Take courage. We walk in the wilderness today and in the Promised Land tomorrow.
~ D.L. Moody
I had a bolt of realization at church a couple of weeks ago not unlike the apostle Paul’s blinding burst of insight on the road to Damascus. Paul writes of the moment as a revelation.
I wasn’t walking on a desert road nor was I blinded but the revelation that came to my mind has colored my thoughts ever since.
I was sitting in the pew silently weeping. Our new pastor was preaching his first sermon in front of our congregation; he was installed with much pomp later that afternoon.
But I wasn’t thinking much about the new pastor whom I’m sure is a fine fellow. I was thinking of our former pastor who died a little over a year ago and whom this new pastor was replacing.
I had just read in the bulletin that the flowers on the altar were placed there in memory of my former pastor. I thought how nice it was to have him present in some small way at the installation of the new pastor, but I also thought of how I missed my former pastor.
This former pastor welcomed me and my Beloved to his church seven years ago. He married us. He confirm my stepson.
I always try to get to know a pastor when I join a church — to know him beyond his weekly sermons. I got to know this pastor over many miles by running with him in the church Walk-R-Run club. I like to know my pastors just in case they have to bury me. I don’t want a stranger officiating at my funeral. I never expected seven years ago that I might outlive my pastor, not just by a few years but by a few decades.
Now, as I was sitting in the pew in front of a new pastor, I thought the only reason to get to know him would be for the funeral familiarity factor. Beyond the weekly services, I don’t need to be confirmed. I don’t need to be married (I hope I’m done with that). I don’t need him for a baptism either. All that’s left in terms of life events is that funeral.
So I was stewing in the juices of grief when the new pastor said something that made me think about eternity.
I’m going to get theological here so I should warn you, I’m not theologian. But I have a theory. A theory about heaven. Or whatever one calls the place you go when you die.
I believe the body is temporary, but the soul is eternal. For me, “eternal” not only means “without end” but also “without beginning.” I don’t think humans have the power to create souls — bodies, sure, but not souls. When a baby is conceived, its soul comes from somewhere. It’s not created by the union of a sperm and an egg; an eternal soul comes from somewhere to be, to exist in the newly created person.
Following me? To follow my argument so far, you have to believe in the soul, that the spirit is separate from the body (though joined with it in life), that it is eternal and that it comes from someplace — let’s call it heaven.
I don’t remember anything about my existence before I was conceived. I don’t remember anything before I was 5, in fact, but certainly nothing about whatever existence I had before being joined with this body.
So why do I think I will remember anything about my current state when my body is dead? I’m beginning to believe I won’t. Wherever my soul was is where my soul returns, completely unaware of how much I hate Cracker Barrel, how much I love to read, how frustrated I am with my wrinkles, how elated I am when I step into an elevator bound for the top floor. All these strong emotions I have in this earthly body will be meaningless when I’m dead. I will no longer have a body. My soul, without all its earthly bonds, will return to eternity without so much as a backward glance.
Don’t get me wrong here. I still believe our earthly lives are important and meaningful, but I just believe they are important and meaningful here on earth, to our fellow men. We can make a difference, do the right thing, pay attention to the details, be remembered fondly here on earth. None of it matters to our souls once our bodies die.
For now, we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, as I am fully known.
~ 1 Corinthians 13:12
This concept of an eternal soul without memories of its earthly existence jives with my new view of heaven. I don’t think heaven has streets or feasts or happy reunions with loved ones. Without bodies, we don’t need methods of transportation or clocks or milk-and-honey rivers or parents or spouses or children. Beings with bodies — and hands and feet and eyes and stomachs and sexual desires — need those things. Eternal souls do not.
I don’t know what I believe about individuality but I’m not sure we’re even individuals in the eternal plain. This is a sticking point in my mind that I haven’t yet entirely resolved.
The earth and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, belong to the Lord.
~ Psalm 24:1
This philosophy is both disconcerting and comforting. It’s a little disconcerting to think all the people and things so important to me now will not even be the stuff of memories in eternity. But there’s a certain comfort, too, in believing “this, too, shall pass.” If heaven is perfect and pain-free, then all my sorrows will disappear. But then why would my joys, so often rooted in my body (good tastes, beautiful music, physical elation) stick with me?
My former pastor is not sorry to see his congregation welcome a new pastor. It doesn’t matter who buries me. My body is like the flowers on the altar — beautiful and unique. And fleeting. Every moment matters only for right now.
The best we can hope for in this life is a knothole peek at the shining realities ahead. Yet a glimpse is enough. It’s enough to convince our hearts that whatever sufferings and sorrows currently assail us aren’t worthy of comparison to that which waits over the horizon.
~ Joni Eareckson Tada