often than not, gardens are reminders of hope. The woman who first saw the risen Christ mistook him for a gardener – in a garden. Resurrection – the literal defeat of death – was proclaimed in a garden.
Three days prior, dangling half naked from a tree, it was Jesus who proclaimed to a thief that he would be with him in paradise. Imagine that. He merely asked to be remembered. Covered in blood and spit and humiliation, the thief knew his place. He knew his heart, he needed no sermon. Jesus responded to the humbled heart: Paradise awaits!
Corrie Ten Boom said it so clearly, “You may never know that Jesus is all you need, until Jesus is all you have!”
Several years ago, the band U2 released an album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind. The very title was an interesting concept about the spiritual life. After all, you can leave behind your Cadillac and your condo and your cash. And, you will! Your soul, however, is different. On the song “Walk On,” Bono sings, “You’re packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been / A place that has to be believed, to be seen.” This is what Jesus was saying to the thief. This is what Jesus whispers to you and me.
Our vantage point must change to perceive this alternative reality. To map the heavens, we turn to the telescope. To diagnose what is happening inside the human body, we depend upon the X-ray machine. To surmise what is coursing through your veins, we utilize a microscope. To visualize the unseen Kingdom of Heaven, we must embrace a vision of faith.
St. Paul writes, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” From a different angle, Voltaire observed, “Paradise was made for tender hearts; hell, for loveless hearts.”
In 1967, Elvis Presley recorded a song called “In the Garden.” We used to sing it in my United Methodist church as I was growing up.
“I come to the garden alone / While the dew is still on the roses / And the voice I hear falling on my ear / The Son of God discloses / And He walks with me, and He talks with me / And He tells me I am His own / And the joy we share as we tarry there / None other has ever known.
“He speaks, and the sound of His voice / Is so sweet the birds hush their singing / And the melody that He gave to me / Within my heart is ringing / I’d stay in the garden with Him / Though the night around me be falling / But He bids me go; through the voice of woe / His voice to me is calling.”
That beloved hymn was written by Charles Austin Miles in 1912. It speaks of such intimacy, vividness, and beauty. According to his great-granddaughter, the song, however, was written “in a cold, dreary and leaky basement in New Jersey that didn’t even have a window in it, let alone a view of a garden.”
That should not startle us. For the Kingdom of God is both already and not yet. And it is something to believe in, in order to be seen. And yet, it is something that can be experienced without eyesight. Counter intuitively, we can walk through the garden of paradise while sitting in a windowless basement.
St. Paul reminds us that, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
And that, my friends, will be true paradise.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.