Heavenly Baggage

John 14:1-14 – The 5th Sunday of Easter – for Sunday, May 18, 2014

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places…” (John 14:2)

Do you have plans for a future trip to heaven?

Where will you unpack your baggage upon arrival?

Will you be shown to a mansion, room or dwelling place?

The King James Version, first published in the early 1600s, translated Jesus’ claim with, In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.

As a Sunday-school-attending, baby-boomer, I was raised on the Revised Standard Version’s, In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

Much of my preaching and teaching used 1989’s New Revised Standard Version, In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

Welcome to heaven?
Welcome to heaven?

Of course, John’s 14th chapter, regardless of translation, doesn’t mention heaven as the post-death zipcode for a “mansion” or “room.” Still, we think that way, don’t we? (Okay I think that way.)

With my current hospice ministry, I often hear grieving families declare a once-suffering spouse, parent or child is now “in a better place.” Isn’t “better place” another phrase for “heaven?”

I struggle with heaven. I struggle with how people think about that “better place,” with its mansions or dwellings. And I’m fascinated that King James’ translators selected “mansion” as the description. Who lived in the English mansions of the 1500s and 1600s other than the wealthy and the royal? Was the word chosen to comfort the so-called 1% of that era that their living standard wouldn’t nosedive after death?mcmansion Or did it tease the 99%, reassuring the impoverished masses that one day (if sufficiently faithful), they’d acquire their own mansion? I’m equally intrigued by the absence of “mansion” in modern translations. Is it coincidence the pejorative term “McMansions” surfaced when the New Revised Standard Version humbly chose “dwelling places” for Jesus’ paradise promise? In the late 20th and early 21st century, doesn’t everyone desire a mansion? Unlike King James’ literally poor subjects, mansion ownership is possible (with considerable indebtedness) for modern believers. Was King James gaming the masses with a seductive dream? Was the New Revised translation chiding the masses with a mortgaged nightmare?

In the Sistine Chapel
In the Sistine Chapel

When hearing about the “rooms” Jesus promised during Sunday school days, I imagined heaven. Angels. Clouds. Harps. Access to God (who resembled Michelangelo’s version in the Sistine Chapel). Pearly gates (hard to picture for a kid). Gold-paved streets (easy to picture for a kid). Everyone was Christian and looked like people from my church.

That view collapsed in seminary. I questioned everything, including heaven. Any promise of a mansion (or modest dwelling) seemed inconsequential. By the time I started serving churches in my late twenties, and certainly until I bid my last pulpit farewell in my mid-fifties, I debunked heaven as a future “place.” Wasn’t the kingdom of heaven a metaphoric way to understand God at work today? Jesus didn’t care about anyone’s future address, but how a person addressed the world right now (1st or 21st century) in the places they lived and with the people they lived with.

I was convinced I was right.

Was I? Am I?

My own death feels closer. My parents have died. Once peers chatted about weddings and careers. Today, retirement is the hot topic. I scan more obituaries than birth announcements.

What do I know anymore? What do I believe?

00bAbyssCurrently I’m reading Christian Wiman’s memoir “My Bright Abyss.” He struggles with his Christian faith. He struggles with a rare insidious cancer that was diagnosed on his 39th birthday. Wiman wrote . . .

William James said that our inner lives were fluid and restless and always in transition, and that our experience “lives in the transitions.” This seems to me true. It is why every single expression of faith is provisional—because life carries us always forward to a place where the faith we’d fought so hard to articulate to ourselves must now be reformulated, and because faith in God is, finally, faith in change.

Am I in transition now? Am I re-wondering, re-believing this nonsense about promised mansions? Has it become too safe for me to encourage others (and myself) to see God’s realm, God’s “heaven,” as how we treat others now, the uplifting experiences we have now, the now of the movement of the spirit that prompts forgiveness and compassion even for the worst and least in our lives?

I think Wiman was right, or at least right enough. Faith in God is faith in change.

That scares me.

When a kid, I possessed an innocent confidence, believing what I was told to believe. Taught to trust adults, my nice Sunday school teachers and loving parents were correct . . . weren’t they?

you-were-a-believer-yesAs a young to middle-aged pastor, I was overconfident. I eagerly debunked Biblical literalists that claimed believers (especially believers that looked and believed like them) would get to a heaven—to a better place—after death. Now trudging into my 60s, I still cling to my debunking ways. I do. I do. I do.

Throughout my ministry, I’ve reassured those grieving at funerals that God’s love was “a forever love,” rather than suggesting heavenly mansions. I still embrace those ambiguous words . . . but have they become routine, easy, a habit? Am I capable of change? Of growth? Of being open to the Holy, the One never easily followed, never easily defined, never easily understood?

I’d like to conclude this essay with high-wattage insights. If Mr. Wiman inspired me to mull over faith’s fluid ways, shouldn’t I reveal (and revel in) my impending transition?

All I barely know is I carry baggage here on earth. Flaws. Questions. Cynicism. Doubts. But there’s also trust in God tucked messily between my ample flaws and endless questions.

And thus, these words conclude with a whimper. And yet my wonderings continue . . .


(Heavenly painting from here; McMansion from here; cartoon from here.)

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  1. Larry, thanks for your honesty, I find it hopeful and enabling. I am now wondering about the ambigious phrase I’m prone to use, “of a love greater than death…”.
    Larry, your thoughts give us permission to explore. Cheers, Marc

    1. Thanks, Marc!

      I suspect many of us (and certainly clergy) have favorite, oft-used phrases. Many of them are well-thought out, and matter to us. But even the best phrases/responses, whether safely ambiguous or specific and risky, should be open to review. Do I still believe what I have “always” said?

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