June 18, 2018

Another Look: “If Only I Could See the Shore”

“No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.”

 ― L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

• • •

I was listening to an interview with someone the other day discussing high level achievement in athletic endeavors. She was telling the story of a woman who was trying to swim a channel between the coast and an island offshore. The athlete had attempted this several times without success. On this particular day, the weather was extremely foggy and as she swam she felt herself flagging. She finally gave up and climbed into the boat that was following her. Shortly thereafter, the murkiness lifted somewhat and the swimmer saw that she had given up her crossing with only about a mile left.

Her reaction? “If only I could have seen the shore, I would have made it.”

This story reminds us that people need hope, a hope we can envision, to help us keep going through life.

That same day I participated in a funeral service. Another pastor officiated it, and I must say he did a terrific job bringing personal comfort and encouragement to the family and friends of the one who had died. He was great at telling stories, celebrating the life and character of the person, eliciting both laughter and tears. I was very impressed, and I complimented him and praised him to others for the ministry he provided.

However, there was one nagging problem in the midst of all the good: the theology of hope, of eschatology, of “heaven” that was presented, was hopelessly deficient. Thankfully, it wasn’t the dominant emphasis, but it was sprinkled throughout the service in readings, comments, and songs like discordant notes (to my ears, at least) in a beautiful melody.

And for the first time it became emotionally and personally evident to me, that if this is the Christian hope, I don’t want any part of it.

As presented, it was so vapid, so cartoonish, so discontinuous with any experience we humans have in this life, that I can’t imagine how it could offer real incentive for anyone to follow Jesus or embrace Christian faith. I don’t understand how any thoughtful person could see any of it as “promise” to be welcomed with any sort of eagerness or anticipation. It is no shore I would want to swim toward, even if I could actually see it through the fogginess of the teaching.

First of all, there was no hope given for human beings as we know human beings.

We are embodied creatures, but I kept hearing talk about “spirit” not “body.” The deceased was “spiritually” with God in heaven, and no destiny beyond that “spiritual” state was ever mentioned. The body in front of the audience was essentially ignored. There was no mention of resurrection (except in a quote from scripture), no sense that the life to come has any embodied aspect to it. The pastor referenced 1Corinthians 15, but only to cite the brief passage affirming that death has no sting. The very point of Paul’s teaching — the resurrection of the actual body — was completely absent. I don’t know what anyone else was envisioning about the deceased while sitting in that service, but it was all a fog to me.

I find this confusing dichotomy in a lot of popular Christian teaching about heaven. There is often talk of a “reunion” with loved ones, of being with Jesus, of no more sickness or death, of falling down in worship before God, but no talk of resurrection. And all the while the body of the deceased is lying right in front of us, ready to be carried to the cemetery and lowered into the ground! If “heaven” is our hope, and we will be with God “spiritually,” how then shall we embrace our loved ones, bow our knee or sing praise? This can’t be our hope. If Christ redeemed me — all of me — then my body itself will one day be transformed. The fleshly “shell” (a word I’ve heard used often at time of death) is not something we simply cast off in trade for a “spiritual” existence. The life of the age to come is an embodied life, a life that is congruous with this life we live now. And it won’t come in “heaven” — but more on that in a moment.

We need to make this clear. The mourning and grieving need to envision this. Our deceased loved ones will walk and talk and move and dance in new bodies, new material bodies. Flesh transformed but still material, substantial, human flesh. Help us see it, funeral preachers! Fill not only our hearts but also our bodies with the longing to touch, to embrace, to see, to hear, to smell, to taste physical realities beyond any we have known in this age.

Second, there was no hope given for this world, for creation, or for life in this world with which we as humans are familiar.

This world is not my home
I’m just a-passin’ through.
My treasures are laid up
somewhere beyond the blue.

Beyond. Totally discontinuous from life in this world, from actual living in the here and now. The pastor quoted that song. And in the service, the only activities that were mentioned taking place in “heaven” involved having a “reunion” with loved ones and falling on one’s knees to worship God. Add a few architectural details about gates and golden streets and shining “mansions” and an All-Powerful Ruler who welcomes us and protects us, and what you end up with is an “Oz,” somewhere “over the rainbow,” in a dream, that bears little relation to anything we’ve ever known in daily experience.

But the Bible doesn’t say we’re leaving Kansas to go to some Oz out there where all is colorful and magical. The Bible says Oz is coming to Kansas, and it also says that it is not God’s intention to replace Kansas but to transform it into the best Kansas there could ever be. God will make his home among us, and then we will truly know what it means to be “home.” The end game is for all creation to be reconciled to God, that all things will be “gathered up” in him (Eph. 1:10). God’s plan is not to discard Kansas and replace it with Oz, but to reconcile Oz and Kansas and transform all creation in Christ.

