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Heaven on Earth

A Thanksgiving Reflection in the Midst of a Terrorized World

A pdf copy to print and read is HERE.

Come on everybody, for what it’s worth,

Come on, children, come on.

To have a heaven right here on earth,

Come on, children, come on.

                    Arlo Guthrie, Gabriel’s Mother Highway Ballad #16 Blues (1970)

Gingko for post

Autumn is my favorite season of the year. The gingko tree that towers over our garage turns a vibrant yellow in a matter of days; and then drops about three billion leaves in the same amount of time, leaving the branches resembling a looming skeleton. But I know that tree is still on the growing edge of its natural life cycle, and in a few months it will begin to bud again. Then in the breezes that will surely come next summer, its new green coat will shimmer in the bright sunlight.

It’s not the same story for the old walnut in the backyard. Its companion that stood Unknownbeside it long before our house was built over a half century ago just up and died a few years back. When we cut it down, our neighbor was all too happy to take the firewood off our hands; reducing its remains to dust and ashes over the coming winter months. Now each year I look at what I call the widower; wondering if it will live to see another spring, then summer and another fall.

Like many others, the Thanksgiving holiday is another reason I love autumn. And it’s not because it gives those of my generation another chance to tune in to the radio to hear Arlo Guthrie sing his 18+ minute soliloquy about Alice’s Restaurant. The occasion gives us the allocation of a few fleeting moments to pause and express appreciation for whatever we have; but only for the time being. As the poet, W.H. Auden put it,

Winter completes an age

With its thorough leveling;

Heaven’s tourbillions of rage

Abolish the watchman’s tower

And delete the cedar grove,

As winter completes an age … 

                     (Chorus, For the Time Being, by W.H. Auden – “tourbillions” Fr. “whirlwind” “vortex”)

But for the time being, it is what it is. And that’s the truth. And it’s autumn. And there’s comfort and gladness to be found for the moment in the gathering of friends and family.

These are also the days I find myself unconsciously humming the tune to an old hymn, sung for so many autumn seasons that have come and gone before:

Come, ye thankful people, come,

Raise the song of harvest home.

All is safely gathered in,

‘Ere the winter storms begin.

But frankly, while I am almost embarrassed to the point of forced humility by the sheer abundance of the kind of bounty and shelter I enjoy, I now stumble with more than a little skepticism over the next stanza:

God, our Maker, doth provide

For our wants to be supplied.

Come to God’s own temple come,

Raise the song of harvest home.

What sticks in my throat are some inconvenient, nagging truths. It is that disconnect of disparity all around us. It is the glaring, obvious fact that there is no creator deity that “doth provide” for all, in a world half-flooded with excess and half-parched with destitution. And where illegals hide in the shadows of the homeland, while refugees roam other lands like lost and homeless herds.

There’s all that. And then there’s the other nudging reminder that a time will come when all my seasons will come to an end. Like the old walnut tree, all my perennial thanksgiving rituals will eventually end in dust and ashes. And if there is any true “harvest home,” it is not in some otherworldly realm, but in the here and now, and for the time being.

Woke up this mornin’ with my head in my hands,

Come on, children, come on.

Snow was a’fallin’ all over the land

Come on, children, come on.

Well I don’t know, but I’ve been told,

Come on, children, come on.

Streets of heaven have all been sold,

Come on, children, come on. 

                    Arlo Guthrie, Gabriel’s Mother Highway Ballad #16 Blues

 In a world either terrorized or abused by those who have little regard for it, it has become downright dangerous and nearly complicit, to encourage the illusory notion of any sweet by-and-by. If there is to be any knockin’ on heaven’s door, the place is always here, and the time is always now.

A few weeks ago, a pair of suicide bombings in Beirut, Lebanon killed over 40 people, including women and children. It made the daily news cycle, but what else is new? The easy assumption was that those people in that part of the world seem to be clearly out of control.

Twelve days before that, a Russian jetliner was downed in the Sinai Peninsula by a bomb planted onboard, killing 224 people. However, before the definitive cause was determined, days of curiosity centered on speculation as to what kind of mechanical problem may have been at play; and what kind of fix might prevent any future problem for our own flying public.

Last week, a branch affiliate of the same terrorist group with which we’re all familiar, known as ISIS (or ISIL, or Daesh, take you pick), claimed responsibility for the suicide attack at a Radisson Hotel in Bamako, Mali, where 21 people died. But let’s be honest about it. Before then, how many of us had ever heard of a place called Bamako?

It was only when ISIL attacked “The City of Lights” in the heart of France, and all hell seemed to break loose, that the Western world seemed more than a little dismayed by all the mayhem. The U.S. media descended upon Paris with 24/7 news coverage; in order to follow every possible detail over and over again, with one lingering concern. If it could happen there, it could happen here.

“When my people died, no country bothered to light up its landmarks in the colors of their flag,” Elie Fares, a Lebanese doctor was quoted as saying [N.Y.Times, Nov. 15, 2015]. “When my people died, they did not send the world into mourning. Their death was but an irrelevant fleck along the international news cycle, something that happens in those parts of the world.”

