Today is the 30th anniversary of the death of my father and baby brother. I saw them perish in a fire when I was a boy–an event that has shaped not just my family life, but my entire understanding of the world.
Today is also the funeral service of a church-friend who died suddenly, a fellow just a little older than I am. Shawn and his family tumbled into our church a little while back, adding energy to our community as they discovered and renewed their faith. A week ago Sunday I began a series called “Remembering Heaven,” about restoring a Christian vision of how resurrection life transforms the way we live in our homes, our workplaces, our neighbourhoods, our churches, and our world. The series requires looking away from heaven for a little while as we move past poor theology and pop culture images to get a deeper sense of new life.
And then Shawn died, and on Sunday I had to face the congregation again to talk about dissolving the great divorce between eternal life and everyday existence.
I am a teacher, really, and have terrible awkwardness when it comes to the deep personal needs of church folk. I struggle to be consistently helpful at potlucks and nursing homes and board meetings. I typically sit in the pew as our normal preacher–a pastor in beating heart and pumping blood–brings messages of grace to our community. I receive more than I give. Pastor Mike is on a well-needed sabbatical, however, and I had this book idea I wanted to work out. “Remembering Heaven” is the result, a series that runs up to Easter as we learn about creation, subcreation, and new creation.
Now, with Shawn’s wife, his little girl, and all his friends there, sitting in grief and loss…. There is no way to speak about our Christian hope in a way that is theoretical. As our community sang, I thought about my pastoral awkwardness–the deep needs of the family and my own vocation to work in words and story and images. And I thought about my own family. My father and brother 30 years ago, and my mother 4 years ago next week. All my grandparents are buried, and a close cousin, and any number of friends. I have not lost a spouse or a child, but I know loss, and it makes me tired. The music continued, and then it was my turn to speak.
And in the clarity of the moment, I knew that my role was to offer hope. For that is the nature of the gospel: well-founded hope–not pie-in-the-sky, sweet-by-and-by, escapist, romantic visions of heaven that are told to us as childhood fairy tales and whispered in the ears of nursing home patients as a kind inoculation about the terror of impending death. More than terrible Victorian paintings and episodes of Simpsons and TV preachers offering cloud cars and Cadillacs, I believe that God’s vision to transform earth with a vision of heaven gives root to our hope in heaven.
I gave the sermon as I had written it and we will see if it can provide comfort and root hope. I felt utterly inadequate to the task. But it was a sermon that links the creation prologue (Genesis 1:1-2) with this passage:
Revelation 21:1 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
6 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. 7 Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.
Shawn’s family has chosen not to use the word, “funeral.” Instead, they are hosting a Celebration of Life tonight. I like this term. My father and brother’s funeral had two pastors and a priest, though we were not at all religious. And in all the words and talk from kind friends and ministerial neighbours, I had no sense from the funeral service (to re-use N.T. Wright’s words) of what Christians teach on the subject of heaven (Surprised by Hope, 24). At the very least, tonight, people will know about New Life, which is what the Scripture wants to talk about as well.
So now, 30 years, 4 years, today. Life goes on, and so does Death, though it is our defeated enemy. And though I continue to feel loss, in particular on this day, and though life makes me tired, my hope of New Life grows as my trust in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross deepens. I have come to believe that a “Celebration of Life” is not just what we do when someone dies or when we think of those that we have left behind. I think that in our invitation to celebrate life, to encourage life, to make new life grow–to live on earth now what we see of heaven then.
Here is the introductory sermon in the series, “Remembering Heaven.” If the link fails, click here.