10/12/08

Thoughts on Heaven

My mother worries that she won't go to heaven when she dies. She bases this belief on her own sense of inadequacy in matters of faith, God, and spirituality. In other words, heaven is for a class of persons to which she clearly is not a member. She expressed this worry (not for the first time) during a conversation we were having about a book she read where the author died, went to heaven, and returned to tell the story. She was inspired by the story. The author had been run over by a truck. His injuries were fatal but prayer brought him back. His ordeal since returning to earth has been harrowing. It seems recovering from a fatal accident is difficult even for people who have been to heaven and chosen to return. One message he brings back from the other side disturbs my mother because it touches that ineligible part of her. Heaven is reserved for those who proclaim Christ as savior and follow him faithfully. The man's story confirms that heaven does belong to a class of believers who, given all of the possible roads to follow in life, choose the narrow one Christ points to in the gospels.

So where does that leave the rest of us? I say us because I can no longer subscribe to such a narrow view. I know it's risky challenging a guy who's been there and come back to let us know that we must indeed be followers of Christ to spend eternity in heaven. Generally speaking, I'm not the risk taking type. I tend to like certainty and the certainty of faith rooted in biblical absolutes was very appealing to me for many years. To be honest, it still has a certain appeal. But the question remains, what about the rest of us?

It seems too severe for God to expel doubters from His midst. After all, faith is a gift from Him and the ability to believe is not something we can manufacture. I can be open to believing - ever ready to encounter mystery - but I can't make myself believe something because someone tells me I must. In fact, being told what I must believe makes faith seem like a mere exercise in cooperation. Surely God wants more than my cooperation? Doesn't He want my whole heart? Service isn't a cooperative act of obedience, it's a passionate engagement of attention to all things other.

I rarely worry that I will fail to be obedience and cooperative. I can do both of those in my sleep with very little temptation. I have been conditioned to cooperate in all but the most egregious of circumstances. What wakes me up at night is whether I'll even get over myself enough to serve in a manner deserving of retirement in paradise. I'm sure I won't - at least not without help.

Grace isn't unmerited favor as I always believed it was. Grace is a daily dose of "get over yourself" lessons. Heaven is not a future destination or the destiny of a chosen few. Heaven is the moment of enlightenment that breaks through the artifice of cooperation and civility I call "self esteem." It comes most easily to those who have no reputation to uphold or protect. In fact, the "poor and downtrodden" often mentioned in the Bible see heaven in circumstances most of us avoid like the plague.

I don't know what happens after we die but I know that heaven exists on earth in the most mundane moments. I believe the better able I am to recognize it in all of its dimensions, twists, turns, and iterations, the more likely I will be able to embrace my place in eternity - wherever that may be.

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