23.6.09

Heaven's Campus

My sweet friend Connie died Saturday. I've known Connie longer than either of us have known our husbands. Connie was the first friend I made after relocating to Oregon from Georgia. We met at Metropolitan Baptist Church.

It was an odd church, tucked up on the hillside overlooking the Beaverton/Hillsdale Highway. I don't even know how it was I first came to attend that church. I probably looked it up in the Yellow Pages. (Ask a history teacher, they can explain the reference.) Knowing me the way I do, I probably turned to the "Church" section and looked until I found the only Southern Baptist Church in the Greater Portland region.

Mrs. Geri Moore introduced us. Mrs. Moore was our Sunday School teacher. She and Connie both had red hair, though Connie's was natural and Mrs. Moore's came from a bottle. I think she hooked us up because she was hoping some of Connie's mannerly ways would rub off my rough corners.

It never happened. That Connie and I were friends at all befuddled many a person. As her eldest son once said, "I can't believe my mother is friends with you."

I wasn't offended. I completely understood the incongruity of a girl raised up rightly in Portland's West Hills friending a girl who was so clearly trailer trash, but friend me she did.

You don't give it much thought, really, the way a good friendship evolves. One minute you're the bridesmaid at her wedding and lickety-quick just like that you are preparing to speak at her funeral.

I hate death. Hate everything about it. I am no scholar, but I think it’s safe to assume that I know as much about what happens to folks in the hereafter as any other theologian holding forth over a brew. Fact is, at least I have come to these conclusions in a wide-eyed sober-minded fashion. I don’t drink beer.

As a girl who came to grief early in life, I’ve pondered these matters for decades. I read Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's book on dying when I was a freshman in college. I identified with the stages of grief. I was stuck in the anger stage for way too long. I longed to be free like the bird in the book “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” Connie had a roommate at OSU who chose a seagull pattern to decorate her room at the Kappa house. Every time I saw that room I thought of that silly book.

I once interviewed Jerry Sittser, a professor at Whitworth College in Spokane. The good professor lost his mother, his wife and his 4-year old daughter in a head-on collision. I don’t know how to grieve the loss of one person that I love, much less three of them, but I remember he told me, “I lost my past, my present and my future.” He wrote an excellent book on grief titled “A Grace Disguised.”

But the best book I’ve ever read on grief remains “A Severe Mercy” by Sheldon Vanauken. I first read it when Tim and I started dating back in the 1970s (Ask a librarian. They can steer you to the Time/Life Magazines). Tim has long been a C.S. Lewis fan. I started reading Lewis because Tim read Lewis. It was easier than taking up basketball because Tim played it.

It’s a story of a widower’s grief. Sheldon’s wife, Davy, died from a liver problem, the source of which doctors never identified. I intended to name my youngest girl Davy after my father and after the Davy in Vanauken’s book. Now I’m glad I named her after my good friend Connie.

Vanauken says that grief is a form of love — the longing for the dear face, the warm hand.
“It is not the grief that cuts one off from the beloved but the void that is loss.”

Grief, he adds, acts as a shield against the void.

It’s that void, that separation, that causes us such unyielding pain. That’s why we can go years and not weep over the death of a loved one but then something will happen — you get a whiff of Dove soap and it reminds you of standing at the sink in Granny’s house washing your hands and the comfort of knowing she was in the next room, that you could run to her for a hug if you wanted and then you realize Granny is gone and it’s been decades since you’ve been able to bury yourself in her arms -- that’s when the tears rush forth.

God never intended us to live in separation from Him or from each other. God is a Creator, not a Destroyer. Death is not his tool. It is his enemy. It says so, right there in the Word: “The last enemy that shall be conquered is death.” 1 Corinthians 15:26

I don’t know how that could be any clearer.

The victory of the Christian faith is that it offers us the hope of stepping over that chasm into the presence of Christ and our loved ones again someday.

It does not erase the aching or loneliness that we have in the here and now. It simply fills us with an eagerness for what the future holds. A world without separation.

If we could somehow realize that we are living in parallel times, sort of like those talked about in that book “A Wrinkle in Time”, we would understand that while we can’t run to our granny’s bosom any more, that doesn’t mean she isn’t present and maybe longing for the same thing herself.

Vanauken and C.S. Lewis discuss this notion in his book. That perhaps the dead go through their own grieving. I know that will bother those people who think Heaven as one big party-house, but I don’t see how a loving God wouldn’t weep over some of the things he’s privvy to. Of course, God weeps. Of course, there’s crying in heaven. There has to be. What else would mercy be but a recognition of the pain of another and a desire to embrace them in that moment?

I came to the conclusion years ago that going to heaven is like going off to college. Everyone feels fortunate to have gotten in. They realize what a costly admittance price was paid on their behalf. They are so excited for the opportunity to learn new things, make new friends, to study history and science and every other form of knowledge they’ve ever wanted to know about.

But sometimes in the early evening or first thing in the morning, or particularly on their birthdays, they realize how much they miss everyone back at home. So they call their mamas, or their girlfriends, or a favorite teacher, just to talk.

