Gospel music is one of the most illuminating sources when looking for what are often considered “traditional” religious attitudes in the American landscape. When it comes to the notions of “passing on” or “crossing over,” past divine judgment to a place of eternal rest called heaven, perhaps there’s no better example than Fred Rich’s tune, Jordan. The last Pathways gathering enjoyed watching the late Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris perform the number, and you can view it yourself here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOHXvK6AxW4 You can follow along to the lyrics here, and you’ll find passing references to some of the phrases in the tune in this month’s Commentary that follows below.
Moving Heaven and Hell
You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
St. Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store.
Sixteen Tons, Singer/Songwriter Merle Travis, 1946
Though many years have now passed, I still remember getting the phone call from a distraught parishioner while I was out of town on a family summer vacation. The call concerned another family in our community who’d been loosely affiliated with the church. The day before, their 16-year old son had been thrown from a car and killed in a terrible accident on Kirker Pass.
I piled the kids in the back seat and raced home, arriving just as the sun was setting. I quickly changed into clerical garb to look the proper part, and dashed over to the local mortuary where a viewing was already in progress.
I found the family in the anteroom, with Joe, the father, sitting in a ghostly trance, as if stunned in disbelief. He just stared at the stiff corpse laid out before him. His own boy, his Kevin, the apple of his eye, his pride and joy, his life and what now seemed to consume him as his whole reason for living, was gone.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry,” were the only words I could offer.
I’d already learned that hard lesson that when words fail us, sometimes it’s best to remain silent. The emptiness, the nothingness is more telling and truthful than any platitudes or inadequate expression of sympathy that – no matter how sincere –could not possibly begin to plumb the depths of heart-wrenching grief.
A few days later in the packed sanctuary, I stood beside the pall-covered casket, with Joe and Joanne and the rest of their family in the front pew. Joe looked no different than when I’d seen him at the wake. He looked empty and expressionless.
When it came time to say a few words, I still had few words to say, and I said so. I certainly didn’t try to make sense out of something that made no sense. There are no reasons to adequately explain why accidents happen through human error, other than the obvious; any more than why the capricious and indiscriminate acts of natural disasters, or the inevitable consequences of our own mortality, can periodically turn people’s lives upside down.
Though you hear personal testimonies all the time about people who credit a “miraculous” save to God’s favor and blessing, it leaves the obvious question unanswered about those others in the same circumstances who suffer a different fate.
Personally, I do not believe in a kind of God that manipulates and intervenes in the natural order of things, or the consequences of human cause and effect; particularly when one gets into the thorny questions about those who would be deemed worthy or unworthy of God’s favor. But strangely enough, when the vicissitudes of life have deadly consequences, we tend to defer an explanation of that which is inexplicable anyway to something we know even less about; namely, the “hereafter” and a place called heaven.
Now, they say no one ever gets over the death of a child, and in Joe’s case this was certainly true. Many years later, when he was dying of cancer, I would sometimes visit with him in his home, so his wife could take a break. We’d talk about this and that for a while, about loving his wife, his daughters and their hopes and plans for their bright futures, etc. When he tired, I’d offer to say a prayer before leaving. I wouldn’t pray for a miraculous cure to Joe’s terminal disease; only that we both be reassured of an abiding divine presence all our days, and beyond. But before I left, he’d always come around to that ever-present, gnawing emptiness he still felt for that devastating loss of his boy that had left such a hole in his heart so many years before.
For Joe, the consequences of his terminal disease was a toss up between the impending loss and separation of all that he still loved in this life, and the anticipation of “crossing over” the billows of that cold Jordan River, and being reunited with his boy, his Kevin.
That’s one of those assumptions, almost taken for granted by many folks, without question or much introspection; for the comfort and reassurance it may provide in the mean-time. While I may not share the same view or expectation about that which neither of us know with any certainty, there’s no need to try to relieve others of their own hope, their belief, or what I usually regard as such wonderful mythic language with which anyone might try to express the inexpressible.
But if one were to take just such a notion literally, it does leaves me to just wonder about this. If Joe’s son was waiting for him on the other side, standing knee deep in the chilly waters with welcoming arms outstretched, would Joe look a lot better than he did in those final days of his life here on earth?
And, when Joe finally did lay eyes on him again, would his boy appear to him as, say, the day he was born? Or, maybe he’d be united with his Kevin as a young boy, like the day he caught his first fish. Or no, perhaps it was the regretful day he first taught his teen to drive? Or the last time he remembered laying eyes on his lifeless body? Which Kevin would be waiting for him?
