What if it is true that there is not only a heaven, but also a hell? I know not everyone believes this, and many find it silly, but what if there is some enduring part of the human soul that transcends our biological death? And what if we carry into eternity the wounds and troubles and moral shape of this life?
We all take comfort in the idea that death is a release from the sufferings of this world. The anguish of dying, the aches and pains of age, the sorrows of grief, the tragedies that befall us, the haunting memories of words spoken and choices made – what if death is not a final wiping of the slate? What if we carry our past with us into eternity?
What if the ancients are right that there is some righting of the scales of justice after death? What if there is a judgment? An exposing of secrets? A bringing to light of the truth of our lives?
I never pondered such questions when I was young. The future that stretched before me seemed to offer more than enough time to right any wrongs. But years ago I went back to a store from which as a child I had lifted some inconsequential item. It was my intention to set it right, but the store was no longer there. Some things you can’t set right.
I fought to share in the raising of my daughters. If I could not preserve the marriage to have them always, I could at least have them half the time. I could be more than an every-other-weekend dad who can’t risk disciplining children you have for only a few hours, who can’t be there to comfort them in the night when they are sick or troubled by dreams, who can’t insist on chores or assist with homework. I could make the best of things, but I couldn’t undo what had happened. Some things you can’t set right.
And there are scars that have never fully healed: betrayals that make me cautious to trust another, disappointments that make it hard to hope, deaths that make grief a familiar companion. What if we carry such into eternity?
I find myself thinking about the phrase “making peace with God,” which we use when people are facing death. I want to be at peace with God, but I also want to be at peace with myself and those around me. I don’t want to take into the grave any of the bitterness that clings so easily to the human heart. I don’t want to take into the grave the selfishness that distorts us. I don’t want to take with me broken dreams and lost hopes.
These days I hear differently that part of the Lord’s Prayer that says, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive others.” It doesn’t really say, “Use the same yardstick on me that I use on others,” nor does it mean, “Forgive me and I will try to forgive others.” I see now that it means, “Bring me to that place where I am free both from what I have done and from what has been done to me. Bring me to that place where grace reigns, where forgiveness is the air we breathe, where we are reconciled with everyone eternally.”
So much of what we hear around us in life, on television, in politics, on the news, in religion, involves the language of war and alienation and struggle. I don’t want to live that conflict anymore, and I don’t want to risk making it my eternal companion.
So I gather each Sunday with others around a table to receive the promise that that destiny of the world is not silence, but shared bread. And before we come to the table, we share the peace.
The Rev. David K. Bonde is pastor of Los Altos Lutheran Church, 460 S. El Monte Ave. For more information, call 948-3012 or visit www.losaltoslutheran.org.