Oops. Did you just spit your coffee on that new white shirt? Sorry. My bad.
While you’re cleaning up there and before I go any further, I think a disclaimer may be in order. Everything I say about God, aside from my own personal experience, is my humble opinion and has no basis in fact. What did you pay for that opinion? Nothing. So, what is it worth? That’s right. Nothing.
So let’s continue.
There are many different beliefs and opinions concerning heaven and hell. But, there is only one fact: no matter what someone tells you or what “proof” they provide, no one knows. No different than a recent conversation I had with a friend who collects clowns. She thinks they’re delightful and enchanting. However, I actually believe some satanic force created them to kill us in our sleep. So, who’s right? (I’m pretty sure I am, but I have no proof of that either.)
So, if your bubble just burst or your halo deflated, I apologize. But this is kind of important stuff to consider because if heaven and hell aren’t an actual piece of real estate, then maybe your reason for being nice, or not, to the jerk next door needs to be reevaluated. And, spoiler alert, this will not be easy or fun.
This is not heaven!
And this is not hell!
Diana Butler Bass speaks of this idea of heaven and hell as “vertical faith”. She says, “Sacred traditions replete with metaphors of God in the elements were replaced by modern theological arguments – about facts and religious texts, correct doctrine, creation versus science, the need to prove God’s existence, how to be saved, and which church offers the right way to heaven. These are the questions of vertical faith.”
So, when it is said that we make our own heaven and hell right here, where we live and move and have our being, what exactly does that mean? This is the tough part I referred to earlier because our Western brains can’t seem to grasp anything mysterious or inexplicable. Therefore, everything in existence has to be named and categorized or it gets cast aside as irrelevant.
We are very good at compartmentalizing everything in our lives. Nice people who are low-maintenance get to be a part of our club. Unpredictable, moody, or disagreeable people don’t get to join. We only converse with those who agree with us and avoid or argue with those who don’t. We even compartmentalize life and death. We separate the two with the certainty that there is no connection (Mufasa would not approve!).
You may be too young to recall the days when wakes were held at home in a family parlor where life and death were celebrated as a continuum. That all changed with the advent of the funeral parlor. Funeral parlors sprung up so “professionals” could manage the uncomfortable aspects of death and turn bodies into pasty replicas of loved ones. Frankly, I think funeral parlors came into existence when some guy got tired of his mother-in-law hanging around in a box in his living room for a week (before the invention of formaldehyde!). But I can’t prove that either.
We keep everything in our lives separated into neat, tidy piles that we can easily manage, like peas and applesauce on our dinner plate (yuck, don’t want those to touch each other). So it’s no surprise that we stick God in heaven, so he’s separated from us by time and space.
The thought of God being right here in our midst, looking for any soft entry into our walled-up hearts is just too much to fathom. But, let’s stop for one minute, let down our guard, and imagine how different, how rich, and full our lives would be if we could comprehend that reality.
How about this uplifting thought about hell: Gian Carlo Menotti tells us, “Hell begins on the day when God grants us a clear vision of all that we might have achieved, of all the gifts which we have wasted, of all that we might have done which we did not do.”
Wait, if hell is here now, and we begin to understand our true purpose, then we have a chance to correct our pathetic, despicable, pitiful selves before we drop dead. That is Good News, right?!
So, what does all this mean? Again, I can only speak from my own experience. For most of my life, I ignored God and when I did acknowledge him it was usually in a display of anger directed at him. I too believed he was distant and could care less about me – a heathen.
If God is known as “Father” then it would stand to reason that I would view him just as I viewed my own father. In which case, he would be distant and aloof. He would be sitting on his sofa eating ice cream and mindlessly watching TV, while the world fell in around him. Or if my mother was any indication of who God was: a controlling, punishing, and unforgiving “parent”, it’s no wonder I ran like hell in the other direction. Who needs that? Either way, he would not get a “Father of the Year” award from me and there would be no Hallmark card created for him.
We seem to like the notion that God is way up there while we’re way down here We might be relieved to think he’s not watching while we try to run our own lives. “Don’t need you, God. I’ve got this!” We’re probably hoping he’s much too busy with other more important things to pay any attention to us and our antics.
In many traditional faiths, God sits in his heaven and doles out rewards and punishments to each of us according to our merits or sinfulness. Think of Job in his most distressing time and how his friends wagged their accusing fingers at him, certain that he had sinned in some terrible way to have been the recipient of God’s wrath. “It’s pretty obvious Buddy. You screwed up big time! Now, you need to fess up before God gets his second wind!”
So, what changed for me? It certainly wasn’t that God changed his ways after he read a book annominously sent to him, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. No, I had changed. I opened myself to a relationship with him that allowed me to experience who God really was, not who I imagined him to be. Knowing about God and experiencing him is the critical difference necessary to live as fully as we are called to live, and to trust what lies ahead.
God tells us in Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the“plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” We can choose to believe what we have long been told about a God whose wrath is to be feared, or we can choose to experience the God of immeasurable love and compassion.
