A while ago, my mentor challenged me to think about what might happen after I die—more specifically, what heaven might look like. Although middle-aged, I never pondered this mystery before. When I was young, I saw myself as indestructible, protected by the solid shell of my own energy and the strength of naivete. Now, I have lived long enough that I have experience with death, the sadness of loss, the grief of being the one left behind. In the funerals I have attended, the message is always the same: the person who has died has gone to a better place. The implication, for me, has been that death itself is simply a transformation, a doorway to pass through on the way to becoming something new.
Recently, my best friend, Beth, observed the one-year anniversary of her stepfather Gary’s death. In watching my dear friend and her family walk the treacherous path of grief, I was reminded of my own uneasy relationship with death. Then, on Gary’s birthday, Beth’s stepbrother called their mom with the news that he and his wife were pregnant with their first child. One year ago, Gary walked through a doorway from this world into another. In a few short months, another life will walk through that same doorway from that other mysterious world into this one. For a moment, or for eternity, Gary and that baby will hold the same holy space. They will both live on the same side of the threshold, and both have crossed the same doorway. I pray the thought will bring Beth and her family comfort.
I have been to Gary and Carol’s house only a couple of times. Each time, I entered like family. Rather than standing at the front door, arranging myself and knocking, I walked in through the side door, not like a person selling vacuums or newspaper subscriptions, but through the messy, dusty, less image-conscious living areas. This made me think of approaching the topic of death and dying the same way. For me, it has been too intimidating, too formal, too big to use the front door. It has been more comfortable to come in through the side.
Western culture is not well versed in dealing with the cycle of life in its entirety. Few places in our culture, inside or outside of the church, welcome or initiate a conversation about death, loss, or the transition from life. As a result, death is fearsome–this force with dark, destructive power. Like most topics where there is a lack of information, where there is mystery, there is fear. While death is often only given a cursory glance or ignored altogether, culture has done a serviceable job describing life through the lenses of birth and growth. We love a good growth metaphor like springtime planting and growing gardens. But even in these beautiful images, there is a death. The seed dies so the plant can grow upward and outward, stretching its arms toward heaven’s light.
Seeds are an often-used biblical theme. It is striking how an analogy relevant to agricultural society two thousand years ago is still remarkably relevant today. The mustard seed, the tiniest seed, grows into a large tree. Scattered seeds are mixed into the ground in a variety of ways and left to grow. In all those teachings, there is something profound about the seed; all the stories explore a potential for growth. The seed does not avoid growth. It submits to the loss of itself as a doorway to greater potential, the fullness of itself. Jesus even used the seed metaphor to predict his own transformation through the process of death when in John 12:24, he said, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.”
We are no longer an agricultural society ruled by the movement of the sun across the sky and rain across our fields; however, our lives are not so different from a seed’s. We can stay a seed with all our potential stored inside ourselves, dormant and forever waiting, or we can submit to the cracking and breaking of our hard outer shells. We can let the water and light reach into the deep dark spaces and change us. We can stretch our own arms toward heaven’s light and let the potential that lives there be transformed and made new.
As with the seed, something old must yield its space to make room for something new. Moving through my own seasons of growth, I have experienced this profoundly in two ways: pregnancy and marriage.
Pregnancy: Any woman who has ever carried a child has shared this experience: One day she is alone. Then, miraculously, there is another person sharing space in her body. That symbiotic relationship grows and grows until there is no longer room for both. Mother and child are ready to transition to the next phase. The simple truth is that in order for someone to live, a kind of death must be endured. For a baby to be born, a pregnancy must end. In this transition full of so much gain, there is also a loss.
Marriage: Another place I experience this strange dichotomy of gain and loss is in marriage. For spouses to enjoy the rich blessing of a long-term marriage, the feelings of new love must fall away in favor of time. That butterfly in the stomach feeling, that anxiety to see if she will text or he will call must slowly be replaced with the surety that the other person is committed to growing through the cyclical seasons of life. Falling in love dies, yielding its space to building a life-long love.
Death is a reality we cannot escape. But, again, what seems like loss is really a doorway to a greater, richer, fuller life. Giving myself to the practice of picturing heaven, I imagine what it might be like to no longer be separated from God, from love, by the thin veil of this world.
I must confess that I still do not know what heaven might look like. I have some thoughts that are like seeds themselves; undeveloped, small, but rich with potential. Endings always precede beginnings, especially when you have hope in a lives-forever-outside-of-time God. If this is the case, what is death if not a doorway to new life? The more I give myself to holy imagining, to seeing the possibilities of what life after death may bring, the potential of life beyond this one, the less I am afraid of walking through that door. I can hold my life in the white-knuckle grip of my own fear. Or I can let that fear die and hold my life with open hands and a sense of adventure in all life’s mysterious forms and phases.