In the last few years, thanks largely to the work of NT Wright, the Church has recovered the understanding that going to heaven when we die is not the point of believing in Jesus nor is it, even, a primary concern of scripture and seldom do our notions of heaven resemble anything in our scripture or tradition.
However, to say that Christianity is not about going to heaven when we die is not to say that reflection on and belief in eternity is inappropriate.
When I worked as a hospital chaplain at UVA, one of my responsibilities was to accompany shocked and freshly grieved strangers to identify the bodies of their loved ones. I didn’t need hindsight to know it was a task for which I was wholly inadequate.
One winter night, in the middle of an overnight shift, I was paged to go and meet a mother who’d arrived to see her daughter.
She was waiting at the security desk when I found her- on occasions like that they’re easy to spot. She didn’t look any older than my mom.
Her mascara had already streaked down her cheeks and dried in the lines of her face. Her hair was matted from where her pillow had been just hours before. I noticed she hadn’t put any socks on and she’d put her sweater on backwards.
When I walked up to her, she had her arms crossed- like she was cold or like she was holding herself. ‘I don’t know what she was doing out this time of night’ she kept whispering to herself.
A resident doctor, a med student no older than me, accompanied us. She’d been the one who’d attended her daughter when the rescue squad brought her in from the accident.
The three of us walked soberly to a tiny, antiseptic room.
A nurse or an orderly pulled a little chain string to draw the paper curtain open, and when the mother saw her daughter she immediately lost her footing.
And then she lost her breath.
And then after a long, stretched-out moment, somewhere between an inhale and an exhale, she let out a bone-racking sob.
I had my arm around her to comfort her and keep her from falling, but I didn’t say anything. I’ve always been wary of anyone who knows what to say in comfortless moments.
The med student, though, was clearly unnerved by the rawness of the mother’s grief and by the absence of any words.
She kept looking at me, urging me with her eyes to say something. I ignored her, and the mother kept sobbing just as loudly as she’d begun.
But maybe I should’ve said something, because when I refused the doctor put her hand on the mother’s shoulder and looked over at the teenage girl lying on the metal bed with flecks of dried blood not all the way wiped from her hair and forehead and said: ‘
That’s alright. She’s not here. That’s just a shell…’
I’d known instantly it was the wrong thing to say, that it rang tinny and false and was completely inadequate for the moment.
Nonetheless, it surprised me when she pushed the doctor away and slapped her hard across the face and cried:
‘It’s not alright. That’s my daughter.
She’s not just anything. She’s Amanda. Until I say otherwise, that’s my daughter.’
Chastened, the doctor said I’m sorry and slunk away.
I stayed with her a long while after that, my arm around her, listening as she stroked her daughter’s hand and hair and softly recounted memories.
In all that time, she hadn’t really acknowledged my presence until she turned and looked at me and asked me:
‘What’s heaven like? I want to be able to picture her there.
I need to be able to picture her there.’
I fumbled it.
I didn’t describe streets of gold exactly, or pearly gates and billowy clouds, but I didn’t do much better than that either.
I’ve been around death enough to know that almost every one of you is as prone to cliche as that terrified med student, and only a few of you would handle that mother’s question about heaven any better than I did.
I’ve buried something like 80 people and stood vigil at I don’t know how many bedsides.
But Amanda’s mother with the sweater on backwards, who’d just been kicked in the teeth by grief, she’s the only person who’s ever put the question to me straight:
What’s heaven like?
Given my line of work, you might expect that question to come up all the time, but she’s the only one who’s ever asked.
Which tells me that before trying to answer what heaven is, maybe I should’ve said what heaven is not.
I wish I’d had the wisdom to lay my hand on her daughter’s head, and find the right way to tell her no matter what anyone said Amanda’s body was more than just a shell because heaven is not the continuation of a person’s eternal soul.
No doubt that would surprise her.
After all for centuries people have taken comfort in the belief that you have an eternal, spiritual soul apart from your physical, embodied self.
But that isn’t a belief rooted in scripture.
God makes us embodied creatures, I wish I’d found a way to say.
We’re one in life, body and soul, and we’re one in death, body and soul.
When we say things like ‘Death’s nothing at all…her body’s just a shell…her soul’s just slipped away’ we may be offering words of comfort but we’re not proclaiming the Gospel.
I think she would’ve understood.
She would’ve known you couldn’t look at her little girl- at the scar on her right hand that she could tell you Amanda got when she was nine, helping in the kitchen- and say her body doesn’t matter.
Death is real, I wish I’d said.
But then she already knew that.
Just like it was for Jesus from noon on Friday to Easter Eve, our death is the end of us.
Our hope lies not in pretending otherwise, not in speculating about a detachable part of us Socrates called the soul.
Our hope lies in knowing that God promises to raise us to life everlasting and, just as he did with Jesus, God is determined not to leave any part of us behind.
