29 October 2007

Some thoughts on heaven from Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007)

Award-winning Christian author Madeleine L’Engle died earlier this year. I came across this quotation as I was preparing for All Saints’ Day.

The Churches have tended to be too literal about heaven and hell, defining what no mortal can possibly know, because only God knows. A young woman came to me, deeply disturbed, because her minister had told her that immortality is not a Christian concept. It is left over from Greek thinking, he said, and Christians are not supposed to believe in it.

This was not what she needed to hear. She had lost a beloved sister, and she needed affirmation, not a lecture. “If there is no immortality, then what about my sister?” she asked the minister.

“We believe in the resurrection of the body,” he said. “What body?” Her sister had died, very slowly, of cancer, looking like a victim from Belsen. Her sister would not want to be resurrected in that emaciated, dying body. Her minister did not have an answer, at least not one that she could remember and tell me.

“I think,” I said slowly, “that the word immortality involves time, involves our going on and on in time, human time. But resurrection is in eternity, and that’s a tough concept for us to understand.”

“Do you understand it?”

“No, but I believe it. I don’t understand it because I am in time right now. I get glimpses of eternity, of kairos, God’s time, which is far more wonderful than ordinary chronos, clock time.”

“What about my sister? She was so alive, so vibrant, until those last months.”

All I could do was repeat my affirmation that God does not create us and then drop us into nothingness. I don’t think her sister is in either the old-fashioned heaven or hell; but I think she is, somehow, somewhere, more truly alive than she was on earth. I don’t know what the resurrection body will be like.

Tommy, my evangelist friend, quoted something to the effect that many Christians are more interested in resuscitation than resurrection.


My grandfather would not have wished to be resuscitated at 101.

But when a child is suddenly killed, don’t we intuitively wish for resuscitation? We want that child back, exactly as before—the same deep gray eyes, the fair hair, the dimples that came and went.

But Jesus was never recognized by sight after the resurrection. So what on earth do we mean by resurrection?

When the people asked St Paul what the resurrection body was going to be like, he snapped out, “Don’t be silly,” one of my favorites of all the sayings of Paul. Don’t be silly. We can’t have back what we have lost. I can’t have my tall, lean husband with his amazing blue eyes, larger and bluer than any other eyes I have seen.
I want him back, and there’s no evading that I want him.

So what do I mean, what do we all mean when we say that “we believe in the resurrection of the dead”?

A friend said to me, “When I die and see Jack again I will recognize him.”
If we didn’t recognize Jesus, can we count on that? Not unless we, too, have been resurrected, not resuscitated.

Once again we are in mystery, outside the realm of provable fact. We are, I believe, given glimpses, and I have had a few. Walking down a dirt road on a shining summer day I moved into a realm of beauty and depth that became indescribable once I had left it, but it gives me a hint that after I die I may say, “Oh, glory! What a thin way of living I have just left!”

Madeleine L’Engle, Penguins and Golden Calves (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1996) 184-186

25 October 2007

Thoughts on Marriage

“Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of God to witness and to bless the joining together of this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony…” The brief exhortation in the Book of Common Prayer (page 423) given by the priest at the beginning of the service offers a succinct outline of the theology that underlies our Christian understanding of marriage. It speaks of what we are witnessing as “holy matrimony”. Underlying that is the conviction that what is taking place is not merely a contractual arrangement between two people, but a covenant, where God is the key player.

The service goes on to inform us that marriage is not a human invention. It was God who established it at the dawn of creation, when he brought together the first man and the first woman in Eden. “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” the man cried aloud as he first set eyes on his newly created partner. And the author of Genesis comments, “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

So it is that the wedding service begins with the principle that marriage was God’s idea. That point is driven home further by the reminder that our Lord’s first recorded miracle took place in the context of a marriage ceremony. I believe that teaches us the high value that Jesus himself set on marriage.
Thirdly, the exhortation speaks of marriage as signifying “the mystical union between Christ and his Church”. The reference here is to the apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.

In other words, at its best, marriage is a window that helps reveal the self-sacrificial love of Jesus Christ for us, his church.
This theology of marriage was a revolutionary thought in the sixteenth century, when the wedding service was first written. In those days it had been assumed that God’s highest calling to men and women was to be celibate, as a priest or a nun. The reformers turned that around, to affirm that marriage is every bit as much a response to God’s calling, and therefore “is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God”.

This approach to marriage may be equally revolutionary in our society today, when so many see it as a legal agreement, a creation of the state, or a purely human device. May we not be swept along by this tide, but continue to see marriage—and live it out—as a holy gift, a sacred trust, from our gracious and loving God.