That’s just one of any number of questions that arise when it comes to all those fuzzy ideas about the afterlife, what’s a heaven like, who gets in, and who doesn’t? Just how many jokes and cartoons have been written about St. Peter at the Pearly Gates with that ledger Book of Life in hand, gives us some indication about the prevalence of such thinking.
It has always seemed problematic to me — if one were to press the point at all — about heaven as a place of family reunions; any more than it is a place “up there,” with harps and angels and streets of gold, beyond space and time and existence as we have ever experienced it, or could possibly ever fathom it.
Even the Liturgy for the Dead I often recited in the Book of Common Prayer weight to such an idea. “Give us faith to see in death the gate of eternal life,” it goes, “so that in quiet confidence, we may continue our course on earth, until, by your call, we are reunited with those who have gone before … “
I’d usually omit the last line, and no one ever called me on it. My reasoning was like this.
First, I’d recall that gospel passage (Mark 23) where the Sadducees pose one of those trick questions, trying to trip up the itinerant rabbi who was always upsetting the apple cart. It’s the one about the woman who marries, and sequentially buries, seven brothers. The hypothetical question: in the resurrection of the dead, whose wife will she be? Jesus rejects such wooden-headed thinking, suggesting earthly relationship don’t transfer well, or much resemble the “angels in heaven.”
So, like the limitations inherent in our earthly relationships, the notion of them continuing, in perpetuity, seems far too provincial when it comes to even beginning to imagine that which is beyond our comprehension or capacity. As the poet, Robert Browning, says, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” I’d suggest it’s for something more.
In other words, I came to find it was too limiting a vision of anything as glorious as the reign of heaven that Jesus depicts, for one thing. I’ve always thought we would do well to move our ideas of heaven and earth to a higher, deeper, wider mystery of what we would ever want to know and experience as God’s eternal presence.
Otherwise, when we come to the end of our days, we’re left with rather sophomoric questions, like, do we have to step into eternity in the same condition we “left this earth?” As one controversial thinker and bishop, Jack Spong, once put it, that kind of heaven would “have a lot of old people sitting around a nursing home playing shuffleboard for all eternity.”
Maybe that’s why the brilliant physicist, Stephen Hawking, whose been physically incapacitated with his debilitating disease and facing his own early demise for the last 49 years, has recently come to the conclusion the idea of a place called heaven is an illusion, a “fairy tale” concocted to comfort simpletons “afraid of the dark.”
Frankly, I don’t have a problem with that description; since a good fairy tale, like a good mythic story found in scriptures, can speak to some deeper truths. And, one of those truths happens to be the fear factor that is a very real part of our human condition.
The problem I have has to do with that false dichotomy that gets set up; where the only alternative for lots of folks seems to be Colton Burpo, the Nebraska pastor’s 11-year old son, who claims proof positive for a place called heaven, based on his personal near-death experience when he was four years old. With the help of his dad, he’s written a best-seller, “Heaven Is For Real,” relating how he sat on the lap of Jesus, dressed in royal robes, and relating to him things he would have otherwise had no way of knowing.
Here’s the thing: Whether we or not we can leave our finite questions and expectations of such an infinite place in suspension long enough to consider the figurative way in which we attempt to envision and describe — with sometimes-powerful, mythic language that fuller life which we might experience with the creative force of all living things — is one thing. It’s akin to the idea of bodily resurrection as something other than the reconstitution of our corporal nature at any stage of our mortal lives; where we’re talking in metaphorical, not biological terms. (Paul tries to make that clear distinction between “earthy bodies” and “spiritual bodies” in the mystery that is not yet, for us, fully known — I Cor. 15:35-58).
But whether or not we can then proceed to live the rest of our life as if it is already part of an eternal whole — where it always has been and always will be — is quite another thing. There’s a great benefit in do so. It removes from one’s thinking all that stuff about what to believe, or how you should behave, even if it kills you; as if there’s some ulterior motive other than trying to participate in a little more heaven, and a little less hell, right here and now.
Remember, Jesus spent the sum of his whole, brief “earthly” ministry describing again and again what the kingdom of heaven was like. And he did it in the most earthy of ways. It’s like a mustard seed, or a pearl of great value.
And then there was also that other place, what the kingdom of heaven was not like; the place of “wailing and gnashing of teeth;” or the threshing floor, where the wheat gets separated from the chaff that is thrown into the fire.
