Aiming at Heaven

“Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” – C. S. Lewis

When I was a teenager growing up in West Yellowstone, Montana, I heard of the death of two snowmobilers caught in an avalanche. I could see from my home the mountain where it happened. It was not a very uncommon event; every winter people died on their snow machines in one way or another. But for some reason the news haunted me; maybe because the winters in Yellowstone were long and dark, and my mood would often match the landscape. A day after hearing the news, I was napping in a half-asleep, half-awake state when a vision of the men’s death came to mind. I saw and felt the men tumbling in the chaos of hundreds of tons of snow, and then silence and suffocation—the last gasping breaths of being buried alive. I woke suddenly, startled with the realization that someday, somehow, I would take my last breath on earth.

From this and other experiences, I sought from an early age to better understand death and the afterlife. Death may be, as the poet Wallace Stevens says, the mother of beauty. For me it has also been the mother of spirituality. I know some think this is backwards—that true spirituality is born of a love of God or love of one’s neighbor. Death and what lay beyond, they argue, is a distraction from the “here and now” where life is truly lived. There’s much truth to all that, of course.

But the mystery of death looms over every moment. This fact is haunting, beautiful, horrifying, and hopeful all at the same time. Shakespeare called death the undiscovered country from which no traveler returns. Yet, with modern medicine, an increasing number of people do return after experiencing clinical death. They return with stories of light and love and reunion with deceased family members. A small minority even have hellish experiences.

People who have these experiences are changed in profound ways. They often have difficulty re-adjusting to normal life. The things of this world—money, ambition, fame, status—lose their appeal. Instead, they become interested in learning and improving their relationships. They become highly sensitive to violence and conflict—no longer able to even watch movies they once enjoyed.

I have read literally hundreds, if not thousands, of these experiences. Yes, like any event, the stories are filtered through the worldview of the experiencers, but I believe they are essentially true. I believe these people have caught a glimpse of something real, something that makes this life seem like a dream by comparison.

Too often we make every effort to sanitize death or pretend it won’t happen, but NDEs remind us of the fragility of life—the car accident, the sudden heart attack, the drowning at the local pool, the slow deterioration caused by chronic disease. Yet they also teach that death is not the end, nor is it an escape from the self. We continue to make choices and learn from those choices beyond the grave. We take ourselves with us, so it’s worth paying attention to what kind of self we cultivate in this life.

A few years ago I saw, in my mind’s eye, a soul wandering in the afterlife. It was a lost soul, essentially good and reaching out for something higher, but desperately clinging to former fears and attachments. I wasn’t sure who he was or where he was going or what was driving him, but I wanted to find out. Writing Hearts of the Fathers was largely a process of following this man on his journey and discovering what was in his heart—what was giving him hope and what was preventing him from rising into the light. I do not presume with this little novel to offer final answers to the mystery of what lay beyond death. This book represents a spiritual journey, an exploration of possibilities, not a final destination. It is my hope and prayer that readers enjoy this journey and maybe make a few discoveries along the way.

Sheldon Lawrence is an award winning essayist and author of the recent novel “Hearts of the Fathers: A story of Heaven, Hell, and the hope of new life after life,” available here.  

Advertisements

Superstar

 

“In the mouth of the foolish is a rod of pride: but the lips of the wise shall preserve them.” Proverbs 14:3

Ever since I was a little boy I have struggled to keep my zipper locked in its secure and upright position. I remember wearing brown corduroys and the way the fly would gape open like a brass-toothed mouth announcing my shame to the world. I didn’t see shame in it. But my older siblings made sure I understood what an embarrassment this failure was.

When I comprehended the mechanical nature of the device and that sometimes mechanics can fail, I had my excuse. “It’s broken,” I would say. “That’s why!”

Even new pants came with the defect. “Broken again?” my brother jeered one day. “Are all your pants broken?” Well, what else could it be? I remembered zipping it earlier. The problem was I couldn’t tell which day the memory came from. I was certain I had zipped it yesterday, piece-a-junk.

The whole business of zippers seemed like an unnecessary hassle. Why would God put a hole in your pants right in that most inauspicious place? That the zipper was to facilitate using the bathroom never occurred to me since, like all other self-respecting boys my age I dropped my drawers to my ankles to do my business–shirt tucked under chin and hips thrust forward. A three inch opening could never compete with that level of freedom.

Things have improved in adulthood, but I’m still not out of the woods with malfunctioning zippers. As I teacher, I have taught entire classes on the fly, only for students to inform me of the indiscretion at the end of class. Because of my favorable marriage to an alert woman, I now have a support system much less harsh than mocking siblings and friends. It turns out my problem needed understanding, not ridicule. My wife now helps refine my presentation in polite society.

The value of this support hit home recently when my wife and I attended a book club. After a good meal and conversation we retired to the living room to discuss the book at hand, a significant work on culture and philosophy. The evening progressed smoothly in a lively exchange of wit and wisdom punctuated with light laughter.

