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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.


When a Pet Dies

When a Pet Dies

I was on deadline when a reader called, weeping, with an urgent question: “Do you think my Rudy is in heaven?” Rudy had died during routine surgery. His death was a shock. Rudy was only 8 years old. Rudy was a cocker spaniel.

We talked awhile. The church he attended was ominously silent about whether pets go to heaven. I didn’t know how to reassure him, but he sounded a little relieved when I noted a verse from Psalm 36: “Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens … you save humans and animals alike, O Lord.”

Do pets have souls? This week I wonder again. My ancient cat died Monday — just short of 21 years old. I’m dazed and saddened, but awed at her longevity. Molly lived to 100, in human years. She was queen of her little patch of West Meade for two decades. She outlasted the administrations of Reagan, Bush, Clinton and (almost) another Bush. She weathered (outdoors alone) the ’98 tornado and condescended to accept a blended family of three other cats and a Corgi.

Next week is St. Francis’ feast day, and a handful of local churches will honor him by scheduling Blessing of the Animals services. The October services address an overlooked corner of spirituality, the role of animals in the heavenly scheme of things. We took Molly to one when she was a bored teen; I like to think the spiritual vibrations she absorbed that afternoon added years to her life. It was, at least, a soulful experience to join in on official prayers surrounded by furry critters, not just us anxious humans.

Do animals go to heaven? I’ve never heard a sermon on the subject. Some Christians will say it’s a frivolous question, smacking vaguely of paganism or animals rights militancy or “radical environmentalism.” They say it devalues the uniqueness of the human soul to concede value to animals. They protest too much.

The extraordinary life of St. Francis (1181-1226) contradicts these suspicions. He not only started an influential monastic order and spread a message of gospel simplicity across Europe. He not only popularized Christmas nativity scenes. He not only bore the mysterious stigmata, the wounds of the crucified Christ. He was also famous as a Christian ambassador to animal planet. 

According to his biographers, he made friends with any number of rabbits, frogs, insects and wolves. In the Italian village of Pian d’Arce, he once preached to an assembly of crows and pigeons, reminding them to praise their Creator just as people do. This was no sentimental stunt. Francis had an overwhelming feeling for God as the source of all things. Love of creation meant keeping a mystical bond with it all.

It’s as if Francis had just walked off the ark with Noah after the Flood, and was deeply impressed by the rainbow, God’s sign of a benign new relationship with Earth, “the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations.” (Genesis 9)

All were put into the same boat of God’s care. Some people insist only humans have souls because only humans have free will and need salvation. But animals care for their young, they suffer and die. They’re part of the creation story.

In America, 68 percent of households have pets (says the American Pet Products Association in a 2017-18 survey), up from 56 percent 30 years ago. Pets provide spiritual solace in a harsh world — affection, innocence, a link to mother nature. Animals show us grace and beauty; their wildness demands respect. I think of them as refugees from the original Garden, still carrying that aboriginal innocence. The fall of humanity wasn’t their fault, but they keep paying a price as victims of human violence.

Churches annually honor a saint who worshipped a biblical God big enough to include all creatures great and small in the divine mercy — a Creator vast enough to carry everything from past to present to future. Francis called all things his brothers and sisters, part of the family. It was a weary task to bury my loyal little feline friend, but I thought of the big family reunion that faith dares to hope for one day. 

A Skyward Burning Ring of Fire

We’ve been hearing it for centuries – how unimportant we are in the intergalactic void, how paltry our place in the evolutionary cavalcade. That’s us, mere bipeds and microbes, dust in the cosmic wind.

It hasn’t felt that way since last week. The Aug. 21 total eclipse interrupted this glum assessment of the species. With whoops and wonder we watched the burning ring of fire in the sky. Exquisite scientific calculations prepared us, and awe carried us through. Something or Someone for some reason has given us the skill to stop our routine bustle and rise to such a moment.

It was touch and go for a while. I wasn’t worried about sun or moon. I was worried about earth. As the moon floated across the sun, the August light lost power. Earth looked under siege: Twilight darkness was descending with alarming speed. The planet appeared at risk, with no one to speak for it. Moon and sun gazed down, in cahoots. Venus stood off to the right, noncommittal. I thought about the last total eclipse here, 1478, and the native people who perhaps saw it and wondered or prayed or cheered or panicked.

If this was apocalypse, it had a sweetness to it. The 95 seconds of totality created a deep lovely shade. There’s beauty even in the astronomical terms regarding eclipse: penumbra, corona, totality itself. As the sun smoldered above, we waited, we hung fire. Off White Bridge Road, it was quiet as Christmas Eve. A half dozen cars randomly rushed by, their lights on, pedal to the metal, dissidents to the celestial subversion.