Our Christian hope is terrestrial, material, physical, and fully in line with what we have experienced in this world. There is continuity as well as discontinuity between this age and the age to come.

Christian preachers must be very careful to give us real hope, hope that we can see and grasp after, rather than foggy, cartoonish pictures to which none can relate.

We’re swimming to shore, we’re tired, and we need to see clearly where we’re bound.

“Spiritual” promises are no promises at all.

 

Originally posted in 2016.

Comments

  1. Ron Hoekstra says:

    CM: This is a great post. I am wondering though if you could add or briefly discuss how this might tie into the topic of cremation of the body. Do your views in what you stated suggest that we should not cremate the body? My wife and I are considering that we be cremated after death.

    • Personally, I don’t see cremation as changing anything. “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Cremation merely accelerates this process.

      However, I would consider how important you might think it would be for your family and loved ones to see your body after death. This is often an important step in the grieving process. Funerals are for the living and give us a chance to participate in a ritual that can be significant to healing the wounds of grief.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > My wife and I are considering that we be cremated after death.

      There is cultural stuff here. I come from a lineage were everyone is cremated; and has been cremated for a very l-o-n-g time. I know what an Urn is when I see it, and that it contains my father [etc…]

      I find body-display funerals weirdly voyeuristic, like there is an odd body fetish. I know that is a cultural predisposition.

      So, it depends. Like so many things.

      • Christiane says:

        My father’s funeral really hit home the fact that he was ‘dead’ WHEN they closed the casket after the service.
        When they did that, I had a visceral reaction. So it must be true that the funeral is for the ‘living’ so that they can get that ‘reaction’ that their loved one is really gone, and then the grief can begin in earnest.

        It’s was a reality check . . . . that final closing of the casket. Very painful moment. I still remember it and the feeling also.

  2. Roger P Bronkema says:

    Hi mike! This is great. I have been a methodist pastor for four years now and am always looking for ways to comfort folks at the funerals I officiate. I agree with everything you say about ressurection but that’s a future event. What do we tell people about where there loved ones are NOW? I think that’s what people are primarily concerned about. We have a hard time wrapping our minds around what life in the ressureected world will be like. So I think people are more interested in what we are going to be doing until then. Any advice?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      One thing’s for sure from this essay:

      Peter Pan nightgowns & harps in Fluffy Cloud Heaven won’t cut it.
      Fluffy Cloud Heaven + It’s All Gonna Burn = Death Wins.

      What you are talking about is called “The Intermediate State”, and has a LOT of different takes and speculations. From “soul sleep” where we are unconscious between death and resurrection to a conscious but incomplete existence. Like the Problem of Evil, I don’t think anybody’s come to a firm conclusion on that one.

      Unfortunately, Christians DON’T like Ambiguity of any kind.

      • Ronald Avra says:

        I have encountered individuals who are fervently hostile to the idea of soul sleep. It seems that before abortion and gay rights came along, it and modes of baptism were the big bugaboos. People seem to need something to be right about. That said, the dispute over soul sleep is a an antiquated issue. As regards to hope of resurrection: cause for patience in persevering.

        • Stephen says:

          Ah, “soul sleep”. I remember when I was about ten years old, a service in which one of the deacons of the country southern baptist church my family attended was tasked to preach the sunday morning sermon in the absence of the preacher. Well he preached about soul sleep. Mr Harpe (I still remember his name) had read a book or met somebody and had completely absorbed this idea. Of course there was a bit of a scandal and the conversation occupied the adults in my family (all my relatives went to the same church) for days.

          I was nothing if not a practical little kid so one day over dinner I pointed out that when we went to sleep at night, unless we had dreams, we didn’t notice the time passing at all. You fall asleep and the next thing you know it’s morning. So if soul sleep was true you wouldn’t notice the passing of time at all. You would “fall asleep” and next thing you know it would be the resurrection. I recall being shushed, certainly not answered. Some ideas just don’t bear thinking about I guess.

          Thanks HUG, an old memory I had completely forgot until your post.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            I first heard of “soul sleep” in connection with the Seventh-Day Adventists.
            Plus, I think Garner Ted Armstrong and his father also taught it (amid other really weird stuff).

            Though the Jehovah’s Witnesses have the most extreme version — not just “sleep”, you literally cease to exist after death and are created anew for the Resurrection. The problem with this is lack of continuity between the two — familiar to any Trekkies who argue how a Star Trek Transporter really works — does it teleport you or is it a replicator that destroys the original in the process? And is the teleported you really you or are you dead?

