Where do we go when we die? That’s a question that’s been asked throughout the ages. You may have asked it yourself. Or had it asked of you. It comes up especially when a loved one dies. Even if we believe in an afterlife, something called heaven, we still want details: where is it, what’s it like, is my loved one happy there, will I go there some day?
On All Saints Sunday we remember deceased loved ones and we honor the One who loved them into life and received them in death. And we celebrate their entrance into what is called in church-y language “the church triumphant” – as opposed to “the church militant,” an unfortunate term for those of us still doing battle in this life. Together we make up the communion of saints. Although physically separated by death, we are still united with one another in, as the old hymn says “mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.”
Still we wonder. Call it what you will – heaven, the church triumphant, the afterlife – what is it like? The answer is simple: we don’t know.” Although people throughout the ages have put forth their ideas about it. A seminary professor I once had once expressed his vision of heaven as singing in an eternal choir. I don’t know; even though I like to sing, I’m not too thrilled about doing it for all eternity. I mean, eternity is a long time! What kind of music will it be? Who gets to pick? Will we ever get to sing Beatles songs or show tunes? Will we all have good voices in heaven? Will there be auditions? Can I bring my U-bass? I think his vision has some flaws. But then that’s just one vision.
The writer of the Book of Revelation imagines a scene God’s throne room with an immense crowd of people in white robes, from every nation, tribe, people and language standing before the throne, holding palm branches, singing and worshipping. It’s one of the not-scary parts of Revelation that we like to read at funerals because of its words of promise: “The One who sits on the throne will shelter them forever. Never again will they be hungry or thirsty; the sun’s scorching heat will never beat down on them, for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd and will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe every last tear from their eyes.” Though the promise of never again experiencing any deprivation or suffering is certainly appealing, the image of the throne, the Lamb, palm branches and robes is rather off-putting (at least to me).
What happens when we die? I remember the homily given by the pastor when my grandmother died, in which he said, “She is now everything that God intended her to be.” Those words struck a chord with me, although I don’t know exactly what it means. When I try to think about it too much, it makes about as much sense as my professor’s vision and the revelation of John of Patmos.
I do know that my grandmother, at the age of 26, became a widow with four children under the age of six on the eve of the Great Depression. She went to work as a janitor at the junior high school and did that until she retired in 1968 – almost 40 years. She never remarried. Of course, she had her family, her wonderful grandchildren – especially the oldest one (me) – but I’ve often wondered what her life might have been in another era, under different circumstances. What did God intend for her? And is she living in that reality now?
Is the afterlife an evolutionary process?
I was reminded of that funeral homily when I read this paragraph from Bruce Epperly:
What some call the beatific (or heavenly) vision is, I believe, an evolutionary process. Beyond the grave, we continue to grow in wisdom and stature. We forgive and are forgiven. We experience the healing of memories and relationships and continue to explore paths not taken, in companionship with God. This applies to saints as well as mere mortals. A life of saintliness is a life of adventure and growth, dissatisfied by any static heavenly vision. We continue the journey, freely and creatively responding to the grace that leads us toward wholeness.
While this doesn’t give us any details either about how this process happens, the concept is more appealing than an unchanging, eternal heavenly choir – or any vision, no matter how wonderful. The idea that God’s care for us doesn’t end at death, but continues in a new way, another dimension, a different reality – ever luring us onward from brokenness to healing, from sorrow to consolation, from sin to grace is not inconsistent with the biblical witness.
As the author of the first letter of John wrote: “We are God’s children now, but what we will be has not yet been revealed,” which gives us insight into the idea that we are in the process of becoming what God intends us to be, and that our ultimate way of being is something that we just can’t imagine. But the letter proclaims with certainty that “we will be like” the One who calls us to become who we are and who we will continue to be as we evolve in God. So. if the One who seeks our wholeness in this lifetime continues the process beyond the grave, then indeed my grandmother – along with all the blessed dead - has become (or is in the process of becoming) all she was ever meant to be.)
An opportunity for forgiveness This way of considering the evolutionary process of afterlife also provides us with the
opportunity, not only to give thanks for the blessed dead, but also to forgive them. All of the people who have shaped our lives are saints - even with all their imperfections. This is good news especially for those who have had difficult relationships with the influential people in their lives – parents or grandparents, siblings or friends.
Just 2½ weeks ago, I found out that Roger, a resident of a nursing home that I had been visiting for the past 13+ years, had died. The span of those 13 years was definitely an evolutionary process in both emotional and spiritual awareness. Despite having multiple university degrees and having had a successful marriage until his wife’s untimely death, he could never get over the rejection he had felt from his parents, particularly his father.
