The Final Frontier: reflections on the a faithful parishioner
Our problem with death
Death has become in our Western Society a frightening taboo. Our contemporary anxieties about death infect us all. Such concerns often outweigh a lifetime of Christian faithfulness. As we face the ultimate ending of life many of us discover that the Sunday School images of God and heaven return with a vengeance. We discover that we have never really come to terms with those early images, having simply placed them to one side as we have got to grips with the demands of living. Perhaps intellectually we feel we have moved-on from the idea of a God with a white beard and heaven as a place with golden gates only to find ourselves falling back onto such images as we contemplate the reality of our death. Those images are not only intellectually inadequate but also fill us with fear, because its hard to trust in a God who feels rather like a disinterested and distant head master, noticing us only when we do something wrong.
In John’s Gospel Jesus tells us that there are many rooms prepared for us in his father’s house. A superficial reading of this leads us to picture life continuing as if heaven is rather like what the English call a country house weekend, with all the guests each having their own room -a la Gosforth Park. Now I imagine that the concept of a country house weekend party appeals to those or us who have only recently been satiated with images of Downton Abbey! But I can’t really think that this is what Jesus has in mind here. So much of religion envisions heaven as a reward for all the difficulties and travails of this life. The message is that what we have missed out-on here we will enjoy in abundance when we get to heaven. The psychological term for this is delayed gratification and Christianity has often relied heavily on this mechanism to distract us from the need to challenge those forces that create suffering in this life.
Heaven as a place of reward and hell as a place of punishment – I cannot really take seriously. Many people in our society turn away from organized religion because they reject this Alice in Wonderland kind of picture.
So how else might we interpret Jesus’ words here? Jesus is clear that God has a concern for us that transcends our physical death. Yet we need to hear Jesus’ words within the context of his overall message. The emphasis of Jesus’ teaching is not on outlining for us the arrangements and benefits of the afterlife but on the necessity to live well in this world. Jesus revealed a God who is fully present to the experience of being human. He calls us to be also fully present to the experience of being human.
Personal theological reflections
I would like to share with you what I find helpful in thinking about death. I believe that within each of us our soul is a reflected fragment of the Holy Spirit of God that is given to us at the inception of our being-ness. For to be human is to be conceived into a binding relationship with God. The hallmark of this relationship is love and the content of that relationship is the living-out of love in our human lives. This is what Jesus revealed to us. When our mortal bodies fall away, our soul is fulfilled into union with its Divine Source. We are enfolded into the love that is God.
The difficult question for me is not whether my soul will be enfolded into the fullness of God, but will I know myself in that state, will I be recognizable to other souls I have known and them to me?
I read Jesus’ words in John’s gospel about many rooms in my father’s mansion to mean – yes I will know myself and will know others and be known to them within the enfolding of the Spirit. The early Christian writers felt this and expressed it in terms of a resurrection of the body after death. But this is a rather inadequate concept for us.
I don’t need to believe in a place where all the deceased are somehow physically gathered in recognizable form and where I begin the process of seeking out the ones for whom my heart aches. John Shelby Spong
In this life when we enter deeply into relationship with one another, an experience that many of you and those you have loved so enjoyed, the truth is that even on this side of death our identities are intertwined. The identity I associate with being me is not formed by me in isolation. I do not dream myself up. I come to experience myself mediated through who and how others experience me being. I continually catch a glimpse of myself in the eyes of others who behold me with love – as I do them. Who you are to me is not who you think you are but how and who I experience you being. Our identities imprint upon one another. Who we are emerges out of the complex process of being formed within relationship. So how much more will this be so when the physical separation enforced on us by our bodies in this world falls away in preparation for what the Prayer Book calls not the ending of life but merely its changing.
When a loved one dies, our task is to incorporate – internalize all we valued, admired and deeply loved in our loved one. We recognize that we embody their identities as part of ours for the remainder of the span of life that is allotted to us. We more deeply become who having loved them and been loved by them enriches us to be.
For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens. Preface for the departed BCP
Perhaps ultimately with the fulfillment of the creative process, finite personality will have served its purpose and become one with the eternal reality, but we do not at present need to know the final future. What we need to know is how to live now. This is the way of love, witnessed by the saints and mystics of all the great traditions. John Hick