One of the more serious problems when you talk about heaven as somewhere other than right here and now has to do with the criteria people concoct about what you need to do, who you need to be, and especially what you need to believe to gain entrance to eternal paradise changes all the time; and with it those who are damned. The promise of a future reward as a deterrent to bad behavior now might be a good idea if human beings actually had the capacity to behave better than we do. But since we don’t, we seem to simply default to the petty antics of trying to tally the demerits, and judge ourselves who’s wretched and beyond the pale, and who’s just naughty.
For example, there are people today who still believe the entire LBGT community is categorically outcast. There are plenty of others who believe that without the prescriptive formula having accepted Jesus as “their personal Lord and savior” one cannot get into heaven.
The prevalent notion of a Judgment Day and Rapture that delivers the final, eternal rewards and punishment, and separates the sheep from the goats, seems to go hand in hand with those in this life that like to define who they are by distinguishing themselves from who they are not; all of which frankly makes the notions of heaven and hell look and sound a lot more like this life than the next.
Though I’ve rarely heard few come right out and admit it, we probably all know some folks who are convinced they’ve got a confirmed reservation. Just yesterday some so-called true believers knocked on my door and left a pamphlet, essentially asking me – when the saints go marching in – do I want to be in that number? Whereas, I’d always equated the idea of the infinite and eternal as something that was numberless.
To tell you the truth, I’m not so sure I really want to spend all of eternity in the same place with those who think their own personal salvation is guaranteed! It even makes me wonder, when Jesus describes his father’s heavenly mansion as having many, many rooms, perhaps he was reassuring us there’d not only be a place for us; but that it’d be as far away from certain other types as possible?
But seriously, since that passage is the one most often heard at funerals — when we’re most often brought to that threshold separating this life and death, and the question of what’s beyond — a few words about that passage in John’s gospel might be helpful.
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’
Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’ [John 14]
First, we would do well to remember and acknowledge the “voice” speaking in John’s gospel from the late 1st century is really the collective voice of the early believing Christian community, not the historical Jesus. That, in spite of what had happened to Jesus, his suffering and death, his presence was still felt as vibrantly alive in their midst. It reaffirmed for them their spiritual reality; that there was still a place where one could never be separated from God in Jesus, known to them as the messiah of God, the Christ.
Next, the community of believers experienced that this destination, this place, and the journey, or way to this place, were one and the same. In this sense, they had already arrived, to see the expansive and all-encompassing nature of this “kingdom of heaven,” which the Galilean spirit-sage had described; that vision that had been handed down through the tradition of the early, fledgling Church.
And finally, there is perhaps one of the most misunderstood passages in scripture, “No one comes to the father except through me.”
Who is this “me?” It is Jesus. OK, who is this Jesus? He is the embodiment of a way of life in which we can be a living part, here and now. It’s not that this Jesus is the only way, but that his way is the way. And his way is the way of death and resurrection; the way of dying to the old self, and rising to the new through all those healing and restorative and reconciling acts of love and grace he embodied and exemplified for us.
Therefore, you do not distort — but rather illuminate the text — if you simply drop the exclusive sounding words “no one,” and instead hear these all-inclusive words of invitation, “One comes to the father,” or “Or one comes to this place,” or “this mansion with countless rooms, through the way I have shown you.”
But it seems there are those who can’t imagine such an indiscriminate place, such a place of grace. That’s not heaven, as far as they’re concerned. Those who would argue you have to do certain things, say certain things, believe certain things to be worthy of a place in some future heaven, are strangely enough some of the same folks who say it’s grace, and grace alone, that saves. To further confuse things, they’re the same folks who claim you can’t have a heaven, unless you got a hell to go with it.
A couple months ago, a fellow named Chad Holtz found that out the hard way. He was pastor of Marrow’s Chapel in rural Henderson, North Carolina, until he confessed to his congregation he didn’t believe in a place of eternal torment for damned souls. He found himself out of a job in short order, after defending some of the blasphemous ideas espoused in Rob Bell’s recent book, Love Wins.
In his book, Bell describes going to a “Christian art show” where one of the pieces featured a quote by Mohandas Gandhi. Someone attached a note saying: “Reality check: He’s in hell.” Bell asked, “Gandhi’s in hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure?” Bell asks. ”This is misguided and toxic,” he argues, “and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.”
Those so-called “conservative Christians” that the public media likes to refer to more often than not as “traditional Christians,” call this heresy. Universalism – the suggestion that everyone, regardless of religious conviction or belief – will be saved, is considered unorthodox, and a heresy.
