If you were to die tonight, would you go to heaven? If so, what makes you so sure? If you’ve been around the block a few times, I’m sure you’ve been confronted with this question a time or two.
We’ve all had influences that have shaped how we look at this issue. Some people are extremely hostile to this approach. Others confess to being saved by it. How you look at this has something to do with how you perceive God on the continuum of justice and grace. I grew up with more of the judgment than the grace.
My mother was a “P.K.” P.K. is an abbreviation for “Preacher’s Kid.” My grandfather baptized me as an infant on his 50th wedding anniversary and he died just prior to my 2nd birthday. I guess you might say I’m still feeling the effects of that baptism. I never knew him. However, when I sensed this divine tractor beam drawing me into the ministry, I wanted to know more about my grandfather since I was following in his footsteps.
When we lived in Madison, my mother’s oldest sister, whom we called Sister, lived in Quitman, Georgia and we would occasionally go and visit. On one such occasion she gifted me with Papa’s Bible and a collection of his books and sermons. As I poured though his papers I found a sermon he preached in 1924 condemning a lynching in the community he served. There are the outlines of 66 of his sermons in this loose-leaf Bible. There wasn’t a lot of gray in his sermons. It was mostly black and white. He was in the ministry for over 20 years before he served his first station. This meant he served circuits that had two, three, or four churches all linked together and the family moved on average every two to four years. My grandmother played the piano and she was well loved. On more than one occasion I am told he was asked to move and they wanted my grandmother to stay.
When my aunt handed me these materials, she told me of a Sunday evening when she was home from college. It was the summer and one hot summer evening she was lying on her bed trying not to move in order stay cool. Papa stuck his head in and asked her if she was going to go to church that evening. Sister said it was too hot and that she thought she’d just lay there under the fan. Papa said, “It’s going to be a whole lot hotter where you are going.” Needless to say, she got up and went to church.
I mention this because it must have been the culture my mother was familiar with. The following stories both come from my early years when I was five or six years old. The first story involved a Bible study that was conducted during a severe summer thunderstorm. How’s that for getting your attention? I had two older sisters, and my oldest sister was deathly afraid of thunderstorms. Each boom would be closely followed with a scream. Mother got out the Bible, I think, in an attempt to calm my highly neurotic sister. She had a captive audience. In between the “boom” and the “scream” I heard my mother read, “It is easier for a rich man to get through the eye of a needle than it is to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” My first grade mind didn’t understand metaphors. If someone said, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” you go look for a new puppy or kitten. “My arm is killing me.” Then you should cut it off! Mother kept a pin cushion on a table next to where she sat. I could see the needles sticking out and I remember consciously saying to myself, “I don’t have a chance.”
The second involved a science project my next oldest sister was not prepared for. She had procrastinated to the last minute and in the 11th hour she needed a cardboard box, which I happened to have one I kept some of my toys in. My sister needed my box to which I resolutely refused probably more than anything because she wanted the box. If I had been older I would have said, “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute a crisis on my part.” Exhausted with their efforts to persuade, Mother finally said,” You know Tim, one day when you die you’ll sit in front of the judgment throne of God and you’ll have to explain to God why you didn’t give your sister the box when she needed it. What will you say to him then?” She smacked me right between the eyes with the God stick. I got guilt. My sister got the box.
I mention these stories because I grew up in a culture of fear, at least as it involves the Bible, God, death, and the last judgment. It is one of the Biblical images but it is not the only one. Maybe that casts light on why there are so many heaven jokes. There was a rabbi, a priest, and a Methodist preacher that all died and went to heaven . . . The good news? Jesus is coming back. The bad news? He wants us to meet him in Salt Lake City: My apologies to Mitt Romney. St. Peter was conducting an orientation for a group of new arrivals in heaven. He toured them by the streets of gold, the mansions over the hilltop, still waters, green pastures, and then finally down a long corridor toward a break room where they could receive some refreshments. Off to the right there was one room and as they approached St. Peter turned around and “shushed” everyone to tell the new arrivals to be quiet. They tiptoed by this one room back to the break room. Finally one of the new arrivals said, “Why did we have to be quiet?” St. Peter said, “There are Baptists in that room and they think they are the only ones here.”
We tend to make jokes about the things that make us anxious, judgment and death, well, is no laughing matter. Miscarriages, stillborns, suicides, murders, accidents, and natural disasters – every tragedy you could possibly imagine. You just can’t make these things funny. Not only do we face these situations, we are also faced with the plague of meaning . . . why? I’ve witnessed these situations and attempted to absorb the anguish. I’ve been with families when loved ones have died suddenly, leaving their families in shock, and those who fought for years fighting cancers and Alzheimer’s and everything betwixt and between. One dear woman who was a member of my congregation in Daytona, fought long and hard with congestive heart disease. She had been a nurse and unfortunately she knew too much. I sat with her time and again in the hospital. The day before she died I met her in the Emergency Room at Halifax. She was drowning in her own fluids barely able to breathe. Every word was labored. Last words leave lasting impression, and I’ll never forget the last thing she said to me. She pulled down her oxygen mask and said, “You know Tim, dying isn’t for sissies.” No truer words could be said. I’ve stood at these places in my feeble attempts to offer comfort. I’ve stood at the foot of hundreds of graves as well as having conducted the funerals for my Mother, My Father, My Sister, and a Brother-in-law.
