Heaven: Here, There, and Everywhere

I was on the phone yesterday with an old friend who is battling cancer. Most of you also know the prolonged anxiety we feel with Narcie’s brain tumor, and a year ago last week my brother died on his birthday. Two years ago next week, Cindy’s Mom died suddenly. In the throes of thinking about mortality and eternal life I once again have been struck with the vestiges of my recent trip to Nicaragua.

In the midst of abject poverty and high mortality rates, they were some of the most hopeful people I’ve ever met. I know some people think about the afterlife too much, so much so that they are described as being so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good. Our faith is for the here and now, and eternal life starts with our first breath. It gives us hope and the wherewithal to make a difference in the present while giving us an anchor in God’s future.           

Karl Marx thought that religion was the “opium for the masses,” a panacea to help the common human being escape reality. He thought that real help should come from an energized proletariat, not religious dreamers. Well, communism is dead and religion thrives. Marx’s assessment of faith didn’t do it justice. Faith provides more than a temporary fix. It is eternal!

However, many people, obsessed with the here and now, attempt to find fulfillment solely in earthly ways. Things of the Spirit and visions of eternity are foreign to them. To them it is this world that matters most so why be concerned with something for which we have no evidence? They say that eternal life is “pie-in-the-sky,” a human creation only accepted because it’s been endorsed by so many people.

On the other hand, there are those who do indeed believe that there’s a heaven, a better place, and that it’s better than we dare imagine. I’ve seen these people die and have watched their faces exhibit a special grace that makes it appear that they’re already seeing things that we can’t see on this side of eternity. To die at peace is a great solace. I sincerely think that the hope of heaven contributes to this sense of ease. This is the difference that Christ inaugurates; our faith is a foretaste of final victory.

It is as Kenneth L. Woodward wrote in a 1999 Newsweek article entitled, “2000 Years of Jesus,” “To a world ruled by fate and the whims of capricious gods, Christianity brought the promise of everlasting life. At the core of the Christian faith was the assertion that the crucified Jesus was resurrected by God and present in the church as ‘the body of Christ.’ The message was clear: By submitting to death, Jesus had destroyed its power, thereby making eternal life available to everyone. This Christian affirmation radically changed the relationship between the living and the dead as Greeks and Romans understood it. For them, only the gods were immortal – that’s what made them gods. Philosophers might achieve immortality of the soul, as Plato taught, but the view from the street was that human consciousness survived in the dim and affectless underworld of Hades. ‘The Resurrection is an enormous answer to the problem of death,’ says Notre Dame theologian John Dunne. ‘The idea is that the Christian goes with Christ through death to everlasting life. Death becomes an event, like birth, that is lived through.’”          

This eternal perspective certainly changes our here-and-now outlook, too. C.S. Lewis had it right when he said: “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men and women of the church who built up the Middle Ages, the English evangelicals who abolished the slave trade, all left their mark on earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this one. Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in.’ Aim at earth and you will get neither.”

Amen!

Happy Times

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Cindy’s summer last year was consumed by her mother’s illness and death. Today she’s trying to finish the estate. A lot has happened in a realtively short period of time. I miss her Mom, but I think all this stuff with Narcie would have broken her heart with worry and ended her days with sadness. Instead Ganny died with a book in her hand, ever the librarian, looking forward not backward. I’m still amazed at how well she adapted from living in her special home to being under someone else’s care. I won’t forget how just a couple of weeks before her death, we went to see “Julie & Julia.” Then the bone marrow biopsy and the day before they were going to tell us what it was (Acute Myleoblastic Leukemia), she was dead. Just like that. She had asked Narcie and Josh to do her eulogy and they were great in sharing their special “Ganny Memories.” It would be tough for Ganny to know about Narcie. Just to think she died just a year and a half after seeing her precious Josh marry Karen. That was one of her last highwater marks exceeded perhaps only by the birth of Evy.

So, Cindy has been through a lot over the last couple of years. She is a trooper, dealing with last summer, a tough school year as usual as a guidance counselor, then just as school ended another saga began. I’ve had my break with the College World Series, she hasn’t. She’s been cheerleader, Mom, Grammie, friend, prayer-warrior, and so much more for all of us without so much as a thought for her own well-being. I sure do love her. I married my mother. She is so much like her. We joke around because I’ve sort of turned into her Mom which makes for an interesting visual when you think of our mothers marrying each other, but, hey, we’re more complex than that, and I’m grateful.

This December 20 is our 35th wedding anniversary, and I hope we can do it up right. I’m not telling what I’ve got in mind but she’ll love it if I can pull it off. She certainly deserves it. Both our best hopes would be fulfilled if Narcie’s MRI’s come back with no tumor. That would be gift enough. Nobody wants to outlive their child. I’m taking part in a funeral tomorrow for a child I baptized as an infant, who as a 19-year-old college student took his last breath on Saturday, from a summer cold turned into congestive heart failure. I cannot imagine his sweet parent’s heartache, but all of this with Narcie has made me feel just a bit of it, more than I want. I guess tomorrow’s sorrow has reminded me of how close we’ve come to the same horrible place and how grateful I am that Narcie Jo is alive and has the hope of being well.

Please pray for Wiley and DeLois Alexander and their family as they lay Karl to rest tomorrow. I never want to be in their shoes. I know that Jesus is in their hearts, but the ache that they must feel is beyond my pondering and is unfathomable. May God grant them peace. Ganny found peace and we are glad, but she was 76, not 19 like Karl, or 30 like Narcie. God please be with the families whose children are dying in Afghanistan and Iraq, Haiti, the neo-natal unit down the street, everywhere.

Garden of Eden, is that where I want to go? Back to Eden sounds good, but didn’t God put seraphim with blazing swords to keep Adam and Eve out? Why? If they had gotten back in they would have had access to both the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil AND the Tree of Life. Going back to Eden knowing good and evil, and eating of the Tree of Life and living forever would have been an eternal curse. God didn’t want them to go back to Eden for their own good, our own good. So, we’re people headed in a different direction – forward to the New Jerusalem, Rev. 21, no crying, no sadness, no good and evil – only good. Sounds good, but I’m in no hurry for any of us, not Karl, not Narcie, not Cindy. Maybe Ganny because she was ready and was wearing out. Maybe death can come as friend, but only through Jesus and not without a fight.