January 24, 2007

Shoes for Heaven

2007 1503 page22 capAY OF ALL THE WEEK THE BEST,” I SANG to myself as I walked home Tuesday evening. The old song was one I never liked much, but it seemed appropriate. It refers to the Sabbath, and I was looking forward to the weekend. Although I enjoy my job teaching college English, weekends are always special, especially the Sabbath.
I enjoy Sabbath. It’s a day I can spend time with my family, friends, and God. It’s a time I don’t work. And more important for someone with my compulsive traits, it’s a day I don’t feel guilty about not working. It’s rest, renewal; it’s a gift of time.
I really needed a Sabbath rest. It seemed like all my deadlines had converged into one week. My husband, Larry, and I had spent all day Sunday transforming 120 pounds of apples into applesauce and 100 pounds of grapes into juice. On Monday I spent the afternoon and evening preparing, typing, and duplicating midterm tests. Tuesday afternoon I had begun grading a stack of revised essays and had directed the rehearsal of a play dealing with Adventist heritage.
It didn’t stop there. Wednesday I would begin giving and grading my midterm tests and directing another rehearsal. Thursday afternoon I was scheduled to attend a two-day conference at a neighboring university in Edmonton. On Sabbath, not only was the play to be presented for church, but I was also Sabbath school superintendent.
2007 1503 page22Neither of those events would bother me on Sabbath. I enjoy sharing what I’ve been working on, but the work between Tuesday night and Sabbath morning loomed large. I was glad I had already made some plans for Sabbath school, because I wanted to relate it to the play, which centered on characters in the 1840s. I had found hymns from that period, many of them focused on heaven. We would sing some of the old songs; there would be Scripture lessons about heaven; a fourth grade speech choir was practicing a reading about Ellen White’s first vision of heaven. And I wanted to speak at least briefly about the hope of heaven that was so strong in the nineteenth century.
But this was the twentieth century. Does anyone now ever talk about Christ’s second coming or heaven?
An Impromptu Lesson
The only person I remembered spontaneously bringing up the subject was my young son.
When he was almost 4 we had gone on a shoe-buying spree. A local store had a wonderful sale, and the whole family was newly shod. I had three new pairs, and my parents-in-law, husband, and son had each bought a new pair. “Mommy,” said Garrick tugging on my sweater to get my attention, “Mommy, we need to buy shoes for Baby Jill.”
Well, I thought to myself, I guess it’s time to talk again, and I led Garrick to a quiet corner of the crowded store. I sat on the floor with him on my lap. He had been only 2 when his infant sister had died, and I knew that young children don’t really understand death. We had talked about her death then; now we needed to talk about it again.
“Baby Jill doesn’t need shoes. She died, and she won’t be coming back to us,” I explained gently.
“But Mommy,” he interrupted, spreading his arms wide in an excited gesture, “she’ll need them when Jesus breezes her up!”
Different Times, Same Hope
Why was it, I wondered, that nineteenth-century Christians, regardless of age, held the hope of heaven nearer and dearer to them than almost everyone does now? Perhaps I could explore that on Sabbath morning.
“I’ll work on it soon,” I promised myself. “But I need to get these essays graded tonight.”
Wednesday night we had another play rehearsal. Entrances and exits were ragged, people fumbled with their microphones, and one actor kept his head down, obviously reading his script as he spoke. We tried, but it was hard to stay focused on the play—the costumes had arrived, and dresses, coats, and top hats were much more interesting than microphones. As we left the church I gave my assistant last-minute instructions so he could take care of the final rehearsals while I was in Edmonton.
Thursday morning, as soon as my classes were finished, I drove 100 miles north for the opening events of the conference. The afternoon and evening were spent meeting with people and making plans for the future. But always in the back of my mind were worries about upcoming deadlines. That night at 11:00,
I sat on a bed in a friend’s apartment and graded tests. An hour or two later I decided to find out why the hope of heaven was so great for nineteenth-century Christians. As I read about their lives, I began to understand why they felt as they did.
Today the average life expectancy is about 75, but in 1830 it was only 35. When our baby died I felt very alone, not knowing anyone else who had lost a child. If I had lived in the late 1800s, I probably would have known many parents grieving over similar losses. Infant mortality was 150/1,000—about seven and a half times greater than it is now. Besides that, epidemics could sweep through a city, like the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis that killed 5,000.
Disease spread easily for many reasons. Our present standards of hygiene were unknown: bathing in the winter was considered unsafe; houses were dark and poorly ventilated; water supplies were often inadequate; privies were not emptied regularly; sewers were open; unpaved streets were full of refuse and horse manure; women’s heavy dresses dragged in the filth of those streets.
Diet also contributed to people’s problems. Before the middle of the twentieth century, people often avoided eating vegetables; bread and beef were the typical urban diet; corn and pork (full of trichinosis) were the rural diet; potatoes, turnips, and cabbage rounded out the meals.
And of course, hospitals weren’t a real help if people were sick. Prior to 1870 there were only 200 hospitals in the United States; and with scant knowledge of viruses and bacteria, disease spread rapidly. People were afraid of hospitals. They often got serious infections, which they called “hospitalism.”
With short life expectancy, high infant mortality, filthy streets, and epidemics, no wonder people longed for heaven. Besides being with Jesus, people would live forever—not just 35 years. They’d eat of the tree of life with different fruits in season—not just beef, corn, and cabbage. They’d walk on streets of gold—instead of muddy, filth-filled alleys.
Hopeful, or Hopeless?
But, I wondered, do we, with our longer lives, our generally clean cities and towns, our grocery stores stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables, our TVs, stereos, and cars—do we want to go to heaven?
I thought of how busy I had been during the week, rushing from one job to another: making applesauce and grape juice, grading tests, practicing the play, attending meetings. Then I thought about the Sabbath. Time to cease from my rush. Time to rest. Time to enjoy family. Time to praise. Time to be.
As I drove home from the conference late Friday afternoon, I finished singing the first verse of my hymn: “Day of all the week the best,/Emblem of eternal rest.”*
I long for that perpetual Sabbath. I long for heaven.
*“Safely Through Another Week,” Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal, No. 384.#
Denise Dick Herr is a professor of English at Canadian University College in Lacombe, Alberta.