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When Heaven Can’t Wait

Lenape Valley is once again preparing for the unthinkable… another Celebration of Life service (what the world would call a funeral). You might challenge the use of the word “unthinkable” when referring to death. Isn’t death just a natural part of life, and don’t Christians face death armed with the promises of God? Christians ought to embrace death as the next great adventure. But even with the promises of God, the death of a loved one leaves us grieving and full of questions. Since the beginning of 2022, I have officiated in 22 such services- more than one service a month. The oldest was 94 years old and had the blessing of her mind until the very end. The youngest was just 33 years old- a young man not known to our faith community except as you prayed for his healing. He was the son of our dearest friends. Even as one who believes the promises, my heart is tired of grieving. When I started at Lenape Valley almost 8 years ago, the funerals I did were for grieving families and a grieving faith community. Now, I am burying dear friends that I, too, will miss.

The service on Saturday will be for one of our Elders, who was currently serving on Session. She was just 67 years old- too young by our worldly sensibilities. Many of us have been touched by Loretta Clift’s ministry in our midst- every Advent and Lent we have enjoyed the personal faith stories found in the LVC devotionals she created. Loretta helped give voice to so many of our stories. She challenged and inspired us to share what God has done in our lives. And with each story our faith community has been strengthened, encouraged, and woven together as a family. How many of us would read the devotional cover to cover in one sitting, and then go back to reread those precious stories one day at a time? We know each other better, and we know our Savior better because Loretta knew how to draw out our story for all to hear. Often, Loretta would often share a part of her story. We had no way of knowing that the 2023 Lenten devotional- The Healer would be her last gift to all of us. Our celebration on Saturday will be punctuated by many tears.

The other day I sat with one of Loretta’s family members who is trying to make sense of her death. She began asking questions about heaven. Many have asked me such questions this past year. All the loss has made us not just curious about heaven, but serious about wanting to know what is next. What is heaven like? What will we look like in heaven? Who will be welcomed into heaven? Will we know one another there? These questions are rather universal, asked by church-goers and skeptics alike. Studies show that more Americans believe in the existence of heaven than the existence of God. Some would say that our society’s determined belief in heaven stems not from faith but from our fear of death.

Hollywood steps into that fear with fascinating answers to our human questions. Heaven is portrayed as a perfect place, a peaceful place, a place of gathering, a place with no fear. Hollywood has given us visions of clouds and pearly gates, of angelic choirs and heavenly residents who never seem to touch the ground. In Heaven Can Wait, the filmmakers shied away from painting a picture of the “ultimate destination”, preferring to settle for scenes of people ascending toward what is to come on an ethereal escalator. Hollywood tells us that “all dogs go to heaven” because they are basically good, but according to the writers of Defending Your Life, we will have to prove our worth before a panel of judges to get into heaven. In the 1998 film, What Dreams May Come, the writers suggest that everyone will get to design their own heaven. While many of us like the idea of a make-your-own heaven experience, that idea is perhaps the most farfetched of Hollywood’s offerings. Consider this: we have no control over the day’s weather or many of our health realities… we are unwitting spectators of the bad choices of our leaders and the vagaries of war, so I am pretty sure that we will have no power to impact what our eternal reality will look like. Thus, we turn to the pages of the Bible to see what God has planned for us.

In Revelation 21 and 22, we see descriptions of a new heaven and new earth, of gold and jewels, light and water. We could use these words to paint a picture of heaven, but John’s revelation is so much more than just a literal description of a place, leaving us wondering about the deeper meanings of those passages. Paul tackles the question about our heavenly bodies in I Corinthians 15, celebrating the transformation that God will bring when the dead will rise- we will all be changed… from mortal to immortality… the perishable clothed with the imperishable. My heart celebrates when I hear these promises, but I still have no idea what we will look like. In I Thessalonians 4, Paul assures us that no matter what we look like in our heavenly bodies, we will know one another. He describes our ascent into heaven as a “grand reunion”. That reunion in heaven presupposes a union here on earth. Thus, we have fun imagining Grandma Tilly and Uncle Harry having a party in heaven that we will one day join. All these glimpses of heaven, all these promises of God, give us hope and comfort as we grieve, even though we still have so many questions.

But my favorite description of heaven comes from Jesus himself. At the Last Supper, Jesus begins with those words we all know, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms…” Our natural inclination begins to imagine a place. But Jesus continues, “If I go to prepare a place for you, I will come back to take you to be with me.” Did you hear the heart of Jesus’ promise? He’s not just describing a place; he is describing a relationship. With me… that’s the promise of heaven. He gives the same promise as he is dying on the cross. The criminal on his right says, “Jesus remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” Jesus responds, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Our natural inclination draws us to the word “paradise,” a reference that points us to the Garden in Genesis 1 and 2. But, the heart of that garden paradise is Adam and Eve walking with God, talking with God, living in union with God. Jesus is telling us that we do not need to worry about the ascetics of the place called heaven, or the details of our heavenly appearance, because the heart of heaven is our relationship with the Savior and with one another. By faith, we yearn to be with Him, where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain… for in Him all things will be made new. (Revelation 21:4-5)

With you, trusting the One who is the Promise,

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