Wednesday, November 23, 2016
A second effect of focusing on where we go when we die, is that the value we give to life here and now on earth is diminished.
Often in gatherings of devout Christians, one will hear people say: “This world is not my home; I’m just passing through; heaven is my home.”
Popular Evangelical songwriters Bill and Gloria Gaither expressed this in one of their popular songs, “Going Home”:
“Going home, I'm going home!
There is nothing to hold me here!
I've caught a glimpse of that Heavenly land!
Praise God, I'm going home!”
The line, “There is nothing to hold me here” expresses a very dismal outlook about life on earth. For many Christians—and for many believers in other religious traditions—this world is seen as a “vale of tears”—a cursed, fallen state of corruption to be escaped or overcome. But how many of us—regardless of our professed religion—can actually look around us and, in all honesty, say that we see nothing that we value—nothing to “hold us here?”
Such a belief also affects how we view ourselves. It is common for many Christians and Evangelicals to describe themselves as just “damaged earthen vessels” in which their spirits reside. While these same people are usually very vocal in declaring themselves “Bible-believing Christians” the idea that one’s spirit is one’s “true self” and that the body and physical existence is faulty, sinful and something to be discarded is NOT Biblical at all. Such an idea is found in the teachings of the Greek philosopher Plato and in the mysticism of the ancient Gnostics, but it is anathema to the beliefs and views of the ancient Israelites and first century Jews—those people who wrote the Bible.
The popular religious view of seeing life on earth as something to which believers should joyfully bid farewell is contrasted in Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Our Town.”
The play follows day-to-day life in a tiny New England town—Grover’s Corner—where nothing out of the ordinary ever happens. The heroine—a teenage girl named Emily—grows up, marries the boy next door but then tragically dies in childbirth. The play’s final act takes place in the town graveyard where Emily’s spirit watches her own funeral. Before letting go of the earth and moving on to whatever awaits her in eternity, she attempts to relive one day of her life—her twelfth birthday. Only then does she fully realize how quickly times passes, how little time people take to actually look at one another, listen to one another and connect. Only then does she realize the true beauty life on earth. Only then does she fully appreciate how precious every minute of even the most mundane day was.
“I didn't realize it. So, all that was going on in life and we never noticed. Take me back—up the hill—to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover's Corner—Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking and Mama's sunflowers…and food and coffee…and new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you! Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” (“Our Town” by Thornton Wilder)
Unlike the Gaithers and so many other believers, Emily is overwhelmed by all the beauty of the earth, of her relationships with her loved ones—all of which have a profound hold on her and define who she is at the deepest level.
In Hebrew the word for “Adam” (which is initially used in scripture to define both man and woman) is a play on the Hebrew word for the earth—“Adama.” So while it is commonly translated into English as “Adam,” “man” or “human,” it more accurately could be translated as something akin to “earthling”—a word which sounds ridiculous given its use in Science Fiction. But this Hebrew play on words conveys an essential truth: to be human is to be part of the earth. Earth is the rightful abode of human beings.
That idea can be seen as positive or negative based upon the story that your religion tells.
Every religion tells a story of some kind. Whether that story is historical fact, myth or fiction is really of little importance to the living of one’s day-to-day life. What is essential—the thing by which “the truth” of the story is found in the meaning that it holds for the believer—in the values that the believer develops based upon the story.
Drawing from the Bible, a religion tells this story: Adam and Eve lived happily in Eden with God, but because they ate the forbidden fruit, God cast them from his presence and now they are lost in a sinful word, doomed to Hell unless God saves them.
If this is the story one’s religion tells, then the focus of that religion is simply to be saved from sin so that one can return to God’s presence.
But the religious tradition that begins its story with the Fall of Adam and Eve has already ignored the story that the writers and editors of the Bible told.
Their story begins with God organizing the earth and bringing forth all life upon it—including human beings who exist in the image of God. God declares earth and all life upon it as being good. Later the humans eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and in doing so, God declares that now they can discern good from evil in the same way He does. Because of this, He casts them out of Eden. On their own, they are now responsible for their own choices—for they know good from evil. When they are inhumane toward one another—when they cheat, steal, harm and kill one another—God condemns these actions as evil, sinful and ungodly. But God does not give up on humans and their capacity for righteousness and holiness. Neither does God condemn or denigrate the earth and nature because of the evil committed by some. Instead God sets about to restore human beings to the relationship He intended them to have with Him and with one another. God sets about restoring the entire earth to reflect His original intention for it.
As the ancient Israelites and the earliest followers of Christ saw it, yes there was suffering and evil on earth—but this was not the earth’s destiny. Justice, goodness, mercy and love would triumph in the end. The earth would be renewed—and what good we do now would remain eternally as a part of that renewal.
Reform Mormonism embraces this message. That message was central to the lives of the first Mormons, who gathered together for the purpose of building up a New Jerusalem—of establishing Zion, which was defined as “the Pure in Heart.”
Jesus taught his followers to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”
The Kingdom of God is not some far off ethereal realm beyond the grave—some fairyland of puffy clouds and angels with harps. The Kingdom of God is here on earth—and it is established when we open ourselves to the influence of God’s Spirit and begins to cultivate the virtues we envision God possessing.
Far from denouncing this life in hopes of life after death, the earth and all things in it are to be embraced with thanksgiving! Every moment of our lives has value! Our relationships with others here and now are the very things that define us as individuals and they will extend into eternity! So, give thanks!
This view is celebrated in the words of Folliot S. Pierpoint's beloved hymn "For the Beauty of the Earth":
"For the beauty of the earth,
for the glory of the skies,
for the love which from our birth
over and around us lies...
"...For the joy of ear and eye,
for the heart and mind's delight,
for the mystic harmony,
linking sense to sound and sight...
"...For the joy of human love,
brother, sister, parent, child,
friends on earth and friends above,
for all gentle thoughts and mild;
Lord of all, to thee we raise
this our hymn of grateful praise."
Questions: How can viewing the earth and our life upon as good influence our choices, the formation of our character—and how might these things impact the lives of others and society at large?
How can we live lives of thanksgiving?
Challenge: In your conversations with three different family members or friends bring up this question:
What if religion focused on valuing our life here and now; on valuing the earth and nature; of valuing other people—how differently would we live our day to day lives? What kind of people would we become if we at least tried to do this?
Don’t argue; don’t attempt to convince or convert one another to any particular idea. Just discuss your thoughts openly and honestly. Seek to understand one another first and then try to make sure your ideas are understood. The objective is to create a bond between yourself and the other person in which such ideas can be expressed openly and without fear; in which each person can be true to what they believe while still feeling respected by the other person. The objective is to strengthen the sense of community between you and others.
For more information on Reform Mormonism visit www.reformmormonism.org