Labora in Pacem

I had a chance to reflect on our ideas of Heaven when I attended a funeral for another member of the clergy recently. Usually, I perform funerals rather than attend them, so I don’t often get to listen in silence. I’ve performed countless funerals over the years and, truth be told, I enjoy them; not like Jackie Gleason’s Gigot who went to funerals on his day off so he would have someone to cry with, but because funerals are one of the few pastoral functions where clergy are really needed. Weddings no longer require the presence of clergy (and even if you perform them, you’re only there as a functionary which is why you’re invariably seated with Aunt Bertha and Uncle Heck from Cleveland at the reception). Any Christian can baptize any other person, and licensed lay folk can distribute the Eucharist to the shut in. But at a funeral, people really need what you have to offer.

I was struck at the service by the petitions present in the Prayer Book’s Order for the Burial of the Dead:

Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints

                Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace

                May the souls of all the departed rest in peace

Hmmm. I must make a confession here. If there is a continuation of our consciousness after the grave (and I live in hope that there is), and if that consciousness is at all congruent with the nature and character of our earthly personality (and I believe it must be as the sanctity of our individuality is a keystone of the Gospel message), then I’m afraid that if the afterlife is comprised primarily of rest, I will be bored to tears.

I’ve never been much for resting. I can’t abide lying abed in the mornings, and should I be tempted to sit quietly and enter into mental or physical inactivity, the temptation passes quickly as something productive I could be doing comes to mind. I have always been a worker, and I find that my most enjoyable experiences of diversion come not from a cessation of function, but rather shifting focus to another form of production or creativity. My brother in law has a favorite saying: “I’ll rest when I die.” I hope I don’t. Frankly, I’m praying that there will be work for me to do in Heaven.

What does that Heaven look like? Frankly, I don’t know (but I’m dying to find out!). Even our best imaginings come short of what it might be, and while I’m not a great fan of cherry-picking Bible verses to shore up my arguments and assertions (preferring to see the sweep of Scripture), there are some phrases that I carry like treasured pocket possessions that bring me comfort and hope.

A follower of the Beloved Disciple, speaking with his master’s voice and in the spirit of his master’s heart provides an assurance born from years of prayerful insight into the Heart of God:

Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.  (I John 3:2)

I take great pleasure in that verse, knowing that as we draw closer to him, unfettered by the restrictions of flesh and earthly limitation, we begin to mirror the Lord of Life more clearly. But that isn’t just a statement about our yet-to-be-experienced nature; it is also a promise of our intention, our function. For it is the Lord of Life that holds us in his heart and hand daily, inextricably tied to the humanity he came to save. St. Paul, in his magnificent Epistle to the Romans, promises:

It is Christ who died, yes rather, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God and makes intercession for us.  (Romans 8:34)

The unknown author of the Epistle to the Hebrews holds out a clear vision for me as I look for work in Heaven:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us. (Hebrews 12:1)

I hold so many in my heart in love already – family, friends, members of other communities I have served. As I have said before, I move through my relationships with them in the same way a king runs his fingers through his jewels. They are my true wealth, my most precious possessions. My deepest hope for Heaven, no matter what else it may be, is that I will be one of the witnesses who surround those I love, and that like the enthroned Christ who I long to mirror more and more, will make intercession on behalf of those I have loved and those I have yet to love – urging, yearning, longing for their growth in Spirit into perfect humanity until that day when we are all joined in perfect radiance.

So when death comes for me, pray not for eternal rest, but for work that I may carry on holding you before the throne of God in continual thanksgiving and supplication.