Then it was over. The sun impatiently ignited around the right edges. Light flooded us again. I felt sad and greedy, wanting this eclipse of our problems and politics, this hooded calm, to last longer. The next one won’t come around here again until 2566.

An astounding condition made it possible: the moon’s perfect fit over the sun. The sun is 400 times bigger than the moon and also 400 times farther away from earth, creating this effect. We shruggingly call this a coincidence, the dumb luck of orbits and gravity, meaningless happenstance. It seems like more than that.

The Great American Eclipse brought together math and beauty, science and spiritual awe, without mutual distrust. No blame game, no special prosecutor required. A religion of head and heart aligned. Such alignments are way too rare. Nature does its thing whether we care to notice or not. Yet we have the power to make meaning of it. Something or Someone made humans capable of reason and spirit and solidarity. The Nashville eclipse burns in my memory to remind me of this.



Kansas Wheat and Wind

TREGO COUNTY, KS – After attending a funeral in western Kansas, I boarded the plane in Kansas City with a memento from the trip – a few strands of wheat.

People were dumbfounded at this modest cargo, these golden stalks I held. Passengers looked confused – what was this stuff? It made no sense to them to bring a raw sample of an actual crop back to town, like wearing a tux to the beach.

The staring continued. Brows furrowed – even in Kansas City, a few miles from farm land. Finally a flight attendant came up, sent by the entire crew.

“We were debating what it is you have there. What in the world is it?”

She was trying to be nice, but condescension seeped through. She didn’t know it was what she had for breakfast, lunch and supper – her daily bread.

The Plains funeral was for an 84-year-old uncle, a lifelong Kansas wheat farmer. Burial was at the cemetery south of WaKeeney, near Zion Lutheran Church, which has served these High Plains farm families for more than a century. Heartfelt eulogies spoke of Uncle Leo as a shy man who was gentle with animals, ingenious at keeping the farm equipment running, faithful to God. He loved country music, ever since tuning in to Nashville’s WSM in the 1930s, because the signal on the Plains at night was so strong.

Leo Mai survived the Dust Bowl, the Depression, and 80 years of bad wheat prices – one of the last of my bachelor farmer uncles from a Volga-German immigrant family that settled here after 1910.

A visit to the Plains underscores the distance between city and farm life these days. In the urban American mind, the Great Plains are the great flyover stretch before you finally land again to check your email and texts.

Yet the Plains do us the favor of feeding the world. They make America a global leader in wheat production. For centuries, the Plains helped define the American character, a history that is now slipping away.

Explorer Coronado wandered through in the 1540s, looking for mythical cities of gold. The Comanche and the buffalo watched warily, sensing these gold-lusting European visitors were not good news. The Indians hung in for three centuries more, before they, and the buffalo, were wiped out.

Kansas bled from clashes over slavery a decade before the Civil War, then saw a population boom before the century turned. Immigrants came from Russia, Scandinavia, New England, Tennessee, bringing a self-reliant ethic along with hardy new strains of winter wheat.

Severities of weather further tested resolve – on a biblical scale. A ghastly locust plague in 1874 devastated crops. In 1886, wind chills of minus-100 killed the livestock. In the 1930s, dust storms and drought blew topsoil and hope away. Yet most people stuck with it and soon made the land bloom again.

Among them were my grandparents and their family of six surviving sons and two daughters, my mother included.

It is humbling out here. Standing in the forceful wind, you can hear yourself think, yet your thoughts are not equal to what you see – a vast horizon that reveals the very curvature of the Earth. (A genial Kansan at the funeral dinner said he had been to my town, Nashville, recently and liked the place, but for one thing: “Too many trees.”) You realize, out here, that you are actually stationed on a planet, sweeping through a solar system. The awesome wind tells its own narrative – about the mysteries of creation, the impermanence of human boasts and achievements. Incessant news updates feel far away.

Looking at the tombstones of relatives at the cemetery – these tough-minded, family-loving people, ethnic Germans who settled here from the Volga River in Russia – the mind reluctantly confronts the brutal forces of change. Depopulation has set in. Family farms are declining. Because of efficient machinery, it takes fewer farmers to work the field. Because of expensive equipment and mounting debts (yes, wheat prices are still bad), it is tougher for young farmers to get started. Some towns are putting their hopes in 24-hour slaughterhouses, run by low-wager earners and new immigrants in order to meet a new taste for pork across the global economy. It is hard to keep the kids on the farm. America’s address is in the city, pulled by the frantic undertow of the consumer age.

We know the names of the Kardashians but we do not know what wheat looks like, or what it costs a struggling farmer to grow it. Here, the country roads are lonely. But the fiercely golden wheat under the June sky is more beautiful than ever.