And I got it. My brothers and I still talk about the legacy we inherited from our parents and our need to come to terms with the effects of growing up in a household impacted by alcoholism and other unhealthy behaviors. I’ve done a lot of study and personal work in this area, so I get the feelings of rejection, abandonment, hurt, loss, and anger that can last a lifetime and make forgiveness seem an impossible task.
And it is true that in the beginning stages of awareness of the dysfunctionality of one’s family system, it’s common to feel anger, bitterness, even hatred toward the one or ones who didn’t provide the kind of nurturing needed in childhood. Forgiveness might not seem possible, in light of the difficulties engendered by the parents’ behaviors. The proverb quoted in the book of Ezekiel sums it up: “The parents have eaten sour grapes; the children’s teeth are set on edge.” The fact that there’s a proverb that addresses this tells us that family dysfunction is not uncommon. Since we’re all human and we bring our humanity into every situation, of course every family is dysfunctional to a certain degree. No one is a saint, at least not in the usual use of the word. But each one of us is a saint in the sense that we are each a beloved child of God.
Now I can hear some questions coming. What about the so-called “monsters” of the
world? What about Hitler and Pol Pot and other mass murderers? My response is to say that I don’t know. We need to leave them to God. But I would also say that the question about monsters deflects attention from the skeletons in our own closets. They’re the ones we have to deal with. Even if they are no longer living. Death doesn’t end the relationship, even a fractured one. Not for God and not for us either.
Even the realization that one’s parents had their own sorrows doesn’t take away the taste of sour grapes. My mother grew up quickly at age six when her father died and her mother went off to work. Those events played a huge role in who she would become. My father followed in the footsteps of his father in alcohol abuse and in neglecting the diabetes that would kill him. We can understand how they became who they were. In time, hopefully, we can even forgive them.
Roger was not able to get there in this life. I had hoped that he would find some measure of reconciliation and serenity before he died, but it was not to be. For his sake, I hope that the afterlife is evolutionary, that “beyond the grave, we continue to grow in wisdom and stature. We forgive and are forgiven. We experience the healing of memories and relationships and continue to explore paths not taken, in companionship with God.”
However, our forgiveness can go even deeper when we accept our place among the
communion of saints, where we see that the universal experience of suffering is what binds humanity together. In Revelation, the great throng of diverse people is united in a common experience of coming through a great ordeal. Our common humanity and our universal experience of suffering call us to become partners with God in embodying compassion In this vision, they join as one body and give voice to their experience by praising the One who lures us into living our lives in such a way that we are aware of the suffering of others, even those who have caused us suffering, and to persevere in embodying compassion to all.
That’s the work of the church militant – or better to say of ordinary saints like you and me - to actively embrace our relationship with the Divine, with ourselves, our families, neighbors, strangers and all of creation, and work to nurture those relationships in order to continue to grow and become what God is calling each of us to become – in this world and the next.
In the last months of his life, the Rev. Bill Lesher, former Lutheran seminary president and pioneer of the modern interfaith movement, spoke of his impending death as “moving into the Immensity.” I like the sound of that, as it conveys the boundlessness of God’s Presence, while retaining the Mystery of what exactly that is like.
I pray that for Roger – and for all of our saints remembered here today or any day – that they have found themselves, their true and complete selves in the all-encompassing immensity of Divine Love. In faith, I trust that it is indeed so. May we remember them and celebrate their lives – both earthly and eternal.
And in faith and trust, we continue on our way through this life, not looking to heaven as an escape from the world, but fully engaging in the world until it is our time move into the Immensity. With all the saints. Amen
Revelation 7: 9-17 After that, I saw before me an immense crowd without number, from every nation, tribe, people and language. They stood in front of the throne and the Lamb, dressed in long white robes and holding palm branches. And they cried out in a loud voice, “Salvation is of our God, who sits on the throne, and of the Lamb!”
All the angels who were encircling the throne, as well as the elders and the four living creatures, prostrated themselves before the throne. They worshiped God with these words: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength be to our God forever and ever! Amen!”
Then one of the elders asked me, “These people in white robes—who are they, and where do they come from?”
I answered, “You are the one who knows.” Then the elder said to me, “These are the ones who survived the great period of testing; they have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white. That’s why they stand before God’s throne and the One they serve day and night in the Temple; the One who sits on the throne will shelter them forever. Never again will they be hungry or thirsty; the sun and its scorching heat will never beat down on them, for the Lamb, who is at the center of the throne, will be their shepherd and will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe every last tear from their eyes.”
1 John 3:1-3 See what love Abba God has lavished on us in letting us be called God’s children! Yet that in fact is what we are. The reason the world does not recognize us is that it never recognized God. My dear friends, now we are God’s children, but it has not been revealed what we are to become in the future. We know that when it comes to light we will be like God, for we will see God as God really is. All who keep this hope keep themselves pure, just as Christ is pure.