I've been thinking a lot about death. I read Tracy Simmons' article on her father's death, and then came the Newtown shootings. The notion of heaven and hell just seem so…unrealistic to me, and incredibly cruel. But I can't wrap my mind around the Buddhist idea of reincarnation either. Do our souls really go somewhere? Or do we simply cease existing?
- Where Do We Go?
My friend Doug and I used to work together in the theater business. On Feb. 20, 2008, Doug and I were nearing the end of a long day — we had been pushing hard since early that morning to get a show open. I was on one side of the stage and Doug was on the other when I heard him call out. I looked across the stage and I saw him fall.
The paramedics were at the theater within minutes. They told me that they would treat Doug like their brother. And I believe they did.
I stood 10 paces from my friend as he lay still on the wooden floor of the stage, suddenly the center of frantic activity. Periodically, as they worked, the lead paramedic would turn from Doug to give me an update. He told me that Doug’s chances of a recovery were poor. One in 10, he said at first. And then, as time wore on, one in a 100. What I didn’t know then is that, while paramedics are not authorized to declare a person dead, those men and women would have been looking into Doug’s fixed and dilated pupils. They would have known that he was already staring, wide eyed, into the face of God.
The paramedics worked on Doug for close to 90 minutes. I stayed with him while he died.
That this experience was traumatic may be self-evident. What may surprise you, WDWG (and what is harder to reduce to words), is just how beautiful it was. The closest analogy that I can draw is to the births of my children. If you have ever had the privilege of being present at a birth you will know that, when a child comes into the world, time moves differently. In that moment of supreme creativity, two kinds of time intersect: the temporal, within which we live our lives, and the eternal, from which the child comes. In the still point of that intersection, an event horizon is formed: a gateway between this reality and another. If you could pass your hand through it, you would touch the divine. Doug’s departure from this world was similar. The spirit moved and, for a moment, like Moses turning aside to see the Lord, I caught a glimpse of her.
In that instant, I had what our friends in Alcoholics Anonymous refer to as a moment of clarity. I understood that Doug was somewhere safe. I understood that there was nothing to be afraid of. I understood that Doug had returned to the love out of which we all are born.
I don’t think that Doug had any connection with church. I don’t think that he had ever accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior. But I knew that God had welcomed him home.
There is a reason, WDWG, that the notion of heaven and hell — the notion that God subdivides the souls of the dead, sending some to eternal bliss and others to eternal torture — strikes you as incredibly cruel. That’s because it is incredibly cruel. Imagining that God allows anyone to go to a place of endless pain and alienation is fundamentally irreconcilable with John’s proclamation — and with Jesus’ witness — that God is love. What we know from our own experience is that genuine love never relies on threats or fear or punishment. What we know from our own experience is that we choose the vulnerable joy called love because doing so leads us into a place of healing, belonging, and meaning.
The love of God, as Ellen Clark-King marvelously and provocatively puts it, is promiscuous. There is more than enough of God’s love to hold you, to hold me, and to hold people like Doug. There is more than enough of God’s love to hold everyone, both now and at the end of our lives.
Do you have a question about ethical decision making, living a faithful life or theology? Leave a comment below or send your question for Rev. Elfert to firstname.lastname@example.org.