Tyranny and its Discontents

We hold these truths to be self-evident …

So says the Declaration of Independence, whose signers took note of a long slate of truths, including the laws of nature and nature’s God, the proposition that all are created equal, and the right to pursue happiness and oppose tyranny.

The Founders couldn’t imagine the new nation without these ideas. They provided spiritual glue in dangerous times. The Declaration’s framers couldn’t afford the luxury of indulging in “post-truth” polarization.

Now comes another Independence Day, which finds many of us dazed, despondent yet ever dazzled by daily presidential theatrics, the hypnotics of new media, and the distortion of our laws and regulations by the big money.

Such things always existed. But they’re elbowing their way deeper into public square and inner consciousness, taking up space that previously reserved for private life and public goals.

Spiritual values were always part of the republic’s checks and balances. But that role is harder to identify now as we witness a transfer of national energy and creativity to reality-show exhibitionism and unapologetic power politics.

A short book from last year, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Yale historian Timothy Snyder, looks at recent history and sees our democracy under real threat. We’re awash in news notifications, addictive despair and distrust, all the while shrugging off inconvenient facts that undergird a functional society.

“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom,” Snyder writes. “If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.”

In the last century, Hitler and Stalin grabbed power by destroying institutions and endlessly lying and sloganeering. Real patriotism, Snyder says, “wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves.”

His 20 lessons for a renewed citizenry:

  • Do not obey in advance (don’t sign the loyalty oath).
  • Make eye contact and small talk.
  • Defend institutions.
  • Beware the one-party state.
  • Learn from peers in other countries.
  • Establish a private life. (Try to separate yourself from the internet.)
  • Take responsibility for the face of the world.
  • Be wary of paramilitaries.
  • Be reflective if you must be armed.
  • Be kind to our language.
  • Remember professional ethics.
  • Stand out.
  • Investigate.
  • Practice corporeal politics. (“Make new friends and march with them.”)
  • Contribute to good causes.
  • Listen for dangerous words.
  • Be a patriot.
  • Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
  • Be as courageous as you can.
  • Believe in truth.

The book does not address belief in God. But gospel faith is consistent with his arguments. Places of worship and personal conscience must challenge dark national mythologizing and should strengthen civil society.

Rejecting a religious establishment, the Founders endorsed the free exercise of religion. By an ingenious math, this spiritual pluralism has, up to now, helped maintain a balance of sanity in the national soul – a balance that keeps the US from sliding off into a tyranny that worships violence, repeats self-pitying lies and disdains obvious truth.

Snyder hopes readers will take as self-evident an urgent truth of our moment: “Post-truth is pre-fascism.”


Truth and Consequences, plus Tomatoes

A highlight of the summer is picking out tomatoes at the farmers’ market down the road, particularly those labeled “Amish.” Something about that word Amish stirs reassurance. The Amish are a small, sturdy group descended from sectarian Protestant history and associated with sobriety, thrift, health, self-restraint under God.

For a long time, those values leavened the broader culture too, when Protestantism dominated America. No longer – history rampages on, and the future blows down the doors. No time for nostalgia.

Protestantism always stood for several things – freedom of individual conscience, the freedom to worship or read scripture in one’s own language, freedom to access God without institutional filters. Those convictions enlivened the birth of the US.

Now church influence is failing. Secularism claims more ground. Society is unavoidably more pluralistic. History’s unintended consequences abound: Oddly enough, Protestantism contributed to post-Protestantism.

How did it happen? A certain logic unfolded. The freedom to read the Bible expanded to mean freedom to read anything religious, or anything anti-religious, or anything at all, or nothing at all. The freedom to reject established religious institutions became a temptation to reject all institutions. The word “religious” itself started losing luster. Other impulses swept in – new spiritual quests and truth claims, visions of unfettered consumerism and casino behavior, as well as nihilistic eruptions punctuating the dark, freed from moral restraint or shame.

Does Protestantism have a future in such a world? I don’t mean Vacation Bible School, 35-minute sermons, the prosperity gospel, the hymns of Wesley, or the Book of Common Prayer. Those arose out of specific times and will continue where there’s a need.

The Protestant future will depend not on Lake Wobegon memories but something else, the Protestant Principle. Theologian Paul Tillich has described this principle as a spirit of transformation in religion and society both. It draws on the creative disruptions of God, including the Hebrew prophets and the teachings of Jesus, that subvert hopelessness and convert the heart. It is a force that any faith might call on to reform itself and the bigger world.

“Justice will take us millions of intricate moves,” writes the late poet William Stafford, himself a courteous, fierce voice of solidarity (he was a Kansas native associated with Church of the Brethren, a Protestant peace church). A humane future of reform, whether it’s still called Protestant or not, will depend on self-discipline, patience and expectation, the sort of things necessary also for writing poems or growing tomatoes.