Just after I made one comment that I felt was particularly insightful, my wife leaned over and whispered, “You’re a superstar!” Indeed, I thought, and smiled with satisfaction. It was a rather fine comment, though I had never heard her compliment my intellect in such glowing terms. I was happy to wear this new title.

Moments later, and after another poignant comment, she again lavished me with praise, leaning even closer to my ear, “You’re a superstar!” Again! I must really be on a roll tonight. And I was just getting warmed up.

But I grew suspicious. In seventeen years of marriage, I had sometimes been told I was a good husband or father, but I had never been a superstar. And now I was a superstar twice in one night.

Then it hit me. I was not a superstar at all. I was the very opposite—a clumsy little boy in brown corduroys.

As the reality of my condition slowly sunk in, she leaned in again to remove all doubt: “Your zipper’s down.”

In addition to having a zipper problem, I’ve always been a little hard of hearing, and it turns out “superstar” and “zipper’s down” have remarkably similar phonetic structures. Or maybe the problem is better diagnosed as wishful hearing, a condition where my pride transforms unpleasant news into whatever it would rather hear.

Sheldon Lawrence is an award winning essayist and author of the recent novel “Hearts of the Fathers: A story of Heaven, Hell, and the hope of new life after life,” available here.  

Your Problems Aren’t That Special

One subtle form of pride is the belief that our problems, or even our sins, are somehow a special case. C.S. Lewis points out the pride is essentially competitive:  “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.” It is easy to see this kind of competition at work things like money, social status, and ability, but a more subtle competitiveness can take place in the kinds of stories we tell about our hardships. There can be a temptation to dramatize and amplify our afflictions so that we feel superior to others who supposedly have it so good. In a perverse way, our ego wants to “win” in the game of who’s-got-it-worse.

One problem with this is that once we form an identity out of our hardships, we don’t want to let them go. We wouldn’t know who we were anymore if we weren’t fighting some battle. Instead of transcending the world, and taking up the “light” and “easy” burden of Christ, we want to play the part of martyr, carrying the heavy load while, we imagine, the privileged masses go about their happy lives. We have all known–or maybe even been–that person who just wouldn’t know what to do if they weren’t complaining about something.

Another problem with believing our problems are a special case is that we can resist reaching out and asking for help. Other people might have their little peccadillos, we say, but our sins are the real deal. They are too bad to involve others and get help.   

In reality, no one gets through life without their share of pain and temptation. Maybe it comes in different forms and in different life stages, but it is there. Speaking to this notion of special sinfulness or special hardships, the apostle Paul said “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it”(1 Cor. 10:13). Rather than create an identity and life story out of these hardships, we can do the harder work of change, repentance, and faithful endurance.

 

Sheldon Lawrence is an award winning essayist and author of the recent novel “Hearts of the Fathers: A story of Heaven, Hell, and the hope of new life after life,” available here

 

I Went to Talk with God

” And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Matthew 25:40

I said, “God, I’m going into that room to be alone with you.”

And he said “I will meet you there.”

But my wife was already there, tapping away at the laptop, a distraction I could overcome with a little concentration. Maybe recite a verse. I stretched on the plush carpet and settled in.

Our Father who art…

Then my daughter entered and chatted idly with her mother. It was about the school day. Who likes who. Who doesn’t know it yet. She doesn’t really like anyone, it turns out. I mean, she’s friends with boys and everything but nothing like a “boyfriend.”

Our father who art in heaven…

What about so and so, says Mom. He’s a cutey. Mom! She says. He’s your crush not mine! They laugh. Laughing is a hard distraction to overcome. But concentrate. Rest.

Hallowed be thy name… She’s growing up, this girl of mine. This girl of Thine. She’s a young woman now.

Then my oldest son comes in. Now it’s Grand Central Station. Talk of homework. Driver’s Ed is coming up. And now my daughter is irritated with his interruption. And Mom says sorry, I have a million things going on now. The room is all noise and need.

There will be no talking with you today, God, not here, not now. This family you’ve given me. You see how it is. Sometimes it’s just impossible.

 

Sheldon Lawrence is an award winning essayist and author of the recent novel “Hearts of the Fathers: A story of Heaven, Hell, and the hope of new life after life,” available here

Seeing Darkly

You can’t see God. But don’t worry. You can’t see most of physical reality, either.

I’ve been reading a book called “The Elegant Universe” by Brian Greene about relativity, superstring theory and quantum physics. The first few chapters deal with Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity. Like most people, I have heard the many analogies about how to conceptualize the speed of light and how it warps time—the baseballs being thrown on a train, the spaceships flying past one another, etc.

I get the analogies well enough, but when it comes down to it, part of me just doesn’t buy it. The rational part of me understands that the theory’s logic and math are sound and have been proven experimentally. But the idea of gravity and speed warping time and space is just so far outside my everyday perceptions that the dumb skeptic in me can’t get on board.

