Guest Post by Ken Marshall
There has been a recent event in the life of our church that has a lot of people thinking. Our church family started the week with the news of our sudden death of our church organist. She was beloved by all. Literally. Quite frankly, I really don’t think you could find anyone in our town who would speak badly of her. She had a generous heart, a kind spirit and an endless source of compassion. Her life was spent in the service of others, doing what she loved, playing music to honor the Lord.
But it wasn’t her death that struck a chord. It was the manner of which she died. She had just finished one of her many acts of service, playing the music for a women’s conference and Easter Sunday service. On Monday morning she was at the church doing some routine follow up church business. Afterwards, she went home to spend time in her garden, when she suddenly collapsed.
I mean, I picture her going through her day, the usual routine. And there in the midst of her garden, probably carrying on a conversation with her begonias, she turns around and there’s Jesus. “Oh hey, Jesus! When did you come in?” He replies, “You have been with me always, I just wanted to show you my garden.” Awesome! And off they go hand in hand, Him never getting in a word thereafter.
Seriously, Mary was not a nun. She was married, had a family, ran a business, had experienced heartache, disappointment, and, I imagine, recognized and battled with sin in her own life. But all of us in the church family agree, this must have been one of the most fluid transitions from mortal to immortality second only to Elijah.
So what are the questions? As always, they start with us. How will I go? Where will I go? Will I see Jesus? And what will I leave behind? For the sake of brevity, I thought to put these questions into three categories: Where, How and When.
Where will we go once our life in this mortal body ends? There are many answers to this question and the answers vary about as much as there are people in the conversation. But quite honestly, I think everyone will agree that there is probably only ONE solution. I mean, just like the elements on the periodic table, there are just some things that exist and life in the hereafter has got to be the same for all. The difference is in what we as people decide what we are going to believe in.
Some of us want to believe in a type of white fluffy place in the clouds, or a perpetual party. Some like the alternative of coming back again, either as another human or some other life form. Kind of like our spirit just recycles through different vessels and death is just an eternal transition from life.
Another view is that there is no afterlife. This one is the hardest to follow, and quite honestly, I do not think there is really anyone who can completely subscribe to it. I mean, all of us have a sense of eternity born into us. And if there’s one thing that separates us from others in the animal kingdom, it is this sense of eternity and all that is born of it, such as morality, conscious, and judgment. Some call this – and I completely agree – the ‘God-shaped hole.’ So that’s the one I will address.
If we all end up in some fluffy space, then what’s the difference? Live long and prosper. The nice thing about this view is there are no consequences. Everyone is entitled to a space in this eternal bliss. However, the greatest obstacle to this view is also no consequences; because in all of our existence on this earth we have experienced disappointment, betrayal and injustice.
Just the thought of Hitler brings to bare the reality that if we are all destined for the “big fluffy” then ultimately we are fools for trying to live harmoniously with others. Let’s just take what we can and look forward to our eternal bliss. Clearly, that concept forms a moral dilemma. I can say if you can get beyond that gag reflex, then you can successfully support this view. But if not, then you are forced into another dilemma, how do you get to the land of “eternal light” and avoid the land of “eternal darkness?”
The next and most obvious step is our concept of morals, or conscious. It doesn’t take long to watch the news and question, “How in the world does someone come up with the morals to commit such an atrocious crime?” Rage, frustration, even a sense of loyalty can force one to make what is clearly a bad moral decision. And in our clock of eternity, we measure these acts of injustice on a scale of wrong or right. That poor decision, that lie, that moment of moral weakness is going to cause that person something. Either they will forfeit a relationship, or financial cost, or even restrictions in their freedoms. But that is a sliding scale as with many societies this scale seems to be fluid enough that it becomes almost irrelevant.
History is pockmarked with individuals and personalities who have used their influence or position to cause events to sway towards their own personal preferences. And they justify the outcome by saying it was for the common good or that it was deserved. So, what is the “moral absolute?” We need a standard that guides our decisions so that we can move through this life making the best of the short time we have here.
The best examples of these codes are the various religious scriptures and exceptional pieces of literature that arrive on very exceptional basis. (I highly recommend reading John Steinbeck’s The Pearl for a quick explanation of the human condition.) But these explanations only help form our decisions. Ultimately, decisions are based on the moment and involve emotions and a conglomerate of factors that all weigh in so that our decisions are rarely, if ever isolated. For example, our choices in something as benign as a television program are based on our past experiences and preferences, hardly ever on the quality of the show. Such are our views when moving through life, interacting with others, and trying to build a moral foundation that will allow us a favorable position at the end of our lives. That is how we determine where we will spend eternity – on the basis of how we made decisions in this lifetime.
And for my part, I have come to the conclusion that our actions should be based on this concept we call LOVE; and much to the misalignment of the lyrical interpretation of love that we hear in our music or popular culture. True love does not always mean a warm fuzzy. It can also mean harsh decisions that seem cruel at the time, but in the end bare out as just and wise because the outcome reveals the true purpose. And in the end, was the primary motive for the decision self-serving, or in the service of others? And, in the case or our organist, her life was clearly spent in the service of others. So based on the moral scale that we have developed, she was clearly headed for the bright side, and it is easy to assume that her last moments here in this world was just a smooth transition into the next. And considering the short notice, we can assume she was traveling light. Which is really the final question we have for this eternal flight, when?
This really is the ultimate question. If the answer was never, then we wouldn’t worry about the rest. But because the end for all life is inevitable, this question is the constant reminder in the back of our minds. Obviously later is better than sooner. But sooner always translates into now, and when our final breathe does arrive, it will be in the now. That is the amazing thing about youth. They always live in the now, but they never question if the now will be their final moment. That’s why you will rarely catch one of us who are older engaged in skydiving, rock climbing or driving a race car. That’s also why we drive so slowly, because we have learned to protect our “now”. In fact we almost fear it. As it draws closer, we want to bring along more baggage, and if there’s one thing for certain, the longer we live, the more baggage we acquire. I am not just speaking about the material goods, but emotional scars, hesitations, and even our prejudices.
Those of us who believe in a heavenly hearafter, seem to have a list of questions for our creator. “Why did this happen?” “Why didn’t this happen?” “Didn’t you see what was going on and how come you didn’t interfere with some of that divine power?” All these questions based on this accumulation of baggage. In the end, it’s all we know. There is no way we know how much of this baggage we are going to take or leave behind, because quite honestly, none of us have been that way before.
This is another hole in the concept of eternal bliss; we are just transported into another world. All our baggage remains. We may not suffer hunger or pain, but there are emotional issues that are still unresolved. Our questions demand answers and just being transported into another state of being doesn’t resolve any of them. Our life here on earth becomes a bad dream and the memory of that life will haunt us as we are doomed to wander in this state of uncertainty forever. That is where we as Christians have a certainty!
While the answer to ‘when’ can never be resolved, as Christians we can replace the when with ‘who.’ And that who is Jesus. In the hope of his resurrection, we believe He did travel this way before. In the confidence of His authority, we know that he can take care of our baggage. We can leave it at the door. And in our understanding of His forgiveness towards us for whatever baggage we might claim, we experience the reality of His love. This is the true picture of eternity that we can embrace. And it helps us deal with the uncertainty of the when, knowing that when it happens, we will be escorted into the paradise that is where Jesus abides.
This is what separates those of us who claim Christ as redeemer, and those who just hope for a better place. It’s like buying a ticket beforehand. We show up to the premiere and already have a guest pass. And like Mary, who spent her whole life in His service, when her time came, she was just escorted in, like she had just arrived.
And to me, there’s no better way to go.