October 2015


Hell is described much more vividly than heaven. Jesus describes paradise only in parables. From biblical times through Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, to our own day, hell is described in vivid imagery, while heaven is left much more to our imagination. Our imagination fails to provide us with images that seem real. Perhaps this is a problem of frame-of-reference. Consider the testimony of Edith P., recorded on video for the Fortunoff Video Archive of Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University. Edith P. (an Auschwitz survivor) describes being in a train, not to Auschwitz, but from it. That’s why she lived; she was transported from the camp on a labor detail. She says:

One morning, I think it was morning or early afternoon, we arrived. The train stopped ... [a]nd a friend of mine said ... “I’m going to sit down and you’re going to stand on my shoulders [to look through this little window].” ... I looked out. And ... I ... saw Paradise! The sun was bright and vivid. There was cleanliness all over. ... People were people, not animals. And I thought, “Paradise must look like this!” I forgot already how normal people look like, how they act, how they speak, how they dress. I saw the sun in Auschwitz, I saw the sun come up, because we had to get up at four in the morning. But it was never beautiful to me. I never saw it shine. It was just the beginning of a horrible day. And in the evening, the end—of what? But here there was life, and I had such yearning.

From Edith P’s perspective, an ordinary railroad siding looked like paradise, because it was the first place in her recent and now timeless experience that was not filled with dirt, flames, a brute existence of death and hatred. And from ours? What does paradise look like? We’re not very good at describing it, because heaven is not part of any experience we have had. Or is it? Think, for example, about a time in your life when you did something wrong, when you did something of which you were ashamed, and for which you expected punishment, only to find that when you were discovered—what happened? You were forgiven, and the wrong was forgotten. Through no merit of your own you were just forgiven by someone who had the power to condemn you. Heaven feels like that. Heaven looks like what you see in the eyes of one whose eyes communicate to you real love.

What does heaven sound like? I don’t know, although sometimes in liturgy or music I’ll get a chill, and get teary-eyed, and know not why. I knew a man who was knocked unconscious by an artillery explosion, and when he awoke two days later in a field hospital in a church in Belgium, the convent girls’ choir was singing Christmas carols. Heaven to him was the sound of female voices singing of peace on earth, good will toward men. The smell of heaven was evergreen and incense. The taste of heaven was communion wine daubed upon his lips.

The example of someone awakening from a near-death experience is, like that of Edith P., beyond the experience of most of us, and so it illuminates a common factor. It tells us that what is beyond our own experience can best be understood through testimony, through the testimony of another who has been there, who has seen and heard and now speaks of this place we don’t know—like Jesus, who tells us, “... we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen ...” (John 3.11). Jesus, tells us that the kingdom of heaven has come near to us, and that to live this kingdom we must choose it; we must make choices between God’s will and our own, between sin and righteousness.

How do we invite people to choose heaven? Someone who walks into Grace without any prior experience of church immediately senses that something is different. We might describe it as a “sense of the sacred” but they might not use that language. They might just say that it smells different (without knowing this is the smell of frankincense) and looks different, or sounds different. But will they feel that it is different? They will when what they experience is “what you see in the eyes of one whose eyes communicate ... real love”. Such eyes must be out eyes. We must be those who reveal Christ to others, that they may know that God delights in them regardless of who they are, what they have done or failed to do. When we can be those who reveal Christ, then we will not only “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Ps. 96.9), but will both be blessed and bless in this holiness, in this Presence. God calls and equips us to be those, and to be that place, which may described in words like Edith P’s, “...here there [is] life, and I [have] such yearning [for God!]”

Yours in Christ Jesus,
The Rev. Dr. Karl C. Schaffenburg

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