Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What is Heaven?

Cathryn Conroy
On December 21, 2011, my sister, Caroline, passed away unexpectedly, leaving a husband of 29 years and three amazing, accomplished grown children.

After her funeral at St. John's Episcopal Church in Lynchburg, the church bells rang. My granddaughter Zoë, who was three years old at the time, asked her mother why they were ringing. My daughter-in-law wisely answered, "I don't know, Zoë. Why do you think they're ringing?" Zoë thought about it and said, "I think it's God thanking Caroline for coming to heaven."

I believe that heaven truly is a better place with Caroline in it. Zoë also had thoughts on that. The morning after my sister's funeral, Zoë woke up crying, worrying about Caroline. Samantha assured her that Caroline was in heaven and at peace. Zoë looked at her skeptically and said, "I hope Caroline is happy in heaven with peas."

As Christians we believe in the resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Our faith is grounded in this belief. And so we also believe in heaven. And if it's not made of peas, what is it?

I am no theologian, but I find it comforting to believe that heaven is a place filled with joy. It is a place where we will be reunited with those we loved on Earth, as well as God. After all, we pray: "Our Father, who art in heaven..."

Jesus preached several parables about the kingdom of heaven, including the parable of the good seed and the weeds, the parable of the mustard seed, the parable of the yeast and the parable of the wedding banquet.

Dr. Eban Alexander, an academic neurosurgeon at Harvard Medical School, recently published a book titled "Proof of Heaven." Wait...what? PROOF?

Alexander, who has been a church-going Christian most of his life--but treated it more as a Sunday routine than as a passionate believer--was in a coma for seven days in 2008 during which the neocortex or "human part" of his brain was inactivated. "I experienced something so profound that it gave me a scientific reason to believe in consciousness after death," he writes.

He explained in his book that while he lay unconscious, his consciousness or inner self, was alive and well. His adventure began in a place of big, puffy, pink-white clouds that were in sharp contrast to a blue-black sky. "Higher than the clouds--immeasurably higher--flocks of transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamer-like lines behind them," Alexander wrote. He heard a glorious chant that came down from above. "Again, thinking about it later, it occurred to me that the joy of these creatures, as they soared along, was such that they had to make this noise--that if the joy didn't come out of them this way, then they would simply not otherwise be able to contain it."

And then he received a message in three parts:
• You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.
• You have nothing to fear.
• There is nothing you can do wrong.

Isn't this also the message of Christ? As God's children, we are loved and cherished--not only in heaven, but also here on Earth. We have nothing to fear because we put our hope and our lives in his hands. And what a hope and promise to know that in life everlasting we can do no wrong.

When Alexander returned to church after his visit to heaven and back, he saw a painting of Jesus breaking bread with his disciples. That painting evoked the message of his journey. "We are loved and accepted unconditionally by a God even more grand and unfathomably glorious than the one I'd learned of as a child in Sunday School."

I also believe we can find proof of heaven on Earth. God gives us fleeting glimpses of that wondrous place; we just have to pay attention. They are the times when we are suffused with joy that is so great and so overwhelming we feel as if we will burst. In my life, those times have been both big and small miracles: marrying my husband, holding my newborn children in my arms, seeing a sunset that is so awash in brilliant colors it looks like a postcard from heaven, the soundlessness that accompanies a heavy snowfall or breathing the damp, cool and pungent air of an early spring morning.

I will say this, though: Isaiah (25:6) promises us a banquet in heaven. So if heaven is made of food, I sincerely hope it's chardonnay and chocolate--not peas.

Cathryn Conroy is a member of St. Anne's, Damascus.

How do you envision heaven? Where do you find proof of heaven on Earth? Please share your thoughts, comments, and responses with the Facebook community.