The Ascension, Heaven and Pie in the Sky

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Several people I know are approaching retirement age.  When I ask them what they will do after they retire, they tend to respond in one of two ways.  Either "enjoy life," or "keep busy."  Or both.

Then they often explain that at this stage of their lives they are increasingly aware of their mortality.  The days, the weeks, the years seem to go by at an accelerating pace.  According to the Center for Disease Control, the average life expectancy for white Americans is now 79, and it's 75 for African Americans.  That means that if you are retiring at age 65 you are in the bottom of the 8th inning.  If you're behind, there's not a lot of game left for you to catch up.  If you feel like you are winning, do you stop taking risks to protect your lead?  And either way, what if there is no "home" to go home to after the game is over.

But what if there is a loving family to go home to?  In my experience, that reality changes how I play the game, whether my team is winning or losing in the bottom of the eighth.  My family doesn't really care much if I win or lose as long as when I come home I do my part to maintain  loving, safe and secure relationships in that little community called a family.  And if that set of relationships is more important than winning the game, I'll refuse to bend the rules for the sake of winning and I'll anticipate the final score with more equanimity.

In other words, how do I define my identity?  Am I a baseball play who happens to have a family, or am I father and husband who happens to play baseball?

The New Testament often juxtaposes the Kingdom of God with "this world."  By "this world" the NT writers didn't mean that material things like our bodies or money or wine or rock and roll are evil in themselves.  What they are talking about is idolatry, i.e. the bad things that happen to individuals and societies when they choose to elevate any part of God's creation, things or persons, to the status of god. 

That's the devil's favorite tactic, i.e. to seduce you into believing that this bottle or this job or this woman/man or this nation or this cause or moving to another city will save you.  Hitler succeeded in seducing the German people into believing that he would save them if they followed him unconditionally.  Recovering alcoholics all testify that the bottle had control of them, i.e. that it was in effect their god.  When I was growing up rock and roll songs often spoke of the object of affection in religious terms, i.e. "you're like heaven to touch" or "you're my love, you're my angel."

While Jesus was dying on the cross, a lot of people from "the world" mocked him.  It was if the Roman soldiers and Pharisees and common folk and even one criminal dying next to him felt somehow vindicated in their choice not to follow his foot washing, serving, confronting yet forgiving way of life.  The soldiers, for example, might be poorly paid and be bored out of their minds at times, but the path they chose to follow at least didn't end up with them hanging on a cross.  They were minor players, but at least they were on the winning team.

To the people watching the spectacle unfold, Jesus' way of going through life indeed looked very "odd," to use the term Hauerwas and Willimon use in Resident Aliens.  You might feel sorry for the guy, but you'd have to say that Jesus of Nazareth was definitely  not "normal." 

What the resurrection stories in the Bible do is to vindicate the "Jesus Way," surrendering to your Heavenly Abba, doing the Father's will rather than your own and, counter intuitively to post-Enlightenment individualists, trusting that it is the most powerful, life changing way to live.  Jesus' Ascension to heaven, forty days later, was a continuation of that rising and one more affirmation that his Kingdom is "not of the world."

So, what about heaven? 

The idea of heaven is a problem.  I've heard people declare, "If heaven is praising God all the time, i.e. singing hymns forever, I'd rather go to a blues bar here on earth now and then."  Or, everybody knows that the white slave masters used to use heaven as a way to prevent their chattel from rising up.  Pie in the sky by and by will be your reward for being a good n _ _ _.

Or, Alcaida motivates the troops to wear suicide vests and blow themselves up with the promise that they'll get ten virgins to enjoy in paradise.  I'm not sure what they promise female terrorists.

The lesson of Prohibition 80 some years ago is to not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  That is, banning the use of alcohol is not an effective way to eliminate the misuse of it.  The way to avoid misusing the promise of life after death is to use it very carefully.

Look at this way.  The Lord's Prayer has the line, "your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."  That implies that if the Abba's will were done here and now, we'd literally have heaven on earth.  If you buy that, then heaven is not pie in the sky.  It's not a way of manipulating people into passively putting up with oppression.

On the contrary, it is a vision of how to lean into life that is proclaimed as the only way of saving people in the profoundest of ways, the Jesus Way of obedience to his Abba and of service to his brothers and sisters (or some might prefer the more humble term "sheep of his flock").  Especially when that Way doesn't seem for the moment to be working.  Or, when we hang on to the illusion that the payoff for taking Jesus' way will get you this world's rewards.

 Let me try an analogy.  I've been involved with Thai people for over 20 years.  Many of them want to come to the U.S. in order to make their lives better--by going to school here or starting a business here or sometimes by marrying a farang, a Westerner.  So, with that goal in mind, they actually begin living like an American while still residing in Thailand, so compelling is their dream.  They start learning English and watching CNN.  So attractive is the promised land called America that, now after 20 years of travelling there, I can't tell if the people walking toward me on the sidewalk are Thai or farang until they're right in front of me.  Their haircuts (or hair coloring) are like ours.  The clothing in fashion is like ours.  Kids are all texting on their smart phones, and everyone loves KFC and shops at Seven Eleven. 

Even if they never make it to the promised land, they start living like they were already there.  Theologians refer to that phenomenon as realized eschatology.  That hope, i.e. belief in a promise of the future, can make that future begin to actualize in the present.  In contrast to pie in the sky by and by, therefore, instead of a promised future causing people to adapt to present oppression, a powerful vision of the future can empower folks to transform it.

What are you going to do after you retire?  My Christian understanding of the Kingdom of God is that when I was baptized, I became a citizen of that Kingdom even though I'm living in another kingdom called "the world."  I'm an ex pat, if you will, a sojourner in a foreign land.  I have to figure out how to survive in that world, but to thrive I have to own the identity of belonging to another Kingdom and to not let shame or fear prevent me from living that identity out.

Life IS hard.  But if I believe that death is really an airline trip back home, the closer I get to take off, the more motivated I'll be to walk that culture's walk.  The older I get, really, the less I have to lose.  Enjoy life?  Sure, but that's not what I wake up in the morning to do.  Keep busy?  Of course, but not as a means of avoiding thoughts of my mortality.  Rather, keeping busy trying to do my Abba's will, as best I understand it, is natural for those who anticipate going home soon.

 

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