It’s a moment of melancholy. They are thrilled for the new adventure and no way would they pass up the opportunity to be where they are at. Heck no. The adventure is way too great. But still, there’s that separation. That recognition of the distance between them and the people they love.

C.S. Lewis told Vanauken, “It is remarkable (I have experienced it) that sense that the dead person is. And also, I have felt, is active: can sometimes do more for you now than before — as if God gave them, as a kind of birthday present on arrival, some great blessing to the beloved they have left behind.”

It bugs me that so many of my friends have left me for Heaven’s campus. But I get the benefit of having them look out after me. I know they are scheming up some great adventures and learning all sorts of new things that they will undoubtedly share with me.

That doesn’t diminish the ache I have for the adventures we are missing out on in the here and now. But I am eager to see the ways in which they reveal their presence to me in the days, weeks and years to come.

Meanwhile, I’m still stuck here in high school with the rest of you delinquents.

9 comments:

  1. I think you're totally right that there is grief in heaven right now. Heck, Revelation describes the martyr's under the throne crying out "how much longer?!" Definitely not a picture of total bliss. Total love and security yet, but clearly the end game hasn't played out. Justice is not complete and tragedy still happens in the universe every day.

    But this is the present heaven. The day will come when God will wipe away every tear. When justice is complete and wrath no longer a part of God's love. When death will be completely over and done. I know that both us here on earth and us there in the present heaven long for that day, that day when all will be made new.

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  2. Karen, thank you for this. You are a gifted writer and you have created here a wonderful portrait on what it is to grieve the loss of someone close.

    Reading this has triggered my own grief. One of my best friends and her toddler daughter were killed in a head on collision on 7-07-2007. Her surviving children are at my home on a frequent basis. Memories of her and her little one swirl in my everyday life when I see her husband or older son and daughter.

    I never thought before how grief can be an indication of love. I can see that it's true. I miss her, and her little girl. Almost two years later and I very much feel the hole their absence has left in our lives. But in the sorrow there is always an undercurrent of comfort that it is not a forever good-bye. Just a separation for awhile. Eventually, we will all be together in one great big grand reunion where all will finally be home.

    But meanwhile, I miss her everyday. Every single day.

    I'm sorry to hear of the loss of your friend Connie. This death has been much harder than the death of my own father.

    Thank you again for writing this. And keep writing. You are a talented writer!!!

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  3. Thank you KSZ. So beautifully written and felt.

    I am so sorry about your Connie; really very sorry.

    I am fortunate enough not to have lost anyone too soon, but every once and a while I have a memory, of staying over at Aunt Thelma and Uncle Bill's house in Bakersfield; or of my father, or of my old writing mentor; even the crusty old family members that were hard to get along with. I feel a profound sadness. I also feel a death over the periods of my life that have come and gone. Groups of people that will no longer attend the same church or live in the same city. We are all alive on the planet, but that time is gone forever. And I grieve that.

    I read Sittser's book a few years ago when I was dealing with my own losses. I think it is my favorite book on grief.

    A friend of mine hates "A Severe Mercy." His wife holds it up as a model for perfect marital love; he moans, 'those two were barely married long enough to have let ech other down!" Well, it is a book about longing for that day we'll be together.

    The longer I live, the more people I meet and know and come to love, when they drift out of my daily life I get a greater picture of what heaven will be like; we'll all be living in the same neighborhood, with the Alps at one end of the block and Fiji at the other.

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  4. Karen:

    I'm sorry for your loss, but thankful that such a great blog post came of it.

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  5. Karen, this is beauty in the midst of sadness, and I appreciate so much you sharing your gift of writing with us through your mourning.

    I've lost friends way too young and grandparents who suffered way too long. Neither is easier to grieve over, and both fill me with questions to numerous to count. At some point I stopped looking for answers and just let the sadness and grief come and go as needed. After reading The Great Divorce a few times, I decided I'd rather be ready to meet these friends and family with an open heart to walk with them to the Son than hold onto the tragic questions that will weigh me down for today and tomorrow.

    Thank you, again, for sharing this.

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  6. Thanks everyone for the gracious responses. I'll be speaking at Connie's service on Saturday and covet your prayers for that.

    Pam I am so sorry about the loss of your good friend and her precious daughter. What a blessing you must be to her surviving children. You know their mother's stories -- stories that would be lost to them if you weren't in their lives. Thanks for sharing your friend with us.

    Susan, your friend's comment made me laugh. I think he's probably right. If Tim and I had made such a pact as the Shining Barrier when were were first married, we'd probably be divorced. Still, it's my favorite book on grief.

    Tim, Nathan, James, thank you kindly.

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  7. Karen, thank you for this post. It is almost 5 years since my mother passed away, and your words speak of so much I feel. I'll have to look for Vanauken's book.

    Wishing you God's peace in your grief for your friend.

    Melinda

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  9. One of the many great things about this is that it doesn't whack me over the head with the standard "but everything is wonderful in eternity so celebrate rather than mourn" BS that Christians dole out too often. I lost one of my best friends in college and many others who have gone too early. I'm still recovering from back surgery and five days miserable days in the hospital that made death feel more real to me than ever. I believe we'll all be made whole in eternity with Christ, but death still sucks, whether you're staying or going.

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