I, on the other hand, call it gospel. And such religious provincialism that I used to regard as simply sad, short-sighted and silly I now regard as dangerous and destructive extremism. It fosters and perpetuates a kind of religious bigotry that we would otherwise condemn as primitive and unenlightened elsewhere in the world today.
In startling visuals, Terence Malick’s new film, “Tree of Life,” first conjures up an expansive depiction of the whole creation story; from cosmic darkness and light, fire and water, to amoebas and dinosaurs and winged creatures wandering lush landscapes.
Then it plops you down in a certain place and time. It’s a small Texas town in the early fifties, and a typical family living out their typical lives. There’s the soft-spoken wife and mother. There’s the conflicted father who is simultaneously loving, strict and stern; trying to teach his boys how to survive and succeed where his father ultimately fails in life.
And throughout what unravels as endless flashback, dream sequences there is the struggle for the older brother to make sense of the death of his younger brother. There’s the dream, like a snapshot, of the family standing together on a beach; while the figures of those who have died wander like zombies around them. It all begs the question about a place called heaven, and what kind of a place it could be?
Only occasionally will a one-line voice over break in on the long visual sequences of the film. But — like a key that may be intended to at least ask the question, if not provide an answer — the prologue to the story begins with the woman’s voice stating simply: “There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you will follow.
The indiscriminate beauty and seeming cruelty of nature, juxtaposed with the feminine character of dancing grace, and the ultimately-frustrated impotence of the husband’s/father’s efforts to try to control and succeed, all seems a fair and honest critique of how we humans fit into the mix. Flailing or dancing may ultimately be our two stark options.
But in the scenes that follow the death of the one son, the mother is never seen dancing again; while the older brother as a grown man remains haunted by the loss of his brother, and reconciled to his father by no more than a thread. The film ends honestly enough, with the weightier questions unresolved.
The scenes of boyhood from the fifties actually conjured up memories of my own. For instance, soon after I found myself recently humming the old Boy Scout marching song we used to sing at the top of our lungs, with hardly a care of thought to the words:
Oh, you can’t get to Heaven on roller skates
You’d roll right by them Pearly Gates
And if you get to heaven before I do
Just drill a hole and pull me through
And some other rotten kid’s variation:
But if I get to heaven before you do
I’ll drill a hole and spit on you.
Then in ’56, Tennessee Ernie Ford released his big hit that remained #1 on the charts for weeks. It was a song written a decade before by Merle Travis, about something he remember his own Kentucky coal mining father telling him, as he labored his whole life underground in the mountains of Muhlenberg County.
You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
St. Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store.
I thought to myself, why in the world would this song about such a wretched way to go through life reach the heights of such popularity across the spectrum of the American landscape? Is the elusive notion of a heaven so beyond our grasping that we can’t imagine loosing the bonds of earth; including our feet of clay we’d prefer to drag along with us into that larger life we cannot grasp, but only feign to call heaven? Or rather, as another songwriter later suggested,
Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try
?No hell below us, above us only sky
?Imagine all the people? living for today…
Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do?
Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too
?Imagine all the people?, living life in peace…
Hey, what can I say, I’m a child of the sixties …
One spiritual writer reminds us,
“A Christian is one who follows in the way of Christ. A Christian is someone who’s animated by the spirit of Christ, a person in whom the spirit of Christ can work. That doesn’t always mean that you consciously know what you are doing. It never depends upon whether we say the right words, but whether we live the right reality.” Richard Rohr
The psalmist assures us you can’t get away from the eternal presence of the holy: you can go up to heaven, the holy is there or you can go to hell and the holy is there. It’s not the inescapable presence of the holy, but the escapable choice one has to live in that presence.
It’s not a matter of whether we are “chosen” – out of our own worthiness or worthlessness, our own deserving or undeserving that is based on whether we have lived in such a manner of life that the ledger in the Book of Life tilts slightly in our favor when we arrive at the pearly gates; but rather how to live a more heavenly life here and now.
As a boy I used to march to the tune, Oh you can’t get to heaven. But now, much later in life, I’m more inclined to move my ideas of heaven and earth, and suggest we can get to heaven. Anyone can. And we don’t have to wait for heaven, the hereafter, or eternal life.
Beyond the grave it’s all mystery. With a little faith to unsettle the fear, that’s good. And it’s enough.
© 2011 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.
This article may not be used or reproduced without proper credit.