In the midst of all the chaos and uncertainty there are the usual calls for action, so that “it can never happen here” or “never happen again.” At the same time, others acknowledge the harder truth of the matter. Any assurance that this strategy or that solution could provide even a faint sense of security is an alluring falsehood. There is plenty of criticism, without any good alternatives in a world where the lesser of two bad choices seems to be the all there is. But perhaps there is also more than a little fallacious thinking going around with regard to the human imagination’s conceptualization of “heaven.”

All of the proposed solutions to fix the predicament in which we find ourselves are probably as numerous as the search for the root causes of why terrorists devalue the sanctity of human life; to the extent they willingly sacrifice their own with an unmatched fervent zeal. We wonder in bewilderment, how an American youth from Minnesota could get so “radicalized” by a distorted, religiously-infused ideology that they’d slip away to join a crusade on the other side of the world and die; telling their mothers as they leave they’ll meet them again in paradise.

While there are probably a lot of different things that contribute to this seemingly incomprehensible phenomenon, there’s one component that seems uncomfortably clear. Whatever fear we may feel in response to the kind of terror that strikes closer to home, we might do well to also consider a common religious belief that is rooted in something that is altogether home grown, and has been for a long time; namely, the hope of something better in a next world. And, because it is part of the stuff of what is taken to be mainstream religious thinking in this regard, we may only have ourselves to blame.

In a more profound way I’ve come to consider how the apocalyptic component in the three Abrahamic religious traditions promulgates such a destructive notion; that has only become more clearly obvious with the extreme actions of radicalized terrorists, who are as unreflective about their religious beliefs as they are committed to adamantly advance them. The disconnect between the sanctity of this life and the illusory promise of a so-called next life is only made more obvious by those who want to hasten, even welcome, the actualization of such a belief equally held by so many others.

Peddling the notion of a blissful afterlife — even to the point of those extreme apocalyptic views of those unwilling to wait for it — is something that is as much woven into the fabric of unreflective American religion as ever. If the allure of self-immortality seems harmless enough, consider once again the dangerous consequences of those obviously willing to act upon it.

Attend a funeral conducted by even a moderate mainline Christian denomination, and you’re likely to hear assuring words of about a heavenly mansion with many rooms, and a place a co-eternal Jesus has prepared for those who truly love him (John 14). While there are those who seem to take such imagery as a literal guarantee of accommodations, I’ve always conditioned the intention of the message in a different sort of temporal term, with the emphasis on the “truly loving” portion of the passage. It is the gospel imperative that heaven can’t wait; that it is nowhere to be found, if not in the here and now. And here and now it seems to be woefully missing.

Two days after the Paris attacks, a friend of mine related a personal story that, to me, sums up both the misbegotten notion that has been perpetuated in our own faith tradition far too long; along with the truth that I believe is the truth of the matter, in all of its simplicity:

“My wife and I attended the funeral of a good man yesterday,” my friend said. “Jeff was our auto mechanic for the past ten years. He was honest, caring, a friend to all. The family members who spoke assured everyone that he was received into the arms of Jesus, and is now in heaven. Quotes from John’s gospel were assumed to be the words of Jesus. Even a quote from Revelation – that last book of the New Testament that is itself an apocalyptic nightmare of a battle by those presumed to be the righteous saved and the unrighteous damned — was offered as something Jesus promised.”

My friend continued, “Then a young woman stood up to eulogize the man. And, in so doing, she came closer to the truth about our friend. She remembered fondly how she and her playmates would take their bicycles and skateboards to the mechanics shop, where he would repair them for free.”

Since none of us can say with any certainty whatsoever what I often refer to as “that unknown reality from whence we have all come,” all I can honestly say is this. Considering all those most authentic, very earthy and non-religious parables Jesus used to try to describe a “reign of God” – or, if you prefer, “kingdom of heaven” – they all seemed to be very much of this earth, and the stuff of daily life.

Come on, Gabriel, blow that thing

Come on, children, come on

All God’s children got to dance and sing

Come on, children, come on 

All the children got to sing and shout

Come on, children, come on

There ain’t nobody ’round bound to kick you out

Come on, children, come on.

Come on everybody, for what it’s worth,

Come on, children, come on.

To have a heaven right here on earth,

Come on, children, come on. 

                    Arlo Guthrie, Gabriel’s Mother Highway Ballad #16 Blues (1970)

I do not believe in any afterlife of my own. And I’m done with any notion of a heaven that is anywhere else than on the face of this earth; with whatever we make of it, and for the time being.

The poet, Robert Browning, once wrote, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” The painfully obvious fact that we have so utterly failed to grasp such a paradise, does not yet mean we should hold back our reach of it.

And if, and when, there is ever to be such a place as a heaven, perhaps it’ll look a little like a mechanic’s garage; with a couple of kid’s bicycles propped outside, and the echo of some raucous laughter within.

© 2015 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.

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