            That said, the JWs DO hold fast to Resurrection into a Renewed Earth instead of Fluffy Cloud Heaven; I remember all those Watchtowers shoved under our front door when I was a kid, and they always stressed that in opposition to the common Go To Heaven + It’s All Gonna Burn.

            • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

              The problem with this is lack of continuity between the two — familiar to any Trekkies who argue how a Star Trek Transporter really works — does it teleport you or is it a replicator that destroys the original in the process? And is the teleported you really you or are you dead?

              P.S. Here’s a My Little Pony fanfic that presents a humorous take on the above dilemma:
              https://www.fimfiction.net/story/273539/dying-to-get-there

              P.P.S. Just remembered a stand-up comic routine I saw once:

              (completely deadpan) “My apartment was broken into last night. Everything I own was stolen and replaced by an Exact Duplicate.”

    • What I like to say best is that those who die are “in God’s care.”

      I also sometimes remind people of the Creed — “I believe in the communion of saints.” Our loved ones participate in the life of God and are not far from us, and in mysterious ways, are still accessible to us.

      • Christiane says:

        This!

      • Thank you for this post and your comments, Chaplain Mike. During the last few months of my mom’s life, she was very angry, especially about her illness and the long, slow process of dying. Visitors would try to encourage her with talk of heavenly mansions and streets of gold, and she would bluntly tell them that she had no use for such things. No, what she wanted was a field of wildflowers and perhaps a little cottage. She’d had a rough life, and she didn’t want to see anyone who had gone before her. She just wanted to be left alone, to find peace and healing in her field of flowers. Whatever she is experiencing now, I am comforted more than I can adequately express by the thought that she is “in God’s care.” Thank you.

        • Christiane says:

          Hello SusanA, what a lovely dream of heaven your mother had.

          It seems that she is not alone in her longing for peace in a natural setting where ‘in God’s care’ she would find healing.
          The following is an excerpt from Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’:

          ” And I have felt a Presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused,
          Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, and the round ocean and the living air, and the blue sky,
          and in the mind of man;
          A motion and a spirit, that impels all thinking things, all objects of all thought,
          And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still a lover of the meadows and the woods. . . “

  3. Stbndcr says:

    Unfortunately, Christians DON’T like Ambiguity of any kind.
    Hug, I have found my faith deeply rooted in mystery. It might be the Catholic in me but I just don’t find concrete answers in something I don’t feel is clearly known. I am more than happy to live the questions rather than see clear answers where there is none.

  4. Stbndcr says:

    .
    Hug, I have found my faith deeply rooted in mystery. It might be the Catholic in me but I just don’t find concrete answers in something I don’t feel is clearly known. I am more than happy to live the questions rather than see clear answers where there is none.

    • This! Whether or not, others or I interpret His word correctly, “Thy will be done.” The mystery comforts me, too.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      It dawned on me a few years ago that the more I studied the Bible and led studies about the scriptures, the more mysterious God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Heaven, etc. became. And I’m okay with that.

      • Christiane says:

        Wise words, Rick.
        ” if you have grasped him, it is not God you have grasped’ –
        “si comprehendis non est Deus.”

        Augustine is credited with the quote, but many others before him knew the truth of it and were humbled before the Lord.

  5. john barry says:

    Fred Astaire thought Heaven was Dancing Cheek to Cheek with the lovely Ginger Rogers in 1935, she was great.
    So maybe heaven is what makes you happy, that is the child in me.

    Heaven is where God is
    where Christ is, where Christians go, our Fathers House, designed by God, a better place and of course Paradise.

    I do not really know anymore than that but I do not understand how my computer works either but it does. I have great faith even in Dell and Samsung.

    CM, I really do appreciate your sharing your sentiment that you convey to the grieving that there loved one is in Gods care, that is so concise, perfect and true really undeniable. How comforting just a simple statement can be when it fits the situation when a wordy , ongoing dialogue trying to console just is just too much. Sometimes the comfort we can bring is just being there. I consider you a first responder in your service and that is a compliment .

    • Rick Ro. says:

      –> “So maybe heaven is what makes you happy, that is the child in me.”

      I like that. I’ve heard some people respond to “Pleasantville” type descriptions of Heaven with “if it’s boring like that, no thank you!”

      My response: Don’t view Heaven as something to endure! It won’t be a place you WON’T like, it’ll be a place you’ll LOVE.

      Maybe I’ll start using that line, “It’ll be like whatever makes you happy!”

  6. Rick Ro. says:

    –> “Our deceased loved ones will walk and talk and move and dance in new bodies, new material bodies.”

