Monthly Archives: June 2018

Afterlife 101: Cemetery Seminar


Down the street there’s a peaceful hilly patch of land, so I walk there with the dog most days.

It happens to be a cemetery. And every time I wander among the crumbling gravestones, I feel like I’m taking a seminar in theology, and I’m not well prepared.

The seminar theme is, of course, death, and the old graveyard silence raises a thousand questions: Where are these deceased now? Do they sense cemetery visitors? Are they now with God and their ancestors? Are they contentedly asleep in an unfathomable post-mortem zone, waiting out the decades and centuries until Judgment Day?

Pop culture’s answers don’t help. The image from cartoons and movie land says we become winged angels after death, riding a puffy cloud in a non-denominational heaven and brandishing a sudden talent for harp-playing.

But the church’s answers confuse too. I’ve heard it preached that everyone goes immediately to heaven or hell – end of story. Or that our souls float toward God’s healing light. Or that everyone lies waiting until the final trumpets sound on the Last Day.

Recently I picked up Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright, a retired Anglican bishop and vigorous explainer of scriptural themes. He finds a lot of muddle on the subject of the afterlife. In his reading, scripture says surprisingly little about it, but what it does say sharply departs from the fixed idea that a blazing disembodied heaven is the ultimate destination.

Instead, God has other plans for the future. The Book of Revelation describes a “new heaven and new earth” – a vision of the whole universe, earth included, transformed by the power of God – and it will be populated by the resurrected bodies of believers. The Easter resurrection was the first glimpse of this.

“That final redemption,” Wright says, “will be the moment when heaven and earth are joined together at last, in a burst of God’s creative energy for which Easter is the prototype and source.”

Wright says his book is really a meditation on a single passage from the Lord’s Prayer, which churchgoers know by heart yet don’t necessarily grasp its revolutionary ramifications: “Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Earth is usually left far behind in speculations about the afterlife and the end times. Wright wants to reclaim the earth as part of the landscape of God’s redeeming future. According to Paul in Ephesians 1, Philippians 3, First Corinthians 15 and elsewhere, the newly transformed bodies of people will colonize God’s transformed cosmos, including the transformed earth.

And until then? Wright interprets Paul to mean that the dead are “held firmly within the conscious love of God and the conscious presence of Jesus Christ” while they await the Final Day. Call it heaven if you want: heaven is wherever God is.

Wright says many Christians will resist this idea because of habitual thinking about streets in heaven paved with gold. But he thinks the biblical evidence is clear.

“The ultimate destination is not ‘going to heaven when you die’ but being bodily raised into a transformed, glorious likeness of Jesus Christ,” he writes.

I don’t know if this perfectly squares with what my church (Episcopal Church) says in the Book of Common Prayer (Prayers of the People, Form III):

Give to the departed eternal rest; 

Let light perpetual shine upon them.

We praise you for your saints who have entered into joy; 

May we also come to share in your heavenly kingdom.

But Wright prods me to examine the biblical evidence and confront my own half-baked hunches. There’s no need to fall back on soft-headed cultural images of afterlife … or to change the subject.

The Easter resurrection promoted earth – physical reality – to a more exalted place in the divine redemption. My strolls through the cemetery now feel a little less anxious, more serene. Now it’s a place of spiritual forensics and clues.


Wearing Crash Helmets to Church

Not long ago I broke my right hand and I was in a splint for weeks. This caused drama at worship time.

During the regular congregational “exchange of the peace,” we greet each other with a soulful handshake and hello. This presented a small personal ecclesiastical snafu. I couldn’t use that hand. (I had another hand, but forget it. It was in pain too: from overuse.) So I tried a fist bump, hoping people would catch on.

Results were mixed. One woman saw the gauze-wrapped fist and burst out laughing. There wasn’t time to ponder her cackle or explain my situation. There were other hands to encounter. Some people looked confused when, crustacean-like, I presented my traumatized claw. Others understood immediately and gently fist-bumped back. One man regarded my orthopedic mishap tenderly, asking if I’ll be okay soon. I love church. People are so nice.

The experience reminded me again how everyone brings such varied expectations, different temperaments, to the worship world. Some are stricken at the least unscripted liturgical detour. Others go with the flow and welcome spontaneity. All this is theological diversity in action.

Then there’s Annie Dillard.

Dillard is one of my early writer heroes, and I imagine she would nod at this little prehensile moment of truth in the pew. To her, the observed world is a place ablaze, where human beings poignantly, comically try to make spiritual sense of it all. A big theme for her is God’s presence, absence and fearful persistence. (Her 2016 book The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New gathers from various Dillard works over the years.)

She writes with affection and mischief about church. She looks askance at smooth-running worship services with their “unwarranted air of professionalism” as they call upon the inconceivable Creator of the cosmos.

“Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?” she asks.

We should approach infinite divine power not with complacency or perfectionism but with fear and trembling and crash helmets and signal flares, she advises.

“Week after week we witness the same miracle: that God is so mighty that he can stifle his own laughter,” she writes in Teaching a Stone to Talk.

“Week after week, we witness the same miracle: that God, for reasons unfathomable, refrains from blowing our dancing bear act to smithereens. Week after week Christ washes the disciples’ dirty feet, handles their very toes, and repeats, It is all right – believe it or not – to be people.”

Yes it is. I’m glad to connect with people who graciously stand with a rumpled fellow worshiper until his grasp could heal. But I hope to continue the fist bump during the peace, just to mess with them.



Melody, Not Malady

Modern life was roaring as I stood out back the other day after dragging away post-storm branches. That is, I could hear the rush of traffic on the nearby interstate – our 21st-century soundtrack of mobility, speed, convenience, progress. It is ruthless, exuberant, heedless, lethal. Nothing stands in its way.

I heard another force in the backyard. Birds were busy at their chortling routine. Squirrels pounded on the roof. A breeze picked up in the maples. Nature was stirring: lyrical, volatile, incessant. Nothing stands in its way either.

These two forces, one of asphalt, one of earth, vie for dominance. Each has its own loyal following.

Then a third sound broke through, arriving from a few blocks away: the chiming of a church bell tower. It rang out gently with a hymn to mark the midafternoon hour.

It declined the hard sell. It seemed to say: We’re not going to annoy you with lots of noise. Just know the church is here. The news we’re carrying is here if you need it.

In medieval towns, life was regulated by the peal of the parish bells. They announced the worship hour. Their sound was known to shoo away evil. Now the bells are mostly a novelty, just one sound among many in the postmodern medley.

Yet neither wind nor capitalism can replicate this soothing chime. In their understated way, the neighborhood bells are a reminder of the great rolling debate of life: Are we alone in our thoughts, or does a larger force abide? Must we figure out the universe on our own, or will all be revealed one day?

I follow the writer Martin Amis as he follows the latest wrinkles in modern cosmology. He used to be an atheist. Now he finds agnosticism the more logical position, more in keeping with our ignorance.

“We’re about eight Einsteins away from getting any kind of handle on the universe,” he once told Bill Moyers. “But why is the universe so incredibly complicated? That makes me delay my vote on the existence of some intelligence.”

The church bells give their answer: Life is incomplete, fragile, awaiting further instruction. We can’t deduce the whole truth on our own. Divine revelation always rounds out the picture.

This doesn’t justify arrogance. The hostilities committed in religion’s name every day threaten to ruin religion and everything else.

The neighborhood bells sing a view of belief that I want to hold close. It’s melodious not bullying, steady not abusive, a real sound tolling in the real world of raging weather and anxious industry, outlasting both.