And I wish I’d warned her about funeral homes- that the funeral home would most likely want to distribute memorial cards with Amanda’s name and dates on one side, and- odds were- the other side would have a terrible poem on it that said:
“Do not stand by my grave and weep. I am not here. I am a thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond glints on snow, I am the sun on ripened grain, I am the gentle autumn rain.” I wish I’d warned her to refuse a poem like that because heaven is not our becoming one with the infinite. We don’t disappear into the ether.
I should’ve warned her the funeral home would tell her that people found those to be comforting words, but that, for Amanda’s sake, she should care not just that the words are comforting, she should care that they’re true.
Her reaction to the lie the doctor tried to offer as comfort tells me Amanda’s mom already knew that.
She already knew our platitudes about heaven can’t do the heavy lifting because they offer an understanding of heaven in which God is completely absent or, worse, unnecessary. Jesus’ work on the Cross and victory on Easter don’t seem to have achieved anything.
Before I tried to tell her what heaven is, I wish I’d given her advice about Amanda’s funeral.
I wish I’d advised her not to allow any family member or friend or preacher to stand before a congregation and say something like: ‘I’m sure Amanda’s up there now playing field hockey just like she loved to do down here.’
Maybe that sounds obvious, but I hear it enough to make it worth pointing out.
When we say things like that, we’re assuming heaven is basically a continuation of our present physical lives in all their ordinariness.
Heaven is a physical existence; the Risen Jesus is tactile.
But heaven’s also somehow altogether different and more mysterious than our lives now.
Heaven is not simply the continuation of our earthly lives.
For her sake, I wish I’d been clear about what heaven is not.
‘What’s heaven like? I want to be able to picture her there. I need to be able to picture her there.’
She let go of Amanda’s hand when she asked me. And squeezed my hand.
She squeezed it hard.
For a mother having to come claim her daughter- being able to distinguish between what the bible promises and what Hallmark cards promise really is a matter of life and death.
I’ve replayed that night a thousand times in my head. Instead of fumbling with images of billowy clouds and streets of gold, I wish I’d found the right way to tell her that the first thing heaven is is worship.
I wish I’d told her that when scripture pictures heaven it imagines a choir- not because heaven is all harps, organ music and polyester robes or even literally filled with music and praise.
I wish I’d told her to picture a choir because a choir is the perfect image for what it means for her little girl to have a body of her own but find her true self as part of a much greater body, a body where her unique voice sings most truly in harmony with the voices of others, where she rejoices at the gifts of others which only enhance the gifts that are hers alone.
I could’ve told her that the reason Christians put so much care and attention into the way we worship is because the way we worship is the clearest way we depict and anticipate the life of heaven.
So I wish I’d told her to picture Amanda enjoying what we hope for here in worship: that every ounce of her energy and passion is focused on the God, that every part of her that was is now lost in wonder, love and praise – that’s what heaven’s like.
And I wish I’d asked about Amanda’s friends.
If I’d had the presence of mind to ask about Amanda’s friends, then I could’ve told her that in scripture heaven is about friendship- that the heart of God is three persons in perfect community, and that heaven is being invited to the table of friendship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I wish I’d asked about her daughter’s friends, about the joy and fulfillment they gave her because, in scripture, heaven is about friendship, not just the friendship between you and God but friendship between you and me.
That’s what Isaiah sees when he envisions Jerusalem the new city, coming down from heaven.
The life we live here and now, as friends and neighbors- its not just for the time being.
It won’t be transcended by the coming of heaven.
There will always be community.
There will always be friendship.
That’s why we work so hard as Christians to be engaged in service in our community and around the world- because learning to live together as friends is at the heart of preparing to live in heaven.
Picture Amanda as she was with her best friends, I wish I’d said.
Because that’s what heaven is.
Instead of fumbling with streets of gold and pearly gates, I wish I’d told her to picture Amanda at a party, at a wedding maybe.
I wish I’d asked her to picture Amanda with food and wine and music and dancing because heaven is about feasting together.
Maybe the most common picture of all in scripture is that of heaven as a wedding banquet, where God the Father celebrates the union of the Son with God’s children.
Just imagine, I wish I’d said, a fabulous meal where there were no allergies, no eating disorders, no inequalities in world trade, no fatty foods, no gluttony, and no price tag.
That’s why John Wesley told Christians to share in the Eucharist as constantly as possible- not because the Eucharist grimly recalls Christ’s last meal but because when we gather together as two or three or twenty or two thousand and we eat together as friends we’re a little icon of the Trinity, we’re a little glimpse of heaven.
Heaven is where where food, friendship and worship all come together, I wish I’d said when she squeezed my hand.
Of course, there are questions that answer still doesn’t answer. It doesn’t answer whether heaven comes to us on the day we die or whether we lie at rest, awaiting our resurrection on the last day.It doesn’t answer how God will raise us or in what way we’ll be physical creatures.
It doesn’t answer whether only Christians or only Christians of a particular stripe get into heaven. It doesn’t answer those questions, but I don’t think Amanda’s mom would’ve cared all that much about those questions.
Like the cliches we so often use, those questions are all about us.
And heaven is all about God.
Heaven is coming face to face with the only thing greater than the fear of death- the overwhelming love of God. That’s all Amanda’s mom wanted to know.