    A good friend of mine, whose physical condition due to MS had left him wheelchair-bound, died two years ago of pancreatic cancer. At his funeral, his wheelchair was placed at the entrance to the sanctuary with sign on it that said, “Gone Runnin’!”

  7. Christiane says:

    I think of heaven as a place where people and animals don’t suffer. There is no unkindness there. There is peace.

  8. senecagriggs says:

    Found in an old ghost town graveyard:

    Here lies Zachary Peas
    Under the trees.
    Peas isn’t here, only his pod;
    Peas shelled out and went home to God

    • Christiane says:

      This, I love! 🙂

    • flatrocker says:

      God welcomed Peas
      To his garden he was sown.
      A new pod created,
      Peas’ peas were never his own.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold
      Pease porridge in a pot, nine days old.
      Some like it hot, some like it cold.
      Some like it in the pot, nine days old.

  9. john barry says:

    senecagriggs and flatrocker, like peas in a pod, good comments , poems grouped together.

  10. Robert F says:

    We’re swimming to shore, we’re tired, and we need to see clearly where we’re bound.

    Can somebody give a clear description of where we’re bound? I’ve never heard one, not in my entire life, given by anyone who would know what they’re talking about, or with any clarity or detail. Saying we are headed for the resurrection of the body really doesn’t make things clearer, because I have no idea what that really means, how it will look or feel. I guess you can point to Jesus’ resurrection, but a body that can go through walls and ascend to a dimension that I have no direct sight or perception of doesn’t make it any clearer or easier to see for me — Jesus’ resurrected and ascended body is a mystery wrapped within mystery after mystery. I have no idea what any of that looks like, just dim adumbrations of it that cannot be pinned down or brought into focus.

    • Stbndct says:

      I don’t think any clear description can be had. That’s why it is mystery and we live by faith not by sight . We are all reminded that we are human and not God. As scripture says someday we will see clearly but now only dimly. So I live in the hope and love of the risen Christ.

      • Robert F says:

        The face of the living Christ is the only shoreline I can see, and that imperfectly. That will have to, and I suppose should, suffice.

    • Stephen says:

      “Can somebody give a clear description of where we’re bound?”

      I was once told it would be like a Baptist campground revival meeting that would never end. Well in my youth I went to a bunch of Baptist campground revival meetings that seemed like they would never end so that prospect does not fill me with joy.

      I would like to be present when Paul has those initial interviews with all his interpreters and spends thousands of years telling them why they completely missed his point. His interviews with Marcion and Augustine should be particularly amusing.

      • Robert F says:

        I bet when Paul interviews himself it will be a real doozy, too. I think he misinterpreted himself on numerous occasions, and that’s what got the other, later interpreters off on the wrong foot.

        • Robert, here’s a very terrestrial description from the prophet Ezekiel about the return from Exile and the “covenant of shalom” that God will make with his people. I think of descriptions like this when I imagine life in a new heavens and earth:

          I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

          I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild animals from the land, so that they may live in the wild and sleep in the woods securely. I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase. They shall be secure on their soil; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke, and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them. They shall no more be plunder for the nations, nor shall the animals of the land devour them; they shall live in safety, and no one shall make them afraid. I will provide for them splendid vegetation, so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the insults of the nations. They shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, says the Lord God. You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, says the Lord God.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        I was once told it would be like a Baptist campground revival meeting that would never end. Well in my youth I went to a bunch of Baptist campground revival meetings that seemed like they would never end so that prospect does not fill me with joy.

        Sounds like a variant on the “Never-Ending Compulsory Bible Study” I encountered during my time in-country. Had pretty much the same reaction as you.

  11. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    “Spiritual” promises are no promises at all.

    Because (unlike Lewis’s one-eighty flip in “The Great Divorce”) the Spiritual has a reputation for being Ethereal and Unreal, not really tehre.

    “WELLLLLLLCOME TO LIMMMMMMMBO….”
    — George Carlin, “Class Clown”, about Catholic cathechism class

  12. Christiane says:

    a thought about our observing nature and beginning to understand eternity . . . a practice better left to our poets than to our theologians, I think:

    “To see a World in a Grain of Sand
    And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
    Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
    And Eternity in an hour. . . . ”

    (from the poet, Wm. Blake)

    I have long thought many of our poets were better ‘theologians’ than we’ve acknowledged.
    There is so much ‘of God’ we mortals have no words to express . . . but our poets are ‘gifted’ by the Giver of Gifts to help us find ‘ the words’ that we can only recognize when we encounter them because the poets are able to strike a chord that resonates within our souls