Oh, if we could just grasp the reality of heaven and hell perhaps we would live our lives differently so that Menotti’s words would not be the end of our story.
Listen to these prophetic words of Father Richard Rohr: “When hell became falsely read as a geographical place, it stopped its decisive and descriptive function, and instead became the largely useless threats of exasperated church parents. We made (heaven and hell) into physical places instead of descriptions of states of mind and heart and calls to decisions in this world (emphasis mine). We pushed the whole thing off into the future, and took it out of the now. Jesus clearly says the kingdom of heaven is among us (Luke 17:21) or “at hand” (Matthew 3:2, 4:17). One wonders why we made it into a reward system for later, or as Brian McLaren calls it, “an evacuation plan for the next world.” Maybe it was easier to obey laws and practice rituals.”
I love the Gospel of Thomas. Yes, there really was one, but he didn’t make the cut. Neither did Mary Magdalene but don’t get me started on that one! Thomas writes, “Jesus said, “Seekers shall not stop until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. After being disturbed, they will be astonished” (my emphasis).”Now, hold that thought a minute.
The scripture verse we are most familiar with is similar but clearly less challenging, it is Matthew 7:7, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Our shallow, non-threatening translation? Just ask and you’ll get whatever your little heart desires. This reads like a Christmas wish list: Apple AirPods? Done. Captain Marvel Legacy Hero Smartwatch? It’s yours. Chanel’s Quilted Tote bag? Because Lindsay Lohan!? Whatever. Here you go.
Okay back to Thomas. I’m guessing that his gospel was rejected by the “editors” of scripture because they were afraid they could not control us if we discovered who God really is and the power that truth gives us. Of course, I wasn’t there, so I’ll admit I’m really just pushing hot air, but I think the verse is useful for making my assertions.
Thomas tells us that we are to be seeking God and when we find him in our very hearts, it’s all over. What being “disturbed” and “astonished” means to me is that this only happens when we are in relationship with God.
Micah (6:6-9) tells us what God wants from us. In verses 6-7, these two stupid rich guys were trying to gather up all the best they had to appease God and buy their way into heaven. Somebody even threw in a firstborn child for good measure. But God rejects their attempts to buy his favor.
God: “Nope, I don’t want your stuff, I want you.” Micha lays it out succinctly, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
That last verse is the very core of who we are called to be as children of God: And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Does that sound like the demanding, controlling, cruel, never to be pleased God you learned about in Sunday School when you were six and then couldn’t sleep for weeks because you had nightmares about him finding out that it was you who dunked your sister’s doll in the toilet?!
I fully believe that we are living our heaven and hell right here on earth, in our day-in and day-out lives. Each time we make choices to love and serve others, or conversely, serve ourselves. Each time we seek out those God calls us to bring his love to, or we take care of number one. Each time our hearts break over the pain and suffering that permeates our world and then do something about it or turn our backs and cling to our fear of what it might require of us. With every choice we make to love or hate we choose our own heaven or hell right here.
Now, how does that translate to what eternity looks like for us when we take our last breath?
Wait for it….
Wait for it…
I have no idea.
But I will tell you this: I live daily as a sinner/saint. Don’t laugh, my mother-in-law thought I was a saint once for about five minutes (I screwed that up the first time I opened my mouth!). In my seventy-four years, I have known anger, pain, and bitterness. I have been hurt and I have hurt others. At one point I attempted suicide because the idea of living another moment was too unbearable (clearly I sucked at that too – thank God).
I have come to realize that I have been blessed to live the indescribable joy of a rich and full life, even in the messy parts, especially then. A life that encourages giving, serving, forgiveness, and caring for others. That calls us to be in relationship with God and everyone around us – to be Christ to a broken world.
We humans are complicated but it’s okay. I now know that I can show up for life unkempt, messy, disordered, and at times unpleasant because I am a beloved sinner. I know I serve a God of mercy and unconditional love so I am not afraid to humble myself before him and I am not afraid of what lies beyond this life.
And as for you, my friend, if you’re reading this you are still breathing, and if you’re still breathing it’s not too late. Even if you feel like your life is empty and you’re a total failure – you’re wrong! How do I know that without even meeting you? Because you were created in God’s image and he said as much when he first laid eyes on you as a tiny thought in his imagination, “Yep, I did good, real good! You’re a work of art, even if I do say so myself!”
(I have to throw this in because I’m still laughing) My all-time favorite book is “Holy Rascals”, by Rami Shapiro. I have read it so many times it’s falling apart. It is ridiculously poignant and hysterically funny! He says that we are all children of God. Every last one of us. That includes Saint Mother Theresa right alongside Jeffrey Dahmer. The only difference, he says, is “if Jeffrey Dahmer invites you to dinner, you should decline!”
You always have another chance to get life right, to erase regrets, heal broken relationships, seek forgiveness, serve others, and be all you were created and gifted to be! God is your biggest cheerleader (don’t try to visualize that!). And, dear ones, this is not something you want to put off till Monday, like that diet!
I will leave you with this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson “You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.”
May God bless and keep you. May God’s face shine upon you and give you peace.