The “smaller me” wants to live only in a Newtonian universe where objects move through time and space like clockwork. I can grasp that. I can sense the movement and inertia of objects. I can feel the gravity and visualize how a rocket needs speed to enter orbit. But tell me about a universe invisible to my perceptions where Newtonian physics no longer apply, and I’ll nod my head in wonder and be fascinated. But the “seeing is believing” part of me says, “Yeah, but…it can’t really be like that. You’re just playing with math.”

And yet, the evidence is conclusive. The universe is a far more complex and strange and beautiful place than our little minds can grasp.

Why, then, is it deemed irrational when believers claim the same thing, that this universe is far more beautiful and strange and wonderful than our everyday perceptions allow us to see? Why should it be so far fetched to have faith in God and hidden dimensions when it’s a scientific fact that more is going on here than any of us comprehend? 

Another stunning fact of science: The matter that we can see and detect with our instrumentation only amounts to 4% of the universe. The other 96% is mysterious stuff called “dark matter” and “dark energy”–“dark” simply because we know it’s there but can’t see it but can only detect its gravitational influence. It doesn’t reveal itself like normal matter.

I love science, but it takes more faith than I can muster to believe that the three pounds of meat in our skull is capable of comprehending Reality as it truly is. Paul tells us “for now we see through a glass, darkly”(1 Cor. 13:12). It takes humility to remember our minds are in a dimmed and darkened state compared to the perceptions we will enjoy someday.  

The book I’m reading has reminded me, just like the Bible, that there is a stark difference between what I see and what is really there. It’s an important lesson. I hope the scientists doing their important work remember the same thing.

Sheldon Lawrence is an award winning essayist and author of the recent novel “Hearts of the Fathers: A story of Heaven, Hell, and the hope of new life after life,” available here

Biblical Serendipity: The right verse at the right time

An interesting feature of spiritual autobiography throughout Christian history is the number of times someone, while grappling with a dilemma or pouring their heart out to God, feels inspired to open the Bible and read the first verse their eyes come to. Maybe the earliest and most notable of these moments is the story of St. Augustine’s conversion to Christianity as related in Confessions.  Having explored and experimented with the various philosophies of his day, he increasingly felt drawn to Christianity, becoming convinced it was God’s truth, but still unable to fully commit himself to the faith.

One day as Augustine paced in his garden at Milan, torn by indecision and inner turmoil, he heard a child’s voice say, “Tolle, lege. Tolle lege” Pick up and read. Pick up and read. Going to “the book of the apostle [Paul],” Augustine writes, “I seized it, opened it and in silence read the first passage on which my eyes lit: ‘Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts’ (Rom. 13: 13-14). Upon reading this passage, Augustine reports “All the shadow of doubts were dispelled” (153).

I think of this and other similar moments as a kind of divinely serendipitous reading. And it was with such moments in mind that I created Bibledice.com. With no advertising and zero promotion, the website is now used by thousands of Bible readers from around the world.

Obviously this serendipity doesn’t happen every time you open (or click) the Bible. Yet there are those times when you just know the passage you get is more than coincidence. Maybe it’s a feeling. Maybe the scripture is just too specific to your situation. I have had several such moments with Bibledice as well as the hard copy Bible. Many of these have been profound and personal, but I want to relate a lighthearted one here.

My wife and I had been arguing over ridiculous things—it was one of those days. I don’t mean to play the victim, but on this particular occasion I felt blindsided and couldn’t figure out for the life of me why I was getting raked over the coals. During a lull in the storm, I despairingly sat at the computer and thought I’d go to Bibledice and see if the Lord had any insight. I wondered if I would get some admonition like “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved his Church” (Eph. :25). I clicked the button and instead got this:

“It is better to dwell in a corner of the housetop, than with a brawling woman in a wide house.” Proverbs 21:9

I blinked, and then read it again. Then I laughed. It was like God and I were sharing an inside joke. It broke the gloom and lightened the mood. My wife also got a good laugh out of it and I don’t doubt that if she clicked for a scripture she might have gotten some proverb about a foolish man.

Obviously it would be easy to get carried away with reading too much meaning into every “roll” of biblebice. But I do believe some are messages meant for us specifically during specific times in life. I have received touching emails from users who attest to this fact. As Proverbs 16:33 says, “We may throw the dice, but the LORD determines how they fall” (New Living Translation).

Which brings me to my last point. Regular or even casual users of Bibledice have their Bibledice stories, moments when the right verse came at the right time. I would like to share some of your stories on this blog. You can remain anonymous, use initials, or full name as you wish. Please email your Bibledice story to bibledice.com@gmail.com

Thank you for supporting this site. Please check back with this blog for reflections on Bible passages as well as thoughts and explorations in my own spiritual journey.

Sheldon Lawrence