For years my sister would ask me, “Is he ok? Is Don ok? She’s not the only person who has ever asked me that question about a loved one. My attempts to reassure her never did seem to get any traction. I would tell her, “He’s o.k.” When I would say this she would get frustrated with me. In her mind my statement lacked credibility. “What makes you so sure?” It’s like trying to do a lay-up with Dwight Howard guarding the basket. I’d try to lay it up off the glass and she would just swat it away. It’s not unlike telling someone how bright, smart, pretty, handsome, insightful, intelligent, etc. If you don’t believe it about yourself, nothing I’m going to say is going to get into the hoop. I can’t download this on to your hard drive. I can’t give you a bone marrow faith transplant or a type and cross-match it in order to donate platelets for a transfusion.
My sense of being sure doesn’t come from a place of certainty. Certainty has to do with logic. It has to do with reason. Certainty has to do with debate. Certainty is about being right. Certainty creates oppositional energy because if I’m right that means you have to be wrong. Not only do you have to be wrong, I generally have to ridicule you in the process. I have to undermine your sense of confidence and attack your competence. Not only do I have to make my position look superior I have to make the opposition look stupid in the process. Pick any of the Republican presidential candidate debates thus far.
Certainty gets lost in the translation when communicating to someone who has doubts, just like it did with my sister. Certainty communicates arrogance. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Whereas certainty is about the head, assurance is about the heart. Being “sure” is in the center of assurance. The word is translated “persuaded” in the King James Version. Certainty pushes against. Persuasion pulls the other forward. Persuasion draws others in. It doesn’t attempt to fix, or change, or heal them. It allows others to be where they are. Authentic spirituality allows the other person to be where they are, in the midst of doubt, confusion, suffering, struggle, paranoia, fear, anger, or anxiety. When you have heard, valued, validated, and accepted me when I am in these dark places, I am more apt to hear what you have to say. You have earned the right to persuade me by loving me in my pain. You can persuade me because I trust you. Trust has to be earned. And trust is not a matter of the head. It is a matter of the heart.
There is a huge amount of persuading that Paul is attempting in the 8thchapter of Romans, which is a tall order, since he is writing to a congregation he has never met before. He is being trusted by reputation. That might not be so odd if you think about it. How many times have you gone to see a doctor, a dentist, a beautician, or an automobile repair shop based upon the urging of a friend? “You come highly recommended.” Paul came highly recommended.
There is a great deal of “if” and “then” logic to Paul’s persuasion. If we are suffering now: then glory will be revealed. If God gave his son then how much more will he give to us? If God is for us, then who can be against us? If we and creation are in a state of decay then God will redeem both. We sigh too deep for words. All of creation is sighing and in labor to be completed. In other words, Paul is saying because God is being faithful to us in the present we can trust God with the future. Why would the future be any more than a continuation of God’s faithfulness.
Christianity is the only faith that invites its followers to go ahead and die now and get the dying over with. Once we get the dying over with we can get on with the business of living. Some people figure this out long before their physical death. And the more letting go we are able to do along the way the more assurance we are able to accrue for the last journey we’ll ever make.
I was driving in a procession on a Sunday afternoon on the way to a graveside service for a woman who had been my church treasurer for many years. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was spent. I had taught at Sunday School and preached that morning, had lunch with my family, and they went home. I went to conduct the funeral. Sunday afternoons are reserved for curling up in the fetal position and sucking my thumb. Preaching is the most exhilarating and draining thing I ever do. On Sunday afternoons I suffer from the NASCAR disease I call Narcalapsy. If there are no yellow flags after ten laps the hypnotic effect of driving in circles makes me fall asleep. I was drained and self-loathing because I had agreed to do this funeral on a Sunday afternoon. We had this Soccer Mom van at the time for kid hauling and transport and the only consolation to the behemoth was that it had a Bose 10 speaker stereo system. I tried to find something on the radio that would revive me when I found a PBS station playing what my kids would have called elevator music. What I found was a Boston Pop’s version of 76 Trombones. It started off with just one trombone, then more were added, until finally, I suppose, there were 76 trombones playing in the hit parade. Driving in this somber procession, I cranked it up close to full blast. By the time we pulled into the cemetery I had been mysteriously transformed into Arthur Fiedler. And as we were pulling in to park, the song was not quite over and I’m thinking, “I can’t get out now. It’s not over. And then the thought hit me, “What in the world am I going to do?? I have been conducting the Boston Pop’s Orchestra and now I’ve got to put on my funeral face and go stand at the head of the casket and say the last words to be said over Lillian’s life. I felt enormously conflicted.
As I walked to go stand at the head of that casket, the only thing I could think to do was to own it. I told the family and friends that had gathered about being tired, about the radio station, about the 76 Trombones and about Arthur Fiedler. I told them, “You know, we should play 76 Trombones at every funeral . . . we can march into cemeteries with trombones blaring away because there was another one who first marched out of one and he’s leading the way.” And that’s what makes me so sure.