Our fabulous pastor is beginning a series this morning called "Surprised by Hope." It's about death and the afterlife and facing our fears around these topics. Most of what I've heard in my Christian school education and Sunday School background has baffled me at best, and terrified me at worst, about the idea of dying and going to heaven.
As a child, I heard someone in authority explain eternity in this way: "Imagine a beach, filled with sand, going on as far as the eye can see. Every thousand years, a bird comes and picks up one grain of sand in its beak, flies across the ocean and deposits that grain of sand on the other side. When one beach is transferred to the other side of the ocean, that is the beginning of understanding how long eternity is."
Pardon me? I've never forgotten how anxiety-provoking it was to have that picture painted in my mind of a full beach, an empty beach, and an ocean in between. And every thousand years a bird comes to move one grain of sand? I think I'm having heart palpitations now as a 38 year old thinking about it again. Who in the world comes up with this stuff to try to teach children about a concept that no one really understands in the first place?
I much prefer the way my pastor describes it: "None of us knows what it's like to experience death. There are simply more answers than questions. But we know that this life has meaning and that meaning hopefully translates to what may come next, and if we know that God loves us, he will take care of us."
That gives me something to hold onto. Something real and true and certain, even though it's far less information than the bird on the beach scenario. At this point in my life I am searching for real information, even if it's shrouded in mystery, instead of the "certainty" I heard in my childhood that I struggled to make any rational sense of.
My vision of heaven has always been murky, with overtones of doom and gloom. I remember asking a Sunday School teacher once what we would actually do in heaven, and I received an answer along the lines of bowing down to worship God, or throwing crowns at his feet, or some similarly lofty, but unconnected to any reality I could understand, concept.
I now believe that the pictures painted in the Bible, particularly in Revelation, are meant as narrative, telling a story which another culture may have understood much better than we do. There is an element of these stories which has been lost in translation somewhere along the line, and it makes no sense to me now to read and understand these stories in the light of our culture today instead of the audience it was originally intended for.
Our pastor is going to look at the Jewish mindset when he explains some of these passages and ideas to us. I think that's a very valuable step in even attempting to understand anything when it comes to the Bible. I also know for sure that no one who is currently alive can really tell me what might happen when I die. When I was a child I missed this piece of the puzzle, but now I find a certain peace in this revelation.
I have a lot of fears about dying that I would like to come to terms with sooner rather than later. I am looking for peace in this series of messages about hope and how it ties into our relationship with God. I want to have more faith in God and less fear about the unknown. I want to get away from my old ideas and embrace new ones which make more sense to me. I love the freedom to change what I thought was true before, and look at things with new eyes.
Even the title, "Surprised by Hope" gives me a liquid feeling of peace in the middle of my chest where fear used to flutter around like a moth trapped in a small space. I hope to be surprised, and open to trust God to take care of me, both here on earth, through the corridor of death, and into whatever may come next. I'm not looking for hard answers, as I'm not sure those exist where these topics are concerned, but I'll settle for finding a little more hope than I have now, and believing that God knows what is coming even when I don't.